DIY Owling–A Longing Fulfilled

As it’s been stated here before, 2017 is mostly about taking care of business here at home, mostly in the Owl Dept. There are four regular species, either residents or migrants, that were missing from my county list prior to the start of the year: Short-eared, Long-eared, Eastern Screech, and Northern Saw-whet.  These have been my most wanted county birds as of late.  The Short-eared was knocked off in short order on the first day of the year, filling a major void and leaving only three more.  One could sit around and wait on news of a serendipitous encounter for those others, or one could get out there and try to make something happen.  Never one for patience, I often choose the latter, drawing inspiration from intrepid Owlers like Tommy DeBardeleben and Jeff Grotte.

So along with buddy Steve Gardner, I’ve been getting out there.  On one recent excursion, Steve and I stumbled into the biggest cache of whitewash and small owl pellets we’d ever seen.  Actually, I don’t think we’ve ever found Owl evidence before. Four roost sites in all in one small stand of Red Cedars got the owl juices flowing fast.  Steve and I expected to come face-to-face with a Saw-whet at any moment.  While we came up empty, we were excited nonetheless to find such evidence and be in hot pursuit.  Steve and I have been on many, many fruitless Owl hunts together in the past.  This may have been a turning point for us…

A week later I was itching to get back to this site to take another look around. In the meantime Steve and I had both received intel on some Long-eared Owls in another part of the state.  Never having seen one before, Steve wanted to pursue those and invited me along. I declined, opting instead to spend my birding time that day looking for a county Saw-whet back at that spot. Well, Steve and I both saw Owls in our respective locations that morning, but his Owls were much cooler than mine:

Great Horned OwlAny Owl sighting makes for a fun outing, even if it’s not post-worthy. But Steve’s lifer LEOWs were post-worthy, and something about his post caught my attention: he had seen his Owls in a plantation of Spruces. I had associated LEOWs mostly with Cedars. A connection was made in my brain, and I asked Steve how the site he was at compared with a plantation of Spruces in our county that we have unsuccessfully Owled a few times. Steve said they were very similar. Plans were made immediately to check it out the next day. It had been over a year since we last tried for Long-eareds at that spot.  It was time to hit it again.

That next afternoon, Steve and I met up to walk this Spruce plantation, walking abreast down the lanes between the tree rows. And I kid you not, 30 seconds into our walk, Steve hollered out that Owl flushed from a tree in front of him and was coming my direction. We both knew what it was instantly–too big for a Saw-whet, too small for a Great Horned, and wrong habitat for a Short-eared and Eastern Screech pointed to one bird only: Long-eared Owl!  We were stoked to say the least. Whenever the Owl flushed it would always land a short distance away and was unwilling to leave the stand of trees. This further proved we were dealing with a LEOW since GHOWs make fast beelines out of an area when they flush covering a half mile or more. One time this LEOW even went out of the grove, circled around looking at us, and re-landed only to disappear.  I got a good look that time.  We were too amped up and excitedly talking to put on a quiet stalk. Finally, finally, Steve and I had a successful Owl hunt!

As we continued to try to re-see the bird and hopefully get a look at it perched, we encountered piles of Owl sign–whitewashed trees everywhere and pellets scattered all over the place like popcorn on a movie theater floor. We also found the smoking gun of LEOW evidence: the remaining wings of our newest county bird’s predated partner:

Long-eared Owl wingWe did flush it a couple more times but eventually decided to move on and give up on seeing it perched.  Even still, the victory was immense. Steve said it best when he said it was cool that we did not have to rely on anyone else for this bird.  I couldn’t agree more.

The Owling didn’t stop there.  Steve and I found some Red Cedars in the area to check for Saw-whets. Once again, we found heavy evidence that Saw-whets were/are in those trees.  Then we later flushed a Great Horned Owl and wondered if the Saw-whet(s) had gone the way of LEOW #2.

The next day I was able to revisit the LEOW site with some other local birding friends who had never seen one.  Two Great Horned Owls flushed right away giving everyone a false start.  As we got near the end of our respective rows of trees, conversation picked up among the others and I got the impression they thought this would be a non-event.  From the previous day’s experience, I knew that it wasn’t over until we actually emerged from the trees.  I kept up my constant scanning of every tree I quietly and slowly walked by. Then I nearly lost my breath when I spied the tall, skinny Owl near the top of a tree looking down at me!  I quickly snapped a photo of the shadowed tangles it was buried in, not even able to see the Owl in my viewfinder.

Long-eared OwlThis was the final, definitive proof that Steve and I had seen a Long-eared Owl the day before.  And, man, did it feel good.Long-eared OwlAt this moment in the adventure I was multi-tasking, trying to get photos while snapping my fingers and whispering to get the attention of my fellow birders.  I never got them on the bird before it flushed, but everyone was able to eventually see the Owl.

Nothing beats finding Owls on your own and having a local spot to go see a cool species like this.  Now, if only the resident GHOWs will leave this bird alone…

Great Horned OwlAre the Owl adventures over? With 2 of my 4 wanted Owls knocked off in February already, I think we are just getting started.

Playing Solitaire by Yourself is No Way to Win

Like most birders I am fond of my home county list and crave those new additions which happen with less and less frequency with each passing year.  This year I am trying in particular to go after those species that we know are regulars in the county every year.  The year got off to a good start on New Year’s Day with the Kandiyohi County birders teaming up to go after Short-eared Owls.  Seeing as that event was successful and fun, why not try again?  One of my other biggest wants for the county has been a Townsend’s Solitaire.  This bird of the western montane forests moves eastward and downward in elevation in the winter months and can be found all throughout Minnesota. They pop up everywhere. Kandiyohi County has an abundance of suitable habitat in the form of large stands of Red Cedar, so I knew there had to be one or more lurking out there somewhere. So I put out a call to action to the Kandi crew on FB, and to my surprise, 10 people said they were down for it. The event was dubbed “Super Solitaire Saturday” for being held on the eve of the Super Bowl.

