Boreal Magic: A 5-Year Dream Realized

It was 2012 when this whole birding thing began for Evan and me. By year’s end, we didn’t even have 100 species to our name. Sometime in January of 2013, I discovered Minnesota’s listserv, MOU-net. My eyes were opened to the world of rare birds. At that point in time, rare birds and common birds were all still new to us, so many of the reports were not of great significance to us. While I wasn’t into chasing rare birds at that time, a bombardment of emails regarding one bird was causing me to think I should take some kind of action. The Boreal Owl was irrupting in record numbers that January and February, coming down from Canada. I had only seen a Great Horned Owl by this time, so it was just one of 18 Owl species I had yet to see. But people were describing how this species only irrupts like this every four to five years, and birders were flying in from all over the country to see this Owl. It was a rare event to say the least; I knew I had to try. Melissa was involved in directing a school musical during that same time and couldn’t break away for a weekend getaway until early March which I later found out was a little on the late side for Boreals. Some readers may recall that it was then that we made our first ever birding trip to the Sax-Zim Bog and the North Shore, hoping to see the Boreal Owl as well as the other great northern Owls. Not only did we not see a Boreal, but we saw no Owls at all.

That winter passed giving way to new seasons and new birds. Over the years our life list would quadruple, and it would include numerous Owl sightings from 17 different species. Each winter I’d hold out some hope that there would be a report of a Boreal Owl somewhere along the North Shore of Lake Superior, but there would be none. Eventually it became a mythical bird for me. I kicked myself for not getting my butt up to Duluth in February of 2013. In the years since then, I had amassed a formidable collection of rare bird sightings in Minnesota and across the country, yet I was not a member of the Boreal Owl club.  I had Owled literally from the Canadian border down to the Mexican border seeing really cool Owls.  But the Boreal was not one of them. In fact, I was down to two unseen Owl species of the 19 that are possible: the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl and the Boreal Owl. Watching my good buddy Tommy DeBardeleben accomplish his goal of seeing all 19 Owl species in 2016 only heightened my desire to get the Boreal.  I felt as if Minnesota was a lost cause.  I began to daydream of trips to Washington state, Colorado, or Ontario to look for this Owl.   The winter of 2016-2017 was supposed to be the next Boreal Owl irruption if it truly did irrupt every four years. I eagerly awaited news last year. There were a handful of scattered reports, but nothing of a large scale irruption materialized. Would I have to wait another four years? Would I have to travel far away and spend all kinds of money to finally see this Owl?

It turns out I was not alone in my longing for a Boreal. Buddy Jeff Grotte who started the popular Facebook group, Owl About Minnesota, has seen over 1,000 Owls in the last five years. He even tried for Boreal a few times back in 12-13, but he was still Boreal-less too. Jeff and I talked often of hoping to see this bird. Then in December, a friend of Jeff’s from Indiana had a brief sighting of one in the Sax-Zim Bog. It was a fluke sighting, or so I told myself. This wasn’t the irruption year–that was supposed to be last year. Jeff and I decided to try for this Owl the very next morning. It literally was our first opportunity in five years of waiting. We had to try. Rising early, we got up to the Bog just after dawn. Great Grays, Hawk Owls, and Snowies were all off to a banner start up there, but Jeff and I have both seen plenty of each. We wanted the prize bird more than anything else. By noon we were still without a Boreal sighting and decided to call it quits. The three Owls we did see were of little consolation.Northern Hawk OwlSnowy OwlSnowy OwlHeartbroken at the time, little did we realize that the Boreal we chased was just the tip of the spear. More sightings kept popping up during December of both live and dead Boreal Owls. By the time news of one would come out, though, it would either be during the work week or late in the day making a chase impossible. Jeff and I were hopeful that our day would finally happen, but we were very antsy about it. I had an upcoming trip to Arizona that I was now dreading. I did not want to miss my chance.

Jeff, myself, and several others decided we should just head up to Duluth and the North Shore the weekend of January 6th-7th whether we had sightings to go off of or not. Clearly the Boreals were irrupting, so the plan was to either look for one on our own or geographically put ourselves in position to quickly get on a bird if there was one. I decided to drag Evan along on this trip; even if he didn’t care about Boreal Owls so much, I knew it would be a fun father-son adventure. We would travel all the way to Grand Marais to stay in my brother’s vacation home, looking for Boreals along the way.

Late in the day on January 5th, one of our group had accomplished the unthinkable: while looking for Saw-whet Owls, teenage birding brothers Ezra, Isaac, and Caleb Hosch had discovered their lifer Boreal Owl near the Twin Cities! Four days prior to that, these brothers had come out to Kandiyohi County to try to help me find a Saw-whet out here. Jeff opted to look for the Boreal these guys found that next morning. I decided to continue with my plan of heading to the North Shore. After all, Scenic 61 between Duluth and Two Harbors is where the Boreals usually pop up. Furthermore, a fellow living outside Grand Marais had one coming to his yard for a few days in a row. This Twin Cities Boreal could easily be gone the next day, and chasing it could cause me to lose valuable search time along the North Shore. Jeff planned to call me that morning if it was relocated. Sure enough, two hours into my journey north I got the call from Jeff. I was just north of Hinckley at the time, heading north on I-35. I continued to the next exit where I could get turned around to head south. It would take an hour to get there. It was a strange detour, but you know, a bird in the hand and all that…

Evan and I got to the site. Jeff was waiting for us in his car trying to get warm.  Little did we know that it was nearly a mile hike in the single-digit temps out to this Owl. Jeff did warn us that the Owl was extremely high in a pine tree, like 60 feet high, and the views were terrible. The Hosch family was also there to guide us out to where the Owl was. Visiting with the Hoschs, I learned that Jeff had called me to get me turned around on the highway before he even laid eyes on the bird himself. Nice guy. When we got out to The Tree, Isaac and Ezra were helping people get on their amazing find. I could not see the darn thing despite patient birders trying to describe where it was. Just as I was about to zero in on it, it flew! So, technically I had a Boreal Owl, but it didn’t feel like it. Evan never took his eyes off it and saw it land in another pine just as high off the ground as the first. Evan was able to see it with no optics, but again, I could not pick it out. And then it flew again. Argh! The bird had been notched, but there were no solid looks or photos. This was not just some western Empid that you could be satisfied with a brief, distant look–this was the freaking Boreal Owl!  Two hours had now passed since I got that phone call from Jeff. Evan and I could still make it Grand Marais before dark and get at least some searching in along the way if we hurried. I was hoping we could get onto a more cooperative Owl. So with temps hovering around zero, Evan and I jogged most of the mile back to the car and quickly got on the road to go back north. There were more Boreals to be found, and we wanted a better look.

We got to Duluth around 1:00. I wanted to be in Grand Marais by 4:00 in case that gentleman with the yard Boreal called me. He had said he would make sure to tell me if it made its usual appearance at dusk. Once in Duluth, Evan and I hopped on Scenic 61, a highway that hugs the shoreline of Lake Superior. Boreal Owls are often found here during irruption years because when they come south they hit the lakefront and keep moving southwest along the shore. The stretch between Duluth and Two Harbors is often the best section for them. We, though, didn’t find any by the time we hit Two Harbors. We stopped at a city park where a Boreal had been seen a few days earlier.  We planned to leave by 2:30 to get to Grand Marais in time. The park yielded nothing.  Evan and I were walking back to the car to continue northeast to GM when my phone rang. It was Jeff: “Hey, where are you at?!”

“I’m in Two Harbors.”

“Turn around right now! There’s one in Duluth!”

I was literally running while getting the location from Jeff and hollering to Evan (who had fallen a hundred yards behind) to start running back to the car. Huffing and puffing, we hopped in the car and quickly got on the expressway back to Duluth. Another jaunt south on this north-south zig-zag adventure. No Scenic 61 this time. In about 25 minutes we made it to the Hartley Nature Center where Erik Berg and Kelly Raymond had seen this Owl and notified Jeff. It took a little bit of time to figure out where Erik and Kelly were, but eventually we found them quietly looking at this!

Boreal OwlErik and Kelly made some room for us to see this brush-loving bird through a small window in the branches. It felt good. We had made it. We were looking at a real-live Boreal Owl! Now, we were just waiting to see that face. This was our first glimpse.

Boreal OwlAnd then:

Boreal Owl

Even Evan was in awe, saying how cool this was. I was genuinely surprised at this reaction from the kid who has turned down seeing Flammulated and Whiskered Screech-Owls. “This is so cool! Dad, I see its face!”

Conditions for viewing were not perfect. I was sitting in the snow in jeans to get these photos. Eventually this sluggish bird came to life and started actively hunting! The photo opportunities (and the crowd size) started to increase.

boreal Owl

Boreal OwlBoreal OwlBoreal OwlThis was, by far, the coolest Owl I had ever seen. This Owl eventually flew away from this spot. I noticed it actually flew close to a different trail. John Richardson and I walked that way and spotted it on top of a brush pile. The views were much better and gave me my best Boreal photo, which Jeff helped me enhance.

