(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?

Only The Best For Long Islanders

Ask any serious birder the first thing he or she thinks of when the circumstances of life necessitate travel outside of the locality where he or she resides. Chances are good that this birder will instantly start analyzing the new region’s birds and assessing how those findings mesh with needs and wants for this list or that.  I’m guilty of this. The trip to Madeline Island was no different except….northern Wisconsin is practically a carbon-copy of northern Minnesota.  It does not bode well for exciting new bird finds.  However, I dug deep and came up with two birding goals that, if achieved, would make Wisconsin birding genuinely thrilling.  The first was the possibility of a Black-throated Blue Warbler.  Of the oodles of breeding warbler species shared by MN and WI, the Badger state has more than its fair share of the BTBWs, a bird I’d only seen once before since they are very limited in range in MN.  But this post isn’t about the BTBW and instead concentrates on my second and more important birding goal of seeing the endangered Piping Plovers.

In preparation for that ill-fated 2013 Madeline Island trip, I had discovered that Piping Plovers nest on Long Island which happens to be right next to Madeline Island.  These birds are part of the Great Lakes population of PIPL.  This particular population is endangered as only 70 or so pairs nest along the shorelines in the entire Great Lakes region.  The other two main populations of PIPL, Atlantic/Gulf Coast and Northern Great Plains, are a little more well off but still considered threatened. Long Island, which is really a long, skinny peninsula comprised of remote sandy beaches, annually hosts 3-5 pairs of the Great Lakes population of PIPL.

Long Island

In my naivete, I looked at the map and thought Madeline and Long were super close.  Yep, I’d rent a kayak at La Pointe and paddle across the channel and along the narrow Long Island shoreline to scan for Plovers.  We’d take the kids for a little ride.  It would be fun.  It would be perfect.

Long Island

Or not.  When we took the ferry to MI, I could see just how far away Long Island actually was, not to mention how much shoreline there was to search there.  Even sans kids, the prospect of crossing that water in such a craft was daunting. The Piping Plover plans flew out the window or off the ferry, rather.  As you can see from the map, reaching them by the mainland is not feasible either.  But thanks to all the modern conveniences on Madeline Island, particularly the  wifi at the cabin,  I started researching other possibilities and discovered there are several water taxi services that will take kayakers, hikers, campers, photographers, etc to any place they need to go in the Apostles. Sweet! Then I saw the price.  Not so sweet.

Not only would it be expensive, but I had no idea if there were any Piping Plovers out on Long this year.  The most recent eBird data was from 2013.  However, it is a pretty inaccessible place which could explain the lack of data.  Nick Anich, one of the region’s top birders, told me that Piping Plovers breed every year on Long. It was somewhat assuring, but I got the security I wanted when I got in touch with Julie Van Stappen with the National Park Service.  Julie assured me that there were, in fact, five pairs of Piping Plovers and two active nests on Long Island this year.  The probability for a successful mission was now very high… just like the price.  The only hindrance now was me.  After much hemming and hawing and wishing and washing, I pulled the trigger in the eleventh hour, going out just before dark on our last day of vacation.

Evan Marin madeline island This was definitely the most I’ve paid for a single life bird. Other trips, like Arizona, are much more expensive, but the huge numbers of lifers down there makes the cost per bird pretty reasonable.  In any birding trip, though, you just can’t put a price on the side-benefits, like a family speed-boat ride on Lake Superior.

Evan Melissa Marin

Once we were on the boat it was time to get to Long island to begin the search as we motored along the shore. But where would we look? Long Island is, well, long. Several miles long, in fact.  Thankfully we had a boat captain that was somewhat familiar with the nesting area.  He even pulled up his smartphone, looked up some group on Facebook associated with the Plovers, and from the profile pic that showed the nests, he knew exactly where to go.  Nothing but the best.

In no time I spotted one of the nests.  Ryan Brady, another top birder from the area, gave me a great tip for finding the nests.  Ryan told me that they fence them off every year to keep out predators.  Needless to say, the nests are actually pretty easy to find if you can get to this remote location.

Piping PloverHere’s a cropped view of the above photo showing the male Piping Plover taking his turn on the nest. IMG_4527The remoteness of Long Island coupled with miles of perfect beach habitat make this an ideal place for the Piping Plovers to set up shop.  Even still, the NPS takes no chances.  Since Long Island (a peninsula really) is only accessible by boat, the psychological fencing is placed right at the water’s edge to ward off any beaching watercraft.

Long Island

Because of the sensitive nature of this nesting endangered species, we kept a very respectful distance from the shoreline so as not to disturb the birds.

Evan

Being in this place and seeing where these birds call home was a cool experience.  Sure, I might see one during migration in Minnesota with better views some day, but it’s just not the same.  This is the real deal here; this is where the next generation of PIPL is made.  In all my recent travels, I’ve developed a preference for seeing birds where they belong.  Vagrants and migrants are fun, but seeing them in their preferred habitat can’t be beat.

That said, it was not the easiest to view the birds in this manner.  The distance combined with the rolling of the boat in the waves made it extremely challenging to do any photography.  I would snap some photos of the nest, then zoom in on my pictures to see the bird.  As I was doing this, Melissa hollered out, “What are those birds running on the shore?”  There was only one realistic possibility–Piping Plovers!  Now everybody could clearly see the birds even though they were a bit distant.  It was pretty neat to have a pair of them in view.  They really blend into the sand.

