Minnesota’s Not-So Common Eiders and some Big Bonus Birds

1966.  That was the last time a Common Eider had been reported in Minnesota.  Now two juveniles show up on Lake Superior in Duluth, and a third one shows up an hour up the shore at Silver Bay.  Birders of all stripes were flocking up north and churning out continual updates on the ducks.  Yet all week neither Steve nor I hadn’t even brought up the idea of a chase.  The White-winged Scoter on Green Lake changed that.  Now face-to-face and excitedly bantering about sea-ducks, we decided that we, too, would make a fast trip to Duluth – going up and coming back on the same day.  It is a life list after all and neither Steve nor I had another 50 years to wait for another return of the Common Eider. So a week ago last Sunday Steve picked me up from church and we made the 3.5 hour haul up north.  A week before this I was returning from Duluth.  Crazy.

There was an eerie lack of reports on the Eiders this Sunday, either positive or negative. We brushed it off, but when we got to Duluth and reached the 21st Ave exit, we were nervous that this would be a bust.  Steve nervously tapped the steering wheel as he looked for a place to park.  In a matter of minutes we parked, piled on the cold-weather gear and optics, and walked to the shore.  The icy, gusting wind was coming straight off the lake and biting any exposed skin and drilling the cold into our bones.  What was stinging worse, though, was that we were not seeing the Eiders.  Now what? With no throngs of birders looking today, do we keep searching the vast shoreline in Duluth alone or do we go another hour further north to hopefully see the Silver Bay Eider?  It was a horrible dilemma and a decision had to be made fast.  Finally Steve and I settled on walking the lake walk.   With the wind coming in as strong as it was, we were looking for a cove or anything that would provide a calm area for a duck to be.   The wind was blowing into our faces the whole time and body parts were going numb.  Then, it was like somebody hit a defrost button when Steve said, “Hey, what’s that?”  There on the water was a duck bobbing up and down in the surf that crashed against the ice-covered rocks.  Too small for an Eider, but the perfect size and coloration of a juvenile Harlequin Duck!  Wow, neither of us expected this lifer on this trip.

Harlequin Duck

Harlequin Duck

It wasn’t the mature Harlequin drake I hope to see someday on the North Shore, but this was a tough-to-get addition for the life list.  The Harlequin was hanging out almost right next to the ice-covered rock on the point below.

Steve Lake Superior

Satisfied with one heck of a consolation prize – if it came to that – we continued walking down the lake walk.  As we got to a larger cove across from the Essentia Health building, I spotted the biggest duck I’ve ever seen in my life.  I didn’t even need binoculars to know that we had found what we came for – the Common Eider.  I looked for the second Eider that had been accompanying this one, but all I could see was this loner.  It was absolutely huge.  According to Sibley, it is the largest duck in North America

Common EiderAgain, not a mature drake, but when a duck waits nearly 50 years to make an appearance, you try not to complain.  And actually, it is so intriguing that some fools risk hypothermia and broken bones trying to get better looks.

Josh

It was worth it.

Common Eider

Common Eider

Common Eider

We were ecstatic – we got what we came for and had seen our third sea duck in two days. Literally and figuratively, the wind and sun were now at our backs as we walked back to the car.  We again got to enjoy the Harlequin as it motored with the waves further up shore.  Can you find it?

Lake SuperiorHarlequin Duck

Harlequin Duck

As if we hadn’t had enough excitement for the day, we got to the car and read an email from the listserv that a flock of Bohemian Waxwings had just been found in Floodwood, which was a half-hour away.  Steve had an interest in looking for Bohemians up in Beaver Bay, but we decided that was too far up shore.  Floodwood, though, was not too far out of the way on our way home.  So we went to Floodwood, and we found the Bohemian flock. Steve got his third lifer of the day, and I finally got to get more than just a fly-by look at this bird.  It would have been nice if they came closer to the ground for some better photos, but these will have to do for now.

Bohemian Waxwing

Bohemian Waxwing

Bohemian Waxwing

It was finally time to head home.  We had a couple other nice northern Minnesota bird sightings including Common Raven and Ruffed Grouse.  We were hopeful that we would bump into an owl or two as we cruised south through the boglands along Highway 73 just before dark. We never did see an owl, but it didn’t matter because we were on our way home from a monumental day of birding.

A Scoter Kind of Day

All of last week I had been reading reports of a stunning find for Minnesota – three Common Eiders had shown up on Lake Superior, the first time since 1966. So last Friday night when Melissa came home from chaperoning a dance I told her I was thinking about getting up in a few hours to head back to Duluth after going there just a week ago.  I agreed with her response that I was crazy.  So I dashed my Eider dreams and settled for a Snowy Owl search, a more local, reasonable way to get in a good birding fix on a Saturday morning.

So it was an owling I went on this snowy morning.  I was finding fun birds like my first-of-fall flock of 100+ Lapland Longspurs and Snow Buntings, a group of 8 Wild Turkeys (all jakes and toms), and over a dozen of these guys which I haven’t been seeing much of all year.

Ring-necked Pheasant

I wasn’t seeing what I was seeking.  It was disappointing because I thought my chances were good.  As my Snowy Owl route eventually brought me closer to Spicer, I thought about heading into Willmar to try for some better Varied Thrush photos or even to check up on a older report of a Northern Mockingbird in town.  However, as I drove around the very large Green Lake, I noticed that it hadn’t iced over yet unlike the smaller lakes and ponds.  Gears shifted completely – suddenly I had the urge to look for Scoters.

