Mopping Up at Falls Creek SNA

There comes a point in one’s birding where the lifers in one’s own state slow down to a trickle and then just the occasional drip. I’ve seen it play out on blogs and with friends.  It is inevitable. Luckily for me, Washington County’s Falls Creek Scientific and Natural Area still held the juicy potential for perhaps my last multi-lifer day in Minnesota. Two southeastern specialties that have an extremely limited range along just the eastern border of the state have been known to breed here, the Acadian Flycatcher and the Louisiana Waterthrush.  In fact, this is about as far north as these two breed.  Like a scene out of the Pacific Northwest, Falls Creek offers steep ravines with towering Pines and mature deciduous forests with an open understory.  It is the perfect habitat for the Acadian Flycatcher, and the Louisiana Waterthrush thrives along the small, yet swift stream at the bottom of a ravine. There is nothing flashy about these two birds which is probably why this errand has been reserved for that point in my birding when there is little else to go after.

I saved the Falls Creek trip for when Arizona friend Tommy DeBardeleben came for his third Minnesota trip of 2016.  He also needed the Acadian along with several of our eastern woodland species, many of which are also present at Falls Creek. We could both do well here.  It was a logical stop on our first full day of birding for Tommy’s week-long vacation.

Near the parking area was an open prairie area.  One of the inhabitants of the brushy edge was a lifer for Tommy, the Blue-winged Warbler.  This Warbler species also has a limited range in southeastern Minnesota, though we seem to be turning them up in lots of areas further north and west of where they are supposed to be according to range maps in field guides.

Blue-winged WarblerOnce we hiked through the prairie habitat and into the woods, we walked along a trail on glacial ridge where the slopes quickly became quite steep on each side of the trail.  Thanks to some great insights from Washington County birding guru, Pete Nichols, we cut down one of these slopes on a goat path of sorts to reach the creek in the ravine below. This was the promised land for BOTH the Louisiana Waterthrush and the Acadian Flycatcher. It did not take long for us to hear the sharp “Pit-se!” call of our shared Acadian lifer. Arriving at the creek bottom, Tommy instantly pointed out the chip note of the Louisiana Waterthrush, which had the honor of being my 400th life bird. The bird showed well for us but would not sit still. Its song was beautiful as it rang through the ravine.

Tommy and I had some shared objectives on this trip and some separate.  We eventually split up to do what we needed to do–Tommy spent a good amount of time trying to get visuals on his Wood Thrush lifer (good luck!) while I really wanted visuals and photos of my two new life birds.  Not only were the birds difficult to find and difficult to pin down, but the low light conditions made photography a challenge.

Acadian FlycatcherConfession: I’m starting to really like the Empids, at least the eastern ones.  Though the five are difficult to differentiate visually, their unique habitat choices and equally unique songs make identification a lot easier than I once thought.  Hearing this Acadian Flycatcher was much more fun than just seeing it.

Acadian FlycatcherAn equal auditory delight was the Louisiana Waterthrush. It was loud. We had at least two different birds.  This one below put on an impressive spinning and tail-bobbing display on this log right in front of us.

Louisiana Waterthrush

Louisiana WaterthrushTommy and I became absorbed in our separate pursuits spending more time than we anticipated in our searches. Is that a Scarlet Tanager? Nope, just a super content Evan who kept busy the entire time playing in the creek.  Good thing he wore his water boots.

IMG_8620

EvanAnother lifer for Tommy that we both enjoyed up close was the Veery.

VeeryThe Veery’s song is the best.  It’s unmistakable song can often be heard throughout the deciduous woods of Minnesota. Never before I had I actually seen one sing.

Tommy and I thoroughly enjoyed this stop at Falls Creek SNA. It is truly one of Minnesota’s birding gems that deserves its rightful place alongside places like Felton Prairie, Blue Mounds State Park, Sax-Zim Bog, etc.  There were so many good species to be had.  At one point I could hear Louisiana Waterthrush, Acadian Flycatcher, and Pine Warblers all at once, not to mention the sounds of Veery, Wood Thrush, and Scarlet Tanager not too far away. This place is a must stop for any serious Minnesota birder. Or herper. This 4-foot Fox Snake was in the parking lot on the way out and put on its best rattlesnake impression, frantically wiggling its rattle-less tail.

Fox SnakeComing up is one more Minnesota post with Tommy about a rare Warbler we went after for Tommy’s life list.  And then we will cover our side trip to Wisconsin to search for two endangered species.  Stay tuned.

A Tern for the Better

Apologies for the overused pun here, but it truly is fitting.  And apologies on further delaying reports from the Tommy D trip in order to cover an outing that happened after his departure, but there has been a tern of events. Apologies again.

I really hate &*%$ Terns.  I am, of course, still licking the wounds from the Gull-billed saga that you just read about, but newer readers may not know about that other horrible, awful, no-good, rotten Least Tern chase to Luverne two years ago.  Not only did we miss the bird by 15 minutes and see Randy get that one minutes before us just like he did with GBTE, but then there was the accompanying camping trip that put Murphy’s Law to the absolute test.  That trip was so miserable, I’m not even going to link to the post on it.  Look it up if you want to cringe.