IMG_4534

Piping PloverMy photos are not the best, but honestly, I’d be an irresponsible birder if I did show you great photos from this outing because it would mean I was close to them.  The well-being of these birds–the well-being of a species–comes first.  And these guys need a lot of space to do well.  Even so, I got some bloggable shots of both sexes.  Ladies first.

Piping Plover female

Piping Plover female

Piping Plover female

And the male.  Note the jewelry on the legs.

Piping Plover male

Piping Plover male

Piping Plover male

With the water-taxi meter ticking and with a few photos in hand, it was time to head back.  It was a fun and short trip.  I don’t even want to talk about the price-per-minute.  Chartering a boat to get an endangered species lifer on its turf was pretty neat experience, though.  Oh, and that kayak idea? Yeah, we logged 14 miles round-trip.

For the final Madeline Island post, we’ll be back on land with some much better bird photos.  Coming up we will see Warblers up close and personal in the best way possible–on breeding territory.

A Return to Madeline Island–The Mourning is Over

Madeline Island

Madeline Island, the largest of the 21 Apostle Islands on Lake Superior’s south shore in Wisconsin, has become a reunion destination where my parents, siblings, and respective families all gather together. Our first trip four years ago was fun and memorable.  We had high hopes to repeat those feelings in 2013 on a return trip.  But even as we were packing up and getting ready to join the family, Marin came down with a devastating case of Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease.  This disease is both highly contagious and was extremely painful for Marin.  With great heartache for all of us, the Madeline Island trip was over before it started.  The rest of the extended family went on without us.  We stayed home…and moped.  We got out birding a little at home and even picked up a couple lifers, but they were pathetic, insufficient consolation prizes.  We were wishing we were somewhere else.

Madeline Island

The good news is that it’s not 2013 anymore, and last week we were able to board that ferry to gather once again with family at Madeline Island.

Evan Marin

It felt really good to get back to this place–this place of beauty.

Madeline Island

This place of lupine-lined roads.

Madeline Island

This place of serenity.

Lake Superior SailboatThis place of adrenaline.

David

This place where the ice-bucket challenge ain’t got nothin’ on Lake Superior in June.

Evan Marin

This place of expensive gas.

Madeline Island Ferry

This place of very large, obtrusive Herring Gulls.

Herring Gull

This place of birds who were made to live in Wisconsin.

"Free beer!" -Alder Flycatcher

“Free beer!” -Alder Flycatcher

This place of four breeding Catharus species.

Hermit Thrush

Of the Veery, Wood Thrush, Swainson’s Thrush, and Hermit Thrush that all breed here, the latter three are annoyingly similar-sounding. I thought I had a Wood Thrush when Melissa finally helped me get visuals on this Hermit. I’ve only ever had to learn the WOTH song as that’s our only breeder of the three in west-central MN.

This place that Sandhill Cranes call home.

IMG_4381

Sandhill Crane

And raise babies.

Sandhill Crane

But for me, this is a place of photo redemption for many bird species. I saw birds and crushed birds that I have never seen well before, photographed at all, or crushed.  Common Raven is of the latter-most category.

Common Raven

The very common Double-crested Cormorant is finally making its long overdue debut on ABWCH.

Double-crested Cormorant

Contrary to what I’d thought my whole life, DCCO are actually kind of cool-looking.

Double-crested Cormorant

One bird, which has the best sound of the northwoods, I have heard a few times and seen briefly once.  On this trip to Madeline Island, I have now seen the Winter Wren well while it sang.  Truly, this was one of my highlights of the MI trip, a trip that even included seeing an endangered species lifer.

Winter Wren

Don’t know the song? Listen to it right now; this is the Information Age after all. #beatsanywarbler

Winter WrenI’m human, I make mistakes. Awhile back I prematurely declared on this blog that Canyon Wren is the best Wren.  I now retract that statement.  Sorry, AZ friends, but I’m declaring WIWR the best Wren now.

Winter Wren

Finally seeing the little ball of chocolate and seeing it well, coupled with the incredible song, wooed me.

Winter WrenThe WIWR was a huge highlight, but perhaps even more thrilling because of the bird’s vibrant colors was finding a Mourning Warbler.  Unlike the Wren, I have seen MOWA well before but always briefly, certainly never long enough to photograph.  That changed on this trip.

Mourning Warbler

By the way, who’s ever heard of a Warbler perching on a wire?

Mourning Warbler

Sometimes, to get the full effect of a Mourning Warbler’s colors, you need a stunt-double, a second bird.  A much, much, much more cooperative bird and the only other MOWA I found on the island.

The Mourning Warbler gets its name from its black bib--a symbol of mourning.

The Mourning Warbler gets its name from its black bib–a symbol of mourning.

Previously I’ve only ever managed one head-less photo of a Mourning Warbler.  Therefore, this photo session felt sooooo good.

Mourning Warbler

Mourning Warbler

Mourning WarblerIt felt good to get back to the island…so good after the disappointment of 2013. The last time I was at Madeline Island in 2011 I wasn’t even a birder.  I didn’t even know what a Warbler was.  This return to MI was incredible in many regards, but especially for seeing birds and photographing them. For the next post I honestly can’t decide what to share with you first–the high seas outing to get an endangered species lifer or the meatiest, crushiest mega-Warbler post I’ve ever done.  Wait and see, I guess.

