Guide Series: The Quest for the Great Gray Ghost in the Sax-Zim Bog

Over the years several gracious and talented birders have taken this novice birder into habitats and lands both near and far to help me see a new bird or two or twenty.  Recently I found myself in a bit of a role reversal for the first time, and the stakes couldn’t be higher.  My good Arizona birding friends Tommy DeBardeleben and Gordon Karre decided to take me up on an offer to show them around northern Minnesota in the wintertime to go after our impressive Owls, specifically the Great Gray Owl, Northern Hawk Owl, and Snowy Owl.  Not only is it nerve-wracking to produce the winter classics because of the fickle nature of these Owls, but it is even more so when the people I was leading have produced my top Arizona targets for me over…

Elegant Trogonand over…

Painted Redstartand over.

Rufous-capped Warbler

Was I feeling the pressure? You better believe it.  And with the driest year I have ever seen for the Big 3, my stress level was rising with everyday leading up to the trip.  Despite an abnormal October influx, Snowy Owls seemingly disappeared and numbers returned to pre-irruption year levels.  Great Grays were fairly abundant in the Sax-Zim Bog but very, very fickle about showing themselves.  The outlook for Northern Hawk Owls was even more depressing as there were only a couple reports out of northwest Minnesota.  I was feeling the squeeze.  But pressure aside, I really just wanted these guys to see these Owls.  These birds are simply just amazing, and I wanted to share them with my friends.  Now, I know Tommy and Gordon are classy guys who understand there are no guarantees in birding, but I had invited them to the home court and they had invested a lot of time and money to see the wonders of which I spoke.  I attempted to counteract my stress with the only antidote I knew: preparation. Sometime in late fall I began to drink from the fire hose that is the multiple streams of birding information out there: multiple FB groups, the MOU database, the MOU-net listserv, and eBird. Living far from the north, I was only able to do a tad bit of actual scouting over Christmas which is, like, ancient history and completely useless when it comes to a birding trip the end of January. So I reached out to my contacts who had much better, more recent intel than me.  Minnesota Nice is never more epitomized than it is in its birders as people like Clinton Nienhaus, Jason Mandich, and Jeff Grotte generously gave me their up-to-the-minute knowledge, and in some cases, their eyes to help this trip be a success. You take that expert info and put a crazy Owl hat on a crazy-good Owler and good things are bound to happen.

tommy

Our pursuit for the Owls would begin with the Great Gray in the Sax-Zim Bog at first light on January 29th. Clinton had advised us on the most probable bird, so that’s where we began our day. We had a plan B, C, and D if that one didn’t show, and Jason Mandich was even scoping out other sites that morning too. It turns out that when you have a pretty good plan A and a Tommy, that’s all you need. Tommy spotted his and Gordon’s Great Gray lifer from the gray woods at dawn and excitedly announced it to both of us.  It was a glorious moment; there were some very excited Arizona birders in the van–so much so that I had to remind them to keep their voices down so as not to spook it!

IMG_7136

In an instant, months of stress left my body because this bird is a trip maker.  I knew that if they dipped on everything else, including the other two Owls, that this bird would still create great memories for them.  With the ice officially broken, the real fun could begin, like going crazy with Great Gray photos.

Gordon TommyNot only was it thrill to watch these guys get this incredible lifer, but I also enjoyed seeing a Great Gray in a new (to me) part of the Bog. It doesn’t matter where these guys are, though.  They are just plain cool.

Great Gray Owl

After some great looks and photos, I gave the guys the option of continuing to enjoy this bird or going after the other Great Grays while the time was still prime. Perhaps it was the hat or all that face time with the Owl, but they made a wise choice and decided to hang with this one.  Turns out that it would be our only one of the trip.

Great Gray Owl Great Gray Owl

I was in full-on relaxation mode at this point, though I did have to run a tight schedule in the short term–our only window for Sharp-tailed Grouse of this four-day birding odyssey was coming to a close quickly since they are tough to find after 9:30 AM. Somehow I managed to pull them away from the Great Gray and get to the Sharp-tail lek in time.

Sharp-tailed GrouseThe guys even got to see the males of this new lifer doing their courtship dances! That was topped off by the Grouse coming roadside to feast at a local resident’s feeders before retiring for the day.  It really couldn’t have been a better experience for viewing this bird.

After the time and big bird pressures out of the way, we had the rest of the day to just cruise around the Bog in pursuit of whatever, like checking out the Pine Grosbeaks at the Visitors Center.Pine GrosbeakThis is a bird I previously had terrible photos of, so this felt good to see a male up close.

Pine GrosbeakAnd of course, there were Common Redpolls which is a lifer for the guys.  There are always Redpolls. This one had some potential for…oh, who cares anymore?

Common Redpoll

“I don’t even know who I am.”

I am a huge fan of the potential lumping of the Common/Hoary Redpolls.  My list may go down, but so will my birding stress!

At every feeding station we stopped at, Black-capped Chickadees always made their presence known…as they should, they are awesome.

Black-capped Chickadee

But there is a cooler Chickadee that lurks in the shadow of its cousin and is much more shy.  Thankfully the stunning Boreal Chickadee overcame that shyness just in time for the guys’ visit.

Boreal ChickadeeThe Boreal Chickadees had started to become a regular at the Admiral Road feeders not more than a week before the guys arrived.  Tommy and Gordon were truly spoiled with this lifer.  It appeared within a minute of us stopping at the feeders.  How many birders, myself included, have waited for an hour or more only to be skunked?  Additionally, it came out often, like every minute instead of every half hour. Like the Great Gray, this bird is not a given.  Also like the Great Gray, much face time is required with this bird.  I would estimate that we spent equal time with it as we did with the Owl.  For me this bird ranks just below a Great Gray Owl but definitely above a Snowy Owl. As such, I am on a never-ending quest to get a photo of a BOCH that I am happy with.

Boreal ChickadeeBoreal Chickadee

The first day in the Bog was as good as I could possibly hope for with the only notable miss being a Pileated Woodpecker for the guys. Otherwise, the guys cleaned house with the “good stuff” even picking up some additional lifers in the more common birds.  Here is the summary of their lifers:

Great Gray Owl – Tommy, Gordon

Sharp-tailed Grouse – Tommy, Gordon

Ruffed Grouse – Tommy, Gordon

Boreal Chickadee – Tommy, Gordon

Common Redpoll – Tommy, Gordon

Northern Shrike – Gordon

Each of the next two days would have its own Owl focus.  Could we be just as successful the next day in Duluth/Superior with the Snowy?

