I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream For Herons

The love of all things Heron continues on ABWCH this summer with the second species of crowned Night-Herons being seen in as many weeks.  This time it was the much more expected but no less appreciated Black-crowned Night-Heron taking its turn being so abiding.

Black-crowned Night-Heron

Show me a birder with an impressive life list, and I’ll show you a birder that harbors some degree of pain from certain birds on that list: a heard-only bird, a quick glimpse at another, a juvenile or raggedy individual, or maybe even a dubious addition.  Such items on my list have included a Red-shouldered Hawk eyeball, a Bell’s Vireo butt, and a Sage Flasher.  Yet another, from once-upon-a-time, was a scope-only view of a young BCNH.  It was enough for the lifer/county two-fer tic, but it left me wanting.  This redemptive sighting finally filled that void.

Black-crowned Night-Heron

I remember as a fledgling birder being shocked to learn that this unique Heron with its coiffed plumage could be found in Minnesota.  Perhaps I never bumped into one before I was a birder because of its secretive nature or the hours it keeps. Or perhaps I never saw one because of its proclivities for the water holes and riparian areas of metropolitan backyards.

Minnehaha CreekI have always wanted to see a properly-plumaged adult and seeing as how I just don’t turn them up on the prairie, I took full advantage of Bob Burmaster’s reliable find along Minnehaha Creek in Minneapolis.

And things have never been the same. IMG_5651

Veritas Caput

In 1832, an explorer by the name of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft and his men were guided by  Ozawindib, a Chippewa Indian, to the source of the Mississippi River in northern Minnesota,  a small, pristine lake surrounded by beautiful White and Red Pines. Not liking the Chippewa name Omushkos Sagaeigun or Elk Lake, Schoolcraft took the last four letters of the Latin word, veritas (truth) and the first two letters of the Latin word caput (head) and came up with Itasca as a new name that he felt more adequately described the significance of the lake that served as the true head of the Mississippi.

Lake ItascaThat’s it, right there–the rocks at the bottom right of the photo above mark the terminus of Lake Itasca and the beginning of the mighty Mississippi.  Here massive hordes of humanity, some more clothed than others, take their turn walking, slipping, and selfie-ing across the rocks at the Mississippi Headwaters in Itasca State Park.

Evan Marin ItascaGetting a photo of your significant people making the famous 20-foot trek without other tourists in the frame is about as easy as seeing a Black-backed Woodpecker in the park.  Of course, both become much easier in January…

This time of year is more fun for kids, though.

Evan Marin

Evan and Marin crossing the Mississippi

Evan and Marin were not the only ones in our family being baptized this day as true Minnesotans–Melissa and I were embarrassingly also making our first walk across the headwaters.  Though that, or the impressive virgin forests of towering Pines, should have been enough motivation to finally make it to Itasca, it was another Veritas Caput that served as the impetus to get us there–Mr. Bob Janssen, a.k.a. the godfather of Minnesota birding who literally wrote a book on the subject, was leading a bird walk at Itasca State Park.  Call us groupies, call us super-fans, but we were in.

Evan Bob Janssen

Evan birding with Bob Janssen–Again!

The truth is that due to a rough night in the camper for all of us, we slept in and missed meeting up with Bob’s group to begin the bird walk. Oh well, I thought, I’ve birded with Bob before and this was more or less a beginner’s bird walk. I reasoned that Evan would have the same reaction since birds aren’t that big of a deal to him anymore. I couldn’t have been more wrong. When he woke and found out we missed the walk, he was in tears.  Apparently birds aren’t that big of a deal, but birds with BOB is still a really big deal.  Ugh.

I told Evan we would try to find the group in the 32,000 acre park.  I didn’t tell him that finding an American Three-toed Woodpecker would have been easier.  But I had read the chapter on Itasca State Park in Bob’s Birds of Minnesota State Parks, and I had a pretty good guess of what trail we might find them on.  Even still, we were an hour-and-a-half late.  It was a long shot at best.  Amazingly, and as you can tell from the photo above, we did stumble upon Bob Janssen and his followers.  Whew!

We were just in time to catch the group to find out that the next stop was the Headwaters area at the far north end of the park.  Evan and I had to make a stop at the campsite on the way where we snagged a pretty sweet FOY, the Broad-winged Hawk.

Broad-winged Hawk

We finally met back up with our group at the Headwaters parking lot and began a leisurely walk looking and listening at…nothing.  It was super quiet which was strange since fall migration should have been going on all around us.  Now pay attention to this–if you want to be a better birder, go birding with people better at it than you.  The quiet woods did not daunt the 84-years-young Bob.  You don’t get to that age and that fame without acquiring a few tricks up your sleeve. Bob was listening intently for Chickadees. Wait, what?

As soon as Bob heard a couple Black-capped Chickadees, he pulled out his mp3 player and speaker and played an Eastern Screech-Owl mobbing tape.  The recording is of a Screech giving its tremulo call and being mobbed by about a thousand pissed off Chickadees.  What happened next is that the Chickadees in real life showed up with pitchforks and torches.  That brings in the onlookers, the Warblers and Vireos.  All the sudden we were swarmed with birds that didn’t even seem to exist a minute ago–Blackburnian Warblers, Northern Parulas, a Black-throated Green, Blue-headed Vireos were just a few.