Beyond the Book–Birding with the Legendary Bob Janssen

I have long known that Bob Janssen, author of Birds in Minnesota, was hard at work on another birding book with the tantalizing title Birds of Minnesota State Parks.  As a birder and a huge fan of our state park system, I was stoked about this book.  I first learned about it from Bob himself when I spoke with him on the phone one time in an attempt to help him finally get his Meeker County Snowy Owl.  Every birder has his own cross to bear.  Bob’s is a Meeker County Snowy Owl.  This one has eluded the godfather of 87-county-listing in Minnesota. I believe Bob made seven such attempts on my numerous reports in the last two years but still could not see SNOW in Meeker.

Not only did I know about Bob’s book, but I recently found out that Bob was doing a book talk at a handful of state parks with the first talk at our own Sibley State Park! As luck would have it, our schedule was clear on June 8th allowing Evan and me to go.  I hadn’t yet picked up a copy of Bob’s book, so I planned to do so at the park that evening before the talk.  Evan asked if he could have the book.  I told him I was buying it, so it would be mine.  He still seemed put-off, so Melissa consoled him by telling him the book would be his after I was dead.  Gee, thanks, Melissa.

Anyhow, after purchasing the book at the contact station, we made a quick check on the Mt. Tom road to see if the Cerulean Warbler had returned this year.  I didn’t hear anything, but to be fair, I was rushing since we were nearly late for the book talk at the Interpretive Center. We did arrive a minute late and quickly assumed seats in the back row and began listening to Bob’s talk.

Bob Janssen

Bob talked about how the State called him up in the 90s and asked him if he knew anybody that would be willing to do bird surveys in all of Minnesota’s state parks.  Bob immediately jumped at the opportunity by suggesting himself.  It is because of Bob and all his work that we have those awesome bird checklists for every state park.  One of Evan’s favorite things to do whenever we go to a state park is to collect that park’s checklist.

Minnesota State Parks Bird Checklists

Eventually the state wanted Bob to do a book from the result of all his work that would provide an overview of the birding at each state park.  Genius idea.

Bob Janssen books

Part of Bob’s presentation included a slideshow with pictures of various birds that are associated with various state parks around the state.  Bob put up the first picture of a bright yellow bird with a big black eye and slender black bill.  Then he asked the audience of about 30 people if anyone knew what the bird was.  Evan’s hand shot straight into the air immediately.  Bob called on Evan who correctly and enthusiastically responded, “Prothonotary Warbler!”

I don’t remember Bob’s exact words, but he was surprised and said something to the effect of “Very good young man! That’s impressive.” That set the pattern for the next several minutes–a bird picture would go up followed immediately by Evan’s hand.  Bob would again call on Evan who would again get the correct answer.  Two things were clear: the audience wasn’t made up of serious birders besides us, and Bob was getting a kick out of the young man who knew his birds.

"Blue Grosbeak!" -Evan

“Blue Grosbeak!” -Evan

One time after a correct response, Bob looked at me and asked, “How does he know all these?”  The dad in me was proud; the teacher in me cringed that my kid was showing off and loving it.  To be fair, Evan did miss a couple of IDs of birds that aren’t the easiest to ID.  I had to chuckle to myself when Evan guessed Caspian Tern incorrectly for a picture of a Forster’s Tern–this is funny because when we got our Caspian lifer a couple weeks ago, Evan turned down my offer for better looks at them. “What, are they those white things over there? Na, I’m good.”  If only you looked Evan, you’d have gotten another question right on Bob’s quiz!

Sensing that the rest of the audience may not have been as enthused as the three of us about Evan’s responses, I whispered to Evan that he should let other people answer. He complied even when a fastball came in right over the center of the plate–a picture of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak. With Evan silenced, the others were now emboldened and started throwing out answers. “Ruby-throated Grosbeak! Ruby-throated Grosbeak!”  Sorry, Evan, I should have let you continue to lead the pack.

Here are some fun things we learned from the talk:

1) The best state park for seeing the most birds is Frontenac State Park along the Mississippi River.

2) Bob has been in every city, town, and named place in Minnesota.

3) Crane Lake was the last town he visited to complete his checklist of towns.  Crane Lake is very close to where I grew up in Orr.

4) Bob has been in every township in Minnesota except one.

5) Bob’s favorite bird is the Turkey Vulture of all birds.  Shocker.  First runner-up is Spruce Grouse. Not a shocker.

6) Bob’s wife doesn’t go birding with him.

Once the talk was done, people made their way to Bob to visit and get their book signed.  After waiting for our turn, I re-introduced myself to Bob.  I have spoken with him on the phone a couple times and run into him twice in the field before, once at Le Sueur over a Rufous Hummingbird and once near Granite Falls when we were both looking for Blue Grosbeaks.  When I handed Bob the book we just purchased, he asked if he should make it out to Evan (apparently Evan really made an impression). That wasn’t the plan as I had told Evan earlier it was MY book, but I thought I’d look like a royal heel if I said to make it to me instead of my kid, so I faltered in my response, “Umm, uhh, yeah.”  I suppose it’s appropriate, since the kid will get MY book after my DEATH. Oh, well, at least I brought my copy of Birds in Minnesota which Bob signed to ME.

Bob Janssen bookAfter the signings, we had a nice little chat about Snowy Owls and Blue Grosbeaks.  There were others waiting to see Bob, though, so we moved on shortly.  When we were upstairs in the Interpretive Center and Evan was checking out all the exhibits, I got thinking that I really should go back downstairs and pick Bob’s brain about birding at Sibley State Park and Kandiyohi County in general.  Maybe he could reveal some secrets I didn’t know about.

