By God, that eBird list for Plateau State, Nigeria is just gonna have to wait!

african bird field guideAll birds, at least in the mind of a birder, are not created equal.  There are birds we never get tired of seeing, often because of their rarity or beauty or both.  Yet others we outright scorn and dub as “junk birds” because of how exceedingly common and drab they are. Then there are those gorgeous, out-of-reach birds we only dare to dream of seeing before our birding days are done, like the Garganey.  I already had that particular dream come true, but on February 20th I witnessed something far greater.  Admittedly this post has little connection to birding beyond the title and this intro, but one thing I’ve never explicitly told you readers is that one of my primary purposes in writing blog posts or writing the annual humorous Christmas letter is to capture and preserve snippets of my family’s history.  Pictures of the kids, quotes of things they say, and stories of the things we do together are often included for our own remembrance as much as they are for entertainment/readership value. It is in that vein that I’m blogging today–because I want us to look back on a monumental day in our lives and remember–remember the pain and the joy.  So read on if you like or stop; it does not matter to me.  I will say, though, that most birders I know like being surprised by really cool phenomena, whether or not feathers are involved.

5:30 AM, Friday, February 20th

When my alarm went off announcing the beginning of another work day, I quickly woke and checked my phone for any birding updates that may have trickled in during the night. After all, a Gyrfalcon and Harlequin Ducks had been in play and as of the previous evening, I was contemplating a fast trip north after work.  What I saw on my phone, though, horrified me–a missed call from my mom at 4:50 AM. Immediately I thought something must have happened with Dad. With quicker heartbeats, Melissa and I nervously listened to the voicemail. My mom was indeed distraught and sobbing, but it was not about my dad. Mom told us how our brother-in-law, Bayo (pronounced “Bio”), who is a missionary in Nigeria, had been very sick recently and that he had been taken to the hospital where doctors concluded he either had cerebral malaria or meningitis. I didn’t know much about those diseases, but I knew enough to know that most people don’t come back from their rapid, deteriorating effects. Melissa and I said a quick prayer, but in my mind Bayo was already dead.  Adrenaline, fear, sadness, and morning grogginess were creating a toxic mix in my mind.  Selfish thoughts and fears of having to travel to a country that is often plagued with religious violence and terrorism were my instant companions.  I had to clear my head before I called mom back.  I showered, let the dogs out, and got in the first sips of coffee. Then I called my mom in Arizona, but there wasn’t much to say on either end, just mutual sadness.

I sent out a request on Facebook for our small group members to pray. Then with heavy hearts Melissa and I continued with our day of getting kids to school and going to work. Distracted and distraught, we kept waiting for updates. At 7:40 mom emailed that it was bacterial meningitis (something we later found out was incorrect information). I busied myself at work with any menial task I could find before students arrived–cleaning whiteboards, straightening desks, etc. My first hour students were taking a test, so I just sat at my desk numb, checking for updates.  After what felt like an eternity, the hour was over and I was now in my prep hour. At the urging of my mom, I called my sister, Mary Beth. In all my years of knowing her, Mary Beth has been an unshakable rock, a stoic eldest sibling who has endured countless losses to AIDS and other tragedies. Now as I listened to her, I was shaken to hear her utterly broken and scared: “His eyes are open but he doesn’t see me! He doesn’t see me!” It was at this point that I lost it too–something that was still somewhat abstract from half-way around the world suddenly became very real in hearing my sister’s voice. Only long after the fact did I learn just how horrifying the details of his rapid demise were. Mary Beth witnessed his neck snap back 90 degrees as he went into convulsions and foamed at the mouth. His eyes bugged out and his chest heaved rapidly to try to get breath, like a ‘wild, drowning man’ she later recalled. My conversation with Mary Beth that morning was very short, but several times she pleaded, “Just pray, okay?”

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I felt it was over for Bayo. I didn’t think praying would do any good. Yet because she asked me, I prayed–angrily and full of doubt. At this point I wasn’t concerned with what would happen to their ministry, and I knew Mary Beth would eventually be okay; I was mostly upset that my nephews and niece were about to lose their dad. Never mind my own feelings of loss. But along with hundreds of people from every corner of the globe who knew about Bayo’s ordeal through social media, I prayed.

