Sax-Zimmin’ with Dad and Grousin’ with Evan

IMG_0920Last week we enjoyed an extra-long weekend due to fall break, so we made the 265-mile trek home to northern Minnesota to visit our families and enjoy the beautiful northwoods. Going up north is always a delight, but doing so in the fall is special treat.  The stunning colors, the perfect temps, and the sweet smell of decaying Aspen leaves all remind us of this great land in which my wife and I grew up.  Let’s not forget the birds, though.  Northern Minnesota has its own species of interest that are not found in most of the state or the country for that matter. To that end, I had been coveting some recent pictures in my Facebook feed of Great Gray Owls in Tamarack trees in the Sax-Zim Bog.  The Bog is only 45 minutes south of my parents’ place, so I usually try to hit it up each time I go home.

Since Great Grays are crepuscular, the best times to see them are in the hour of first light and the hour of last light. We arrived at Mom and Dad’s in the early afternoon, but after a couple hours of visiting, Dad and I were headed south to try to find a Great Gray before dark. I never get tired of seeing this owl and the possibility of seeing them in the golden yellow Tamaracks was very appealing.  Tamaracks are a conifer found in boggy land, and their needles are green in the summer, turn gold in the fall, and then drop like the leaves of deciduous trees.  They are as fascinating as they are beautiful, especially when their fallen needles transform gravel roads to streets of gold.

Dad and I trolled up and down McDavitt Road several times at 5 MPH, scanning every snag and every possible perch for the Great Gray Ghost. This was the road where they’d been seen within the last week, so it was where we concentrated our search.  I was hoping to see an owl, get my desired shots, and then take some scenery shots to show off the yellow landscape of the Tamaracks interspersed with the vivid green of the Black Spruce. But, every possible second of remaining daylight was given to the search, and we were coming up empty.  I did stop to take a picture of a porcupine snoozing in a Tamarack.  Whether he’s lazy or relaxed, I just couldn’t resist the photo-op.

porcupine

porcupine

I’m afraid the porcupine was the only interesting thing we’d see in the Bog.  There were hardly any birds around, let alone any interesting species.  The next morning I continued my owl hunt closer to home as they have been found within 5 miles of my folks’.  I have yet to see one so close, but I’m determined! That determination will have to carry me forward because my luck was no different on this outing.  The birding was better than in the Sax-Zim Bog, though, as I found some Gray Jays and a couple of Ruffed Grouse.  The skittish grouse bolted when I popped up through the sunroof for a picture.

Speaking of grouse, my previous fall breaks in the northwoods used to be consumed with me pursuing Ruffed Grouse with a shotgun.  On the surface it may seem a bit of a contradiction that I’m a birder who hunts.  However, it is that interest in nature and wildlife that comes with hunting that helped propel me into this obsessive birding habit. Though I still hunt on a limited basis (just Ruffed Grouse and Ring-necked Pheasants), it is is not as interesting to me as birding, where I can experience the thrill of the hunt and the beauty of nature without the restrictions of seasons, state lines, and bag limits.  The thrill of locking eyes with a Great Gray is much more appealing. Maybe I’m just growing up.  When I saw the two grouse I wasn’t even interested in grabbing my gun out of the back of the car.

Despite my shift into birding, I still have a young boy and old dog who very much would like to chase some game.  So one morning I took Evan and my Yellow-Lab, Faith, on a short walk on my parents’ 80 acres.  Faith led the way with a vigor that belied her age (she lives for this), and Evan was several paces behind me.  We were hunting on trails in an area with young Aspens (about 10-15 years old).  It is perfect habitat that produces grouse every year.  This year was no exception as all of us, dog included, were startled by the pounding wings of our first grouse.  Though it was close, none of us saw it because of how thick the woods were.  That’s how it often goes.  We soldiered on and hiked on a trail carpeted in clover, a favorite food of the Ruffed Grouse.  The surrounding woods here were young Aspen trees 4-5 feet high growing up and around the stumps and logs of the mature Aspen stand the was here just a couple years ago.  Going off trail would be an impossible task.  Anyhow, when I paused at a bend along the trail, there was an explosion of wings to my left from the thick young trees and tangle of downed logs. Two grouse rocketed out.  I could only see one and only for a split second because of the surrounding trees and brush.  I fired a couple of times but missed.  It didn’t bug me.  As Faith was now investigating the scent of these birds (she was a little late) and I was contemplating the miss, a third grouse got up from the same spot!  Again, I only saw it briefly and fired the last shell I had in my gun.  No luck.  Ruffed Grouse are probably the most difficult game bird to hit on the fly because they live in the woods where your chances of hitting them are not as good as hitting the branches and trees they fly through.  To emphasize this point, a couple of colleagues recently returned from a grouse-hunting trip, and they had 55 flushes but only 3 kills.  I was not sad over the misses.  Evan got to see some grouse flush and watch me shoot.  He was happy.  Faith was doing what she was made for.  She was happy.  I didn’t have any birds to clean and eat.  I was happy.  Plus it was really special to see three grouse together; they are normally found as singles.

My birding pursuits continued Up North.  Dad and I made a dawn raid on the Sax-Zim Bog one of the mornings, arriving there just as you could make out the silhouettes of the trees. The best we could muster were some Gray Jays in low light.  All was well – birding the Bog with Dad is a great excuse to visit and drink some coffee.  Seeing owls is just a bonus.

Gray Jay

Gray Jays and Ruffed Grouse are some nice northern Minnesota birds, but I had a great find while I was out driving on my own one afternoon.  I had seen a couple of birds fly and thought they were ducks.  The habitat wasn’t right though since there wasn’t any water around.  I drove that way and was startled to see Black-billed Magpies!! I found four in all, and one even came out to the road to pick at something.

Black-billed MagpieI remember when I first got into birding and being shocked that this cool bird could be found in Minnesota since I had never seen one in my life up to that point.  They are known to frequent the Sax-Zim Bog. In fact, the Bog is the furthest location to the east where this species breeds.  I have seen them in the Bog and in northwestern Minnesota, but I was astounded to find them so close to where I grew up.  It was hands-down the best find of the trip.

I had better bog-birding outside of Sax-Zim on this trip.  Perhaps the only thing the Bog has on the birding scene around my parents’ place is the number of birders scouring it. Given the recent finds though, I might have to keep up the lone-rangering.  When I finally find a Great Gray on my parents’ road, it will be all the more sweeter because it’s close to home far from where birders trod.  The hunt will resume at Thanksgiving, and I can’t wait.

