You Answered the Call (of the BLGR), Minnesota

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

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

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

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

Hey, Minnesota Birders, Go Find a Blue Grosbeak

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

Gravel Pit

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

Blue Grosbeak

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

IMG_0771Fast forward to 2012, and it looked like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blue GrosbeakBlue Grosbeak

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

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

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

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

What does all this mean for Minnesota birders?

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

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

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

Final Thought

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

Flame-grilled Hot Dogs and Scorched Woodpeckers

Like most Americans, I celebrated the 4th of July weekend with family, doing the typical things like picnicking outside all day, tossing the ball around, and cruising a lake in a boat in search of a good fishing hole.  Most people are able to focus on these activities exclusively; birders always have the incidental birding meter running. That’s how you ride in a boat and show your companions a patriotic scene, fitting for the weekend.

Bald Eagle NestIt’s also how you can point out to Grandma during that all-day gathering that the bird that flushes from the house each time someone goes in or out is actually a pretty cool bird and not some lame Robin that none of us can stand to have making a mess on our house.

Eastern Phoebe nestUnlike the Robin, the Eastern Phoebe’s nest is quite aesthetically pleasing and well-constructed.

Eastern Phoebe nestI almost passed on the opportunity to get crushing photos of the most accommodating Eastern Phoebe I’ve ever seen. That would have been a shame.

Eastern PhoebeEastern PhoebeBut don’t let me fool you, it wasn’t all incidental birding.  I was in northern Minnesota, after all, a land ripe with fascinating birds in all seasons. Local birding friend, Julie, had told me about a Connecticut Warbler she had recently found in a Black Spruce/Tamarack bog not more than 20 minutes from my parents’ house.  The Connecticut was a bird I had previously only had as heard-only in the Sax-Zim Bog, so I rose early one morning donning some knee-high rubber boots, long sleeves, long pants, and an unhealthy dousing of bug spray.  I was going all in to mosquito central.  No sane person does this.bogBut we die-hard birders do, especially when we think of the possible reward of visuals of a skulker like the Connecticut. It’s worth some welts and the loss of a little sleep.  Julie had made things easy for me by marking a tree where the Connecticut had set up a territory along this abandoned, water-logged road pictured above. However, as we are getting into July, the Warblers just don’t sing as much.  When I got to the spot after hiking a quarter mile, I didn’t hear it.  But patience eventually rewarded me with that clear, ringing sound of the Connecticut: “Bea-cher, bea-cher, bea-cherbeach!” After waiting it out a little longer, I did get some great up-close looks, but I wasn’t quick enough to get a photo.  Seeing one was a good improvement on my heard-only lifer, but I really wanted that photo.  Maybe this Warbler was busy with a nest because it never did show itself again despite me waiting for an insane amount of time in the cloud of mosquitoes. I finally decided to call it quits and head back to rejoin the family.  A heard-only Boreal Chickadee and a Lincoln’s Sparrow were a couple of good birds on the hike out.

The next day on our final morning in the northwoods, I decided to give Julie’s spot one more try.  That Connecticut photo seemed in reach; like with the Phoebe, it would be foolish to pass on the opportunity to try. Thanks to a late night fireworks show, I was a little slower getting out of bed that next morning.  In fact, I arrived at the trail a full 40 minutes later than the day before.  Considering I had heard the bird right away that day and that it was singing sporadically, I didn’t like my chances for a repeat on the visual I got. When I got there and opened the car door, though, I didn’t hear the Connecticut but instead heard something just as cool–the unmistakable drumming of a Black-backed Woodpecker! And like that my search priorities shifted. I followed the sound of the steady drumming which echoed through the bog. And there, there he was just 10 feet off the waterlogged road about 10 feet up. I was blown away.

Black-backed Woodpecker

The Black-backed was not a lifer, but I have never seen a male before with his bright yellow crown and have always wanted to.  In a sense this felt just as fresh as a lifer. So I set out to accomplish one goal (photo of the COWA) and inadvertently and delightfully accomplished another.

I spent a lot of time enjoying this Woodpecker all while keeping an ear open for the Connecticut which did not vocalize even once. Black-backed WoodpeckerHere you can see and hear that distinctive drumming.  It’s such a cool sound.