Once again, a huge shout-out and thank you to Clinton Nienhaus for his extensive Bog help on all kinds of birds and to Jason Mandich and Jeff Grotte for their owling advice. We couldn’t have done it without you guys.  There’s no “I” in Great Gray.

2015–The Pinnacle Year

It is once again that time of year when bird bloggers the world over parade the best, and sometimes worst, of their year of birding.  I am no exception to this.  Cliche? Yes. Fun? Definitely. If you are already turned off, perhaps you can make it interesting by trying to guess any or all of the birds in my Top 10.

While you mull that over, I must mention that 2015 was very different from 2014. If 2014 could be summed up in one word, it would be ‘serendipity.’ I had so much dumb luck with  my own finds and with other birders’ finds that I was constantly turning up or chasing something cool.  2015, on the other hand could be known as ‘intentionality.’ I did a lot of focused birding for very specific targets that required a lot of planning.  With that said, there was, as there always is in birding, lucky encounters. But overall, like Mr. Noah Strycker himself, it is safe to say that this was and will be my best year of birding.

Before we get into the Top 10, here are a couple of superlatives.

Most Expensive Bird

Far and away this honor goes to the Piping Plover.  Yes, I spent more on other trips, but when you break down the cost of those trips per lifer, none can compare to the cost of adding Piping Plover to my list.  In fact, Arizona with its abundance of lifers becomes dirt cheap if you think about it from a cost per bird perspective.  But the Plover required hiring a legitimate sea captain.  Justified loosely as a Father’s Day present and a boat ride for the kids, was it worth it to see nesting, endangered Piping Plovers from a distance on a rocking boat?

Yes.

Piping Plover

Evan Marin madeline island

Biggest Miss

Red-headed Woodpecker.  I couldn’t find one at all when I literally had dozens the year before.  This is a bird you simply cannot see enough of.  I look forward to redeeming my failure in 2016.

Red-headed Woodpecker

Biggest Shout-out to a Reader

This goes to Laura Segala for her incredible Yellow-crowned Night-Heron yard-bird which so many of us got to add to our life lists this year.

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron

Most Famous Birding Companion

Bob Janssen.

Evan Bob Janssen

Twice. And we even got to help him relocate Andy Nyhus’s Wood Thrush for a new Kandiyohi County bird for him.

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

Best Redemption on a Bird

Greater Roadrunner. How did we miss it in AZ in 2014? How did Evan repeatedly just miss it in 2015 before finally getting it?

EvanGreater Roadrunner

Best Photo Redemption of a Bird

Buff-breasted Sandpiper

Buff-breasted Sandpiper

Right?

IMG_4788

Best Minnesota Warbler

Blackburnian Warbler

Blackburnian Warbler

Best Wisconsin Warbler

Black-throated Blue Warbler

Black-throated Blue Warbler

Best Arizona Warbler not in the Top 10 and Best Non-Warbler Warbler

Olive Warbler

Olive Warbler

The Top 10 Birds of 2015

So in the biggest year which included 78 life birds, how did I even begin to select a top 10? Well, the answer to that lies not in which birds were the most rare or even the most beautiful, but rather on my experiences with certain birds and the people involved.  These are the birds and experiences that are the most fun to think back upon.

10. Snowy Owl

Wilbur Snowy Owl

Two years in a row SNOW makes the list, and it wasn’t a lifer either time.  So why again? 2015 was another irruption year for this bird, and I finally discovered one on my own.  And then I found another, and another, and so on all right here just a few miles from home.  The pinnacle of this epic SNOWstorm was when I saw three different owls within just 10 minutes or so, tying Randy Frederickson for the most Snowies seen in one day in Kandiyohi County.

9. Townsend’s Solitaire

Townsend's SolitaireMy first lifer for 2015 was a Townsend’s Solitaire, but that’s not why this bird is here.  The reason this bird made the cut is that I found one on my own in the old hometown.  That’s a pretty sweet feeling on multiple levels.

8. Northern Pygmy-Owl

Northern Pygmy-OwlI had five Owl lifers in 2015.  In an ordinary year, they’d all deserve one of the top 10 slots.  Spotted Owl should probably occupy this slot because of its threatened status, but I just really enjoyed seeing this Pygmy in Hunter Canyon. This tiny Owl was cool just by itself, but the experience made it even better. This is just one of the dozens of life birds that Tommy DeBardeleben and Gordon Karre found for us.  Just as much fun as seeing these birds was becoming friends with these guys.  There is no doubt that we will have many more adventures together in 2016.

I’ll never forget those 10 minutes of positive stress that occurred while seeing this Owl when Tommy, Gordon, Evan, and I had multiple lifers pop up at once.  We went from a Hepatic Tanager to a male Scott’s Oriole to this Northern Pygmy-Owl to a Rufous-capped Warbler.  Each required that we ditch the last. How does one focus their attention and photography efforts in such a scenario? Read on and you’ll see.

7. Red Crossbill

Red Crosbill

This was a very fun lifer that I got in July, a time when lifers just aren’t to be had.  Red Crossbill is an especially challenging species to find in the state. I had been studying the calls of Red Crossbills in the hopes of tracking some down that had been reported up north when we went home to visit family. Little did I know how much that studying paid off.  As I stood in my parents’ driveway, this bird was served up on a silver platter when I heard the sound I had been studying and then had a small flock of them land in the spruce tree right next to me. It ended up being a three-generation lifer in my dad’s yard no less. Sometimes it’s the experience that makes the sighting special.

6. Western Screech-Owl

Western Screech-OwlThis is probably one of the most common Owls of all my Owl lifers.  But rarity status alone does not make for the best experiences.  What made this bird so fun was the context in which it occurred.  First, night-birding with flashlights adds a whole new level excitement to this hobby.  Chris Rohrer said it best when he said it makes you feel like a little kid again to be outside after dark past bedtime.  Second, this Owl was so cooperative for Tommy DeBardeleben and me that we got to pose for some laughter-inducing selfies.  This is probably the most fun I’ve ever had birding.

Josh owl selfie

5. Painted Redstart

Painted RedstartWow. Just wow. Seeing them at my feet? Unbelievable.

