The Year of the Odd Duck

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

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

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

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck

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

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck

Time for Summer

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

Thursday

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

Yellow-headed Blackbird

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

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

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

Friday

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

Saturday

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

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

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

Summer TanagerSummer Tanager

Summer Tanager

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

Marin note

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

Sunday

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

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

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

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

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

Northern Mockingbird

Northern Mockingbird

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

Swainson's Hawk

Monday (today)

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

Short-billed Dowitcher

What’s next?

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

Slippin’ on Down to the Oasis

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

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

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

Scheels lot

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

Gray Partridge

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

Gray PartridgeGray PartridgeGray Partridge

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

Gray Partridge

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

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

The Call of the West

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

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

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

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

😮

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

Western Tanager

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

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

Evan Marin North Dakota

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

Marbled Godwit

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

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

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

Sharp-tailed Grouse

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

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

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl

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

Short-eared Owl

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

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

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

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

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

When Will It Ever Happen?

April 22, 2016, that’s when.

Willet

Willet has been my nemesis shorebird for a couple years now. I’ve chased and searched but could never catch a break with this one until Joel Schmidt called me up after work on Friday.  Joel asked me if I still needed a county Willet.  I practically stuttered when I admitted my shame of telling him I needed a Willet period. My bag of shame birds got a little lighter, but I still tote a few around.

Funny thing is that I took this bird for granted in my early birding career.  It’ll come, I told myself. One time I even turned down a similar call from Joel two or three years ago when he found a Willet in the county.  Learning that it was over a 100 yards from the road in the disappearing light of the evening, I turned Joel down thinking that there would be better opportunities.  I have not been more wrong. On Friday I didn’t hesitate. I got Joel’s call as I was pulling into the driveway after picking up kids from school. I promptly dropped them off in the care of their mother and then sped away.

Willet To a non-birder this is pretty drab bird, but it can be quite flashy when it flies revealing a striking white and black pattern.  I watched the bird for over a half hour hoping to catch a glimpse of it flying, but it never did.  Eventually I had to get back to the house.  Flashy wings or not, the Willet never fails to impress Minnesota birders because it is such an uncommon migrant.  As such I posted Joel’s sighting on FB. I love posting birds like this because we are such an underbirded county–good birds may attract a few visitors who in turn could find something great in the home county.

Feeling the energy that a new life bird can bring, I went out birding this morning looking for nothing in particular, hoping to find a rarity.  Cinnamon Teal is always high on the want list for a county bird, but I won’t snub a chance to finally get a good photo of its much more common cousin.

Green-winged TealGreen-winged TealAs I was Teal-gazing, though, someone answered the Willet ad in the classifieds. Visiting birder Brad Abendroth struck out on the Willet but instead discovered a whopping 23 American Avocets at that pond!

American AvocetThe birding fun doesn’t end there. Later in the day I took the kids on a short hike at my Gray Partridge spot.  As we walked a fence-line in 20 mph winds we got lucky and kicked up a single Gray Partridge from just 2 feet away! It startled Marin pretty good; she wanted to walk behind me after that. Evan enjoyed seeing this lifer.  Based on the deep rusty color of the outer tail feathers, it must have been a male.  When I saw the two the other day, one had bright rusty outer tail feathers like this and the other had lighter-colored ones, possibly indicating a pair.  If that’s the case, perhaps the female we didn’t see today was sitting tight on a nest. We can only hope.

Great Tales of Local Listing

After I dropped the kids off at school Monday, my day off could be spent however–catching up on housework, catching up on real work, or birding. Tough decision–thought no birder ever. What was a tough decision was how I was going to bird. A tantalizing list-serv report came in the middle of the night of a Great-tailed Grackle just 40 miles away.  Though it may be a trash bird in the south, this potential state bird has already been the object of two failed chases but could have the honor of being Minnesota #300 if the third chase was successful. But would it be there the next day?  Would I fail again and own that disgraceful statistic?  I have also been hard-pressed to find a Willet for my life list and with the median migration date fast approaching, I thought it would be prudent to look for such a thing instead of going for the Grackle.  The possibility of exploring and discovering was winning out over the possibility of chasing and being disappointed.

I started the day by heading down to the Bird Island sewage ponds, a known mecca for shorebirds during migration.  Except this day; one Yellowlegs sp.  Looks like I chose wrong. The day was young, though, so I thought I’d check one more spot for shorebirds before joining Evan for lunch at his school. On the way I got a text from Melissa who added Common Loon to our yard list as a bird flew so low and yodeled so unmistakable (to any Minnesotan) and loud that she heard it from inside the house.  This was a pretty exciting addition to the list as there is not water around us for several miles!