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The rest of the morning was a blur.  I’m sure I wasn’t much more than an overpaid babysitter in the classroom.  I wasn’t thinking of a recovery–far from it.  I was trying to remember where my safety deposit box key was so I could retrieve my passport. I was trying to figure out how I could possibly make a trip work.  My mind was a mess.  One minute I felt like dumping this silly birding and blogging hobby completely; the next I was debating how acceptable or not it would be to look at birds if I did end up in Africa.

It was strange to not be able to talk with Melissa who was at the other end of the building, also keeping up the charade of teaching on this day.  We exchanged short, sad emails, but that was it.  We did see each other during the morning’s Snow Week activity, but not a word was uttered about it even though we both knew what thought prevailed on each other’s minds.

At 12:15 I got a text update from mom: “He has viral encephalitis. He needs a miracle.” Dear God, it really is over, I thought.

Mary Beth later said the doctors believed that was the right diagnosis but that they didn’t have the medicine for that disease, possibly in all of Nigeria. She recalled one doctor saying, “We have cast our bread upon the water. We have given him an anti-viral medication, an anti-bacterial medication, and even an anti-fungal medication.” In other words, they had done all they could do.

It was now a waiting game. I went through my afternoon in a continued fog, struggling to get through my day as I waited for that final update. Around 2:00 I called my mom, and she informed me that they were working to get Bayo medically-evacuated to South Africa or Kenya. Wait, what was going on? Wasn’t it hopeless just a couple hours ago? I heard nothing further, so I called mom again around 4:00 on my way home from work. She told me that she and my dad had now made the decision to travel to Nigeria. Still there wasn’t much news about Bayo. That final update wasn’t coming.

Around 5:30 I texted my sister giving her our support. We now had our family of four together and had decided to eat at our favorite pizza place.  Like our hearts, the kitchen at home was also a mess from Pinewood Derby construction the previous night.  Needless to say, we didn’t feel like cooking.  As is often the case, this non-chain restaurant was extremely quiet as most customers opt for delivery and carry-out.  While we ate, my sister responded to my text: “Thanks. Keep praying! He’s still in a rough spot.”

Little did we know at the time just how symbolic the quiet restaurant and gentle snowfall outside really were (I even remarked about the snowfall being peaceful-something it rarely is on the wind-swept prairie and something I never say).  On our way home I got another text from Mary Beth that Bayo’s breathing, pulse, and temp were stabilizing! His temp had dropped from 104 to 98.6! The doctor was shocked.

Unlike the confusion and chaos of the beginning of the day, the night was now calm and quiet and was going out with a whimper. The negative updates and negative outlooks had disappeared; hope was winning!  Bayo continued to stabilize, and by the next day he was alert and talking, and his personality was coming through! His kids got to see him, and he recognized all of them. There appeared to be no brain damage or loss of cognitive function, later proved by a completely normal EEG. Bayo was eventually still evacuated to Nairobi, Kenya where he continued to improve greatly each day while the doctors tried to determine the cause of his ailment and monitor his rapid, seemingly complete recovery. Bayo is alive! I still can hardly believe it. We witnessed a miracle, and Mary Beth (and all of us) attribute it to the power of prayer.

So, I don’t know if or when I’ll ever see African birds, and I couldn’t be happier. Meanwhile, though, I’ll be studying.  The good folks at Princeton University Press are sending out a review copy of A Guide to the Birds of Western Africa.  Stay tuned for that as well as some great birding that’s happened since my last post.

2014 – The Biggest Year I Never Dared to Dream

What’s this, you say? A re-cap of 2014′s birds halfway through February?  Right now heads are shaking as they contemplate my foolishly late posting.  Well, to the detractors, I say the timing couldn’t be more right.  For you see, I did not rush to compile a “Top Ten” list in the waning hours of 2014 when the pressure of an artificial deadline might cause errors in judgement.  No, these ideas have been marinating and brewing for the most authentic and satisfying post possible.  Actually, the reality is that the birding has finally just flat-lined here in February and all this extra time has allowed me to steal a lot of cool ideas from those who have posted before me.

