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Whooping cranes. (Photo: Kim Fundingsland/The Dakotan)
Whooping cranes. (Photo: Kim Fundingsland/The Dakotan)

Amazing Bird Encounters 

Kim Fundingsland
 December 18, 2022
 •

A Slice of Life 

kim.fundingsland@mydakotan,com

I saw my first whooping crane sometime in the 1970s. There were nine of the endangered birds on the ground near Crosby.  

I also remember there were about 50 uniformed agents, mostly from the Fish and Wildlife Service, keeping watch over the tall birds. The total population at the time was about 39 whoopers, so having nine in one place, especially during the fall waterfowl season, was an extraordinary event. 

Watching through binoculars and spotting scopes brought the birds up close. I wanted to get closer, but the FWS was keeping everyone well away from the whoopers. The impressive birds had arrived there the previous day, just resting and feeding in a shallow wetland but, oh my goodness, things did change. 

Four of the whoopers took flight, passing within a few yards of me and several other observers, almost all of whom were wearing uniforms. Then the other five birds took flight, and so did all the uniformed agents and biologists. They ran to vehicles, some to follow the birds from the ground and others to get to the Crosby airport to board a small plane they had been using to track the birds on their migratory flight from Canada to Texas. 

What sticks with me to this day, other than the instant scattering of FWS and other personnel, was the sound the whoopers made after taking flight. It was a sound that has virtually disappeared from the earth, unlike anything I’d ever heard. I knew then why the big birds were named “whooping” cranes. 

I’ve been fortunate enough to see whooping cranes several times over the years. All sightings are memorable, but the most recent one was downright scary. I came within a few rotations of the tires from running over a protected, endangered species. 

It happened in the aftermath of the big snowstorm that dumped a couple of feet of snow in the Minot area this past April. A day or so after digging out I drove up to the Upper Souris National Wildlife Refuge, mostly curious to see the impact of the storm. Looking through binoculars from the driver’s seat of my vehicle, I was surprised to see a pair of large, white birds along the shoreline of Lake Darling 

As I began to close the distance, I kept a close eye on the birds. I didn’t want to spook them in any way. Suddenly, something caught the corner of my eye and I instinctively hit the brakes. Good thing I was going very slow too. 

There, only about half visible over the hood of my vehicle, was a third whooping crane. He, or she, seemed as surprised as I was and just walked away to join the other two. I, on the other hand, was shaking. I had come within an instant of killing or injuring one of the most magnificent birds on the planet. 

An amazing encounter? Certainly one I don’t wish to repeat. 

The Falcon and the Rabbit 

Amazing bird encounter number two on this list, which really has no particular order, happened during a bow hunt for mule deer in the Badlands of western North Dakota.  

In such wonderful and scenic country, I spend nearly as much time looking at other things than my stated purpose which, in this instance, was mule deer. What caught my eye was the profile of a bird high above. Amateur bird watcher that I am, heavy on the amateur, I concluded that the bird was a falcon. 

What kind of falcon, Prairie or peregrine, I wasn’t sure. Nevertheless, as I was watching closely through binoculars in the hope of seeing some identifying mark, the bird folded its wings against its body and went into a dive. It looked like a missile, and nearly as quick. 

A milli-second before the bird hit the ground it opened its wings and extended its talons. What I saw through the binoculars was a bunch of fur exploding from where the falcon impacted. That raptor had skillfully dived on an unsuspecting rabbit. Small bird. Big rabbit. No contest. 

Sharptailed Grouse and Hawk 

Nature can teach a person a lot of things. Mostly though, paying attention to nature’s messages, and understanding them is a long-lost art. Here’s an example: 

A few years back while walking behind my dog in search of sharptailed grouse I was also keeping an eye on the sky where a large hawk was circling overhead. My dog went on point a few moments later, just as I had anticipated since we had watched a covey of grouse land in that same area. 

There were two of us in the field and I waited for my hunting companion to approach within gun range before I stepped forward to flush the birds which were certain to be in front of my stoic dog. Sure enough, they were. However, those sharptails didn’t behave like any others I’d ever seen 

You see, normally a covey of sharptailed grouse doesn’t flush all at once, but rather several, then one or two more, and then one last bird when you least expect it. They also flush with a low rise. Not these birds. 

These grouse erupted straight up and kept in a vertical climb until they were high above the hawk. Then the covey leveled off and began a descent that carried them about a mile away. It was an amazing encounter, at least to me. 

Those grouse had quite the dilemma. They knew that my dog was there, two hunters were there, and that hawk was watching them from above. When I forced their play their survival instincts directed them to get above the hawk as quickly as possible. Pretty clever really. Hawks dive down, not up. Sharp sharptails. 

When I think back on that incident the whole key to where the grouse were hiding was the hawk. It was turning in a tight circle, likely watching the spot where it knew the grouse to be, hoping that one unsuspecting bird would move into open ground where it would be vulnerable to attack. I watch hawks differently now. 

Northern Saskatchewan lake. (Photo: Kim Fundingsland/The Dakotan)

The Bald Eagle and the Otter 

I may very well be one of three people on this earth that have seen such a thing – a bald eagle taking an otter. 

It happened this past August during a fishing trip in northern Saskatchewan. Three of us were in a small fishing boat, working a shoreline for northern pike and walleye, when three otters came bobbing past between the boat and the shore. 

They were playful, rolling over onto their backs with their webbed feet in the air, frolicking in the water, having fun and not particularly worried about us. Then a mature bald eagle swooped down from a tall evergreen tree, glided past us, and sank its powerful talons into one of the otters. 

There was no splashing. No thrashing. Just a bald eagle that appeared to be standing on the water. Really, he had killed that otter in a flash. Now, as our boat drifted closer, we expected to see the eagle fly away with the otter in its grasp. Nope. 

The big eagle spread its wings and lowered its head, getting as flat to the water as possible in an effort to hide. We slowly motored away from the spot, not wanting to intervene, but the eagle eventually took flight. It left the otter in the water. 

We motored further down the shore, around a slight corner, and never saw the conclusion of one of the most amazing bird encounters any of us had ever witnessed. 

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