4. Rufous-capped Warbler

Rufous-capped WarblerThe Rufous-capped Warbler beat out the Pygmy Owl and the Oriole that day in Hunter Canyon.  This rare Mexican visitor was the main target of AZ trip #2.  I can’t believe I saw one. I can’t believe I got a photo.

3. Elegant Trogon

Elegant TrogonCan you believe a year in which Elegant Trogon doesn’t get the top slot? I mean, seriously? This was the main target for AZ trip #1.  We were successful on the last morning.  Tommy led us to victory that day.  What a thrill it was to chase this bird up the mountainside in Madera Canyon.  The Elegant Trogon Fantastic Four made for an epic team. A huge thanks goes out to these two guys for being responsible for most of the birds seen in this list, but this one especially.  Any other year guys and it would have been tops!

Josh Gordon Tommy Evan2. Gyrfalcon

GyrfalconNow here’s one that I wasn’t expecting, as in at all, as in ever. 2015 was the year of the Gyrfalcon.  I picked up my lifer in Superior, WI early in the year, but what catapulted this bird near the top of this list was when I accidentally stumbled on the bird pictured above right here in Kandiyohi County, giving me my state and county bird in one sweet shot with a good photo op to boot.  Considering one hadn’t been seen in Minnesota in nearly three years, I was just a little excited when Bob Dunlap and a host of birding experts told me my misidentified Peregrine was actually a Gyr.

1. Greater Sage-Grouse

Greater Sage-GrouseThis bird had the top spot locked down before 2015 even began.  This was a very special bird that Evan and I made a special trip to Montana to see.  We got this lifer in the company of my dad who researched this bird extensively in the 1970s for the Montana Fish&Game Department (presently called the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks).  We didn’t just see this bird.  From a blind we got to observe the males doing their elaborate courtship displays on the lek.  There was no better way to add this bird to the life list.  The Greater Sage-Grouse was hands-down the best bird of 2015.  A special thanks goes out to John Carlson for setting up the adventure, Charlie Eustace for joining us, Leo and Jo Jurica for hosting us, and to my dad for humoring my idea. It was a pleasure to meet John and Charlie and go on a very memorable outing together.

L-R: Dad, Me, Evan, John Carlson, Charlie Eustace

L-R: Dad, Me, Evan, John Carlson, Charlie Eustace

Josh Dad Evan

When 2014 ended, I didn’t have any idea that 2015 could rival it. Looking back, I think 2015 actually surpassed 2014 in its greatness.  Not only did I see some amazing things, but I got to go birding with so many incredible people.  The combination of those two things is what makes this hobby so great. So what does the future hold? I’m not sure.  I can honestly say that I have no expectations for 2016.  I have a couple minor birding goals, mostly numbers related, but little else at this point.  It is my hope to not let birding consume my year and that the experiences I do have favor quality over quantity. I’m excited to see the birds and people that cross our path this year.

The Minnesota Ivory Gull, A Sleigh-Assisted Bird

You already know that birders are an odd bunch, but you may not know that they are even more so on New Year’s Day.  This is the day that a brand new year list starts and with it all kinds of eccentric behaviors.  Birders often report to one another what their first bird of the new year is.  Some, like me, squint when looking out the windows in the morning so that first bird might be a bright red Cardinal and NOT the dreaded House Sparrow.  (Mine was a Crow this year–ick).  Some birders go flying out of the gate (and all across the state) to put up a massive total of species on that first day as if to tell all others who aspire to be the top birder, “Don’t even think about it.” I’m not sure where Duluth power-birding couple, Larry and Jan Kraemer, fall on the spectrum, but they were out birding on 1 January.  And they sent shock waves through the entire Midwest birding community with a jaw-dropping confirmation of Scott Wolff’s suspected Ivory Gull.

No, no, this couldn’t be…I had just finished writing a recap post of 2015 where I concluded by saying I wanted to mellow out my birding in 2016.  But on the other hand, HOLY SMOKES I’VE GO TO GET TO DULUTH!! To the uninformed, the Ivory Gull is from the high Arctic, the land of Polar Bears and Santa Claus, and has only been to Minnesota a handful of times.  It looks like Minnesota and Wisconsin Birders have been good this year because Santa dropped off quite a present in Canal Park.

Duluth Ivory GullWillmar, of course, sent its own small delegation of eager birders to the Great Birder Assembly.  Joining me in the pursuit of a shared, epic lifer were Randy Frederickson and Joel Schmidt.  The gathering also gave my yearly and life birder lists a boost.Duluth Canal ParkHere’s what all the fuss is about:

Ivory Gull

What I noticed immediately about this striking, immature bird was the black mottling on the back and wings of this immaculately white bird and how this black/white combo  resembled the plumage of a Snowy Owl or a white-phase Gyrfalcon–all birds from the far north.

Ivory Gull

Ivory Gull

Ivory GullConditions for viewing the IVGU were awful: wave action from Lake Superior had created a thick glaze of ice over every place an observer might stand.  Never have I feared a concussion or wished I owned cleats more.  It was downright dangerous. Even the Ivory walked with trepidation.Ivory GullAt one point a birder next to me didn’t really know how to proceed off the icy knoll on which we stood.  I was getting annoyed with his prolonged hesitation.  Then I felt like a complete jerk when the older fellow asked me if I would take his arm and help him down.  As I gripped his quivering arm, I realized that this could be me in 30 or so years.  It was a reminder of how quickly life moves and why events like this are so important, why we need to experience the phenomenal while we can.  Going with friends, like Randy and Joel, make it even better, especially when celebratory beers are had at a place like Bent Paddle Brewhouse.

Before that celebration, however, there were many other birds to enjoy at Canal Park.  This adult Iceland Gull (center of the pic)  was a lifer for Joel and the first adult I had seen.

Iceland GullHere was an immature bird that is Thayer’s/Iceland intergrade.  The local Larus Jedi call him Stumpy because of his missing tail.

Iceland GullWe did see a couple of adult Thayer’s but no Glaucous Gulls this time.  Since I got the full Gull smorgasbord a month ago, besides the Ivory I was most excited about all the American Black Ducks.  I counted well over a dozen among the 300 Mallards.  They really do stand out and the proximity and sunlight made them especially photogenic on this gorgeous day. This is a duck I just don’t see enough, so this was quite enjoyable.