Back downstairs, there was now only one other man talking with Bob.  I overheard them mentioning Wood Thrushes.  I had to butt in and ask if they’d seen one at the park because that would be a good find.  It turns out that Bob was explaining to the gentleman that the Wood Thrush is a bird he still does not have for Kandiyohi County.  Talk about serendipity because **news flash** I finally laid eyes on a Wood Thrush for the first time in my life just the day before thanks to a recent report by Andrew Nyhus.  I told Bob this and he excitedly started writing down directions.  Then I got thinking–it was only 7:00 with lots of daylight left, so I suggested to Bob that he could still get the Wood Thrush tonight on his way home to the Twin Cities. I told him I’d even lead him to the exact spot.  He seemed to like this suggestion as he started packing up his things a little quicker.

So that’s how we ended up birding with a Minnesota birding legend. Bob followed our car down to Lake Elizabeth.  Things started off a bit tense once we got on site, though.  The three of us were standing on the gravel road when all the sudden a man appeared from a trail in the woods holding a rifle at the ready! I naively thought he was hunting something, but then he nervously started laughing and telling us about how his camper in the woods had been robbed recently.  Through more nervous laughter he told us we obviously weren’t the thieves.  Well, thank God he realized that! Then as quickly as he appeared, he disappeared back into his lair in the woods.  It was bizarre, unsettling, and very memorable.

Back to birding, I wasn’t hearing the Wood Thrush.  I walked the road down a ways and then I finally detected the faint sound of the WOTH deep in the woods.  Bob then heard it too, and he finally got his Kandiyohi County Wood Thrush, county bird #21,071!

Bob Janssen at the site of his latest county bird, a Kandiyohi County Wood Thrush

Bob Janssen at the site of his latest county bird, a Kandiyohi County Wood Thrush

Bob leads the state in most county tics. Bob’s numerous misses on Meeker Snowies has weighed heavily on me, so this felt like redemption to help him get a new county bird.  We tried for the longest time to get good visuals on the bird.  My life look the day before was nothing more than a bird flying over the road.  This outing would prove no different.  At least Evan did get a brief life look at the Wood Thrush now too.  As we walked and talked, Bob told us that his favorite bird song was that of the Wood Thrush.

Evan birding with Minnesota birding legend, Bob Janssen

Evan birding with Minnesota birding legend, Bob Janssen.  Also, this is the infamous path from which the “hunter” appeared.

Bob also detected a Scarlet Tanager singing, but we couldn’t get visuals on it.  However, I was able to get incredible looks at another Scarlet Tanager on the other end of this road just the day before.  Both of these Scarlet Tanagers are different than the one I blogged about previously.  That’s three SCTA in a week’s time!

Scarlet TanagerIt was an even bigger thrill than my Wood Thrush lifer.

Scarlet TanagerThis is ten minutes from home. Ten minutes!

Scarlet Tanager

Listening to Bob talk about his book was a special opportunity, but going birding with Bob and helping him achieve a long-time personal birding goal was a huge thrill.  I never saw that one coming.  It was pretty amazing to hear Bob say that the Wood Thrush made his day. I’m sure that Evan will remember this night much better than he remembers his Terns.  A huge thanks goes out to Andrew Nyhus for 1) pointing us to our Wood Thrush lifer on the home turf and 2) providing the info that made this memorable, spontaneous outing possible.

The Real Fun Starts After Dark

This past spring I got a taste of nighttime birding in Arizona and was eager to go after some of our nocturnal birds back home, namely Owls and Eastern Whip-poor-wills.  Steve Gardner and I made a couple failed attempts at owling, and then the talk of nighttime birding died down.  That is, until Joel Schmidt brought it to the forefront again, telling us all that he’s always wanted to check out a road near Granite Falls for Eastern Whip-poor-wills.  His desire was amplified when there was a report this spring from this road of several Whips. Unable to go because I was on the Colorado trip, Steve and Joel went after the Whips and were wildly successful, tallying six of them!

A call was put in to Randy Frederickson to see if he wanted join Evan and me for a nighttime birding foray.  He was in.  So late in the evening on Friday, June 5th, Evan and I finished up our week of vacation Bible school and met up with Randy.  Nearly an hour later, we got down to Co. Rd. 40 just east of Granite Falls as darkness was setting in.  This beautiful road follows the Minnesota River Valley with the river down to our right and the heavily wooded ridge of the valley to our left.  With no traffic, we had the blacktop to ourselves and cruised along slowly with the windows down enjoying the cool air and the sound of birds everywhere. Even in the twilight the birds were still calling voraciously. Great Crested Flycatchers, Indigo Buntings, Northern Cardinals, a Lark Sparrow(!), and a doggone Wood Thrush could all be heard.  I’ve never seen WOTH.  I’ve heard them, and since this bird is local and can be found annually, I have abstained from counting it until I actually see it.  This would be yet another heard-only WOTH.  Another sound we heard were the buzzes of FOY Common Nighthawks overhead which is a fond sound from my childhood days in southern Minnesota.  Looking up we could see them flying overhead with their distinctive white wing bars. Despite this cacophony all around us, we weren’t hearing the Whips.