I knew my next stop for shorebirds was a long shot for a Willet.  But I had to try. As I walked a fence line on the property, the ground exploded at my feet with rushing wings. Pheasants? Small-bodies, gray birds, no long tails, rusty outer tail feathers…not pheasants–GRAY PARTRIDGES!!!

Gray PartridgeSure, it’s a crummy photo but this was taken on the draw as I stalked the two birds for a second flush.  The thrill of this encounter is tough to put into words. Gray Partridges are  tough, tough birds to find in anywhere in Minnesota.  They are most often seen in the dead of winter at dawn or dusk when they are feeding out in the plowed fields. Their dark bodies are easy to spot against the snow.  But even this is a rare occurrence for the luckiest of birders who happen to be traveling down the right gravel road.  Gray Partridges like short grass areas where the cover is “thin” and small in area, quite the opposite of Pheasants.  They hold tight and can hide among little/no cover. Unless a birder is getting off the beaten path and hiking old fence lines, drainage ditches, and abandoned farm sites, they likely will never see this bird.  I actually have seen this bird before and in Minnesota, but I did so as a Pheasant hunter. A few years before I was a birder, a buddy and I kicked up a covey of about 10 birds and harvested one (it was and still is a legal game bird).  But that was the last time I laid eyes on one.  Since then I have started doubting their existence and begun to think, as some bird bloggers have, that this is a mythical bird. The thought of one in my own county was even more preposterous.  Yet with a new county bird–and an exceptional one at that!–count me among the believers again.

Because I have seen Gray Partridges in Minnesota in the past but could not recall the date, this has been the one species that has caused my MN eBird list and my actual MN list to be out of balance.  This find rectified that; I am still reveling in the synchronization.

I have literally hunted (successfully) Gray Partridges, or Hungarian Partridges, in Montana two decades ago; but no worries, I won’t be chasing these two with a shotgun.  In fact, I’m not even sharing the location with birders because I think these two might be nesting at this site. I will be taking Evan out there in the coming week as he told me he would like to get this lifer.

Speaking of Evan, I dashed into town full of birdrenaline to meet him for lunch. And then I went for dessert up in Swift County:

Great-tailed Grackle

Great-tailed GrackleNew yard bird (the state bird!), new county bird(!!), eBird list harmony, new Minnesota bird, 300th MN bird–all in one day.  Good times!!

TOBY’s MSP Touchdown

Obsession has put down deep roots here at ABWCH over finding Eastern Screech-Owls in anticipation of finding one for TOBY (Tommy’s Owl Big Year) in June.  The more I researched and chatted up the wise old birders, the more nervous I was getting about our prospects for this bird in June–sightings drop off dramatically in the summer months. Meanwhile, Tommy DeBardeleben had been blitzing toward his goal of seeing all 19 Owl species that can be found in the U.S., seeing 15 of them already by April 7th. Accomplishing this unique goal was no longer a pipe dream, but now a very realistic possibility.  TOBY could not fall apart over the relatively common ESOW.

Seeing as how we had a “bird in the hand” with the Lake Harriet Screech in Minneapolis, I got the crazy idea to explore the possibility of flying Tommy in for a lightning-fast trip to knock out this Owl. To my amazement, airfare was ridiculously cheap. I proposed my idea to Tommy and like the proverbial tossed spaghetti, it stuck.  After coordinating work schedules on both ends and shopping for airfare, Tommy was all set with a $127 plane ticket and a round-trip that would only take 21 hours from the time he walked into Phoenix Sky-Harbor Airport to the time he walked out. Tommy is likely the only birder to ever make a cross-country chase just to see an Eastern Screech-Owl.

Last Tuesday after I tucked the kids into bed, I drove to the Cities and crashed at my brother’s place for a few hours.  Tommy’s plane got in at midnight, and I was there to pick him up by 2:45 AM.  We would be Owling right away.  We traveled to Chimney Rock Scientific and Natural Area near Hastings to search for Screech-Owls in the dark.  Several had been reported here in the past.  However, as soon as we got to the location, we knew it was likely a lost cause–wind was gusting up to 20 mph.  There would be no way we could hear Screech-Owls vocalizing.  We Owled on regardless, hoping to get lucky.  The only bird we had any luck with was a Dark-eyed Junco that was equally stunned to see us.