Northern ParulaThough the light was bad and some birds were changing into their fall clothes, the flurry of activity kept it exciting even if it was just over binocular views.  I did manage to photograph a cooperative juvenile Chestnut-sided Warbler.  Just as some people aren’t fond of babies (the human kind), I am not found of juvenile birds. This one I found striking, however.

Chestnut-sided Warbler

We made several stops to play the tape in somewhat open areas, like where a path crossed the Not-so-Mighty Mississippi:

Mississippi River

Fun Fact: The Mississippi flows north for several miles before it turns south.

Though many of us in the group called out sightings of birds, Bob himself had the best sighting even though I lack the photographic evidence to prove it–a beautiful male Golden-winged Warbler.  It’s always a treat to see this bird that, if we did not have the Common Loon, would make a fine choice for a state bird, since Minnesota is responsible for hosting 47% of its breeding population.  Fun Not-So-Fact: Once we hit 51%, MN will control GWWA conservation policies in North AND South America.

Like the Mississippi itself, all good things must come to an end, and we parted company with the group and said goodbye to Bob, vowing to meet up again over a Meeker County Snowy Owl or Kandiyohi County Blue Grosbeak, which has now become our customary goodbye. We declined to go to the book talk, though it would have been a chance for Bob to sign the book to me and not Evan this time. Letting bygones be bygones, it was time for Evan and I to go from birding mode back into just regular camping mode, exceptions being made, of course, for Northwoods chickens that cross the road.

Ruffed Grouse

Ruffed Grouse

The Grouse and the aforementioned Broad-winged Hawk were year birds for me. Normally I wouldn’t care about such a thing, but with all my out-of-state travels I figured 2015 was my best chance of ever breaking 300 in a single year.  I’m very close, but it’s still going to be a stretch. Thanks to Melissa who woke me up at 1 AM and alerted me to a calling Barred Owl, I made another stride toward my goal.

That goal, along with the mouth-watering prospect of seeing another Black-backed Woodpecker, propelled me to go on one last birding hike in the early morning on our last day of camping.  Sadly, I did not encounter any of the shadowy Woodpeckers on Schoolcraft Trail, but I did find another year bird and get my first ever photos of a Brown Creeper.

Brown Creeper

Brown Creeper

Birding with Bob, nabbing four year birds (one a photographic first), and crossing the Headwaters made for a great inaugural trip to Itasca State Park. I am quite remiss, though, that I did not show you pictures of the incredible Red and White Pines of the park.  Come for the river, stay for the Pines, the t-shirts say.  Next time, which I can guarantee you there will be a next time, there shall be pictures of the Pines, and if we are all lucky, there shall be Black-backed Woodpeckers on them!

A Woman Who Cried Heron and started a mad dash to the metro

Occasionally the President comes to town to give a stump speech. Sometimes young heartthrob actors from the latest tween movie make publicity appearances at the Mall of America. More reliably and regrettably, the Yankees make their annual visit to Target Field. Yet none of these is a reason that any self-respecting person would drop everything and head to the Cities.

But this is.

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron

News of this Yellow-crowned Night-Heron was a huge jolt of life to the Minnesota birding scene that was just beginning to emerge from the summer birding doldrums with the onset of migration. Like the bird’s head, the report of the state’s first YCNH since 2012 was bold and shocking. Like its intricately patterned, two-toned back and wings, the announcement was subtle and smartly crafted. With a picture of the Heron above, Laura Segala announced her phenomenal discovery on FB:

Today – First time I’ve ever seen a yellow-crowned night heron in my yard (Plymouth – Hennepin Co). Or ever. #lifer

And why would a YCNH not want to live here?

IMG_5511The two large backyard ponds and connecting channel had many shady, reclusive haunts and corners from the overgrown vegetation along the banks. And there were enough large snails and crayfish around for Herons to have a “Chubby Bunny” contest too.

Yellow-crowned Night-HeronThe announcement came in early enough in the evening that those lucky Twin Cities birders could swarm it immediately.  My trip was too far to get there before dark.  I was there the next day, though. Conveniently I had to go to the Cities that day anyway. Inconveniently, the time of day was wrong and the bird did not come out.  So I made the 1.5 hour trek again the following day, only this time in the evening when the bird had been showing.  It took nearly two hours of waiting, but just as I was about to call it quits, the bird flew in from its treetop roost to begin its foraging.

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron

And for the first time ever, this birder also experienced the rush of seeing a Heron.

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron

Scrawny To Buff In Just One Month

Like so many lottery winners, young professional athletes, and bird bloggers everywhere this past month, ABWCH has fallen on hard times lately after enjoying a ridiculous fortune of good birds and lifers this past spring and early summer.  It’s been downright pathetic–my highly local and infrequent birding in July has sent me on several fruitless chases for petty things like a county Red-necked Grebe.  I even took a picture of an INBU. Sad, I know.  Actually, the break from serious birding and blogging has been delightfully refreshing…sleeping in every day, binge-watching TV shows on Netflix, going camping with the family, selling off baby/little kid stuff and making beaucoup bucks (not really) for a Florida trip someday. Poor men excel at dreaming, and even though I’m enjoying plotting a Disney trip as a Trojan Horse to get to Florida, it was time to put up a solid, meaty post that might even turn a vegan’s head. I was *this close* to putting up a post highlighting an eclectic assortment of blasé sightings from this past month.  Thankfully today’s events spared us all that embarrassment.