2014 was a monumental year–a year that will, in all probability, never, ever be matched again.  I do not anticipate doing future “Best of” posts, but I would be remiss if I did not commemorate the year that gave so much and so freely.  Though the word often loses its meaning in today’s vernacular, no other word is more qualified to describe 2014 than “epic.”  Evan and I began the year with a hefty-number of life birds, 200+.  So how many new birds could  a person reasonably expect to add in a new year at this stage in our birder development? 30? 40? 50?   No, we blew those figures out of the water.  I lifered 96 times and Evan 74.  Yes, we traveled out of state a couple times, but most of those life birds were found right here at home in the great state of Minnesota. The numbers don’t tell the half of it.  The actual birds included in those numbers are beyond anything I could have dreamed for us.  The stories of the finds, the chases, the hunts are dripping with adrenaline.  In fact, it was only just recently that my resting heart rate dropped below 120 BPM.

We’ll get to all that excitement in a bit, but first one must be grounded and look at the ugly side of birding.

Worst Birding Experiences of 2014

Far and away, this award goes to the Least Tern chase to Luverne.  I suckered the kids into going on an overnight camping trip with me to Blue Mounds State Park to see this bird.  My wife suckered me into taking along my dog. Now I’ve been to Blue Mounds before, so I promised the kids a great place to swim and a really cool city park in Luverne.  Long story short is that the drinking water at the park had e. Coli, the swimming reservoir was drained from a broken damn to due heavy spring flooding, and that beautiful city park was completely destroyed in that same flooding.  Not only did I have disappointed children and an overcrowded tent with two kids and a lab, but an overnight rain and lighting storm caused us to take shelter in the van at 4 AM and try to get some sleep.  The next day I was desperate to replace two balding tires before our return trip.  I found a dealership to do the job, and my plan was to take a walk around town with the kids and dog while it was being done.  Unfortunately a downpour caused the three of us and the dog to take shelter in the one-car showroom while we watched Sponge Bob on a 6 in. TV and waited for our car.  Oh, and that Least Tern we were after? Missed it by 15 minutes. Not even all the Common Nighthawks, Blue Grosbeaks, and Red-headed Woodpeckers we saw could salvage this trip.

Common Nighthawk

2014 also saw a few engagements with local law enforcement in the name of birding, mostly for the perfectly acceptable birding reason of speeding to get to a bird.  However, one low point was getting “stopped” at the Pennock sewage ponds.  I distinctly remember being shocked to see flashing red lights in my rearview while driving a dirt path around the ponds and then watching as the officer nervously approached my van from behind with his hand on his holstered gun.  Even after I explained I was just birding, he ran my license, checked my insurance, etc.  And when I thought it was all over? He stayed to watch me watch birds.  Not enjoying the company, I left…and discovered a back-up squad car with two more officers on the other side of the pond!  I guess a dirty mini-van at a rural sewage pond does seem a bit shady. But on an unrelated note, how about them nice treads on those tires?!

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Thankfully I didn’t end up tased or have my accompanying daughter placed in child-protective services so that we could go on to better days ahead.

Best Birding Experiences of 2014

2014 saw plenty of travel and with it, plenty of great birding.  Last March we made our first annual trip to Maricopa, Arizona to visit my snowbird parents.  The trip allowed us to pad the life lists with a couple dozen lifers and meet up with Phoenix birder/blogger Laurence Butler for some memorable Sonoran Desert birding.   In July we took a road-trip to Colorado to visit my Aunt Carol and Uncle Jon.  Birding the Badlands of SD and the Wet Mountains of Colorado pushed the life list even higher by about another 20 birds.  Not only did we go cross-country this year, but I went on several chases across the state with local birding friends Randy Frederickson and Steve Gardner and met many friendly MN birders at the stake-outs of the rarity after rarity.  2014 was ripe with such birds.  I think Randy added a half dozen state birds; usually he’ll get one every couple of years or so.

As fun as all the traveling was and all the great birding it brought, the best birding experience occurred in August when I had to attend a training in St. Paul for work.  This afforded me the opportunity to bring along my family for a mini-getaway. It also afforded me the opportunity to check out an extremely accommodating and wildly popular Least Bittern at Wood Lake Nature Center.  It took a little bit of effort on the part of some other birders to help us all see this cool bird just 6 feet away from the boardwalk on which we were standing.

