A bird’s eye view

Notes from a paddling adventure on the Mississippi with the Birdchick

Park Ranger Sharon Stiteler on an island in the Mississippi north of downtown home to a heron rookery. Credit: Photo by Sarah McKenzie

Sharon Stiteler (aka the Birdchick) doesn’t exactly fit the stereotype of a typical birder.

She’s a city dweller living in Uptown who came up with the nickname with her husband as a way to set herself apart from other bird enthusiasts.

“I was getting confused with every other woman out there who answers questions about birds,” she said. “They are always called a ‘bird lady.’ I’m no lady.”

She also has a background in improv, a podcast featuring hilarious conversations with her husband who she refers to as Non Birding Bill and hosts a monthly Birds and Beers event at the Black Forest Inn for birders of all levels.

Stiteler has made her living writing and speaking about birds since 1997 — work that has had her traveling around the world for birding expeditions and making several appearances on TV and radio. She’s also a part-time National Park Ranger for the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area.

As part of her work as a ranger, she recently led a tour of a great blue heron rookery on a small island in the Mississippi north of downtown. The group with Wilderness Inquiry traveled to the rookery in several 24-foot voyageur canoes from North Mississippi Regional Park.

Before the flotilla paddled toward the rookery, she cautioned people against approaching the majestic birds, which have razor-sharp beaks.

The heron rookery used to be located closer to the North Mississippi Regional Park, but the herons were forced to find a new home when the tornado struck the city’s North Side on May 22, 2011. The storm destroyed 200 heron nests.

Some of the birds built new nests near the East Coon Rapids Dam and others relocated to an island south of the regional park closer to downtown.

Several herons could be spotted tucked into their massive stick nests atop trees on the island — some with their long necks curled up into S shapes.

Despite their large size, herons only weigh about 5 to 6 pounds due to their hollow bones, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

“I loved being able to share all the cool discoveries people can find on a rookery island,” Stiteler said of the experience. “I’m lucky that I get to see that kind of stuff on a regular basis and I want as many people to enjoy birds as possible.”

Stiteler spotted other birds from the island as well — two peregrine falcons perched atop light poles on an industrial plant next to the rookery. She offered the crew along for her birding adventure a chance to look at the impressive birds through her spotting scope, which she often uses to take photographs.

“You never know what you’re going to find at a rookery,” she said. “Some of it will be gross, some of it will be sad, but all of it will be fascinating. These are huge prehistoric looking birds that are an indicator of all we are doing right with the Mississippi in the Twin Cities. And the nearby peregrine falcons always put on a great show.”

Peregrine falcons can top speeds of 200 mph and are among the world’s most common birds of prey.

Before the paddling trip on the Mississippi ended at Boom Island Park, the Birdchick had also pointed out a bald eagle, a red-tailed hawk and a sandpiper.

Stiteler developed a passion for birding at a young age while flipping through a book.

“I saw the woodpecker page and they talked about the pileated woodpecker,” she said. “I snapped and have been into birds ever since.”

She has since led birding field trips around the world, served as a keynote speaker at birding events and festivals, and worked as a bird bander and bird field technician. She has also written the books, “Disapproving Rabbits,” “City Birds/Country Birds” and “1001 Secrets Every Birder Should Know.”

She also finds time to do some beekeeping on the side.

Her favorite bird is the northern goshawk, a raptor found in Northern Minnesota and occasionally in the Twin Cities.

“They are big,” she said. “They act before they think, which is something I can relate to.”

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FYI: 
To learn more about the birding adventures of Sharon Stiteler (Birdchick), go to www.birdchick.com. You can find her photography, podcast and books along with information about upcoming events.

Upcoming events

—   Birds and Beers on Aug. 24, 6–9 p.m. at the Black Forest Inn, 1 E. 26th St. (A chance to hangout with the Stiteler and birders of all levels.)

—   A Big Sit on Oct. 17 at Coldwater Spring, which sits between Minnehaha Regional Park and Fort Snelling State Park, where participants will sit in one spot from sunrise to sundown and document every bird seen.

The Birdchick’s favorite local birding spots

—   Coldwater Spring (near Fort Snelling State Park and Minnehaha Regional Park)

—   Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge (Bloomington)

—   Carlos Avery State Wildlife Management Area (Forest Lake)

—   The Chain of Lakes

—   Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden and Bird Sanctuary in Theodore Wirth Park

—   Roberts Bird Sanctuary (north side of Lake Harriet)