I’ve heard that Black-backed Woodpeckers are quite tame and don’t really care about a person’s presence.  This experience certainly seemed to back that theory up. And if you have doubts about whether this bird was appropriately named…

Black-backed Woodpecker Black-backed Woodpecker Black-backed WoodpeckerBlack-backed Woodpecker Black-backed WoodpeckerHere’s another video.  I was hoping to capture him drumming some more, but instead caught him itching himself. Mosquito bite?

Eventually the bird went on its way, and so did I, trying to dig up that Connecticut.  I finally called it quits on the Warbler, vowing to try again next year when it was earlier in the breeding season and the birds’ hormones are still raging causing them to be more vocal. On my way back to the car I again spotted the Black-backed Woodpecker, but I noticed something different–no yellow crown, a female!

Black-backed WoodpeckerThrilled with the bonus Woodpecker, I continued my waterlogged hike back to the car.  Then I again heard a Black-backed Woodpecker a couple hundred yards from the first two, and then I saw one of them following the other around.  I thought they must be those two that I saw earlier.  I glassed the two birds as one followed the other up a Spruce and was shocked to see that both were males–an adult being followed by this juvenile!

Black-backed Woodpecker

This meant I had for sure seen three different Black-backed Woodpeckers and maybe four if the second adult male was a different bird than the first.  It’s not everyday you see a Black-backed Woodpecker, let alone a small pile of them.  Additionally, seeing a good northern bird like this outside of a birding mecca like the Sax-Zim Bog and close to “home” is always a huge thrill for me.  This encounter did not go unappreciated by me and will likely be one of my all-time birding highlights.

The Tanager Trifecta

Summer TanagerOne of the most popular birds in Minnesota this summer has been the Summer Tanager discovered by Wilmer Fernandez at the University of Minnesota’s Landscape Arboretum in Chanhassen.  Summer Tanager is rare-regular in the state, but the fact that this bachelor bird was in the Twin Cities and singing endlessly on territory made it all the rage for the better part of a week.  Not even the Arboretum’s steep per person entry fee could keep birders away, including yours truly.

Summer TanagerIf you’ve been following ABWCH this past spring, you may recall that I already made a Summer Tanager chase to get my lifer.  So why did I go after another if I’m not a county lister? Two reasons: this bird was solid red, unlike that tye-died creature I saw earlier this year, and this bird was singing on territory.  I wanted the full SUTA experience.  That quick migrant sighting didn’t fill the void.  Plus this bird was relatively close to home, and I had the time off.

Summer TanagerA couple of others who had the time off were teaching colleagues Brad Nelson and Theresa Nelson. The mother-son Nelson duo joined me on this little excursion. Our semi-annual birding get-togethers are always productive and fun–the last time the three of us met up was over a Snowy Owl near one of the towns in our district. Just like we had no problem getting that Owl, seeing this Tanager was a piece of cake.  We could hear it singing immediately once we got out of the car at the nut trees section of the Arboretum where it apparently has set up shop for the season.  We spent the better part of an hour following it around as it sang endlessly from its various perches, not even stopping its song while it feasted on insects:

Summer TanagerSummer TanagerIt’s been the year of the Tanager here in MN. To close out this post, here’s a pic of each of the two rare-regular Tanagers and a brand new Scarlet Tanager all seen in state this year.  Sorry for turning the Scarlet into a trash bird on this blog. No, I’m not–they are still an exciting bird and this post celebrates all things Tanager.

Western TanagerSummer Tanager

Scarlet Tanager

Blogger’s Potluck: Leftovers, Locals, even a Lifer

The birds have not allowed any dust to collect on this blog.  It is, of course, hard to collect dust when the bird clutter is accumulating at an alarming rate.  Lest I be featured on some blogger hoarding show, it’s time to start shoveling.  This post ties up a lot of loose birding ends.  In truth I haven’t been too excited about writing it since it does not coalesce around a single bird or birding locale.  Despite that, there are a lot of good nuggets in here–hopefully something for everybody.