Boreal Owl

Evan was cold at this point and wanted to wait in the car while I continued to enjoy the bird.  I walked him back to the car. When I returned, the Owl (and the crowd) had moved.

IBoreal crowdThe Owl was now very close to the trails and out in the open. I felt bad that Jeff wasn’t there to experience these photo opportunities; he had not felt well after the Twin Cities Boreal expedition and decided not to come north.

Boreal OwlBooks describe Boreals as having a surprised look on their face. It is definitely true. Boreal Owl

Finally, I had been satisfied enough to pry myself away from this spectacular bird. Evan and I could continue on our trip to Grand Marais in perfect peace, even if my pants were soaking wet for the two-hour drive. The Grand Marais birder with the Boreal Owl in his yard never did call me, so things worked out perfectly. It was a dream come true. We had brought our birding full circle from that very first year; we were now members of the Boreal Owl Club.  Evan and I celebrated by eating supper in Grand Marais at a family favorite restaurant, Sven & Ole’s Pizza.

Evan Sven's

Josh Watson, of Kandiyohi County Blue Grosbeak fame, stopped by to join us for a celebratory beer (Evan had ice cream) and we had a nice visit about Boreal Owls and other cool birds of the North and beyond. It’s always fun to catch up with birder friends you don’t see often. It was just a great way to end a great day.

The next morning, Evan I got up and poked around Grand Marais for cool birds. We didn’t find much, but it didn’t matter–it was a completely relaxing trip now with zero anxiety. Jeff was on his way up to Duluth that morning to see if he could get onto a good look of a Boreal Owl. Evan and I continued to look for Boreals on our way southwest to Duluth.  We were hoping we could find one for Jeff. One of our stops was Sugarloaf Cove Nature Center where we were hoping to find a Boreal on a little hike. No Boreals, were had, but Evan was excited to get a lifer Snowshoe Hare. Snowshoe HareWe also took a moment to take a Lake Superior selfie.

Josh Evan

Once again, we stopped in Two Harbors to poke around. Of course we wanted to find a Boreal Owl there, but we also took a moment to get Evan a Harlequin Duck lifer, one of two continuing birds in Agate Bay along the jetty. These birds could be seen very well with the naked eye.

Harlequin DuckHarlequin DuckWe had barely been in Two Harbors when I got a message from Jeff that he had found his very own Boreal Owl down by Duluth! I was happy he had finally gotten good looks at a bird low and in the open. Knowing there were Great Gray Owls in the area, I asked Evan what we should do. Evan thinks like a true birder because he said we should go after Jeff’s Boreal since we can see Great Grays any year. So once again we were on our way back to Duluth for a Boreal Owl. This one was snoozing in a tree right along Scenic 61. That, combined with the fact that we had gotten our Boreal the day before, meant we did not have to rush this time. Sure enough, this Boreal was right where Jeff had spotted it.

Boreal OwlSome people, like myself, have trouble spotting these Owls. Thankfully, people like Evan can point them out.

Evan Owl

What a trip–three Boreal Owls! It was beyond a dream come true. This trip with Evan was second only to the Greater Sage-Grouse trip he and I took three years ago. Many thanks to all the people that helped us, especially the Hosch Bros, Kelly Raymond, Erik Berg, and most importantly, Jeff Grotte who helped me get on all three of these birds after he and I shared the Boreal-less struggle for so long together.

There is now just one Owl left for me to find in the United States. I’m hoping that happens in 2018. But first there will hopefully be some more Boreal Owl encounters this winter–we will be helping legendary Arizona birders Tommy DeBardeleben and Janet Witzeman hopefully get on a Boreal or two.  Speaking of Arizona, the next blog post will feature a few lifers and other favorites I picked up on a trip there last weekend.

Two Long Lost Lifers

Falling behind on this blog seems to be the new normal for me. Despite the lack of new content, the birding has continued on. There have been some pretty monumental moments, in fact. Since life continues to get busier with family, responsibilities, and other projects, my postings will now probably just be limited to new life bird experiences. New birds have come at a slow, yet steady drip. There are a few I need to catch you up on. Let’s start with two new birds I got this past fall.

In late September, I traveled home to northern Minnesota to attend the funeral of a family friend. It was, of course, Jaeger season down at Wisconsin Point on Lake Superior at the time. So one morning on this unplanned trip, I went across the border to see if I could nab at least one of three possible Jaeger species for my life list. Luck would have it that there was a Hawk Ridge field trip that very morning to find Jaegers! Field trip leader Clinton Nienhaus graciously allowed me to merge into the group, and all of us got to enjoy this dark morph Parasitic Jaeger. It was a pretty cool experience to not only get a lifer, but to also see a brand new family of birds, complete with their own look and behaviors. Watching this Jaeger chase the Gulls was fun to witness.

Parasitic JaegerParasitic Jaeger

On November 25, 2017, it was me chasing the Gulls.  A report came in of a Black-legged Kittiwake on the Mississippi River south of Cottage Grove at the far eastern edge of the Twin Cities. Since it was a life bird, I was compelled to make this chase which almost ended up being a dip. I arrived to find out the bird had been seen all morning up until 15 minutes prior to my arrival. After searching with dozens of other birders for an hour, I called it quits. I made it a third of the way home when I got the notice from buddy Pete Nichols that it had returned to loaf on the ice in the same spot it had been seen earlier. I had a decision to make: continue home or race back east. Well, I went for it. And thankfully, it was still there when I arrived. My timing couldn’t have been any better as I enjoyed it for all of 10 minutes before it flew away never to be seen again.

Black-legged Kittiwake

Unfortunately, Brad Nelson, Garrett Wee, and I did not have that same luck when we chased the state’s first record Tufted Duck this month, also on the Mississippi but down at Red Wing. Instead, here is a picture of a Tufted Titmouse from Frontenac Cemetery on that same trip. It was a lifer for Brad, a state bird for Garrett, and my second only sighting of one.

Tufted Titmouse

The next post is a lifer of epic proportions that I cannot wait to share. Second only to the Greater Sage-Grouse adventure, this was the best birding adventure I’ve ever been on with Evan.

An Even Dozen

Anyone who has been keeping up with the sporadic posts of this blog lately knows that my interest in local birding has intensified.  Specifically I’ve been working hard on growing my Kandiyohi County list. My self-imposed mission for the year was to try to pass the legendary Bob Janssen. Doing so would require me to get from 244 to 251 in a single year–a daunting task for sure, but one that I accomplished by mid-summer.  The first six birds (245-250) did not come easily and were the result of a lot of effort, both as an individual and as a part of different groups. The goal bird, #251 (Common Gallinule), on the other hand, was a gift from the efforts of another birder. Little did I know at the time, but gift birds would be the theme for the second half of the year which would hold nearly as many new birds for me as the first half! The last post featured the next such gift, #252, the long sought-after Blue Grosbeak.

#253

That Blue Grosbeak was found in the midst of a major Red Crossbill irruption that was engulfing western Minnesota.  In the days leading up to the Blue Grosbeak, Randy Frederickson and I had been searching high and low for one in our county. At the time of the Blue Grosbeak discovery, I was on a camping trip to Sibley State Park with my brother and his family. Twice I had to ditch the campsite and my family to chase county birds–once to look for Red Crossbills Joel Schmidt found and the other time to nab the Blue Grosbeak. Though unsuccessful on the Red Crossbills that day, we knew from reports in the surrounding counties that our Red Crossbill moment was imminent.  It was like being at a Twins game and waiting for the wave to overtake your section. We did not have to wait long. Just as I was literally towing the camper back home, Randy texted saying he found 4 of the “red bastards” on a golf course in the southwestern part of the county. The Red Crossbill had eluded Randy for nearly three decades. I didn’t have nearly as long of a wait, but I was still in a hurry.  I didn’t even bother unhitching the camper at home as I went straight from Sibley to the Raymond golf course.  When I arrived, I called Randy to find out where he was on the course which was not in use at the time due to flooding from heavy rains.  As we were talking, Randy was approached by the groundskeeper who was questioning what he was doing. The guy turned out to be rather friendly and even drove his golf cart to the clubhouse to pick me up and bring me out to where Randy was! Not long after, he did the same thing for Ron Erpelding. And the three of us enjoyed our second new Kandiyohi bird in as many days.

Red CrossbillThe Red Crossbill irruption was/is nothing short of incredible. This was my first sighting of many just within our county alone. I had several personal finds of this species in the following months, including finding a flock while driving highway speeds and a flyover flock while walking out to my mailbox!

Here is a pair from a flock of about 20 found by Steve Gardner at MinnWest Technology Campus in Willmar.

