Custer’s Last Stand

As I packed the car that last morning in Colorado, the Western Tanager was weighing heavily on my mind.  Yes, I had seen it earlier in the week, but the quick looks and obscured photos were unsatisfactory. Additionally Evan wanted it too.  There would be time for one last play. But I doubted that play and felt that Custer County was going to defeat us as it had us surrounded with Western Tanager-less mountains (or so it seemed).  Custer was the last option to see WETA as we’d be heading east out of Colorado into lower elevations and windswept grasslands.

I had been debating two options for that play – back to Forest Service Road 383 by Bishop’s Castle where six WETA had been reported or back to Greenwood Road where two had been reported.  I got skunked on 383 earlier, and it just didn’t give me a good vibe overall.  I finally settled on Greenwood Road; it wasn’t as much of a detour, and I had previous success there. Statistically speaking it was the worse bet, but sometimes a birder has to follow his gut.

With that decision made, we said our goodbyes and began descending the mountain to the Wet Mountain Valley below.  As I drove away, fear of not seeing the bird mixed with doubt about my decision.  All this was churning inside when I spotted a larger bird at the top of a Ponderosa while that mountain home was still visible and looming large up on the mountain behind us.  I had quickly become acclimated to the new species at Jon and Carol’s house and this one didn’t fit any of the profiles. Even as I reached for my binoculars on the floor of my car I had a strong suspicion of what I was about to see and could hardly get those bins up fast enough.  And my suspicion was right for I was looking at a Clark’s Nutcracker! Oh yeah!

Clark's Nutcracker

Clark’s Nutcracker

Evan looked up to get his check mark while I hopped out to follow this bird around a bit and get some photos.  I had hoped I would get this bird in Colorado, but I had read it’s a high elevation bird near the timberline.  Needless to say I was quite surprised and delighted to find one at 8,300 feet.  The whole time I observed it, it made this rasping, croaking sound.  I had heard that sound the past couple days but didn’t know what was making it.

Clark's NutcrackerClark's NutcrackerThis was quite the thrill seeing this cool bird.  Every new western species I find is a double bonus – it is one more for the life list and one less vagrant to chase in Minnesota.  I missed out on a Clark’s in Minnesota just before I really got serious about birding.

Now the prospect of potentially losing out on Western Tanager was easier to stomach. We eventually left the Clark’s to do his croaking and eating in peace, and we later arrived at the Greenwood Road for the moment of truth.  This road is a few miles long with very few inhabitants.  It was a nice, quiet, birdy-kind-of-road.  Not wanting to make this trip agonizingly long for the family, I was traveling around 25 mph – slow enough to bird but not too slow to keep us from making decent progress on our way home. Melissa then told me I’d never see anything going that fast.  (Isn’t she great?) Ok, then, so I dropped it down to 5 mph.  Melissa asked me what we were looking for so she could help.  Some of you may remember that she found all five of those Aitkin County Great Gray Owls and that bevy of Burrowing Owls in Arizona.  Anyhow, I explained the red, yellow, and black pattern to her of the tanager.  I no sooner said it and she pointed and said there was a bright yellow and black bird in the pine just ahead of us.  No binoculars were needed to see we already found the Western Tanager!  Of course, Evan couldn’t see it and the pressure or exhaustion was getting to him and the tears started coming.  I hopped out to grab a photo while Melissa was able to get him on the bird.  But that sneaky WETA was using his best goldfinch disguise.  I only got this shot before it flew across the road and down to the ground.

Western Tanager

I watched and watched the spot where it flew to the ground.  What in the world? They’re supposed to be birds who prefer the tops of conifers.  Eventually I figured it out as the now soggy Western Tanager flew up to a bush after bathing in the quiet mountain stream that was running alongside the road.

Western Tanager

The bird continued to sit in one spot, preening itself.  Even though it was still, the distance was too great and the bird too wet for any remarkable photo.

Western Tanager

Eventually it flew, and I couldn’t relocate it.  It was nice to get this one for Evan.  I was also able to improve my photo of the bird just a little, so I was content.  Even still, we kept birding.  There could be more Western Tanagers around.  We saw some empids, and based on eBird reports they were probably new birds for us.  I didn’t care though.  I will fight the empid identification battle in retirement when I have more time.  Time was precious right now, and I wanted to see more Western Tanagers with our last remaining minutes in the mountains.

Evan and I searching for WETA on foot on Greenwood Road, Custer County, Colorado

Evan and I searching for Western Tanagers along Greenwood Road, Custer County, Colorado

Reaching the end of the short Greenwood Road, we turned around to drive down it and back one more time.  Good thing we did because I saw another(?) Western Tanager fly across the road.  I got one photo before it was gone for good. Not a crush, but it was enough to defeat Custer.

Western Tanager

Western Tanager

Though I was still ignoring empids and the like, there was a bird I couldn’t ignore because its size, its numbers, and its awesomeness wouldn’t allow it. From a streamside Willow Tree, a half dozen big birds flushed high into the pines above.  From the same eBird report I had read earlier, I knew these were Band-tailed Pigeons!  And they kept pouring out of that tree.  We must have seen 20.

Band-tailed Pigeons

Band-tailed Pigeon

Band-tailed Pigeon

Band-tailed Pigeon

Two big bonus lifers (three for Evan) and the number one target nailed – I think we beat you, Custer.  In the last post I had said this would be the final Colorado post, but leaving the mountains is a natural break in the story and a good place to stop.  The story of the rest of the journey home will be a short and sweet post and will truly be the last one. Colorado had one more big gift for Evan, and Nebraska surprised us.

Raising Birding to a Whole New Level in Custer County, Colorado

After racking up 11 lifers from a mere two hours of dedicated birding and even less time from happenstance birding along the highways and biways, this trip had already been phenomenal.  Now if the opposite were true, one could use the oft-quoted phrase, “There’s nowhere to go but up.”  But this is Colorado, after all, so that phrase is still applicable whether you’re on a mountain-top high of birding or just on an actual mountain-top.  And we proved it so in Custer County where my Aunt Carol and Uncle Jon live, our final Colorado destination.

As I had done previously, I did a fair amount of eBird scouting for this new terrain we were about to traverse.  In particular I wanted one bird more than any other – the Western Tanager.  A bright yellow and black bird with a red face is something I just had to see for myself.  Some life birds are more than just checks on a list; their mind-blowing beauty haunts you until you’ve finally put them to rest.  Though I tried, I could not spot this conifer forest dweller in the Blackhills of South Dakota.  My next attempt would have to be in the mountains of south-central Colorado.

It turns out that one eBird report by Rich Miller of two Western Tanagers was conveniently located along the Greenwood Road which paralled our highway as we made our way through the Wet Mountains along the Hardscrabble Pass. I nearly missed this unassuming road but saw it at the last minute and did what any birder would do – swerve hard and jolt the non-birding occupants.  As we puttered along this road, I really didn’t expect to see the tanager.  It was just a chance I was taking.  I knew that I’d probably have to search for it properly once we got settled at my aunt and uncle’s place. But then it magically happened – almost too perfect.  A flash of brilliant yellow and black cut across the road interrupting – or rather accentuating – our sky blue and forest green vista.  Unbelievable!  The car was immediately rendered immobile and the hunt was on.  I hopped out and watched and watched where it landed but did not see it.  Evan was still in the car at this point waiting for me to do the heavy-lifting of finding the bird.  He wanted to see it bad too, but he apparently needed a sure thing in order to take his attention off his iPad. As luck would have it, though, the bird flew back to the other side of the road!  I motioned for Evan to come out.  Now I had to do two things at once – point out the bird and try to get a photo.  I was not very successful at either.