American Black Duck
American Black DuckAmerican Black DuckWe lingered around Canal Park for a couple hours hoping to find Joel a Great Black-backed Gull lifer, but it just wasn’t in the cards.  What was in the cards was the arrival of the longest ship known to the Great Lakes, the 1014-foot long Paul R. Tregurtha:

Paul R. Tregurtha ship

I have to tell you how much my family has wanted to see a ship, any ship, pass through the canal, under the lift bridge, and into Duluth Harbor. Evan especially has wanted to see such a thing.  How I wish he was along to see this!  He may not care about the Gull now, but this would be a heart breaker for him. We have chased ship arrivals before.  Once we were at the top of the hill in Duluth, saw a ship coming in, and raced down to Canal Park only to find it had already made it through the canal.

You can see in the above photo that the birders were not impressed and still had their vision trained on the Ivory Gull sitting on the breakwall.  Despite seeing more birders than I’ve ever seen before, the birdnerds were quickly outnumbered by hundreds of shipnerds that materialized out of nowhere. It was kind of fun, actually, to trade nerd info with a couple of 60ish ladies.  They told us all about their ship; we told them all about our Gull.  I didn’t get goosebumps like my shipnerd mates when the Paul R. Tregurtha saluted the lift bridge with its loud horn, but I was impressed nonetheless.

Paul R. Tregurtha ship

Nerd worlds collide!

Paul R. Tregurtha ship

IMG_0213An accidental rare species from the Arctic and the largest ship on the Great Lakes coming in to port made for a most exciting outing.  We had one more errand that would put this day completely up and over the top–crossing the Blatnik Bridge to Superior, Wisconsin to pick up a 2016 Gyrfalcon!  In less than a year’s time I have seen three Gyrfalcons, which still is not enough because like Jello, there’s always room for Gyr.  Photos at this distance were practically impossible, but I’m okay with that.

Gyrfalcon

2016 started off with a bang.  I shouldn’t be surprised but I always am by the unexpected things that show up.  That’s what makes this hobby so horribly addicting.  While we wait for the next twist or turn in this new year of birding, a highlight reel of my 2015 will be served up next.

Since the above post was written, two noteworthy developments have happened in the Ivory Gull story.  They are each titled below and are well worth the read, especially the second (WOW).

The Perfect Chase

I had never considered just how perfect of a chase this was until my companion Randy Frederickson posted a thank you to the Duluth area birders on the listserv.  It is not often that the birding guru posts, but when he does it is humorous and eloquent.  Enjoy.

Another wonderful bird found by Duluth area birders, but so much more. Not only a “lifer” for most of us, but how often does a chase end up where you park in a public lot for free, walk 60 yards and get phenomenal looks at your target bird? Throw in a heated visitors
center with clean bathroom facilities and could it get better? Well yes; make sure the report goes out on Friday to give us all a weekend to travel and have the bird frequent the same area long enough that almost no one can miss it. Now place it on the top of a cement wall about eye level and color it in such a way that it stands out amongst its contemporaries. Next, turn up the outside temperature so it runs about 8-10 degrees above the winter average. Heck, let’s do it on the 1st of January so the new year has an avian prelude.  Lastly, have the target bird show up among some of the most generous
(of time and talent), and Laridae literate folks in the upper Midwest and there you have it, the perfect chase hosted by wonderful birding brethren. If there is reincarnation after death, I’m coming back as an Ivory Gull and heading to Duluth for unrivaled recognition and camaraderie (but could someone please tell Peder I prefer Walleye)?

Ivory Gull-Double Trouble

Hundreds of birders have seen the Ivory Gull and many more had been making plans to get to Duluth, even coming from far-off places like Toronto and Tennessee.  Imagine the utter shock, then, when news came out today that the Ivory Gull was a victim of a predation found dead and ripped to shreds under the Blatnik Bridge on the Wisconsin side!  Here is the photographic evidence on Laura Erickson’s blog.  I didn’t feel too sorry for those Wisconsin birders who greatly envied us Minnesotans for such an addition to our state lists.  Still, an unknown and now dead IVGU on their soil on top of a fresh Packers loss to the Vikings? Ouch. I was, however, really bummed out for Gordon and Tommy as I hoped this incredible lifer would be here waiting for them in three weeks time.

A short time after that initial report, the even more unthinkable happened–someone was declaring that there was an Ivory Gull at Canal Park!  This meant one thing and one thing only: TWO Ivory Gulls, both immature birds, had hopped aboard Santa’s sleigh and were in the Duluth area.  Simply incredible. The Duluth News Tribune caught wind of the drama after the death of the first bird and had to change their story as events were unfolding.  In fact, it is their #1 trending story right now.

Warming Up For Sax-Zim…

Northern Minnesota is my favorite place to bird.  The unique collection of hardy birds that call this place home in the winter is truly spectacular. Getting out for a little birding while home for the holidays is always a must.

I spent a lot of my birding time in the nearby town of Cook.  Local birder, Julie, had found some White-winged Crossbills which would be a lifer for me.  So I made several trips into town to try for this bird.  I came up short that first evening, but came away with a great prize–spotting my own vagrant Townsend’s Solitaire.  Such a good bird and to find one myself here at home made it all the more special. In fact–spoiler alert–look for it in my year-end Top 10 post.

Townsend's SolitaireOne morning I decided to canvas the heck out of Cook, cruising up and down all the streets looking for those Crossbills.  Honestly, it is just as much fun driving around Cook as it is the Sax-Zim Bog, especially when there are great birds, like an overabundance of Evening Grosbeaks.

Evening Grosbeak

Or Pine Grosbeaks, a bird I finally got a chance to photograph. Despite the large flock I found, I never saw more than two or three adult males.

Pine Grosbeak

Pine GrosbeakSome were so incredibly tame.  I think I could have pet this one.

Pine GrosbeakBirding a small town like this is a lot of fun because the birds are easy to spot as there are not many of them, and they stick out like sore thumbs in leafless trees.  And nearly every bird you pull up the binoculars on in this area is a fun bird.  In addition to the Grosbeaks, I saw Redpolls, Red-breasted Nuthatches, Gray Jays, and even a quick sighting of my White-winged Crossbill lifer.  Additionally I found a very late Common Grackle, which is the only way a Grackle ever becomes exciting.

One morning while home I took Melissa on a scouting trip to the Sax-Zim Bog for Tommy DeBardeleben and Gordon Karre’s upcoming trip.  Melissa is normally the one who spots the Owls, but today was my lucky day as I spied this guy first when it flew out from the tamarack bog and landed right in front of us.

