Something Better in Mind

Even while I was experiencing the thrill of owling in Madera Canyon, a cloud hung over my head and dampened the birding mood a tad. That cloud was coming from back home in Minnesota.  Minnesota is good at making clouds.  Not long after I arrived in Arizona, news broke of a Red Phalarope, the second in as many weeks in Minnesota.  A bit of indecision on the first caused me to miss that one, but this second one I was completely helpless to do anything about being over a thousand miles away. Red Phalaropes don’t come around too often; there’s only been like 20 ever in the state. Besides the rarity of it, though, this thing decides to show up in the Cook sewage ponds and was discovered by my birding friend, Julie Grahn.  Cook is the town I graduated high school from. In fact, my father-in-law manages those ponds and even saw this bird…as did about 50 other birders.  Unbelievable.  A mega bird party was raging in the hometown and I was MIA.

The clouds kept billowing, though. Not long after the Red Phalarope was announced, news came of a Brant–A BRANT–in Two Harbors.  This was the first Brant that has shown up in the state since I became a birder.  Two Harbors and Cook are less than two hours apart. My email and FB were bombarded with ecstatic messages of people going to get the Brant and then simply hopping over to Cook to pick up the Phalarope too. Both birds were super mellow and cooperative for photos, something which didn’t exactly part the clouds. Meanwhile in Arizona, I was like, ‘Yay, a Brewer’s Sparrow!” Don’t get me wrong, I had a great time with great friends in Arizona but the megas couldn’t have come at a worse time.

As days went by with both birds still being reported, I was holding out hope that these lifers would stick for when I got home.  We were to fly home on a Sunday, and I had Monday, October 24th off. Getting the birds would mean putting in 11 hours of just driving, not to mention time to search and hastily enjoy the birds.  Everything would have to go perfectly, and it would still be utterly exhausting.  It didn’t sound fun. I didn’t really want to chase. But I know myself.  I would have gone. Those birds were just too compelling. Even when the birds were still being seen on Saturday, I honestly prayed they would just leave. It would just make life so much easier.

Sunday came and we hustled to the airport. As we waited to board, I checked all my reporting outlets for the latest news. Silence. Well, I figured that while my phone was off and I was cruising 35,000 feet above the birding world, something would shake loose and there would be news when I landed. Again, nothing.  Finally, toward late in the afternoon, word was slowly seeping out that people had been looking unsuccessfully all day for both birds. It appeared the fun was officially over. I missed it completely.

In a sense I was relieved.  I didn’t want to make that insane trip anyway. Tommy and Gordon both knew my angst while we were birding together in Arizona and expressed their condolences.  With a now freed up day off on that Monday, I sent Tommy a message that said something to the effect of me having to find my own rarity and create my own fun for the day.  Little did I know how prophetic my words would be.

Before we get to that, let’s rewind to pre-Arizona.  I had been pouring my birding efforts into finding a Surf Scoter in Kandiyohi County which had no record of that species before.  At first glance it might seem like a waste of time to go after something so fervently when no one had ever found such a thing (not even in Ron Erpelding’s 40+ years of birding the county), but probability was suggesting otherwise.  Let me explain. Surf Scoters pop up all the time in fall migration around the state.  Kandiyohi County has lakes galore.  So why couldn’t we have one? That was the question that pushed me out the door during the Surf Scoter migration window to check lake after lake after lake day after day after day.  It was tiring, honestly.  Show up at a lakeshore, scan, repeat.  The result never changed. I was looking for a needle in a haystack; I was trying to find Waldo. It was discouraging to say the least.

Redhead CootsBack to that Monday off, I was doing my lake scanning thing and sinking into a birding funk when I was getting the same dismal results.  Except this time it was aggravated by thoughts of those two birds I missed. Anyway, I photographed a duck on Big Kandiyohi Lake that was a long distance off.  My blurry photo revealed a shape similar to a Surf Scoter.  I passed it on to Randy, and he thought it was good enough to warrant a trip out there himself to take a look.  So Randy and I met up at Big Kandi, and we used his high powered scope and found…nothing. Randy asked what we should do next.  I suggested that Lake Lillian was close by and worth a look.  Not feeling the greatest, Randy declined and sent his scope with me.

I continued to poke around Big Kandi and had only left myself about 20 minutes to check Lake Lillian before I had to leave to go pick up my kids from school.  I was going to burn that time at the Lake Lillian sewage ponds, but I saw something there as I drove up that I had never seen before–someone else walking around the ponds with dogs! That caused me to turn around immediately.  I now had about 15 minutes to check Lake Lillian by driving along the eastern shore. Hundreds of ducks were right close to the shore which is unusual.  So I would stop, scan, drive, stop, scan, and so on.  More of the same. More sighs. I got to the very northeast corner of the lake, just before it disappeared from sight and saw a handful of ducks. By this time I literally had a minute to look.  I was pushing it.  But holy moly, two dark, bulky ducks started paddling away from shore and I could instantly see with my naked eyes that they were Scoters!! But which ones? I already had White-winged Scoter for the county.  I couldn’t get my binoculars up fast enough, fumbling them while I tried. But once they were up, the bins revealed what I had been searching for so hard, two Surf Scoters! What a moment that was. But, oh crap, kids! I snapped some quick, horrid doc shots for proof (my hands were shaking pretty good at this point) and tore out of there.

Surf ScoterSurf ScoterThe phone calls to other birders began in earnest as I was making my way to the kids’ school, officially well behind schedule.  Eyes were now trained to look for Kandiyohi County Sheriff squad cars instead of birds. Once Randy Frederickson realized I wasn’t lying to him on the phone, the expletives came easy and a coherent plan for him getting down there did not.  Remember, I had his scope, and I had to get my kids.  There wasn’t time to meet up to exchange the scope.  It was a mess, but a good mess. Steve Gardner, the 20-year Army vet, was able to act cool under the pressure and hatched a plan to pick up Randy and get down there quickly with Steve’s scope.  Once I got the kids from school and coordinated a drop-off with Melissa, I raced back to Lake Lillian with Randy’s scope.  I figured it was a moot point now, thinking the guys had the birds.  But they weren’t finding them, and Ron Erpelding was also there looking with his scope.  Finally, after nearly three hours of searching, the three of them found the Scoters and added a very long awaited county bird.  For Steve it had the bonus of being a life bird.