Western Tanager

Western Tanager

How does a bird hide in a dead tree?  Moreover, how did I not see a yellow, red, and black bird leave a dead tree with a blue sky background?  Evan claimed he could still see it up there and I believed him.  But five minutes later after I couldn’t find it and he still claimed he was looking at it in the exact same spot, I had to break the news to him that he was not looking at the bird or even a bird at all.   Then the tears set in – not necessarily because he didn’t see it, but because Dad had seen it and he didn’t.  That’s a stinging feeling that every birder has felt at some point.  The “You should have been here 5-minutes ago” or “You just missed it” phenomenon.  We’ve all been there.  Evan is at least honest enough to cry about it like the rest of us want to but can’t.

But we were moving on and moving upward and Evan calmed down. On this same road I saw an interesting bird checking out a hole in a dead tree.  I had seen reports of Lewis’s Woodpeckers here, but I was really hoping it wasn’t a Lewis’s Woodpecker.  Getting one that easy would have been frustrating since I woke up at 2 AM to make a 14-hour round-trip to the Canadian border to see one last November.  Looking through the binoculars, I saw that it wasn’t! Even better was that it was a Western Bluebird lifer. Unfortunately Evan didn’t get a look and I couldn’t get a photo before it was gone.  This one didn’t seem to bother him.  Funny.  Perhaps I’d been hyping that Western Tanager a little too much.

We eventually did make it to that lovely mountain home where the accomodations, the company, and the birding would all prove to be excellent.  Oh, and the constant view of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains across the Wet Mountain Valley wasn’t bad either.

JonThe yard-birding was fantastic here.  I smiled as I heard and saw more Spotted Towhees than I could count, many of them cheerfully hopping just a few feet from me.  Broad-tailed Hummingbirds were heard more often than seen as their metallic buzzing would alert you to their presence.

I was excited to get up early that next morning and poke around to see what I could find. Excited isn’t really the right word.  I was like a 5-year-old on Christmas Eve.  Morning finally came after a short, fitful sleep.  The sounds were everywhere and new!  I heard a grosbeak-like song and found its source at the top of a Ponderosa Pine, another Black-headed Grosbeak.  The Spotted Towhees were sounding off everywhere.  I tracked down one of the metallic buzzers to get this photo of the Broad-tailed Hummer who sat still long enough for me to get a couple shots.

Broad-tailed Hummingbird

Broad-tailed Hummingbird

Among the many Broad-taileds doing aerial acrobatics, there was an orange-looking dude that was getting chased by the others. Hello! It was a Rufous Hummingbird!  I got a quick look at one in Arizona last March, but this fella obliged me by letting snag a couple of up-close photos of him.  I won’t even complain that the sun didn’t shine on his glorious red-throat.  To see what that looks like, check out the header image at Butler’s Birds.

Rufous Hummingbird

Rufous Hummingbird

Rufous HummingbirdIts throat is really not black.  To show you what I mean, here is another shot of that same Broad-tailed pictured above.  It looks black here, but you can see above how red it really is when the sun hits it.

IMG_0176

But in this land of flashy birds, there is also a dark side that tempers the excitement. I’m, of course, referring to those drab, confusing, hard-to-ID flycatchers.  Based on vocalization and ruling out empids, I’m pretty sure I’ve got a Western Wood Pewee here. I hope any western readers will correct me if I’m wrong; I’m not proud.

Western Wood Pewee

Western Wood Pewee

Western Wood PeweeI did get an empid that I felt was a pretty solid ID with that yellow tinge and tear-drop eye-ring.  This one is a Cordilleran Flycatcher.  Life bird.

Cordilleran Flycatcher

Cordilleran Flycatcher

Cordilleran FlycatcherThen there was a life bird that was not hard to ID and whose name is not soon forgotten by birders or non-birders alike – the Bushtit!  And the bushes, or Pinyon Pines rather, were hopping with these tiny Bushtits.

Bushtit - It's okay to giggle.

Bushtit – It’s okay to giggle.

BushtitBushtitAunt Carol kept giggling over the name when she asked what birds I saw.  She even said she wanted to see some Bushtits for herself.  At this point I’d like to take an aside to say that I’m glad Evan is learning all the “dirty” bird names now before he hits upper elementary.  Names like Bushtits, Blue-footed Boobies, Brown Boobies, and some others are just bird names to him, no different than Northern Cardinal or Pine Siskin. Some day the dam will break, and he will soon be giggling too. But for now it’s just science to him.  I’d like to take a second aside to say that I’ve never seen such Boobies, just Dickcissels.  Sad, no?

Anyhow, venturing out that morning and driving around a small mountain, I saw an eagle perched on a snag up near the top of the mountain.  It looked like a great candidate for my Golden Eagle lifer, but one must always exercise due caution with a Golden Eagle ID as juvenile Bald Eagles are all brown in their first year.  The differences can usually be seen when examining wings and tails during flight.  This bird wasn’t flying, though.  So I grabbed some pictures, filed it away as a “maybe” Golden, and birded on.

Mystery Eagle

Mystery Eagle

When I got home I sent my pictures off to Randy.  He wasn’t comfortable making the call.  Then I sent them off to the big guns at the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, Minnesota.  Education director Scott Mehus excitedly confirmed that I had, in fact, got my Golden Eagle lifer!  More than that, he went on to explain subtle differences in beak coloration, leg feathers, and nape color that distinguish a Golden Eagle from the look-alike life stage of a Bald Eagle. Awesome!  That made for three big (literally and figuratively speaking) lifer raptors for the trip!

Golden Eagle!!

Golden Eagle!!

Evan was sound asleep while I was spotting and photographing these birds in the early morning.  You can’t sleep in and expect to see the same things.  I knew he wanted to see some of these birds, but birds move on.  He seems okay with it.  But when I told him I was waking up early the next morning to hunt for Western Tanagers again, he said he was in.  He wasn’t going to miss another chance at this cool bird. I had another eBird report by Rich Miller of six of them on one forest service road in the San Isabel National Forest just north of Bishop’s Castle about 45 minutes away.

It was nearly impossible to wake Evan up that morning, and he promptly fell asleep in the car for the entire drive.  The ride was incredible as I made my way south along a curving, climbing Highway 165.  Conifer-studded mountains rose steeply on both sides of this road.  I almost forgot I was bird-watching.  In fact, I missed Forest Service Road 383 and had to turn around to find it.

I was excited to take this road.  With a report of six individuals, the Western Tanager would have to be a sure thing.  I decided to let Evan sleep until I saw one or something else that was good.  The optimism of seeing one of these gorgeous birds started slipping the further I drove and the higher in elevation I went.  I wasn’t seeing anything.  Eventually I decided to give up and turn around.  I stopped to check out some bird activity near a streambed.  A roving flock of Mountain Chickadees was noisly chattering as they foraged for food.  I woke Evan up so he could get this lifer.  He lifted his head, saw one fly about 100 feet away, and said, “Yep, I saw it.”  A similar scene played out later back at the yard when we picked up our Lesser Goldfinch lifer.  Evan seems to be content with check marks for the sake of check marks instead of getting a good look at a bird.  Not me.

Mountain Chickadee

Mountain Chickadee

Mountain ChickadeeMoving on from this spot I kept up hope that we would see the tanagers on the way out. One bird I stopped to check out was interesting for me to see here in Colorado even though I’ve seen hundreds in northern Minnesota, a female Evening Grosbeak.

Evening Grosbeak Female

Evening Grosbeak Female

As cool as this was, Evan and I really just wanted to see that red-faced bird.  Despite probability being in our favor by being on this road, it was not meant to be.  Now hope was slipping that there would be no more Western Tanagers for this trip.  As fun as it was to watch birds back at my aunt and uncle’s yard, like my aunt’s Mountain Bluebird pair that nest under the eaves and come out when she whistles, the habitat just wasn’t right for WETA.