My Kandiyohi Twohee

Last weekend I did some lifering on my own.  Normally I don’t write about such outings, but one of my finds was just too good to not share with the bird nerds at large.  And this bird wasn’t even a lifer.  My target for the day was the Winter Wren, a little brown bird that is quite unremarkable except for the fact that it has evaded my life list. Checking eBird, I had seen reports at our latitude of this stub-tailed gnome of the northern coniferous forests.  So I decided it was time to head to Robbins Island Park in Willmar and follow Ron Erpelding’s advice of walking around the edge of the small slough in the woods there to find this skulker.

It was a horribly windy day, but the slough was tucked in a depression in the woods making it a calm, sunny place.  The birds loved it.  I immediately saw all kinds of activity.  Most of the birds were White-throated Sparrows, but I also saw Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Yellow-rumped Warblers.  And there was this curious Eastern Phoebe.

Eastern Phoebe

Eastern Phoebe

I followed Ron’s advice and made one complete lap around the slough, walking through tangled brush and grass at the edge of the cattails.  My hopes were lifted at the end of my first loop when a wren flushed up.  I could see it was a House Wren because of its lighter coloration and longer tail.  Then almost immediately another wren popped up.  This one was dark and small…but a much bigger, more active bird stole my attention away from what I am claiming as my Winter Wren lifer.  There, ahead of me, in a brush pile was an obvious Eastern Towhee thrashing about in the branches!  I could not believe my eyes.

Eastern TowheeThe brownish coloration on the head and back indicated it was a female.  The male is jet-black instead of brown.  Male or female, it didn’t matter.  This was a good-looking bird and a very rare bird for our county.  How rare? I looked back through the database of bird sightings at the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union’s website and determined this was only the sixth unique Eastern Towhee to ever be documented in Kandiyohi County. Personally, this was only the second Eastern Towhee I’ve ever seen.  They just aren’t common in Minnesota as a whole.  This was also my second towhee species for Kandiyohi County – in a weird-twist of birding fate last spring, I found the even more rare vagrant Spotted Towhee before I ever saw an Eastern Towhee.  Both of these finds were the first of their respective species to be documented in eBird for Kandiyohi.  It’s always fun to make a solid contribution to the birding history of the region.

Eastern Towhee

Eastern Towhee

Below is a map from Robert Janssen’s Birds in Minnesota that shows the range of the Eastern Towhee, or Rufous-sided Towhee as it was formerly called.

Rufous-sided Towhee range map in Minnesota - Credit Robert Janssen in Birds in Minnesota

Rufous-sided Towhee range map in Minnesota.  Credit: Robert Janssen’s Birds in Minnesota

The Eastern Towhee dwells in deciduous forests, and this range map coincides very nicely with the hardwoods or deciduous forest biome of Minnesota, shown in the blue section of the map below.  The Arrowhead region is the pinelands or coniferous forest biome, and the large green section is the prairie biome.  Kandiyohi County is primarily in the prairie biome, but the northern part of the county clips that blue hardwoods section.  So it is possible to find the Eastern Towhee in parts of the county, but it is extremely uncommon.

The biomes of Minnesota. Credit - Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

The biomes of Minnesota. Credit – Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

 

The bottom line is that the Eastern Towhee is a very good bird here.  And it made for a very fun birding outing.

Eastern Towhee

Eastern Towhee

Other than the towhee, I’m pretty sure I saw a couple more Winter Wrens skulking into grasses.  I definitely did not get solid looks or pictures but they had the right GISS (General Impression of Size and Shape).  It was not a solid lifer by any means, but one I feel confident in counting. Regardless, it was not the best bird of the day.

I called Steve right away when I found the Eastern Towhee because I knew he would need this bird for the county.  We never could refind it for him, but he was able to see it the next day in the exact same spot.  A rare bird is fun in itself, but it’s always nice when a good find can be shared with someone else.

A One-Two Knockout: Black-bellied Plover and American Golden-Plover

Every cloud has a silver lining as they say, so when Marin’s daycare was closed last week due to an outbreak of Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease, I had a couple days at home that allowed me to check Carlson’s Dairy for shorebirds.  Specifically my targets lately have been the Black-bellied Plover and American Golden-Plover as we are currently in their southern migration window.  A couple weeks ago Steve found two Black-bellied Plovers at Carlson’s still in breeding plumage, but circumstances did not allow me to get out there.  Then a second-hand report of two American Golden-Plovers from just a week ago was giving me the itch to try for these two plover species before another fall migration passed.

Last Thursday our summer weather abruptly ended.  The weekend prior we were camping in unseasonably hot weather (84°) with unseasonably tenacious mosquitoes. It was awful.  On this day, however, the bipolar month of September showed its true ugly side – strong winds approaching 30 mph and temps in the low 40s.  I figured the sudden change in weather might knock some interesting migrants out of the sky. After I dropped Evan off at school, Marin and I went to Carlson’s to see what kind of fallout might be waiting.

At first glance it was slim pickings – nothing but some flocks of Green-winged Teal, Canada Geese, and a handful of shorebirds.  One of the shorebirds was a little bulkier, though.  I nabbed some pictures and knew that I had one of my two target birds.  Unfortunately I hadn’t studied up on juvenile plumages and couldn’t identify it on the spot.  Getting home I determined that I had my lifer Black-bellied Plover.   A breeding plumaged adult would have been preferred, but this bird was still handsome in its own right and a nice addition to the life list.  It also had the added bonus of being #200 on my Kandiyohi County eBird list.

Juvenile Black-bellied Plover

Black-bellied Plover

Black-bellied Plover

Juvenile Black-bellied Plover

It was a good learning experience to sit down at home that morning with my Sibley’s after-the-fact and go over the finer ID points of a juvenile Black-bellied Plover vs. the very similar-looking juvenile American Golden-Plover.  Little did I know how soon I would put that knowledge to the test.

I picked Evan up from school that afternoon and asked him if he wanted me to drive him out to Carlson’s to see the Black-bellied Plover I had found in the morning.  He said he was up for it, so I was now making my second trip to the shorebird spot that day.  I was confident the bird would still be there as the hurricane winds were sure to ground anything for the day.

I was a bit cavalier about my birding.  I had left both pairs of binoculars in the other vehicle; all I had was my camera.  No big deal, I thought since there were only a handful of shorebirds to sift through.  Well, when we got there the scene had changed from the morning.  There were now more birds.  The huge, exposed mudflats were hoppin’. There were Pectoral Sandpipers.

Pectoral Sandpiper

Pectoral Sandpiper

There were Solitary Sandpipers.

Solitary Sandpiper

Solitary Sandpiper

And there were about 50 DunlinXGreen-winged Teal hybrids all over the mudflats making it very difficult for a guy with just a camera to pick out a similar-sized Black-bellied Plover.