Great Gray OwlSince I was in the pole position for this Great Gray in the traffic jam that had developed on Admiral Road, I planned to stay put until there was enough light to properly photograph the Owl.  This one had other plans as it hopped from perch to perch and went out of sight almost as soon as it had appeared.  Many other birders/photographers stayed in the area for a reappearance (which many got over and over), but this was a scouting trip and I had more places and birds to check on.

Admiral RoadI tried hard to turn up another Great Gray or two but just couldn’t do it.  I was happy to find a small group of Sharp-tailed Grouse near Meadowlands.  I know this sounds strange, but from a scouting perspective, this was the most exciting find of the morning.  The Great Gray is obviously the better bird, but one only needs to look for the parked cars to spot one of those in the Sax-Zim Bog.

Sharp-tailed GrouseSharp-tailed GrouseIn just three weeks time, Tommy, Gordon, and myself will be hitting the Sax-Zim Bog and NE MN harder than I’ve ever hit these areas before.  I am looking forward to this trip just as much as any of my out-of-state trips.

Coming up Short?

On the day before Christmas Eve I stayed home to watch the kids who started their Christmas break one day before me.  But stay home we didn’t.  We went on an epic loop road trip to the eastern border of the state to try for some really cool birds.  For the kids, this was an opportunity to watch more Star Wars in anticipation of finally seeing the new movie over the break.  For me, it was a chance to try for three major birding targets.

The first stop was for a Northern Saw-whet Owl which would have been an epic lifer.  Well, all I saw was the white-washed roost site and a couple of cute kids posing in front of Wisconsin.

Evan MarinThe next stop was for Milt Blomberg’s Varied Thrush at Oakland Cemetery in Marine on St. Croix.  It was also a no show.  I did not spend more than a few minutes looking for this bird which would merely be a year bird; there was bigger game at stake.  We needed to get down to Afton State Park in time for the evening show of some Short-eared Owls.  This would be a much hoped-for lifer.  We made it by my target time of 4:00, but barely.  As you can see, the heavy snow in the first picture had transformed the eastern portion of the state into Hoth.  The kids were prepared.

Evan MarinThe kids and I walked around the border of this entire prairie area, hoping to spot a Short-eared Owl flying at any moment.  I should say that I was hoping to spot an Owl; they were happy to be out of the car and frolicking in the snow. Despair–for me–was sinking in as it looked like this would be strike three for the day’s agenda.  But then on the walk back toward the car, a voice boomed from the other side of the prairie, “Hey! Short-eared Owl!” God? No, it was Pete Nichols, moderator of the MN Birding Facebook Group.  This was his turf, and he had come to check up on the Owls and give us an assist. Thanks, Pete!

Binocular views were great, but the low-light conditions and falling snow made photography impossible.  I am a birder before a photographer, so finally seeing Short-eared Owls in action in a snowstorm was awesome.  At one point I had two in my binocular vision.  Some day I am sure I will see a lovely bird perched in good light, but for now this was a pretty good place holder.

Short-eared Owl

IMG_68271 for 3 isn’t bad especially when that one is an Owl lifer.  More important, though, was that I had a good day out of the house with the kids seeing a beautiful part of the state and exploring some great state parks together.  The lack of birds may have even been a good thing as it forced me to pay more attention to the kids, to photograph them.  After all, the Owls aren’t changing and will always be there.

The Great Arizona Encore: The Final Lifer Dance–Tempe Two-Step Style

This has been, by far, the most dragged-out birding series.  My apologies.  It’s time to finally put this AZ trip in the bag so we can talk about a couple recent MN adventures.  So here goes…

Since this was now my third trip to AZ as a birder and it being October, there really wasn’t a lot of new stuff left for me in central AZ.  Despite the odds, I managed to make a short list of potential lifers for the Phoenix area, Brown Pelican and Rosy-faced Lovebird.  Not only were they lifers, but they would be easy lifers.  I even crafted a tidy little plan where I would swoop them up in record time on the way from the airport to my parents’ house in Maricopa.  Getting a lifer on the board right away is like scoring the first run/goal/etc in a game–momentum is everything.  Well, as any experienced birder can tell you, there’s no such thing as a gimme, especially if an airline interferes with your game plan.

The flight was supposed to arrive around 12:30 PM.  Due to mechanical problems, our flight was delayed FIVE HOURS so they could fly an empty plane up from PHX to pick up us mopey, crabby passengers.  I did the math over and over in my head, somehow hoping against the odds that we would beat the setting sun to salvage at least the Brown Pelican at Tempe Town Lake.  A faster than expected flight offered a glimmer of hope–the sun was still above the horizon when we touched down.  Despite that, everything seemed to move in slow motion, except the sun.  We tried, though, and met up with Gordon Karre at Tempe Town Lake in the twilight.  No Pelican silhouette. Nothing. Just pain.

As you know, we went on and had great success with other AZ birds, but these two species gnawed at me because they were supposed to be easy.  So on our last day of vacation, the fam and I took a quick trip to Tempe to right a wrong. The first stop was Kiwanis Park for the Rosy-faced Lovebird.  The Lovebird is native to Africa and was/is a pet bird in the U.S.  Starting in the 1980s, people started noticing feral flocks of released birds in the Phoenix area.  Now 25 years later, they are thriving with a population of 5,000+ and are an ABA countable bird.  To help us–finally–count this bird, Gordon met up with us once again.  He got us on the birds right away.  Not only did he find us the typical specimen like the one on the left, but he also managed to find us this cool, rare blue-morph on the right.

Rosy-faced LovebirdThe Lovebirds have adapted well to the oases of the water-filled landscaping in the greater Phoenix area.  They especially like palms which have proven useful for nesting.Rosy-faced LovebirdThese birds are truly cute.  Melissa agrees.

Melissa palm tree

Rosy-faced LovebirdRosy-faced LovebirdHere’s an important public service announcement for those of you not acquainted with the Lovebird. It is safe to say that despite this being an “easy” bird, I don’t think I would have found them without Gordon’s help.  Here’s why: my sense of this bird’s scale was way off.  Since all you ever see on blogs are impressive close-ups of this crushable bird, I was looking for something that I thought was Pigeon-sized.  I guess I was wrong. Rosy-faced LovebirdRosy-faced LovebirdIt’s hard to stop taking pictures of such a cute bird, but that’s mostly because Kiwanis didn’t offer up much more than Neotropic Cormorants and Pigeons.  A pair of Gilded Flickers at our feet was a nice bonus.