Dark-eyed Junco

After an hour or so in the wind and spitting rain we gave up and decided to make our way to Minneapolis so we’d arrive at the location of the famous Lake Harriet Screech just before dawn.

Once we were at Beards Plaisance, a park on the southwest side of Lake Harriet, I immediately checked the famous roosting cavity with my flashlight.  Nothing. Then I checked a couple of White Pines where it can be found, and again did not find it.  It was somewhat discouraging, but Tommy and I were still confident the famous Screech was near us…somewhere.  I had given up on searching until it was daylight out when Tommy had called out that he had it! Lifer Owl #18 for Tommy, and #16 for TOBY! In the pre-dawn light Tommy caught a glimpse of it flying right by him as it was being chased by a Robin. From that point forward, we spent a great deal of time enjoying the Eastern Screech-Owl.  Prior to this I had only ever seen this species in a hole of some sort.  To see one out in the open and being very active felt like I was seeing this bird for the first time.

Eastern Screech-OwlThe Owl vocalized often and moved from perch to perch.  It was simply awesome.

Eastern Screech-OwlI was amazed by how hyperactive this Owl was–it pays to observe a nocturnal bird nocturnally!  Here’s a short video where you can see what I mean.

Watching and photographing this Screech-Owl alongside Tommy was incredibly fun.  We got to observe this Owl as few people do since most people come during the daylight hours and see a sleeping bird.

Eastern Screech-Owl

Eastern Screech-OwlThis bird called often with its monotonic trill.  Hearing it was a new thing for me and just as thrilling as seeing it.  Check it out.

The Screech continued to be active and vocalize even as it was getting more and more light out.

Eastern Screec-OwlEventually, though, it retired to one final perch and quieted down.

Eastern Screech-Owl

Eastern Screech-OwlIt was now to time to take celebratory photos.

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

Ten Arizonan fingers for 10 Arizona TOBY Owls (so far); 6 Minnesotan fingers for 6 Minnesota TOBY Owls, subdivided into two hands–a hand of 5 fingers for 5 Tommy Owl Lifers found in MN this year and 1 thumb for a big thumbs up on what Tommy is working so hard to accomplish

Tommy

18 Owl Lifers, 16 TOBY Owls, 1 Happy Tommy

We left the Screech to enjoy the rising sun over Lake Harriet before taking his daylong nap. It had put on quite a show for Tommy and me.

Eastern Screech-OwlWith the major trip goal of seeing an Eastern Screech-Owl all locked up by 7 AM, Tommy and I had a good 5 hours of free birding time before I had to drop him off at the airport.  I was thinking as a lister and giving Tommy options for some life birds he could get.  Tommy had his Owler hat on that day, though, and he instead opted to see Barred Owls again with this free time.  We went to Fort Snelling State Park to see the famous pair, but unfortunately they were a no-show. Fortunately, Tommy picked up his American Tree Sparrow lifer for a nice bonus on the day.

We next went to the Minnesota River National Wildlife Refuge Long Meadow Lake Unit to look for another famous pair of Barred Owls that are nesting there.  As we searched we came across many fun birds as migration is just getting underway.  My personal highlight was detecting a singing Winter Wren.  Their song is one of the best of the northwoods where it lives; I was surprised that it was singing in migration.

Winter WrenWinter WrenEventually Tommy spotted what we presume to be the male of the nesting pair of Barred Owls.  I was surprised when he pointed it out to me–I really wasn’t expecting a Barred Owl in this spot.  It was a reminder to be vigilant always.  Tommy never lets his guard down.

Barred Owl

Barred Owl

This Owl was not very photogenic and quite skittish.  After following it through the woods a couple times, we decided to leave it alone and go look for the nest.  Eventually we found it.  The Mrs. was much more photogenic.

Barred OwlBarred Owl

Barred owl

Barred OwlAfter enjoying these Owls and the other birds it was time to wrap up this flash of a visit.  Tommy and I enjoyed a hot meal of Swedish meatballs at IKEA in the shadow of the Mall of America before getting him to the airport at noon.  I told Tommy that perhaps there were some Arizonans who flew to MSP the same day as he did to do something just as frivolous–spend their time and money at that retail behemoth.  The difference, though, is that what Tommy came to get will not end up in a landfill some day.  Instead we created yet another fun memory that will always be with us.