Aunt Carol's "pet" Mountain Bluebird

Aunt Carol’s “pet” Mountain Bluebird

But just when nearly all hope was gone and the car was all loaded to leave Colorado for good, Custer County saved its most exciting birding for the very end when we drove away from Jon and Carol’s house.  So hang on for a wild ride (figuratively speaking, of course) in the next and final Colorado post.

Birding Colorado Springs – Blodgett Peak Open Space and Garden of the Gods

After our brief visit to the Badlands and Black Hills, we were headed south to the Colorado Springs area where we were going to meet up with two of my cousins that I hadn’t seen in years. The fastest way to the Springs was to shoot down through Nebraska, but common sense prevailed and we opted for a slightly longer route that would take us down through Wyoming. We were in the west after all; we might as well see some of it and tally a new state for the kids.

The beauty of the Black Hills and the Oglala National Grasslands in western South Dakota continued to amaze us.  And the birds were pretty great too.  At one point, three Black-billed Magpies flew across the road.  Good birds but nothing new.  Lark Buntings continued their ubiquity along the fencelines of Oglala.  I also spied a Common Nighthawk perched on a fence post.  I almost hit the brakes for that photo op, but I couldn’t risk being late in the Springs, and one must limit the number of birding emergency stops for fear of making the non-birding family members weary.

Instead I spent one of my limited emergency birding stops on this guy – the Ferruginous Hawk!!  A spendid and thrilling life bird indeed, a birder’s hawk for sure.

Ferruginous Hawk

Ferruginous Hawk

There were more raptors perched on poles, but we were in a hurry and couldn’t afford to stop anymore even if I did need to find a Swainson’s Hawk for Evan and for my photo collection.  After all, there were relatives to catch up with, good barbecue to eat, and lizards to catch.

Evan lizardEvan’s cousin Andrew showed him the ropes for catching these cool lizards, and Evan caught this one all on his own.  As someone who had cages full of lizards as a kid, I wanted to keep this one in the worst way.  Even Melissa said it was cute. If Evan had asked, I couldn’t say no.  But he didn’t ask, so there was no moral dilemma of the lizard variety.

As Evan played with lizards, I checked out the birds hanging around my cousin’s house. I saw many of our species from back home, but we did pick up the Broad-tailed Hummingbird which would become probably the most common bird of the trip.  Its metallic buzzing could be heard almost everywhere we went.  Otherwise, Mountain Bluebirds, which would also become quite common, were still captivating at this point.

Female Mountain Bluebird

Female Mountain Bluebird

Male Mountain Bluebird

Male Mountain Bluebird

As fun as it was to hang out with my relatives, all good things must come to an end as they say.  So we grabbed a hotel room in town before our journey into the mountains of south-central Colorado near Westcliffe. As I had done in Hot Springs, I was up that next morning before first light so I could do some solo birding before everyone was awake. eBird was again very helpful in finding me a birding locale within a short drive from our hotel. I went up the side of the mountain on the very western edge of the Springs where I birded Blodgett Peak Open Space.  This big fella was there to greet me.

Mule Deer Buck

Mule Deer Buck

Once again the first bird to greet me of the morning was the Spotted Towhee.  I was hoping for better photo ops, but the day was too young and not very accommodating with its early-morning light.  It’s too bad because this bird was everywhere and close.  I really wanted that killer photo to solidify my first sighting back home in Minnesota last April.  But it wasn’t to be.  Not yet anyway.

One of the first lifers I heard that morning but took awhile to see was the Mountain Chickadee.  The song I was hearing was definitely chickadee in origin, but definitely different from our Black-capped variety back home.  Eventually, though, I was able to lay eyes on this spastic seed-eater.  This was a hoped-for lifer of the trip.

Mountain Chickadee

Mountain Chickadee

Mountain ChickadeeFrom reading the eBird reports I was expecting to find Western Scrub Jays.  It took me awhile, but I found a couple of this life bird.

Western Scrub Jay

Western Scrub Jay

On my quiet walk with no other people around I also found a lifer Virginia’s Warbler.  In typical warbler fashion, it wasn’t posing for any photos, and I just wasn’t up for chasing down a good photo of a bland bird.

Virginia's Warbler

Virginia’s Warbler

Walking in the mountains is always a good way to start the day, even more so when you tally three life birds in the process.

Getting back to the hotel I was greeted by one of the literal trash birds of the west, the Black-billed Magpie.  It’s such a shame that such a good-looking bird lowers its standards to the likes of gulls and jays by eating things one can only find in parking lots and such. There must have been a dozen hopping through the parking lot, standing on dumpsters, walking the rooflines of the hotel, and disappearing into the pines across the street.  It was fun to actually photograph them up close and in good light – something I have not been able to do in the Sax-Zim Bog.  I had never really seen the blue tint on them before, and I also discovered that their eyes are blue too!

Black-billed Magpie

Black-billed Magpie

Black-billed Magpie

After enjoying the magpies and getting the family assembled, we headed to Garden of the Gods.  We visited this National Natural Landmark five years ago, but with its other-worldly rock outcroppings it is a must-see each visit.

Central Garden at Garden of the Gods

Central Garden at Garden of the Gods

If you can look past the artificial hand-holding, you can see that the natural beauty abounds.IMG_0129

And the birds are beautiful here too as this brazen and audacious Western Scrub Jay shows while he prowled the parking lot for picnic leftovers or eyeballs of tourists napping in chairs.  It was good that Evan got to tally this lifer too since I had got mine earlier that morning.

Evan's Western Scrub Jay lifer

Evan’s Western Scrub Jay lifer

Melissa spied this Violet-green Swallow perched conspicuously on a snag.  It was fun to see its true colors as its namesake implies.

Violet-green Swallow

Violet-green Swallow

While Evan tried to climb rocks,

Evan

I tried to photograph missiles with wings, known as White-throated Swifts.

White-throated Swift (if you squint)

White-throated Swift (if you squint)

Neither of us were very good.  But we both had fun trying.

At one point I heard a Spotted Towhee singing its song.  I was still on the hunt for a good photo of this bird.  I dragged the family to the spot, and we all looked unsuccessfully.  Finally I decided to pull the plug.  Then Evan cried out, “But Dad, I’ve never seen one!”  I completely forgot he needed this lifer!  I never was able to get him on the bird in our own county, so apparently it had been gnawing at him that I had this bird and he didn’t.  Alright, so now it was more than just getting a photo; it was a genuine life bird hunt.

We still couldn’t see this particular bird we were looking for, but it didn’t matter because we eventually heard another one singing his heart out from the top of a juniper.  Evan got his lifer. I got my photo. Whew.  It felt doubly good.  I could finally put that great sighting from back in April to rest.  And so could Evan. Little did I know that the Spotted Towhee would be obscenely common for the rest of our trip.

Spotted Towhee

Spotted Towhee

Spotted Towhee

Colorado Springs held a nice cache of life birds (and relatives) for us.  After Garden of the Gods, we were headed up to the mountains in Custer County.  Coming up will be perhaps the best birding we would experience the whole trip.

The Colorado Trip: Birding South Dakota’s Badlands and Black Hills

BadlandsFinally. After an eight-year hiatus, the great American road-trip was reborn in our family.  There’s something liberating about heading out on the open road putting hundreds of miles under our seats, crossing numerous state lines and seeing new sights.  Our kids are to the age where they are now able to tolerate such intense travel and enjoy it too.  This summer we were headed to the mountains of Colorado to visit my aunt and uncle in their beautiful mountain home.

