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OUTDOORS: Birds put on show for visitors

Gulls skim low over Lake Superior as waves crash to shore. A strong northern wind has churned the water off Wisconsin Point to a muddy red color near the beach, but the sky is clear in the afternoon sun -- perfect for scanning the big lake.

Gulls skim low over Lake Superior as waves crash to shore. A strong northern wind has churned the water off Wisconsin Point to a muddy red color near the beach, but the sky is clear in the afternoon sun -- perfect for scanning the big lake.

"Jaeger on the horizon, just coming up," calls Shaun Putz.

In a flurry of action, other birdwatchers with high powered scopes set up the watch, swiveling across the skyline to locate the bird.

A group of about 40 gulls -- typical targets of jaegers looking to steal a meal -- suddenly rises from the water and drifts toward the Minnesota border. Something has spooked them.

"Bald eagle overhead," another woman calls. But no one takes notice. They're all watching the approach of the distant jaeger.

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"If it was a golden (eagle) I'd take a picture. But it's not, so I won't," Robbye Johnson says somewhat bitterly after the jaeger has disappeared. "I just get mad at them. They push the gulls out farther. And if the gulls are out there, the jaegers are out there."

Such was the scene on Wisconsin Point Sept. 18-20 during the 11th annual Jaegerfest, organized by the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology. The visiting birdwatchers could tell you the difference between a Sabine's gull and a black-headed gull and pick out a jaeger when it is little more than a speck in a sea of blue.

Johnson, a longtime Superior birder and local contact for the WSO, attends Jaegerfest every year. With many of the other birdwatchers coming from Madison, Milwaukee and southern Wisconsin, the weekend in September is one of the few times Johnson is able to get together with her fellow enthusiasts.

And for the birders who flock to northwestern Wisconsin, Superior is one of the few places in the state one is likely to see a jaeger.

"It's something that everybody looks forward to because it's so different from birding anywhere else in the state," said Tom Schultz, co-chairman of the Jaegerfest field trip. "When we first started doing this field trip we were just hopeful for any kind of water birds. But we've had good luck with the parasitic jaegers every single year. A number of years ago we coined the term Jaegerfest for this event because that's really what is was becoming known for.

"It's really the highlight of my birding year to come up here and participate."

Jaegers are shorebirds that have a tendency to attack weaker birds to force them to give up their food. On the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology Web site, parasitic jaegers are identified as rare, meaning less then nine sightings reported each year within the state. Another variety, the long-tailed jaeger, is categorized as accidental -- less than one documented sighting every five years.

In Douglas County, however, both types of jaeger are spotted more frequently. During Jaegerfest, parasitic jaegers are not an uncommon sight. Long-tailed jaegers have also shown up from time to time. In the past decade, both Johnson and Schultz have documented sightings of a long-tailed jaeger in Douglas County, Johnson in 2002 and Schultz in 2006.

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The visiting birders often look for a few rare gulls, loons and terns during the weekend in Superior. Over the course of three days, Schultz said participants can expect to see more than 100 species of bird.

"In a location like this, it's exciting because you never know what you're going to find," Schultz said. "We've never had a bad year."

About 50 birders showed up for Jaegerfest on the opening day and were treated to parasitic jaeger sightings. Some participants in this year's event traveled from as far as Texas.

Putz, a former student at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, came all the way from Arizona to attend the three-day birding event. In the desert of Arizona, he works with the endangered California condor. He loves his work but misses the chance to sit by the shore and catalog birds.

"When I was here at school, I would spend hours," Putz said. "Sometimes you see something, sometimes you see nothing."

By about 5 p.m. on Friday, half of the Jaegerfest birders had quit for the day. Many of remaining birders were beginning to discuss dinner plans when Putz again sounded the alarm.

"We've got a dark jaeger here, flying left," he said, following the bird's path with his scope. "It's a juvenile. Are you on it Robbye?"

Johnson honed in on the jaeger, and the remaining birders scrambled to do the same.

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The birdwatchers then began calling out details they could pick up. Dark color, two-toned top -- not a parasitic jaeger.

Once the bird had flown out of sight, the birders gathered to share observations. It took just a few moments of discussion to learn they all agreed. The bird had been a long-tailed jaeger.

Johnson grinned as she headed back to her scope.

The day was complete.

Catch the fall migration

With the warm weather continuing past summer, the fall bird migration is off to a leisurely start. A strong northern wind preceding a cold front normally leads to the best birdwatching opportunities for migrating birds.

Those who hurry can still catch the end of the songbird migration (warblers, sparrows and thrushes). Ducks, loons and hawks should arrive during the first weeks of October, and gulls will finish off the migration season when they come in off the lake in early November.

Wisconsin Point is popular for viewing jaegers and rare gulls, but it is a good place to spot birds during the entire migration season. When birds migrating south hit Lake Superior, there is always a chance they will funnel down and pass over Wisconsin Point. Hawk Ridge in Minnesota is usually known as a prime site for hawk viewing, but Schultz said there have been years the migration is actually just as good viewed from the point.

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