Red CrossbillThis next picture shows a Red Crossbill that I was disappointed to find this past October. I was actually looking for the other regular Minnesota Crossbill species which was also showing signs of irrupting. Birding can be strange. Somehow I ended up with the much more difficult Crossbill species before getting the supposedly much easier White-winged variety. I was the only serious Kandi birder who still lacked this species. I desperately wanted to see wing bars on this bird.

Red Crossbill

#254

During late summer and early fall, I managed to get an Eastern Screech-Owl in two neighboring counties but not in the county where I wanted it most. Both birds were found at ordinary farm groves and had me rethinking my whole strategy for finding this species in Kandiyohi County. I always thought that I would have to search in the northern part of the county which is more heavily wooded and not as agricultural. Now, though, I reasoned that if I simply put in the reps of going to farm groves in the southern half of the county and played recordings, I’d eventually connect with a Screech.  As luck would have it, I never had to enact that plan. In early November some junior high students were wondering about the ID of a “small owl in a tree cavity with pointy ears,” a bird they had discovered while hunting squirrels in their patch of woods. Unbelievable! Leave it to the sharp eyes of some young kids to finally–finally!!–get me on one of my most-wanted birds for the county. An added bonus was that it was gorgeous red-morph. Seeing this color Screech was another major birding goal of mine for 2017. Because of circumstances surrounding this bird, I am keeping location details under wraps.

Eastern Screech-Owl

Eastern Screech-Owl Eastern Screech-Owl

#255

The Screech was an incredible high point for me, but this was not the time to rest and take it easy. As I mentioned earlier, White-winged Crossbills were irrupting in northern Minnesota, most prominently along the North Shore of Lake Superior. I have wanted to see this species in Kandiyohi County for a very long time. It turns out there was a flock in Willmar the very first winter I started birding in 2012.  Unfortunately I was not connected with local birders at the time and therefore had no idea about these Crossbills until long after the fact. I was excited to learn that some were seen on last year’s Christmas Bird Count at the MinnWest Technology Campus in Willmar, the very same place they were in 2012.  I visited the site that very day but had no luck. I continued to make visits there throughout last winter only to get the same result. This year was different, though. Based on reports, I knew I had a good chance this year. And since I was the only serious Kandi birder without the species, I knew finding it would depend on me alone. So once again, I made several trips this fall to the same small stand of Spruce trees where this species tends to show up. I was undaunted by my misses because of the positive reports out of the north. Then, finally, a mere four days after getting my Screech, I walked to the same stand of trees at MinnWest and instantly had a flock of Crossbills fly over my head and land in a nearby tree.  I thought they might be Reds, but I had to get my eyes on them to be sure. This proved difficult since the 40+ birds were buried in Spruce tops. Finally one popped out to the end of a branch. Wingbars!!!

White-winged CrossbillsGetting this DIY county lifer was incredibly efficient and felt amazing. I enjoyed these birds for about a half hour before heading home. It was one less bird for which I was on my own.White-winged Crossbill

#256

This year I organized a campaign of nearly a dozen birders to do daily patrols of our county’s most probable location for sea ducks, Lake Lillian. The county has no official record of a Black Scoter, and a few of us needed Long-tailed Duck besides. While the Lake Lillian vigil did not produce either of these, Dan Orr did manage to find a Surf Scoter which was a county first just the previous year. By late November, Lake Lillian froze over and the 2017 sea duck season was over. Or so I thought. Green Lake by Spicer was still open. Green has held sea ducks before too, but its large size often makes it difficult to search as ducks can be far from shore. One Sunday morning in early December, Joel Schmidt drove through Spicer and noticed ducks on the water. Joel stopped to scan them and found the much coveted Long-tailed Duck many of us still needed!  The action went down while I was in church, so I wasn’t aware of the flurry of activity until I looked at my phone after the service. By this point, everyone else had nabbed the bird, eBirded it, and packed their bags for home. I was on my own! Moreover, we had tickets for the community theater at 2:00 that afternoon. and our family hadn’t even had lunch besides. I was crunched for time. To add to the drama, I had ditched my family all day the day before to chase a life bird in the Twin Cities, and now I was headed out again. This was not good. Why do all the good birds come at the worst times? I had to go for this one. I knew I had time, but it would be tight.  We hopped in the car and went, hoping to snag a county lifer and some fast-food lunch all before the curtain went up at 2:00. When I got to the Spicer beach/boat launch area I could not find it. It was sickening. I called Steve who had seen it an hour earlier, and he said he last saw it swimming north. I hopped in the car and raced to the next access point that direction, the Spicer city park. Then, thankfully, after a few minutes I was able to pick it out. Whew!

Long-tailed Duck

This year has been an unbelievable ride for my county birding. I was hoping to squeeze out 7 new ones with a lot of work, and I ended up getting that and more, much more. Here is a recap of the 12 new birds I ticked in Kandiyohi County this year.

#245–Short-eared Owl

#246–Townsend’s Solitaire

#247–Long-eared Owl

#248–Black-throated Green Warbler

#249–Connecticut Warbler

#250–Snowy Egret

#251–Common Gallinule

#252–Blue Grosbeak

#253–Red Crossbill

#254–Eastern Screech-Owl

#255–White-winged Crossbill

#256–Long-tailed Duck

This year has shown me the enormous potential of what can happen in one’s own backyard.  Seeing rare birds is always fun, but they are even more special the closer they are to home. Seeing so many was incredible, and the year is not even over! With some luck and some effort, I might even be able to make it a baker’s dozen. There are some very real possibilities in these last two weeks including Northern Saw-whet Owl, Pine Grosbeak, and Bohemian Waxwing. Stay tuned!

The Story of the Kandiyohi County Blue Grosbeak (Somebody Pinch Me)

Anyone who has followed this blog over the years knows that fewer birds can get me as excited as the Blue Grosbeak, specifically Minnesota Blue Grosbeaks. It is doubtful that I’d even caste a second glance at one if I were birding in some southern state.  I take that back; I mean, it is still an insanely good-looking bird.  It’s the combo of that beauty and the Blue Grosbeak’s industrious efforts to colonize North America that have captured my imagination. Ever since 2014 I have been interested in the species’ northward movement in Minnesota by digging them up in new places and imploring others to do the same.

Of course, much of my drive came from a burning desire to see one in Kandiyohi County.  Time and time again, I’d go out to likely spots in the county only to come back empty-handed. Same story year after year. Each year I’d rethink my strategy and add new locations to my checklist of probable Kandiyohi sites, but I couldn’t manufacture a sighting to save my life. Instead, I’d have to get my annual Blue Grosbeak fix by finding new locations for them in neighboring counties. This year I used satellite imagery to find a few gravel pits in Chippewa County along the Minnesota River. Visiting the sites one July  morning yielded two previously undiscovered Blue Grosbeaks. This first one was so vocal that I heard it over a quarter mile away over the incessant noise of trucks at a very busy pit.

Blue GrosbeakThis second fellow was the quiet type. In fact, I stopped at this abandoned pit and didn’t see or hear a Blue Grosbeak. Playing a tape certainly couldn’t hurt in this situation. I’m glad I did because this bird materialized out of nowhere in an instant.

Blue GrosbeakThese were hollow victories. I wanted one in Kandiyohi in the worst way, especially as county first records fell in county after county: Anoka, Hennepin, and Washington. While I was happy the Blue Grosbeak was continuing to expand its range, I also kept wondering when it would be our turn. Always the bridesmaid. The Washington find really amplified these feelings. Pete Nichols and Ben Douglas set out to find themselves a county record BLGR and succeeded…minutes into their first attempt. I was both super proud and super jealous of these friends.

As we went deeper and deeper into August, my hopes for finding that elusive Kandiyohi Blue Grosbeak in 2017 had completely died. Like any losing sports team, hope was immediately placed on next year. Besides, there was something new and shiny in the bird world to divert my attention–an insane irruption of Red Crossbills! Blue what? We Kandi birders were red-eyed trying to tally this species that had eluded the likes of Randy Frederickson and Ron Erpelding for over 25 years. Now it was a very real possibility we would all get one. Efforts had shifted suddenly and dramatically.

Joel Schmidt was the first Kandi birder to break the ice with the Red Crossbills, seeing a flyover flock at the Little Crow Golf Course in New London on the evening of August 17th. At the time, I was camping at Sibley State Park with my brother and was not far away. I had to abandon my brother and kids the next morning to go look for an hour or so. We were unsuccessful, and so I returned to camping.  While I was playing cribbage with my brother, I got a call from someone in Grand Marais. Who the heck do I know there? I declined the call figuring if it was important that they’d leave a voicemail. Nothing. I then put my phone in the camper to charge it. Sometime much later in the afternoon during a pause between cribbage games, I went to check the time on my phone. It had blown up while I was away from it and was littered with crazy numbers of text messages, missed phone calls, and voicemails. Something really big was going down, and I couldn’t process the information fast enough. As I tried to make sense of the messages, my initial thought was that someone had landed the Red Crossbills, but instead of “red” I saw “blue” and “grosbeak” was where “crossbill” should be and there was a “Hockema” and a “Watson” mixed in. Then it hit me. Oh. My. Gosh.