I’ve known Tommy for just over a year now, and in that time we have gone on four major birding adventures together, each with its own major goal.  And each time we have succeeded in meeting our goal.  Here’s a quick recap:

April 2015 – Elegant Trogon – Madera Canyon, AZ

October 2015 – Rufous-capped Warbler – Hunter Canyon, AZ

January 2016 – Great Gray Owl, Northern Hawk Owl, Snowy Owl – Northern MN

April 2016 – Eastern Screech-Owl – Minneapolis, MN

Little did we know that the winter MN Owling trip would spark TOBY, making it a real possibility.  Tommy has just three Owls left to find for his Big Year: Flammulated, Short-eared, and Boreal.  Working on TOBY is not over for me yet, the focus is just shifting.  Tommy is counting on another trip to Minnesota as Plan A for one of these birds. Perhaps Minnesota will even have a remote, unlikely chance of being Plan C for another. Time will tell.

It was a thrill to be able to do this compact, high-adventure with Tommy.  I am looking forward to the next adventure. Congratulations, Tommy, on your new lifer Owl and getting Owl species #16 on the year!

 

One Eye Open and Always Listening

Call me a curmudgeon, but I just have not been pumped up for migration this spring and often let the world of birds buzz around me without taking notice.

Eastern Screech-OwlMaybe it’s work, maybe it’s my unfinished taxes, maybe it’s the fact that the regulars have become blasé, but my obliviousness is mostly due to my OCD over ESOWs for TOBY (Tommy’s Owl Big Year).  Nights are filled with mining the data, pumping the contacts, and even prowling the woods.  There has been little time for the ordinary.  This indifference should not be mistaken for a lack of awareness of my surroundings or of the current events in the birding world.

Eastern Screech-OwlSometimes things do catch my attention requiring me to investigate matters further.

Eastern Screech-Owl

As I’ve been Screeching lately, some of the ordinary birds have stopped me cold–only because I thought I was taking machine gun fire.  Turns out it was just a Good God Bird.

Pileated Woodpecker

Screech-Owls love tree cavities.  So do Wood Ducks.  Still, I was astonished to find no fewer than six pairs of Wood Ducks in the treetops in two small city parks.

Wood Duck

Wood Duck

The Eastern Screech-Owl focus has been pretty laser-like, but I am still doing my due diligence when it comes to listing/chasing.

I recently went after a lifer Red-throated Loon in Brainerd which had a decidedly not-red throat and even more decidedly un-Loonlike appearance, as in it didn’t appear at all.  The consolation was a small flock of Bohemian Waxwings under a blue sky.

Bohemian Waxwing

Bohemian Waxwing

Bohemian Waxwing

Also in recent birding adventures, I picked up MN #299, Mountain Bluebird, after two attempts. I even have a crappy photo to prove it.

Mountain Bluebird

A nearby American Tree Sparrow was slightly more accommodating.

American Tree Sparrow

At the county level, progress on the list has been steady, albeit unexciting. Ross’s Goose was a solid add and bonus points were earned for a three-Goose photo.

Ross's GooseAnother overdue addition was American Woodcock, peenting style. (Turn the volume way up)

Though not a new county bird, I continue to document the rare ones, like the Mute Swan, for eBird.

Mute Swan

One only knows what more will show up this migration.  One bird that migration won’t drop in my lap is the Eastern Screech-Owl.  For that I must fight the good fight and play the numbers game.  I’ve got two months to figure it out.  The truth is I love the focus of a singular goal, even more so when it’s a challenging one. Bring it on, Screech.

Eastern Screech-Owl

An Unadvanced Birder working on a VIB’s Advance Team

Every so often in our quirky, obsessive hobby of birding, someone gets the idea of doing a Big Year in the hopes of becoming a record holder for his or her county, state, or continent. Pursuing such a number is nothing new and most birders succumb to number seeking in one way or another. Maybe I’m a bit biased because of my personal investment, but when Tommy DeBardeleben announced his Owl Big Year, I was genuinely intrigued.  According to Tommy, he must see and photograph all 19 species of Owls that regularly occur in the United States in 2016.  Seeing all the Owls in one’s lifetime is quite the achievement, let alone seeing them all well in a single year. Tommy got off to a good start in Minnesota in January and has continued knocking out Owl species left and right since he got back to Arizona.

Just as surprising as Tommy’s Owl Big Year announcement was his decision to return to Minnesota in June. The TOBY immediately makes Eastern Screech-Owl the number one target for his return to the land o’ lakes.  Not only does he need it for the TOBY, but it would also be a lifer for him.  As Tommy’s host, the pressure is on…again.  Unlike those winter Owls, though, I have only ever seen one ESOW in my life and not by any skill on my part {gulp}.   ESOW is a year-round resident that can be found throughout the state.  That does not translate into them being easy finds.  I’ve made seeing/finding the easternmost Screech species my main goal for 2016.  It is a good goal, a solid goal. It has given some direction to this new year of birding in which I was just drifting along.  It is a goal that requires a great deal of inquiry of wise old Owlers as well as searching on my own–no stone unturned as they say, or more appropriately, no cavity unchecked.