I don’t know if it’s the first wave of an attack from Canada or not, but the Buff-breasted Sandpipers showed up en masse all across the state on the same day last week.  I’ve never seen a more coordinated campaign by any migrating species before, let alone by a really good one. Ron Erpelding found a pile of them about a half hour from here in Renville County as well as an equally impressive pile of Upland Sandpipers. For good measure he also turned up a Blue Grosbeak in this area which is NORTH of where I found a bunch last year.  Followers of ABWCH know that this area is already pushing the envelope of the north and east range limits of this species and that I’m keenly tracking the movement since BLGR are now just 3.5 miles away from the home county.

Last week I went and saw the 25 Buff-breasteds and 13 Uplands but got abysmal views of both.  I capped my mediocre outing with a dip on the BLGR. Other birders, though, in their Buff-breasted quests exercised the power of the Patagonia Picnic Table and turned up an additional Blue Grosbeak and a Western Kingbird.

Though I lacked good photos of Buff-breasted Sandpipers, those BLGR gnawed at me more than anything.  I had to go back.  Plus my dad was visiting and had never seen a Blue Grosbeak before. So I got back in the game today and set an alarm. An hour later we were treated to out-of-this-world looks at seven remaining(?) Buff-breasteds.Buff-breasted SandpiperBuff-breasted SandpiperThis ripped bird was a lifer for Dad.

Buff-breasted SandpiperBuff-breasted SandpiperI did not take this photo-op for granted.  These birds are usually only found with the aid of scopes.  Having them 100 feet out the car window is about as good as it gets.

Buff-breasted SandpiperBuff-breasted Sandpiper

Buff-breasted Sandpiper

Dad and I also found a few of the much more conspicuous, albeit backlit UPSAs.

Upland SandpiperDad’s not sure if this is a lifer or not.  No doubt about its existence on his list now though.

Upland SandpiperUpland SandpiperAs delightful as the Sandpiper appetizers were, it was time for the main course: Blue Grosbeaks. We struck out on finding the one closest to the hay field, but not the other one a mile away.  As soon as I rolled down my window I heard that sweet, sweet familiar sound of a singing male.  After a bit of patience I was able to get Dad his life look at this special bird.

Blue GrosbeakEven though this male impressed us with his vocal abilities over and over and over, he did not want to show off his studly rusty wing patch.

Blue GrosbeakDad was getting some good looks at his lifer, but I wanted him to get the full effect and see that wing patch.  Eventually the bird bared it all with pride and great gusto.

Blue Grosbeak

I know it sounds insane, but this Blue Grosbeak sighting was more exciting to me than ABWCH’s unprecedented looks at Buff-breasted Sandpipers.  I am absolutely thrilled with their apparent range and population expansion.  This bird was 2 miles further north than those last summer.  Just 3.5 miles to go.  I cannot wait.

Blue GrosbeakSo where does the birding and blogging go after a morning like this? Nowhere but down again, of course.

The Savage King and Swedish Meatballs Too

So much for a summer of little birding and blogging.  The good birds need to stop.  At least there were some chases on which I put my foot down (and I don’t mean on the accelerator). One was a Yellow-breasted Chat–200 miles was just too far for a possible glimpse at a skulker. The other was a very interesting but bothersome find.  Bruce Fall, the Minnesota state eBird reviewer, discovered a large, “yellow-bellied” Kingbird at Murphy Hanrehan Park Reserve in Savage.  It was clear from the photos obtained by many birders that this was either a Tropical Kingbird or a Couch’s Kingbird and not the more expected Western Kingbird stray.  The first two Kingbirds are practically identical visually speaking, so they can only safely be identified by voice when outside of their normal ranges of Arizona and Texas.  One problem, though. This bird wasn’t talking for anybody.  Either of these Kingbird species is a significant vagrant, but what fun is it to chase a bird that no one knows for sure what it is? I dismissed this one pretty quickly.

Anyhow, I was having a pretty good day birding around the county on the morning of June 30th without even thinking about that CO/TRKI.  My day started by tracking down a county Lark Sparrow that Joel Schmidt had discovered in a gravel pit a couple days prior.  I was stoked.  I hadn’t seen one of these since my lifer two years ago, and now I had one for Kandiyohi County.

Lark Sparrow

Even still, I wanted another bird for my county list that day, so after the LASP I went looking for some Red-necked Grebes that Joel Schmidt also found earlier in June.  I struck out, but a pair of COLOs next to the road was a nice consolation prize.

Common LoonHmmm…I wonder why they didn’t have a chick with them.  It’s best not to think about that.

Common LoonI got back to the house, happy with my morning, and was busy documenting my LASP sighting. Then an email came in that changed the course of my day.  After nearly 15 hours of observing the mystery Kingbird over the course of a week, Bruce Fall clinched the ID after hearing the Kingbird vocalize when a Brown-headed Cowbird got too close for comfort. Tropical Kingbird.  Holy smokes. This is a scarce bird in even the tiny corners of Arizona and Texas that it calls home. I told Melissa I would have to try to squeeze in a fast trip to the Cities to try for this one.  This was a Minnesota first state record of a Tropical Kingbird after all.