Anyhow, this past Friday I was still recovering from the hardcore birding trip Tommy and I had last week.  The Gull-billed Tern fiasco actually seemed like a distant memory because of all Tommy and I experienced together (we’ll get to that, I promise). Then as I was contemplating chasing yet another rarity, a Yelow-breasted Chat, something bumped the Chat in the priority queue: a report of an ARCTIC TERN less than two hours from my house in Big Stone County (the bump on MN’s west side).  This was a stunning find by Bob Ekblad who had gone to look for some reported Black-necked Stilts, another casual species in Minnesota.

Despite being burned by two rare Terns in the past, I only hesitated for a moment before throwing the kids in the car and making a run out west.  It looks like things finally terned out for me. The Arctic Tern was right where it was reported, resting on the beach of a small wetland.  Even from this distant photo, you can see just how short the Arctic Tern’s legs are and how gray its breast is.

Arctic TernArctic Tern is casual in Minnesota with most records showing up in Duluth.  I never really expected to add this to my life list because A) I’d have to be in Duluth at the right time and B) I’d have to be standing next to an expert birder who could help me differentiate this species from the Common Tern while it flew in the distance.

So not only was it a thrill to add this unexpected (as in ever) lifer, but there was a driveway to a farm place that put me within 30 feet of the Tern where I could study the field marks for myself up close!  Here I could see the stubbier, all red bill compared to the Common Tern’s longer, black-tipped  bill.  Additionally, I could see the white stripe under the eye and above the gray breast/cheek.

Arctic TernI had thought the Tern was resting on its belly, but I guess its legs are just that short that it only appeared that way.  I was hoping to catch the Tern in flight to see the diagnostic dark trailing edge of the primaries.  I didn’t get to see it fly, but some other birders did see it fly and captured that field mark in photos.  The bird appeared quite lethargic to me, understandable considering the Arctic Tern is famous for its migration from the Antarctic to the Arctic breeding grounds and back each year, a minimum of 24,000 round-trip miles as the crow flies.  And we all know Terns don’t fly like Crows.  Research with tracking this species has shown that they typically put on 44,000 miles a year. This bird was probably quite wore out and chose the most random of stops to rest.

Arctic TernKeeping the Tern company was an American Avocet which is not that rare of bird this far west in Minnesota.  Avocets have almost become something of a trash bird on this blog this year. Who would’ve thought?

American AvocetSince the Black-necked Stilts are a good bird for MN and since they had been relocated while I was on my way to the Tern, I decided to check up on them too.  The Stilts would not even be a state bird, but I won’t pass up a chance to see some easy ones that are nearby.  They are still quite revered here and have not attained the trash nickname of ‘Mud Poodles’ as they have in some other states.

Black-necked StiltThree great birds, two of which were casual species and one of which was a lifer, made for a great day of birding. Terns out I made the right decision to chase when I did. Unfortunately for Randy and Steve, they were not able to relocate either the Arctic Tern or the Black-necked Stilts the next day.

I still hate Terns, just slightly less so than I did before. The urge to swear when talking about them is gone. Also, I hate Chats now too.

Gulli-bill…or Not

How is it that a hobby that can bring so much pleasure one moment bring so much pain the next? One minute we birders are on cloud 9; the next we are singing the blues.  It’s a vicious cycle.  Why do we do this again?  IDK, but here’s the sad/happy story of me chasing a rarity 2.5 times.

The parade of vagrants this spring/summer has been most impressive. One entry in the parade garnered more attention than the others–a state first Gull-billed Tern on Salt Lake which straddles the Minnesota/South Dakota border.  News of the Tern broke out late in the day on June 1. This was practically in the backyard for birding friend, Garrett Wee, and me, so we were on the scene immediately at daybreak on Thursday, June 2.  Garrett and I were no slouches on this search, checking the lake from both the MN and SD sides and even hiking to distant jetties and shorelines on the lake. No luck after looking for nearly two hours.  A Willet and this Sanderling were weak consolation prizes.

SanderlingOn the way out of Salt Lake I ran into Herb Dingman just heading in.  He, of course, was disappointed to hear my report but decided to look anyway.  I told him to call me if it showed before I got too far away. That call didn’t come…until I was 15 minutes from home. Herb had seen it. I couldn’t turn around; I had obligations at home before my parents came to visit.

On Friday, June 3, no one saw the state record bird despite standing vigil from dawn to dusk.

On Saturday, June 4, the Patagonia Picnic Table Effect was in action as the state’s #1 eBirder Peder Svingen was in the Salt Lake area and turned up a casual Lark Bunting.  I decided to chase this state bird. My dad came with me.  On the way, news came in that the Gull-billed Tern had returned! I was elated as I was counting my chickens and Terns and Buntings before they hatched, thinking I would get two cool birds.

Dad and I had a cool find on the way near Lac qui Parle High School–a pair of Marbled Godwits.

Marbled Godwit

When we got to Salt Lake, the report was negative on the Tern. Ugh, not again! But hope was still alive for the Lark Bunting which was 8 miles away. Peder was still at the Bunting spot along with a swarm of others who were trying to relocate the Bunting.  No one was coming up with it.  However, I was informed by Jeff Stephenson that there were Henslow’s Sparrows at this WPA!  I visited with Peder a bit, and when he found out I had never seen a Henslow’s, he walked out in the grass with me to help me get visuals on this skulker that had eluded my life list so far.  It was incredibly nice of him since I caught him just as he was about to make the long trip home to Duluth after getting both the Tern and the Bunting.  Peder and I were successful.  A Henslow’s Sparrow–finally!