I stopped at the public beach at Spicer and walked up to the calm water.  There was some debris in the water right by shore that I hadn’t looked at twice.  That is, until that debris started moving.  I was startled to see this family of Trumpeter Swans.  Not an Eider, not a Snowy Owl, but still another fun bird to add to the morning’s outing.

Trumpeter Swan

As neat as swans are, I didn’t come here to see them.  So I scanned the lake to the east past Zorbaz Restaurant where I saw a large group of waterfowl at a distance.  The naked eye showed that most were Canada Geese.  The zoom on my camera revealed a couple of ducks I would have liked a better look at, but I just couldn’t make any IDs.  Then an interesting bird right near the pylons at Zorbaz caught my eye.  It dove and then wouldn’t come up.  I was hoping it was a Scoter. After a long wait I never did see it resurface.  Finally, I gave up and went to the public boat landing to check out the lake from there.  That unknown bird was bugging me, so I decided to go back to see it.

Well, I saw it and was greatly disappointed.  Pied-billed Grebe.  It doesn’t get more boring than that.  I took one last scan to that group of geese and waterfowl to the east.  What’s this trucking my way through the blustering snow?  I see a very dark duck, low to the water, with a wide bill.  It’s V-shaped wake was getting bigger as the duck was cruising toward me.  Could it be? It turned its head revealing two big white spots on its head.  Holy smokes, it is! A White-winged Scoter!!

White-winged ScoterEvan and I just got this lifer exactly one week earlier on Lake Superior where it is not a rare duck.  Here, though, in the middle of the state, this was a spectacular find.  There previously had only been three instances of this bird in Kandiyohi County.  And the cooperative duck just kept coming my way!

White-winged Scoter

White-winged Scoter

I immediately called Steve, who was just hanging out at home.  He scrambled to get to Spicer. I kept an eye on the duck until he and his son, Riley, got there.

Steve

Steve and I were elated – a Varied Thrush and a White-winged Scoter in the county in the same week.  It was a dream.  What was I looking for again? Snowy-something-or-others?

Amazingly this White-winged Scoter has hung on and is still present at the writing of this post.  Many county-listers came out to see the duck after my posting to the listserv.  More importantly, though, several birders finally added this duck to their life lists.  Helping others get a lifer like this is one of the things I enjoy most about a good find.

I have been out to Green Lake several times since my initial discovery.  Only one of those times, though, was to check on this duck.  No, there was another big draw that kept bringing me back – more on that later.  Anyhow, each time I’m at the beach in Spicer, I see my duck and can’t help but take a photo or two or five. Some days were cold and windy.

White-winged Scoter

White-winged Scoter

Other days were colder and placid.  Much of Green Lake was covered in ice in these next shots, and I suspect that the open water and the Scoter will be gone in the next day or two.

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White-winged Scoter

White-winged Scoter

Even though I’ve had more than my share of good finds, this is one of my all-time favorite discoveries.  The rarity of it, the fact that I set out to find a Scoter and succeeded, and that so many people got to enjoy it makes this a very memorable find. And it came in a crazy week of birding.  Indeed, there was another rare bird that kept drawing me back here.  But even beyond that, Steve and I managed to add TWO more sea duck lifers after we saw this Scoter!  More on all that later.

November Birds

Last Monday’s blizzard didn’t get its fill of bullying as it stayed on into Tuesday.  School was canceled for the second day in a row.  While kids rejoice with such news, we adults face the reality of the miserable work of digging out from the storm.  One upside is that a blizzard brings on a frenzy of birding activity in the yard.  Natural food sources get covered up, and many birds head to the easy pickings of a feeder.  The activity was so hot that all of us found ourselves looking out the window at one point or another to see the feathered fray outside.  Here are the highlights:

A FOF (first-of-fall) American Tree Sparrow showed up.  It is such a good-looking sparrow and a great bird to have in the yard.

American Tree Sparrow

Blue Jays continued to delight even if they were having bad hair days.

Blue Jay

Previously a shy bird for the October Birds post, the Hairy Woodpecker decided to show up along with a couple others! We had a record-high count of three in the yard.

Hairy Woodpecker

This next bird has long been a family favorite, and on this day our normal pair of Eurasian Collared-Doves doubled!  It was another record-high count for the yard.  ECDOs are quite uncommon and seldom seen in most of Minnesota, so we are quite fortunate to have them in our yard.

Eurasian Collared-Dove

This next bird isn’t exactly a highlight nor very rare, but it is rare to see a European Starling in the yard. Normally I don’t photograph this bird, but it showed up during the photo shoot, so what the heck.  And actually, it’s kind of cool-looking.

European Starling

Another bird that missed last month’s photo shoot and that never gets old to see is the Northern Cardinal.

Northern Cardinal

The male, though, was just not very photogenic, always sitting in seed trash or posing with food in its beak.  Typically overshadowed by her mate, the female stole the show on this day proudly displaying her beauty with subtle hints of red.

Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal

Northern CardinalClearly this female has had enough of being sidelined by photographers and male Cardinals alike.

Northern Cardinal

What could be better than a pair of Northern Cardinals in the yard? How about TWO pair! This was another record high-count brought on by the storm.  Woohoo!