Melissa has apparently learned the skills of opportunism from watching me.  Usually I find a way to see good birds on trips or other outings that are non-birding.  This time Melissa was using this bird to get back to Ikea in Bloomington where she had been the day before.  She had her eye on a loft bed for Evan and now saw an opportunity to go get it.  Gee, a rare life bird and Swedish meatballs with lingonberry sauce? Yeah, I suppose we could go.

The four of us got to Murphy-Hanrehan about three hours after the decision was made.  We hiked the 3/4 of a mile to trail marker 36, and the Tropical Kingbird was there right away. It stood out like a giant sore thumb in the dead branches of this tall, lone Cottonwood.  It looked utterly massive in real life.

Tropical Kingbird

From this lone Cottonwood island that towered over the open fields below, this bird was King of his domain.

Tropical Kingbird

Tropical KingbirdThe bird was out there a ways, so I did the best I could for photos.

Tropical KingbirdTropical KingbirdI showed the kids the bird on the camera’s LCD.  With another check mark for his list, Evan was out of there (and Melissa and Marin too).

Evan and MarinI was hoping for better photos, so I stayed for a little while. After ten minutes of observation, something incredible happened that two other birders present and myself witnessed: the Tropical Kingbird stretched out its neck, pulled its wings behind its back, and vocalized! It was a 1-second higher-pitched trill.  I later listened to the sounds of TRKI on the iPod, and it was a match for the first call listed.  I felt bad for all the birders that have watched and watched this bird just waiting for such a moment.  Luck of the draw I guess.  Just like when something even better then happened–the Kingbird flew to a low perch right on the path!  Matt Stratmoen, his 600 mm lense, and I hustled down the path to get near it.  We’d snap some photos, creep closer, snap, creep, snap, etc.  We eventually got within 100 feet or less.

Tropical KingbirdMatt is the one who took that amazing image of the Orr Black-backed Woodpeckers with the mom and dad in profile perched on either side of the nest hole with the baby sticking his head out screaming.  Amazing image.  It’s on MOU’s website.

Tropical KingbirdWe won’t talk about the quality difference between Matt’s photos and mine of the Tropical Kingbird from the same distance.  But I can live with mine.  The views were phenomenal and more than I hoped for.

Tropical Kingbird

Tropical KingbirdThe Kingbird had enough of this low perch and went back to his tall, remote Cottonwood.  I got what I came for and then some, so I hustled back to the van after just a half hour of observation.  After all, Swedish meatballs and a fight loading Ikea furniture in the van were calling my name.

Kip-Kip-Hooray!

Birds are a constant distraction.  Even as I was packing up the car at my parents’ house on June 28th after a weekend Up North, I saw some blackbirds that I suspected were Brewer’s, a bird I just discovered to be in the area, but I wanted to be sure.  I heard a vocalization and went to fetch my iPod from the car to listen.  Before I could even look it up, though, I heard “Kip-kip-kip-kip” coming from the small stand of Red Pines in my parents’ yard.  I knew that sound–I had been studying it in the hopes of finding a life bird some day–Red Crossbills!! I was just about to walk in that direction to find them when the nomadic flock flew in and landed in the Spruce right next to my car!

Many of the birds were juveniles.  Still, this was my first time looking at a crossed beak on anything, so it was pretty cool. I grabbed my camera out of the car and started shooting immediately.

Red Crossbills

Red Crossbill

Red Crossbill

They were such a swarm and so hard to see as it was cloudy and the dozen or so birds moved in and out of Spruce boughs at the top of the tree.  I started scanning the birds with binoculars while hollering to Dad and Evan who were inside the house to come see these birds.  Finally, I found a bird I would focus my camera on, a nice brick-red male.  It was the only one in the flock I observed.Red Crossbill Check out this sequence. Looks tasty…Red CrosbillA little snip and…Red CrosbillVoilà!

Red CrosbillDad and Evan did get out to see the birds. Evan saw the flock and said, “Yep, I see them,” and then went back into the house.  As usual, I wanted good looks and good photographs.  I was planning to keep working until I got some I was happy with, but poof! The nomads took off for their next stop on their life’s journey never to be seen by us again.   Red CrosbillWhat a thrill it was to get this life bird. Each new life bird now is especially fun because they are such good birds at this point proven by the fact that we still haven’t seen some of them after several years of birding.  Red Crossbills in particular are tough birds to get in Minnesota  even though they are year-round residents here. Not only was it a treat to finally see a Red Crossbill, but a three-generation lifer in the YARD is completely unheard of at this stage in the game.  I still can’t believe the serendipity of this encounter. Absolutely awesome, absolutely hands-down the best bird of this trip North. A Red Crossbill lifer and a Black-backed Woodpecker lifer seen within the same week at this time of year–unbelievable.  I thought I was going to have to wait for next winter to take another crack at those two.

The lifer train hasn’t stopped either. Two days later we’d be seeing a bird that is scarce even in its tiny, normal ranges in Arizona and Texas. What a week!

Pokin’ Around the Northwoods

Tamarack BogNorthern Minnesota is home.  Every season offers up something special in terms of wildlife and scenery.  I was able to get out and do some birding in the forests, bogs, and open country on the same recent trip that included the Blackburnian Warbler.  Cool stuff abounds everywhere here. It was good to be home.