Least BitternAnd one of the birders who helped us find this bird was none other than Stan Tekiela!

Evan watching a Least Bittern with Stan Tekiela.

It was a joy to watch Evan as he was really digging this lifer, just watching it and watching it.  The whole family was having fun watching this Bittern and the other wildlife. And Stan turned out to be an incredibly nice guy engaging Evan in a conversation about Bitterns and excitedly calling us back to look at a Raccoon. Evan had no idea who he was talking to at the moment.  His eyes got to be the size of dinner plates when I told him later on.  It was a memorable experience like none other.

Rarest Personal Finds of 2014

You can imagine how hard it was for me to make a Top-10 in a year with nearly a hundred life birds.  I struggled to whittle down the list. So here is a tribute to some really cool (I mean REALLY cool) finds I had this last year.  All these birds were previously undiscovered by others.  You might consider it cheating as I’m extending my Top 10 by including these birds, but remember that 2014 was epic. I posted to the listserv so much that people either love me or loathe me.  My luck was enough for a lifetime of birding. I’m still pinching myself. These birds are ordered from least rare to most rare and surprisingly none made the final cut for Top 10.  Any bird marked with an * means that it had the bonus distinction of also being a lifer at the moment of discovery.

7. Eastern Towhee – Kandiyohi County – an Occasional bird for the county and a solid find for a county that mostly consists of prairie and fields.

Eastern Towhee

6. Western Kingbird* – Kandiyohi County – also Occasional.  This was just a plain ol’ feel good find, an East meets West kind of bird.

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5. Swainson’s Hawk – Kandiyohi County – Occasional.  Ditto above.

Swainson's Hawk

4. White-winged Scoter – Kandiyohi County – Occasional.  I went Snowy Owling and got a Scoter hunch when I drove by Green Lake. I had the good fortune of that hunch being right. This Scoter brought in dozens of birders, some just getting a county tick, but many others getting the more important life tick. And in a Patagonia Picnic Table-Effect of sorts, one of those county listers also turned up a Long-tailed Duck when viewing this White-winged Scoter and yet another found a Snowy Owl!  I missed the former by an hour and drove right by the latter.  The agony of defeat still burns, but hey, it’s good the home county gained an even greater birding reputation.

White-winged Scoter

3. Mute Swan* – Renville County – First MOU official record for Renville County.  I dismissed it in my peripheral vision as a pelican or Trumpeter Swan.  I only gave it a look after my wife asked what it was.  Wow, I should listen to her more often.  BTW, not a bad bird for a trip to see the accountant is it?

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2. Spotted Towhee* – Kandiyohi County – Considered a Rare Regular for the state, showing up once or twice annually.  It has been seen in the county before, but this one was the first official MOU record for Kandiyohi County.  This one really got the blood pumping when I found it.

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1. Lesser Black-backed Gull* – Kandiyohi County – Also a Rare Regular for the state but this one was the first official MOU record for Kandiyohi County.  Unlike the Spotted Towhee, though, not even the Kandiyohi birding greats of Randy Frederickson, Ron Erpelding, and Joel Schmidt have seen this gull here at home.  Unfortunately, it didn’t hang on for anybody else.

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Biggest Upsets for not making the Top 10

Again, more Top 10 stretching.  Any of the aforementioned birds could have easily made Top 10, but there are even more phenomenal birds that missed the top honors that are listed below.  Seriously, you have to wonder what’s in the Top 10 if these birds didn’t make the cut.

10. Harlequin Duck – If only you’d been mature, little drake, you’d be right near the top!

Harlequin Duck

9. Eastern Screech Owl – How does an owl lifer miss the top spots?  Maybe if it had opened its eyes or been a red-phase…  Regardless, here’s a shout-out and thanks to Tony Lau for sharing his yard bird!

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8. Prothonotary Warbler – A great, great warbler for MN and quite the looker too!

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7. Hooded Warbler – This warbler nests in extremely small numbers in certain parts of the Twin Cities metro area.  I made a special trip just to look for it, and I saw three in one day.