Tommy Trip–The Rest of Wisconsin

Let’s get started with wrapping up the Tommy trip.  Not making the cut for the Wisconsin posts was the locally common Eastern Towhee.  Before this trip, this bird was still very novel to me as I had only ever seen just one male and one female.  I got my fill after this trip. This bird, which was a lifer for Tommy, was everywhere.

Eastern Towhee

Birders like to say EATOs sound like they are saying “Drink your tea!” when they sing.  This has been true in my very limited experience in Minnesota with this bird.  But well-traveled birders know that birds in different geographical regions often have different dialects of the same song.  I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, but in Wisconsin the Eastern Towhee sounded more like it was singing “Drink your beer!” Given how commonplace this bird was, it explains so much.

Another lifer for Tommy in Wisconsin that was surprisingly hard to track down was the Ruby-throated Hummingbird.  Also surprising was that I had never before taken the time to photograph a male of our only, fairly common Hummingbird species. Luckily they had a feeder at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge with one lonely male showing up, allowing Tommy and me to rectify our respective deficits.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Another great find near the Visitors Center was a lifer Yellow-billed Cuckoo for Evan and me.  Tommy found the bird for us which started as a heard-only bird and then eventually give us a quick fly-over sighting.  It left me wanting more. Tommy always likes to “give back” something when he comes up birding.  Last winter it was the Black-backed Woodpecker near my parents’ house that I had been wanting to see; this year it was the Cuckoo. So, thanks for the cool birds, Tommy!

Tommy Trip–Night Birding in the Minnesota River Valley

One night during Tommy’s stay, he and I ventured down to the Minnesota River Valley just east of Granite Falls for some night birding.  Birding at night is always safer and more fun in good numbers, so we joined forces with Steve Gardner and Garrett Wee.  Our prime target for the night was the Eastern Whip-poor-will.  Tommy needed the lifer, and I was hoping to finally photograph one.  Chippewa County Road 40 is probably the best place in the state to reliably find this bird.  Despite Garrett already being down there before we arrived and having heard a half dozen of the Whips, the woods was completely silent when Steve, Tommy, and I got there. We birded on anyway and soon understood why the Whips weren’t whipping it good–a pair of Barred Owls vocalized right near us.  We got amazing flashlight views as one soared just over our heads.  It was eerie and awesome.

Eventually the Barred Owls disappeared, and the Whips began to sing their unending songs as they are so well known for.  We never could get a visual unfortunately, but at least Tommy got to tally the bird for his life list. I also got to tally a new bird for my Minnesota list: a calling Yellow-billed Cuckoo in the dark!  Even though Tommy had it directly above his head at one point, we never were able to get the flashlight on it.  So the bird went from being a lifer to a state bird in a matter of two days but still left me unsatisfied.

Tommy Trip–Keeping it Local

For Tommy’s last full day of birding we decided to bird close to home even though two Minnesota Megas showed up that very day, a Baird’s Sparrow and a Calliope Hummingbird. A chase would have been fun but exhausting given all our recent travels.  We started at Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center.  I had never really explored this place before, so it was fun to give it some serious attention.  One of our highlights was yet another Scarlet Tanager. This one behaved like a proper Scarlet, hanging out exclusively in the canopy.

Scarlet TanagerThe other highlight was when Tommy picked out the sound of a calling Yellow-billed Cuckoo, a county bird for me! Once again, Tommy gives back! So in three successive days, this bird went from life bird to state bird to county bird.  But it still was a no show.  Someday.

One of our other stops of the day was Sibley State Park.  Despite this gem being so close to me, I haven’t given much time to explore it which is something I really need to resolve.  Tommy and I gave it a good effort that day, though.  It was fun to look at some common-place birds through Tommy’s fresh perspective.  We took time to enjoy Ovenbirds, Field Sparrows, and Swamp Sparrows.

Ovenbird

Field Sparrow

Swamp Sparrow

We also had a couple of good finds in the more uncommon species, like three additional Scarlet Tanagers…

Scarlet Tanager…and two Blue-winged Warblers, a very good bird for central Minnesota.