Pink Lady Slipper

Pink Lady Slipper (Not MN’s State Flower, the Showy Lady Slipper)

Tamarack bogs like the one pictured above get a lot of attention from birders in the winter because of the Owls and some other boreal specialties.  In the summer, though, they are not visited by birders as much.  It’s too bad because they are quite lush and beautiful and the polar opposite of the forests of the seemingly dead Tamaracks.  I say seemingly because Tamaracks drop their needles after turning a beautiful golden yellow in the fall, leaving dead-looking trunks and branches.

This particular bog was home to the Blackburnian Warbler I showcased in the last post, but there were also some other fun birds in this area.  The Blackburnian was a happy accident; I had actually gone to this spot to look for some Boreal Chickadees that local birder Julie Grahn had told me about.  I found them, and they were literally sharing turf with the Blackburnian.  They were not as cooperative though, refusing to come out of the Spruce tops.

Boreal ChickadeeJudging from my picture, it appears that this was a family group with a couple fledglings!  This Chickadee is so cool.  Most MN birders only see them in the dead of winter when they come out to the remote feeding station on Admiral Road in the Sax-Zim Bog.   I was very pleased to see BOCH in the summer and much closer to home than SZ.

Sharing space with the Boreal Chickadees and Blackburnian Warbler were numerous Nashville Warblers whose song I just learned.  I am now just starting to learn the songs of the more common Warblers that I see during migration. I tend to photograph common birds last too, so on this day I finally got some shots of the Nashville.

Nashville WarblerNashville WarblerAnother fun bird to see even if it couldn’t be seen well was the Lincoln’s Sparrow.

Lincoln's SparrowThe varied habitats in northern MN offer up some unique opportunities for viewing wildlife.  While looking for an American Bittern lifer in a marsh near my parents’ house, I found this gal looking for a place to lay her eggs.

Snapping TurtleIt was not the biggest Snapper I’ve seen.  This one’s shell was the size of a dinner plate. I’ve seen them twice as big before.

Snapping TurtleI didn’t spend a lot of time in the mature, upland woods other than just passing through.  That was enough to nab my FOY Blue-headed Vireo that I missed during migration.

Blue-headed VireoThis bird has never been good to me.  It was once a nemesis and continues to be a photographic nemesis. By the time I figured out its rhythm of jumping to a new perch each time after it sang, the bird disappeared from sight.

IMG_4728

In the area of the Iron Range we call home, there is a substantial amount of open farm country, mostly hay fields and no crops.  Still, the grasslands and horse farms are great for some good non-forest birds, the best of which was a pair of Black-billed Magpies.  Julie Grahn had told me about these, and I’ve been seeing this species more and more every time I go up north.  It’s been stated that the Sax-Zim Bog is the furthest east this species breeds.  Well, this location was even further east yet, so it’s a pretty exciting find!

Black-billed MagpieAlso found in an open area was a bird that I have seen so many times this year and never before in the Northland, the Brown Thrasher.

Brown ThrasherOne bird that favors the open grassy fields that intersperse the Northwoods are the showy, and unique-sounding Bobolinks.  They must be having a good year because I saw so many.

Bobolink

They were also more cooperative than I’ve ever seen them before.  It felt good to finally photograph a BOBO properly.

Bobolink

Bobolink

BobolinkOne bird that I was absolutely surprised to find in the open fields were Brewer’s Blackbirds! I had no idea they were in the area.  Honestly, I often just dismiss most blackbirds I see as Red-winged Blackbirds or Common Grackles.  Needless to say I was pleasantly surprised when I saw the Brewer’s.  Like the Bobolink, it was nice to finally be able to get some decent photos of this bird too.

Brewer's Blackbird

This dad was busy feeding a fledgling.  I was scolded often during this photo shoot.

Brewer's Blackbird

Brewer's Blackbird

Brewer's BlackbirdBrewer's BlackbirdI had some really fun birding on this trip up north.  I was not lifer hunting as there really are so few lifers I can still get.  And none of them are easy. Or so I thought. In the next post I’ll tell you about a three-generation lifer that was delivered right to the doorstep.

Caution: Highly Flammable

Blackburnian Warbler

I have been Up North a lot this summer.  This is a good thing. On my most recent trip which occurred just a few days after the Black-backed Woodpecker chase, I got in some really good birding–some of the best I’ve had in northern MN in the summer.  One of several highlights was finding a Blackburnian Warbler on territory and then spending some serious time with just that one bird. It was a great FOY as I missed it during migration, but more importantly, this was my best encounter yet with this bird. Typically when I find them in migration, I have been lucky to get just a couple photos before they vanish forever as flighty, migrant Warblers are exceptionally good at doing. You just can’t beat a cooperative Blackburnian on a sunny day where it belongs–in the Spruces.