Many others came for the Scoters as well and were successful.  I got down there a second time a few days later and was able to enjoy the pair in a more relaxed fashion. Scoters are bulky ducks that really stand out.

Surf Scoter

Surf ScoterSurf ScoterSurf ScoterAbout a month later, Randy found a Surf Scoter on a different part of Lake Lillian.  Whether it is one of these two is anybody’s guess, but this bird was much more cooperative hanging out just 50 feet off shore.  In fact, I just saw it this morning–same exact spot.

Surf Scoter

Surf ScoterOctober 24th ended up being a day better than I could have imagined. Rare bird chases for things like the Red Phalarope or Brant are fun, but they are quickly forgotten.  It seems the most memorable chases are the most heart-wrenching misses.  While I have enjoyed and loathed many chases, nothing beats finding your own rarity. And finding a rarity when you’ve been searching for it all along beats one that is found by serendipity. But enough pontificating. Kandiyohi County has never had a Black Scoter–back to work I go.

Arizona 2016: THE Trip Bird–#16 Becomes #1

Since my parents have become AZ snowbirds, our family has now made four trips to Arizona.  Each trip has had its own life bird goals or priorities.  Each time the target bird(s) have been realized along with a generous complement of bonus lifers.  Here’s a quick recap of those priority birds:

2014: Burrowing Owl, Vermilion Flycatcher, Cinnamon Teal

2015 (spring): Elegant Trogon and Painted Redstart

2015 (fall): Rufous-capped Warbler

So then what was the trip bird for this most recent Arizona adventure? It was an Owl, but before I tell you which one, it is worth noting that each Arizona trip has already produced multiple Owl lifers:

2014: Burrowing Owl, Long-eared Owl

2015 (spring): Elf Owl, Western Screech-Owl

2015 (fall): Northern Pygmy-Owl, Barn Owl, Spotted Owl

So what’s left in the Owl department? A few actually, but the only one I was after on this latest trip was the Whiskered Screech-Owl. It would be this trip’s most-wanted bird.

It is no coincidence that my Owl collecting started accelerating after I first met and birded with Tommy DeBardeleben in 2015.  Tommy of Tommy’s Owl Big Year (TOBY) fame is the reason why I have a pretty sweet collection of Owls.  Just like how you can never leave Grandma’s house hungry, Tommy has made sure I’ve never left Arizona feeling an Owl void.  No, he has made sure I have always gotten a good helping of a fresh Owl or two or three.  This past year our roles were reversed as I got to help Tommy find some Owls in Minnesota for TOBY, but now it was back to Tommy taking the lead once again in the storied Madera Canyon as we pursued my 16th Owl lifer.

img_0797

On the evening of October 19th, Dad and I drove out from our hotel in Green Valley to Madera Canyon to meet Tommy who was accompanied by another good birding friend, Gordon Karre.  Gordon, Tommy, and I have owled together many times all the way from the Canadian border down to the Mexican border. We’ve driven hundreds of miles together (3.6 of those were even in reverse!). We have logged an extraordinary number of Owls together from well over a dozen different species.  And here we were doing it once again.

As we waited for darkness to settle over Madera, we hung out for a bit at the feeders at Santa Rita Lodge, watching some Magnificent Hummingbirds and chatting with a birding couple from Tennessee.  With plenty of time to kill, we also successfully pursued a Rufous-winged Sparrow lifer.  Finally, though, complete darkness had fallen and it was time to go to work.  Tommy had assured me that Whiskered Screech-Owls are easy in Madera, but there was one catch: Tommy had only ever tried for them in the spring when Owls are more vocal.  Going after these birds in October was uncharted territory for Tommy. Yet, he was confident that even if the Owls were silent, we might be able to rouse them with some playback.

It turns out that the Owls were still fairly vocal.  Almost immediately when it turned dark, we started hearing some in the distance. But as we would pursue them, they would clam up.  Then the silence would hang on, which initiated the doubt-worry cycle about whether the night would be a success.  Tommy was unfazed, though, and has a lot of experience to draw from.  He owled on and kept the flashlight moving even when it seemed bleak.  Turns out the worry in my head was for nothing because shortly after we walked in the direction of a vocalizing Whiskered Screech-Owl, one landed in a tree right near us! But it must have been hunting and wouldn’t look at us…

img_0369As we crept along the canyon hillside to get in a better position to see the Owl’s face, it suddenly flew off! We could not find it again.  The satisfaction of getting the lifer was muted by the Owl showing us his bad side and only briefly at that. Would this be my lifer sighting–the side view of a bird?  The discouragement was returning the longer we weren’t finding it.  Again, Tommy never panicked or wavered; he just kept that flashlight moving. And then I heard him say those awesome words that I have heard him say so many times before, “Hey, Josh!”

Whiskered Screech-OwlThis, this is what I had been waiting/hoping for.  Tommy did it.

Whiskered Screech-OwlThis Owl was very cooperative (finally) and just let us enjoy the show.Whiskered Screech-OwlWhiskered Screech-OwlMaybe I had it backwards. Maybe it was the Owl who was enjoying the show of four happy birders who had just succeeded on their mission.

Eventually the Owl started to tire of us, perhaps even getting downright annoyed/angry with us.

Whiskered Screech-OwlWhiskered Screech-Owl

It was time to leave this Owl alone. We had gotten our fill.  So with one last look, we were on our way.

Whiskered Screech-OwlAt this point Dad went back to the car on account of a knee that was giving him fits. Gordon, Tommy, and I decided we would try for more Whiskered Screeches.  Why not?

As the three of us walked along, we heard a strange vocalization that Tommy couldn’t identify.  Earlier my dad had heard the same thing and thought it was a Whiskered Screech, but Tommy had said he hadn’t heard them make a sound like that. Eventually Tommy tracked down the source of the sound–a young Whiskered Screech high above us!