I quickly learned that visiting birders John Hockema, Chris Hockema, and Josh Watson had stumbled into a private gravel pit, found a Blue Grosbeak, and had secured permission for a small band of us to return. The Grand Marais caller now made sense–Josh Watson was from there. But that call was almost a couple hours ago! Thankfully the guys were still on the scene by the time we got all this info sorted out.  Another bonus was that this pit was just a few miles from my present location at Sibley. I could literally be there in 5 minutes. Once again I abandoned my brother and kids to go on another crazy bird chase.

The entrance to the pit was a long, private road leading west from U.S. Highway 71. The Blue Grosbeak victors were waiting at the gate to meet Randy Frederickson and me and lead us to glory. The greetings were joyous with much laughter and banter. These fellows were relaxed and in good spirits while Randy and I were trying to hide the tension that comes when a county bird is nearby but has not yet been notched. Finally, we hopped in our cars and followed these visiting birders as they led us in our own backyard.  It was a surreal experience, to say the least, when we traveled into this vast complex of gravel pits we had never seen before, not even from a road. It was perfect Blue Grosbeak habitat. I may as well have been looking at Mars, I was so awestruck with the terrain. I had viewed this area on satellite maps many times but had never gotten around to getting permission to enter.

Once we finally got to the spot well over a half mile from the main highway, we got out and started looking. We had other birders on the way, so we were refraining from using a recording until all arrived.  We did not want the recording to lose its effectiveness. While we looked, Chris Hockema showed me the exact spot where Josh Watson had first spotted the bird. And suddenly I saw a bird fly over that had the right GISS. Josh had seen it too from a different angle and confirmed it was the Blue Grosbeak! So it was official, but not yet satisfying. We continued to search and search. Finally Ron Erpelding and Joel Schmidt had arrived, and we could try the tape. Ron played the tune, and instantly the bird teed up on a cedar! Unbelievable! It finally happened!!

Blue GrosbeakBlue GrosbeakAfter hanging out there to our wild delight, it changed perches and hung out for a solid 10-15 minutes not moving. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a Blue Grosbeak this confiding. This was the first time I had shared a county bird with long-time Kandi veterans, Randy and Ron. Giddiness abounded.

IMG_2012

In a year that I had been pursuing new birds for my Kandi list, this one was more than just another tic. This is a bird I have pursued relentlessly for many summers.  This is a bird I simply love to find–anywhere. A wave of joy and rest washed over me. Indeed there was some self-loathing from the Kandi crew that we had not found this ourselves, but in the end it did not matter. We were still overjoyed.

A MEGA thanks goes out to John Hockema who was in a Blue Grosbeak mood that day and decided to try for one in Kandiyohi. It took guts to drag his birding companions into a county that had been searched so hard for this bird already and at a time that was the tail end of the Blue Grosbeak season. One might even say it was a fool’s mission. It’s a good thing John is no fool and that Chris Hockema and Josh Watson are top notch birders. They all are deserving of the honor of having the Kandiyohi County first record Blue Grosbeak along with the case of beer I had publicly offered on social media for anyone who could find this bird.

Randy Joel John

Hero Josh Watson points to where he first spotted the elusive Kandiyohi County first record Blue Grosbeak. L-R: Chris Hockema, John Hockema, Josh Watson, Joel Schmidt, Randy Frederickso

The Blue Grosbeak was Kandiyohi bird #252 for me. #253 was another shared county lifer with Ron and Randy, and it fell the very next day. In fact, I literally still had the camper hitched to my vehicle while in hot pursuit…

My Everest

Most birders keep lists. This is known. Yard lists, day lists, year lists, county lists, state lists, trip lists, lists of birds seen while nude, lists of birds seen while relieving oneself, lists of birds seen relieving themselves, and on and on…these are more or less different ways of keeping the hobby exciting and fresh. Depending on the birder, some lists carry more weight than others and some lists are never even made. My Kandiyohi County list has taken on a greater importance to me in the last couple years.  2016 was full of many new and exciting additions to my list that was already in the 200+ category, creating even more of an interest in this list.  Something happens when you make a list and it starts to become significantly large–you notice others who keep the same list and see how you stack up in comparison.  We have a great cadre of birders in Kandiyohi County who have amassed some incredible totals, and so I had no ambition (or realistic hope) of getting into the top 3. This was just accepted. But 4th place was within reach and was held by a non-resident of the county, the legendary Bob Janssen. Bob’s a great guy who I’ve learned a lot from, who I’ve helped in Kandiyohi County, and who I’ve had the pleasure of birding with a couple times, but I had just one thing against him–he wasn’t from here. I felt that the top spots should belong to those that toil for birds in the county the most, the local birders. Therefore, at the end of 2016, I set out to pass Bob Janssen.

Though it was a reachable goal, this was no small task. I ended 2016 with 244 county birds. Bob was at 250. I needed 7 new birds to meet my goal. It seems like a small number, but any longtime Minnesota birder knows that new county birds are very hard to come by with a total like mine. Nevertheless I was determined. To accomplish such a feat would require a lot of work and a lot of time birding. I didn’t waste any time either, getting #245 on January 1st.

January 1: #245–Short-eared Owl, 6 Birds to Goal

The Kandi birding crew joined forces on New Year’s Day, and thanks to some scouting by Aaron Ludwig on New Year’s Eve, we were victorious.  It was a banner year for Short-eared Owls across the state.  It felt really good to finally notch this one.

Short-eared Owl

February 4: #246–Townsend’s Solitaire, 5 Birds to Goal

Another Kandi birders’ group event was successful as we targeted Townsend’s Solitaire. This individual was found by the team consisting of Milt Blomberg, Dan Orr, and Herb Dingmann.  This was another overdue, feel-good county bird.

Townsend's Solitaire

February 19: #247–Long-eared Owl, 4 Birds to Goal

A second county Owl in as many months?! Steve Gardner and I went looking for Long-eared Owls on this day. Despite many, many fruitless attempts in the past, we did not come up empty this trip. Victory never felt so sweet.

Long-eared Owl

May 18: #248–Black-throated Green Warbler, 3 Birds to Goal

Three months had gone by without a new addition to the county list.  Serious doubt about achieving the goal was setting in hard. With that said, there was one bird that I simply had to nail down this year, a bird that had painfully eluded my county list year after year. Each year I have a very good chance of getting it too. I have chased this bird in the county many times, even literally once to the point I had to catch my breath in the process.The BTNW was a waaaaay overdue county bird. I had gone out many, many times this past spring to look for one. And it still continued to slip my grasp.  Then, on May 18th, Joel Schmidt called me about an hour before sundown saying he found one at a country church and cemetery in the western part of the county.  I got out there just before dark and was able to dig it up. Finally.

IMG_0489

May 26: #249–Connecticut Warbler, 2 Birds to Goal

Spring migration is one of the best times of year to try to pick up a new county bird.  However, at the end of May, migration was wrapping up quickly as birds started settling in to raise families wherever they called home.  I was still checking for a couple a shorebirds I needed in this last week of May, like Marbled Godwit and Sanderling. Then somehow I started to notice that Connecticut Warblers were being reported in various places, and these birds were all singing. This is a bird that was never on my radar. I figured if I was to get this one on my county list, I would have to get lucky some spring migration and catch a quick glimpse of this skulker. So I asked the godfather of Kandiyohi birding–Randy Frederickson–about them, and he said he will have a Connecticut singing in his yard about one out of every four Memorial Day weekends. What?!  I’ve come to learn that Randy is a huge deposit of birding information that has to be continually mined to get the nuggets of birding intel out of him. So even though this bird was never even a candidate for my goal of seven new county birds, it quickly became one.  I found a singing Connecticut Warbler in neighboring Meeker County on May 25th, so I was even more obsessed with finding one in Kandiyohi.  For awhile I was making daily trips to Robbins Island Park in Willmar just to look for this bird. Even though most migrants had moved through, there was still hope for this one. And I was less intimated to look for this bird armed with the knowledge that these birds often sing during migration.

On my trip to Robbins Island on My 26th, I was stopped dead in my tracks by this:

No, it wasn’t the Connecticut I was after, but I don’t know if getting my first personally found and second county Cerulean Warbler was any less exciting!

Cerulean Warbler

I must have spent an hour listening to this bird and following it through the trees.  It was singing constantly and staying to a confined area.  I was convinced the bird was on territory but later visits by myself and others proved otherwise. It’s a good thing I spent so much time with this Warbler because when I had to decided to give up on finding a Connecticut and was on my way out of Robbins Island, I heard this!

Connecticut Warbler!! I couldn’t believe it! Two new county Warblers within one week and two incredible Warblers in this outing! Suddenly, the dream of reaching #251 was very much alive. And to add some Warbler icing to the delicious Warbler cake was a singing and posing Black-throated Green–proving once again the birding law that says once a hard-fought bird falls, it falls hard.