Ten people is much too large and way too inefficient for one search party, so for SSS we split into three groups to tackle large swaths of the county in an efficient manner.  Herb Dingmann, Dan Orr, and Milt Blomberg came down from neighboring Stearns County to the north and were going to hit Burbank WMA. Steve Gardner, his brother Scott Gardner from the Cities, and rising birding phenom Garrett Wee from Lyon County comprised team #2.  They planned to scour Sibley State Park. I joined up with local birding legends Randy Frederickson, Joel Schmidt, and Jeff Weitzel to tackle Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center.

In planning for the day I was quite optimistic that we would achieve the target, but I had no idea just how efficient this divide and conquer strategy would be. My crew decided not to start until 8:30.  Good thing, too! Just as we parked our cars at Prairie Woods and were about to step into the Red Cedar landscape to begin our search, I got a call from Herb. They had already found one at Burbank! All groups converged on team #1’s location and picked up a sweet county bird…

Townsend's SolitaireAs we enjoyed the bird and expressed jubilation over a very early success, we detected a second Solitaire as well! Townsend's SolitaireTownsend's SolitaireWith the objective met so quickly and so easily, no one really knew what to do afterward. After shooting the breeze for quite awhile, we settled on going after the only other type of new county bird we could really try for this time of year: Owls.  Now the focus was on Eastern Screech-Owls, Long-eared Owls, and Northern Saw-whet Owls.  Each of the teams put in a few hours of Owling but came up short.  No one was really bothered about that.  The group ended up having lunch together and then we each went on to our separate birding objectives for the day.

So what’s next for the Kandi crew? Time will tell, but this group birding has proven to be both popular and effective. The next event is likely going to have an Owl focus.  Steve and I are already hot on the trail of one of those coveted birds, so maybe, just maybe, we will have another successful story to tell.

Reader’s Choice Makes For A Choice Reader

Over the years ABWCH has enjoyed its share of popular posts and survived tougher times of fickle readership through some real ho-hummers. Through it all, though, there has been a dedicated following that has stuck through posts of plenty as well as posts left wanting. Thanks, Mom. I’m kidding. There’s one more.  If you’ve read this blog at all, you have certainly seen a comment left by AMR, a.k.a. Adam Roesch.  As an actuary in real life, Adam brings an analytical skill-set to the world of birding not often seen.  He is a dedicated patch birder who, almost to a fault, birds exclusively at Coon Rapids Dam Regional Park on the Mississippi River.  Even as potential life birds fall all around him, he opts to bird CRDRP instead of chasing those lifers, hoping to up his patch total, find a rarity, or just document the general avian goings-on there.  Should he ever dump his detailed data notebooks of years of observations on eBird, the system would likely get overloaded and crash.  More than once Adam has offered to show me his beloved spot. Given that it is at least a two hour trip for me and my desire to tone down the chasing, I told him I had to be really selective about the long-distance trips I make. It would either have to be a side trip of convenience if I was in the area or an exclusive trip for a highly compelling reason. So here’s what I told him nearly two years ago:

commentSince that comment was written, I have knocked off all those ducks but one–the Barrow’s Goldeneye, a bird considered casual in Minnesota occurring roughly every 5 years.  As I am getting to the end of my normal MN birds, BAGO was rapidly moving its way up to the top of the list of my most-wanted birds.  Last year I chased a female BAGO in Fergus Falls but failed.  This year there have been a couple other reports but nothing I considered reliable and therefore chaseable. Well, a little over two weeks ago, Adam Roesch birded at the Mississippi River in Champlin–quite aways upstream from his beloved patch–and made a stunning discovery.  Among the myriad of Common Goldeneye, Adam found and photographed a beautiful male Barrow’s Goldeneye. And with that find, Adam submitted his first ever eBird checklist.  Talk about an entrance.

Since the Barrow’s was a metro bird on a river that flows between two counties, the chasers and listers came in droves without haste. At the time, our family was an hour away at Evan’s swim meet in St. Cloud.  After the Sunday event, I dragged the family down the freeway to go to Champlin/Anoka.  At long last I got to meet Adam and his kids in real life as they tried to help me relocate the object of my desire. Of course, when a life bird is at stake, conversation and eye-contact are kept to a minimum as all such efforts are prioritized to the task at hand.  Adam and I parted ways quite quickly in a divide-and-conquer approach with the limited time I had to look.  I finally did have to pull the plug and cut my family’s losses on this unexpected 3-hour extension of their already long weekend.

In the interim, talk of the Barrow’s died down with some of the best birders not being able to relocate it in subsequent days.  But then, conveniently enough, there was a sighting that next Friday–a day before I was scheduled to go to my brother’s place in the Cities. Perfect.  The pre-planned trip was something the kids and I were going to do while Melissa was away for a fun weekend with some friends. After shuttling kids around to their respective activities that Saturday morning, we were eastbound.  Picking up a Meeker County Rough-legged Hawk (dark morph!) along the way was a good birding start to what was once a non-birding trip.

dark morph Rough-legged hawkdark morph Rough-legged hawkFor the second time in as many weekends, we arrived at Anoka’s Peninsula Point Park to scan the Mississippi for the good Goldeneye.

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These are NOT good Goldeneyes.

I was joined by another reader and former life bird provider, Tony Lau.  While Evan and Marin played with a whiskey bottle they found with a bit too much enthusiasm, Tony and I looked and looked for THE duck. No luck.  I decided to head across the Champlin bridge to look for the duck on the Hennepin County side.  Just as I was about to take off, Tony waved me over with both arms. Yes! I hurried over and Tony got me on the duck with his scope as it swam upstream west of the Champlin bridge. The sighting was good enough to claim the lifer, but I wanted more.  Then to our horror, an Eagle came and scared it up sending it further west.

The kids and I drove across the Champlin bridge to see if we could relocate it. No luck. I gave the kids a reprieve by going on a hot chocolate run and then decided to try scanning the river one last time. It was Tony to the rescue again.  He had also come over to the Champlin side of the bridge and relocated the bird.  The low light conditions, distance, and nearly constant diving made it tough to find and keep track of.  Finally, though, I was able to latch on to this lifer with the camera.

Barrow's GoldeneyeThere’s just something that I absolutely love about getting duck lifers in the cold months.