Gilded FlickerWith the Lovebird lifer out of the way, we made the short trek up to Tempe Town Lake. The Brown Pelican was a bird I’d like to think I could have found on my own.  Gordon wasn’t taking any chances.  He led the way and spotted it out in marsh section of Tempe Town Lake.

Brown Pelican

Dad Mom Evan

It’s pretty cool, I think, to have nabbed this lifer in the middle of a land-locked state.  Even though this is a bird more befitting of a coastal state, a pair of them had been seen on the lake for several weeks. A much more common bird for central AZ, but still a year bird for me was the Snowy Egret.

Snowy Egret

Once everyone got good looks at the Pelican, Gordon and I headed across the McClintock Bridge to see what we could see on the big water of Tempe Town Lake.  Almost immediately we spotted Brown Pelican #2 gliding in from the west.

Brown PelicanBrown PelicanFinally the Pelican/Lovebird anxiety was no more.  After saying our goodbyes to Gordon, we had much of the day to do whatever, like check out the impressive collections of potted cacti and caged Macaws at Leaf&Feather in Maricopa.  I had no idea so many species of Macaws existed.  Might have to put Brazil on the bucket list.

MacawsWe also spent time playing in one of the most impressive rain storms I have seen, in Arizona no less.

Evan MarinMarinSome children were not as enthused about the deluge and were downright grumpy.

Burrowing OwlBurrowing OwlAnother AZ trip is on record, full of many new birds and great memories.  It’s time get back to MN though with some good winter owling.  Stick around, these posts will be coming out fast.

 

The Great Arizona Encore: The Patagonia Picnic Table Effect Reversal

It’s a busy time of year right now with all the decorating, gift-buying, and holiday food prep–it’s a good thing my wife’s got all that covered so I can finally bring you some AZ stories.  Actually, writing the annual Christmas letter is about my only task this time of year, and much to my wife’s chagrin, this remains a grossly unfinished task.  Please don’t tell my wife I’m blogging right now.

So where were we with AZ? Oh yes, our family had departed Green Valley after a two-day stay and were about to go on a loop tour around the Santa Ritas, heading down to Nogales and back up through Patagonia and Sonoita.  There were only a couple birds on the agenda for the day.  The first (and also most exciting prospect) was checking on a Barn Owl day roost–somewhere in southern Arizona. :)  For some reason, Evan has latched on to this species and was one he really wanted to see.  He’ll refer to it by its scientific name, Tyto alba, and he’s been known to play its blood-curdling scream on his iPod in our house.

Once we got to the Owl’s roost, I walked up to this tower of sorts and looked up into the rafters.  Immediately I locked eyes with my Barn Owl lifer, tucked way up in the shadows! Just as I started to point it out to Evan and my dad, the Barn Owl flushed out of the opening right toward us! Of course I wasn’t ready with the camera, but our looks at this Owl were hard to beat.  Evan, bug-eyed, said in an astonished voice, “Whoa, Tyto alba just flew right by me!”

With no photo, the sighting was bittersweet for me.  But a Barn Owl seen is way better than no Barn Owl, so off to Patagonia we went.  In this city (and southern AZ in general), birders are the norm and not the nerd-freaks that people think of us in other places:

Patagonia binoculars

Patagonia is hallowed birding ground where all kinds of birding myths and legends originate.  In fact, a famous birding phenomenon known as the Patagonia Picnic Table Effect was coined from something remarkable that happened here that has also played out numerous times in many other locations.  Here’s the PPTE in a nutshell: some birders in the 1970s stopping for lunch in Patagonia discovered a rare bird which brought in more birders who discovered more rare birds in that location.  Whenever I find a rarity, I always hope it’s the beginning of the Patagonia Picnic Table Effect.  Needless to say, Patagonia is a place I have longed to visit after reading about it in books.

Despite the fact that the PPTE is based on multiple rarities and despite the fact that we were actually in Patagonia, I was after one bird at one very famous location:

Paton Center for HummingbirdsThe famous Paton House–hard to believe I was actually here.

Paton'sNo, we didn’t come for the common White-winged Doves, though they were dapper and only the second time we’d seen one.

White-winged DoveNor did we come for the WWDO’s cousin, the much less abiding Inca Dove.

Inca DoveIt was nice to see a Black-headed Grosbeak even if it was a bit scruffy looking, but that’s still not why we came.

Black-headed Grosbeak

I very much enjoyed up-close looks at my first MALE Gila Woodpecker–still not why we came though.

Gila WoodpeckerWe came for the Hummingbirds.  But not for the Broad-billed.

Broad-billed Hummingbird

Sorry, this teasing is annoying, especially since you knew from the first photo that the main attraction is the Violet-crowned Hummingbird.  Like so many birders before us, we made our pilgrimage to Patons’ just to add this key lifer.  Good thing we saw one.

Violet-crowned HummingbirdAin’t it a beaut?Violet-crowned HummingbirdIt knows it too. Like Orcas or Dolphins, it pandered to its gawking audience.

Violet-crowned HummingbirdSo that was that.  Tommy DeBardeleben and Gordon Karre had told me about a much rarer Hummer, the Plain-capped Starthroat, that had been seen regularly somewhere in Patagonia.  Not knowing exactly where to go for it and not feeling I could make yet another birding stop with the non-birding family, I didn’t even bother to check into it.

Instead, my family and I ate lunch at a park in Patagonia after a successful trip to Patons’.  It wasn’t until we were somewhere past Sonoita that it dawned on me–we ate lunch at a real life Patagonia picnic table.  And ironically, I don’t recall seeing/hearing a single bird in that park while we ate.  Back to that Plain-capped Starthroat, I also didn’t realize until we got home that we had driven within a block of that ultra-rare Mexican bird. I probably could have stopped to watch a feeder for a bit and not wrecked the family’s travel schedule. I am sure this will haunt me for years, possibly decades.

Moving on, we finally made it back to Maricopa. Before we got to my parents’ house, though, we had to check up on a couple of old friends in my parents’ neighborhood.  Love this guy (or gal–there’s one of each).

Burrowing OwlScanning a residential pond in the low light of the evening, I was excited to see the brilliant pop of color of the male Vermilion Flycatcher in my binoculars.  They never get old.