Blue-winged Warbler

Birding After Tommy

After Tommy went home with a hefty bag of 26 lifers and a plethora of good bird sightings, I have continued to poke around close to home.  The Dickcissels have invaded the state in good numbers this year.  In fact, I even added one to my yard list.

DickcisselAnother fun find I had one evening when I went out to a local wildlife management area was a completely unexpected county Least Bittern.  Though I had a killer look at one flying toward me, I wasn’t able to get any photos but did record two Least Bitterns giving their “chuckling” call.  You may have to turn up the volume.

Birders can never turn off the birding.  Even when I accompanied Evan to a Cub Scout camping weekend, I had a couple of fun finds.  Highlights included yet another Scarlet Tanager and this Pine Warbler.

Pine WarblerPine Warbler

While the Pine Warbler was a good find this far south, I found something even better at Scout camp, probably my best sighting yet…

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There are two more fun posts coming out soon–a chase to see a rare bird and an exciting Woodpecker encounter while visiting family in northern Minnesota over the 4th.

Necedah: Refuge for the Red-headed Woodpecker

One bird that Tommy, Evan, and I kept watch for as we traveled through Necedah National Wildlife Refuge was the Red-headed Woodpecker.  Tommy got his lifer a couple days prior on his Grand Forks trip.  This was a bird I hadn’t seen since 2014.  And whether you have freshly lifered on this bird or seen dozens, it is one that you really can’t get tired of seeing.  I was pretty excited about the possibility of finally ending my streak of days passed since seeing a Red-headed Woodpecker.

Once we got closer to the Visitors Center on the south end of the refuge, we started driving through some Oak Savannah habitat–good-looking stuff for a Red-headed Woodpecker.  It didn’t take long to spot one. Or two. Or three. Or a dozen.  They were everywhere.  It was insane and wonderful all at once.

Red-headed Woodpecker

IMG_8752What’s this bird looking at? Probably a mate or a competitor for a mate. There were two that were involved in a seemingly endless chase, never once pausing for a good picture.  At one point we saw them lock feet and fall to the ground like Eagles.  It was fantastic.

Red-headed WoodpeckerMy own personal RHWO drought along with the near-threatened status of this bird made seeing this abundance of Red-headed Woodpeckers extremely thrilling.  Never mind that this Woodpecker is ridiculously striking in appearance, sporting a bold, simplistic color pattern.

Red-headed WoodpeckerRed-headed WoodpeckerEvan enjoyed looking at all these cool Woodpeckers flying around us everywhere.

EvanThen again, who wouldn’t?

Red-headed WoodpeckerIt’s unfortunate that we didn’t have more time to spend with these Woodpeckers at Necedah as other areas of Necedah required exploration before we had to break for supper, hotel check-in, and Kirtland’s scouting.  But it’s good to know there is a place where one can go and see this species with ease.

On the home front, Red-headed Woodpeckers are getting harder and harder to come by.  As I mentioned before, I saw zero RHWO anywhere last year.  So I was quite thrilled when Randy Frederickson and I spotted one just recently in the home county while conducting our annual search for Blue Grosbeaks.

Red-headed WoodpeckerRed-headed Woodpecker

We can only hope that our local population will rebound to become even a fraction of what we saw at Necedah.

Necedah: Refuge for the Golden-winged Warbler

The prime target at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge was, of course, the endangered Whooping Crane.  But there were so many other good birds there, birds that have also faced steep population declines.  In reflecting on how I’d write about the rest of our birding at Necedah NWR, I decided to do two more posts, each focused on a singular, struggling species that we saw.

This post will be on the near-threatened Golden-winged Warbler.  Tommy, Evan, and I were fortunate to find a male Golden-wing on territory at the Refuge.  This was a key lifer for Tommy, and like the Cerulean, it was a bird I had only seen just a few times prior.  This observation marked the first time I had seen one on its breeding territory outside of migration. As such, it was the first time I got to see and hear one sing.

Golden-winged WarblerIf Minnesota did not already claim (appropriately) the Common Loon as its state bird, the GWWA would make a fine choice.  Minnesota plays host to roughly 50% of the world’s entire breeding population of this Warbler species.  Wisconsin and Ontario are the other major stakeholders in rearing these birds.  Maybe if most Wisconsinites knew this, they’d hold a referendum to denounce the Robin as their state bird and choose this Warbler instead.