Barrow's Goldeneye

A huge ‘Thank You’ goes out to dedicated reader, Adam Roesch, for his incredible find. Getting lifers in Minnesota is a rare thing for me anymore, so this was a monumental addition. And if you’re reading, Adam, I’ll go ahead an put in my order for Red-throated Loon, Mew Gull, California Gull, mature drake Harlequin Duck, red-morph Eastern Screech-Owl, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Carolina Wren….

The birding for the weekend didn’t stop with the Barrow’s.  Since I was in town and a Snowy Owl had been reported, I decided to get my FOY SNOW.  Normally I wouldn’t chase a Snowy since I’ve seen them within a few minutes of my house, but my brotherr’s house was only ten minutes away from this one.  And besides, it chose the most unlikely of places to live, something I had to see for myself:

MinneapolisI’m not lying. This skyline view of Minneapolis is literally what this Snowy Owl can see from its bizarre winter territory.  I am used to looking for Snowies in urban environments, but nothing quite like this. Snowy Owls aren’t that hard to spot in places like this, yet I was having a hard time, a really hard time. I finally ran into another birder who clued me in to this sneaky Snowy’s hideout.

Minneapolis SnowySee it? Yeah, I didn’t either without help.

Minneapolis SnowyNever have I seen an Owl, Snowy or otherwise, so well fortified.  Camouflaged, yes, but not entrenched. I tried every which angle and every side of the building for a shot.

Minneapolis Snowy

I spent way too long hoping it would fly up to a higher perch. But why would it want to? This guy or gal has figured out how to live the solitary life in a bustling metro environment.

Minneapolis SnowyThe non-birding-totally-birding metro trip was a success by any standard. It was back to rural west-cental MN where more adventure awaited in the days to come. We’ll save that for the next post, but to close things out, here’s a Great Horned Owl the kids and I saw on the ride back home.

Great Horned Owl

A Red-Letter, Red-Feather Day

No secret has been made on this blog that Owls would play a predominant role in 2017’s goals and adventures.   Seeing as how my #1 goal of seeing an irruptive Boreal Owl lifer is not panning out (yet), I’d have to look slightly further down my list to #2 if I was to get any check mark action on the little scrap of paper I keep tucked away in my Sibley. While that second goal was not an Owl lifer, it was just as tantalizing: a red-morph Eastern Screech-Owl.  Just a different color morph of the EASO which I already had in the gray hue, I know, but so, so different from those other gray Screech-Owl species of Western and Whiskered which I’ve already tallied.  Because my list of goals contained so many Owl-related items, I shared it with my friend, Jeff Grotte, a.k.a. Owl King of Minnesota, who lords over his vast digital domain of ‘Owl About Minnesota’ on FB. Jeff’s a super nice guy who I’ve had the pleasure of owling with before, and he told me he thought we could knock #2 off my list.  He wasn’t kidding and wasted no time. Not very deep into 2017–Jan. 1 to be exact, Jeff investigated a lead on a red Screech and was successful.  Shortly afterward he had gained the necessary permission to return to show me this Owl’s abode, a quiet postage-stamp pond in the grove of a rural residence south of the Twin Cities.

Eastern Screech-OwlThe homeowner, Kathy, assured Jeff the Owl was there regularly; it would just be a matter of me finding a time to make the 2-hour trip.  Funny thing when you are a parent, your time no longer belongs to you–work and kid activities keep us hopping and out of the house most every day and now on weekends too. Birding definitely takes a back seat.  I was feeling the need to get this done though; bird in the hand and whatnot. With Melissa being gone on a trip all weekend, I was staring at some serious single-parenting.  The red Screech dream was seemingly out of reach.  So I did what any serious Owler would do: cashed in some comp time and took me an Owliday mid-week.

After dropping the kids off at school on Thursday, I did not drop myself off at school and kept rolling east to the metro where I met up with Jeff.  Jeff brought along another birding/owling friend, Steve Brown.  The three of us were waiting on word from Kathy regarding whether the red Screech was even home this day. But birders and owlers don’t sit still.  We went on the hunt for Long-eared Owls for a short time in Eden Prairie.  While unsuccessful with that target, we did kick up a Barred Owl which was a good omen for the day.

After this little foray, we headed over to Steve’s house to drop off my vehicle and consolidate into his.  As I tailed Steve and Jeff, I saw a mob of Crows in a tree and began scanning for an Owl blob.  One of the birds was noticeably bigger but not Owl-shaped. As I cruised by I could see it was a Red-shouldered Hawk!  This is a bird I’ve had terrible looks at and never photographed before.  I flashed my lights at Steve and Jeff. No response. It didn’t even dawn on me to use my cellphone.  As I put more distance between myself and the hawk, I was resigned to the fact that this bird would continue to elude me in looks and photos.

When I got out of my car in Steve’s driveway, I was just about to tell the guys about my Red-shouldered Hawk woes when Steve started talking first, “Say, I think we should go in the house before we head out again because I’ve got a real tame Red-shouldered Hawk that hangs out in my backyard all day.  You can get some nice photos.”  Jaw nearly met the ground. I hadn’t even mentioned that this would be a photographic lifer. We went into Steve’s beautiful home that overlooks the Minnesota River Valley, and Steve wasn’t lying.  Bam. Another good omen.

Red-shouldered Hawk Red-shouldered HawkThese photos were shot through glass.  Like Jeff, Steve is an accomplished photographer who ushered me into his photo blind where I could photograph the Hawk without a glass barrier.  Unfortunately, the Hawk got a bit nervous and flew into some tangles.  But have a look at that tail!

Red-shouldered HawkI very quickly learned that Steve, a retired dentist, was taking our birding mission very seriously. While the main object was to get me the red Screech, Steve did not want to send his newest guest away without getting some other good birds too.  He was off to a stellar start. In many ways I felt like I was in a parallel birding world to my experiences in Arizona.  Jeff was the MN Tommy and Steve was the MN Gordon.  Like in Arizona, there was one main mission for the day–get Josh the red Screech. That didn’t mean we couldn’t enjoy a little action while we waited, like this American Black Duck among the 500+ Mallards it was with at the Shakopee Mill Pond. Black Ducks have been really good to me this year.