Hooded Warbler

6. Greater Prairie Chicken – Crazy, right?  This was a bonus find when hunting for one of the top birds.

Greater Prairie Chicken

5. Vermilion Flycatcher – Gorgeous, gorgeous bird and Target #2 for the AZ trip.  Again, crazy.

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4. Varied Thrush – Any other year it’d probably be in the Top 10, but not even bonus points for showing up right here at home was enough to get it in the top tier.

Varied Thrush

3. Eurasian Wigeon – Casual in Minnesota. I saw one. Kinda.

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2. Common Eider – Not even making its first reappearance on MN waters since the 1960s could land this duck in the Top 10.

Common Eider

1. Wood Stork – Minnesota’s second state record.  Its rarity is the only reason it’s in this list.  Since this bird is ugly, here is a more fun picture of people enjoying that ugly.

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THE Top 10

So here is what you’ve all been waiting for–the real Top Ten. You might find yourself a bit surprised by my choices, but keep in mind that the bird itself is only half the fun–often circumstances, the birding company, or the hunt itself influenced my decisions.  The list is not indicative of the rarity status of these birds.  A surprising twist to this Top Ten is that nearly half of the birds are not even lifers (Indicated by an *)! Moreover, a great majority of these birds were found in-state.

10. Snowy Owl*

Now hold on a minute, I know you’re sick of these things on this blog and wondering how, in their great abundance, could they make the cut?  Snowy Owls added life to both the dull winter landscape and the business-as-usual halls in which I work in 2014. When I got my lifer in late 2013 and learned of the impending irruption last year, I sent out an all-staff email requesting coworkers let me know of any sightings. That opened the floodgates.  I was opening email after email of sightings, taking calls, listening to wild-eyed students and giddy staff members tell me about yet another sighting.  It was an incredibly fun time.  The owls made for instant ice-breaker conversations with all kinds of people.  Though I never found my own Snowy Owl in 2014, I was able to point many people to their first which was quite a thrill.  Additionally, driving anywhere became fun as every pole top or barn roof could hold a Snowy.  And the amount of down time for Snowy Owl hunting was a mere 7 months as they were back in early November to begin an echo flight of last year’s irruption.

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9. Black-billed Cuckoo

This is an uncommon bird and nowhere near rare for the northern half of MN during the breeding season.  Still, it is an extremely elusive bird.  Evan and I found our lifer quite by accident.  We went for a four-wheeler ride on my parents’ property and stopped to play a tape of a Northern Parula only to be answered by the exotic sound of the Black-billed Cuckoo.  We eventually were able to lure it into the open for some good views using playback.  It was haunting how that bird moved and watched us from the shadows.  And the sound of that thing is the craziest and most awesome bird noise I’ve heard.  How could I have grown up in the northwoods and never heard or seen this bird?  I know how. They hide like ninjas, watching your every move as you walk through the woods.

Black-billed Cuckoo

8. American Avocet

Ever since Evan and I got into birding, we talked about the awesomeness of the American Avocet.  It just stands apart from all the other shorebirds with that black and white plumage with the crazy orangish head and neck, not to mention the long, upturned bill. Not only did we finally see this bird in 2014, but we found our lifer ourselves right here at home–the best way.  I’ll never forget seeing it and then hustling down the sewage pond embankment to tell Evan.  His eyes got huge, and he scrambled to get out of the car.  We ended up seeing this species on three separate occasions in the county last year.  Such a bird! Such a year!

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7. Cerulean Warbler*

This was not a life bird, but it was a special treat to see one at our very own Sibley State Park right here in Kandiyohi County, and I finally got some killer photos of the bird. This was now the third Cerulean I’d ever seen, and I cherish each sighting as this bird is fighting for its future on two continents.  Evan’s seen this species a couple times now, but I hope that this beautiful, buzzy warbler will still be around for his kids and grandkids.