Getting frustrated with not hearing our target bird, I called Steve to get more info. I think I got a few words out before an Eastern Whip-poor-will was loudly calling out my window! And then the fun began.  We got out of the car and tried to get a visual of this bird.  I had bought a high-powered flashlight for just such a birding occasion. Randy played the tape, and sure enough, the Whip came in.  I was able to track him in the air the whole time with the beam of my light.  It was so cool to finally see this nightjar for the first time and see how similar it looked to the Common Nighthawk. A flight view was the extent of the visual experience since it landed out of sight.  This scene would play over a couple times–great flashlight beam visuals in the air, no visuals of a perched bird.  I needed a perched bird for a photo.  When I realized in Arizona that photographing birds in the dark is possible and a lot of fun, I was dying to do so again with these birds.  Try as I might, we just couldn’t make it happen.  And it wasn’t for lack of Whips.  As we walked along the road we heard Whip after Whip after Whip.  It was insane and one of the coolest birding moments I’ve experienced.  We estimated at least five in this one short stretch of road.  Even veteran birder Randy was amazed at the population density we were witnessing; he had only seen a couple before in his life.

So much for a peaceful night.  All we heard were the Whips calling their name over and over: whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-hip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-hip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will-whip-poor-will.

Now I’m no Randy Travis fan, but you gotta give props to a man who can love someone longer than the song of a Whip-poor-will.

Since there were nearly a half dozen Whips in close proximity to each other, it was hard to even pick out a single one to track down.  Eventually we got in the car and drove on, hoping to find a more cooperative Whip that we could see perched. Right near the Yellow Medicine/Renville County line, we heard a solitary Whip.  It was close to the road, but I couldn’t pick it out with my flashlight.  Randy played the tape. Almost instantly it came in and I had the beam on it.  It hovered for a second seemingly wanting to come in the vehicle where Randy was, and then…it flew away far from the road.  Doggone it.  There would be no Whip pictures tonight to show you all. I’m starting to feel Laurence Butler’s pain with photographing those equally annoying nightjars in the southwest, those Common Poorwills.

So, sorry for a photo-less post, but regardless the live experience in-person was tremendous fun. Perhaps an overnight camping trip to Upper Sioux Agency State Park is in order.  We shall take another crack at the Whip.  And hopefully, we’ll whip it good.

Flying Away

2015 wasn’t supposed to include a Colorado trip.  After our visit last summer, I wasn’t planning to go back for a long time. Life had other plans as it so often does, and on May 29th I found myself on an airplane heading back to Colorado to say a final goodbye to my Aunt Carol who lost her fight with cancer.  This mountain valley had now lost some of its beauty and charm.

Wet Mountain Valley

Aunt Carol meant a great deal to many, many people.  I have many fond memories of staying at Uncle Jon and Aunt Carol’s house as kid and then visiting them a few times as an adult.  She had a zest for life and was always game for something fun and spontaneous, especially if it involved having a good time with people she loved. In these ways she embodied the things I enjoy most about birding.  Speaking of birding, Aunt Carol has always been a big fan of birds. Long, long before I was a birder, I remember her raving about the beauty of the Rose-breasted Grosbeaks that would visit their Minnesota home.  I remember thinking that was something I had to see.

Rose-breasted GrosbeakIn her Colorado home, Aunt Carol spoke fondly of the Mountain Bluebirds which are common at their mountain residence. Carol had quite the special relationship with these birds as a pair would nest right outside her bedroom.  Last year she showed us how she could give a whistle and the male would fly in.  It was pretty neat.

Aunt Carol's "pet" Mountain Bluebird

Aunt Carol’s “pet” Mountain Bluebird

On this trip to Colorado my cousin Danny pointed out decorations Carol put on her patio doors to help these Bluebirds avert window strikes.

Another bird that reminds me of Aunt Carol is the Bushtit.  Last year she got quite a kick out of the bird’s humorous name, laughingly saying, “I think I’d like to see some of those Bushtits for myself!”

Bushtit

This trip was not a birding trip, but you can’t go to Colorado without seeing cool birds.  Since we were flying in late at night on a Friday, busy with family most of Saturday, and flying home around noon on Sunday, there was only the slightest of margins to see these birds. However, don’t confuse birding the margins with marginal birding.  Regardless of one’s time budget, good birds can easily be had in this state.  I have a lot of birding left to do in Colorado that will require more trips, but knowing I wouldn’t have much time on this trip, I took a precision approach.  I would focus on just one bird–a very common and very conspicuous bird I had never seen: the Bullock’s Oriole.  It was very doable.

My brother, Jason, and I flew into Denver together and spent Friday night there.  The next morning we would be joining my cousin, Karin, for the three-hour drive down to Westcliffe.  With the help of eBird, I found Sondermann Park which was convenient stop in Colorado Springs just two blocks off I-25 at exit 144 where several Bullock’s Orioles had recently been reported.  With trails that were short and right by the parking area, I convinced Karin and Jason that this would be a good stretch break.

Western birds were readily apparent with a Spotted Towhee being the first bird we saw/heard.

Spotted Towhee

I was practically racing along the paths looking for my Oriole since we were short on time.  In the meantime, it was fun to run into several Western Tanagers. I promise there’s one in this photo.

Western Tanager

I did have better looks later on at some other WETAs, but I did something I don’t normally do–I enjoyed them through binoculars only.  Other birds adding to the western flavor were a couple of Western Wood Pewees and a lone Bushtit.  Eventually, though, I finally heard the familiar ratcheting call of a Bullock’s Oriole which sounds nearly identical to our Baltimore Oriole back home.  The Bullock’s and Baltimore were once considered a single species known as the Northern Oriole.  Genetic studies caused the species to be split into two in the 1990s.  Despite hearing the bird, I either saw it in bad light or briefly as an orange streak in good light.  Very unsatisfying, but a life bird nonetheless.  We had to get back on the highway, though, so better looks would have to wait until some future date.

What did give great looks were some appropriately named Violet-green Swallows at our hotel in Westcliffe.