American Black DuckThe open water was a good chance to pick up some FOYs as I still struggle to reach that barrier of 50 species. Belted Kingfisher, American Coot, Ring-necked Duck, and Lesser Scaup were all new for the year.  Ducks do not hold the attention for long, so we were off to do some backroads exploring while we waited for a sighting update on the red Screech.  We were told it pops out of the hole of the Wood Duck box regularly on sunny days.  This day was dreadfully cloudy, so we were hearing nothing in regards to the Owl. Just like Tommy, Jeff was really wanting to get me the target Owl bad.  We discussed an alternative option in St. Paul, but that was quite far away and no one had seen Screech- Owls in that spot for months.  As the hours ticked on, we were all wondering if the day’s objective would be a bust.  Jeff figured our best shot was still with this homeowner, so he messaged her to ask if we could poke around the property to try to turn it up.  With an affirmative answer, we were on our way to at least make an attempt.

We pulled into the driveway, and Kathy and Mike were there to greet us in a warm, Minnesota-nice way on this cold day. And what a greeting it was–with excited eyes, Kathy’s first words through the open car window were, “It’s here!” The car lit up with smiles and laughs not unlike the war room when they got Osama bin Laden. After some pleasantries, the five of us headed out on a cleared path in the snow around some outbuildings to the secluded corner where the Screech had taken up residency.  Even though they had cameras as long as my arms, Jeff and Steve urged me to go first so I could get my look and photos.  The generosity and mission focus was the Tommy/Gordon thing all over again.  Uncanny.

The pond actually had three Wood Duck boxes.  Mike told us which one the Screech was in just 15 minutes ago.  So we stared and stared at a black hole, hoping it would get filled in with a red face.

Wood Duck boxKnowing there was a red Screech in there made for some impatient waiting.  The Owl was not being cooperative at all while we watched and waited.  We were so close to meeting the big objective, but it just wasn’t happening and the impatience of all was festering.  Would we have come this far only to fail? What’s that they say? When a door closes, open a window?

Red Eastern Screech-Owlred Eastern Screech-Owlred Eastern Screech-OwlWe thought this Owl was going to let us photograph it in this position for a little while, but after a half minute or so, it had enough of this nonsense and flew straight toward us and directly into to the hole of another Wood Duck box.  We never did see it again and decided to leave it alone.  High on a successful trip, we continued to hang out by that little pond and talk Owls with Mike and Kathy.  We thanked them profusely and were finally on our way.  With a few hours of daylight left, the day was still wide open with possibility.

Steve, Jeff, and I spent some more time looking for Long-eared Owls near Steve’s place but were not successful.  Jeff is always up for more Owling (like Tommy), so after we said our goodbyes and thank yous to Steve, Jeff and I were off for Round 2 of Eastern Screech-Owls.  I told Jeff that I thought it would be cool to try to see both color morphs in the same day.  So we went to track one down in the western suburbs.  With some tenacity and brilliance (all on Jeff’s part), we got what we came for:

Eastern Screech-OwlQuality over quantity is what this birding year is all about this year.  This day definitely embodied that as a lifer* Owl was had with a couple of bonus Owls all while having fun with friends.  A huge thanks to Jeff Grotte for setting everything up and making a fun day off, to Steve Brown for the other good birds and the selfless enthusiasm, and most importantly a big thank you to Mike and Kathy for sharing their special yard bird with us.  There will be more Owling with Jeff and possibly Steve in the months to come.  But first, I have a duck to track down.

A Short(-eared) Post is a Fun Post

There is a strange and paradoxical law at work in birding: a lifer must fall often as a crummy sighting in a far-off place before that bird is seen crushingly well, with ease, in good numbers, and/or close to home. When you finally reach that crossover point, the reward is so so sweet but is almost always followed with the nasty aftertaste of regret and self-doubt. Why wasn’t I just a little more patient? Why did I even bother that first time? But if I didn’t go the first time, would I even be enjoying this bird now? But I am enjoying this bird now, so wasn’t the previous attempt a waste of time, money, and effort? It is the birder’s equivalent of the age-old chicken vs. egg first dilemma.  A birder can perseverate on this for days.

For me this played out with the Short-eared Owl this past fall and even up until today.   In hindsight it is really quite comical (or agonizing) that in December of 2015 I traveled 2+ hours away to Afton State Park to get my lifer Short-eared Owl in a blizzard in the last 5 minutes of daylight. Or perhaps not. Maybe it paved the way for my great sightings of multiple SEOWs 4 hours away in Grand Forks, North Dakota last spring. And maybe that trip was necessary for all that follows in this post.  At least that’s what I tell myself to justify the time and expense put into the aforementioned trips.  Because what follows is incredibly inexpensive in time and money.

November 2016, Lac qui Parle County

I can’t reveal my reason for why I was birding two counties away in November, but I can say that what I was after would not be a big deal to my Arizona friends but would be a bombshell to my Minnesota friends. Let’s just leave it at that. Joining me on this clandestine mission were friends Steve Gardner, Brad Nelson, and Jeff Grotte. Jeff Grotte Brad nelsonWalking out in this grassland, we were not expecting but were quite delighted to kick up two Short-eared Owls.  It’s a pretty good day when a Short-eared Owl is a consolation prize.

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December 2016, Swift County

I received a report from Joel Schmidt that Jeff Weitzel had bumped into two Short-eared Owls in the next county over, just 45 minutes away. December gets busy and so I never got around to checking it out until about two weeks after the fact.  Maybe they were wintering in that spot, so Steve Gardner, his son Riley, and I went to check it out.  And dang, there weren’t two Short-eared Owls after all–there were three!

Short-eared OwlSteve, Riley, and I had phenomenal close fly-bys of these Owls.  Though the birds were cooperating for photos, the clouds and dropping sun were not. Even still, I got a few shots to remember the night.

Short-eared OwlShort-eared OwlShort-eared OwlThen with no fear, one of the Owls perched up fairly close. It was exciting to see a perched Short-eared Owl–this likely would never happen again, right?

Short-eared Owl

What made the Swift sightings even more remarkable was that when I got home I looked at my map and realized I went to the wrong spot that Jeff had found.  In fact, I was a couple miles away, and still I found Short-eared Owls!