Whiskered Screech-OwlHearing this vocalization was an exciting learning experience for Tommy.  It wasn’t as cool as the Morse-code calling we heard the adult make earlier, but it was still pretty neat regardless. Have a listen for yourself:

Finally it was time to call it a night and call it a trip (birdwise, that is). Once again, the Arizona birding was a huge success with Owl lifer #16 officially on the books all thanks to this guy.

Tommy Dad GordonTwo Owl lifers remain for me in Arizona. The question is not whether Tommy can help find them, but rather, will it happen in 2017? Time will tell.

Arizona 2016: Lifers Minus 1

The reaction in our household to the snowpocalypse heading our way tonight is mixed. The kids and non-shoveling adults are excited.  I am in denial and thinking back on warm, sunny days in Arizona to cope.  Just like the warm, snow-less fall was fun while it lasted, so too were the AZ trips of two dozen+ lifers.  In both accounts, those days are long gone. While the state still holds a hefty amount of lifering potential for me, the hunt for new birds in the state is becoming more challenging.  I had modestly hoped for about a dozen new birds on this trip but fell far short of that: 7. This post will highlight 6 of those lifers. The 7th was the main target bird of the trip and will get its own post.

The very first morning after we arrived in AZ, my dad and I drove up to Gilbert in the predawn to join forces with Tommy DeBardeleben and Gordon Karre to look for a couple lifers.  One of the oddest targets I’ve had in Arizona was an out-of-place Tricolored Heron that had become a regular at the Gilbert Water Ranch.  The other target bird for the morning was a Black Vulture.  We met Tommy and Gordon at the Gilbert Water Ranch where Tommy devised a plan in which he would scour the 7 ponds at GWR for the slippery Heron while Gordon would take us over to Mesa where the Black Vultures roost.  The Vultures roost on power poles along a street bordering Leisure World, a gated retirement community where only people over the age of 55 can enter.  Oddly, or not so oddly, this is really the only reliable place in the Phoenix area to get this Vulture. Whether it’s the beckoning sun or the knowledge that Leisure World didn’t produce the previous night, the Vultures take flight not long after sunrise.  Gordon had been scouting for us and knew we had to be there on time in order to see them.  It pays to have a good guide because he was absolutely right.

Black Vulture

We spent quite a bit of time watching several of these birds and their Turkey counterparts, hoping for more sunlight and a chance to see their distinct underwing pattern in flight.  But they just sat and sat…

Black VultureEventually they did lift off allowing us to see the white “hands” of the underwing, but I wasn’t able to capture a photo of it.  Later in the trip, though, I spied a small kettle of this new-to-me Vulture and was able to photograph them in flight.

Black VultureWhile I was Vulture-hunting with Dad and Gordon, Tommy called saying he had located the Tricolored Heron.  So we headed over.  Unfortunately it was distant and horribly back-lit and not providing the shocking, up-close looks a lot of birders have gotten of it recently.  Tommy and I spent a lot of time trying to find a way to get closer to the bird but we were striking out.  On our way out of GWR, we spotted it flying to a better location and I was able to get some photos.

Tricolored HeronAfter this brief morning outing with the main objective birds secured, we parted company with Tommy and Gordon–we would all later be meeting up that evening in Madera Canyon in southern Arizona to go after the #1 bird of the trip.  Once the family was all settled in our Green Valley hotel, Dad and I headed out once again to meet Tommy and Gordon at the Santa Rita Lodge.  After watching a couple Magnificent Hummingbirds on the feeders, we decided to use the last half hour of daylight to try for one more lifer, a Rufous-winged Sparrow.  Tommy knew just where to go, and he did not disappoint.

Rufous-winged Sparrow

The next lifer of the trip took place on that dark night in Madera. More on that later, but the next morning we were on the hunt for lifers again, taking the De Anza Trail near Tubac.  As was mentioned in the last post, several good non-lifers were had.  The lifering was a bit slower than expected, but we eeked out a couple. First one was the Pyrrhuloxia.  Now for my Minnesota friends who may not have a clue how to say that bird’s name, it is pronounced, “Purr-lux-ia”.  Even though I was hoping to see a male, it was still rewarding to at least see a female of the species.

PyrrhuloxiaThe only other lifer on this walk was a Gray Flycatcher that Tommy detected.  I continue to be amazed by how much I find myself liking Empids.

Gray FlycatcherFinally, the last lifer is one I picked up in the desert scrub around the hotel.  Lifering around the parking lot while waiting for the family has become sort of a tradition now.  While last year I picked up Rock Wren and Cassin’s Kingbird lifers at the hotel, this year I found a cheerful little flock of Brewer’s Sparrows.

Brewer's SparrowI’m saving the best for last and putting it in a post all on its own.  Nightbirding usually means one thing: Owls.  Coming up is a multimedia post of our successful night. Stay tuned!

Arizona 2016: An Oasis of Non-Lifers and Fan Favorites

After the week we’ve all had, there are few safe harbors of respite remaining on the internet. Social media is a minefield; regular media of any flavor is only trusted by half the people. It’s a dark world, so let’s make it a little brighter with some pics of some rad birds from this year’s Arizona expedition. You know who doesn’t give a *#&% about elections? Burrowing Owls.  Let’s be more like them.

Burrowing OwlBurrowing OwlThere is a pair of Burrowing Owls within a mile of my parents’ place that I usually visit, but this year I didn’t find them as easily in the past.  I did eventually see one which brought me relief; I hadn’t seen them the first few times I checked this year.  Normally they are always out. To get my Burrower fix this year, I had to find some brand new ones which is always fun.  This pair was found on school property in Maricopa.  How cool would it be to have Burrowing Owls at your school?

Burrowing OwlAnother new Burrowing Owl I found this trip was only 100 yards from my parents’ backyard fence–I was pretty pumped to find this one.

Burrowing OwlBurrowing Owls aren’t the only birds I enjoy re-seeing on our annual AZ trip. Vermilion Flycatcher is another.  Every year I’m finding more and more around my parents’ neighborhood. Fun fact: Vermilion Flycatchers look just as amazing after November 8th as they did before.