Henslow's SparrowHenslow's SparrowHenslow's SparrowThis felt great and made up for the double dip.  Dad and I continued to check Salt Lake for the Tern who did not keep any kind of regular schedule. We were not successful, but we did enjoy some of the native grassland birds, like Bobolink and Dad’s favorite, Western Meadowlark.

BobolinkWestern MeadowlarkWith no luck on the Tern, we decided to try one last time for the Bunting. Nothing. Grasshopper Sparrows are nice, just not LABU nice.

Grasshopper Sparrow

Just as I was pulling away from this area to head home, Randy Frederickson called me up to tell me he and Joel Schmidt had found the Tern a mile north of the Bunting spot on private land!  That was about 7 miles from Salt Lake! Elation again! As Dad and I raced up to the spot, we were about a half mile away when we saw a Tern-like bird fly across the road.  Could it be? Nah, probably just a Ring-billed Gull or Forester’s Tern. I got to the farm site where Randy and Joel had the bird; Randy was on the road waiting for me so I’d know the correct driveway.  I hurried down to Joel who had the scope set up. I excitedly hopped out of the car only to be greeted with, “It just flew.” Oh, the depths of despair in birding! Piecing the timing and the direction of flight together, Randy is convinced that I did, in fact, see the state record Gull-billed Tern fly across the road in front of me.  However, I didn’t get a solid look to confirm the ID, so I’m not counting it.  It just wouldn’t feel legit.

It was time to go home. Two dips for one bird. Ouch. I’ve double-chased before but always rebounded the second time around. Contemplating a third chase for one bird was new territory.

On Sunday, June 5, birders were fanning across the state on their way home from a successful chase for some and a heart-breaking chase for others. These birders were turning up cool things all over.  Luckily, one of those birds was found in my county thanks to Jeff Stephenson and Jerry Pruett.  The Northern Mockingbird is one I have wanted for this county for some time.  Dad also accompanied me on this fast break out of the house before church.  This one felt good even if it was too skittish for photos.

Northern MockingbirdAfter church, the dreaded news came: the Tern had been re-sighted at Salt Lake.  I hemmed and hawed over going back a third time.  This bird had burned me bad.  Finally I gave in.  It is only 1.5 hours away. Dad and I hopped in the car for another chase.  This time I was smart about it, though. ABWCH reader, Tod Eggenberger, had been there all day, left to go home, and turned around once he saw the news. He was 30 miles away.  I asked Tod to keep me in the loop and let me know if this unpredictable, elusive bird were to give people the slip again.  Unfortunately for Tod, he missed it by 5 minutes before the bird vanished again forever.  Fortunately for me, I got the news before I reached the halfway point to Salt Lake.  I decided I would go that far in case there was positive news. There wasn’t. So I turned around at the predetermined spot and cut my losses.  Take that, you stupid Tern!

Two birds in the bush…

…are better than a stupid Le Conte’s Sparrow in the grass.

It has been my mission this summer to mop up on the embarrassing holes in my life list. The source of this embarrassment lies in the fact that these birds live here and can be found here regularly, as in every single year. Other than the fact that some of these birds are skulkers, I really have no decent excuse for why I have not been a diligent birder in this regard.  While I did manage to take care of business with several of these buggers on Tommy D’s latest MN trip and on a failed rarity chase (blog posts to come), I tried to cross another one off the list a couple weeks ago when I was Up North over Memorial Day Weekend.

I was enticed to go after Le Conte’s Sparrow when the Warbler Wednesday crew of the Sax-Zim Bog turned up multiple Le Conte’s Sparrows in the sedge meadows along Stone Lake Road.  The crushing good looks and photos they posted were reason to hit up the Bog at dawn and preempted a search for Great Grays, a species which has been seen with surprising frequency this summer.

As I made my way to the Bog leaving the house around 5ish, I saw a good-looking blob in the middle of the road near my parents’ house. That good-looking blob flew up to a branch with an equally good-looking blob giving me a double dose of Barred Owls.

Barred OwlUnfortunately I did not pause long enough to enjoy these Owls as I was in a hurry to get down to the Le Conte’s spot.  I wanted to get that out of the way and did not want birding to consume much time since we were visiting family.  So I grabbed a couple quick photos of one of the birds in the dim, drippy forest and moved on.

Barred Owl Barred Owl Barred Owl

My hustle was all for naught. Despite a diligent Sparrow search where I walked up and down Stone Lake Road, I could not detect the bird.  Not even a Black-billed Cuckoo calling in the distance or an Alder Flycatcher offering me free beer made things better.  I should have hung out with the Barred Owls.  No beer, but they might have cooked for me.

Scarlet Fever

While the blog has kept a low profile of late, the birding has been raging on.  There have been life birds, year birds, owls, and even an Arizona birder currently staying in my home and beefing up his life list.  There are stories to recap of distant lands, fun people, and cool birds which will, eventually, all be told here in due time. But first I want to do a single species post as I have done from time to time.  Only the best and brightest get this honor on ABWCH, and the bird featured today has been so, so good to me this month. That bird is the Scarlet Tanager, a bird I just don’t get tired of seeing.  I have always yearned to get better and better looks and photos of this bird.