January 2017, Kandiyohi County (the home county)

Astute readers have probably already picked up on the theme that as we are moving closer to the present, the distance traveled to see Short-ears has decreased and the quality of the sightings has increased.  As more reports were filtering in of wintering Short-eared Owls all across the state, I was really getting the urge to find one here in Kandiyohi.  It would be a county bird, a really good county bird.   With the holiday festivities putting a damper on most everyone’s birding, I organized a search party with local birding friends for the afternoon of New Year’s Day when there’s nothing to do anyway.  We were going to look near Regal in the very northeast corner of the county. Aaron Ludwig out of Stearns County said that he couldn’t make the Regal Roundup but wanted to do us Kandi birders a solid by scouting the area in the evenings ahead of time since he worked near there.  I had shown Aaron where Kandiyohi birding legends Randy Frederickson, Ron Erpelding, and Joel Schmit had over a half dozen Short-ears many years ago.  While I was still trapped in northern Minnesota for the holidays, Aaron sent word that his scouting was a success–he had found a Short-eared Owl in the very spot foretold by the Kandi legends!  Impatiently I waited out the next couple days, trying to tide myself over with some boreal birds.

White-winged CrossbillWhen it was finally time to leave northern MN, I got word that a Great Gray had just been seen in Cook, a mere 15 minutes from the parents’.  I didn’t have time to look for it and had to go back to west-central MN. It seems I am always at the wrong end of the state.

January 1 finally came.  The search wouldn’t start until late afternoon.  Brad Nelson and I teamed up in one vehicle, Milt Blomberg and Dan Orr were in another, and Randy Frederickson and Joel Schmidt were in a third. The plan was to each drive separate areas, call each other if we found something, and then race to the Owl location (if one was found) before dark.  It turns out it was a plan was overkill and full of redundancies as Brad and I immediately spotted a Short-eared Owl (likely Aaron’s) at 3:45 in the full sun.  We could practically feel the wind off the Owl’s wings it was so close as it zoomed by us over and over. It was astonishing to see such an acrobatic display.  I don’t think a county bird victory has ever felt this sweet.

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared OwlShort-eared OwlShort-eared OwlWhat’s not been mentioned yet is that the other members of my party were promptly notified and arrived on-scene shortly afterward.  Just as they arrived, a Rough-legged Hawk appeared and got into an aerial spat with the Owl.  The latter was decisively victorious as it drove the former to the ground to the great delight of the Kandi crew.  A little while later the Short-eared perched up on a road sign offering everybody a chance to get incredible looks as the Owl at its Vole dinner.

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared OwlThe newer Kandi birders, of which I am one, were elated. The wise old Kandi legends were pleased–their prophecy that such a moment would happen in this very place had come true.  They had preached patience all along.  Some grasshoppers don’t listen, though, and end up going to North Dakota.

Randy Joel Brad Dan MiltShort-eared OwlCertainly there was no way for the day to get any better. Or was there?

Josh Short-eared OwlShort-eared OwlNot once did I bump this Owl off its perch.  In fact, we all got incredible looks as we slowly drove by the bird while it continued to sit on the sign. Brad and I watched it from the vehicle at close range for a long time until it finished its meal and then quickly went out to grab another Vole. The talon to beak transfer we witnessed was incredibly smooth and quick.

Since the Regal Roundup was a success early in the search, we all were able to head home long before dark.  Brad and I took some more back roads on our route home and turned up a second Short-eared Owl! It was the icing on a very filling Short-cake.

Willmar, Present Day

You see where this post is going, don’t you? A week ago, Randy Frederickson found another Short-eared Owl just outside of the county seat of Willmar, 15 minutes from my house. I went to look for it this afternoon and found it.

Short-eared owlAt the rate and manner in which things are progressing, you better believe I’m watching the field by my house when I take my dog out to pee.

2016–The Year of the Owls and So Much More

So another year of birding has come and gone and it is once again time to do a year-in-review post.  There were certainly goals and hopes that were met, but they were almost always overshadowed by the surprises along the way.  That’s what keeps us going out, right?  Many stunning and shocking birds were had, and I filled many holes on the various lists I keep, holes that I had no idea of when they’d actually be filled.  But with all the great birds, my aim is to keep this post a simple Top 10.  That’s right–no cheating by making up various categories and superlatives to fit all the goodies in.  I had to think long and hard about this and left a lot of great stuff on the cutting room floor–not even an Ivory Gull or state-first Sharp-tailed Sandpiper made the list. This post is the best of the best.

But first, let me talk briefly on the numbers, which will probably be the last I’ll emphasize numbers on this blog.  For 2016 I had the goal of reaching 300 for MN and 400 for life.  With a Great-tailed Grackle for the former and an Acadian Flycatcher for the latter, both those goals were checked off and sufficiently surpassed.  Additionally, my Kandiyohi County list skyrocketed this past year with 19 additions which far exceeded what I thought would happen.  Some of those were some real mind-benders too, like the Western Tanager.

So, without further adieu, here are the top 10.

10. Barn Owl–This was not a lifer as I saw it in 2015. That sighting left me wanting more as the Owl flushed from its roost and didn’t allow me the chance to take a picture. I actually felt sick about the missed opportunity for a long time.  It was the only Owl I had seen but not photographed.  This year I went for revenge and repeated the attempt on our annual AZ trip.  This time I found the bird to be a bit more mellow with one more year of age.  This was a great photo redemption bird that filled the void from last year and is representative of several photo redemptive birds I had in 2016. Plus my buddies Tommy DeBardeleben and Gordon Karre were with me.

Barn Owl

9. Black-backed Woodpecker–This was another non-lifer that was pretty sweet to me in 2016.  I had two great sightings.  The first was in February and was found by my parents’ house in northern MN by Tommy and Gordon on their big Minnesota trip.  I had been looking for this particular BBWO for years, so it was great to finally see it in this spot. And there were two!  Then I had another fun encounter with this bird, or I should say a whole family of these birds, in another location this past summer in northern MN.  This has to be my all-time favorite Woodpecker.