Northern Cardinal

The males did NOT share feeder space.Northern Cardinal

Not pictured in any of my posts are the hordes of House Sparrows that we feed.  I would guess over 50.  I actually don’t mind them because I consider them bait for something bigger, better.  I was in my bedroom folding laundry and not paying attention to the incessant noise of all the sparrows and other birds at the feeders when I heard a huge WOOOOSH as all these birds flushed simultaneously and a loud, collective “CHEEP!” which I’m pretty sure is bird-speak for “Oh S#$%!” I knew a predator had finally come in to nab a meal.  I raced to the window, thinking I’d see my Northern Shrike return.  To my amazement, a huge raptor swooped in and landed in front of our living room window.  It was a Cooper’s Hawk! I hollered for Evan to come see it, but he was in the basement and didn’t hear me.  I got out to the living room and saw this guy perched just 6 feet from the window.

Coopers Hawk

I left this next photo uncropped so you could see just how close it was – you can see the soffit of my house in the upper right of the photo.

Coopers Hawk

This was a cool sighting.  Too bad it didn’t grab a sparrow or two before it tried to fly into my living room and then leave.

Another highlight bird that showed up a week after this stormy day was a Fox Sparrow who was very late but still very much the life of the yard party.

Fox Sparrow

Storms are fun if you’re a birder.  It turns out that the day that brought us the Varied Thrush also delivered a duck gift to Minnesota on Lake Superior.  This news would start a week-long internal storm of sorts for this birder.

Varied Thrush Redux and a Turkey Remix

Since the Varied Thrush has been continuing for a week now in the same backyard where it first showed up, I wanted to try for some better photos than my blizzard, Bigfoot-style shots.  So Evan and I stopped by the house today before I had to drop him off for school. We were not disappointed and did not have to wait long to see the Varied Thrush.  Evan got a lifer. I got the best shots I could get before we had to hustle off to school.

Varied Thrush

Varied Thrush

Varied Thrush

Now you’d think this would be the bird Evan was most excited about today.  Well, you’d be wrong.  Evan had a project for school that was due today – he had to decorate a cut-out turkey with the stipulation that no crayons, colored pencils, or markers could be used. Things could be glued, taped, or adhered in any way possible. We were wondering how to solve this dilemma when I had a burst of inspiration. Ever the opportunist, I pulled out the turkey tail I had in the freezer from a turkey I shot a couple years ago that had been driving my wife crazy as she would rummage in the freezer for this or that.  In a single shot, I made both my wife and son happy.  Melissa and Evan have likely created what will be the envy of the entire 2nd grade class.

Evan

 

The Varied Rushes and Thrushes of Birding

It felt pretty good to find that Snowy Owl before the landscape turned completely white and making search efforts all the more difficult.  It did NOT feel good to arrive home and immediately work on frantic, last-minute winter preparations in the the dark by raking the yard one last time and cleaning out the garage so we could park the vehicles. Snow was coming.  Lots of snow.

Sure enough, when we woke up the next morning, we were in the middle of a nasty winter storm that was living up to all the hype.  As expected, school was called off for Evan. I was staring out the window and contemplating the work of snow removal when I got a stunning text from Steve: “Varied Thrush in Willmar!”

Holy smokes!  Steve and I had been talking about how this was one of our winter chase birds and now here it shows up right in town!  I didn’t even think about the horrible road conditions and reduced visibility.  I just hopped in the SUV and went to town.  Evan was too content to stay at home in his PJs than to join me.

Before I had even gone a mile I was thinking what a fool I was.  I could hardly see 50 feet, and there were large drifts covering the road.  Still, I bounced along and strained to see ahead.  I was determined to see a Varied Thrush, a winter vagrant from the likes of Washington and Oregon that can show up in basically any yard in the rest of the country during the winter.  A Varied Thrush!

Apparently the bird landed in the yard of the Halbritters who just happen to be birders themselves.  Such a smart bird to go where it knew it would be appreciated and get the accolades it deserved!  Steve and I waited inside the Halbritters’ house hoping for a glimpse.  Each minute that passed made me more nervous about the trip home.  I needed to get back on the road as the storm was still intensifying.  After about 15 minutes I decided I would drive around the block to look in the area, and then I would call it quits.  I told Steve this would guarantee the bird would appear.  I hadn’t even made it all the way around the block when Steve called to say it showed up.  It took me seconds to rejoin him and get my Varied Thrush lifer.

Varied ThrushBlizzards make for bad photos, but they more than make up for it with good birds!

Varied Thrush

November birding has been HOT, and there are several more blog posts to come.  Hang on for more good birding!

Let it SNOW!

Snowy Owl10 and 2.  Eyes straight. I couldn’t be distracted by birds and such on the drive; my focus was on the road and those who patrol it as we hurtled down the highway.  With a slightly elevated heart rate for over three hours, I was racing to get home from Duluth and the North Shore to get on the scene of a great bird before sundown. The bird that had been upgraded to the top of the priority list that we were now straining to reach was none other than the Snowy Owl. And with a blizzard that was forecast to dump a lot of snow on us late that night, this was the last easy day to find a white bird.

The day before our sea duck trip a strange set of circumstances occurred.  The lesser was that I forgot my phone at home all day.  The greater was that my colleague, Mike, nearly sliced his finger off while cutting a squash before baking it.  Getting home that night I finally reconnected with my phone and saw a stunning text from Mike: “Snowy Owl just north of my place – 9:30″  I couldn’t believe it.  The next day I caught up with Mike and asked him about it.  He told me that he was driving himself to the doctor after the aforementioned accident when he saw an all-white Snowy Owl 10 yards from the road sitting in a plowed field.  I was floored.  This is early for Snowies, and this was only the second sighting in the state.  Something similar happened last year when Mike found me my lifer.  That was late November and the 5th one in the state.  Then our region (Kandiyohi and Meeker Counties) became one of the hottest hot beds for Snowy Owl activity in an historic irruption of SNOW.  (Check it out on eBird or look in my “Owls” category). Word quickly spread throughout our school, and I was fielding reports from all kinds of staff and students on new sightings of Snowy Owls.  It was a fun season to watch so many people, birders and non-birders, get excited about seeing their first Snowy Owl.