Violet-green Swallow

Violet-green Swallow

The trip was quite a whirlwind as Aunt Carol’s memorial service and a memorable family/friend gathering back at her house filled out the rest of the day.  Before I knew it, it was time to wake up and hit the road back to Denver.  I woke before my two traveling companions to see what birds might be around the hotel and to enjoy the refreshing morning.

Westcliffe Inn

Birds or no birds, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains at sunrise are pretty spectacular.

Sangre de Cristo Mountains

I did see one last pair of Mountain Bluebirds.  Fitting.

Mountain Bluebird

A short walk in the neighborhood gave me my second, equally unsatisfying, lifer of the trip. In the dim morning light I glassed a bird with a white chin, rufous cap, and long tail.  It was a Green-tailed Towhee.  I was also surprised to find a White-crowned Sparrow; I didn’t know they were summer residents here.

Shortly thereafter, Karin, Jason, and I hit the road.  As we were coming through the Hardscrabble Pass of the Wet Mountains, Jason slammed on the brakes startling us all.  There was a flock of sheep on the road.  Wait, those sheep had some big, curled horns–Big Horn Sheep!!

Big Horn SheepIn all, there were 11 of them.  I was surprised at how little they were.  I suppose, though, they look much bigger when they are up on a mountain cliff.

Big Horn Sheep

Big Horn SheepThis was a very fun encounter once our hearts stopped racing.  We completed the grand slam of big game mammals on our drive by also seeing a buck Pronghorn, three cow Elk, and a couple of Mule Deer.

Once we got Karin to the airport, Jason and I had an hour-and-a-half to kill before we had to be at the airport ourselves.  Guess what is right next door to Denver International Airport? Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge!  It is a massive area and the perfect place to kill an hour.  Stopping in at the visitor’s center, I saw Say’s Phoebes and Western Kingbirds and learned the best place to find Bullock’s Orioles in a short time frame.  Additionally, the docent told us about a secret exit from the Refuge for getting back to the airport quickly.  If you want to do some birding before your flight and are crunched for time like we were, stop in the visitors’ center and ask about this exit.

Jason and I went straight for the tree-lined 7th Ave.  Most people head this way to see the resident Buffalo herd.  That’s old hat for us.  I was after a small, orange bird.  As I scanned the Cottonwoods lining the road while we cruised, Black-billed Magpies could be seen periodically.  We had seen quite a few on the trip, especially coming through Colorado Springs.  The ones at Rocky Mountain Arsenal are skilled at doing Common Nighthawk impressions.

Black-billed Magpie

In no time I spotted the orange bird I was after and redeemed my initial sighting of the Bullock’s Oriole the day before. Success.

Bullock's Oriole

Bullock's Oriole

After a little bit more exploring, Jason and I took the secret exit out of the Refuge.  And there on the exit road was a sad, symbolic reminder of the reason for our trip: a drake Mallard was standing vigil over his freshly killed mate.  I’ve never seen anything like it.

You will always be in our hearts, Aunt Carol. We will miss you!

Want Some Sauerkraut With That Vireo?

I had seen the report and dismissed it quickly.  There was no way that a White-eyed Vireo would stick around long enough to chase it. Their presence in Minnesota during migration is ephemeral. Then I got a phone call a couple weeks ago that changed my thinking.  Ron Erpelding, a locally-based 87-county lister, calls me whenever something good shows up within a reasonable distance from Willmar.  Ron told me that he went to see the Vireo at Flandrau State Park in New Ulm a few days after the initial sighting and that it was singing up a storm.  Hmmm. Could it be that this misplaced Vireo was trying to set up a territory for the summer?

The singing White-eyed Vireo was intriguing on its own.  The location, though, was what pushed the decision to chase over the edge.  New Ulm was only an hour-and-a-half away, but more importantly, it was the city where Melissa and I got our first teaching jobs.  This chase would be a family affair and a chance for Melissa and I to revisit a beautiful place we called home for a few years and show the kids our first school, first house, etc.  It’s always held a special place in our hearts.

Nestled in the scenic Minnesota River Valley, New Ulm boasts the highest per capita population of German descendents, and it shows. It is a town where the industriousness of its residents is showcased in well-kept, stately brick homes and perfectly landscaped yards (there is no bad part of town), and the love of beer and all things sausage is proclaimed everywhere.  It is a town where you can (and I did) roll out the barrel.  You name a season, and I’ll name a beer festival for that season.  New Ulm is the only place in America, and this is no joke, where schools offer up vats of sauerkraut on hot dog day and the kids pile it on.  Life is a continual party in New Ulm, and partying it up just upriver from the famed Schell’s Brewery was a little bird I wanted to see.

After a quick drive-by of the old house, we went straight to Flandrau State Park right in town on the Cottonwood River.  There were other birders responding to the call and making the short hike along the river to the spot.  One guy, Bill Marengo, was in the parking lot and told us the bird was indeed present this morning. Yes!Evan MarinGetting to the scene a few hundred yards down the trail, I heard the bird immediately.  Several birders and I strained to locate it.  One lady claimed she saw it.

White-eyed Vireo Stakeout

The rest of us didn’t.  Then, we weren’t hearing it at all.  After an hour or so, I decided to call it quits.  You can only stare at the same trees for so long.  Hiking back to the parking lot I checked my email and saw an eye-bulging report from the very same Bill Marengo with whom we had just spoken.  He had made his way over the waste-water treatment ponds in nearby Sleepy Eye and found gobs of shorebirds–really good shorebirds. The trip went from being a downer to all the sudden being exciting again.