Vermilion FlycatcherVermilion FlycatcherI did get to do some birding beyond my parents’ neighborhood and city.  I had the pleasure of once again meeting up with good friends, Tommy DeBardeleben and Gordon Karre for some intense birding outings in southeastern AZ.  We’ll save the really juicy lifer stuff for the next two posts, but there was plenty of non-lifer goodness as well, like a Green-tailed Towhee seen along the De Anza Trail near Tubac.  Previously I had only seen an extremely back-lit one in Colorado.

Green-tailed TowheeIn many ways, this was a photo redemption trip of many birds. This Lazuli Bunting was another nice find on the De Anza Trail.  The only other sighting I had was a fleeting glimpse at a lifer in MN.  Here I got to see the front AND back of this looker.

Lazuli BuntingLazuli BuntingBlack Phoebe is another of which I only had marginal photos before this trip.

Black PhoebeAnd Greater Roadrunners…we got skunked on this bird our very first AZ trip.  This bird below might have even let me pet it.  It actually walked toward me when I was only 10 feet away.

Greater RoadrunnerNow this next bird is one that I have better photos of, but c’mon, it’s a Black-throated Sparrow and needs to be included in this post regardless.

Black-throated SparrowAnd finally, the best photo redemption of all was of the only Owl Iifer I had never photographed.  Last year we saw a Barn Owl, but it flushed from its roost before I could get a photo.  It was a major letdown that I wanted to fix on this trip.  This time I was able to get a few shots before it flushed.

Barn OwlThen Tommy and I found it after it flushed and got some more shots of this cool bird.

Barn OwlNext post will be all lifers.  With three more posts (two AZ), there is much to look forward to!

Celebrating Birth Month

Five years ago Melissa and I lost our friend, Jen, to cancer. One thing that can be said of Jen was that she knew how to live life–she loved people and loved having a good time.  Jen always brought joy, laughter, and a special flare to every gathering she was a part of. Jen introduced us to a concept we had never heard of before–birth month. Yep, she celebrated her birthday for an entire month by indulging fancies and whims with her friends and family for 30 days instead of just the one day. That’s just who she was.  It turns out that Jen and I shared the same birth month (September), yet here I had been robbing myself of 29 days of celebration for 30+ years.  It was time for me to make up for lost time, so this birth month I indulged myself by going on two special life bird chases with a couple of good friends.  So by my count, I still sold myself short by 28 days. Sigh…maybe next year I’ll get it right.

The first chase was on September 6th.  News broke that day of a juvenile Sabine’s Gull at the Albany sewage ponds.  This was less than an hour’s drive from home.  So after work, Steve Gardner and I made the chase on a beautiful early fall day to get this lifer. The bird was quite accommodating, swimming right up to us.  Unfortunately Steve and I never got to see it fly and see the distinctive wing pattern despite waiting on it for 45 minutes.

Sabine's GullSabine's GullSabine’s Gulls are a rare but expected species throughout the Minnesota during September.  What wasn’t expected was a bird that turned up two weeks later in Carver County–a first state record Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, a bird from Siberia.  They mostly show up in Alaska but are also seen occasionally in the lower 48 along the west coast.  This find by Pete Hoeger and Bob Williams was absolutely remarkable. Consequently, Randy Frederickson and I chased this bird together after work on September 21st.  The hordes were out in full force for this mega.  Initially when we arrived, we and the 20 other people there couldn’t find it even though it had been spotted 10 minutes before we showed up.  After a good 20 minutes filled with much internal panic everywhere, one of the birders got us on the bird.  The wind, distance, and similar looking juvenile Pectoral Sandpipers made spotting and re-spotting the bird a tough task.  Photography was a nightmare; I would have to settle for diagnostic photos in these conditions.  But considering I never thought I would ever, ever see this bird in my life, I’m not complaining.

Sharp-tailed Sandpiper

Sharp-tailed SandpiperBy birding standards I’ve actually been celebrating Birth Quarter instead of just Birth Month.  The great birds have continued long past September.  I’ve been to Arizona and back already, so there will be more stories of lifering and night-owling with the famous Tommy DeBardeleben of TOBY fame. There have also been good birds back home, including a new county record that I found. Lots of excitement coming at you on the blog in due time…

Savoring a Lifer, the Last of its Kind

It is no coincidence that this blog has gone silent during the month of September as the entire family is in the throes of another school year beginning with all its extra-curricular chaos.  We are busy. But. There has still been some good birding squeezed, packed, even shoe-horned into the narrow margins of life.  Shockingly, there have been multiple new county birds and multiple life birds added. It’s actually been a really solid month for birding.  Instead of showing blurry pics of some new county tics or detailing some chases I’ve been on, I am going to tell the story of a lifer experience that I will likely never have again.  The bird is the Le Conte’s Sparrow.

First, though, a brief history: Le Conte’s Sparrows breed in the northern half of Minnesota but are only ever seen in my county in central Minnesota during migration.  The time to look is late September to early October.  While it is a very uncommon species, it is an expected species every fall in my county in the right habitat. Inevitably, though, I am busy with other things this time of year and can never seem to make it out to one of the numerous grasslands in my area to look.  Two years ago, Steve Gardner and Joel Schmidt invited me to look with them one day after school at Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center.  I passed. Sure enough, Steve and Joel lifered on Le Conte’s on their first attempt that afternoon.  As time passed I would forget about Le Conte’s.  As more and more birds have been crossed off the listed of wanted birds, though, Le Conte’s has started rising to the forefront of my desired birds.  Last summer I tried to relocate several Le Conte’s Sparrows on breeding territories in the Sax-Zim Bog but was unsuccessful. That was my only previous attempt to see a Le Conte’s Sparrow.

Fast forward to this fall, and I was determined to make every effort to look for this species in my home county during migration. Getting a lifer in the county is indeed a rare event and therefore quite exciting.  This species is the last “easy” lifer I can get at home.  The more I thought about it, the more excited I became to get this one at home rather than in northern Minnesota. So on Friday I made my first attempt with Steve Gardner, Randy Frederickson, and Jeff Weitzel. The after-work search was short-lived and unsuccessful as raging mosquitoes drove us all to the brink of insanity. On Saturday morning I tried a WMA close to my home.  While there were gobs of migrating Sparrows of a half dozen different species, I didn’t find the one I wanted and had to quit early to go camping with Evan and his Cub Scout pack.