So I was slightly disappointed to not be able to investigate Mike’s sighting as I was going on the sea duck trip.  Regardless, I put the word out to other birders on the listserv.  Jeff Grotte answered the call and came owl hunting.  Amazingly he turned one up 5 miles from Mike’s.  Surely it was the same bird.

As I drove, I put in a call to birding coworker, Bonnie, who lives just a few miles from this owl.  Bonnie went out and got eyes on it.  It was perched nicely for her on a telephone pole. I was still two hours out. Meanwhile, other birding coworkers, Brad and Theresa, went to have a look.  No owl.  Brad would call me when they found it.  One hour out.

I arrived at the scene with no positive updates from Brad or Bonnie.  But finally getting here I was now calm and confident.  There was no snow.  A Snowy Owl would stick out anywhere and likely wouldn’t have traveled far.  I started from ground-zero and surveyed the landscape.

Evan

I’ve had the good fortune of getting a lot of practice looking for these things.  Eyes started scanning every pole top, every rooftop, basically any low perch out in the open.  I’ve learned to look for slight anomalies on distant irrigators, fences, or transmission line support structures. Go back and look at the first photo – did you see the slight bump on the upper right of the tower?  It was even more imperceptible from where I saw it and took the picture of Evan above, but that bump was not replicated on any of the other towers. Thankfully the zoom on the camera could confirm my suspicion.

Snowy Owl

The Snowy Owl! It never gets old to see SNOW.  I was shocked to see how HIGH this bird was perched.  I estimate this tower to be 60-70 feet high.  Normally Snowy Owls perch very low off the ground or even on the ground itself if they can find a suitable knob of land that sticks up.

Snowy OwlJust as shocking as the owl’s height was its coloration.  Mike saw an all-white Snowy at 10 yards just 5 miles away a few days ago.  This was definitely a second Snowy Owl.  Are we in for an echo year of another big irruption? As of this writing, according to the sources Jeff Grotte has pulled together, there have now been 10 Snowies in Minnesota already!  Jeff has put together a great Facebook group called “Owl About Minnesota” with lots of great photos and intel.

I would have to be satisfied with my distant looks and add more distant, grainy pics to my Snowy Owl photo collection.  Maybe soon I’ll be able to get some phenomenal photo crushes like Jeff did in the coming days.  Meanwhile, check out those heavy clouds on the horizon in the photo below. They were carrying a raging snowstorm and one lost, little bird from the Pacific Northwest. Check out the stunning vagrant in the next post.

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Every Bird Trip Ending is a New Bird Trip Beginning

At the end of our long day of North Shore birding, Evan and I opted to stay in Grand Marais at my brother’s vacation house instead of retiring with the rest of our group back to Duluth. Besides making for a more relaxed travel schedule, this extra night also guaranteed another crack at those ocean-going birds as well as all the oddball birds that can mysteriously show up in Grand Marais in the fall (Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Townsend’s Solitaire, etc).  Grand Marais is great town even if you’re not a birder.  With the vibe of a seaside village it attracts artists and nature lovers alike.  In addition to the birds, eating at the world’s only Sven & Ole’s Pizza was a must, and according to Evan, so was a Tom and Jerry marathon back at the house.  To each his own.

After plenty of pizza, cat&mouse antics, and sleep, it was time to get going with the new day.  We had birds to find and a state to cross.  While I was hauling our things out to the car in the pre-dawn darkness, I heard those shooting lasers that Clinton talked about – flight calls of Common Redpolls.  The rising sun revealed a whole cluster of them feeding at the tops of the birch trees in the front yard.  They were close and in the sun, so I decided I should get a proper photo of one.  I pulled up the camera on one and realized it was pretty frosty in appearance, and the bill was so small and conical.  Right away I was thinking it was a Hoary Redpoll.

Hoary Redpoll

Many Redpolls cannot be cleanly deciphered as Hoary or Common.  There is a lot of overlap, and it is all very confusing and frustrating.  People generally only claim Hoary on the most perfect specimens that exhibit all the undeniable traits of a classic Hoary.  Hoaries are rare as there may be one bird in every flock of 150-200 Common Redpolls. I’ve stared at many, many suspicious birds in my own yard trying to make the call on Hoary or not Hoary.  The general discussion on Facebook of the bird above leans toward the Hoary side.

At any rate, we were not in Grand Marais to debate Redpoll statuses.  We had birds to find. The plan was to hit up the municipal campground to look for flocks of Bohemian Waxwings and a couple of Black-backed Woodpeckers.  Up to 75 Bohemians had been seen in town a few days prior.  Since I needed to charge my camera battery that morning, we went camera-less.  The campground held some interesting birds – four Snow Buntings and two very frigid, out-of-place Meadowlark species.  However, there was nothing we were after.

We then retrieved the camera battery and drove the streets of town looking for fruit-bearing trees for Bohemians and donut-bearing gas stations for us.  We were successful on the latter.  The gypsy-like birds are completely unreliable and never did show up for us. We made one more pass through the storied campground and could only muster up a few Rusty Blackbirds.