Eastern Screech-OwlThis Eastern Screech-Owl was brought to the public’s attention this past week when  skillful Twin Cities Owler Erik Berg discovered it on a regular cavity check in Minneapolis.  Since then, the bird paparazzi have been encamped underneath this tree.

Will this Owl be around for Tommy? Doubtful.  Still, it had been a long time since I had me an ESOW sighting. I had to go check it out and scope out the lay of the land for the TOBY, just in case. Also, I had never seen ESOW eyes before.

Eastern Screech-OwlSince this Owl was just 5 minutes from my brother’s house, the kids came along and got some solid cousin time.  Jason joined me on this Owl check-up and got some great looks through others’ scopes.

Eastern Screech-OwlAfter going back to Jason’s house, I came back a little later for one last check hoping the Owl would be more in the open.  It was slightly better this time.Eastern Screech-OwlRest up, little buddy, you may have quite the visitor to entertain in a few months.

Eastern Screech-Owl

All Tied Up at 15 Apiece

Long-time followers of this blog may recall in the early years how upset Evan would get if I got a life bird and he didn’t.  Over time, though, his interest in birds has waned to a level that is healthy. Unlike Evan, my addiction has only continued to rage, and I have gone on many chases or birding outings in recent years without him.  And it doesn’t bother him when I then add new birds.  There was one bird, however, I saw a couple years ago that Evan didn’t that did kind of bug him.  I’m referring to the Long-eared Owl I saw in Arizona with Laurence Butler when Evan opted to go back to the car with Grandpa.  That’s the kind of missed opportunity that can haunt a person.

But here’s the good news: Evan got his Long-eared Owl lifer this winter, and–newsflash–it happened on the epic Tommy & Gordon Owl Expedition!  Time and circumstances have not allowed me to share until now.  We made a stop to look for Long-eareds…somewhere in Minnesota…on our way south that last day.  And Tommy, who was responsible for originally finding the AZ Long-eared, delivered for us here in Minnesota by spotting Evan’s lifer and my state LEOW.  That gave us an incredible SIX Owl species for that trip (Great Gray, Snowy, Northern Hawk, Barred, Great Horned, and Long-eared).

Long-eared OwlSo the Long-eared got Evan caught up with me on Owls at 14 Species. Then there was that Northern Saw-whet I went to see, which for reasons I still cannot figure out, Evan opted out of that easy, guaranteed, short chase and instead went to his sister’s dance practice. Once again the Owl numbers were askew.  However, our whole family recently made a stop at the Saw-whet location so my coworker, Brad, could collect the pellets for some science students to dissect.  Evan got his lifer and tied me once again.  A bonus was that we saw it with an un-pelletized deer mouse.

Northern Saw-whet OwlEvan and I both now stand at 15 Owl species apiece.  Here are the species we have seen listed in the order that Evan saw them:

  1. Great Horned Owl (MN)
  2. Great Gray Owl (MN)
  3. Barred Owl (MN)
  4. Snowy Owl (MN)
  5. Northern Hawk Owl (MN)
  6. Eastern Screech-Owl (MN)
  7. Burrowing Owl (AZ)
  8. Elf Owl (AZ)
  9. Western-Screech Owl (AZ)
  10. Northern Pygmy-Owl (AZ)
  11. Spotted Owl (AZ)
  12. Barn Owl (AZ)
  13. Short-eared Owl (MN)
  14. Long-eared Owl (MN)
  15. Northern Saw-whet Owl (MN)

There are 19 species of Owls that occur regularly in North America.  The four that we have not seen are Boreal Owl, Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Flammulated Owl, and Whiskered Screech-Owl.  As our good friend, Tommy DeBardeleben, pointed out, all 19 can be seen by visiting just Arizona and Minnesota. That’s a pretty fun fact for a couple of MN birders that go to AZ annually. The Boreal is the only one of the four remaining Owls that can be found in Minnesota, making it the number-one most wanted bird here.  Next year is supposed to be an irruption year.  Boreal Owls irrupt every four years, and the winter of 2012-2013 was incredible for them. Hopefully by this time next year we will have secured that bird.  Regarding the other AZ Owls, I’m sure it’s just a matter of a couple more trips…