That next day on the way home from the camp-out, Evan and I stopped at the same WMA which is a mix of prairie and cattail slough habitats.  It was an absolutely perfect October day: temps in the 70s with a clear blue sky, golden-brown corn fields and prairie grasses, cattails that are still bright green, all accented by the mesmerizing palette of oranges, yellows, maroons, and reds of shrubs and trees on the prairie. It was a good day to be outside, even for Salamanders.Evan salamanderEvan was quite pleased to get his lifer Tiger Salamander. The Le Conte’s was just not a big deal to him.  In fact, when I noticed a promising-looking patch of prairie that butted up to a cattail slough, he declined to walk it with me, opting instead to stand in one spot observing, whittling, etc.  It was on this solo walk-about where the magical moment finally happened: I flushed a Sparrow from the prairie hillside toward the cattail slough in front of me.  I advanced, somewhat hopeful, and stopped about 15 feet short of where it landed. I gave a little pish, and a yellowish bird popped up to investigate.  I knew what it was before I even pulled up the binoculars.  Then, with the sun at my back, I looked through the binoculars and finally saw this striking lifer.  What a thrill–and to experience it so close to home made it even better.  Not only did I finally get this lifer, but a little more pishing allowed me to get some photographs before it disappeared into the cattails forever.

Le Conte's SparrowLe Conte's SparrowAnd with that I met back up with Evan and went home. It was perfect.  Finding the last regular lifer I can possibly get in the county on such a beautiful day was bittersweet.  I don’t know how many more lifers, if any, I will get in the county, but it doesn’t matter.  This was a day to remember.

You Gotta Play Ball to Lifer in Kansas City

If you are a birder who yearns to go on an out-of-state lifer grab but can’t because of your commitments to non-birding family members or significant others, pay attention. If you are stuck at home drooling over others’ epic blog posts of exotic birds from far-off lands, listen up. This post is for you.  Like you, when it comes to birding I don’t have the devil-may-care attitude of the retired, the single, or the extremely rare birding couple. In recent months I discovered there was a whole pocket of lifers waiting for me not too far to the south in the Kansas City area. KC is less than 8 hours away by car, which is nothing considering its potential for lifer glory.  Dragging the family there for birds was not going to fly. Neither was spending the time and money to go on a solo adventure.  So I hatched a plan to get to KC where everyone won.

Since Melissa and Evan are die-hard Minnesota Twins fans, all I had to do to sell them on the idea was an offer to take them to KC to see their beloved team take on the Royals.

KauffmanThat pretty much sealed the deal for them, but for added insurance I got seats which put Evan in a position of high probability to check off a major bucket-list item. It worked.

Evan baseballHaving the entire family on the jumbo-tron and on TV was the icing.

Josh Evan Melissa Marin baseball

So what about Marin? She is neither a fan of birds or baseball. All it took to win her over was the promise of three nights in hotels with pools.  It helped that the kids thought these pools were awesome.

poolI mean, seriously, an indoor/outdoor pool where you can actually swim under the freaking wall of the hotel–how cool is that? This is the kind of thing that blows kids’ minds.

poolSo what about the birds? Let’s get on with it then. I had a number of targets of regular breeders in this central part of the country. The first one I targeted is one that has caused me heartache on a couple of occasions in Minnesota, the Least Tern.  Since this bird breeds in shallow rivers with sandbars, Omaha is a great place to go after them because of the nearby Platte River.  Unfortunately, though, it was getting late in the year to find any, and my chances were slim. Regardless, we were going to give it a try, checking out a couple of spots on the way to our Omaha hotel. The first stop was a place I’d been watching on eBird for months and was eager to see, a sandpit lake in Fremont, Nebraska.

sandpit lake

Upon initial inspection, I didn’t see what I came to see. I don’t know if I just overlooked it at first or if it flew in when I wasn’t looking, but after ten minutes I spotted a Least Tern bathing off a sandbar right in front of me!

Least TernI’ve been yearning to see that bright yellow-bill for awhile.  My family waiting in the car probably didn’t even notice the fist-pumping going on outside over this lifer.

Least TernGetting a lifer at the first stop for that species keeps the non-birding family happy. And even better (for them) was that this bird only stuck around for 10 minutes before flying off forever.

The plan for Day 2 of our trip was to meander our way from Omaha to Kansas City via the back roads in the hopes of turning up a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, the number-one target of the trip. STFL is a rarity in southern Nebraska even though northern Kansas is part of its normal range.  I decided to drive to a spot in southeastern Nebraska where a pair had nested in June.  There hadn’t been reports for two months, but I figured it was worth a shot anyway. When we were still five miles from the site, I was shocked when a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher lifer flew across the road in front of us. Unfortunately we could not track it down for better looks, so it was a bittersweet sighting. I wasn’t worried because I picked a southerly route that would put us by several reported STFL sightings in Kansas. But one-by-one as we drove by those sites, I was getting worried. We weren’t having any luck. Common Nighthawks are nice, but this was supposed to be a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher on this wire.

Common Nighthawk

I was frustrated, but it was time to switch gears to look for another lifer at Baker Wetlands just outside of Lawrence, Kansas.  The Little Blue Heron shows up in Minnesota every few years, but I haven’t connected with one yet.  I was hoping to fix that here. It took awhile, but eventually we found a distant bird toward the far eastern end of the Baker Wetlands. I was going to settle for some blurry distant shots until Melissa noticed a service road that would put us closer to the bird.  What a fantastic-looking Heron.

Little Blue Heron

Little Blue HeronIt was finally time to get to our hotel–Marin was getting antsy for a pool fix. The Heron lifer felt good, really good, but I was still bummed about the lack of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers. Then just 20 minutes from the hotel, I spied one on a fence and turned around for some looks. It was a STFL alright, but a nub-tailed one and not the big male I was hoping to see. Hopes for that, along with a few other birds, would have to be pinned on Day 3.