Rusty Blackbird

After an hour of searching for the Waxwings, we gave up and headed southwest down Highway 61.  I spied an interesting-looking raptor flying the same direction as us, but I didn’t stop because the focus was back on ducks.  Either this bird passed us or there was another one just like it because Evan was exclaiming he just saw a black raptor with a white tail sitting on the power line.  I asked him if he thought we should turn around to look.  He wanted to, so we did.  The bird was a gorgeous dark-morph Rough-legged Hawk that was now on the move again back to the southwest.  So we raced ahead of it and stopped at the same overlook where we got our White-winged Scoters.  The views were spectacular.

Rough-legged Hawk

After enjoying this new, rarer flavor of RLHA, we noticed the three White-winged Scoters were continuing from the day before.  Then it was time to pop in our book-on-tape and hit the road hard, only stopping briefly at the lookouts from our trip yesterday to scan for ducks.  The story was much the same – no sea ducks.  Interestingly the day after this trip, a couple of juvenile Common Eiders were found at one of these locations – the first time since 1966.  And we missed it by a day.

Anyhow, Duluth still held something very promising for us.  It turns out that American Black Ducks are a relatively easy find along Park Point.  We needed that bird.  We can get it at home in spring and fall migration, but it’s not an easy one.  Clinton, our guide from the sea duck trip, gave us a reliable location to try for this semi-nemesis.  He said to look bayside at 38th street.  As I drove down Park Point and could see Lake Superior to my left and the bay to my right, I was not seeing ducks anywhere, not even Mallards.  This was a bad sign.  Even at 38th where the water nearly laps onto the road, there was nothing.  I checked lakeside even though Clinton said the ducks are always bayside.  Nothing.  I couldn’t believe it.  Leave it to me to screw up a sure bet.  I was settling in for defeat and driving back toward Canal Park when I caught sight of a couple of Mallards on the grass on the bayside of the road right near 38th.  I stopped and looked.  This caused these Mallards and several others who were tucked up on shore in the cove-like corner under some brush.  As they swam out into the bay, I saw that five of them were Black Ducks! This was a very satisfying lifer, perhaps the best of the trip.  It was a nice ending to a fun weekend of birding.

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American Black Duck

It’s amazing how black these ducks really look in the right light.  The male below shows some green on the top of his head which might make it a Mallard X American Black Duck hybrid.

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Here’s a better shot of the green.

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It was finally time to leave the Black Ducks and Duluth behind and hit I-35 for the 3.5 hour ride home.  I was quite content to have gotten this hoped-for duck.  I was now looking forward to a relaxing ride home with no more birding stops.  Evan and I stopped one last time to fill up the tank and empty ours.  As I was waiting for Evan, I compulsively checked my phone (a bad habit brought on by birding).  Birding friend Tony Lau had messaged me to alert me to an incredible bird discovered by Jeff Grotte back home just a few miles from where I work. Before I knew it, I was hurrying Evan to get back in the car.  It was 1:00. Darkness was coming in four hours and I had to go just over 3 hours to get to this bird. Moreover, the coming 12 inches of snow that night would make a next-day search impossible.  Never mind that the bird could up and leave at any moment.  I had to get there – fast. There would be no relaxing drive home.

Searching for Sea Ducks on the North Shore of Lake Superior

Canal ParkThere has been a gaping hole in our Minnesota bird collection.  We have traveled extensively throughout the state and have pretty much seen all the specialty birds tucked into hidden nooks and little-known crannies.  Despite that fact, we have neglected one of the state’s most important birding areas – Lake Superior.  Here the possibilities for new birds abound with many sea duck species, northern gull species, oddball loon species and even three jaeger species.  I have never known how to approach birding the big water from the vast 150 miles of shoreline between Duluth and the Canadian border.  I had long ago figured that someday I might just have to hire a guide for a day to learn how to bird this sea-environment.  A couple weeks ago, though, I saw that Clinton Nienhaus was leading a FREE field trip through the Duluth Audubon Society along the North Shore specifically to look for sea ducks.  Free is always good, unless it’s a puppy, so I went for it.  Visions of Scoters and Harlequin Ducks danced in my head while I awaited this trip.

At long last, it was time.  This past Friday I picked Evan up from school, and we drove the 3.5 hours to Duluth.  We stayed in a hotel so we could be up and ready to go in Canal Park at 7:30 that next morning.  Evan was excited about the pool; I was excited about leaving at decent hour instead of 3 AM if we had foregone the hotel.

We met up with our guide, Clinton, and the rest of the small group for an adventurous day ahead.  First up was birding the canal and canal walls that you see above.  One never knows what interesting ducks will be in the canal or what special gulls line the walls.  Alas, it was pretty ho-hum.  We tried to make a Herring Gull into a Thayer’s, but it didn’t work. So it was off to our next stop, Brighton Beach.

Brighton Beach

No ducks could be seen, just a couple of Horned Grebes. We did observe a delightful birding phenomenon as we had Common Redpolls migrating by us and through us by the hundreds.  This was a great sign because strangely there were only two reports of Redpolls in the entire state last year.  That abysmal report contrasted greatly with the numbers we had two years ago when we had about 150 in our yard alone.  Needless to say, it was good to see these old friends again.  It was also fun to witness birds migrating down the shore;  southbound birds hit the big water of Lake Superior and opt to fly southwest down the shoreline.  Many of the Redpolls were literally flying over the rocks you see above.   I have hundreds of Redpoll photos at close range in great light of the many varied forms of this bird when they hung out in our yard two years ago.  So these photos are not the best but are provided to add a little meat to the bones of this post.