Black-backed Woodpecker8. Eastern Screech-Owl–Again, I had seen this bird before, but that sighting was of a snoozing bird in the opening of a Wood Duck house. I never even got to see the eyes, so in a way, I didn’t feel like I had really seen the bird.  This year’s experience was much different. First off, this year’s Eastern Screech-Owl was a TOBY Owl–an Owl that I helped good friend, Tommy DeBardeleben, see as a lifer in order to complete his goal of seeing and photographing all 19 species of Owls in the country. I would be remiss if I did not include at least one TOBY Owl in my Top 10. The particular Screech that I helped Tommy see was a very popular one at Lake Harriet in Minneapolis.  A scouting trip to see this bird gave me only a slight improvement on my lifer sighting of the sleeping Owl:

Eastern Screech-OwlI actually scouted this bird twice, and it took just a slight amount of arm-twisting to convince Tommy to do what probably no other birder had ever done before–fly in to Minneapolis from Phoenix for less than 24 hours to see an Eastern Screech-Owl.  But Tommy is an intrepid Owler and often does what no one else does.  And because of that, Owling is always better with Tommy.  The view of the Screech in the hole above is what 95% of the Owl paparazzi saw; Tommy and I were in the othe 5. As it has been said, when you think like everyone else, you aren’t really thinking.  So rather than show up midday like everyone else to look for a sleeping Owl, Tommy and I were at Lake Harriet before the light of day completely by ourselves.  In the emerging pre-dawn light, Tommy discovered the Screech Owl as it flew right by him, and once again I got to hear him say that adrenaline-pumping phrase, “Hey Josh!!”  Tommy and I then enjoyed an extremely active Eastern Screech-Owl that wasn’t confined to a hole!  The combination of helping Tommy get this life bird and getting Owl #16 for his Big Year along with the show this Owl put on made it feel like a lifer experience even though it wasn’t for me.

Eastern Screech-Owl7. Black Scoter–Though I saw this lifer on December 8th, it was buzzer beater for 2016 as most of Minnesota’s lakes were completely iced over on December 9th.  I had hoped for this bird all fall and finally gave up on it until the next year.  And then news came in of one not far away, and not just any Black Scoter, but one that was an adult male!  This one felt really, really good to add in the final moments of 2016.

black scoter6. Le Conte’s Sparrow–This lifer is a bird that is a regular migrant through my part of the state in September and October.  I often get busy that time of year and so never pursued one.  This fall I was intentional about getting out, and it only took a couple tries before I finally locked on to one.  The beauty of this lifer was that it was a county bird and only two miles from home.  The chances of me getting another life bird in the home county are very, very slim.  This was a moment I savored.

Le Conte's Sparrow5. Gray Partridge–You ever balance your checkbook and it’s off by just a penny and it drives you crazy until you find the error? I had seen Gray Partridge before in both Montana and Minnesota.  The problem was that both sightings occurred before I was a birder.  So, technically I had it on my state/life lists, but I had no record on eBird because I could not recall dates when I had seen them.  Well, one day this past spring when I was walking at some sewage ponds in my county, I kicked up two Gray Partridge along a fenceline!  I couldn’t believe it.  I could finally get my eBird numbers to match my real life experiences, and better yet, I got a very difficult county bird!  The story for Gray Partridge doesn’t end there, though. Even though I had gotten eBird squared away and even got it on my county list, I still had no photo of one.  And honestly, it’s one of those birds I just wrote off as one I probably never would photograph because they are rarely seen and usually flush if seen. On a trip to Fargo this spring to see a Garth Brooks concert, I checked out a reported location of Gray Partridge in the middle of town on my way to pick up some coffee for Melissa.  And wouldn’t you know, I not only found the Partridge, but I had an incredible photo session with them too.  Unbelievable.  Never thought I’d experience that.

Gray Partridge4. Piping Plover–Do you remember my 2015 year-in-review post where I mentioned my most expensive bird, the Piping Plover? I chartered a boat on Lake Superior in Wisconsin for a sum of money I am too embarrassed to disclose just to add this endangered species lifer.  Let that sink in for a minute.  Last May, Marin had her dance recital, whose Saturday show brought an influx of company and a certain amount of stress with the increased busyness around the household. Moreover, I was a performer myself for the father-daughter portion and so I had my own anxieties going on as well.  Sunday after all the company cleared out and the initial performance was under my belt, things relaxed a bit but not too much–we did have another performance that afternoon.  We didn’t go to church that morning.  Instead, I took Marin on a relaxed daddy-daughter date to Robbins Island Park in Willmar. I brought my binoculars because it was May.  I’m not stupid.  But I was stupid because I left my camera at home. I spied a light-colored shorebird on the beach, and I nearly died of shock when I saw it was a Piping Plover!  I have to apologize to Marin for being a crummy date as the next half hour consisted of frantic phone calls to birder friends to get there and a frantic call for Melissa to bring my camera all while I kept a close eye on this new county and state bird.  In dramatic fashion, the bird flew off just as Melissa was pulling in with my camera.  Thankfully it reappeared shortly afterward and I was able to get killer photos.  Another bonus of this bird was that it was a lifer for a few people, including my buddy Steve Gardner. This was serendipity at its finest.

Piping Plover3. Whiskered Screech-Owl–This was my number-one target for our 2016 Arizona trip.  I had zero doubts I would get this lifer because I was being guided by friends Tommy DeBardeleben and Gordon Karre in Madera Canyon. I’ve put on a lot of miles with these guys and seen a lot of Owls with them.  Earlier in the year, I had been the guide for the Owls on the Minnesota expeditions, and now our roles were reversed.  What made this outing special was that Tommy’s Owl Big Year had long been wrapped up, and this was the first time we had Owled together since that feat was accomplished. It was fun to be Owling together once again with no Big Year pressure.  And it was like a victory lap for Tommy where he got to give back to one of his pit crew in the form of an Owl lifer.  Tommy loves giving back.  The Whiskered Screech was my 16th Owl lifer.  I am getting very near seeing all 19 myself, so each new one is precious.  Not only is it awesome to get a new Owl lifer, but Owling at night in Arizona is just plain exciting, especially when Tommy is at the helm.