Though not the quickest route, we opted to head to Colorado via Rapid City so we could see Mt. Rushmore.  It would be a first for Melissa and the kids, so it was a must-stop. The scenery and the birding was most unimpressive until we crossed the Missouri River at Chamberlain.  But then, as soon as we made it to South Dakota’s better half, a western bird ambassador was there to welcome us.  A gorgeous, no-doubt-about-it Swainson’s Hawk soared over the freeway while I was cruising along at 75 MPH.  I involuntarily hollered, “Swainson’s Hawk!” Of course, soaring birds and speeding cars do not lend themselves to photo ops or good viewing.  Evan panickingly asked, “Where?!”  But it was too late and he didn’t see it.  Then the porch-lip came out in the back seat, and I was reminded by my wife to not draw attention to wildlife sightings on the road because the kids inevitably miss them.  We’ve been down this road before. Though I could now firmly claim this lifer, I tried to console Evan by assuring him that there would be more Swainson’s Hawks on this trip.  Boy, was I right, but that’s for another post.

Though not part of the original travel plans, we opted last-minute to dip south of I-90 to drive through Badlands National Park.  Growing up in Montana and then moving to Minnesota, I don’t know how many times I’ve traveled the I-90 stretch, but I have no memory of ever driving through the Badlands and seeing them up close.  I only remember distant views from the interstate.  I am so glad we decided to take this detour.  The Badlands are truly impressive with their beauty and other-wordly look.  And we were there on a beautiful day with cool temps.

Badlands

BadlandsThe expanse of the Badlands goes for miles, and I could have photographed them all day, but I was distracted by the birds.  When we stopped at one of the first scenic overlooks I caught sight of a blue bird.  It turned out to be our Mountain Bluebird lifer.

Mountain Bluebird

Mountain Bluebird

This was a hoped-for lifer and not one that I expected to get so soon in the trip.  It turns out that there would be even more life birds at this little stop. Buzzing around the cliffs and rocky outcroppings were several Violet-green Swallows.  My photo in the harsh afternoon sun doesn’t fairly show its namesake, but I can assure you that this is probably the finest-looking swallow there is.

Violet-green Swallow

Violet-green Swallow

I expected this bird and was able to identify it easily because of my eBird scouting. That scouting also helped me identify another fast-flier, the White-throated Swift! Photographing swallows and swifts is a daunting task under normal conditions, even more so when you are trying to keep children frum plummeting to their deaths. Needless to say, I didn’t get any photos of the swifts.

EvanI could not believe how accessible death was at this place.  Sure there are fun hills to climb like pictured above, but the other side is a doozy. This canyon was well over 100 feet down.BadlandsIt was fun to look at the bottom of this barren piece of earth and see a family of Say’s Phoebes, another good western bird.

Say's PhoebeWhat a good little stop this was – three quick lifers and a fun place to stretch the legs after a long drive.  But we had more Badlands to see and hopefully more birds too, so we continued on our drive through the park.  We spied Western Kingbirds wherever there were trees on which they could perch.  Such a fun bird.

Western Kingbird

Western Kingbird

As we made our way out of the park on Sage Creek Road, I was watching the fences for more WEKIs as well as Lark Buntings.  This potential lifer was reported as “ubiquitous” on this road in one eBird report.  I was very hopeful. We did stop to be entertained by the myriad of Prairie Dogs as they popped up and disappeared like a real-life whack-a-mole game for as far as the eye could see.  The whole family enjoyed the antics of these cute, pudgy rodents.

Prairie Dog

Prairie Dog

But doggone it, I completely forgot to check out the Prairie Dog Town for Burrowing Owls.  I had seen reports of them being with the Prairie Dogs.  One of those dogs poking its head up could just as easily been one of the Burrowers.  We’ve seen them before in Arizona, but one should never pass up an opportunity to look for a Burrowing Owl.

We continued our drive, and I was getting frustrated that we were not seeing the “ubiquitous” Lark Buntings.  Finally as we pulled out of the park, Evan pointed to a group of birds on the fence and asked what they were.  Mixed in with dozens of Mourning Doves were two Lark Buntings!  But they were a long way off and not letting themselves be photographed well.

It didn’t matter because as we kept driving on Sage Creek Road on the outside of the park, the Lark Buntings truly were ubiquitous.  I guess I should have read that report a little more carefully.  In case you are a birder and are looking for the Lark Bunting, the birds were on the wires on the north-south stretch.

Lark Bunting

Lark Bunting

Lark BuntingLark BuntingAfter securing a tidy haul of life birds and enjoying the scenery, it was time to make our way to the Black Hills of South Dakota to meet up with the presidents at Keystone.  The most notable bird seen along the way was a Red-headed Woodpecker – always a treat to find.

The stop to see Mt. Rushmore was brief.  It was basically a tick on the bucket list for many in our party and nothing more.  To us it just did not compare to the natural beauty of the area and its wildlife.

IMG_0032

Great Faces

With their pine covered mini-mountains, the Black Hills are absolutely gorgeous.  Our destination for the night was Hot Springs, a great small-town without the tourist trappings of Keystone.  But on the way to Hot Springs we passed through Wind Caves National Park.  Nothing new in terms of birds, but this guy right by the road was startling, a little scary, and very cool!

Bison

We eventually made it to Hot Springs where we settled in for the night.  But being in new lands with new birds does not lend itself to getting rest.  I was up and at ‘em at first light to check out a local city park, Lower Chautauqua Park, located near a water park called – get this – Evans Plunge.  I was going to this park because it was very near our hotel and there had been eBird reports of Black-headed Grosbeaks among other notable western birds.

The first bird I heard and saw was the Spotted Towhee.  It was quite a thrill to catch up with this old friend after finding my lifer as a Kandiyohi County first official record back home in April.  In the early morning light I was only able to moderately improve my photograph of this species.

Spotted Towhee

Spotted Towhee

Eventually I had the good fortune of bumping into the reported Black-headed Grosbeaks. Despite my best efforts of following them through the trees, I only managed to get one decent photo.  Regardless, I was pretty excited to get this lifer.  It was such a cool-looking bird.  I don’t think I’ve met a grosbeak I didn’t like.

Black-headed Grosbeaks

Black-headed Grosbeaks

I wish I could have hung out longer to get more photos of these birds in better light, but I had to head back to the hotel so we could get ready to venture through Wyoming on our way to Colorado. South Dakota was good to us with several lifers and spectacular beauty, but it was time to get to Colorado to see what avian treasures awaited us.

Boosting the Life Lists – A Colorado Send-off

Purple Finch - female

Purple Finch – female

As you read this, we are currently on the road – again.  This time, though, we are headed to the great state of Colorado.  Our route will take us through Badlands and Black Hills of South Dakota.  Birding is not the focus of this vacation as we are going to visit relatives and show the kids the likes of Mt. Rushmore and the Rocky Mountains. But one does not step foot in new biomes without pulling out something special birdwise. You can bet we’ll have a few souvenir sightings to show you and tell you about. Our life lists will surely expand.  Speaking of life lists, I’ve been hard at work renovating our life list pages on this website.  I finally got around to adding the Arizona birds, and I’ve added dozens of new photos – replacing old ones or adding them where they didn’t exist.  It’s a constant work in progress that I’ve been quietly tinkering with the past few weeks.  My taste for which single photo to display for each species has become more refined (picky).  Not even Mrs. Purple Finch here made the cut.  So come back to the blog to see what we dug up in Colorado and check out the lists as they will surely expand and change.

Serendipity in the Swamp

Alright, dear readers, as promised in the post before the Brainerd trip, I have a story to tell.  And it’s a good one.  I really should have learned by now to expect the unexpected.  But I haven’t, and that’s why this hobby can be so exciting and why this story is so good.  I had one of those unexpexted moments in the swamp back home.  Sadly, though, I did not get my guest photos to enhance the story.  Nevertheless a good story is a good story and needs to be told.  But because we live in an increasingly visual society (i.e. fast food menu boards), I have included some gratuitous bird photos from the archives.

The story starts when I got up at an unwholesome early time bound and determined to brave the mosquito thicket to try to see a Winter Wren at my parents’ place.  As I walked to the location, getting soaked from the dew-laden, tall grass, I was struck by the absence of the Winter Wren’s song.  It was strange since I had heard it the past couple days.  Since I wasn’t hearing it, I scrapped my plans to go bushwhacking.  But I was awake and in the land of birds, so I had to do something.