Green-winged Teal

Green-winged Teal

Then Evan hollered, “Dad! I see it!”  I don’t know how the kid does it.  He’s never looked at birds through binoculars.  He had never seen a Black-bellied Plover.  And here he picked out the plover camouflaged against the drab, muddy background not far from the road.  He’s got a keen sense of bird shapes and movements.  That very day before we got to Carlson’s, Evan told me the kids in his gifted and talented group had to answer a variety of questions earlier in the day.  One question was to name their favorite bird.  He said that the only bird the other kids could come up with was a Bald Eagle.  Not only does my kid know that a Black-bellied Plover exists, but he can pick one out having never seen one. {Proud birder parent moment.}

I might be giving Evan a little too much credit, though.  As I started snapping new pictures of what I presumed to be the same Black-bellied Plover, my morning’s plover study caused me to take pause with this bird. The smaller head, smaller pointed bill, and grayish undersides that I was seeing were spot on for the juvenile American Golden-Plover! It was unbelievable that I had now seen the two “big” plovers in the same day!

American Golden-Plover

I told Evan what I was confident we had and his response was, “You’re welcome, Dad, for finding you a life bird.” Not just for me either.  I called Steve up right away and got him on the road since he had never seen one before.  He had no trouble finding and viewing it.  Neither did we as the AGPL kept coming closer to the road.

American Golden-PloverFinally it came in to crushing distance. Boom.

American Golden-Plover

American Golden-Plover

While we enjoyed this lifer very much, I kept up the search for the Black-bellied Plover so Evan could get it too.  Whether I was handicapped with my limited optics or whether it flew away, we just couldn’t come up with it.  Evan was okay with that.

These two plover species are by no means easy in any part of the state.  To get both of them as life birds on the same day still blows my mind.  And to think if I hadn’t studied or if Evan hadn’t been along, it wouldn’t have happened. So, thanks Evan!  But as incredible as this day was, the following day would prove to be just as exciting as I would get a life look at another bird and then quickly turn my attention away from it and toward a much more unexpected non-lifer.

Squeezing a Lifer out of a Busy Life

I’m quite shocked, frankly, at how quickly it came.  I’ve long been familiar with the busy lives that kids and teens lead both in and out of school.  Parents have long shook their heads and rolled their eyes while saying, “Just you wait.”  Though expected, I never realized just how soon our family would be caught up in the tornado of our kids’ extra-curricular interests.  Mondays are the worst of it.  Evan has both piano lessons and Cub Scouts that day, and they are not back-to-back nor are they immediately after school.

So on Monday, September 22nd when I picked Evan up from school and we had an hour to kill before piano, it dawned on me that we had enough time to check out Carlson’s Dairy, the premiere shorebird spot in Kandiyohi County.  Randy had called the day before with a fantastic report: a lone American Avocet, Long-billed Dowitchers, and Black-bellied Plovers.  The latter two would be lifers.  Unfortunately we couldn’t get out there the day Randy called.  So hopefully there might still be something waiting for us on this burst of Monday birding.

Turns out there was.  I found three dowitchers.  We had never seen Long-billed or Short-billed, so it was a lifer for sure.  I marked it as a Long-billed Dowitcher since Randy had made that call the day before based on the date of migration.  We were in the middle of the migration window for Long-billed Dowitchers and had just passed the Short-billed Dowitcher window.  Later on I was able to use the humpback shape and excessively long bills to confirm they were dowitchers of the long-billed variety.

Long-billed Dowitcher

Short-billed Dowitcher

Long-billed Dowitcher and Short-billed Dowitcher Lifers!

Long-billed and Short-billed Dowitcher

I’ve always been amused by birds that scratch themselves like a dog or cat, but it was especially delightful to see a dowitcher itching.

Short-billed Dowitcher

Satisfied with a lifer and the best photos I could muster (shorebirds at Carlson’s Dairy are always far from the road), it was a bonus to see some other cool birds.  That American Avocet was still around.  It was pretty swell to see my first one in winter-plumage.  They are not a bird that we get every year during spring and fall migrations. In fact, when I uploaded my photo to the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union’s website, it was recorded as a first fall record for Kandiyohi County.  Neato.

American Avocet in winter plumage

American Avocet in winter plumage

I also wasn’t expecting to see a Northern Pintail.

Northern Pintail

Northern Pintail

There really was nothing left to see other than some common migrating shorebirds and waterfowl.  We came and scooped up the goodies in the half hour we had to bird before having to get to piano lessons. The lifer Long-billed Dowitcher and the American Avocet made for a tidy haul on this brief excursion.  It was efficient lifering – the best, and often only, kind of lifering in a whirlwind life.

Arrr! This be the feeder of RUHU, the Red-bearded Pirate-bird!

It was inevitable.  You knew it, I knew it.  I spent a day pretending I didn’t know it and actually thought I was being an adult when I decided against going on another five-hour round-trip to the same place to try again for the Rufous Hummingbird.  The inner birder-child won out last Friday, though, as I found myself checking to see if I had any unused comp hours at work to be able to get off early enough to get down to Le Sueur before the RUHU went to bed.  Friends at work continue to be enablers for this birding disease of mine as they agreed to cover my last two classes of the day.  With the extra time, I was able to pick up both kids, take care of the dogs, and hit the road with the sun still high in the sky.  We even stopped to pick up Melissa for yet another family-style bird adventure.

So what could cause all the angst?  What could be worth the fast-paced, high-stress hassle?  What could cause me to stop licking my wounds and go back for potentially more pain? This.

Rufous Hummingbird in Le Sueur, Minnesota

Rufous Hummingbird in Le Sueur, Minnesota

We had to wait nearly 20 minutes for our first glimpse of the bird when it made a brief appearance at the feeder.  It was not very active on this day and would disappear for another 15-20 minutes before our next sighting.  It was no small thrill to be waiting alongside a couple of Minnesota birding legends, Bob Janssen and Dave Cahlander. I’ve got Bob’s Birds in Minnesota book and am looking forward to his upcoming book on birds of Minnesota State Parks.  This was a second author sighting in as many months; I’m going to have to start carting around Evan’s bird book library for autographs.

Rufous Hummingbird

So, Evan got his lifer RUHU, and I got my MN RUHU.  Pretty sweet deal all around. Another interesting aside is that Evan is working on some electives in Cub Scouts to earn some patches for his uniform.  Several of them involve birdwatching; one in particular was keeping a week-long list of species he had seen.  When he started the list, we couldn’t have imagined in our wildest dreams he would be writing down Rufous Hummingbird.

Rufous Hummingbird

It was nice of the sun and the bird to cooperate for a brief moment to give me a shot of RUHU’s beautiful gorget.

Rufous Hummingbird

Though we did not get to see the Rufous chase away any Ruby-throats from the feeder he plundered and pillaged, it was clear that no RTHU dared to challenge RUHU, the Red-bearded Pirate-bird.  He was a fireball in every sense of the word.