Golden-winged WarblerThe Golden-wing’s preferred habitat is shrubby edges along wetlands and young forests. While the breeding population has remained stable in Minnesota over the last 45 years, this species has suffered a 60% population loss over that same time in the rest of its breeding range in North America.  Even though Minnesota contains only 10% of the GWWA’s breeding range, we host nearly half of all the birds of this species.  That puts an emphasis on just how much human development of wetlands and shrubby areas in other parts of the northeast has impacted this bird.

Despite Minnesota and Wisconsin being a major stronghold for this bird, the future is unclear for them here too.  GWWAs are early successional specialists that benefit from young forests that emerge after logging and/or fire.  With better fire control than ever and a decline in logging activity, prime habitat areas for the Golden-winged Warbler are growing up and not being “renewed” as often. Below is my favorite photo I took of the bird we observed because it shows the bird in a young Aspen tree, stands of which are prime habitat for this bird.

Golden-winged WarblerBesides human activity threatening this Warbler, the closely related Blue-winged Warbler is expanding its range in Minnesota.  This is problematic because the more dominant Blue-wings prefer the same type of habitat.

Blue-winged WarblerAnd when the Blue-wings aren’t kicking out the Golden-wings, they are hybridizing with them.  I have yet to see one of the two main hybrids.

I’m not sure what Wisconsin is doing regarding the conservation of this Warbler, but I’m proud of my state for taking their responsibility seriously as stewards of this bird. Something going on that’s pretty cool in Minnesota is that in 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service signed an agreement with the Red Lake Band of Chippewa to restore 1,000 acres of Golden-winged Warbler habitat each year for the next 12 years.

Golden-winged WarblerLike the Cerulean Warbler, the Golden-winged Warbler also winters in Central and South America, thriving in shade-grown coffee plantations.  Again, another reminder to drink bird-friendly coffee.  This beautiful home-grown bird is truly a treasure that needs all the help it can get.

Golden-winged WarblerKnowing how fragile a species is makes you appreciate a sighting like ours all the more. Hopefully the Golden-winged Warbler has a bright future.Golden-winged Warbler

Coming up: another stunning bird that is not just surviving but truly thriving at the beautiful Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in central Wisconsin.

The Wisconsin Trip: Searching for Two Endangered Species

The more you are around different birders, the more enlightened you become about various opportunities not far from home. Thanks to a birding friend, who shall rename nameless in this post, I learned that it was possible to see both Whooping Cranes and Kirtland’s Warblers just 5 hours and change from my house in next door Wisconsin. I’ll explain more at the end of the post why I’m keeping my friend anonymous, but he or she knows who he/she is. And that he/she is pretty awesome. 🙂

So on June 12th, Evan, Tommy, and I embarked on an overnight trip to central Wisconsin to go after these two birds which would obviously be lifers for all of us. Our first destination in Wisconsin was Necedah National Wildlife Refuge to look for the Whooping Crane. Whooping Cranes can be found in several places in Wisconsin, but we were told Necedah had good numbers, therefore making it the best spot to try.  By good numbers, I’m talking about no more than a dozen birds as there are only 300+ Whoopers in the world today.

As we drove through forests upon entering Necedah, we were somewhat baffled that Cranes live here.  However, almost immediately we spied a road that seemed to go toward an open, marshy area.  So we took it. A minute later, I spotted the first Whooping Crane for our group. Cool! It was pretty far out, but even still we could see just how massive it was.

Whooping CraneThe three of us got out of the car to enjoy this easy lifer. Then I looked back toward the vehicle and spied a second bird in a waterway that had been hidden by some trees.  This one was much closer to the road and gave us some great photo ops.

Whooping Crane

Whooping CraneWhooping CraneAs we watched this Crane, something special happened.  This one threw back its head and bugled for us! It was the loudest and coolest thing I’ve ever heard come out of a bird.  It sounded kind of like a Trumpeter Swan, only much more impressive.  Speaking of impressive, this bird stands at 52″ tall before it does this.  That’s roughly the same height as Evan.