Whiskered Screech-Owl2. Northern Saw-whet Owl–You never know when or where you will get a bird that you’ve been dreaming about for a long time.  Last winter I tried a known roosting spot for Northern Saw-whet Owl at one of our state parks on THREE separate occasions.  One of those was with Tommy and Gordon.  Tommy was flat out mad that we couldn’t find it because he wanted to get me this lifer after I had recently helped him get his Great Gray, Snowy, Northern Hawk, and Barred Owl lifers in the previous three days.  It just wasn’t meant to be I guess. Fate had other plans.  Because I work at a small school where everybody knows I am in to birds, I often get bird reports and sightings from my colleagues.  At a meeting in February, one teacher excitedly told me about a “baby Great Horned Owl” at his friend’s house.  It didn’t make sense because it was the middle of winter. Then when he said, “Yep, it just sits in the same spot all day in a pine tree,” I knew that his friend had one of my most coveted birds as a house guest.  After a few texts were exchanged, Steve Gardner and I were on the road a couple hours later with the necessary permissions to view the cutest Owl you’ve ever seen.  We had finally, FINALLY, laid eyes on this elusive Owl.  I drank lifer beer that night when I got home.  It tasted soooo good.

Northern Saw-whet Owl1. So here we are at #1.  What is it you might ask? A lifer? A state bird? A vagrant? A colorful bird? None of the above! In my never ending studies of Kandiyohi County birding, I had learned that Kandiyohi County had no record of a Surf Scoter.  It didn’t make sense to me since our county is full of lakes, and this species shows up regularly throughout the state during their migration window.  So I made it my personal mission to get out there and find one.  Besides, I just really love sea ducks.  For weeks this fall I checked soooo many lakes and always got the same result–until one day when I got a different result:

Surf ScoterIt was a brand new bird for our county which is not an easy task these days. In a county with 311 recorded species, of which Randy Frederickson has seen 292 of them, there are very few birding frontiers on the home turf. One of the great things about this sighting was that my Kandiyohi County birding friends Randy Frederickson, Ron Erpelding, Joel Schmidt, and Steve Gardner all got to add this bird to their county lists too.  For Joel it was even a state bird, and for Steve it was life bird.

This sighting was an affirmation that hunches, hard work, and persistence all pays.  Quite often during my searching I would get frustrated with myself for wasting time on something that would probably never happen.  Then it did.  And from that I gained something better than even a county record bird: experience, experience that will fuel me through the low points in future searches and push me to go just one more mile, check just one more spot.

Surf Scoter

As I contemplated my top 10 and wrote this piece, some self-revelations started to emerge from my selections. First, a majority of the birds I selected were not lifers, indicating that a quality experience with a choice bird can be way more exciting than simply seeing a brand new species. Second, noticeably absent from the above list were mega rarities that I chased.  Such chases are often not my most favorite birds. Examples that come to mind in 2016 include such greats as Arctic Tern, Red Knot, Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, and several more. They were great birds and fun additions to the respective lists, but hopping in a car, driving for hours to see a bird, and then heading for home again gives short-term satisfaction but little else.  Does this mean I won’t chase anymore? Probably not, but maybe I’m growing up and will think twice before I say it’s go-time.  I’ll remember that those chase birds don’t have the memory-making potential of a special bird found at home or an elusive bird that I’ve been after for years.  Case in point is a Curve-billed Thrasher that is currently overwintering three hours from my house. It’s only been in the state a handful of times, but I see it annually in Arizona.  I’m not sure that’s worth the trip.  Will I go? Maybe yes. Maybe no.  Time will tell.  Finally, a third thing that jumped out at me from this list was that Owls disproportionately dominated the list for all the birds I saw in 2016. Of course, this is only to be expected when I was so heavily involved in Tommy’s Owl Big Year and was saturated with Owls–I saw 12 species myself, 9 of which were in Minnesota!  Tommy’s love for Owls is contagious, which leads me to my parting thought on 2016:

TOBY–The Best Part of Birding in 2016

Great Gray Owl

I described 2015 as my pinnacle year of birding because I took a trip to Montana to get my lifer Greater Sage-Grouse with my dad and my son. While that won’t be topped, helping Tommy work on his Owl Big Year in 2016 was the next best thing.  I helped Tommy get 5 Owl lifers which were obviously TOBY Owls (Great Gray, Snowy, Northern Hawk, Barred, and Eastern Screech) and connected him with a birding friend to get a 6th TOBY Owl (Short-eared) on his three trips to Minnesota last year. While none was a life bird for me and while I’ve seen some of the species several times, I felt like I was lifering all over again along with Tommy as we went to the ends of civilization north of Roseau to the center of civilization in Minneapolis to chase Owls.  We traveled great distances, raced clocks, and even had some harrowing moments, but through all that we saw some amazing things and we shared the thrill of living. I’m very proud of my friend, Tommy DeBardeleben, for dreaming big and accomplishing his dream of seeing all 19 species of Owls in less than a year. And thankfully, I was along for about 1/3 of the ride.  These experiences are some that I am very proud of and will remember very fondly for the rest of my life.

Ten Arizonan Fingers for 10 Arizona TOBY Owls; 6 Minnesotan Fingers for 6 Minnesota TOBY Owls, sub-divided into two hands--a hand of 5 fingers for 5 Tommy Owl Lifers and 1 Thumb for a big thumbs up on Tommy's progress

So what’s in store for 2017? If I could pick, I would choose the types of birding experiences I wrote about in my top 10.  Who knows what will actually happen.  I think there will definitely be a focus on Owls in the new Year–what can I say, Tommy has rubbed off on me. My birding/owling goals have been written on paper. Speaking of which, that list got off to a rocking start on New Year’s Day.  Don’t miss the next post.

Carpe Duck

As I reach the end of the MN regulars for my life list, certain species have been drawing my attention with a laser-like focus. This fall my obsession was to finally end my Scoter quest and nab a Black Scoter.  This rare-regular sea duck can be found in late fall every year in MN, most often on Lake Superior but also sometimes inland.  I was  determined to chase any Black Scoter that showed up within a couple hours of home.  It was a bountiful year for sea ducks in the upper Midwest, BLSC no exception.  In fact, both of the other Scoters were even seen in the home county.  Fun as that was, my main Scoter itch wasn’t being scratched–I wanted to see a Black one bad. Black Scoters inevitably showed up within a reasonable distance, but always during the work week with none of them spending more than 24 hours in one spot. Weekends–go figure–were painfully quiet for Black Scoter news.