Common Redpolls

Clinton, a graduate student in environmental education, taught us that the Redpolls love to eat the seeds of birch and aspen trees. The catkins (those banana-shaped things below) contain thousands of the tiny, paper-like seeds.  When the Redpolls forage on these catkins, hundreds of seeds are then dispersed.

Common Redpoll

Throughout the day we kept seeing more and more Common Redpolls.  A conservative estimate would be 1,000 birds. Clinton pointed out that their flight calls sound like little lasers shooting.  That tip really helped this birder who is challenged in the auditory department.

After Brighton Beach our convoy of cars snaked its way up the shore to Stoney Point.  All I found here were dismal memories of missing Boreal and Great Gray Owls a couple years ago.  There still were no ducks either.  It was tough to get discouraged, though, because we had a long ways to go and many more stops to make, like at Agate Bay and Burlington Bay for which the town of Two Harbors is named.

Right away at Agate Bay an interesting raptor hovering in the stiff wind caught our attention.  It was a Rough-legged Hawk which ended up being one of several for the day.  Right now they are migrating through.  I always enjoy seeing this hawk.

Rough-legged Hawk

It was amazing how it stayed in one place in the air, seemingly hovering like a helicopter.  Finally it swooped down to the grassy bank below where it caught a mouse and proceeded to eat it on a rock.  Clinton taught us that mice are their primary food of choice and that though they are the same size as a Red-tailed Hawk, their talons are half the size.

Rough-legged Hawk

This hawk continued to dazzle us as it flew low over the parking lot.

Rough-legged Hawk

Here’s my favorite view of a Rough-legged Hawk when it shows off those black, carpal patches.

Rough-legged Hawk

But as cool as the hawk was, we still had no luck finding ducks on the water.  We took in migrating Bald Eagles, though.

Bald Eagle

And even some that might just be sticking around.

Bald Eagle

We took a little walk around the Two Harbors Lighthouse hoping to relocate the Western Kingbird or Northern Saw-whet Owl that had been seen there last weekend by the Minnesota Birding Weekend group.  No luck on those.

After awhile it was time to keep heading northeast up the shore.  Stops at the Silver Bay Marina and Taconite Harbor kept up the trend of the day – no sea ducks.  It was frustrating because in the past week all three Scoter species, Long-tailed Ducks, a Harlequin Duck, and a King Eider had all been seen.  We were running out of shoreline in a hurry. However, Taconite Harbor did have one goody for us –  a flock of fly-over lifer Bohemian Waxwings!  We never could get them to stick around to get good looks, but it was fun to finally get a life bid.

The next stop finally produced what the trip was offering.  As we exited our vehicles at the Cut-Face Creek Wayside at Good Harbor Bay, we could see a few dark blobs on the water.  One of those blobs was a Red-necked Grebe, but those three were our first lifer of the day, the White-winged Scoter!  This was a hoped for bird.

White-winged ScoterI was hoping for closer looks, but distance was a factor…

IMG_1076

White-winged Scoter

White-winged Scoter

I think we all had a sense of satisfaction of finally seeing a trip target.  We got to observe the Scoters dive which they do differently that divers.  Clinton told us to pay attention to how the ducks open up their wings just before they duck under.  It was pretty cool to watch the trio do this in unison.

With spirits buoyed we made the short jaunt into Grand Marais to see what the harbor was harboring. It turns out there wasn’t much in the way of ducks, and there were zero sea ducks.  One of the highlights, though, was getting to observe two Snow Buntings at arm’s length as they foraged in the parking lot.  I have seen many, many Snow Buntings but never this close as they are a skittish bird and never with a backdrop that is anything other than white.  This was a real treat.

Snow Bunting

Snow Bunting

And here is perhaps the best SNBU photo I will take my whole life:

Snow Bunting

We continued to bird around Artist’s Point.  Interestingly the group found an out-of-season, out-of-range Western Meadowlark right on the Coast Guard station lawn.  Then it was off to the lighthouse to get some better looks at the gulls across the harbor channel.  The appropriately named Sawtooth Mountains are in the background.

Grand Marais

Birds or no birds, it was an epic adventure for a 7-year-old to hike out to the lighthouse.  I had brought along his deer-hunting snowsuit to keep him safe on this opening day of deer season.  Perhaps I should have also brought a life jacket and a wetsuit??

Evan

King of the world, this very cold world.

Evan

Out by the lighthouse we scanned the gulls across the way.  I really don’t know gulls, so in this department I am not the least bit embarrassed to let someone tell me what some gull is or what cycle it is.  Clinton tells us this tawny-colored bird in the center of this shot is a first-cycle Thayer’s Gull.  We tallied it for the life list and moved on.  Personally I find these lichens to be more fascinating.

Thayers Gull

From Grand Marais we had a couple stops left.  We did them out of sequence going to Hovland first, the furthest point we were going to, and Paradise Beach second on the way back to Grand Marais.

There were no ducks at Hovland.  Paradise Beach held a few more White-winged Scoters that I never saw but the group did see and one Bufflehead that we tried to turn into Harlequin Duck.  Finally darkness was upon us and the great day of North Shore birding was over. Our hopes for more sea ducks the next day would not be further up the North Shore as we had no passports with us.  Instead, our hope for the next day was still alive because Evan and I would be able to continue the duck hunt back down the shore on our way to Duluth.  And it would prove to be a very bright day.