Once we were back at the car at Flandrau, there were some FOY Indigo Buntings to enjoy– a paltry, albeit lovely, consolation prize.  The promise of some shorebird lifering was making up for any disappointment over the White-eyed Vireo.

Indigo BuntingBefore we left, I thought I heard the soft bee-buzzzz call of a Blue-winged Warbler.  Nah, couldn’t be…

Even with a heard-only White-eyed Vireo and several potential lifers in Sleepy Eye, probably the best find of the day came when we stopped for a hot dog lunch at one of our old haunts, the Kwik Trip. (And yes, there was a huge tub of sauerkraut with the condiments). As we were leaving, who should we run into but our old neighbor and friend, Adam! The next half hour passed quickly as we reminisced, laughed, and caught up with Adam; I didn’t even have the usual anxiety when life birds are on the line.

Eventually we did part company and make the 15-minute drive to Sleepy Eye.  Bill wasn’t kidding about the shorebirds.  There were two main groups, each in different ponds and close to the entrance.

Sleepy Eye WTP

Sleepy Eye WTP

Birders who read this have probably already tried to sort through some of the goodies in these photos.  When I was sorting through them in real life, I was looking for one, larger bird in particular that Bill reported–the Hudsonian Godwit.

Got it.

Hudsonian Godwit

It was not the more striking male that I was hoping for, but when it comes to Hudwits, beggars can’t be choosers.

Hudsonian Godwit

Hudsonian Godwit

It was pretty sweet to pick up this unexpected life bird, but the fun didn’t stop there.  Bill Marengo was still on the scene and helped me pick out a Sanderling lifer, even letting Evan and I get some good scope views.  I was surprised by how plump they are and close in size to the Dunlin.

Sanderling

SanderlingIf two unplanned lifers weren’t enough, how about a third?!  Several Terns caught my eye right away when we got to the ponds.  Their bills looked excessively reddish and other clues were leading me to the conclusion that I was looking at Common Terns, which aren’t so common in Minnesota compared to the excessively common Forster’s Tern.

Common TernsI spent much time agonizing over this ID after the fact as Common and Forster’s Terns are incredibly similar looking.  Many hours were spent scouring images on Google, studying Sibley, etc.  Common Terns have reddish-orange bills while Forster’s Terns have a straight-up orange color.   The red really popped when I looked at these birds.

Another field mark of the Common Tern are the wings.  The primaries of a Common are gray and flush with the tail while the primaries of the Forster’s are whitish or frosty and shorter than the much longer tail.

Common Terns

Finally, I found evidence of a remnant dark carpal bar which Common Terns have during the winter months before the black bar fades to gray.

Common Tern

Common Tern

The birders among you have already detected some great shorebirds.  American Avocets were plentiful with a dozen birds representing their species.  This elegant bird is always a rare treat during migration in Minnesota.

American Avocet

American Avocet

American Avocet

Black Terns are summer residents here, but it was nice to see one up close and still.

Black TernDunlin were excessively plentiful and quite striking in full breeding plumage.

Dunlin

Dunlin

Stilt Sandpipers are also fun and handsome shorebirds.

Stilt Sandpiper

Another great addition to the shorebird mix were two Ruddy Turnstones, a crazily-patterned shorebird.

Ruddy TurnstonesThere was a lot going on with the shorebirds, both in numbers of birds and numbers of species.  Wilson’s Phalaropes and White-rumped Sandpipers can be seen in my photos, but I didn’t focus any of my photography efforts on them.  I probably could have spent hours photographing all these shorebirds, but I wanted to take another crack at that White-eyed Vireo and the day was already getting long for the non-birders.  It was time to head back to New Ulm and hit the trail one last time.

Evan Marin

Joining us this time were Joel and Amanda Schmidt from back home.  It didn’t take the six of us long to hear the White-eyed Vireo.  Joel and I bushwhacked and tried to get on it, but we just couldn’t get a visual despite a valiant effort. I had to give up for real and make the painful decision to go ahead and count this bird as a lifer despite it being heard-only.  I normally don’t like to do that, but exceptions sometimes need to be made for vagrant visitors of the Vireo variety. Precedence has already been set with my Bell’s Vireo lifer.

As we were about to part company with Joel and Amanda, we heard the soft bee-buzzz of a Blue-winged Warbler!  I may not have been hearing things earlier after all! In no time we got some incredible looks at a Warbler I have only seen twice before.

Blue-winged Warbler

Blue-winged WarblerThe Blue-winged Warbler was another great consolation prize in a day full of consolation goodies.  It felt good to get better photos of this species.Blue-winged Warbler So, we went to see a White-eyed Vireo and failed in that regard.  However, this day was an unimaginable lifer and FOY grab.  Getting four lifers (WEVI, HUGO, SAND, COTE) in a day instate is unheard of at this stage in our birding.  Topping it off with some incredible shorebirds like the Avocets and Turnstones as well as the Blue-winged Warbler really made for an exciting day back on our old stomping grounds.

I’ve announced it before that there’s a lot more coming up, and even after such announcements, more incredible birding keeps happening.  Now in addition to the Colorado birds and more recent lifers near home (one being nocturnal!), wait until you see WHO we went birding with and what we helped him find!  Oh, and pretty soon we will be vacationing in Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands on the south shore of Lake Superior.  We’ll see what comes of that.  All I’ll say is that kayaks may be deployed; an endangered species may be had.