After enjoying a couple more brief sightings, we headed to Mankato so Evan could stop at a Barnes and Noble to pick up his next book in a series he’s reading.  It was just our luck to visit on International Talk Like a Pirate Day (September 19th).  The kids enjoyed listening to a store employee all decked out in piratewear read a pirate story in a pirate voice.  It was topped off with a treasure hunt around the store.  No fewer than three adults chortled/gaffawed/giggled when the pirate asked the kids if they wanted to look for her booty.

Since I have many teacher friends who visit this blog, I would be remiss to not mention that Barnes and Noble offers an educator discount.  My astute wife had the presence of mind to ask about it.  When I learned the discount was a hefty 20%, I hustled on back to the bird section and bought my first Sibley’s.  I think I’m a real birder now.

IMG_0799

So avast me mates and get ye to the B ‘n N fer some real book treasure to fill the bowels of yer ship!  And if ye should see Red-beard, the pirate-bird, raise yer glass of grog to his pirattitude and toss ‘er back in celebration!

3 Minutes

This past Monday morning when I was running errands with Melissa and Marin (we teach on a four-day week), I checked email on my phone while standing in a discount store that does not deserve to be named.  Finally, after what seemed like an endless drought of good listserv postings, a stunning vagrant had been found — an adult male Rufous Hummingbird had been coming to the hummingbird feeders of Steve and Mary Nesgoda in Le Sueur.  As I read the email, pleasant memories came to mind of bumping into one on a residential street in Maricopa, Arizona last March and then again seeing and photographing one in Westcliffe, Colorado this past July. I smiled as I put my phone away, proud that I had seen this bird already and feeling absolutely no compulsion to chase this one in Le Sueur.  After all, I’m not a serious state lister.  Sure, I’ll go after life birds, but I haven’t reached the point in my birding where I’ll take a long car trip just to add a bird to my Minnesota column.  Abstaining felt good — I felt mature.

Later that day when Evan was home and within earshot, I was musing with my wife about which of the guys would be going after this great state bird as evidenced by this being an ‘Accidental’ species.  This was only the fourth male that had ever been seen in the state.   I was explaining to Melissa that I’ve seen it before so it made no sense for me to go.  Then Evan, with a furrowed brow, piped up and worriedly said, “But Dad, I’ve never seen one.”  He spoke a truth that I had completely forgotten; both of my previous encounters had been when I was out birding by myself.  This suddenly became an interesting dilemma.  With an increasing interest in my state list that has some impressive Accidental and Casual species and with Evan’s lack of RUHU in his life, this bird was now in play.

Still, it took me until Wednesday to pull the trigger on the trip.  This bird had been reliably coming to these feeders for several days now.  The chase would not be easy to pull off. I didn’t get off work until 4:00. By the time I picked up Evan and let my dogs out, it was almost 5:00 by the time we hit the road.  It was just under two hours to Le Sueur. Sunset was at 7:25. It would be tight, real tight. As such, I pressed the pedal of that mini-van down pretty hard.  A little too hard. As I met a string of three oncoming cars, I saw the last one was a Kandiyohi County Sheriff’s deputy. Brakes were activated and vigilant eyes were shifted to the rear-view mirror.  He turned around. Nuts. Here it comes.  I was more aggravated by this encounter slowing me down than I was about a potential ticket. After following me awhile doing a much slower, much more legal speed, he pulled me over.  I was not anxious.  No, I’ve been waiting for this day for a long time. You see, I’ve had a driver’s license for 19 years now and much to Melissa’s and many others’ frustration, I have never once gotten a speeding ticket.  It’s not that I’ve never been speeding. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.  I’m just lucky – really, really lucky.  I have been ready to pay my fair share and buy some donuts to boot when the day finally comes.  But today was not that day.  The gracious deputy just told me to watch my speed.  He even had the courtesy to keep the stop brief and get me back on the road within a few minutes.

It was a setback for time, but we pressed on and enjoyed the beautiful day.  The temps were in the 70s and the panorama was colorful in every direction.  Blue skies were accented with wispy, white clouds, corn and soybean fields were changing from green to gold, and trees and shrubs were changing over into the muted oranges, yellows, reds, and purples of fall on the prairie.  It was stunning. The farm/prairie landscape ended rather abruptly when we got to the Minnesota River valley where we were now in a landscape of winding roads, large hills, and woods all around.  It, too, was gorgeous.  It is in this valley where Le Sueur is found, and despite what the name may suggest, it is a beautiful area. On top of all that, I had made good time getting to our destination not getting lost or having to stop despite not studying maps ahead of time.

We pulled into the driveway of the country home where Steve and Mary live, a quaint place with some farm animals, big shade trees, and an apple orchard.  Right away Steve was there to greet me with a handshake and a friendly smile that epitomizes Minnesota Nice. And we were directed to sign their guestbook of birders that had come to see their super-star bird.  Evan and I were #s 95 and 96 respectively.  Mary took us right over to the feeder where the Rufous Hummingbird had been visiting.  I was dubious to follow because we were just a few feet from the feeder.  I felt like I should have been behind some glass in a car or a house.  She assured us that this bird was unafraid of people, barking dogs, falling apples, etc.  It was a real bully of a bird that had been chasing away all the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds.  Mary had also told us the bird was just here three minutes before we arrived, and that this was the latest it had ever been seen.  She knew we were coming, so she was glad it was still showing.  She excitedly told us that everyone on the list had seen her bird.  We were optimistic as we waited and watched and waited.  We tried to turn many Ruby-throats into our fiery bird, but we just weren’t seeing the celebrity.  Mary explained that the Rufous had always gone to bed well before the Ruby-throats and that the now abundance of Ruby-throats was not a good sign since the Rufous always chases them away when he’s around.  Our hopes were sinking fast with the setting sun.

In a bit of frustration and boredom I decided I may as well try to finally get a photograph of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird, one of those birding chores I just haven’t gotten around to yet.  I didn’t even have that going for me as this guy or gal snubbed my camera at the last second.

IMG_0742

It was now clear that we would not see the Rufous Hummingbird. Three minutes.  That traffic stop made the difference between a successful RUHU sighting and an epic fail.  Then there is nothing worse than missing the bird than having to make the long trip home.  It was only fitting that we should get stuck behind a slow-moving septic tanker, leaving a putrid stench in his wake.

As I drove and tried to breathe, that list kept gnawing at me.  Nearly a hundred birders had seen Steve and Mary’s RUHU, except us.  Like Jack Shephard in Lost, the urge to go back was as unrelenting as it was impractical. Another weekday chase would likely have the same result, and a full weekend at home made a weekend chase out of the question.  Never mind that this bird could just up and leave at anytime. But that list, it haunted me.