In the last two weeks I have had the pleasure of seeing/hearing not one, but four male Scarlet Tanagers.  The Scarlet is the only Minnesota Tanager that can be found reliably every year while the Summer and Western Tanagers are rare-regular, meaning only one or two of each show up in the state each year.  In a strange twist, I saw both of the rare Tanagers this year and got the most common Tanager last, thereby sealing up the Minnesota Tanager Trifecta (Do I get a special patch for that or something?).  And I have to tell you, the best was saved for last.

Male Scarlet Tanager #1 — Mille Lacs County

On the way home from a Memorial Day weekend Up North, the family and I drove through Mille Lacs Kathio State Park just to check it out.  As we drove down the road, a flash of red dropped onto the pavement right in front of the car.  I was shocked to see the breathtaking and unmistakable Scarlet Tanager.  The bird hopped up to a nearby branch out my window where it just sat giving jaw-dropping views to even the naked eye. I scrambled to dig out my camera. Once the camera was out, I hurriedly took a shot before an impatient motorist behind me passed me. The Tanager was gone, and besides a sinking feeling in my stomach, all I was left with was this:

IMG_8492

I expressed my frustration to the family, and I was gently corrected by my son when he said, “Don’t be frustrated, Dad.  You tried your best.” What a wise, sweet kid.  Evan was right.  Besides, I needed to look at the bright side–I saw this bird really, really well.  Photo redemption would have to come later…

Male Scarlet Tanager #2 — Le Sueur County

It’s true–Tommy D is back in Minnesota for the third time in 2016! We are currently working on his life list and back at work on TOBY.  Tommy and I don’t waste any time.  After picking him up at the airport at 5 AM on Thursday, we made a beeline down to Sakatah Lake State Park to look for a reported Kentucky Warbler.  This would be a huge lifer for both of us and great way to begin Tommy’s trip.  Unfortunately we dipped on the Warbler, but {spoiler alert} I did have the great pleasure of finding and pointing out Tommy’s 500th life bird:

Scarlet TanagerWhat a splashy bird for Tommy’s 500th! I wish I could say the same for {spoiler alert} my 400th. More on that later. And this photo felt good after the flop at Mille Lacs.  We also got to see a female Scarlet Tanager with this male.

Male Scarlet Tanager #3 — Washington County

Tommy and I heard a Scarlet Tanager join the chorus of some awesome life birds at Falls Creek Scientific and Natural Area.  More on those later.

Male Scarlet Tanager #4 — Kandiyohi County

This morning while keeping the birding local with Tommy, we birded the woodland habitat south of Lake Elizabeth.  The bird that stole the show was a male Scarlet Tanager that had returned to his same territory that he occupied last year.  Tommy detected him singing as we walked along the road.  I love its song which is a strep-throat rendition of a Robin’s song.  It did not take long to track him down. This was, by far, my best ever encounter with this bird.  It stole the day bird-wise.

Scarlet TanagerScarlet TanagerScarlet TanagerNothing beats a home remedy.  I think my Scarlet fever is finally cured.

Del Mar

“What’s next?”–that was the ending of my last post. Not even 24 hours after those words were written, I was trying to pick my jaw up off the ground and not even 24 hours after that I was trying to pick it up for the second time. On this busy weekend with a house full of company for Marin’s dance recital, I should not even have been birding especially after I sneaked out for those Whistling-Ducks. And truthfully I’ve been wanting to slow down my birding.  So what happened?

With every good intention, I decided to bring Marin to Robbins Island Park in Willmar on Sunday morning.  It was a beautiful day, company had just left, and she had had a very busy weekend with one performance done and another to come that afternoon.  We were going to the park to have fun.  It wasn’t really about the birds.  I even left my camera at home. Sure, I brought my binoculars along–after all, I was keeping an ear and eye out for my county Black-throated Green Warbler while at the park. Migration is still going on (sort of).  I truly did not care about any other bird at the park.

After playing on what’s left of the playground equipment there, Marin wanted to check out the swimming beach on Foot Lake.  I followed her there unenthusiastically–it’s a gross beach and not very interesting bird-wise. Unless Canada Geese are your thing. A quick flash of wings of a whitish shorebird caught my eye at the far end of the beach. Why not–might as well check it out with the binocs.  There was nothing else to do.  Now I tell you that, truly, there have only been three times where I have pulled up binoculars on a bird that is unidentifiable to the naked eye only to be gobsmacked by what the optics revealed. This was one of those times. The little shorebird was a freaking endangered PIPING PLOVER!

And then it hit me. I have no camera, I HAVE NO CAMERA! I hit the phone hard calling up all the local guys one after another.  Only Steve answered, and I told him to hustle over and bring a camera.  I also called Melissa and had her mobilize to bring me my camera. We had to document this for our county. Marin was a champ and patiently waited as I kept my eye on this bird until “reinforcements” could arrive.  It finally dawned on me that I should grab a crappy cell phone pic just for documentation.