As December was settling in for the long cold nap with bodies of water freezing up everywhere, my Black Scoter hopes were quickly fading with each passing day. With great pain I was forced to acknowledge the truth: Black Scoter would probably not be notched until fall of 2017. But then, my hopes came roaring back when Julie Winter Zempel posted a photo of a stunning adult male Black Scoter on Lake Waconia, a drive that was an hour and change. The Scoter was detected the day before by Bill Marengo, the news of which nearly slipped completely under the radar had it not been for Julie diligently mining the MOU database to find Bill’s report. One major problem to this sighting, though: weekday.  My Scoter lust got the better of me and so when I had a meeting with my boss that next morning I asked if she’d approve me on the spot for a half personal day.  With an affirmative answer, I was on my way out the double doors.

This truly was my last chance for a Black Scoter in 2016. The only thing keeping Lake Waconia open in the teen temps was the raging west wind. It was figuratively and literally keeping the ice at bay.

Lake WaconiaWhen I pulled up to the boat launch at Lake Waconia Regional Park, I saw a Carver County Sheriff truck trailering a patrol boat. I thought it was odd since no one would be on the lake on a day like this nor could a boat be launched in the rapidly building ice. Strange. I didn’t think about it much more and set about my business of finding my target.  Watching the sea swells and facing into the sub-zero windchills was brutal even for being dressed for the elements. Scans of the big lake were intermittent and necessitated warm-up sessions in the car.  Having no luck seeing the duck (which was there that morning), I asked Julie for any tips on where to stare into that blue abyss to find this duck. In giving me directions, Julie also reminded me of the ongoing search for a paddleboarder that went missing two week prior.  The dots started connecting in my head regarding the Sheriff’s trailered boat, trucks driving slowly along the shoreline who I had thought were also looking for the Scoter, and my own vague recollection of a news report I had seen. It was suddenly a grim realization that I should be looking for more than just my bird.

Julie gave me spot on directions.  Following them exactly finally allowed me to spot that gorgeous black blob as it appeared and disappeared in the rolling white caps.  Finally. The journey had ended with one new Scoter species per year.

Black ScoterThe incredible distance, the numb fingers, and disappearing/reappearing bird made picture-taking a nightmare.  Regardless, I was thrilled to finally add this bird and see an adult male at that, a gender/plumage combo that is rarely ever seen in the state.

Black Scoterblack scoterBlack ScoterThe excitement of this new addition was tempered by a Sheriff’s helicopter making constant circles around the lake the whole time I was there, undoubtedly desperate to find this man on this last day of open water. The man was just a couple years younger than me with two young kids and another on the way. He had gone out to pursue his passion of wildlife photography from his paddleboard. And here I was at the same body of water just a couple weeks later pursuing mine.  Life really is unfair. The whole ride back to work it was hard not to wonder if I sometimes take unnecessary risks in the pursuit of my hobby.  Then again, a life lived with no adventure is a life not fully lived.  Seize the day.

Something to Grouse About on Thanksgiving

Home beckons most everyone on Thanksgiving.  And when you are a birder and that home is the northwoods of Minnesota, the call is even louder.  The quiet, Black Spruce bogs covered in a recent, two-foot dumping of snow compelled me to go exploring.  I did just that, and this year the cornucopia of good birds was overflowing.  It was a feast of feasts. There is much to be thankful for, not the least of which were three gift Spruce Grouse sitting on the highway just a couple miles from Melissa’s family’s place.

Spruce GrouseI couldn’t believe my luck. This happened once two years ago in this same spot but with just one bird. The female (lifer gender) above and the male below stood motionless on the road as I crept the vehicle closer and closer to them.

Spruce GrouseAs I watched, I spotted a second male just on the edge of the woods who wanted nothing to do with me.

Spruce GrouseI wanted to creep by the birds and get around them by driving on the shoulder so that I could view these dark, male statues from the front, their better side. As I did so, another car came down the highway and now I was worried these dumb things would get killed.  I wasn’t going to let that happen, so I planned to shoo them off the road.  But I didn’t have to because my close presence at this point and the approaching car thankfully activated them. I was able to snap another pic of the male on the road before he flew off. The birds barely flew into the edge of the woods and never re-flushed, yet try as I might, I could not pick them out of the Spruce trees.  Their camouflage and ability to sit motionless are amazing.

Spruce Grouse

Not to be outdone by their cousins this Thanksgiving, the Ruffed Grouse put on quite a good show and were seemingly ubiquitous. Even while feasting at Grandma’s house a couple even flew in to have their own feast of Aspen buds…

Ruffed Grouseand Birch catkins…

Ruffed GrouseEveryone eats well at Grandma’s house and goes home stuffed.Ruffed Grouse

The day after Thanksgiving, I had the pleasure of birding with Julie Grahn, a local birding friend who often keeps me up to date on the latest bird happenings back home.  As if the Grouse weren’t enough birding excitement for one trip, little did I know the good birding was just getting started.  Julie and I had some solid finds early on of Black-billed Magpie, Northern Shrike, and Rough-legged Hawk, but the real excitement came when we walked a stretch of road in a mature Black Spruce bog.  Our target was a Boreal Chickadee–I had heard one two days prior, which was another exciting first for this little patch of mine.  However, as we started walking we heard the rapid “chiff-chiff-chiff-chiff” of two White-winged Crossbills flying overhead!  This is a bird I have only ever seen in quick glimpses in the past. I certainly had no photo of one. That finally changed and may have made this the best sighting of the trip.

White-winged CrossbillWhite-winged CrossbillA little while later, Julie asked me to stop the car to check out a bird I had dismissed as a Raven.  This instance is proof of why two birders are better than one because Julie had spotted a juvenile Northern Goshawk!  Like the Crossbill, this was another photographic first for me.  I have had several probable NOGOs in the area but had never had one sit still before to know for sure.

Northern GoshawkTo end my birding for this trip, I later went into the town of Cook and found the Bohemian Waxwing flock Julie had told me about.

Bohemian WaxwingThis holiday’s birds were off the charts.  It ended up being some of the best birding I’ve ever had at home up north and certainly gives the birder in me much to be thankful for.  Unfortunately gratitude has a time limit before greed kicks in…how many more days until we go home for Christmas?

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.

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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.