 

The County’s Tern for a Lifer

As I’ve mentioned in the previous post or two, it has not been my intention to push hard with the birding after the big trip West.  I’ve been meaning to slow down to be able to take care of responsibilities and enjoy other aspects of life.  Case in point was two weekends ago when Melissa and I decided to take the kids fishing.  I even left my camera at home so I wouldn’t be distracted with the birds.  Maybe, though, this was actually a selfish move because not having my camera pretty much guaranteed something would go down.  And that something wasn’t the bobber.  Fishing was lousy.  I could have just as well been birding or fishing–I had left my own pole at home thinking I’d be swamped with baiting three hooks, taking fish off three lines, etc (Grow up and help me out, Evan!!).

After trying Elkhorn Lake, we ventured up to the outflow at the northeast corner of Green Lake where people were fishing from shore.  While we were once again waiting for bobbers to go down, I had noticed some large, white birds flying in the distance.  Those are odd-looking Gulls, I thought.  They seemed really big, but their heads and bills were too small to be Pelicans. Hmmph, no long-range optics. Oh well.

Later on we were driving by the area where these “Gulls” had been, and I noticed some larger white birds resting in the backwaters off the Green Lake outflow.  Now I didn’t have my camera with the zoom capabilities, but I did have a pair of binoculars in the car–I always have pairs of them floating around both vehicles. I pulled the car over and took a look. I had to chuckle when I realized I was seeing a life bird when I never even intended to go birding.  Life birds are hard to come by these days in the state, let alone the county.  Getting a new one at home is a now a very rare treat.  Moreover, the bird I was looking at was one I’ve been waiting to see for quite some time.  It is one that is so exotic in name and looks that I was amazed when I first learned it could be seen in Minnesota–the Caspian Tern.  There were four of these large beauties (bigger than Mallards).  And I didn’t have my camera…

I asked Evan if he wanted to look through the binoculars to get a better look at the Caspians to which he responded, “What, are they those white things over there?  No, I’m good.”  Evan has always been fine with just a check mark for his life list.  Not me.  After I brought the family home, I made the 20 min. trip back so I could document this lifer.

Caspian Terns

The Caspian Terns are so cool that when they’re in town, everyone has to get their photo taken with them.

Caspian Terns American White Pelican

Even the COLO is not too coolo to become a bit of a xenophile around these visiting birds, posing for pictures with them and checking out the competition for best-looking water bird.

Caspian Tern

Keep on swimming, Chuck. You’re just a ‘common’, domestically-named bird; I, on the other hand, am exquisite.

Caspian Tern Common Loon

Wait, did you see it? I know my birder friends saw it.  I didn’t see it until I looked at my pictures.  Just to the right of the Caspian Tern’s head there is a second Common Loon sitting on a nest in the reeds!  How cool is that?! The northern half of Kandiyohi County is right at the southern edge of where our beloved state bird nests.  This was a sweet find on top of an already sweet find.

Caspian Tern

Shifting angles a bit shows just how easily that Common Loon’s nest can hide.

Caspian Tern

I also got to watch the Caspians take flight.  It was a good learning experience to see what they looked like in the air and hear their guttural calls.

Caspian Tern

Can you see why I thought they were Gulls from a distance?

Caspian Tern

Every birder knows the law of lifers–once you finally get it, you never have trouble seeing it again.  Terns out that I’d be putting this study of Caspians in flight to use several days later on the next adventure when I spied two flying over while I was filling up the car at a gas station.

Caspian Tern

This was a most satisfying lifer.  It was a much-wanted bird on our soil…er, water.  Believe it or not, but there’s been a lot more lifering since the Caspian Tern, even another one here at home. With some hot night-birding, a giant shorebird grab, a Colorado trip, AND Scarlet Tanagers TEN minutes from home, the stories are stacking up and quickly becoming more prolific than Stephen King novels. Much, much, much more reading ahead–so much for a quiet period in my birding and blogging.  Oh well, I’ll try to make the most of it.

Red and Black on Gray

Some days, like today, are gray and rainy.  Some birds radiate their brilliance regardless. In my seemingly never-ending quest for a Wood Thrush lifer, currently a heard-only bird, I came across a couple of dapper and melodic fellows this morning that can brighten any day.  First up is the Rose-breasted Grosbeak.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Rose-breasted GrosbeakNext is the ever-lovely Scarlet Tanager.  It’s hard for me to comprehend that I’ve seen both Western Tanager (more on that later) and now a Scarlet Tanager in the same week.  Both are incredibly beautiful birds.  Though the Scarlet Tanager is locally uncommon and the Western Tanager is rare state-wide, I’ve actually seen more Western Tanagers in my life.  Today’s sighting on Timber Lake Road north of Sibley State Park was only the third time I’ve seen a Scarlet Tanager, and I got my best ever looks.  It is such a hard bird to find.  Even if it is present, it favors the canopy and is not always conspicuous.  With Scarlet Tanager sightings you can have two but never all three of the following: a motionless bird, a conspicuous bird, good light.  With a bird as good-looking as SCTA, the first two are often good enough.

Scarlet Tanager

I’ve learned the Scarlet’s song which helped me track this one down this morning.  Identifying a tree-top loving bird by just its audio is a must this time of year with the trees fully leafed out.

Scarlet Tanager

Seeing and photographing a Scarlet Tanager was a major summer birding goal of mine.  I just got done with school on Friday.  Not a bad start.

Scarlet Tanager

More time shall be spent this summer in the deciduous woods in the northern parts of Kandiyohi County.  The quest shall continue for finally seeing a Wood Thrush and getting the trifecta of perfect SCTA viewing conditions!