Travel Journal: Coots at Como Lake

Travel Journal: Coots at Como Lake

The first full weekend of October was also the Twin Cities’ first real weekend of fall. After a historically warm September that would not surrender, and the hottest start to October Minnesota’s ever seen, it was finally jacket weather. Me and my wife Lucy decided to make the most of it by going for a few walks: we walked around the lively town of Stillwater with friends on Saturday, then got around early Sunday morning for a walk around Como Lake in St. Paul.

Lakes are gorgeous. The way ducks glide across their peaceful surface, the cool air off the water, it’s a lovely sight every time. A mile and a half walk around the perimeter is the perfect length to stretch the legs and get sufficient fresh air, and my legs only start to feel pain and chafed right towards the end. Okay, maybe just a slightly shorter walk would be ideal. I did it to myself though, often going off on random tangents and getting distracted by stray chirps from distant trees. It may have been a lake walk, but it was also a birding trip.

Binoculars in hand, I was always stopping to scan branches for movement and investigate sounds. At first, I had a lot of misfires. When I did start to spot birds, it was primarily robins and the occasional goldfinch. At one point, I spotted a chatty blackbird deep in a tree. Without a good look, especially without one in the sun, I wasn’t really able to ID it, but my best guess is that it was a brewer’s blackbird. This is a tricky guess to make, because this is also what I said when I first saw my mystery birds back in Lowertown. Then, it ended up being grackles and starlings. Here, we’ll never quite know.

Things got more interesting when we reached the lookout. At the end of a long narrow peninsula, you could stand closer to the center of the lake and get an amazing view of the open waters. From here, I scanned the duck families and tried to ID them. The obvious ones were mallards, iconic waders who were all over the stinkin’ place. In the far distance, I could see a clearly distinct group of younglings and a brown headed mother duck without any discernible features. It was pretty far, so I hoped to myself that we’d get a better look eventually, but I made a note to check my guide and see what duck species I might have been looking at.

Back to walking. We saw middle aged women chatting about their lives as they jogged past us. Kids playing in a nearby park. One little girl was writing messages with chalk, directing people to a marathon at the Como Pavillion. Robins darted across the path. House sparrows jumped about by the bushes, the way house sparrows often do. I’d often stop by benches to read the memorial plaques left by donors. Family members dedicated benches to passed loved ones, many who had passed recently and were etched into the history of the park as lovers of the lake and of nature. I don’t know why, but I always enjoy seeing things like that. Reminders that this space I’ve barely spent time in has such a long history for so many.

As we rounded a bend into the home stretch of our walk, we saw what appeared to be an odd geometric piece of public art. A series of shapes on top of a pole, my public art guess turned out to be part true and part false: it was part of a series of practical art pieces dedicated to pollinators. It was in fact a bee house, on top of a piece of art, and helped protect pollinators in the area. When I first arrived at the UMN’s College of Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, the “Save the Bees” movement was at an all time high and they’d recently opened a lab dedicated to bee conservation. So it’s great to see these efforts have lead to new ways we can help dwindling bee populations.

We were getting close to our car when I stepped off the path to check another bench plaque. Under some low hanging branches, I saw birds gliding around on the surface of the lake near the shore. It took me a second to realize that these were the birds I’d seen from afar before, and many weren’t ducks at all! The brown duck I thought I’d seen was actually a Redhead Duck, the lighting was just playing tricks on me when I couldn’t get a clear look. Surrounding it weren’t ducklings at all, but American Coots!

Coots are lovely creatures, and had been on my “hope list” for quite some time. They’re a little goofy, their bills are shaped notably differently from ducks and geese, and their bodies are strange. Under the water, they look just like ducks. Once they get on land, though, they look a lot more like chickens. They’re cute, they’re silly, they’re exactly my kind of bird. It was a new species for my life list, and I almost walked right by, after seeing them from afar and waving them away as aging ducklings. How lucky I am to have stumbled across them again, this time close enough to know what I’d discovered.

With my legs now chafed and aching, I was happy to sit back down and head back home. It was a nice morning. Getting to wear a warm jacket and feeling a cool breeze is a wonderful way to reset at the end of a weekend. It reminds me of why I like birding in the first place: the refreshing feeling of nature, and the often unexpected rewards of curiosity.