Blackburnian Warbler

Blackburnian Warbler

Obviously this bird is stunningly good-looking which puts it near the top of most birders’ favorite Warblers.  It is also one of the first Warblers I saw when my eyes were first opened to the amazing world of this family of birds. Before I ever dreamed up the blog and before I had even seen 100 species, Evan and I took our first ever bird walk with an experienced birder at Bear Head Lake State Park.  This lady spotted a Blackburnian and made quite a fuss over its orange throat, but Evan and I could not see the bird despite her best efforts to describe where it was.  It was excruciating; we’d already gotten a field guide at this point and knew what a face-melter the Blackburnian was. The next day Evan and I went out to look for it on its territory.  I was able to hear it, but it took the Eagle-eyes of a then 5-year-old to pick out the glowing flame from the treetops.  It was a major birding victory early on in our hobby. Finally doing this bird photographic justice on this recent trip was a major victory today and therefore worthy of an exclusive post.

Blackburnian Warbler

Blackburnian Warbler

Blackburnian Warbler

Blackburnian Warbler

The best thing about seeing a Warbler on territory is that you get to see and hear it do what Warblers do best–warbling. Blackburnian WarblerBlackburnian Warbler

Blackburnian Warbler

Blackburnian Warbler

The Blackburnian is a treetop bird. It was nice of him to oblige me by posing low in a young Aspen for a bit.  Another benefit of Warblers on territory not yet mentioned is that they will sit still long enough to get a decent photo.Blackburnian WarblerBlackburnian WarblerBlackburnian WarblerBlackburnian WarblerBlackburnian WarblerBlackburnian WarblerOverkill? Maybe, but my burning desire to photograph one of my top birds has finally been extinguished….until I find another one.

I did see other birds on this trip north–really good birds.  I’ll put those up in the next post.

(Blacked) Backs Against the Wall

The report was stunning. No–compelling. Sparky Stensaas had passed along a phenomenal sighting in a recent posting on MOU-net: nesting Black-backed Woodpeckers in a hole at eye-level in a tree actually touching a bog boardwalk in Orr. First, I’ve never seen Black-backed Woodpeckers, and birds with young in the nest are birds that are pinned down and easy to see. Second, the photos and videos coming out of Orr of two adult Black-backeds feeding young were phenomenal (eye-level, up-close views!). Third, Orr was where I grew up for the latter half of my childhood.  Fourth, this bogwalk was the Mickey Elverum Bog Walk, so named after the highly-regarded science teacher and well-loved father of a classmate.  Mr. Elverum passed away in the very year his daughter, Mariya, and the rest of our class were to have him as our 7th-grade science teacher. For all these reasons I had to go.

If these weren’t reason enough to make a fast trip, Sparky’s urgency was–the young would be fledging any day.  Though I had a scheduled trip to the Northland the following weekend, the consensus was that the birds would not wait until then.  Getting there fast was not so easy, though. Believe it or not, but I am trying my best to be a good adult and make sure I am taking care of all my various responsibilities. I just couldn’t get away. The report came in early on Friday, June 19th, but the soonest I could make my get-away was at the very end of the day on Father’s Day that Sunday. Area birder Dee Kuder had checked on the Woodpeckers that morning and reported that there was still a baby bird in the nest.  It was somewhat reassuring, but a lot could happen during the day. I tried to push that thought aside as I spent the day with my kids fishing and grilling out before going to my Dad’s on Father’s Day…never mind that the old man was already in bed when I rolled in the driveway.

For better or worse, the amount of daylight this far north this close to the Solstice won’t hold back the hardest of hard-core birders.  Darkness was just settling in at 10:30 when I arrived and was completely gone by the time I rose at 5:00. It was a nice surprise that the old birder himself to decided to get up and join me on my crazy quest to the old stomping grounds.

Orr Pelican Lake signThe weather forecast for the day was not good with thunderstorms all day long starting at 6 AM.  As we made the half-hour trip up to Orr, the rain paid no attention to the forecast and came a little earlier. Ugh. So much for good photography conditions IF the birds were even still there. Regardless, I had come 300 miles for this.  There was no turning back now.

Mickey Elverum Bog WalkMy memory’s a blur, but I think I left my dad in the dust as I raced down the Bog Walk to find the nest. Everyone said you can’t miss it; it’s right by the boardwalk and the young are making a holy racket.  It turns out you can miss it…by a day.

Black-backed Woodpecker nestIt was sickening.   I knew this outcome was a very real possibility, but knowledge and feelings are very different.  Adding injury to insult were hordes of mosquitoes and a steady rain.  In vain I looked and listened, but those Woodpeckers weren’t speaking to me.  It was a ghost town. I thought about giving up to get ahead start on licking my wounds on my 300 MILE DRIVE HOME. But then I remembered I’ve been in this spot before and have come out thriving.  Coming to mind were clutch birding moments from my past like getting the Chestnut-collared Longspur last minute at Felton Prairie last year with Steve Gardner or getting a lifer Blue Grosbeak at Blue Mounds State Park two years ago with Evan in a break in a rainstorm the last morning of our trip.  I sent Dad back to the car to get a reprieve from the rain and mosquitoes; I had work to do.

After walking the entire Bog Walk loop, I had circled back to the nest site and thought I heard the pik-pik-pik sound of a Woodpecker along with a muffled rattle call. It sounded kind of like the Black-backed recordings I’d listened to, but it was different.  It was subdued and was not an auditory match. The sounds were coming from the interior of the loop over 100 feet from the nest. I hiked to the other side of the relatively small loop and again heard the same sounds.  They were coming from the middle of this loop.  I had to find out if that was my bird.  I needed to do some real bog walking.  I knew the loop was relatively small, but even still, I thought it would be pretty stupid to go into the swamp on a cloudy morning without telling anyone.  I went back to get Dad.  He came out with his umbrella and stood on the boardwalk to be a voice that could call me out of the abyss if I got turned around.