Cerulean Warbler6. Chestnut-collared Longspur

This striking Longspur is a state-endangered species.  Only a handful of pairs nest annually on a small tract of land known as the Felton Prairie IBA just east of Fargo.  Steve Gardner and I finally made the trip this summer just to look for this bird.  Picking up a bonus lifer Greater Prairie Chicken and seeing plenty of Western Kingbirds, Loggerhead Shrikes, and Marbled Godwits was pretty neat and all, but we nearly dipped on the main attraction at Felton Prairie.  This guy was a buzzer-beater, showing up just 15 minutes before the deadline Steve and I had set to go home.  This bird did not disappoint us in its looks.

5. Spruce Grouse*

This bird was a buzzer-beater for 2014 and slipped into this list at the eleventh hour. This was the first Spruce Grouse I had seen since circa 1999. Even Minnesota birders drool over laying eyes on this beautiful gnome of the deep spruce bogs. I happened upon this one while driving the short distance between my parents’ house and my in-laws’ house in the final days of 2014 while we were home for Christmas.  It felt so good to finally see this bird again and be able to photograph it.

Spruce Grouse

4. Long-eared Owl

I had the great pleasure of birding the Phoenix Mountain Preserve with Laurence Butler when we went to Arizona last March.  As we talked plans ahead of time to bulk up my life list with some desert species, Laurence mentioned the possibility of the rare Long-eared Owl prize. I honestly thought, ‘Pssshht. Whatever-like we’ll see ever that.’ But inwardly I was secretly excited too.  As someone who connected with birding because of the thrill of the hunt, it was a magical experience to wind our way through a tree-choked gully in the Sonoran Desert with the possibility of coming face-to-face with an owl that is coveted everywhere.  Then it happened. One exploded into the air in front of us leaving throbbing hearts and cursing mouths in its wake.  Eventually Laurence and I pinned it down and stared right into those yellow eyes.  It was a mountain-top high on the valley floor.

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3. Blue Grosbeak*

Yes, Josh, it’s a beautiful bird, but c’mon, #3?!  This is a bird I dreamed about seeing when I first saw it in the Kaufmann Field Guide and noticed that the very southwestern tip of MN was in its range.  Eventually I learned it’s a reliable find at Blue Mounds State Park which is where we got our lifer in 2013.  Getting deeper into birding, I was finding out that they are actually found much further north and east of that tiny corner of the state.  My curiosity was peaked after seeing them in Cottonwood and then when Joel had said he and Randy had seen a family of them a couple years ago just 25 miles away from Willmar in Renville County.  So I investigated the site and struck out.  However, I noticed a gravel pit in the vicinity and stopped to check it out since Blue Grosbeaks have an affinity for such desert-wash environments. I rolled down the window and was almost instantly greeted with the sweet, sweet sound of BLGR.

When I got home I looked at the gravel pit with satellite imagery and discovered that the tract of gravel pits stretched for nearly four miles being intersected neatly with a county road every mile.  I had to go back!  And so I did.  And I found a Blue Grosbeak on every county road that intersected that gravel tract for a total of four Blue Grosbeaks over a three-mile stretch.  As a bonus, another birder following up on my reports turned up a 5th one.  We were no longer dealing with a far-flung, slightly out-of-range individual bird or two.  Instead we had a thriving population of Blue Grosbeaks in Renville County which is far north and east of where they are supposed to be.  And they are only six miles south of Kandiyohi County!

Finding rare birds by chance is great fun, but investigating a theory and having that theory validated with multiple birds was a birding achievement that I prize more than any of my rarities mentioned in this post.  Contributing data to a possible range expansion is exciting stuff. I cannot wait to check on them again this summer.

Blue Grosbeak

2. Burrowing Owl

Since Melissa has taught the novel Hoot for years and since Evan and I are birders, this owl has a special connection with our family. It was the one bird that we simply had to see in Arizona above all others.  Laurence had told me Zanjero Park was pretty much a lock, but my dad, the chauffeur, went rogue and opted to drive us along random roads in the countryside south of Maricopa.  As zero new birds were being seen, especially not the Burrowers, I thought the day was going to be lost. So then a quiet, non-aggressive Norwegian stand-off ensued complete with beatings around the bush and passive-aggressive attempts to commandeer the situation.

“I think Zanjero could be a sure thing.”

“It’ll be more fun to find our own.”