Hovland

October Birds

October has been relatively light on birding as busy schedules and a mediocre fall migration have not provided a lot of exciting birding opportunities.  To drive this point home, the best birding moment was getting a county Snow Goose.

Snow Goose

October’s saving grace, though, is that the yard activity picks up tremendously.  With winter approaching, some of the more reclusive birds and even a couple of the northern birds are being drawn out of the woodwork. The window-birding at home has been quite entertaining lately.  Everyone in this house has been caught looking at some bird or another at least once in the last week. So here’s a photo-tour of some of our frequent visitors.

We’ve had a few Blue Jays show up regularly this past month.  The way these birds fly, show off their beauty, bully the others, and swallow sunflower seeds whole make this the bird to watch.

Blue Jay

Blue Jay

Though not as pretty as the Blue Jay, especially during the winter months, the American Goldfinch is always a fun bird to see.

American Goldfinch

American Goldfinch

I begrudgingly post this next photo of a northern visitor.  The first Dark-eyed Junco showed up in late September.  It is always symbolic of the cold winter months to follow. They spend a good half year with us, so their arrival is not always a welcome sight. Still, they are a constant part of the winter birding scene, and they come in fun, different flavors.

Dark-eyed Junco

Dark-eyed Junco

On the other hand, this friendly resident and its songs never, ever get old.  In fact, I even have it on my license plate.  Kudos to you, Maine and Massachusetts, for choosing it as your state bird.

Black-capped Chickadee

Black-capped Chickadee

Something about the colder months brings out the woodpeckers.  The Downy is a common sight, but it sure is dapper.

Downy Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker

You can’t quite fully appreciate this bird’s nape and awkward perching ability unless you view it from behind.

Downy Woodpecker

Though the Downy’s bigger cousin, the Hairy Woodpecker, wasn’t up for a photo shoot, the much-cooler, poorly named Red-bellied Woodpecker has been bellying up to the feeder quite regularly this fall.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Red-bellied Woodpecker – if you look real close you can see just a hint of red on his belly right between his two legs.

This has to be one of my favorite yard-birds.  It is a real stunning bird. Marin has even taken notice and is quite proud of herself for getting the name right.  The only reason this bird isn’t called a Red-headed Woodpecker is that a much more deserving species has already claimed that name.  Regardless, because it is so good-looking in its own right, it does deserve more than just one obligatory photo in this blog post.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Red-bellied Woodpecker

One of the more exciting yard birds – exciting because of its rarity and not because of its beauty, is the Purple Finch.  The females are not so purply, but given this was only their second appearance here ever, I was pretty thrilled to see these two girls from the north.

Purple Finch females and House Sparrow male

Purple Finch females and House Sparrow male

On par with the Purple Finch both for its geographical origins and its infrequency at our house is the Pine Siskin.

Pine Siskin

Pine Siskin

Prior to this fall we’d only ever had them here once before.  In fact, we’ve never seen a Pine Siskin anywhere outside of our yard.  This fall we’ve had 3-4 of them that have been showing up for a few days in a row now.  I hope they stick around.

Pine Siskin

Pine Siskin

We are burning through lots of seed right now, but it’s worth it.  They provide lots of entertainment.  The best part is that these birds are the birds that will be with us for the duration of the winter season.  Regular visitors that are not pictured include White-breasted Nuthatch, Eurasian-Collared Dove, Mourning Dove, Hairy Woodpecker, and our delightful pair of Northern Cardinals.  The cardinals tend to feed right at dawn and dusk which doesn’t allow for good photography.  They, too, are a family favorite.  Not only are all these birds around for the season, but we have more northern birds to look forward to! Though the Canadian winter finch forecast is a mixed bag, we are expected to get some Common Redpolls.  And if there’s enough of them, there’ll be a Hoary mixed in.  We certainly won’t have the Redpoll Mania like we had two years ago, but any day now they should show up.  I also am hoping that we will have a Northern Shrike in the yard for the third winter in a row.

Though the yard-birding has been pretty good, the itch to explore new turf and tally new birds is growing.  This weekend Evan and I will be gone on a two-night trip to check out the birds of Lake Superior’s north shore.  Double-digit life birds is a very real possibility. Stick around.

Sax-Zimmin’ with Dad and Grousin’ with Evan

IMG_0920Last week we enjoyed an extra-long weekend due to fall break, so we made the 265-mile trek home to northern Minnesota to visit our families and enjoy the beautiful northwoods. Going up north is always a delight, but doing so in the fall is special treat.  The stunning colors, the perfect temps, and the sweet smell of decaying Aspen leaves all remind us of this great land in which my wife and I grew up.  Let’s not forget the birds, though.  Northern Minnesota has its own species of interest that are not found in most of the state or the country for that matter. To that end, I had been coveting some recent pictures in my Facebook feed of Great Gray Owls in Tamarack trees in the Sax-Zim Bog.  The Bog is only 45 minutes south of my parents’ place, so I usually try to hit it up each time I go home.

Since Great Grays are crepuscular, the best times to see them are in the hour of first light and the hour of last light. We arrived at Mom and Dad’s in the early afternoon, but after a couple hours of visiting, Dad and I were headed south to try to find a Great Gray before dark. I never get tired of seeing this owl and the possibility of seeing them in the golden yellow Tamaracks was very appealing.  Tamaracks are a conifer found in boggy land, and their needles are green in the summer, turn gold in the fall, and then drop like the leaves of deciduous trees.  They are as fascinating as they are beautiful, especially when their fallen needles transform gravel roads to streets of gold.