Steve got there in minutes (which felt excruciatingly long) and was able to snap some pics of this bird that was a lifer for him and a state/county first for me. At least we had the documentation wrapped up; now I was antsy for my camera so I could photograph this bird that was not even 20 feet away. Once I placed that call to Melissa I knew my wait would be 20-30 minutes (an eternity it seemed). No worries, Steve and I visited as we enjoyed the sight of the Plover roving up and down the shoreline feeding the whole time.  It was very content. Then Steve uttered some sickening words: “There it goes!” We watched it fly across the park to another part of the lake, unsure of where it went. 30 seconds later Melissa pulled in with my camera…

Steve and I searched for awhile and then decided to hit the beach one last time just in case it returned. And wouldn’t you know, it did!  Forget regular documentation, it was crush time.

Piping PloverPiping PloverPiping PloverNotice anything unusual about this PIPL? Naked legs! Almost every Piping Plover from the Great Lakes and Northern Great Plains populations are banded. The Northern Great Plains and Atlantic Coast populations of PIPL are listed as threatened while the Great Lakes population is listed as endangered. This bird that loves undisturbed, large sandy beach areas is in trouble.  Getting to see one is a big deal.

Piping PloverPiping PloverI still cannot get over this opportunity. I got my Piping Plover lifer last summer on Wisconsin’s Long Island right near Madeline Island in the Chequamegon Bay area of Lake Superior.  I paid a hefty sum of money to charter a boat to get a brief, bobbing, distant look at this special bird. Now I had a lengthy look at one at my feet at home for free. Even better was that other birders were able to come out and enjoy this bird with some even getting their life looks at it.  So, thanks, Mar, for taking me to the beach! It just goes to show that any bird can show up anytime, anywhere. Just when you dismiss a park as being mediocre, it totally surprises you.

Speaking of more surprises, after I dropped the kids off at school on Monday morning I went out to our county’s shorebird spot. While I was scanning for shorebirds, a White-faced Ibis dropped out of the sky and landed right in front of me!  This is a rare bird for our area and one I never expected to get for the county.

White-faced Ibis

White-faced IbisI called Steve, and he was just about to ditch work when it all the sudden decided to fly away, never to be seen again. I guess I was in the right place at the right time.  Steve wasn’t interested in the only other shorebird there, a Stilt Sandpiper.

Stilt Sandpiper

It had been an epic two days of local birding on the heels of a very active vagrant season for me.  I really do want to slow the birding down, but the birds are not making it easy on me. Even when I returned home after the Ibis, I was greeted by the cheerful song of a new yard bird. And it wasn’t just any bird, it was the Chestnut-sided Warbler, the very bird that got me addicted to this hobby in the first place.

Chestnut-sided Warbler

The Year of the Odd Duck

Summer bird searches still are not yet upon us–a good thing since new species seem to be added on a daily basis to this year’s impressive list of vagrants.  With a house full of company for Marin’s dance recital this weekend, I still managed to sneak away this morning (at 4 AM) with Randy Frederickson to nab the pair of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks that showed up in Le Sueur County.

Black-bellied Whistling-DuckThis was a lifer for me and a state bird for Randy.  Technically Evan and I have seen this duck before–we once spotted a pair in a monkey exhibit at the Phoenix Zoo.  However, the docent told us they had their wings clipped and of course did not “count”. That sighting was good enough for Evan but not me.  I did try for some wild ones last year in Rio Rico, AZ but came up empty.  Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks are mostly found in Texas and limited parts of Arizona and Florida but occasionally stray into the Midwest.  It was a nice treat to see them right here at home.

These birds were quite content to gorge themselves in this mucky drainage right by a cow barn and then fly to a nearby lake to loaf for the day.

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck

Black-bellied Whistling-DuckWhile many of the regular migrants have been AWOL or shown up in pathetic numbers, I don’t recall a better spring for figurative and literal odd ducks.  While I have gotten some nifty additions to my life list this spring, the misses have numerous and sometimes painful.  Nevertheless, I’ll enjoy the gifts I get.  What’s next?

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck

Time for Summer

May is always a busy month in this household with all four of us putting the wraps on another school year all while balancing a host of activities, recitals, etc.  And of course, this is coincidentally the peak of migration. It’s quite ironic that when I have the most free time come June, the birding starts to die down and settle into the rhythms of another nesting season.  Actually, though, I’m looking forward to some key searches in those slow summer months.  I have not been too uptight about migration since there are only a handful of migrants I’m looking for.  Vagrants, on the other hand, throw a monkey wrench into everything.  Let’s just say that it’s been a very birdy weekend for ABWCH and none of it has been by design.  Let’s recap it by day:

Thursday

I found myself home from work with a sick Evan.  Marin was okay, so Evan and I dropped her off at school and then took a detour on the way home.  We stopped by one of the area’s many marshes to take in the sights and sounds of the resident marsh birds that have returned: gliding Forester’s Terns, floating American White Pelicans, singing Red-winged Blackbirds, rattling Marsh Wrens, and caterwauling Yellow-headed Blackbirds.

Yellow-headed Blackbird

Moving on to the shorebird spot, I cruised by and saw…nothing. Just as well, I better get my sick kid home. The kid may not have been 100% but his eyes still worked because as I started to drive away he told me he saw an American Avocet!  Somehow I missed it, which is crazy because it was almost right by the road giving us crushing looks.