Black-throated Green Warbler

May 30: The One That Got Away

In any kind of big year or any regular year with a big birding goal, there will inevitably be pain. This is a given. There is also a long-standing birding rule that says that really good things will happen back home whenever you go on a trip somewhere.  Well, on the afternoon of May 30th, my family and I had just landed in Phoenix for our Flagstaff vacation. As we were heading up I-17, my phone started blowing up with group text messages: Randy had a Summer Tanager make some appearances at his feeder.  It was reliable enough that Steve Gardner and Joel Schmidt were able to pop over and see the bird after a brief wait.  My wait was a lot longer, like several days longer.  It was as good as gone. I was really bummed, and it definitely dampened the birding mood a little bit while I was in Arizona hunting down my Flam lifer.

June 16: #250–Snowy Egret, The Penultimate Bird

One thing my buddy Tommy DeBardeleben taught me is that when a good bird slips through your fingers, you get back out there and find your own rarity. The last time I went to Arizona I missed a Brant and Red Phalarope back in Minnesota. When I came home I poured my woes into my ongoing Surf Scoter hunt and dug out a Kandiyohi County first record Surf Scoter.  Experiences like that give you something to draw on when the tank is empty.  Though I was tired from the vacation, a move(!), and chasing life birds at North Ottawa Impoundment, I was pushing myself to get that next county bird. Summer had settled in, and my options for a new county bird were very limited. One bird that I really wanted to get and one that I felt was probably in the county every year somewhere was a Snowy Egret. On the morning of June 16th, I set off to find one. I expected to come home empty-handed as I have so many times on my numerous outings this year. Regardless, I was going to check several spots around the county, mostly drainages and some wetlands where I’d seen Great Egrets congregating.  After several hours and dozens of miles, I made my last stop: a newly formed wetland just off the Willmar bypass. I spotted a lone Egret out there, and I was well over a quarter mile away.  I don’t own a scope, so I had to use my camera to take some blurry long-distance shots. As I reviewed them, I couldn’t believe it–a small Egret with a long, black bill and yellow lores. It was the Egret I wanted!

Snowy EgretAn Egret vs. Egret pic is always a nice assurance for an ID of such an important bird.

Snowy EgretI was now tied with Bob. Wow. Some people get excited over reaching round-number milestones, like this 250, but not me. I wanted a crooked number. I wanted that #251 in the worst way.  While my motivation in the beginning was to pass Bob’s number, my motivation was now about me meeting what I once thought was an unattainable goal.  More than anything I wanted to do what my mind had declared an impossibility or at least a far-fetched possibility way back in December. I wanted that 7th bird in the worst way, more than a lifer even.  And it was only June.  I had averaged one new county bird for each month in 2017, and I still had 6 months left to get just one new county bird.

My birding intensified from that point on. I was obsessed, waking well before daylight and going out every morning. But with the Snowy Egret secured, I really had very little to search for in June.  My searches were mostly after Henslow’s Sparrows and breeding Marbled Godwits in the very northeastern corner of the county, both of which were long shots. But I pressed on. Day after day I pushed myself out the door trying to make something happen.  I’m a very impatient person. Even though I had half a year to reach my goal with just one bird, I wanted it now. I was driving myself crazy.

When it came time to visit family in northern Minnesota in late July, I didn’t want to go. I was afraid to go. That’s always when something good happens at home.

July 30, 2 AM: The Gift

I had made it through the up north trip without a birding emergency happening back home. Whew. We were scheduled to head home the morning of the 30th. We went to bed on the 29th, and I was awakened by my daughter who had a bad dream. After I got her settled down, I looked at my phone to check the time.  On my homescreen I saw two emails that had come in while I was sleeping–one an eBird rare bird alert and the other an eBird needs alert for KANDIYOHI COUNTY!! What the?! I was wide awake now. Not many people bird in Kandiyohi County, let alone eBird in Kandiyohi County, let alone find rare birds and especially rare birds that I’ve never seen in Kandiyohi County.  I couldn’t open the emails fast enough. Our county had a visiting superstar birder whose incredible find had tripped both alerts. Kathleen MacAulay known for many incredible finds, including a state record Mottled Duck, had unearthed a rare bird that is incredibly hard to discover because of its choice of habitat. Kathleen had found an entire family of Common Gallinules at a wetland I had never birded.  I was in shock. Finally, finally, we got a gift bird–something that had been missing the first half of the year.  Usually every year holds one or two random bird surprises. So far we hadn’t had one.  All the rare birds I had seen in the county this year were reasonable expectations that were targeted and found.  I couldn’t sleep the rest of the night. I knew that #251 was as good as in the bank since these Gallinules had young. I just had to get 265 miles across the state. That next morning the minutes felt like hours as we got ready to leave.

July 30, 5 PM: #251–Common Gallinule!

Not only did I have to get my family back home, but then I had another half hour trip to the location of these Gallinules. But finally I made it there. Others had seen the birds a few hours earlier. I was patient but I wasn’t patient.  I knew it would happen, but I wanted it to happen instantly.  While I watched the small corner of the cattail slough, I caught sight of my second county Least Bittern.

Least Bittern

Least BitternThe Bittern was a fun find, but I wanted to see those Gallinules bad.  I did hear one of the adults vocalize at one point, so it was officially notched. Since it was such a monumental bird, though, I really wanted to see it. Finally, patience paid off as I spotted one of the babies.

Common GallinuleAnd then I saw two of the babies with one of the parents.

Common GallinuleIt was finished. I was ecstatic. The impossible had been achieved with a whopping 5 months left on the year. I had made it.  Kathleen, if you’re reading, thank you very much for your great find!

I learned something important from this entire experience: set high goals for yourself even if they seem like a pipe dream.  Then write them down and work like crazy. This goes for birding or anything, really. Having my goals written out on paper back in December focused my birding and kept me driven. It was a huge thrill to add each new check mark and fill in those blanks on the piece of paper I keep tucked in my Sibley. Aim high and look high–the good birds are out there.

The astute reader will look at the picture below and realize the county listing story did not stop with #251. Hang on for the next post–longtime readers will get to see a long-running story line reach its wonderful conclusion.

list

Pounding the Lifers at North Ottawa Impoundment

Ask any serious Minnesota birder where he or she was in June of 2017, and you will get one common response: the North Ottawa Impoundment in Grant County.  While not exactly new to hosting good and rare birds, North Ottawa outdid itself this year.  Or more accurately, an army of skilled birders outdid themselves as they descended on the Impoundment in waves and created a bonafide, honest-to-goodness Patagonia Picnic Table Effect.  That term is sometimes used pretty loosely, but this was the real deal–a cascade of Accidentals, Casuals, and Rare-Regulars so intense that it threatened to rename the very phenomenon itself.  Below is the timeline of the major birding events, including my multiple trips with Steve Gardner to the site in June.  Even though this info is old news to Minnesota birders, I think the end of this post will hold a nice surprise for all.

June 5th

Shawn Conrad and Becca Engdahl separately report finding a Glossy Ibis, an accidental species that would be a lifer for me.

June 7th

Undoubtedly following up on the Glossy Ibis reports, Minnesota Big Year birder Liz Harper helps her own cause by discovering a Little Blue Heron, a rare-regular species which would be a state bird for me.

June 8th

Among the masses of birders now swarming the Impoundment, Gerry Hoekstra sends MN birders into a complete frenzy, including yours truly, when he finds a Snowy Plover, a casual species that would be a lifer for me.

June 9th

Steve and I go to North Ottawa.  Any one of the three aforementioned birds would have justified the trip.  Three in one spot was just ridiculous.  We were hoping for at least one of these goodies.  Fortunately I didn’t have to wait long to get that wish.  I got the Little Blue Heron as a flyover almost right away. Unfortunately Steve missed it at that time but got it later in the day.

Little Blue Heron

We tried unsuccessfully for the Snowy Plover but had no luck.  Considering there were over a dozen birders out looking and no one was turning it up, it was safe to say that it was gone. We did, however, see the Glossy Ibis thanks to Wayne Perala, local birding guru who knew the bird and its habits so well that he told us where to look. And almost on cue, the bird flew up out of the cattails right by Wayne as he said, “There’s your Ibis.” This bird was super cooperative giving us great looks in perfect light.  It was a life bird for me but just a state bird for Steve.

Glossy IbisGlossy IbisSteve and I were pretty thrilled with going 2/3 on our targets. In addition to these birds, we also nabbed some nice birds that we don’t get to see too often, like this Snowy Egret.

Snowy Egret

Western Kingbird never goes unappreciated in Minnesota.  We were lucky to see this one.

Western KingbirdAnd who does not love seeing an Upland Sandpiper, especially one so crushable?

Upland SandpiperUpland SandpiperSteve and I felt pretty darn good about our trip and our nice haul of birds.  We were completely satisfied, until….