Whooping CraneWhooping CraneThe three of us really enjoyed watching these birds.

Whooping CraneHere are Evan and Tommy each observing a different Crane.  The one Tommy is looking at is visible in the photo.  Evan is looking at the first one we found.

Evan TommyWhooping CraneThe Whooping Crane is one massive bird:

Whooping CraneThis cooperative bird eventually flew off and joined the much more distant Whooper.  So the three of us decided to keep exploring Necedah.  Necedah ended up being a phenomenal birding spot, so much so that I will save the rest for a different post and just focus on the Cranes from there in this post.  I’ll just say that Necedah plays host to some other beautiful birds, who are also struggling in numbers.

One of our stops at Necedah was the Visitors Center which is another great place to see Whoopers, even if it is from a distance.  Here we saw two more. These birds were a long ways away.  It just goes to show how big and how white these things are. Impressive doesn’t begin to describe it.

Whooping CraneThe Visitors Center also allowed us a humorous reprieve from the serious birding with some clowning around and a photo op.

Tommy Josh EvanAs I was monkeying with the settings for the self-timer on my camera, I ended up getting this gem on accident.

Evan crane

“Where are the Whoopers?”

Now we move on to Part Two of the endangered species search which occurred the very next morning, the hunt for the Kirtland’s Warbler.  This post is bittersweet for me, sweet because we had smashing success with the Whooper, bitter because the Kirtland’s encounter was mediocre.  I suppose, though, that “bittersweet” is how you would describe any endangered species sighting–a thrill to see such a bird only to be tempered with the knowledge of how few of them there are.

Anyway, thanks to my previously mentioned birding friend, we had a good idea of where to look for the now regularly established Adams County population of Kirtland’s Warblers.  Joining us were Arizona birding friends Gordon Karre and Chris Rohrer who were also in Wisconsin for some birding. So just how good was the spot we were in?  Well, when you are standing on a public road and get interrogated by two separate KIWA nest monitors AND a WDNR conservation officer, you know you are in the hot zone.  Let me tell you that Wisconsin is all about protecting this bird, of which there are only a few dozen in the state.  The bulk of Kirtland’s Warblers (maybe 4,000 birds) reside in the Grayling, Michigan area.  That is where most birders eventually go to get their lifer. After license plate numbers were taken down and we were pre-warned (even without doing anything wrong) while standing on a public road, we dared not do anything immoral or illegal, lest some black helicopters would appear from the horizon to take us away to some secret government prison.  Those Warblers are safer than any government secret; not even Ft. Knox is so well guarded.  Humor aside, the nest monitors and conservation officer were friendly and courteous, but stern.  We could tell that the nest monitors wanted to help us out further, but they were very honorable in their actions and did not compromise whatever solemn vow they took for the WDNR not to disclose any information.  And full disclosure here: my birding friend is not one of the KIWA project volunteers; this site is well known to inner-circle birders of central Wisconsin.  I will not be disclosing this person’s name or where we were searching in Adams County so as to not get this person in any kind of trouble. We were very grateful for that person’s help.

So did we see it? No, we did not despite trying for several hours.  We did get to hear one very close to the road.  However, its vocalizations were very infrequent, and it never did pop up to the top of one of the Pines to sing.  Regardless, it was neat to be in the proximity of one and hear its loud, distinctive song.  There is a Kirtland’s Warbler somewhere in the trees in this photo.

Kirtland's Warbler

The Kirtland’s Warbler is an interesting species in that it has very specific habitat requirements, mostly large stands of Jack Pine that are about 10 feet tall and have some grassy space in between.  Once the trees get taller than that, the Kirtland’s do not use that area anymore.  Further complicating this is that Jack Pine cones only open in fire, so keeping appropriate habitat available for this bird is quite the complicated management process involving logging and/or controlled burns. What was cool about the Wisconsin Kirtland’s is that they have adapted to using stands of Red Pines with a mix of some Jack Pine.  Because Red Pines are used in the lumber industry, Red Pine forests occur in many areas and are regenerated through normal human activity thus creating stands of trees that are the right height for this bird. What’s neat is that these Warblers are on private land that is owned by a lumber company that is working cooperatively with state and federal government agencies to ensure these Warblers have suitable habitat for several decades to come.  Cool, huh?