Day 3 would be an exciting one. My old friend and college roommate, Malcolm Gold, picked me up early that morning to help me find some of the birds I was looking for. Malcolm and I both got into birding long after college and have previously only birded once together back in 2013. Having lived in the KC area for a few years now, he knew where to go and was literally and figuratively in the driver’s seat for this outing.  It was good to see Malcolm again and nice to be with a local who knew what he was doing.  Malcolm thought we should try for a Painted Bunting right away along a brush-lined, somewhat abandoned road in an industrial area.  While a PABU would be sweet to land on the life list, I knew that late August was pushing it for having this bird still be around.  We never did find one, but Malcolm did point out a lifer of sorts, the Yellow-billed Cuckoo! Previously I had only ever heard one, so this was quite a treat to finally see one.

Yellow-billed CuckooYellow-billed CuckooShortly afterward we heard another hoped-for/expected lifer, the Carolina Wren.  Eventually I got to see a couple of them. Their tea-kettle song is awesome.

Carolina WrenAfter giving up on the Painted Bunting search, we headed out into the countryside south of Kansas City. Malcolm had some ideas about where to find Scissor-tailed Flycatchers. And find them, we did.

Scissor-tailed FlycatcherWe never found any with super-long tails, but at one point we had about 30 of them all together on the wires and fences around us.  It was a crazy, cool sight even if most were nubby.

Scissor-tailed FlycatcherSome had tails of decent length, enough to showcase the big forked-tail when they flew.Scissor-tailed FlycatcherScissor-tailed FlycatcherAfter enjoying the pile of Scissors for awhile, Malcolm took me to a spot to look/listen for Northern Bobwhite.  We weren’t having any luck, so for the heck of it I tried playing a recording. Almost immediately a Northern Bobwhite called back!  We never did see one, so this bird will have to enter the life list as a heard-only.  I’m okay with that.

Here’s a tip for you when going on a trip like this: set aside a limited amount of time to go birding away from the family and stick to it; don’t get greedy.  With just a little over an hour left to bird before I had to be back to the hotel at noon, Malcolm took me through some neighborhoods near our hotel to try to dig out a lifer Mississippi Kite.  MIKI just wasn’t in the cards for us that day.  Even though we were Kite-less, it was a great morning of birding with a friend. Thanks Malcolm! After he dropped me off, the agenda switched to getting some authentic KC barbecue and going to the K to see the Twins. On the way to the game I was 95% certain I saw a Mississippi Kite gliding above the freeway, but I didn’t claim it.

Day 4 was the return trip home. This time we would be taking the freeways to bust home quickly. Before we left town, though, I wanted to check along a certain street in the KC suburb of Shawnee for one last try at a Mississippi Kite. Almost right away we saw a raptor that looked odd to us lift off a pole. In fact, Evan who didn’t really know I was still looking for a Kite, piped up from the back seat, “Dad, I think I just saw a Mississippi Kite.” I thought so too, but we needed something better. After cruising up and down the street a couple times we finally had a no-doubt-about-it sighting as one flew over. After a couple more up-and-down passes on the street, we saw it again and this time it perched in someone’s backyard tree offering incredible views of our newest lifer.

Mississippi KiteMalcolm had told me that MIKIs catch dragonflies on the wing, and that’s exactly what this one had done.Mississippi KiteBut then I noticed there was a juvenile MIKI. That dragonfly was the dinner that its mom or dad brought back for it.

Mississippi KiteMississippi KiteAfter the dragonfly transfer had been made, the adult took to the skies to find another. Seeing these birds glide around gracefully like their namesake is quite the sight.

Mississippi KiteMississippi KiteHaving now seen one fly, Evan and I are certain we did see one the previous day on the way to the Twins game. This experience has also given me confidence that I would recognize this unique silhouette should I see it in the skies over Minnesota some day.

With the Mississippi Kite, I had now seen all the lifers I thought I had a chance of seeing on the KC adventure.  It was a great way to finish the trip.  There were six lifers in all, seven if you count the Cuckoo, and a lifer was seen on each of the four days we were gone. It was a great trip of baseball, pools, and birds. Everyone went home happy.

Not Again, Dad

I have this working idea that all Minnesota birders should band together and chip in to pay John Richardson a salary to find us good birds full time. John’s long list of great finds is extraordinary, and he seems to turn up something spectacular wherever his peregrinations take him. August 10th was no exception as he and Butch Ukura turned up a Red Knot at the North Ottawa Impoundment in Grant County on their way home from seeing the Black-headed Gull in Lyon County.

This Knot was the second one to come up so far this year, but I hadn’t been able to chase this potential lifer last spring. Since I did have a free schedule this time and since the bird was just 1.5 hours away, it meant a chase was on when the bird was relocated on August 11th by Charlene Nelson.  Much to my kids’ frustration, I was watching them while Melissa was at a meeting when the chase status had been upgraded from ‘maybe’ to ‘go-time’. This meant they had to go with me. Actually the kids are pretty good about this type of thing and are used to quickly and independently assembling a bird-chase-survival kit of electronics, books, and everything they might possibly need to endure another one of dad’s trips…except food.  A quick stop for pretzels turned into a subsequent stop down the road for drinks.  Eventually we made it to North Ottawa, just not within 1.5 hours. 🙂

North OttawaIt was fun to return to this area. Two years prior, Randy Frederickson, Evan, and I came up here for a tidy haul of good birds in one trip: White-winged Dove, Cattle Egrets, Black-necked Stilts, and Loggerhead Shrike. This time I was looking for another great gift from Grant, and luckily, I found it.

Red KnotInitially I couldn’t find it and panicked since Joel Schmidt had just been there before me and assured me it was still there.  It took me a good ten minutes to finally spot it, and I may or may not have been crabby and short with the kids during those tense first few minutes as they loudly pestered one another in the backseat to fight off the boredom. But with the chubby red bird now officially in sight, I was much more at ease and took things in stride.