TO BE CONTINUED

Google Drive: A New, Easy Way to Embed Photos in an eBird Checklist

It is once again that time of year when the birding has slowed waaaay down.  Virtual tumbleweeds are rolling through cyberspace that was once occupied with fast and furious listserv postings and backlogged blog posts.  Once again, I find myself trying to fill that virtual void by doing some tech project to help my fellow birders.  Last year it was the creation of birdingacrossamerica.com.  This year it is something far less ambitious – this post is a simple tutorial on a new way to add bird photos to eBird checklists. Photos add to the richness of the reports we birders submit.  They make them just a tad juicier than the others.  We can’t resist clicking the lists with that glorious little icon.

boreal

Which eBird checklist would you click on first?

There’s nothing better than opening that icon and BAM! you’re staring at a good, large photo of a great bird like the Northern Hawk Owl.

NHOW eBird list

And when you report birds, it’s always nice to provide photo proof of a good bird or birds you saw.  Additionally, photos can make it a lot easier for the local eBird moderator to approve your rarity.

aitkin

Embedding photos in eBird checklists has never been a user-friendly task, but hopefully this tutorial will take away the mystery and complication of the process for you.  Though minimal html coding is still involved (don’t let that freak you out — you can copy off my paper :) ), I’m offering an alternative solution to eBird’s prescribed use of photo-sharing sites like Flickr and Picasa!  I had used neither of those before I got into eBird, and personaly I didn’t want another #$%#&! account with another ^%$#@ password where I have a few @ and a couple % sprinkled in that password.  Enough is enough, so I found my own path using something I, and probably you, already have – Google Drive. Many of us have been using Drive for some time now to collaborate with colleagues or store files of all types for easy retrieval.  Never use it? Well, the probability is high that you have a Google account of some kind already, so therefore you can sign in to Google Drive with your same Google account and password.  However, this tutorial is geared toward those with a rudimentary understanding of uploading files to Drive.

Let’s get started.

After you upload your image, you should see a window like the one below.  Click ‘Share’.

new upload

You should then see this window.  Click ‘Get shareable link.’

get shareable link

After you do that, you will see the link has been activated (notice it is green below).  You will also see a URL for the image highlighted below.

share link on

Copy and paste that URL in a new browser window. Notice how I highlighted the photo’s ID number in the URL.  You will need this soon.

new window

Now open up your already-completed eBird checklist in a new browser window. Click ‘Edit Species List’ and put your cursor in the comments section of the bird for which you want to display a photo.

Next, copy the line of code below and paste it into your comments for that species. Pay attention to the blue text below as you will be replacing it.

<a href=”https://docs.google.com”><img src=”https://docs.google.com/uc?id&#61;0B9Tq0WV1ARL2bTg4ZG11WTFkRXM” /></a>

owl checklist

Now, unless you want this picture of that sweet Snowy in your checklist where a crushing photo of a Ruff should be, you need to do this final step.  Locate your photo’s ID number in the URL that I referenced earlier.

snowy corner

Then paste that ID in the place of the blue text in the line of code you pasted in your eBird checklist.  Make sure the old ID number is gone.

That’s it! So go and make eBird a more beautiful place to visit with all your fabulous photos.  After all, winter gets long for some of us, and we need some cool bird photos to check out when we’re not prowling for owls.

cellie

In memory of Jim Halvorson, district technology coordinator and fellow math teacher, who passed away unexpectedly this past week.  Jim worked tirelessly and patiently to enhance our craft through technology and its advances.  More important than that, he was an all-around great, friendly guy who will be sorely missed.

Back to Basics – Birding Lake Vermilion

In late August we headed home to northern Minnesota to celebrate my dad’s 70th birthday.  It was to be a casual affair with just my family and my brother’s family in attendance; understandably, my sister just couldn’t make it from Nigeria.  Nonetheless, it was still a good excuse for us Minnesotans to gather together.

One of the things my mom insisted on doing was taking everybody out for a pontoon ride on Lake Vermilion.  She had her own target bird that she wanted to show us all. Apparently my folks had been out on the lake recently and ran into a whole pile of Bald Eagles, dozens of them all in one tree.  Secretly I wasn’t too excited about Bald Eagles. The allure has long worn off as I have frequent run-ins with this bird that has now become ubiquitous.  We birders can become quite snobbish about our bird species. Nevertheless, the kids would certainly enjoy getting out on a boat. Though I grew up on the water, they do not get this kind of opportunity very often.  So a pontooning we would go.

We launched at Peterson landing and set out across Wakemup Bay to the cluster of islands around the larger Taylors Island.

Melissa Marin Evan

Here, the small channels between the islands provided relief from the wind, and many birds seemed to thrive in the smaller waters.  One of the birds fishing in the calm water was none other than our state bird, the Common Loon.  I will argue that we have the best state bird in the nation.  Its beauty, its haunting call in the middle of a calm night, and its affinity for our scenic lakes make it a fantastic choice for our state’s bird ambassador.

Common Loon AKA "loon" to Minnesotans

Common Loon, a.k.a.  just a “loon” to Minnesotans

We saw several loons, a bird that is even more common on our waters than the Bald Eagle. But it didn’t take long for mom’s target bird to dominate the show.  We spotted a nice mature bird in a White Pine.

Bald Eagle on Lake Vermilion

Bald Eagle on Lake Vermilion

And we kept seeing them and seeing them.  Some preferred White Pines, some preferred the Red variety.

Bald Eagle

We cruised right along the shorelines of the islands and passed right under many of these birds as they watched from above.  Some would take flight; many others did not care.  The kids were, by far, the best and most enthusiastic about spotting our national bird.

Evan and cousin Iris scanning the trees for Bald Eagles

Evan and cousin Iris scanning the trees for Bald Eagles

They were so good at finding them that I hardly had a chance to find my own.  They would be pointing and yelling.  Just as my eyes would find that one, they’d pick out another one hiding high in the boughs of some pine.  Each time I wondered how such massive, obvious birds were evading my eyesight.  Even Grandma (mom) was on to them.  Now my birder pride was on the line.

Sandi Marin

They were absolutely everywhere.  In fact, I lost count but I’m guessing we saw close to 20 Bald Eagles, only one of which was an immature.  I was able to finally spot one or two myself.

Bald Eagle

The birds were so plentiful that I never asked Dad to stop the boat so I could take pictures.  All of the above were taken while in motion.  Had we stopped for pictures, we would have been navigating Lake Vermilion in the dark!

Seeing all these birds was an experience the whole family got caught up in.  To add a little more bird flavor to the outing, many exclamations were made over Great Blue Herons hunting from the shorelines and Turkey Vultures gliding effortlessly overhead. Personally I found dozens of migrating Common Nighthawks to be the most exciting. Even the cooler, elder Bro took notice of a low-flying vulture and said, “That’s pretty cool.”

