Rare Bird

Just down the shore from our cabin an Arctic Loon was spotted and recorded for the first time in Wisconsin.

The South Shore of Lake Superior may not be the place to see birds in great numbers, but often has interesting and rare species. Ryan Brady, an expert birder who works as a conservation biologist for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, was out with friends on Memorial Day to do a bit of birding on the Bayfield Peninsula. Brady saw a lone bird through his binoculars that caught his attention. He hesitated to say it aloud until he had seen enough and was convinced — it was an Arctic loon, a species never before documented in Wisconsin. Arctic loons are birds of Northern Europe and Asia as well as the Pacific coast of Alaska. In wildlife terms, the bird could be an accidental visitor, flown outside its normal range. Although the sighting has been legitimized by other bird experts, it will have to go through the verification process to be in the official books.

Notes and a sketch by Peder Svingon of the Memorial Day sighting of an Arctic loon offshore of Herbster, Wis. in Lake Superior. It was the first documented sighting of the species in state history.
Notes and sketch by Peder Svingon of the Memorial Day siting of the Arctic Loon off the shore of Lake Superior near Herbster, Wisconsin

I am not a serious birder, but I am a bird watcher, and like to record what I am seeing. I aspire to keep a life list, and get into nature journaling, but for now I note a new visitor in the cabin journal. It helps to be married to a field biologist, who constantly spots birds in the wild, that I would have missed. We keep his well-worn Birds of North America with binoculars at the ready. Our three-year old grandson, Louis can identify cardinals and chickadees at the feeder, and the robins hunting worms in the grass. We are a family of bird watchers.

One of the best features of our cabin are the large windows that face forest and water, perfect for viewing hummingbirds at the feeder, and the eagles hunting along our shoreline. The windows can also be mistaken for a clear flight path in their reflection of trees and sky.  Several times I have heard the bang of a bird hitting glass. Once when I was about 8 years old, a pheasant shattered the window in our dining room, leaving shards of glass and a dead, ring-necked male on my chair. I had avoided injury by not being at my place, but the telling of it became both novelty and a “near miss” blessing.  

Birds can serve as an early warning device according to some cultures.  And the species of bird brings a certain kind of message. A bluebird might bring a message of love, a sparrow, sorrow.  According to the spirit wisdom in native cultures, Loon says that wishes and hopes are about to come true. It is a sign that the dreams and visions you’ve been having contain vital messages, so you should pay attention.

When the Northern Goshawk hit our window, I heard the blam! 

There below the window in the horsetail fern and dead nettle, was a beautiful large bird. It had swirls of pale gray breast feathers, its wings a dark cloak.  I knew it was some kind of hawk, not the red-tailed hawk we often see perched on light poles along the freeway, or the speckled rough-legged hawks that hunt from the sumac around our backyard pond.  This was something special.

It flew off unharmed, as I noted the head shape and bars on its tail.  Sibley’s drawing of the Northern Goshawk matched what I saw.  “Accipiter gentillis. Rare.  Found in very small numbers within mixed forests or at its edges. Hunts for grouse, squirrels, and rabbits. Fine gray barrring, ”  The map showed its range around the Great Lakes which agrees with our geography, and Sibley says, “Even expert birders can be stumped by accipiters. Use multiple clues and don’t expect to identify every one.” I didn’t need further verification, I knew the Northern Goshawk’s presence was a gift meant for me.

I have coped with sadness and anxiety over the last year. Facing the lee side of serious illness—after the winds of treatment and recovery have ended, I found myself in the doldrums.

I am sure the Hawk was a message of hope and healing.*

I have a thing for hawks, especially after reading H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald.  I fancied falconry as a hobby for a short time, well, not seriously. Helen trained her goshawk to hunt and return prey to her.  I imagined myself wearing the big leather glove and landing a bird on my outstretched arm. It would be thrilling to feel the heft and wingbeat of a large bird. I looked into visiting a falconry in Ireland when I visited, but didn’t do it.

I would choose owl and hawk on my spirit totem, and have been visited by these birds at times of struggle. I see my father in both the Raven and the Great Horned Owl I hear close to home, and my mother in the Cardinal that sings first thing on late winter mornings.   And although I wasn’t present to view the rare Arctic Loon on our familiar shore, I will take its spiritual message, and pay attention.

Hawk brings spiritual messages. When hawk is present, know that enlightenment is imminent. Also, hawk often represents the ability to see meaning in ordinary experiences, if you choose to become more observant–to free oneself from thoughts and beliefs that are limiting. The ability to rise above to catch a glimpse of the bigger picture that will allow you to thrive and flourish.”

3 thoughts on “Rare Bird

  1. Beautiful! Not in the rare category, but I have a gray catbird nesting in my bushes. I haven’t seen them in my yard before. And a yellow finch practically followed me around when I was adjusting the sprinkler the other day. I love these moments of communion. Each one is sacred!


  2. Your piece brought back so many memories of birds. Especially the loon. At our northern Wisconsin cabin, whenever our family pulled into its driveway, the loons were at our dock calling to our crazy Wheaten terrier Bailey, who’d immediately swim into the water to try to catch them.They led him all around the lake. They could, of course, put him out of his misery in a minute, but they liked playing with him. We always had to take the canoe out and go pull him out of the water. He sank us a few times because he’d jump back in if we weren’t holding him down. He, and they, would never give up.

    Also, I loved Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk!


  3. We too have the binoculars and the same bird book at the ready in the kitchen. We are bird watchers for sure. Great piece- loved how you brought it all together.


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