June 15th

Wayne Perala (remember nice guy, Wayne, from the Ibis story?) sent another shock wave through the Minnesota birding community by posting incredible pics of a King Rail, another accidental species that would be a lifer for me.  Unfortunately timing was bad for me as I was getting ready to go on that Madeline Island trip that was highlighted by the last post.  Indeed I had to suffer through pics and reports of many people adding the most recent North Ottawa mega to their lists.

June 23rd

Finally back from that Wisconsin vacation, Steve and I sneak up to the Impoundment in the evening.  In the week since the Rail was discovered, other birders discovered there were two King Rails!  Despite now having double the chance to see this lifer, our Rail search was a bust.  The wind was raging and we were searching in slightly the wrong spot. We also tried searching for a lifer Nelson’s Sparrow reported by Becca Engdahl, but nothing likes to be out in the wind.  Except Western Grebes, they don’t care.

Western GrebeSteve and I did, however, see another casual species that was also discovered during this historic period of MN birding which I have failed to disclose in the timeline.  A pair of Black-necked Stilts had set up shop in one of the shallow pools of the Impoundment. Considering I already had Black-necked Stilts for Grant County from several years ago and that Steve had just gotten this state bird recently, we just weren’t too fired up about it, especially after our double dip.

June 29th

With a renewed sense of optimism freshened up by continuing reports of the Rail pair, Steve and I headed back to Grant County for the third time in a month.  This time we arrived at the crack of dawn on gloriously still day…in the right spot. Success.

King RailLook at the size of these things compared to the Mallards in the background.  No wonder it’s the King of the Rails.King RailKing RailBirding is a roller coaster of emotions, and Steve and I were back on top after this sighting.  Steve suggested we try for those Nelson’s Sparrows again.  Despite our good fortune of the morning, I was skeptical we would find the Sparrows.  But not looking certainly guarantees that outcome. So we walked the dike berm that we had a week ago.  This time it definitely felt more Sparrowy–no wind, early morning, etc.  We played the tape and didn’t get a response.  Then a couple minutes later, I heard the recording, or what I thought was the recording, again.  I asked Steve if he had left his phone app on.  When he replied that he hadn’t we knew were hearing the real deal! We continued to work the area, and eventually we saw two Nelson’s Sparrows!

Nelson's SparrowWith some pishing we were able to get them to pop up for some great looks at these skulkers.Nelson's SparrowNelson's SparrowSteve and I followed these birds around for a bit, thoroughly soaking up the experience.  I don’t think either of us ever expected to lifer on this bird with such good looks.  We certainly didn’t expect to get this lifer in Grant County.  This nighttime singer is often a heard-only bird that people trek to middle of nowhere (McGregor) to find in the middle of the night.  We were stupefied.  Talking it over on the ride home, we concluded that the Nelson’s Sparrow lifer experience topped the King Rails even though the Sparrow is a summer resident in our state.  More than once I have been surprised by how much of an impact a Sparrow lifer has on me.  A huge thanks goes out to Becca Engdahl for her find and her tips on locating it!

The reports out of North Ottawa definitely dried up in July.  That was okay with me because I, along with many others, were spoiled rotten by the place.  Additionally, I was okay with not having to run up to Grant County again because I had been working hard on achieving a birding goal much closer to home, a goal that has since been achieved and will be the highlight of the next post.

Island Life–The Boys of Summer

Every other summer my side of the family holds a small reunion of sorts on Madeline Island, the flagship island of Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands on the south shore of Lake Superior.  It is a beautiful place to rest, reunite, and play–a place where boys can be boys.

EvanOf course, no boys take this more seriously than the male Warblers of the island. With nearly twenty different species being present on the island, one cannot escape these singing sensations as they belt out their territorial songs telling rival males and the whole world that this is their house.

Northern Parula

Northern Parula

The Warblers are so thick on Madeline Island that one may escape a particular Warbler’s territory only to immediately land in another’s. Or sometimes, several different species all have territories in the same spot, tolerating each other’s different songs but ready to battle any male of their same species.  While I enjoyed a great number of Warbler species, this was not a birding trip and so the camera was rarely raised. Besides, none were new for me. One Warbler that always feels new, that I feel compelled to photograph every time, is the Blackburnian Warbler.  Such a looker! And he knows it.

BlackburnianPhotographing Warblers in their natural habitat is the best. Here this Blackburnian is posing where he is most comfortable–atop a Black Spruce in a decent-sized (and only) bog on the island.Blackburnian Warbler

Though I did not photograph all the Warbers I encountered, I detected many different species:

  • Yellow-rumped Warbler
  • Black-and-white Warbler
  • Northern Parula
  • Blackburnian Warbler
  • Pine Warbler
  • Yellow Warbler
  • Common Warbler
  • Cape May Warbler
  • Black-throated Green Warbler
  • Ovenbird
  • Common Yellowthroat
  • American Redstart
  • Mourning Warbler
  • Chestnut-sided Warbler
  • Nashville Warbler

Naturally I have saved the best for last.  This was my big Madeline Island souvenir, a male Black-throated Blue Warbler.

Black-throated Blue Warbler

Two years ago I searched for this species when I saw appropriate habitat of mature maple forests on the eastern end of the 14-mile long island.  Trying that same area again this year, I stopped at a spot along North Shore Road that looked good–a deep ravine in the Maple/Hemlock woods which created a relatively open understory that BTBWs like.  Immediately I was rewarded that sweet zoo-zoo-zoo-zoo-zoo-ZEE!  Making this sighting even sweeter was that I had been participating in Wisconsin’s Breeding Bird Atlas project, and this bird was right in the corner of one of the priority blocks on the underbirded island.  BTBW is a very good atlas bird for Wisconsin.

Black-throated Blue Warbler

As fun as the Warblers were, they were merely a distraction to bide my time while I anxiously waited to get back to the mainland in Minnesota where all kinds of birds–life birds–were popping up. Stay tuned for the fully-loaded lifer post next.

2017 Summer Trip to Northern Arizona–The Best of the Non-Lifers

An unfortunate consequence of visiting a place like Arizona multiple times is that some birds lose that ‘wow’ factor from when they were first seen.  The excitement level for a bird is inversely proportional to the number of times that bird is seen. Take the Acorn Woodpecker, for instance.  I remember drooling over the thought of seeing one. Now on this trip, after having seen them on other trips, I didn’t even raise the camera. This is just birding reality.   It cannot be helped.  Some birds still bring it, though.  Some just haven’t been enjoyed enough or savored fully.  They still feel somewhat fresh and exciting when you bump into them.  This post highlights those birds for me on this latest trip.

Many of the these were fun mountain birds that I encountered right by our condo at the Wyndham Flagstaff Resort (great place if you go, btw). First up is the Steller’s Jay, a bird not known for its shyness. Before this trip I had only seen one on Mt. Lemmon, a brief sighting on a cloudy day.  Here, they were all over the place basking in the sun. And I looked at each one.Steller's JaySteller's JayAnother montane, neighborhood bird at the resort was the Black-headed Grosbeak.  Though I’ve seen them in Colorado and South Dakota, the views have always been fleeting and unsatisfying.  This encounter went a long way toward rectifying that.

Black-headed Grosbeak

Anywhere from the Wyndham Resort to the Schultz Pass Road, a mountain-loving bird that was seemingly ubiquitous around Flagstaff was the Western Tanager.  Even though I have seen this bird and photographed it in my home county in Minnesota, I continue to find myself in a state of face-melt when I see this bird, and I photograph it way too much.  It is illogical, really. Three individuals with varying amounts of red on their faces are shown below in three different species of trees.

Western TanagerWestern TanagerWestern TanagerLiterally a neighbor bird inhabiting the Ponderosa Pines right outside our balcony was the Pygmy Nuthatch.  These guys are industrious little busy-bodies. As such, my only other time seeing them in the past resulted in a poor photo op.  Not much changed on this trip despite being merely 5 feet away.  Pygmy Nuthatch could see blog time again.

Pygmy Nuthatch

The last bird from the resort was a parking lot bird but was by no means a trash bird. In fact, this papa Western Bluebird was a photographic lifer for me.Western BluebirdWestern BluebirdAway from the resort there were some other non-lifer favorites, like this American Three-toed Woodpecker along the Schultz Pass Road. Keep in mind that I had only ever seen one before just this past spring in Minnesota.  This bird very much still has lifer freshness associated with it.  While the unique drumming sound of this Woodpecker was the same as the one back home, its back was not.  Note how white the back is on this Rocky Mountains subspecies of the ATTW; the back of the East Taiga subspecies that we have in Minnesota is nearly all black with small white flecks.

American Three-toed WoodpeckerIn Oak Creek Canyon at Grasshopper Point Recreation Area, a Bridled Titmouse was a pleasant surprise.

Bridled TitmouseAnd the Grand Canyon is never more grand than when it serves as a backdrop from a rim-perching Black-throated Gray Warbler, a bird I have wished to have better photographs of for a long time.