I settled on driving the roads in the area to look and listen for birds. The audio birding was fun as I heard another Black-billed Cuckoo, Sedge Wren, and a collection of warblers.  I even got to see a Red Fox soaked from dew of the morning, standing on the road for a momentary reprieve from the wetness.

I didn’t quite know what to do with myself – it’s frustrating to be up for some birding but have no focus, no plan of attack.  I finally decided I would drive the swamp road.  Maybe I’d get lucky and catch a Spruce Grouse on the road gathering grit for his crop.  After all, I saw one in that spot about a decade ago.

The road through the swamp is part of the route between my parents’ house and Melissa’s parents’ house.  Both sets of parents actually live on the same road about 10 miles apart.  No, Melissa and I did not grow up this close to each other, but my parents moved to this area when they retired. Though the parents live on the same road, you cannot get from one place to the other without taking some other roads.  Let me explain and use your mind’s eye to picture this. From Melissa’s parents’ you head east for a mile, north for two miles, east again for five miles, back south for two miles, and then east again for a mile.  It’s like you are driving the outline of a short top hat.  Though they live on the same road, the reason for this large hat-like bump of a detour is that there is a huge spruce bog separating our families where both house-building and road-building would be nearly impossible.

This five-mile stretch runs through part of the bog with tall Black Spruce trees lining the road creating a corridor through the swamp.  The bog used to depress me.  You look in the understory and just see utter darkness with occasional patches of light as the dense spruce boughs block the sun.  The “ground” is spongy as a bog actually floats on water. Mosquitoes reign supreme.  It is no place that a sane person would ever want to traverse.  Our family has bombed through the swamp road hundreds of times, often racing to get from one holiday meal to the next without properly digesting the first. I don’t think I had ever taken the gravel road at a speed of less than 50 MPH. Still, I often thought that it looked a lot like the Sax-Zim Bog and that maybe there could be a Great Gray Owl or something else that’s cool.  But I thought, ‘Nah, there couldn’t be anything like that this close to home,’ and just continued to drive warp speed.

Anyhow, I was trolling this five-mile stretch with the windows down trying to make sense of all the local variations of warbler songs when I noticed a vehicle a couple miles ahead of me that was stopped.  It’s very strange to meet other cars here, let alone at 6:00 in the morning. It couldn’t have been a hunter this time of year, and it seemed too early in the day for a forester to be out cruising timber.  Strange. I kept rolling along at 5 MPH listening to the sounds of the swamp but was distracted by this vehicle that wasn’t budging, only occasionally flickering his brake lights to indicate short bursts of movement.  What in the world was going on?  Finally I caught up with the now parked truck, and I as I passed it I saw it was Minnesota DNR truck and its driver was standing by the tailgate wearing a mosquito net-hat and binoculars.  With no coffee in my system, it took a little bit for my brain to process the image.  I got about a hundred yards past the guy when it hit me – a state employee wearing binoculars?!  You don’t need binoculars to look at trees or plants or really anything without feathers.  Holy smokes, I must talk to this guy.

So I whipped around and pulled up to the man.  And I saw his two-foot camera with a camouflage lens. Whoa, this is getting better! I asked if he’d seen anything good.  Then he dropped a bomb.  ”Yeah, I just had a Great Gray Owl about a hundred yards back.” WOW! A lot of emotions were going through me.  First was a great anxiety to hurry up and see this owl and second was that my hunch of this bog being an owl abode was right! I desperately wanted to part company right away after he told me what was quite literally a stone’s throw away, but he just kept lobbing bombs – a Black-backed Woodpecker about a mile down the road, a Black-throated Blue Warbler near Orr, a Northern Hawk Owl a few miles away, and another Great Gray Owl the day before on – get this – another section of the route we travel back and forth between our parents’ houses.  Oh, this was good information but that owl…

Then the dude asked who I was.  He said recognized my name from the listserv, so I got up the gumption to ask him his name.  Sparky Stensaas was the reply.  Unbelievable. That may mean nothing to you, but Sparky’s in the big leagues when it comes to birding.  He’s a bird guide, a photographer, and the executive director of the Friends of Sax-Zim Bog.  It was fascinating to meet him on my turf far north of his normal range of the Sax-Zim Bog and the Duluth area doing official work.  We traded numbers to share any more sightings in the area, and then we split up.  Sparky was heading deep into the dark bog on foot, and I was staying on the road and going back to find that GGOW.

I never did see the owl.  Perhaps all our conversation scared it away.  How I would have loved to see this bird at “home” and in the summer no less.  We do have some resident Great Grays, but they are harder to find in the summer months.  So I don’t have a fresh picture for you and will instead have to appease you with my best non-winter looking GGOW pic.

Great Gray Owl - archive photo of life bird - March 2013

Great Gray Owl – archive photo of life bird – March 2013 – Tower, MN

I got a text later that morning from Sparky that the Black-backed Woodpecker had come out to the road!  He told me what telephone pole to stand near and listen.  This is a tough woodpecker to find.  It’s the kind that Iowa birders travel to Sax-Zim to see and strap on snowshoes to follow a guide great distances into the bog on a 20-below day.  I’m not making that up.  I have never seen one.  How cool would it be to get this lifer at home instead of Sax-Zim?  I went there about an hour later but had no luck.

Black-backed Woodpecker - Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Black-backed Woodpecker – Image courtesy of Wikipedia

I’ve been back to this stretch of road several times right at daybreak and have been unsuccessful in my attempts to find either bird.  But I have something just about as good – hope.  Each time I go home now I have a mission to find these guys.  Dad always said the Sax-Zim Bog is like a good fishing hole.  Boats attract more boats and more boats until that’s the only place people fish.  Same is true with birding the Sax-Zim Bog.  As my dad said, those good birds can be anywhere in northern Minnesota.  Very true.  It only took a Sax-Zim guy to prove it.

Birding Brainerd: Gull Lake Recreation Area and Northland Arboretum

Gull Lake Recreation Area

Every summer we take at least a couple camping trips with Melissa’s parents and our two nieces.  Usually we stay at state parks, but we procrastinated a little too much on making reservations and ran out of time to get a couple camping sites on a weekend. Fortunately Melissa stumbled on to a great alternative which appears to be one of the best-kept secrets in the camping world.  Until now.  It turns out the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has recreation areas at many of their various projects.  And usually those recreation areas have a full-fledged campground.  So we booked a couple sites at the Gull Lake Recreation Area near Brainerd – a halfway point between our home and Melissa’s parents’ home.

This past weekend we camped at Gull Lake, and I was thoroughly impressed with what those Army engineers have done.  Never have there been more level, well-maintained sites.  Never has there been a better public shower house in a campground.  And never has there been better engineered service. Within minutes of arriving, a small squad of park rangers shows up on their Ranger utility vehicle to check us in and deliver firewood right to the fire pit.  And after they hand you your receipt and tell you your firewood purchase is tax deductible, they ask if there’s anything else they can do.  I would bet they’d even refill your Coke, that’s how good they are.

IMG_9674

The overkill and built-in redundancies by the Army’s engineers is both laughable and enjoyable.  See, they really just needed to build this tiny dam with a one-lane bridge to hold back the drainage of 10 lakes in the Gull Lake Chain, keeping Gull Lake 5 feet higher than normal and preventing the Mississippi River from getting out of hand downstream, but then they confiscate huge chunks of land on either side of it for who knows what reason.

Gull Lake Recreation Area

One side of the bridge is the finely engineered campground; the other side is a large point on Gull Lake named Government Point (the engineers must have named it)  with a beach and boat launch and lots of government buildings and this mysterious small structure.  Perhaps a missile silo as part of our defense against Canada, eh? The small size and limit of one would fit that theory since it is just Canada.