American AvocetAmerican AvocetI was hoping for lifer Short-billed Dowitchers, but an Avocet is a nice consolation.  Evan and I enjoyed watching this bird for 15 minutes while it chowed down.

It was a fun moment together as we watched and recalled our excitement over our first-ever Avocet a couple years ago.

Friday

Evan was back to normal and back to school.  He even sang at his school’s songfest which I attended and then promptly slipped away afterward.  I had a solid tip from ABWCH reader, Adam Roesch, on a Snowy Egret his friend Matt found about a half hour from me. So I chased this would-be state bird…and dipped. It was a great Egret spot, so this story may be continued…

Saturday

It seems more and more people are into birding than ever and are scouring all kinds of locales and turning up good birds.  Seeing as how it was a weekend during migration, I honestly approached the day with a “I wonder where I’ll be chasing today” mentality.  I didn’t have to wait long.  News came in of a Summer Tanager from Murray County in southwestern Minnesota.  Summer Tanager is rare regular for MN but has eluded my life list so far. Since it was a very cold day with nothing else to do, the fam decided to join me on this chase that would take about 5 hours round-trip.

We arrived at Janet Timmerman’s rural yard that was an oasis for gobs of migrating birds and one lost Tanager.  Trees were crawling with Warblers and Orioles, and the ground was covered with migrant Sparrows: White-throated, Harris’s, and White-crowned.  Thrushes were also everywhere and distracting me from the task at hand.  One of the dozen+ Swainson’s looked a little off…Gray-cheeked!

Gray-cheeked ThrushMy addition of Gray-cheeked Thrush to my life list has always been tainted with doubt–mostly because I never obtained a photo to back up my sighting. While the kids admired the local Chickens and while I was Thrush sorting, I was still keeping an eye out for the main thing.  It was proving harder than I thought, especially since other birders saw it just a minute before I arrived.  Finally I spotted the tie-died wonder, a first year male.  It wasn’t the coveted bright red adult male, but a cool lifer nonetheless. My camera had difficulty focusing on its mottled plumage.

Summer TanagerSummer Tanager

Summer Tanager

After thanking Janet for sharing her bird, we were on the road for the two-hour, uneventful trip home.  We did stop in Marshall to grab a pizza and walk the dog at a park–Marin was pretty excited to see a wedding party.  I kind of figured it was a boring day for the kids.   Apparently our Kindergartner and soon-to-be 1st-Grader thought otherwise as she penned us a note in the back seat:

Marin note

It was a some nice family time and a successful chase. Life could go back to normal the next day…or could it?

Sunday

I woke up wondering if I would be bringing Marin on another adventure.  Sure enough, my phone rang that morning.  It was Ron Erpelding.  The imagination goes crazy when you see that Ron is trying to get ahold of you.  Ron informed me that he had a Pacific Loon in BREEDING PLUMAGE waaaay down in Rock County, the very southwestern corner of the state.  I had just returned from a long-distance chase that direction the day before, but the pros of another chase were winning decisively over the cons.  Pacific Loon is annual in MN, but mostly on Lake Superior in the cold months. The thought of traveling 2.5 hours to see a bird in breeding plumage on a 2-acre pond in the spring was far superior to the alternative of traveling 3.5 hours to Duluth to see a drab bird on the gargantuan Lake Superior in the winter where a) the Loon could easily disappear or b) appear as a speck on the horizon or c) I could freeze to death.  It was a no-brainer.  Chase on.

The family opted not to return to the southwest with me.  I don’t blame them.  As I headed back down the same highway as I did the day before, I wanted to cry when I passed the turn-off for the Tanager spot. If only I could have combined trips! Nevertheless I eventually reached my destination, an old gravel pit filled with water and one very sexy Loon.

Pacific LoonI was not anticipating such a great distance to the bird.  The distance coupled with heat waves emanating from the soil made photography difficult.  The temptation to trespass was real. But those tiny green specks in the soil are brand new corn plants. I did not want to tick off some farmer.  I did ask a couple of neighboring residents about who owned the land and was bummed to find out the owner didn’t even live around this spot.  So, I did the best I possibly could given the circumstances.

Pacific LoonPacific LoonDespite the distance, this was a thrilling bird to see.  It is a life bird I always imagined getting as a speck on Lake Superior and being nothing more than a check mark on my life list. I had another fun find while seeing the Loon: Janet Timmerman whose yard I was just in the day before. We shared a laugh over the double chase and enjoyed the Loon together for a bit.

After watching the Loon, I popped into neighboring Blue Mounds State Park two miles to the west to try for a reported Northern Mockingbird.  I see Mockingbirds annually in Arizona, but I still needed the rare-regular for my Minnesota list.  The bird had been hanging out by the ranger station at the campground.  It took me a half a minute to find it. Good thing too–I was already pushing it for time in order to be home for kids’ bedtimes.

Northern Mockingbird

Northern Mockingbird

Rock County redeemed itself from that awful, miserable Least Tern chase a couple years ago.  It was a sweet 2-for-1 grab this time.  The good times kept rolling, too, when I spied a rare-for-this-area Swainson’s Hawk fly over the highway halfway home.