Dad and I trolled up and down McDavitt Road several times at 5 MPH, scanning every snag and every possible perch for the Great Gray Ghost. This was the road where they’d been seen within the last week, so it was where we concentrated our search.  I was hoping to see an owl, get my desired shots, and then take some scenery shots to show off the yellow landscape of the Tamaracks interspersed with the vivid green of the Black Spruce. But, every possible second of remaining daylight was given to the search, and we were coming up empty.  I did stop to take a picture of a porcupine snoozing in a Tamarack.  Whether he’s lazy or relaxed, I just couldn’t resist the photo-op.

porcupine

porcupine

I’m afraid the porcupine was the only interesting thing we’d see in the Bog.  There were hardly any birds around, let alone any interesting species.  The next morning I continued my owl hunt closer to home as they have been found within 5 miles of my folks’.  I have yet to see one so close, but I’m determined! That determination will have to carry me forward because my luck was no different on this outing.  The birding was better than in the Sax-Zim Bog, though, as I found some Gray Jays and a couple of Ruffed Grouse.  The skittish grouse bolted when I popped up through the sunroof for a picture.

Speaking of grouse, my previous fall breaks in the northwoods used to be consumed with me pursuing Ruffed Grouse with a shotgun.  On the surface it may seem a bit of a contradiction that I’m a birder who hunts.  However, it is that interest in nature and wildlife that comes with hunting that helped propel me into this obsessive birding habit. Though I still hunt on a limited basis (just Ruffed Grouse and Ring-necked Pheasants), it is is not as interesting to me as birding, where I can experience the thrill of the hunt and the beauty of nature without the restrictions of seasons, state lines, and bag limits.  The thrill of locking eyes with a Great Gray is much more appealing. Maybe I’m just growing up.  When I saw the two grouse I wasn’t even interested in grabbing my gun out of the back of the car.

Despite my shift into birding, I still have a young boy and old dog who very much would like to chase some game.  So one morning I took Evan and my Yellow-Lab, Faith, on a short walk on my parents’ 80 acres.  Faith led the way with a vigor that belied her age (she lives for this), and Evan was several paces behind me.  We were hunting on trails in an area with young Aspens (about 10-15 years old).  It is perfect habitat that produces grouse every year.  This year was no exception as all of us, dog included, were startled by the pounding wings of our first grouse.  Though it was close, none of us saw it because of how thick the woods were.  That’s how it often goes.  We soldiered on and hiked on a trail carpeted in clover, a favorite food of the Ruffed Grouse.  The surrounding woods here were young Aspen trees 4-5 feet high growing up and around the stumps and logs of the mature Aspen stand the was here just a couple years ago.  Going off trail would be an impossible task.  Anyhow, when I paused at a bend along the trail, there was an explosion of wings to my left from the thick young trees and tangle of downed logs. Two grouse rocketed out.  I could only see one and only for a split second because of the surrounding trees and brush.  I fired a couple of times but missed.  It didn’t bug me.  As Faith was now investigating the scent of these birds (she was a little late) and I was contemplating the miss, a third grouse got up from the same spot!  Again, I only saw it briefly and fired the last shell I had in my gun.  No luck.  Ruffed Grouse are probably the most difficult game bird to hit on the fly because they live in the woods where your chances of hitting them are not as good as hitting the branches and trees they fly through.  To emphasize this point, a couple of colleagues recently returned from a grouse-hunting trip, and they had 55 flushes but only 3 kills.  I was not sad over the misses.  Evan got to see some grouse flush and watch me shoot.  He was happy.  Faith was doing what she was made for.  She was happy.  I didn’t have any birds to clean and eat.  I was happy.  Plus it was really special to see three grouse together; they are normally found as singles.

My birding pursuits continued Up North.  Dad and I made a dawn raid on the Sax-Zim Bog one of the mornings, arriving there just as you could make out the silhouettes of the trees. The best we could muster were some Gray Jays in low light.  All was well – birding the Bog with Dad is a great excuse to visit and drink some coffee.  Seeing owls is just a bonus.

Gray Jay

Gray Jays and Ruffed Grouse are some nice northern Minnesota birds, but I had a great find while I was out driving on my own one afternoon.  I had seen a couple of birds fly and thought they were ducks.  The habitat wasn’t right though since there wasn’t any water around.  I drove that way and was startled to see Black-billed Magpies!! I found four in all, and one even came out to the road to pick at something.

Black-billed MagpieI remember when I first got into birding and being shocked that this cool bird could be found in Minnesota since I had never seen one in my life up to that point.  They are known to frequent the Sax-Zim Bog. In fact, the Bog is the furthest location to the east where this species breeds.  I have seen them in the Bog and in northwestern Minnesota, but I was astounded to find them so close to where I grew up.  It was hands-down the best find of the trip.

I had better bog-birding outside of Sax-Zim on this trip.  Perhaps the only thing the Bog has on the birding scene around my parents’ place is the number of birders scouring it. Given the recent finds though, I might have to keep up the lone-rangering.  When I finally find a Great Gray on my parents’ road, it will be all the more sweeter because it’s close to home far from where birders trod.  The hunt will resume at Thanksgiving, and I can’t wait.