Jason

The more eagles we saw, the less jaded I became to them.  It truly was an amazing experience to see such an abundance of them.  The kids’ enthusiasm was quite appropriate.  It was fun to see Evan excited over this bird even though he’s seen it plenty.  He doesn’t get fired up over little brown lifers like Winter Wrens, but he still takes childish delight in the birds that are just plain awesome. And rightly so.

Inwardly I was remarking about what a comeback the Bald Eagle has made. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, there were only 487 nesting pairs in 1963.  Dad, a wildlife biologist during the 1970s, was telling us how the widespread use of DDT got into waterways and poisoned the birds’ food supply, causing them to have weak eggshells and ruining their nesting efforts.  Of course the shooting of eagles and lead poisoning also contributed to their drastic decline.

Rick Wallestad, Birthday Boy and former wildlife biologist for the Montana Fish and Game Department

Rick Wallestad – Birthday Boy and former wildlife biologist for the Montana Fish and Game Department

Though the bird had been listed as endangered by 1978 in all but a few of the lower 48 states, it was only ever classified as threatened in Minnesota.  Even still, they were regarded with special concern and protection here – Melissa remembers camping at Bear Head Lake State Park with her parents in the mid 1980s and seeing the entire beach area roped off to keep people away from a nesting pair.

The Bald Eagle has made a remarkable comeback reaching nearly 10,000 nesting pairs and thus being removed from the list of threatened and endangered species in 2007. Here we were witnessing the fruit of this wildlife management success story.  Ok, Mom, Bald Eagles are cool. Really cool.

Bald Eagle

Considering the Bald Eagle’s history, it was fitting that three generations were enjoying this bird together.  The past. The future.  Certainly lessons learned by previous generations coupled with memorable, childhood experiences of the newest generation will lead to a strong future for the Bald Eagle and the multitude of other bird species that are on the brink of disaster like the Bald Eagle once was.  I’ve had the good fortune to see such species, like the Cerulean Warbler or the state endangered Chestnut-collared Longspur.  Some day I hope we are swimming in them like we were on this day.

Mom Iris

Melissa Evan

It was time to make our way back across the lake.  The kids watched the waves.

Evan Marin Mom Iris

I kept vigil for birds.  Finally I found one that made me ask Dad to turn the boat around and stop.  I needed a picture of a Herring Gull for my photo collection.

Herring Gull

Herring Gull

A couple years ago I couldn’t imagine that my spark for the Bald Eagle would have to be reignited or that I’d be photographing a gull (a type of bird I didn’t care for in my early birding days).  Yet here I was doing both.  And here Evan, along with the rest, were excited about birds again.  The tree of birding had been refreshed with the feathers of eagles, herons, loons, and such.  It was good to get back to the basics.

Summer’s Grand Finale

When summer began I had a list of resident birds that had eluded me for over two years. Migrations and periods of summer residency came and went with no sign of these birds that live here at home in Kandiyohi County during the summer months.  General laziness and greenhorn status is certainly a part but not the entirety of the cause.  No, this list of birds reads like the Who’s Who of the most evasive and elusive birds on the continent. They were dismissed in my early birding days because they are rag-tag bunch of drab and frumpy-looking earth-toned birds.  They didn’t bring the ‘wow’ factor like a Scarlet Tanager or a Blue-headed Vireo.  Little did I know that this ‘playing hard-to-get’ quality would make them some of the most desirable birds around.  So here they are with their current status indicated.

Wood Thrush: Heard Only – the worst way to get a lifer (is that even a lifer?)

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Black-billed Cuckoo: Conquered –  twice over with some crummy photos to boot!

American Bittern – Heard Only/Possibly Seen

Least Bittern

Black-crowned Night Heron Seen – but a pale juvenile far, far away. Sigh.

Henslow’s Sparrow – Heard Only?

Sora – Heard Only successfully converted to Flash Sighting

Virginia Rail - Ditto the Sora

So I guess I was fairly successful since I made contact with all but two on my list.  Even still, with nary a decent photo to show for my efforts, my work was anything but satisfactory. There’s no other way to put it – these birds are all just buggers, the whole bunch.  Given this C- performance on my wish list and the recent Least Tern fiasco, I’m happy to report that we’d have the last laugh over one of the species on this list and put it to rest photographically speaking.  It was a Life Bird thumping with unobstructed views requiring no binoculars.  And the icing on the cake was the cool way it all went down. Read on.

With a bathroom project choking out my time and the new school year looming on the horizon, summer birding season pretty much had all but the last nail in the coffin.  Part of my back-to-school agenda included a three-day training in downtown St. Paul.  On the surface, the Cities may not seem like a birding destination.  But I have seen some amazing birds in the Cities because the pockets and puddles of habitat are prowled and scoured by an army of metro birders.   And lately they were turning up one very cooperative and photogenic bird from my list.  Throngs of people were going to see this bird.  My Facebook feed was spammed up with countless photos of this bird in various lights and poses.  It was ridiculous how easy people were adding this bird to their life and photo lists.  It was cheap. It was unfair.  And I wanted a piece of that action.

So what bird could garner such attention?  It was none other than the Least Bittern, a couple of them in fact.  They were being seen daily from a boardwalk through a marsh at the Wood Lake Nature Center in Richfield.  Being in the Cities at the zenith of this Least Bittern mania was a beautiful coincidence.  The whole family accompanied me to the Cities.  I got trained while hey had fun with their Science Museums, Childrens’ Museums, swimming pools, and such.  But the Least Bittern fun would be a family affair.

We got to Wood Lake Nature Center that first night with about an hour of daylight to spare and quickly huffed our way to the boardwalk that cuts right through the middle of the marsh.  I wasn’t worried about the time element; I knew there would be other birders there.  We just had to look for them and that’s where the bird would be.  Sure enough there was guy with a camera as long as my leg and a lady sporting some fancy binos. We were where we needed to be.  Of course there were no irrelevant introductions, but rather my first words were to inquire if the bird was present.  The answer was no. Before too long the lady went further down the boardwalk to look while the guy stayed put.  I have a tough time sitting still when birds are not being seen, so I started in the direction of the lady.  That’s when Mr. Camera whistled at us and motioned excitedly with his hand for us to join him.  He had it.  Evan and I raced down there, and I caught a mere glimpse of bird’s butt disappearing into the reeds. Mr. Camera showed me a lovely photo of the non-butt parts of the Least Bittern that he took just seconds ago.  The aggravation!

A short time later the lady came walking back to all of us and told us she had another Least Bittern further down.  Mr. Camera was amazingly mobile with his massive apparatus and got down there just as fast as we did.  And there we saw a glorious Least Bittern unobstructed just 6 feet off the boardwalk.  It was awesome.

Least Bittern at Wood Lake Nature Center in Richfield

Least Bittern at Wood Lake Nature Center in Richfield

 We got to watch this Bittern nab a minnow from time to time.  I was never ready with the camera.  I usually caught it just before or after such a shot.