In I went, feet soaked from pockets of water in the boggy floor and clothes drenched from rubbing on the flora. No turning back.  After a short walk I finally located the tree that held the bird.  But I couldn’t see it in a dead tree even though it was close!  Finally, I laid eyes on my lifer–a baby Black-backed Woodpecker, who was in the nest less than 24 hours ago.  I hollered to Dad that I got it.

Baby Black-backed WoodpeckerThe suppressed calls I was hearing now made sense as this was a young male just learning his voice.  Though not that evident in this photo, you can see the yellow spot on the forehead.  Watching it long enough, I eventually saw momma come in.

Black-backed Woodpecker

It was pretty adorable to watch this motionless youngster take his first hops up the tree while watching mom.  She would bring him food and then disappear. His constant calling would start up immediately.  She would leave him for long stretches which drew him out of his comfort zone and caused him to literally stretch his wings as he’d make short flights to nearby trees.  It was incredible to witness this bird’s first flights.

Black-backed WoodpeckerBlack-backed WoodpeckerI really wanted pictures of mom and dad, though, especially dad with that golden yellow crown.  Eventually momma and baby made their way to the trees by the boardwalk with me shortly and soggily behind them.  Dad was able to get his life looks at this bird now too and then proceeded to be my spotter for photographing them.Dad Bog WalkWith the low light conditions that exist in a bog at dawn on a rainy day, I needed all the chances I could get in order to get any kind of decent photo.  We positioned ourselves within earshot of the calling baby and sure enough, we’d get frequent looks at the mother as she would forage for food to bring back to baby.

Black-backed WoodpeckerBlack-backed WoodpeckerThe jet-black back of these birds really stands out.  You can see how it would be effective camouflage in their preferred habitat of recently burned forests.

Black-backed Woodpecker

Black-backed Woodpecker

Black-backed Woodpecker

Black-backed Woodpecker

Black-backed WoodpeckerDespite the poor conditions for photography, getting this much-wanted lifer in this way in this place with this company was pretty special.  After all, we’d all be stuck on some metaphorical tree without the guidance of a parent.  Mine even called me out of the literal trees and gave me dry socks for the ride home.

Black-backed Woodpecker

This post is dedicated to the memory of Mickey Elverum and science teachers everywhere that continue to inspire curiosity in our natural world.

Superior Warblers

Gone are the days of spring migration when the Warbler blitzkrieg causes hordes of Warblers of nearly 30 species to descend on our little patches of woods, putting us birders on the defensive as we scramble to see them all before the invasion is over.  Chasing a specific Warbler sighting during migration is a fool’s game of which this fool has partaken way too often only to crash and burn. Now in summer, though, it is the time for the offensive Warblering, the deliberate Warblering, the better Warblering–IF you are in the right location.  And that I was when I was vacationing on Wisconsin’s Madeline Island in Lake Superior.  Close to 20 species of Warblers call the northwoods of northern Wisconsin and Minnesota home.  Seeing Warblers on their breeding territories is the best way to see Warblers in my opinion.  You get the full Warbler experience – their incredible looks, their robust songs, and their species-specific habitats.  With migrants and vagrants you are often getting just 1/3 of the true Warbler experience.  It is inferior Warblering to be sure.  The Warblering on Madeline was far from inferior and provided this birder much entertainment.  So let’s get to it.

Starting off this parade of Warblers will be my spark bird, the bird that caused me step foot on this slippery slope of birding: the Chestnut-sided Warbler.  I was very pleased to, pleased to meet him too.

Chestnut-sided Warbler

Chestnut-sided Warbler

Chestnut-sided Warbler

Chestnut-sided Warbler

I also took my annual Yellowthroat shot on this trip.  It fits in a mega Warbler post but rarely anywhere else.

Common Yellowthroat

In my exploration of Madeline Island, I found a “habitat island” of Red Pines along the beach at Big Bay Town Park and Big Bay State Park. Most of island is mixed deciduous forest. I wanted to check out the pines in the hopes of finding Pine Warblers or lifer Red Crossbills.  I was successful with the former as this patch of woods held several of those drab but likeable Pine Warblers.  This thin strip of pines with Lake Superior on one side and a lagoon on the other has a great boardwalk running the length of this point which is over a couple miles long.

Evan Madeline IslandKudos to Big Bay Town Park and Big Bay State Park for this awesome boardwalk and kudos to the PIWA for having the best habitat preference of all the northwoods Warblers.

Pine Warbler

This bird was a lifer as recently as a year ago.  I do not take my PIWA sightings for granted.  Their trill is similar to a Chipping Sparrow’s, but much richer and more musical.

Pine Warbler

Pine Warbler

Pine Warbler

Another Warbler I’m quite fond of is the Black-throated Green which was the second-most common Warbler on the island behind Ovenbird.  Despite the many “Teacher! Teacher! Teacher!” calls of the 30+ OVENs I heard one morning, I didn’t pay them any mind.  It is summer after all, and this teacher was off duty.  The Black-throated Green was a much better bird to watch anyhow.