Red Knot

Red Knot

Evan opted not to see this bird and instead stayed in the car with Marin where they were play-fighting/wrestling/giggling and just generally getting along.  He did hop out once when we spied a Garter Snake cross the road as the kid has become a herper lately and has been wanting to catch a snake bad. He missed the snake as it slithered into the grass off the road. Shucks.

After spending some time photographing the Knot, we drove around the entire impoundment.  Our only other significant find were four Western Grebes which is always a nice year bird to tally.  Then we were FINALLY (as the kids would say) on the road home. But then I got a message from Dan Orr that he had found some Buff-breasted Sandpipers in Kandiyohi which were conveniently on the way home. The kids found nothing convenient about it– the resulting groan from the announcement of another birding stop was deafening. They have learned that there is no such thing as a quick stop when it comes to birds. But stop we did.  Joel Schmidt had gotten there ahead of me and hadn’t yet located the Buff-breasteds but had located a dashing Black-bellied Plover in full breeding plumage! This felt like a lifer in its own right since I had never seen one so properly dressed before.  Too bad it was so far away for decent photos.

Black-bellied PloverEventually Joel and I found the Buff-breasteds and eventually I did get those kids home.  After all, we had a lot of things to do at home, like get ready for out-of-state birding trip to grab some lifers and do some other fun things. That story is coming next.

You Answered the Call (of the BLGR), Minnesota

Since my last post in which I explored the possible range expansion of the Blue Grosbeak and how it might be occurring via waterways, there have been a couple of exciting developments. Two new county records for Blue Grosbeak have been found! Those two red markers in the upper left of the photo are new since my last post.

IMG_0355(1)

On August 13th, a new county record Blue Grosbeak was found in Big Stone County by Milt Blomberg, John Hockema, and Lance Vrieze.  Not only is this significant for being a county first, but these guys found a family of this species the furthest north they’ve been found in Minnesota, vagrants excluded. Moreover, their find fits the pattern of the bird being found all along the Minnesota River Valley.  These guys stopped at a gravel pit, thought the habitat looked right for BLGR, and played a recording. Instantly they had Blue Grosbeaks come in without ever having seen or heard any before playing the recording.

I don’t know whether or not my article influenced their decision to try for Blue Grosbeaks in Big Stone County, but Dan Orr had told me that my last blog post got him curious about Swift County as the very southwestern corner of that county is along the Minnesota River.  Swift previously had no BLGR record.  I was excited about Dan’s search and started to scout satellite imagery in southwestern Swift for appropriate habitat.  I shared with him a gravel pit area just north of Appleton. However, Dan told me he had already birded that spot in early summer. Since Blue Grosbeaks seem to be actively singing in August, I encouraged him to try again and told him how Milt Blomberg et al. “cold-called” their Blue Grosbeaks. So Dan tried it on August 15th. He went to that area, played a tape, and bam–a pair of Swift County record Blue Grosbeaks showed up!

IMG_0356

As exciting as the Big Stone and Swift Blue Grosbeak finds are, I am concerned. Now that two county records have fallen, birders have been going to these stake-outs to get their tics.  And once they have their tic for a county, many birders are less likely to explore new areas to look for more Blue Grosbeaks in those counties.  With the Swift and Big Stone records, now very few counties along the Minnesota River still do not have a record.  In fact, I believe Sibley, Carver, and Hennepin are all that remain. Hopefully the county-listing bug will help turn up new records in these counties. But I continue to think that there are many, many more Blue Grosbeaks to be found in Minnesota where county records already exist, namely along the Minnesota River Valley and anywhere in southern Minnesota. So call up a birding friend, go exploring, and find some Blue Grosbeak habitat. There is probably a two-week window left to find these birds before they head south again. And if you find appropriate habitat and don’t hear or see one, play the recording and see what happens. You might be surprised.

Hey, Minnesota Birders, Go Find a Blue Grosbeak

Just like the birds themselves, birders have certain habits and habitat preferences at certain times of the year, almost reliably so. When August rolls around, most birders will seek out a good mudflat for some shorebird action. For me, though, my preferred birder habitat for August looks something like this:

Gravel Pit

I explore gravel pits like this and other scrub lands in the hopes of finding one bird:

Blue Grosbeak

The Blue Grosbeak and its apparent range expansion fascinate me, especially since this bird has now been documented within just three miles of my home county, Kandiyohi.  I became interested in this range expansion back in 2014 when it seemed there were more and more reports of these birds outside of their stronghold at Blue Mounds State Park in Rock County, the very southwestern corner of the state.  Here is what the Blue Grosbeak eBird map looked like back in 2000.

IMG_0771Fast forward to 2012, and it looked like this:

IMG_0773This uptick in Blue Grosbeak observations on eBird can partly be attributed to the beginning of eBird’s popularity in Minnesota and the tenacious efforts of people like Garrett Wee and Doug Kieser.  Many of Minnesota’s experienced birders do not use eBird and have also been turning up Blue Grosbeaks outside of the “normal” Minnesota range of Rock County for years. But even some of these birders have told me that the Blue Grosbeak has definitely expanded its range and its numbers in Minnesota.

In 2014 when I became interested in this expansion, I used satellite imagery on Google Maps and eBird to find probable sites in northern Renville County.  I was interested in Renville County because it bordered my home county of Kandiyohi, it was at the northeastern fringes of the Minnesota range for this bird, and because Joel Schmidt and Randy Frederickson saw a family group of Blue Grosbeaks in this area in 2012. So in using the satellite photos, I looked for new sites that showed gravel pits or any kind of disturbed earth. The success of that endeavor surpassed my expectations as I turned up four Blue Grosbeaks in four separate locations spanning a total of three miles.  Other birders who followed up on my reports added even more Blue Grosbeaks.  Not only did it appear the Blue Grosbeak had extended its range to northern Renville County, but it was thriving there. If you want to read my account of that Blue Grosbeak investigation, click here.

2015 was a bit of a disappointing year because I could not find Blue Grosbeaks at any of the sites I found them in 2014.  Even still, I added one brand new Blue Grosbeak site in Renville County in 2015, and even more exciting was that Ron Erpelding and others found more Blue Grosbeaks north and west of the pocket of birds I found.  This put Blue Grosbeaks within about three miles of the southwestern corner of Kandiyohi County. Here is the map to this day:IMG_0770

As you can see by the red markers, 2016 has been a good year too. Here’s a close-up of the area I’m interested in.