IMG_9631

But this blog is about birding and not just about Canadian conspiracy theories.  I was able to get out and do some birding on Government Point.  I had to smile when I proved a law of birding true.  That law is that once a lifer is seen, they show up everywhere. It’s the law that kept me from sweating that I saw a Pine Warbler last week and Evan didn’t see it because I knew the floodgates would open up for the Pines after that first sighting.  Yep, it turns out those Army engineers even designed a perfect territory for this guy.

Pine WarblerThis particular warbler has class, choosing the nicest, tallest White Pine right by those government buildings to call his home.

IMG_9652

After this discovery on my first morning birding walk, I was eager to get back to share this news with Evan.  The warbler was singing on territory and wasn’t going anywhere, and it was a short hike from the camper.  Evan, indeed, wanted to come see it along with Marin and cousin Hannah.  Before we got there I played the song for the kids so they could listen for it on the way there.  Once we got within 200 yards of the location, the kids were excitedly exclaiming that they heard it.  Fast learners! Then the challenge was to spot it.

Evan, Marin, Hannah

Many will deride the Pine Warbler, citing its drabness.  But I like it.  Maybe that’s because it took me so long to find it – kind of like the girl who played hard-to-get phenomenon.  Or maybe that’s because it is better at picking habitat than the other warblers.  Our majestic Red and White Pines are beautiful whether alone or in large stands.  Good choice, Mr. Pine.

Pine Warbler

Pine Warbler

Pine WarblerI spent a lot of time with this warbler observing and photographing it.  When there is no pressure to find a life bird, I really enjoy spending time watching and photographing a particular species that I enjoy.  It was fun to watch this guy as he sang his heart out constantly, shaking his whole body with each song.  I really like their trilling song which is a higher, sweeter version of a Chipping Sparrow’s song.

My birding was pretty relaxed overall.  I mostly photographed birds that presented photo ops, and I got pictures of birds I’ve never “shot” before.  Many, like this Turkey Vulture, were practically begging to have their photo taken.

Turkey Vulture

Turkey Vulture

I even relented and took my first ever American Robin picture.  Probably my last too.

American Robin

American Robin

I saw several Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers.  My best look came when I didn’t have a camera and one was on a tree just a couple feet in front of my face.  I had a similar experience with a Veery that came waltzing through the campsite while I was having coffee with my father-in-law.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

A loud drumming on a bird house at one point alerted me to this female Pileated Woodpecker.

Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

I also finally got a photo of an Eastern Phoebe.

Eastern Phoebe - purported by some to be the third-best Phoebe

Eastern Phoebe – purported by some to be the third-best Phoebe

And a relatively common bird during migration that was fun to see and hear on territory was the Yellow-rumped Warbler.

Myrtle's Yellow-rumped Warbler

Myrtle’s Yellow-rumped Warbler

While I did some casual birding on this trip, Evan was moving on to other scientific pursuits, like marine biology, studying various snail shells and the invasive Zebra Mussels.

IMG_9665

Though I spent some time just enjoying and photographing birds, I did make one quest to find a lifer.  The Wood Thrush has eluded me thus far.  A local birder recommended hiking the trails at the Northland Arboretum right in the city of Brainerd.  With 12 miles of trails through various types of forest it sounded promising.

Aspen Grove

Mature Stand of Aspen

The mosquitoes were incredibly fierce and abundant, though.  I was wearing long sleeves, pants, and the hood from my sweatshirt.  Even with repellant on the few square inches of exposed skin, I was getting destroyed.  I didn’t know what I’d do if I had to stop walking to look at a bird.  But then I found out what I’d do when I recognized the song of a former nemesis bird, the Blue-headed Vireo!  Once again that old birding law proved true. I endured countless bites as I tried so hard to get a photo of this bird.  It’s such a looker and one of my favorites, yet I couldn’t do it justice.  But I didn’t care too much because self-preservation was taking over.  I had a literal cloud of mosquitoes around me and had to keep moving.   My face was already swollen to twice its normal size.

Blue-headed Vireo

Blue-headed Vireo

I had one other good sighting at the Arboretum that I identified after-the-fact when looking at photos.  It turns out a high-flying raptor that went overhead was a Peregrine Falcon!

I also got to see a Brown Thrasher, but I could not turn up a Wood Thrush either by sight or sound.  As I was nearing the end of my walk and going by a wetland, I saw this pile of baby Mallards, literally and photographically crushable as they were just 6 inches off the path.

Baby Mallards

Baby Mallards

Seeing this mass of Mallard babes reminded me of one of those contests where you try to guess how many marbles are in the jar.  But if we were playing that game on the blog, you’d all lose because Momma Mallard had Momma’s Boy off to the side, throwing off the count.  Apparently she wasn’t too concerned that the bulk of her children were one stray bike tire from being obliterated.

Hen Mallard with her favorite child

Hen Mallard with her favorite child

So, there would be no Wood Thrush.  The hunt goes on.  I may have to continue the fight back home.  Overall, though, it was some good side-birding on a camping trip.  A lifer for Evan and some good looks at fun birds is nothing to sneeze at.

Going Cuckoo over Free Beer on a Blue Bird Day – Wild Birding at Mom and Dad’s

The parents' 80-acre spread

The parents’ 80-acre “farm”

Ahhhh, northern Minnesota.  It’s good for the soul.  I can’t believe June had nearly expired before we got up there this summer.  I blame bathroom remodels, snow make-up days, and birds.  June is probably the best month to be up there.  The weather is wonderfully cool, the scenery is a crisp blue and green everywhere, the fishing is fantastic, and the warblers are unbeatable. It’s a birdaholic’s dream with the great northern species and a maximum of 6 hours of darkness around this time of the summer solstice.

In fact, when we arrived at Mom and Dad’s around 7:30 last Sunday evening, I heard a life bird.  An American Bittern, also known as the Thunder Pumper, was just beginning his evening calling in the wetland across the road.  I battled the hordes of mosquitos trying to get a glimpse of it, but it never came into view.  Maybe tomorrow.

That next morning I was up early to go birding around my parents’ 80-acre spread.  The truth is that I’ve never really birded their land as I’ve seen most of my northern birds during migration back home. But this place is where the birding venture kicked off for me a couple years ago when I had a chance encounter with a Chestnut-sided Warbler. It was time to see what I could dig up when birding it properly.  My parents’ land is unusual in that it is mostly open prairie instead of being heavily forested like most of the region.  As such they get some fun prairie birds like Eastern Bluebirds and Bobolinks as well as a lot of the boreal species in the surrounding woods.

The dew was heavy that morning and the mosquitoes were unbelievably thicker than normal.  Admittedly I was quite miserable.  The beautiful song of another life bird, the Winter Wren, caused me to bear the misery a little longer.  But the Winter Wrens have an affinity for the thickest, shrubbiest, swampiest habitat.  Even if I got close I would probably not get a visual and the mosquitoes would increase tenfold.  I gave up on it after a time, deciding to go after it during migration back home. My morning was not a waste, though, as I was delighted to find a Northern Parula singing on territory.  My visual was quick but good even if I couldn’t get a photo.  Other than the Parula, the audio birding was wonderful – Veeries, Ovenbirds, and White-throated Sparrows were constantly at work creating a symphony in the woods.

White-throated Sparrow singing his "Oh, sweet Canada, Canada!" song with great gusto

White-throated Sparrow singing his “Oh, sweet Canada, Canada!” song with great gusto

Later that day Evan was begging for a 4-wheeler ride.  Usually I’m the one who takes him on such an excursion.  Eventually I relented.  Evan told me he wanted to go on “the longest 4-wheeler ride ever.”  The appeal of ATVs and snowmobiles has long worn off for me, but with all the birds around I had the sudden thought that I could probably give Evan “the longest 4-wheeler ride ever” and that it could be a lot of fun for both of us.  It would have several listening stops at key places.  Evan’s a birder and not enough of a motor-head to mind stopping every now and then to listen and look for birds.