I really like this Warbler.  Perhaps this is because it was once an actual target bird a couple years ago.  In 2013, we were inundated with them on a camping trip to Temperance River State Park along the north shore of Lake Superior.  I have fond memories of my kids imitating their catchy, buzzy song.  To whom such things matter, the Madeline Island  Black-throated Greens who sang zee-zee-zee-zoo-ZEE outnumbered those who sang zoo-zee-zoo-zoo-ZEE by a ratio of 8 to 1.  It was a bit of a letdown as I prefer the latter version.

Black-throated Green Warbler

Black-throated Green WarblerNot only did the Madeline Island Black-throated Greens have a preference for the lesser song, but they also preferred the lesser light, always perching underneath the leaves’ shade and casting them in weird, greenish light. Black-throated Green WarblerBlack-bearded Green Warbler would probably be a more appropriate and much cooler name.

Black-throated Green WarblerBlack-throated Green WarblerThe Black-throated Greens were nice, but they really just whet my appetite for a much, much better Warbler with a black throat.  Because of its stunning beauty and scarcity, the Black-throated Blue Warbler was one that I was yearning to see again since my initial viewing in 2013.  It was one of my two main birding goals for the trip with the other being the Piping Plovers. I tried real hard to find one on the under-birded Madeline Island.  Area birder Nick Anich had described the very particular habitat choice this species likes:  mature Maple forests with a high canopy, a fairly open midstory, and a thick understory full of saplings. I’m not sure what it is they like about the Maples, but that is the same type of habitat where the Black-throated Blues are found on Oberg Mountain in Minnesota. Schoolhouse Road on Madeline Island seemed the best I could find to match this habitat description, but I just couldn’t pick out a zoo-zoo-zoo-zoo-zee from the zee-zee-zee-zoo-zees or the zoo-zee-zoo-zoo-zees of the Black-throated Greens.

The search for the Black-throated Blues would have to take place on the mainland after our trip.  Nick Anich and Ryan Brady had given me some places to try.  Like in Minnesota, this bird is far from an easy find.  Though I had a few options for trying for them, I put all my money (or my family’s time, rather) on one bet: Jammer Hill Road west of Bayfield a few miles.  As I drove down the gravel road, it suddenly made a turn for the worse–there was a section of very large, jagged gravel. I’m not exaggerating when I say the rocks were about the size of my fists.  No way was I going to pop a tire looking for a bird, so I decided to give up on the Black-throated Blue search and turn around.  The problem was there was no place to turn around, so I had to keep inching forward.  Turns out this jagged gravel section ended shortly afterward and we were back on smooth, packed gravel again. And a minute  later: zoo-zoo-zoo-zoo-zee!

Black-throated Blue WarblerJust as presidential hopefuls are emerging left and right declaring their intentions, I, too, am now making a bold announcement: the Black-throated Blue Warbler is my favorite Warbler.  Though I was hooked by the Chestnut-sided, though I’ve stood in awe of the Blackburnian, and though I’ve been dazzled by Painted Redstarts at my feet, the Black-throated Blue is simply the best in my book.  I have yet to see the Red-faced, but I don’t even think that beauty could change my mind.  My wardrobe is disproportionately blue after all.

Black-throated Blue Warbler

Black-throated Blue Warbler

So with that major target achieved, this should be the end of this post.  This is how I wanted to end this post.  But the Warblering went on.  I’m not talking about lame Tennessees and Nashvilles either; I’m talking about some really good stuff.  On our way home it worked out rather conveniently that we had a non-birding errand to run in St. Louis Park, a Minneapolis suburb. It was convenient because while on vacation on MI, a birder had found a Hooded Warbler on territory at Westwood Hills Nature Center in St. Louis Park.

Hooded Warbler sign

Hooded Warblers nest in small numbers in the south metro at such strongholds as Murphy-Hanrehan Park and Lebanon Hills.  It seems, though, that more and more have been popping up this year in new locations, Westwood Hills being one of those.   Evan and I hiked the trails at Westwood Hills to see the HOWA while Melissa and Marin waited in the car.  We both heard it real well, and I even had some quick fly-by views.  Overall though, it was just a bugger for showing itself.  Even still, Evan decided that hearing it was good enough to add it to his life list.  For me it was a nice addition to the year list.

The HOWA wasn’t the only non-MI Warbler causing angst while I was away.  Wifi on an island is a double-edged sword providing birding help while on vacation but also creating birding anxiety back home.  Joel Schmidt had notified me that a Blue-winged Warbler was reported at Sibley State Park.  He had then tracked down the info from the original finder and saw the bird himself.  We are at the very fringes of the Blue-winged Warblers’ range.  In other words, it is a very good bird for Kandiyohi County that was not yet on my county list.  At dawn that very morning after we got home from vacation, I zipped out to Sibley.  Warblers on territory–so fun, so incredibly reliable.  Getting the 3/3 experience at home with a great Warbler was a fitting way to cap off a great trip full of Warblering in the northwoods.

Blue-winged WarblerBlue-winged WarblerThere are more Warblers on the horizon as I have since made two post-MI trips to northern MN with a third one coming this weekend.  But first, what could make a Woodpecker chase so compelling?