Least Bittern

It was incredibly fun to watch.  Here Evan is waiting for it to reappear after one of its many disappearances into the reeds.

EvanEven Melissa and Marin enjoyed seeing this mysterious, petite bird.  But a potential screaming fit caused the two of them to go off on their own birding venture to look at Mallards and such. All of us, from different vantage points, saw this Osprey come sailing over clutching a fat, little meal from someone’s Koi pond.

IMG_0605

We never had to wait long on the Least Bittern to show up again.

Least Bittern

Least BitternLeast BitternEvan was captivated by this bird.  He never watches birds through binoculars, so he often misses just how cool some birds can be.  Here he needed none to enjoy the bird.  I wanted to capture him in this state, and Mr. Camera and his camera added some birding flavor to the background of the image.  Plus he and Evan were visiting about birds as the guy was asking him questions and teaching him things.  He was an incredibly friendly guy. Moments after I took this shot, the lady birder pulled me aside and whispered that Mr. Camera was Stan Tekiela, the famed author/photographer of the popular state-by-state birding field guides and other nature guide books!

Evan watching a Least Bittern with Stan Tekiela.

I recognized Stan’s name instantly but had trouble recalling where I had seen his name before.  Then I remembered a book from Evan’s library of field guides and nature books.

Stan Tekiela

The lady birder implored me to take a picture of my kid alongside Mr. Tekiela.  The look in her eye and the tone of her hushed voice indicated this was a big, big deal – so much so that if she had a kid (which she didn’t) she’d definitely get a picture of the two of them together.

It was cool to bump into Mr. Tekiela.  But what was really neat was to listen in on the natural conversation between Mr. Tekiela and Evan about all things natural.  He truly was an educator who genuinely enjoyed sharing nature with others.  Here is a snippet of conversation I overheard:

Mr. Tekiela: “There’s another bird that looks like this that’s a lot bigger.”

Evan: “Yeah, I know.”

Mr. Tekiela: “Do you know what it’s called?”

Evan: “The, uh, uh, American Bittern.  We’ve never seen one. We’ve only heard one at my Grandpa’s house.”

Mr. Tekiela: “Do you know what they sound like?”

Evan: “Like…someone throwing rocks in a pond.”

Mr. Tekiela: “That’s right, that’s right! They are called the Slough-Pumper because they sound like an old pump pumping the water out of a slough.”

Mr. Tekiela was quite social and amicable with everyone around.  He and I visited for a bit and it came up that Evan had his field guide for Arizona birds. So we visited about Arizona and all his fascinating work in making field guides for that state.  He told me for the Arizona mammals book they had to trap all the smaller rodents and photograph them in captivity and then carefully replace each one in the exact same spot they found it in.  Another fun story he shared with us was a call he got from law enforcement in the Twin Cities area about an Eastern Coral Snake someone found in the Cities!  Mr. Tekiela never was able to relocate the snake, but he showed us a picture of it on his cell phone that the police had sent him.

It was a very fun encounter.  But weren’t we looking at a bird?  Our visiting never scared it off…maybe it was hanging around listening to Mr. Tekiela’s cool stories…

Least BitternLeast Bittern

After dozens of Least Bittern photos which was still probably less than 5% of the number Mr. Tekiela had, we decided to keep walking the boardwalk to look for some of the abundant Virginia Rails people had been reporting.  Evan had never seen one, and I needed a photo.  At one point we were walking back toward where Mr. Tekiela was when he motioned wildly and whisper-yelled, “Evan, come here!”  We hustled up there just in time for Mr. Tekiela to point out a Racoon that was creeping out from the reeds and coming to the water’s edge.  Evan’s response was “Cool!”

After lingering a bit longer, the rain started to come down.  Evan and I took off running to join the girls and get back to the car as Mr. Tekiela chided, “C’mon, you fair-weather birders!”  We smiled back and kept running.  Once we were under the canopy of the woods and slowed down, I finally told Evan who he was birding and visiting with.  His eyes got as big as dinner plates.

It was one heck of a bird to end the summer with and one memorable birder encounter. That’s what I love about this game – you never know what will happen. And most importantly, everybody in the whole family had a genuine good time on this little outing.  It was the best way to wrap up the summer birding season.  It was perfect.

A Tern for the Worse – One Screwed-Up Trip

More often than not you come to this blog to read about our great birding triumphs.  But we are also fully transparent and are thus required to document our most epic and comical failures.  Anyone who has birded for any length of time knows that failure to produce is all part of this game and such missteps or miserable attempts can be just as memorable as the glorious moments.  It is in that spirit that I will tell the story.

A little over a week ago an interesting report came in of a Least Tern down in Luverne in Rock County.  I generally don’t get too excited about terns, gulls, or even shorebirds – at least not to the point of going on a lengthy chase.  Luverne was nearly three hours away; it definitely was not happening.  Then I learned that the Least Tern is considered a “casual” species in Minnesota and that there are very few records of it here.  Furthermore, to see one elsewhere, I’d have to visit someplace like the Florida coast in the summer.  Now the bird was becoming more appealing.  I looked up the picture and noticed that the Least Tern is quite distinctive with its yellow bill.  Even more appealing.  But then I heard that this particular Least Tern was a juvenile – definitely an attribute for the “con” column.   A long trip for an immature bird that might not stick around?  Forget it.

The reports kept coming though.  The tern was hanging on and something very interesting happened.  One birder reported that there were now two Least Terns and that one was a breeding plumaged adult!  And the birds were hanging out all day. Now I was interested. Phone calls and texts were exchanged with local birding buddies, but ultimately three of us ended up going down separately in three vehicles.  I opted to go alone so I could turn the chase into an overnight camping trip with the kids at Blue Mounds State Park.

I was confident we’d see the tern in the morning.  The bird(s) had been around for nearly three days by this point.  Plus our chase record was strong with only one big miss on a Painted Bunting a couple years ago.  Even then, though, we managed to walk away with a consolation Purple Finch lifer.  I tend to choose chases that have a high probability of success, and this chase had the right elements for just such an outcome.  So as I rode along with two kids, a van full of camping gear, and one of my two labrador retrievers riding shotgun (she was not part of the original chase/camping plan), I was excited that in just a couple hours I’d be looking at a sparkly, brand-new bird, and a very rare bird besides.  We’d see the bird, and fifteen minutes later the kids and I would be having fun camping and swimming at the reservoir at Blue Mounds.  It was going to be perfect.

We got to the site in Luverne around 10:00 in the morning and pulled up behind Randy who had made it down there sometime within the previous hour.  Randy had mixed news for us.  He saw the bird (the juvenile) – saw it fly away not fifteen minutes earlier. My optimism was undaunted.  I was confident the bird would return.  We searched nearby wetlands with Randy to see if we could dig it up.  The kids and I returned to the original site a couple times but had no luck in locating either of the Least Terns.