Evan 4-wheeler

Our first listening stop was the location of that Northern Parula.  I played the song on my phone.  Immediately we got a response, but not from the Parula.  A Black-billed Cuckoo sounded off in the distance!  Holy Smokes!  That’s another life bird. I’m not sure if he responded to the Parula song or if it was pure coincidence.  Either way, we fired up the 4-wheeler and headed that direction.  We made a couple stops, playing the song each time.  Randy has said they are very responsive to tapes. Despite our efforts, we were not hearing it again.

Then I was about to give up at our last stop, when all of the sudden the Cuckoo flew in and landed in a dead tree right in front of us!

“There it is!”

“Where?!” Evan responded

“Right there!” I said, pointing as Evan sat on the 4-wheeler seat in front of me.

“I see it! Yes! Another life bird!” Evan said while doing a fist pump and standing simultaneously.

The visual was good.  The photos are another story.  It’s such a secretive, sneaky bird!

Black-billed Cuckoo lifer - Finally!

Black-billed Cuckoo lifer – Finally!

IMG_9577

IMG_9578

This bird flew out into this open meadow a few times checking us out.  We had really good looks at it as it flew by.  What a thrill it was to finally get this bird!IMG_9579  A good sighting like that made a beautiful day even more beautiful.

IMG_9582

IMG_9590

I took my dad out a couple hours later to see the Black-billed Cuckoo.  He had never seen one either.  We took the 4-wheeler, but as is the customary pecking-order of father-son relationships, I was no longer the driver.  I opted for sitting on the back rack, facing the opposite direction instead of sharing the seat with him.  I was able to help Dad see the Cuckoo.  It was also fun to enjoy the birds that benefit from the nesting boxes Dad has put up.

Tree Swallow

Tree Swallow

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

Dad and I also got to see a White-throated Sparrow and a Chestnut-sided Warbler singing within each other’s territories.  While we were listening and watching, we heard the distinctive “Free beeeer!” call of the Alder Flycatcher.  Sweet.  Alder Flycatchers are one of the five Empidonax species we can see in Minnesota, and the only safe way to correctly identify them is through voice and habitat.  Flycatchers are a drab bunch. Maybe that’s why the Alder and Acadian Flycatchers try to lure in birders and unsuspecting college students alike with their respective “Free-beeeer!” and “Piz-ZA!” calls.

Dad and I found the Alder no problem.  Flycatchers love their dead snag perches above the rest of the shrubbery.

Alder Flycatcher

Alder Flycatcher

There were many other short 4-wheeler trips during our time at Mom and Dad’s.  It’s always fun to see birds that are residents here but migrants back home, like the Olive-sided Flycatcher or this Hermit Thrush.

Hermit Thrush

Hermit Thrush

I tried several times to see that American Bittern.  I may have seen it fly, but I’m not sure and won’t count it.  While searching for the Bittern one evening I had the good fortune of seeing another Black-billed Cuckoo!  But all that gave me photo-ops were this Common Yellowthroat.

Common Yellowthroat

Common Yellowthroat

And this rainbow.  It wasn’t going anywhere.

IMG_9609Not bad birding around the parents’ farm.  I also sneaked away one morning on a quick solo mission to hike the Vermilion Gorge trail by Crane Lake on a tip from local birder, Dee Kuder, to look for Pine Warblers.  Pine Warbler is a hole in my warbler life list, and I always forget about this drab warbler during migration and when I’m up north.  It’s like that quiet kid in the classroom – always there but greatly overshadowed by the more gaudy and boisterous warbler children. Today was the day to look for the Pine.  Evan declined my offer to go on this hike.

The Crane Lake area has the classic northern Minnesota beauty with tall pines and pristine lakes with rocky shores.  Unfortunately it was a cloudy day and I had to save my dying camera battery for a chance encounter with that Pine Warbler, so I wasn’t able to get any scenery shots.  Not even of the Vermilion River Gorge itself, a deep, narrow canyon a couple hundred yards long where the river rushes through.

Dee’s information paid off though.  I found the Pine in a large stand of towering Red Pines.  The Pine Warbler is way at the far-end of the beauty spectrum as far as warblers go, but I was ecstatic to find this drab, little bugger.  It was my 30th warbler species.

Pine Warbler

Pine Warbler

Pine Warbler

Pine Warbler

Pine Warbler

A Pine Warbler in the pines.  You can’t beat that.  I always prefer to see birds in their natural territories rather than in pot-luck sightings during migration.  Evan was bummed that I got the Pine; I guess I forgot to tell him I was looking for that bird when I asked if he wanted to go hiking.  But as bird sightings go, now that I’ve seen the Pine, I will start seeing them everywhere so Evan should get his in short order.

Our trip up north was productive both birdwise and relative-wise.  And I had yet another crazy bird/birder adventure.  Hopefully I can secure some guest photos from that encounter so I can share the fun story here.  Stick around.

Hunting for Chestnut-collared Longspurs at Felton Prairie IBA

This story picks up right where the Wood Stork story leaves off.  Steve, Evan, and I were scheduled to depart Willmar at 4:30 AM last Saturday morning to make the three-hour trip up to Felton Prairie just east of Fargo.  Keep in mind we returned from the stork chase  near the Iowa border around 9:00 PM on Friday night.  That’s a short turn-around time for an adult, let alone a 7-year-old.  I asked Evan if he still wanted to go.  He chose sleep. Evan had been hot and cold with this trip anyway.  When I first asked him if he wanted to go, he said he wasn’t interested.  Then I saw a picture in my Facebook feed of a Chestnut-collared Longspur someone had seen at Felton Prairie and showed it to him.  His response was, “Ok, I’m interested.”  Absolutely.  But sleep did win out this time, so it was just Steve and I. We have been talking about doing this trip for nearly a year.  We were stoked to finally go.

Felton Prairie is designated as an Important Birding Area (IBA) by the the Minnesota DNR.  It consists of some WMAs, game refuges, and other public land, and it can host many hard-to-find western species.  Such birds include Marbled Godwits, Upland Sandpipers, Grasshopper Sparrows, Baird’s Sparrows, Burrowing Owls, Swainson’s Hawks, Western Kingbirds, Loggerhead Shrikes, Sprague’s Pipits, Greater Prairie Chickens, Gray Partridge, and the reliable number-one  bird and reason to head to Felton – the Chestnut-collared Longspur.  This is the only place where they are known to breed in the state.  Interestingly they are found along a narrow strip of prairie that runs along the top of a long ridge which I’m told is the edge of glacial Lake Aggasiz.  There is a road that runs this ridge.  Its official name is 170th Street, but everyone calls it Longspur Road.  It’s the place to go.  It’s even been known to host a complete spring-time party of Smith’s, Lapland, and Chestnut-collared Longspurs.

Steve and I hit Longspur Road right away.  Western Meadowlarks were singing everywhere.

Western Meadowlark

Western Meadowlark

A fun bird that is normally very hard to find is ubiquitous here, the Grasshopper Sparrow.  We glassed dozens hoping to turn one into our target bird.

Grasshopper Sparrow

Grasshopper Sparrow

Nearly right away on our first pass down Longspur Road, Steve made a fantastic discovery – two Greater Prairie Chickens!  It was a life bird for both of us, and with it I have now seen all members of the grouse family that call Minnesota home.

Greater Prairie Chicken

Greater Prairie Chicken

Not only did we see this pair, but we kept turning them up! We had three more bunches of 4,2, and 2 respectively, making a total of 10 birds!  A highlight was watching one near the car when it flushed, causing three others hidden in the grass much, much closer to flush as well.  Talk about great looks!