IMG_0772

Even though this year’s recheck of the 2015 sites turned up negative, there has been a lot happening this past week in the hunt for Blue Grosbeak.  A week ago I guided Pete Nichols and Ben Douglas around Chippewa and Renville Counties in the hopes of getting their BLGR state bird and life bird respectively, and we found two males at one of the 2014 sites!  I was thrilled; they were thrilled. There was much high-fiving, especially since we got the bird at the last possible second before Pete and Ben had to leave.

Blue Grosbeak IMG_9315So that explains one of the red markers. Here’s the story (and photos) of the others. A couple days after the Renville sighting with Pete and Ben, I went to Gneiss Outcrops SNA in the very southeastern corner of Chippewa County to follow up on Bill Marengo’s earlier report of a Blue Grosbeak.  Ron Erpelding and Herb Dingmann had found one here in 2014 that I was unsuccessful at relocating that same summer.  However, I was able to find Bill’s bird this year.

Blue GrosbeakIMG_9350And just yesterday I checked some new-to-me sites in southern Renville County where birds had been reported by others in 2012 and 2013.  It was a very successful recheck.  At the gravel pit on 200th St (pictured at the beginning), I found this Blue Grosbeak and heard a second male.

Blue GrosbeakBlue Grosbeak

Not long after that and over a half mile from these two birds, I spied a suspicious-looking silhouette on a wire. It turned out to be yet another Blue Grosbeak!

Blue GrosbeakFinding five Blue Grosbeaks in Renville County and one in Chippewa County this past week has re-energized my interest in this bird’s range and population expansion.  Lately I’ve started to think that gravel waste sites are not necessarily the only factor in finding this bird.  I think proximity to water is a key element. Thinking back on all the Blue Grosbeaks I’ve found, there has either been a pond, a drainage ditch, or stream/river in very close proximity to the birds. This bird is often found in riparian areas in the south.  I’m even wondering if water has actually been the cause of its range expansion.  Could the river valleys and streams actually serve as conduits for its range expansion? Consider the stronghold of Rock County where the first MN Blue Grosbeaks were found–the Rock River runs right through it and the Big Sioux River that runs through Sioux Falls (a stronghold for BLGR sightings) is not far from there either. Then consider the Minnesota River Valley.  Many Blue Grosbeak sightings have happened along the valley from Granite Falls all the way down to Mankato.  Even the far northern sightings in Lac qui Parle County are within 30 miles of the Minnesota River.  The pocket of birds I found in 2014 is about 12 miles from the MRV, so now when I look at satellite photos of the landscape, I get curious. Did the northern Renville County birds come up from the MRV along the creeks and drainage ditches?

IMG_0777

IMG_0779

Could the Minnesota River playing a key role in the expansion of the Blue Grosbeak’s range across the entire state? Or is something more random going on? Right now this is just an idea that gets me out looking for Blue Grosbeaks and other birds in new locations. I get excited when I look at satellite imagery of Minnesota River tributaries and see stuff like this:

IMG_0774This spot turned out to be negative, by the way, at least from what I could hear/see from the roads during my brief check.  However, there are a LOT of places where the roads transect these creeks and ditches in Renville County, so there are a lot of places to check.  While I have found Blue Grosbeaks in gravel pits, I do not think that is the exclusive habitat preference for this bird.  They are described in some literature to be habitat generalists that will occupy a variety of habitats in the southern U.S. where they are much more common.  I would think any brushy or waste area in this bird’s Minnesota range could be good, especially the more numerous they become. One of the 2015 sites I was most excited about was just an ordinary farm yard.

What does all this mean for Minnesota birders?

If you are birding anywhere south and just barely north of the Minnesota River that cuts through Minnesota like a giant V, Blue Grosbeaks should be on your radar as a possibility even if the habitat doesn’t have the classic “feel” of being an exposed gravel/waste area.  Doug Kieser wrote in one of his eBird reports this summer that he was surprised to find a PAIR of Blue Grosbeaks while scanning a mowed hay field of all places. Most of us would be surprised because, through our Minnesota experiences with this bird, we tend to associate Blue Grosbeaks with their more typical habitat.  Those more typical habitats south and barely north of the Minnesota River should ESPECIALLY be looked over carefully.  Anywhere there are municipal brush sites, sewage lagoons, rock outcroppings, landfills, brush-filled drainage ditches and creeks, and yes, gravel pits, you may just find a brand new Blue Grosbeak.

Besides habitat/location, what else could help a Blue Grosbeak search be successful?

  1. Learn the song well.  It’s pretty distinctive.  Most of the Blue Grosbeaks I have found have been by hearing these loud singers first.
  2. If you are lucky enough to hear one, scan the tops of shrubs, trees, and other perches. They are conspicuous birds that often sing from high, open perches.
  3. Know the profile. This is something I have just keyed into lately that has helped me spot three non-singing Blue Grosbeaks from a distance, sometimes in bad light. Blue Grosbeaks have a near vertical posture when sitting on a wire, and they appear very top-heavy with that short tail.  Their big, blocky head also helps set them apart from other wire-perching birds. Then there’s that massive, conical bill…IMG_93754. Don’t think of them as a rare bird in the previously described areas of Minnesota.  If you expect to see them, you are more likely to stop the car to investigate a bird on a wire or drive slowly by a shrubby pasture with the windows down to listen for one. True story: I have seen/heard 11 Blue Grosbeaks in Renville County compared to just 2 Eastern Towhees there, yet the Blue Grosbeak is still considered rare in that county by eBird while the Towhee is an expected species.

Final Thought

Most of the Blue Grosbeaks sightings on eBird are fairly well pinpointed and therefore chaseable.  And, if you’ve never seen one before, by all means, go look for one of those. But if you have seen one already, strike out on your own and turn up a brand new Blue Grosbeak. I guarantee you’ll have a lot more fun exploring and discovering something new than chasing something old. Who knows, you may have one a lot closer to home than you thought!