One reason I thought this would be a fun trip for the kids was that I remembered the city of Luverne had a massive park down by the Rock River with multiple playgrounds.  Despite my memory, there would be no park adventure on this trip.  The entire park which was lush green in my memory was now entirely covered in black soil and roped off as crews worked feverishly to get it into park shape again.  What was going on?  Then I remembered.  This area of the state had massive flooding this spring.  Undoubtedly the grass and greenery were destroyed in the stagnating waters left behind.

So it was off to Blue Mounds to set up camp and do some swimming. We were going to have fun one way or another on this trip.  But we hit another snag when we checked in at the park office.  The park ranger asked us if we were aware of the water situation.  Uh, no. The water supply, she said, was contaminated with E. coli.  Even though that sounds utterly terrifying, it was a manageable fear since they had all the water shut off save the toilets and since they’d give us drinking water at the park office.

After we had camp set up and had checked on the Least Tern spot unsuccessfully a couple times, I decided that it was time to let the kids do some swimming at the reservoir. With kids suited up we made our way to the… mud puddle? Wait, where’s the reservoir? This place was only suitable for frogs and the few Pectoral Sandpipers poking around. The beach was hundreds of feet away from the “water.”   What was happening?  Finally I figured it out when we hiked down to the dam;  the spring flooding had overpowered the dam, knocking a gaping hole in it and depleting the reservoir.  This was turning out to be one sorry trip, and I was turning into one liar of a father.

The kids and I did do a little bit of hiking.  After all, Blue Mounds State Park is the most reliable place in the state to see Blue Grosbeaks.  Even though I had seen a gross amount of them in recent weeks, it was still fun to find six Blue Grosbeaks at Blue Mounds.  Most were near the Interpretive Center’s parking lot, but a couple were found at the north end of the prairie near the swimming area.

Blue Grosbeak

Blue Grosbeak

Blue Mounds is also famous for Common Nighthawks that swoop over the prairie and make their booming call late in the evening or early in the morning.  It is not hard to find them perched during the day. This particular nighthawk was taking a rest in the same tree as the Blue Grosbeak above.

Common Nighthawk

Common Nighthawk

Can you find the Blue Grosbeak and Common Nighthawk in this photo?

Can you find the Blue Grosbeak and Common Nighthawk in this photo?

Another fun bird that is not hard to find at this park is the Dickcissel.  Interestingly, this Dickcissel was perched in the same small, dead tree with the Blue Grosbeak and Common Nighthawk in the first two photos.  Apparently the two former birds don’t mind sharing territory with each other.  And the nighthawk couldn’t care less that these two birds were singing their heads off while he tried to close his eyes and dream sweet nighthawk dreams.

Dickcissel

Dickcissel

The list of uncommon birds that are not too hard to find at Blue Mounds continued with several singing Field Sparrows.  I was showing Evan this particular Field Sparrow through the LCD display on the camera and pressed the shutter button while the bird was singing. Evan thought that was pretty neat to photograph it in the act of singing, even using the phrase “epic photo.”

Field Sparrow

Field Sparrow

Another bird we had the pleasure of viewing, when binoculars and camera were not in hand of course, was a Red-headed Woodpecker in a dead tree right by a walking path. It did not care that we were 15 feet away.  Steve has told me I’m a magnet for these birds. I’m starting to believe him.  What I am certainly a magnet for is rain at Blue Mounds State Park.  As you can see in the photos above, conditions were not optimal for photography, birding, or even camping.  Rain was setting up shop for the day, and I had a sickening feeling that this trip was going to turn into the disastrous Blue Grosbeak hunt of 2013.  But a lack of good weather, terns, playgrounds, swimming beaches, and safe drinking water did not deter these two from having a good time even though I have no idea what they were doing here.

Evan Marin

We never did see the Least Terns on any one of our dozen+ trips to the tern spot that day. Hope stayed alive for a check in the morning, but it was time to put the current day to bed and get some rest.  At least that was a sure thing.  Or so I thought.  For somebody who teaches future doctors and engineers and such, sometimes I just don’t think.  I figured the three of us in a three-man tent on a full-sized air mattress would be no problem until I put the plan into action.  The mattress was not wide enough for the three of us, so I turned the mattress sideways. What I gained in shoulder room was offset by the loss of body length I could fit on the mattress. My shorter companions had no problem, but my legs hung off the end by over a foot. Uncomfortable but fine.  But then you throw in a couple of karate-chopping sleepers and a 65 lb. lab that wants on the bed and it was a red-eyed, muscle-aching disaster.  It was topped off by a close lighting storm that had me scrambling to get two sleepy kids and a dog into the van where we would attempt to sleep the last couple hours of the night.  I didn’t care about a Least Tern by that point.  Instead I was once again thinking how the desire for a bird could cause such misery.  The new day and the trip home couldn’t come fast enough.

Dawn finally came and with it was the thought that this trip had nowhere to go but up.  I was wrong again.  You see, the previous day I noticed that my two-front tires were balding really bad.  I shouldn’t have made the trip down on them, and I certainly wasn’t going to drive home on them.  So I made arrangements at the Luverne Ford dealership to get a couple of new tires that next morning.  I figured it would be fine because the kids and dog and I could take a nice walk while we waited.  The day had a different plan.  The continuing rain forced us to wait for our van in the one-car showroom of the dealership…with a big dog.  But a 6 in. by 6 in. TV playing Sponge Bob, a couple of cookies, and one firm hand on a short leash got us through the tire change.  Actually all the folks at Luverne Ford were incredibly hospitable and friendly telling me sweet lies about how well-behaved my kids were and how nice my dog was.  The truth is that the kids and dog did very well considering the circumstances.  And it truly is better to be safe as they say.  Did I mention that on the trip down to Luverne the previous day I had to call 911 to report a semi coming into my lane?

Finally we were out of there.  We checked the tern spot one last time but again came up short.  It was time to head home.  I took a longer route home in an effort to do some eBird documentation for some reported Blue Grosbeaks that other birders had found far north of their usual range.  I only managed to turn up one.  I was thrilled to be able to see and document a couple more Red-headed Woodpeckers.  I was never able to get any photos, but I did see and photograph another uncommon bird, the Upland Sandpiper, another bird I’ve been seeing more of this year than in the past.

Upland Sandpiper

Upland Sandpiper

The trip had some good birds for sure, just not the new one we were hoping for.  What we didn’t have in birds, though, we made up for in stories to tell.  I will be curious to someday hear the kids’ recollections of the disastrous Least Tern chase of the summer of 2014.  The Least Tern won this battle, but another life bird would become the hero and bring a satisfactory close to the summer the next week.