Greater Prairie ChickenGreater Prairie ChickenGreater Prairie ChickenIt was a satisfying life bird but not the one we were after.  It alone would have made a solid trip. It was also fun to see Marbled Godwits.  At first. Then they were everywhere and noisy.  Very noisy. It souned like we were at a beach with a bunch of gulls.

Marbled Godwit

Marbled Godwit

Another fun bird was the Western Kingbird.  We saw five.  One makes for a good day.

Western Kingbird

Western Kingbird

As cool as these birds were and fun to see, they were way down on the priority list because we came here for one bird, the Chestnut-collared Longspur.  I don’t know how many times we drove up and down the 3-mile road.  We kept seeing fun stuff, like this mother Blue-winged teal and her brood appearing out of the grass and disappearing back into it with no water around for miles.

Momma Blue-winged Teal and Brood

Momma Blue-winged Teal and Brood

Or a pair of Brewer’s Blackbirds.

Brewer's Blackbird

Brewer’s Blackbird

But still no longspurs.  I think we expected this bird to be perched conspicuously on the barb-wire fence that ran alongside the road.  Or we thought it would be on the road itself.  Then we figured we better watch the prairie more and the fence less.  Still nothing.  We were fast approaching our cut-off time to leave.  Near the very end, we finally had the idea to study its song.  We were foolish for not having done so earlier. We were shocked and a little disheartened to learn the song sounds very, very close to the Western Meadowlark song.  With minutes left before we had to depart, we picked out the higher version of the meadowlark song and found our target.  This was the conspicuous look we were searching for.

Chestnut-Collared Longspur

Chestnut-Collared Longspur

Chestnut-collared Longspur

On 170th Street, start looking/listening for the Chestnut-collared Longspurs in the mile section past the cattle guard. Watch the fence, the road, and the prairie to the east.

Chestnut-collared Longspur

Chestnut-collared Longspur - The Best Longspur

Chestnut-collared Longspur – The Best Longspur

It was quite a thrill to see this bird.  I’m looking forward to my next trip to Felton to see this bird again and to show it to Evan.  It’s quite the jaw-dropper.

We capped off our visit to Felton Prairie by taking a quick drive down the two-mile Co. Rd. 118, where Loggerhead Shrikes are known to hang out on the wires at the very end of the road.  We were not disappointed.  Like the intel on the longspurs, this is decades-old information that is still reliable today.

Loggerhead Shrike along Co. Rd. 118 about 2 miles east of MN Hwy 9

Loggerhead Shrike along Co. Rd. 118 about 2 miles east of MN Hwy 9

It was a good trip with a couple of key lifers, but it was far from the end of this birder’s marathon travel schedule. Steve and I had to get home so I could get packed up and ready for the 265-mile trip to northern Minnesota the next day where more birds and adventures would be in store for us.  And relatives too.  Those are fun to see.  Stay tuned – more birds, pictures, and stories await.  Wasn’t I remodeling a bathroom or something?

Wood Stork in Minnesota!

From reading the blog it may seem that I bird all the time.  The truth is that I squeeze in little bursts of birding around the regular stuff of life.  One of those regular things has been some home improvement, specifically a bathroom remodel.  Daily birding forays have been replaced with daily trips to Menards and Home Depot.  And instead of roaming the countryside freely looking for birds, I have been confined to a 7-foot basement bathroom with no window.  But I had been diligently putting in my time because I was looking forward to a full-fledged birding adventure with Steve last Saturday to Felton Prairie to look for Chestnut-collared Longspurs and other prairie goodies.  Even with that to look forward to, though, I was growing weary of the bathroom project.  If only there was a reprieve.

It turns out there was.  On Friday morning a very interesting email came in: the previous evening a Wood Stork had been found by a farmer in southern Minnesota very near the Iowa border when he was surveying damage to his grove from one of the recent storms that had pummeled the area.  Likely this bird had been blown in by one of the big storms.  I wasn’t even sure what a Wood Stork was, so I researched it and discovered this bird only lives in Florida and the Gulf Coast and that this was only the second time it had been in Minnesota!  There was a catch, though.  The person reporting stated that they had not yet secured permission from the homeowner for birders to come see it.  All he could say was that it was along the I-90 corridor west of Blue Earth.  Not only that but there was no fresh information of the bird being seen that morning. I would need more info than that to make the 3-hour one-way trip.  Nevertheless I had told Evan and Melissa about it, planting the seed that we may need to take off later.

Almost immediately after the email came in I got a call from Randy.  He wanted to chase it on the limited information hoping more details would trickle while in en route.  I’m surprised he called me first.  Maybe he figured I’d go because I was also a teacher and had the time off, or maybe he figured I’d be an easy sell based on my chase history.  Anyway, I turned him down saying I needed more to go on.  It was back to working on the bathroom for me.  Yuck.

Early afternoon came with a new email: the bird was refound and the exact location was given!  When I told Melissa, she surprised me by saying, “Well, I’m up for an adventure.  Do you want to go?”  Do I?!  I called up Randy and made arrangements for him to join the family on this wild bird chase.  Since Randy works with Melissa and gets along great with the kids, I knew he wouldn’t mind tagging along with the whole fam.

We had a pleasant drive down visiting and surveying all the flooding due to the incessant rains we’ve had.  As someone on Facebook stated, our new state motto will likely be “The Land of One Lake.”  Once we got to our location, though, we nearly panicked because we didn’t see a big, white stork, but even more worrisome was that we didn’t see any birders anywhere.  This was a second state record; there should be birders everywhere.  We figured this was bad news and that people had scattered to go refind this thing.  Eventually we caught sight of another birder driving slowly.  Our hopes were lifted when we saw him stop for awhile.  Did he see it?  Then he ended up going down a steep embankment onto what appeared to be a frontage road along I-90.  What was he doing?  We watched him go into this farm place.  You can see an east-bound semi on I-90.

IMG_9416

We watched. The car never came out.  Interesting.  Then, all of the sudden, two different cars were driving out of this long driveway, and two cars full of birders were driving in!  Quickly we headed down this driveway and stopped to talk to one of the outgoing drivers.  He confirmed what we suspected; the bird was there!

And so were the birders.

IMG_9383It was quite a party.  Everyone was pretty excited.  Marin picked up on the palpable excitement as she asked, “What are all these guys so excited about?”

This is what they were excited about, Marin.

Wood Stork

Wood Stork in Faribault County, Minnesota

You would have swore the Vikings finally won a Super Bowl with how jolly these guys were.  It was pretty fun.  Even the kids wanted to see for themselves what the big deal was.IMG_9393IMG_9396Wood StorkWood StorkWood StorkWhile I photographed the bird, Melissa and the kids went with Randy to check out some of the farmyard animals.  Apparently I missed Marin nearly get attacked by this giant rooster when it was chasing her while she ran, unbeknownst to Marin.  The ensuing screams would have likely scared away the stork, and I would have been banished from the birding circles of which I participate.  Thankfully Melissa thwarted the attack by getting Marin to stop running which then stopped the rooster from chasing her.  By doing so, she was able to keep the screams and stork at bay, keeping Minnesota birders happy and my reputation intact.

IMG_9413

The kids love any chance they get to pet a cat since we can’t have one due to my allergies.

IMG_9415

With enough stork and enough cat, it was time to leave.  We had a fun sighting just a half mile from the farm – an Upland Sandpiper at the top of a tall utility pole.  With almost zero habitat around I was surprised to see it.

Upland Sandpiper in Faribault County

Upland Sandpiper in Faribault County

IMG_9423It was finally time to head home on the 3-hour return trip.  The visiting continued, but this time it was Marin who was talking everyone’s ear off and thoroughly thriving on the attention of a new person in the car.  By the time we got home our bodies and ears were tired.  It had been a whirlwind 7-hour adventure.  But it was a lot of fun to do something spur of the moment and witness something unique as a family.  I told Melissa that it’s probably the closest thing she’ll get to experiencing a flash mob like she’s always wanted to see.