Vermilion FlycatcherWe also saw a Jackrabbit of some sort which was a cool experience.

JackrabbitThe Arizona fun isn’t over.  Next up is the final post and arguably the ugliest and cutest birds you will see.

Northern Gulls Gone Wild

I have a confession: I used to really hate Gulls.  Even in my early years of birding, I saw them as trash compactors and poop factories.  They’re everywhere, especially in nasty places like landfills, dumpsters, Wal-Mart parking lots…  To think of them as birds seemed degrading to the likes of Warblers and Owls. Then once I got to a point in birding where I was willing to accept them as birds, I was faced with the ID headaches of doppelganger species, multiple molt cycles, and hybrids, so I dealt with that like any normal person facing a difficult task–avoidance.  From reading around the bird blogosphere, I’ve come to learn that this reluctance to get into Gulling is normal.  Something happens to us all, though.  It’s inevitable.  Something finally gives.  For some, the turning point may come with seeing a really cool Gull like an adult Sabine’s.  For others, it could come when one has gained more confidence in identification.  For me, it was the fact that I had ignored a large pocket of untapped life Gulls in my own state.  It turns out that Minnesota gets a phenomenal collection of winter Gulls on Lake Superior in the Duluth area.  By putting this off for so long all the while going deeper down the rabbit-hole of birding, I had reached a point where I wasn’t reluctant any longer.  In fact, I was stoked to go after those Gulls from northern Canada. Minnesota birding phenom, John Richardson, fanned those flames by finding species after species of these rarer northern Gulls and posting jaw-dropping photos on FB.

So on our way north for Thanksgiving, the fam and I stopped by Canal Park to meet up with John and hopefully some of the cool Gulls.  I was on a bit of a bad-luck streak, though, after freshly missing the Kiskadee–so there were no Iceland, Glaucous, or Great Black-backed Gulls for me on this day.  I did finally get to see some adult Thayer’s Gulls, a bird that was previously just technically only on my life list because of a long-distance sighting of a juvenile.  This was better. Much, much better.

Thayer's Gull

There were also Herring Gulls.  There are always Herring Gulls.

Herring Gull

With the dark eye and hood, the Thayer’s really do stand out from the ubiquitous Herring and Ring-billed Gulls.

Thayer's Gull

For the non-birder and the emerging Guller, here you can see a contrast between the Thayer’s on the left and the Herring on the right.  Note the difference in size, shape, and eye color (dark iris for the THGU, yellow for the HEGU).

Thayer's Gull Herring Gull Gull identification is hard, especially if one is only looking at pictures or studying field guides.  Learning them from books is even kind of boring which I proved by falling asleep one night studying Gulls in Sibley.  To study Gulls and get to know them, one must learn Gulls through immersion–get yourself up close and in person among the Gulls and go with someone who knows more about the Gulls than you do.  Though I didn’t add any lifers on this try, my confidence and excitement for Gulling increased under the tutelage of John.

After this brief visit to Canal Park, we went further north to enjoy the holiday with family.  I desperately wanted to sneak back down to Duluth during our visit home to make another go of it.  Melissa suggested instead that we just stop there again on our way back south.  Good deal, wouldn’t you say?

In a form of birding symbolism, the sun was now shining brightly on our second try.  Little did I know just how bright things would get.  I did notice a lot more Gulls right away, though.

Canal Park

Duluth Shipping Canal

As I scanned the Gulls lining the pier on the right from the pier on the left, I immediately spotted the gorgeous adult Great Black-backed Gull John had found earlier that week!  Lifer! I could not wait to get across the lift bridge and over to the other side to check it out. Once over there, Evan and I were joined again by John Richardson and Tony Lau as well as the #1 eBirder in the state, Peder Svingen.  With about 600 Gulls to look through with some of the best in the business, this was going to be awesome.

As the four of us slowly made our way down the pier, John quickly picked out the 2nd-cycle Iceland Gull he’d found earlier! Lifer #2!

Iceland GullIceland GullThe Iceland was cool, but I was really itching to make my way to that Great Black-backed for some photos.  But, you don’t rush down the pier and get out in front of a birding Jedi like Peder Svingen. Patience, young Skywalker. Many Gulls to go through have you.

Canal ParkWhile I waited, a Thayer’s was begging to be crushed.

Thayer's Gull

Another exciting find was when John spotted a 1st-cycle Great Black-backed Gull–two Great Black-backeds!

Great Black-backed GullI love how this HEGU is checking him out.

Great Black-backed Gull

Seriously, though, look at this bruiser.

Great Black-backed GullThe Great Black-backed Gull is the largest of the Gulls; it dwarfs the Herring Gulls.

Great Black-backed Gull

As we were getting within photographing distance of the adult Great Black-backed Gull, magic happened.  The other guys spotted our third lifer of the hour, the stunning and large Glaucous Gull!

Glacous Gull

Glacous GullWith the Glacous, I now had all three hoped-for lifers and got all my northern Gulls in one tidy outing.  The only thing left to do was to photograph my favorite of the three lifers, the adult Great Black-backed Gull, a stand-out bird.

Great Black-backed Gull

Great Black-backed GullGreat Black-backed GullGreat Black-backed Gull

The icing on the cake was that all this Gullifering took place in under an hour, and Evan and I got back to the car where the girls were patiently waiting for us.  It was a dream outing.  I’m glad I’d saved these Gulls for this late in my birding.  The timing was perfect because I thoroughly enjoyed this experience and couldn’t have had it any better.  Sorting through the hoards of Gulls for the hidden treasures with some talented birders made it all the more fun.

A huge thanks goes out to John Richardson for his daily patrols of Lake Superior, his great Facebook reports, and for his help in pointing out a couple of these lifers.  Call me Gull-able, but I now think these birds are pretty cool.

Great Faces, Great Chases–South Dakota

October 2004.  Some of you will remember that this was when the Red Sox swept the Cardinals and finally ended their long World Series drought.  I remember watching some of those exciting games on a crappy hotel TV in South Dakota when I dragged my wife of just a year-and-a-half along on a pheasant hunt.  “It’ll be fun!” I said.  Boy, was I green.  Long story short, I am still married and I made South Dakota history by being the only hunter ever to get skunked in the land where the state bird outnumbers the people by 100:1.  It’s true; somewhere near the Corn Palace in Mitchell there is a plaque displaying this bit of trivia.