Black-throated Gray WarblerBlack-throated Gray WarblerThat’s it for Arizona this time.  There will be more this winter.  For the next post we’re headed to Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands for some Warble action.

2017 Summer Trip to Northern Arizona –The Lifers

Flammulated Owl was literally and figuratively the number one lifer of the trip (see the last post if you missed it), but there were many other fun lifers that followed the Flam.  After all, one cannot go to Arizona and not come home with a few lifer souvenirs.  While I did not hit double-digits, I did snag some really exciting new ones.  One of these was a major target bird that I was just as eager to see as I was the Flam. Perhaps, though, the biggest (literally) lifer for me and the whole family was the Grand Canyon.

Grand Canyon Technically speaking it was not a lifer for me as I had been here as a small child.  Since I have no memory of it and I have a family of my own who hadn’t seen it, the time was right for a visit. Plus, the visit to Grand Canyon National Park was completely FREE thanks to the government’s Every Kid in a Park program where each 4th grade student in America can get his/her entire family and vehicle into any national park all summer long at no cost.  The lack of entry fee was definitely the icing on the cake because this place is impressive regardless.  The grandeur of the Grand Canyon and how it makes you feel when you are standing next to that vastness is nearly impossible to describe in words and capture in photographs.  Hopefully these kids will at least remember the experience.

Evan Marin

Tommy DeBardeleben joined us on the trip to the Grand Canyon.  Tommy was actually hoping to see a bird that I wanted to see, the California Condor.  The California Condor was reintroduced to the Canyon in 1996 and has done well there since.  Over 70 birds are in the Utah/Arizona population with many of them frequenting the Canyon.  Tommy had seen them here many years ago.  Unfortunately they were not a “countable” bird when he saw them because they were still in the early years of reintroduction, so Tommy technically did not have California Condor on his official life and state lists.  Neither did I, so as we enjoyed the Canyon at every possible pull-off, Tommy and I were always watching the sky above and below(!) in an effort to find this bird.  Unfortunately we never had any luck.  Later that night we learned one had been seen on the cliff face right beneath Bright Angel Lodge less than an hour after we had looked at the very same spot. Argh. The good news is that we were so impressed with the Canyon that we will be back some day.  The Condor can wait until then.

There were, of course, other potential lifers for me at the Canyon.  I did see one, the Juniper Titmouse, fly across the road in front of me.  It wasn’t until the drive back on US-180 to Flagstaff that I actually got to see one well and photograph it.

Juniper TitmouseJuniper TitmouseTommy found me this bird while we were stopped for a different lifer.  As I had been driving I knew to be vigilant for Pinyon Jays.  There were a couple times while cruising at highway speeds that I thought I saw blue-colored birds cross the highway, but with no shoulder on which to pull off, I couldn’t stop to check.  All doubt was erased at one point, though, when several blue-colored birds were flying across the highway in groups.  I found a spot to pull over and observe my lifer Pinyon Jay.  Photographing them proved impossible as the birds were between me and the sun.  They also hid remarkably well in the junipers, only giving away there presence as they flushed away.  This happened over and over as we probably saw over 50 in all, flushing in small groups.  It was frustrating but still fun to see the behavior of this bird and hear its fun, laughing call.

Pinyon JayPinyon JayThe morning after the Grand Canyon adventure, Tommy and I birded the Flagstaff area hitting up Elden Springs Road and the Schultz Pass Road. The birding was incredible, but since this is just a lifer post, we’ll stick to those. The first lifer was the Grace’s Warbler, a striking bird that loves the Pines.

Grace's WarblerGrace's WarblerWhile lifering on this bird, I simultaneously lifered on Plumbeous Vireo.  This is another bird that loves life in the Pines.  Both my new lifers could be heard and seen at the same time, sometimes even in the same tree!

Plumbeous VireoPlumbeous VireoElden Springs Road merges on to Schultz Pass Road, which was a reported location of numerous individuals of the bird I wanted to see most, the Red-faced Warbler.  Tommy had me stop at a spot that looked like good habitat for this warbler–dense stands of Douglas Fir on a slope next to a somewhat open area of Aspens.  Sure enough, Tommy picked out a singing Red-faced Warbler almost immediately.  As we were trying to get visuals on it, Tommy spotted another lifer for me and one I had been hoping for–a male Williamson’s Sapsucker! Even though the Red-faced Warbler was my most wanted bird after the Flam, we know that would be a relatively easy bird along Schultz Pass Road.  Therefore, we ditched the Red-face we had been hearing in an effort to track down the dapper and somewhat elusive Sapsucker. It sure was a tease at first and not offering up much to view.

Williamson's SapsuckerEventually we got the full monty as it was too busy drilling sap wells to care about a couple of gawkers.

Williamson's Sapsucker

Williamson's SapsuckerOnce the Williamson’s was fully enjoyed, we turned our attention to the Red-faced Warbler.  I was highly impatient to finally see this bird that we were hearing.  And then it finally happened, and it was glorious.

Red-faced WarblerAdding to the pleasure of finally seeing this bird is that Red-faced Warblers are curious and therefore crushable.

Red-faced Warbler

Red-faced WarblerRed-faced WarblerBy the time we were done birding Schultz Pass Road, we had seen several of these Warblers.  Each was just as exciting as the last.  Even Tommy has to stop and look at each one, they are that captivating.Red-faced Warblers are curious and quite crushable.There were no more lifers on this morning of birding around Flagstaff.  Tommy and I had found all my targets with relative ease, and there was really nothing left to go after.  I’m kicking myself for not doing more research because MacGilivray’s Warblers breed in the area by Hart Prairie which is just northwest of Flagstaff.  Oh well, something to add to my northern Arizona to-do list next time we come back to view the Grand Canyon (and the California Condors!)

My last hope for lifers on this trip would occur on our drive from Flagstaff back to Phoenix.  We were able to take a leisurely drive south since we were overnighting in Phoenix and didn’t have to catch a plane until the next day.  So instead of hopping on I-17, we drove through Oak Creek Canyon and Sedona.  Oak Creek Canyon and the red rock formations of the Sedona area are a must-see experience for anybody.  For the birders, there is even more to experience.  My list of hopefuls was short: Yellow-breasted Chat, Common Black-Hawk, and Brown-crested Flycatcher.

After scouring eBird, I had picked a spot caled the Encinoso Picnic Area as a place to look for the Chat.  It looked really small and held multiple birds–perfect for a quick search while a non-birding family waited in the car.  Evan’s 4th grader park pass got us into this National Forest Service fee site for free too (it works for all federal lands and not just national parks). Anyhow, when I stepped out of the car I heard the distinctive calls, croaks, and whistles of a Yellow-breasted Chat immediately.  And then I found a second and third equally loud Chat.  Getting visuals on any proved very difficult.  I did see one as it flew straight up out of the thicket it was calling from.  The yellow breast was as impressive as it was unmistakable.  Trying to find a perched bird was nearly impossible though. My family waited for nearly an hour in the air-conditioned car while I tromped through the picnic area picking up ridiculous amounts of painful, thorny grass seeds of some kind in my shoes.  And here is all I have to show for my toil:

Yellow-breasted ChatI’m not naive. I understand this is a typical experience with this bird species.  It was still frustrating.  At one point I could hear a Chat singing in the thicket right in front of me.  I figured it had to be perched on top somewhere.  So I climbed a rock, held the camera above my head, snapped a picture, and hoped for the best. Well, I got him. Can you see it?

Yellow-breasted ChatHere it is at a different perch.  Same effect.

Yellow-breasted ChatYellow-breasted Chat is just one more bird to add to the list of ‘Better Looks Desired’ birds.  At one point I saw a Chat fly into a tree in the distance, and I saw a fleck of yellow among the green leaves, so I just snapped photos of that yellow spot like crazy. Turns out I got a lot of photos of a yellow leaf instead. What an aggravating bird.

IMG_0794As we continued our drive to Sedona enjoying the views of the canyon walls from the bottom of Oak Creek Canyon, we decided to pull into the National Forest Service’s Grashopper Point recreation site.  This was another fee area that we got into for free–thanks Evan.  The draw of this site is that people like to cool off in Oak Creek here. More specifically, people cliff jump off a high rock face into a 15-foot wide creek below! Apparently this narrow creek is quite deep, allowing the people we saw jumping to come out unscathed.  We did not attempt it. I was not completely sold on its safety.

Evan MarinThe deep part of the water is quite narrow as you can see the wading area takes up almost half the creek width. This spot where Evan and Marin are wading is where teenagers were jumping into the water from 15-20 feet up the rock face!  As I kept an eye on my kids, I also kept an eye out for a Common Black-Hawk in the riparian corridor.  Unfortunately one never materialized.  I was also keeping an eye and an ear out for a family of Brown-crested Flycatchers that had been reported here. I had actually given up on them too, but seconds before we got in the car to leave I spied a silent flycatcher on top of a snag a long ways away.  I snapped some photos and was pleasantly surprised to see I had captured my lifer Brown-crested Flycatcher!

