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Everyday People: For the birds

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BROWERVILLE — The sixth-graders from Long Prairie-Grey Eagle Schools gathered closely around Mike North, their eyes fixed on the tiny, fragile creature he held in his hands.

North, a rural Pillager resident who works for the Minnesota DNR, was giving bird banding demonstrations Thursday at EnviroFest, an annual event held for all Todd County sixth-graders at the Dale and Marie Katterhagen farm in rural Browerville.

North, 52, is a master bird bander and has been banding birds for 25 years, including 11 years at EnviroFest. A co-founder and current treasurer of the Brainerd Lakes Area Audubon Society, North was netting and banding birds along with Jennifer Lust, the chapter’s president.

The duo caught and banded more than 30 birds, allowing sixth-graders to help band and release the birds themselves. The data allows researchers to learn more about the species, including migratory patterns.

North was able to incorporate his love of the outdoors into a professional career. He grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, but his parents owned a resort, the former Northland Pines Resort, on Big Deep Lake near Hackensack until he was in sixth grade. He would spend six months in Iowa and six months on Big Deep Lake, where he and his wife Sue continue to own a cabin.

“I think it was where I developed my love of nature,” North said of the resort.

He graduated from George Washington High School in Cedar Rapids and then earned his bachelor’s degree in fish and wildlife biology from Iowa State University.

North was earning his bachelor’s degree in 1983 when an intriguing study and an opportunity for a master’s degree in zoology from North Dakota State University fell into his lap. Three weeks before he was to graduate, he ended up flying to the Colville River Delta in northern Alaska, along the Arctic Ocean, to study the rare yellow-billed loons that nest there. It was an incredible journey, landing in the Arctic in a May blizzard and later embarking on a 20-mile snowmobile ride to the location where he and other researchers were camping in canvas tents. They had to arrive before the river opened up since it was easier to get there by sled. He spent two summers, about three and a half months each trip, studying the yellow-billed loons for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The camp had about 5-10 researchers staying there at a time and they mostly had canned and dry goods, unless someone from outside the camp brought in fresh vegetables and meat.

North said there are maybe 20,000 yellow-billed loons in the world with about 3,000 of them in Alaska. At the Colville River Delta, North was able to observe about 40-50 pairs of yellow-billed loons. The rare birds hadn’t really been studied before; no one knew their nesting periods or migration routes. The site was an important one because oil development was spreading and it was important to learn what impact it would have on the yellow-billed loons.

During North’s second summer along the Colville River Delta, they had to cut their time short because a grizzly bear was too interested in their camp. Plus, their heater was broken, he said, and the onset of winter was just around the corner.

North returned to North Dakota for a year to work for the Bureau of Reclamation on the Garrison Diversion project but spent a total of 10 years working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska. He studied seabirds in the Kodiak area, including the Aleutian Islands in 1986. At one point during the study, he and his boss had sailed about 200-300 miles in an inflatable boat and ended up stranded, due to bad weather, on an island. They got down to their last box of macaroni and cheese and a single can of peas before the weather broke and they were able to return home.

In 1987-88, North returned to the Arctic Ocean to study molting black brant geese near Teshekpuk Lake during the summer, then in the fall followed them to Izembek National Wildlife Refuge situated at the tip of the Alaska Peninsula where the Aleutian Islands start. Several thousand black brant geese make the Teshekpuk Lake area their home for about a month when they are molting and cannot fly. The lake area holds no predators for them. But oil development, again, was encroaching on the territory and North’s job was to document how the birds responded to aircraft flying overhead at various attitudes. In fall about 100,000 brant, down from a population of about 300,000, feed on the world’s largest eelgrass beds at Izembek Lagoon before making a 4,000-mile nonstop flight over the Pacific Ocean to Baja, Calif. That area, too, was along a site where oil was to be drilled offshore, which would mean helicopters would be flying overhead every five minutes. North and his colleagues conducted experiments involving aircraft and its effect on the staging geese from September through November in 1987-88.

North spent his last five years in Alaska doing environmental reviews on projects that involved wetlands and protecting endangered species.

He met his wife, Sue, a Maryland native, in Anchorage, where he was living and where she worked at a restaurant. They got married in 1994 and decided to move back to Fargo, N.D., where she then attended North Dakota State University.

North was self-employed and did some consulting work for the Red Lake Indian Reservation before he was hired by the Minnesota DNR in 1998 to do environmental reviews, similar to his work in Alaska.

North said the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge was one of the most beautiful places he spent time in while living in Alaska; it was a tundra filled with smoking volcanos, stunted trees, snowcapped mountains and wildlife everywhere, including brown bears, wolves, red foxes and caribou.

He is a bit disappointed that he never saw a polar bear during his Alaskan travels, but it remains on his bucket list, something he hopes to be able to cross off someday.

He continues to work for the DNR but he is on the second year of a three-year leave right now from his position as an environmental review specialist in order to write a management plan for 84,000 acres of federal land the state leases in Beltrami Island State Forest north of Red Lake.

North helped found the Brainerd Lakes Area Audubon Society in 1999 and has served as president, vice-president and at large board member. He helped with the Bird Count event in May each year at the Northland Arboretum in Baxter and the Pillager Christmas Bird Count in Pillager. The chapter also sponsors some bird hikes and six educational programs a year at the Arb. North is also active in a purple martin research project.

His favorite bird — that’s a tough question, he said — has to be the loon.

North often volunteers to teach area schoolchildren about birds. He does bird banding demonstrations for Pillager kindergarten classes and for third-graders each May in Mille Lacs Kathio State Park.

“Some of the most enjoyable stuff is teaching kids about birds,” North said with a smile. “They love it.”

North turns in his bird banding data to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He said he enjoys the diversity of birds that we have, as well as the mystery behind their migration.

The Norths have two children, Tom, 15; and Jennifer, 12.