Swainson's Hawk

Monday (today)

Before I departed for the Pacific Loon chase on Sunday, I promised Melissa I would stay home on Monday, a scheduled day off work.  This act on my part is almost certainly the reason a Little Blue Heron showed up in Duluth today. Doh! I did, however, sneak out for a bit after the kids went to bed and finally claimed Short-billed Dowitcher for my life list.  Joel had seen some Dowitchers at the shorebird spot in our county but couldn’t ID them.  I was able to see them fly away and hear the soft tu-tu-tu calls, clinching the ID.

Short-billed Dowitcher

What’s next?

With the Dowitcher locked up, I’m waiting around and hoping for one other migrant for an inconsequential add to my county list. But afterward, we’ve got some fun summer searches ahead.  In the meantime, maybe some other fun stuff will show up.

Slippin’ on Down to the Oasis

It was back-to-back weekends in North Dakota for ABWCH, though this latter visit was not about nabbing some bird on my wishlist.  Rather, it was about Melissa crossing off an item on the much more important bucket list–seeing Garth Brooks perform in Fargo. The old guy is alright in my book too, so despite the fact that several really good state birds for me were popping up left and right, I wasn’t perturbed about leaving home and was even kind of looking forward to this non-birding trip.  But then while hanging with Fargo friends, John and Sarah, before the concert, things took a turn in the bird anxiety department… Joel Schmidt called.  I didn’t even want to pick it up. But like the cat, curiosity got the best of me: Cattle Egret. State birds always offer up new chances, but a county bird like this?

Then during the concert came the one-two from Steve: a pic of his new county bird and the discovery of some would-be lifer Short-billed Dowitchers. My concert beer was not chasing the blues away; maybe I should’ve also tried the whiskey drowning approach.

Despite my woes, the night was still highly enjoyable and optimism for the next day was winning.  Perhaps these birds would be waiting for me back home. Perhaps I’d get my state Say’s Phoebe at Felton Prairie IBA on the way home. As I was mulling this over while going on a Starbucks run this morning, I noticed a Scheels sporting goods store and recalled some eBird reports I had studied awhile back: Gray Partridge inhabiting a vacant lot nearby. Since I was in the area I thought, ‘Why not?’  But ambitious I was not–driving around the perimeter of the lot would have to suffice.  This lot was a sea of green in the concrete, retail jungle.  There was a large, brushy mound in the center of the grassy plot, a rather perfect home for this species that likes thin cover.

Scheels lot

And sure enough, I spied two bulbous bodies out in the open! I couldn’t believe I was getting an opportunity to view and photograph Gray Partridge.  I honestly thought this would never, ever happen.  Stoked doesn’t even begin to describe what I was feeling.

Gray Partridge

The pair was inseparable.  I could not believe I was witnessing this.  I’ve only ever seen this bird flushing away from me or dead in the hand.  This was simply incredible.

Gray PartridgeGray PartridgeGray Partridge

Despite its name, this is by no means a dull-looking bird. The male is simply brilliant.

Gray Partridge

Gray PartridgeEventually I had to pry myself away from these birds to complete that coffee/breakfast errand I was on.   But afterward, I swung by the lot one more time and the birds were now in crushing distance from the road!  Moreover, the male stood up on his haunches and showed off that impressive rusty belly of his.

Gray PartridgeGray PartridgeI may have only been 900 feet above sea level, but my head was in the clouds.  This is an opportunity I will likely never replicate again.  The goings-on back home were but a distant thought. Oh, I’ll be okay.

The Call of the West

Several weeks ago the kids and I mulled over what we should do when some of Melissa’s work duties would require her to be absent most of this past weekend.  With warm weather at the time, I promised (stupid, I know) to take the kids camping. Frigid temps of late caused me to start thinking of a much more palatable and comfortable Plan B. Easy: move the camping to indoors, a.k.a. stay at a hotel.  My kids love hotels.  It would be an easy sell. The beauty of this plan is that it does not matter to them where a hotel is.  Birders know where I am going with this–might as well get a hotel next to a cool bird or two, right?! But where?

Vagrants have been few and far between or already seen; resident birds are just returning. Honestly there weren’t a lot of options on the table. One idea was to head to the Twin Cities to try for Henslow’s Sparrow and Louisiana Waterthrush lifers. Another option was to head to the northwest to Grand Forks, North Dakota to check out the Short-eared Owl scene.  The SEOW was not a lifer, but this option just had a lot of appeal in the fun department.  Meanwhile a third option presented itself in the non-lifer department as a stunning breeding plumage male Surf Scoter and his mate showed up in Duluth.  This last option was leading; all the Scoter species are annual in small numbers in Minnesota but we hardly ever get the mature, good-looking ones.  I was wracked with indecision. I could potentially head in three very different directions on the map. Even though we were set to depart Saturday morning, I still was having trouble pulling the trigger on anything even as the kids’ bedtimes loomed on Friday.

I paced and scratched my head. Then the phone rang. It was local birding friend Joel Schmidt (Willet guy). This is migration season–that phone call may just as well have been the President.

“Josh, I have a Western Tanager in my yard.”

😮

This was one decision that required no thinking, just reaction.  I practically hung up on Joel while simultaneously herding the kids to the car for the 25-minute trip. We got there with plenty of daylight left and enjoyed a glorious county bird with Joel and his wife Amanda.