So we ended up being 1.5 for 2 on our search for two endangered species that call Wisconsin home.  It was good to see Gordon again (we’ve now birded together in three states!) and to finally get my Chris Rohrer lifer (a vagrant sighting even!).  Those guys tried again for the Kirtland’s the next morning and had tremendous success, getting killer looks and photos.  Even though Tommy, Evan, and I didn’t win the entire lottery, it was no doubt a fun, successful trip.  Like all good trips, though, it left us wanting more.  Wisconsin, we will be back!

Carver Park Reserve–Reserved for the Warbler Elite

The day after our Falls Creek SNA adventure, visiting Arizona friend Tommy DeBardeleben went on an overnight solo trip to Grand Forks, North Dakota where he successfully got his target bird, the Short-eared Owl with Sandy Aubol’s help.  Tommy is doing an Owl Big Year where he must see and photograph all 19 Owl species that can be found in the U.S. Short-eared Owl was Tommy’s 18th Owl species on the year, leaving him with just the Boreal Owl not yet seen with the better part of the year remaining. Even at one shy, Tommy’s quiet pursuit is quite remarkable and unique even in a year when everyone’s attention is on the historic Big Year race going on right now in which Olaf Danielson and John Weigel will both likely smash Neil Hayward’s record of 749.  Number chasing is nothing new and has lost some of its luster. On the other hand, Tommy’s pursuit of quality sightings and focus on completion of a singular group of birds–difficult birds–is a refreshing take on an otherwise banal goal.  You can follow Tommy’s Owl Big Year (TOBY) and his Minnesota trip reports on his blog.

Once Tommy got back, there was no rest for him as we geared up for another high octane adventure to Wisconsin.  Two endangered species were on the menu (figuratively speaking of course), but those will have to wait for another post because on our way east we made a stop in the Twin Cities to try to add a very rare Warbler to Tommy’s life list.

Our destination was Carver Park Reserve, a sprawling park complex of prairie, woodland, and lake habitats enjoyed by hikers, bikers, campers, and birders alike.  Our target was not the Blue-winged Warbler, though that is a very good bird for the state and one that can be enjoyed in good numbers and with ease from paved biking trails at Carver Park Reserve.

Blue-winged Warbler

We were serenaded by the bee-buzzzzz of three different males. Nice birds, but still not what we were after.

Blue-winged WarblerWe were after one of the most coveted and beautiful Warblers there is–the Cerulean Warbler.  This is one of my all-time favorite birds.  This individual was only the fourth one I’ve ever seen; it’s one of those birds that makes you feel like you are lifering all over again when you see it, it’s that cool.  This bird is so rare, beautiful, and cooperative–no apologies on this photo dump.

Cerulean WarblerCerulean WarblerCerulean WarblerCerulean Warbler

Cerulean WarblerThe Cerulean Warbler is in trouble because of habitat loss in its summer home in North America and its winter home in South America.  It prefers mature deciduous woods that offer a relatively open understory.  Much of their historical breeding grounds in the U.S. have been lost to farms, cities, and suburbs.  On their wintering grounds, much of the tropical forest has been converted to farms.  While Ceruleans will use shade-grown coffee plantations, they will not use the more popular and efficient sun-grown coffee plantations.  Seeing one of these birds is always a reminder of how fragile a species can be and how easily we can wipe a species off the map.  It’s also a personal reminder that I really should be drinking bird-friendly, shade-grown coffee–it’s the least I can do.  Seeing or even hearing a Cerulean is always a special treat.  Seeing one well like this and watching a friend lifer on it is even better.  And observing a Cerulean Warbler perched against a cerulean sky? Priceless.

Cerulean Warbler

Cerulean WarblerComing up: a hefty, quick trip to Wisconsin for some unrivaled birds, CEWA notwithstanding.

Mopping Up at Falls Creek SNA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Louisiana Waterthrush

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

IMG_8620

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

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

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

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