Fast forward to 2015, and the pull to go back to South Dakota was once again strong.  Only this time the bird was not the Ring-necked Pheasant, and was instead the Lower Rio Grande Valley native, Great Kiskadee.  From deep south Texas, a Kiskadee made history in the five-state area (MN,WI,ND,SD,IA) by making an appearance at a rural residence in the Brookings area.  Apparently the bird, which shares time between two neighboring residences, showed up SEVERAL months ago and was only recently brought to the public’s attention when one of the homeowners eBirded it two weekends ago.  Interestingly, this report came out DURING the annual South Dakota Ornithologists’ Union’s annual meeting in Brookings just 20 minutes away.  Needless to say, the meeting immediately adjourned for a quick field trip to verify the bird’s identification.  The conclusion was that yes, this was for real.  Since then, droves have been making their way to see the Great South Dakota Kiskadee.

I was one of those itching to cross the border.  I made plans to go on Saturday, November 21st.  Melissa was gone to a conference so the kids would be accompanying me.  Since I had been talking it up all week before we left, the kids were actually really excited about going on this bird chase.  I don’t know if it was the prospect of going to another state or that they’d be able to watch Star Wars movies (a recent indoctrination at our house) or if they wanted to actually see this cool bird, but they were making their own preparations for the 3-hour one-way trip, getting most everything packed and ready themselves.  I wish I wouldn’t have been so engrossed in trying to track down the latest sighting information so that I could have paid more attention to their conversations as they gathered belongings, packed bags, and readied the snacks.

checklist

Evan was with me on the partially-botched Vermilion Flycatcher chase, so he added an extra checklist item just for my benefit.

When the day came, the kids and I made the long trip to SD.  Seeing that the temperature was only 18º, I was nervous that the tropical bird would have wised up and got out of town.  Once we got there, I was amazed that we were the only birders.  Even more amazing was that despite a two-hour effort, we got skunked.  History had repeated its ugly self.  Two birders showed up just as we left, so I gave them my phone number in case the Kiskadee showed up just after we got down the road.  No phone call.  In fact, those birders put in two hours and came up empty too. Imagine the great frustration, then, when later that evening the homeowner reported that the Kiskadee showed up just after we all had given up!  Yoda could feel my great pain.

I agonized over going back the next day.  I decided not to, figuring some day I’d bird in the Lower Rio Grande Valley and get this bird easily.  So Thanksgiving week happened along with all kinds of birding excitement of its own–stay tuned, and that Kiskadee kept up his daily appearances.  Stupid Facebook.  Videos and pictures and reports of that bird kept taunting me.  So this weekend, Evan and I went back.

We didn’t even get out of the home county before things started to look different.   Getting a FOY Merlin, a female Richardson’s “prairie” subspecies to be exact, at the very end of November got the birding juices pumping early.

Merlin

Then, just outside of Brookings, a rooster pheasant alongside the road was another good sign.  We did not even see a single pheasant on the last SD run.  Telling.  The good vibes were quickly iced, however, once we got on site and were off to an eerily-familiar start with at least a half hour of not seeing the Kiskadee.  Hopes were lifted when I visited with the homeowner at the north residence who told me he saw it that morning.  He asked for my number and said he’d keep watch at his place if I wanted to go wait at the south residence. As you can see, I got that phone call and redeemed my fruitless trips to South Dakota.

Great KiskadeeGreat KiskadeeIt turns out that Great Kiskadees are quite crushable, especially when they are chilly and don’t move for over 20 minutes.  Either that or the diet of heavy suet and cat food has made this individual lethargic.

Great KiskadeeGreat KiskadeeWhat a month it’s been with Arizona birds and Texas birds popping up in the north.  I know I owe you some more AZ coverage in the next post, but first we’re going to have to take a look at my last ever triple lifer day in Minnesota.  Buckle up, Larus fans.

No More Singing the Blues

I know, I know, I’m really kicking the AZ posts further down the road.  Today is no exception.  The fact is that this November has been the best Vagrant Month I’ve ever seen.  The angst of wanting to take 2-3 hour car trips in every cardinal direction at the same time is a nightmare and a blessing.  ‘How can I grab it all?’ is the question on which my mind has perseverated during these times that try birders’ souls.

With Surf Scoter, Vermilion Flycatcher(!), and Long-tailed Duck locked down and with an accompanying proportional decrease in birder stress, there were just two other birds I wanted bad–a surprisingly reliable White-eyed Vireo just south of Minneapolis and a shockingly late, lingering Black-throated Blue Warbler in St. Cloud.  My schedule in recent weeks didn’t allow for both.  The Warbler won because it was my favorite Warbler and it was close.  Yeah I saw one earlier in the year, and yeah I got a good picture, and yeah I already had it on my state list.  So what gives? It’s a BLACK-THROATED BLUE WARBLER, that’s what.  That’s just plain fun no matter who you are. So, on Monday, November 9th, a.k.a. conference day at school, I carpe diemed by squeezing in a fast morning trip to St. Cloud before I had to report to work at 11. It didn’t take but a couple minutes to locate Tabassam Shah’s incredible find in Talahi Woods at Riverside Park. Who has ever heard of the same migrant Warbler being found and refound for weeks without a territorial song to guide birders to its presence?  What a gift to all of us birders in central MN!

Black-throated Blue Warbler

Black-throated Blue Warbler

Getting some birding in on a beautiful 50-degree day in November on conference day–rejuvenating.  Getting a Black-throated Blue Warbler on such a day–exhilarating.

The rest of this post is more or less some good junk drawer items that just didn’t have a home, like this window-strike American Woodcock I found in downtown Minneapolis while attending the National Council for Teachers of Mathematics conference last week. It’s my first photo of this species, so you better believe it’s going on my photographic life list on this blog.

American Woodcock

Finally, my quest to find sea ducks in the home county continues after having some success last year around this time.  So far, nothing of the sort has turned up.  I did, however, finally get a county Red-necked Grebe on one such outing.  I spent many hours last summer looking for one of these, and here I get one when I wasn’t even trying.  I guess that’s birding for you.

Red-necked GrebeWe shall see if AZ makes the next post, but it’s looking doubtful as the vagrant party just won’t stop. ABWCH will hopefully have a tidy little write-up from South Dakota after the weekend.  Keep your fingers crossed everybody.