Western Tanager

Western TanagerOnly one or two WETAs show up in MN every year; lucky us that it was our turn to host. Here my two-hour one-way chase to add this state bird last year was for nought.  What a spectacular rarity and a beauty on top of that. This was a bird I yearned to see in the montane forests of Colorado two years ago (and eventually did); now luck dropped one on the doorstep, almost literally for Joel.Western TanagerSteve Gardner also came out to enjoy the Tanager.  As we discussed my travel dilemmas for the next day, Steve advised me to go the Scoter route. Settled.  Seeing a vivid, bright male bird made me want to see another. The best part was that I could ask some Duluth friends to check on the Scoter in the morning to even see if that was still a viable option come travel time.

Birding friend Clinton Nienhaus was planning to check the duck scene on Lake Superior by 9 AM. I had made the decision that the Twin Cities option was completely out; if the Scoter didn’t show, we’d go to Grand Forks. Not hearing anything from Clinton right away,  the kids and I got in the car and started driving north anyway.  We still didn’t know if we would end up in the Northwest or the Northeast. About ten minutes into our journey, we got the report from Clinton: no duck. Our direction was now crystal clear:

Evan Marin North Dakota

I made a detour around Rothsay, the self-proclaimed “Prairie Chicken Capital of Minnesota,” to try to dig up that bird for Evan’s life list. It was the wrong time of day for Greater Prairie-Chickens, but we did manage to see our first Marbled Godwits in two years.  Prairie birds are so cool.

Marbled Godwit

Seeing as how I hastily decided a destination that morning, I didn’t have a chance to do my due diligence in hotel scouting for Grand Forks.  We’d have to do things the old fashioned way–walk into various places and check rates. Turns out Priceline’s got nothin’ on the “cute kid discount” thanks to North Dakota kindness manifested by a grandmotherly hotel manager.

Being in North Dakota felt right. I love the West and its birds.  Maybe that’s because I’m from the West. Or maybe, those western birds, like the Tanager, remind me of all the  remoteness and the beauty of big country. I know, it’s just Grand Forks, but it’s still a window into the wilds of the West.  And that’s what I was hoping to catch a glimpse of that evening.  While the kids played in the hotel pool that afternoon, I finalized arrangements for the kids and I to go Short-ear Owling with Sandy Aubol. With one foot in the North Dakota birding world and the other in Minnesota, Sandy is a well-respected birder on either side of the line who knows how to get the good birds. No one knows Short-ears better than she does; we were in good hands.

Minutes after we met Sandy and she hopped into the van with the kids, dog, and myself, we were already on the hunt for Short-ears, driving the remote grassland country around GF.  Perhaps we got too early of a start because the toast wasn’t popping up for us.  It’s always nice to see Sharp-tailed Grouse though.  This male was even putting on a bit of a late night show for the ladies.

Sharp-tailed Grouse

Sandy was frustrated that we weren’t seeing any Owls after nearly a half hour or more of searching. Truthfully I was okay with getting skunked; the kids and I were on an adventure and having fun.  However, Sandy knew I wanted to get redemptive looks at a Short-eared Owl and possibly even a photograph.  Her ceaseless scanning finally paid off when she spotted the floppy, erratic flight of a Short-eared Owl. And wouldn’t you know, it perched up on the side of the road!

Short-eared OwlThese birds don’t seem to perch for long (or at all). Rather shortly this one took to the air.  It was amazing how fast and how much ground it can cover and how unpredictable its flight path is. Amazingly this Owl came back for another, much closer roadside perch:

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl

For previously only seeing this bird in a snowstorm at dusk at a distance, I was beyond tickled with this chance to view and photograph a perched bird especially when perches don’t last long:

Short-eared Owl

Sandy was not completely satisfied with the photo op or just seeing one Owl.  As a host, she wanted to show just how awesome this land could be. Having been in that position myself, I understood that feeling but was still very satisfied with the night already. Needless to say, we kept on Owling.  We ended up rendezvousing with Jeff Grotte, Tony Lau, and Russ Myrman who were in the area and came to look for Short-ears too. Maybe it was luck from Sandy’s lucky Owl charm or maybe it was from having Jeff, the Owl Whisperer, around, but the toast started popping up.  We couldn’t butter it fast enough. Sandy would spot one and get me on it, then have a couple more picked out.  It was crazy.  Sandy said it best when she said it can quickly change from nothing to everything with this bird.  The frustrating thing is that activity increases as daylight rapidly decreases.  Flight shots are about all one can hope for at this time of night.  If you do see one perched, it usually goes like this:

Short-eared OwlBut enjoying the hunting behavior of this Owl in this habitat is half the fun.

Short-eared OwlIt was really tough to keep track of the numbers of Short-ears we were seeing as they cover so much ground so quickly.  I conservatively eBirded 7 of them. It was a lot of fun to witness the Short-eared phenomenon in action.  Sandy was spotting all the birds, and I was hoping to get in on the fun and pick one out myself.  Eventually it happened.

Short-eared OwlAnd then it happened again as I flushed one from the side of the road in my headlights on  our way back to Grand Forks. I’m glad I didn’t hit it!

Experiences like this only whet the appetite for more.  I will definitely be back someday to go after these cool birds again.  It may not be a new bird or boost any list, but who cares.  This was fun, plain and simple, and that’s what birding should be.  Thanks, Sandy, for a great outing!