Brown-crested FlycatcherThe Brown-crested Flycatcher is distinguished from the similar-looking Ash-throated Flycatcher which inhabits the same area by its larger bill, completely rufous tail underneath, and a brighter yellow belly.  Thankfully, this Flycatcher turned around to make sure I could see all the appropriate field marks.

Brown-crested Flycatcher The lifering on this fifth trip to AZ was definitely a quality over quantity sort of thing. And unless I make a summer trip to SE AZ, the lifering will be significantly limited on subsequent trips to visit my parents in central AZ in the winter months. Regardless of lifers being available, good birds can ALWAYS be had in Arizona.  In the next post, I’ll highlight my favorite non-lifers from this most recent trip.

#17

It’s hard to be a part of Tommy DeBardeleben’s Owl Big Year (TOBY) in 2016 and not have it rub off on you in some way.  Watching my friend Tommy see all of America’s Owl species in one year was inspirational and got me thinking about completing my own “set” of Owls since I was so close.  In the fall of 2016, I made it my goal to see a Whiskered Screech-Owl on our annual trip to Arizona.  After that Owl was secured, only 3 Owls of 19 remained: Boreal Owl, Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, and Flammulated Owl–none of which would be particularly easy.  In fact, all of them are quite challenging. Nevertheless, a plan was hatched to make a rare summer trip to Arizona to attempt Owl lifer #17, Flammulated Owl.  Going in summer was necessary since this Owl is a migratory summer resident that is not around in Arizona during the fall/winter when we usually visit.  And since Flams are associated with the forests of higher elevations, we’d have to head to the mountains for this bird.

There are many places in Arizona to look for Flams, but to make it a family-friendly trip I opted for northern Arizona so that we could knock out our lifer Grand Canyon too.  Tommy had suggested that the Flagstaff area held great Flam habitat.  I liked his suggestion, so we made plans for a quick, end-of-school-year vacation at the Wyndham Flagstaff Resort.  Tommy made plans to join us for a couple days of our vacation so that he could help me get yet another new Owl.  Previously Tommy had shown me six Owl lifers on other Arizona trips.

The Owling was to commence on the first night of our vacation. May 30th was travel day and got off to an early start.  We landed at PHX around noon local time and proceeded to make the 2-hour trip north to Flagstaff.  Tommy drove up from Phoenix later in the afternoon and after some grocery shopping and enjoying a meal together, Tommy and I were off for a night of Owling while the family stayed back at the resort to relax.

Tommy and I had an hour’s drive to the southeast along the Lake Mary Road to make our Flam attempt at arguably the best place to try for them: Happy Jack Lodge.  The Flam fame for this location started when Caleb Strand discovered multiple reliable, accommodating birds here a couple years.  This was the site where Tommy got his TOBY Flam in 2016.  I have seen many crushing photos of Flams from Tommy and Caleb from this site and have drooled over the possibility of Owling here.  And now it was finally going to happen.  Although, daydreams of Flams perched low in Oaks were interrupted by a couple close encounters with Elk on the road.  Thankfully Tommy was driving and was skilled at spotting them.  The Elk weren’t the only distraction. We cruised right by Mormon Lake, the site of the the Arizona first state record Common Crane that showed up earlier in the month and disappeared just a week or so before our trip.  I found out later (back in Minnesota) that the Common Crane was refound on our last day of vacation! Doh!

We got to Happy Jack Lodge just as it was getting dark.  After a short walk through the campground, we started Owling in the adjacent forest which was fairly wide open.  I was expecting magic at any minute. But it was eerily…silent. We forged on, stopping every now and then to listen and play tapes. Nothing.  What was going on? In my mind I had billed Happy Jack as a sure thing, so disappointment was quickly setting in.  We weren’t hearing any nighttime sounds. The lack of activity coupled with the long day of travel was finally taking its toll on me.  I found it difficult to stay awake and focused and had to pause often to sit down and rest. Finally, enough was enough, and we ditched Happy Jack altogether.  We were now entering the unknown territory for getting me this Owl lifer.  It’s a good thing Tommy is a skilled Owler and is not at all daunted by the unknown.

On the drive back to Flagstaff, Tommy decided to stop at Wiemer Springs Road where he had seen a recent eBird report of a couple Flammulated Owls.  It was worth a shot.  Tommy had never been here before, but he got excited once he saw the habitat.  He felt really good about our chances.  We continued the ritual of hiking, pausing to listen, and playing tapes. Then, a short time after playing the tape, we heard a “Poot!” It was a Flam! And once it started, it kept going: “Poot!….poot!….poot!” Tommy said, “Let’s go get it!” and led the way into the woods as we tried to pin down the Owl for visuals and photos.  We tracked down what tree it was in, but Flams can perch high and remain out of sight as they perch close to the trunk of the tree.  We scanned and scanned with our flashlights.  Finally, Tommy shouted, “Josh, I’ve got it!” I hustled over to where Tommy was, but just then it flew and I never saw it.  This played over a few times: we’d hear the bird, track it down, Tommy would get a quick visual, and then it would fly as I approached.  It was so frustrating.  We even had a second Flam that we heard, but neither was being cooperative for us.  Eventually the Owls were quiet and we were super tired.  We had to call it a day for Flam attempt #1.  Officially, #17 was on the list as a heard-only, but it wasn’t as gratifying as it could have been if I had actually seen it.

The next day Tommy accompanied our family on a trip to the Grand Canyon.  Throughout the day we discussed what we should do for our next and final night of trying for the Flam.  Options included Owling closer to Flagstaff, returning to Happy Jack, and returning Wiemer Springs Road.  We finally decided on the latter as we knew there were actually Owls at that location.  Their reclusive habits made us nervous, though.

When we got to Wiemer Springs Road, Tommy had commented that it would be funny if we got the Flam right away.  We began the walk we had taken the night before and  played the tape in the same spot we had found one.  Immediately we got a response! I followed Tommy through the woods.  Rather than scanning with my own light apart from Tommy, I basically stayed right at his side.  This time it paid off as Tommy quickly got on the Owl with his light, and this time it stayed put!! Flammmmmmmm!!!!!

Flammulated Owl

Flammulated OwlFlammulated Owl

We literally had about one minute to view/photograph this bird before it flew off from its 30-foot high perch.  From the time we had started walking to when this encounter was over, only 12 minutes had gone by! It was quite the stroke of luck, or more likely, an answer to prayer as Tommy had said.  Wow, what a thrill it was to get this Owl with my buddy, Tommy! I was very satisfied with the experience and the photos I got, but since the night was still very young, we decided to keep trying for more visuals.

The rest of the night would play out like the night before where additional visuals and cooperative birds could just not be had.  We did hear a couple more Flammulated Owls, but none was willing to sit still.  However, the excitement for the night was not over.  As we were chasing yet another Flam vocalization, I heard something faintly in the distance that sounded like a Western Screech-Owl.  Unsure of what I was hearing, I asked Tommy if there were Screech Owls in the area.  He told me they were very unlikely at these high elevations.  We paused to listen, and I kept hearing it! The bouncy ball song was unmistakable.  Tommy wasn’t picking it up though which surprised me and caused me to doubt my senses.  But then he caught part of the distant vocalization and confirmed it was a Western Screech!  It was a Coconino County first for Tommy besides! Since this bird is somewhat rare for this part of the state, we decided to track it down for visuals and photo documentation.  Unlike Flams, Western Screech-Owls are very cooperative.  Tommy knew we would have no trouble seeing it.  Tommy was right.

Western Screech-Owl

Strangely, though, this bird stayed very high and wouldn’t come close for photos.  We actually detected at least three Western Screech-Owls, two adults and one juvenile.

Western Screech-OwlAfter the Screech-Owl fun, we kept up our search for Flams with no further sightings.  A pair of dueting Great Horned Owls did give us a three-Owl night, however.  With Flammulated Owl locked down and photo-documented as my 17th Owl lifer, the trip was a huge success.  A fun coincidence is that the Flam was Tommy’s 17th Owl species for TOBY. I can’t thank Tommy enough for all the Owl species he has shown me (7 in all!).  The next day we celebrated in a most appropriate way–eating at the Toasted Owl Cafe right by our resort in Flagstaff.  It’s very good, by the way.

Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, people standing and outdoor

So now only two Owls remain for me.  I got Owl lifer #16 in 2016, #17 in 2017, so I’m putting it out there as my next birding goal: #18 in ’18 and #19 in ’19.  Research and plans are already underway.  There is a chance Tommy still might be able to help me with one of those, but I may be on my own in other parts of the country for the rest of the journey.  Thanks again, Tommy!

Coming up in the next post will be the other lifers of this Arizona trip, highlighted by a real show-stopper which was the other major target bird of the trip!