Folks, let me tell you, always listen to your dad and kiss your wife because as my heart was sinking in despair along with the setting sun, Melissa hollers from the backseat that she found one! And another and another and another.  Dang!  The fun didn’t stop there either. I finally found a couple, and even my mom found herself one.  We had eight Burrowers in all!  Let me tell you, these Scandinavians were rocking that van with whoops and hollers.  It was a fun, memorable experience for the whole family.

In all, we saw 12 Burrowers on our trip with a pair even within biking range of my parents’ house.

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1. Garganey

You’ve seen the kind of birds we put up in 2014.  Honestly, could this spot be held by anything other than Wisconsin’s first state record of a Garganey that Evan and I went to see?  If you look up the word “serendipity” in the dictionary, you are bound to see a picture of a Garganey.  Kaufmann writes that it can show up on any marsh in the spring.  How awesome and hope-inspiring is that?!  Plus it is a gorgeous duck that I had been yearning to see someday before my time is up. And if seeing a Garganey wasn’t a thrill enough, we went on this adventure with long-time birding great, Ron Erpelding, and got to witness someone who has amassed over 50 years of birding and over 675 life birds see this bird for the very first time just as Evan and I were seeing it.  It was life bird #678 for Ron.  Not even the cats-and-dogs rain could detract from our joy that drenched us when we watched this bird just 15 feet out the car window.  It was, by far, the best bird of 2014.

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So, 2015, it is unlikely you will live up to the high bar you’re bigger, all-American, older brother, 2014, has set.  But take heart because you will be special in your own right. Perhaps you will be known as the year of the Gyrfalcon!

Sunday Brunch – Sparrow Quiche and Owl Leftovers

Sometimes when the social life gets a bit dull and we find ourselves stuck in the rut of being hunkered down like hermits, the best remedy for breaking up the funk is to have someone over for dinner-someone who’ll liven things up a bit.  Or in our case, since we remain stubbornly grounded in our ruts, it took someone inviting himself over for dinner. Except we didn’t have to cook.  Getting home from church today, Evan took one look out the window and asked, “What’s that?!”

Sharp-shinned Hawk

The better question to ask was, “What bird was that Sharp-shinned Hawk eating?”  Being a typical 7-year-old, Evan wanted to chase away the hawk so he could investigate the remains.  Shoot, I wanted to see too, but I told him to wait and at least let the hawk finish its meal.    So after a short time, the Sharpie flew away and Evan and I raced out there.  Nothing but feathers.  Not a carcass, not a wing, nothing.  Thankfully there were no red feathers.  I assume the feathers were those of a House Sparrow, which if true, this hawk is welcome to drop in unannounced for dinner anytime.

Beyond the exciting ordeal in the yard, birding has been pretty dead.  Steve and I went out for a bit today on another hopeless hunt for wintering Long-eared and Northern Saw-whet Owls.  I guess a FOY Northern Shrike (for me, not Steve) was some sort of consolation prize.

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We’re putting in our time, we keep telling ourselves.  But even as we do so, the peripheral birding is abysmal if not non-existent.  There is a shortage on birds of the barren field variety this winter - Horned Larks, Lapland Longspurs, and Snow Buntings are largely MIA.  Their presence at least adds a little life to the countryside. We did run into a couple small flocks of the Larks today, and we did turn up a solitary SNBU for Steve’s FOY. Still it wasn’t much, and it is otherwise a dead zone everywhere.

Even this winter’s saving grace, the influx of several accommodating, local Snowy Owls, seems to be officially over, for now anyway.  It has been over a week now since I have seen a Snowy.   At least Wilma was kind enough to make a final showing on one of our sunny days.

Willmar Snowy Owl

Oddly, though, I have been finding record numbers (for me anyway) of Great Horned Owls as I go to and fro.  So far in 2015 I have found three in the county and four in all.  Maybe some day I’ll see one close and in good light.

Great Horned OwlSo as the sun sets on each winter day with minimal birding activity, thoughts drift more and more to spring migration and planned spring trips to Arizona and Montana, when the bird life will be overwhelming in new and old birds alike.

Great Horned Owl

In the meantime, though, hopefully we’ll have more drop-in dinner company.  Sparrow anyone?

A Day for the History Books*

I know, I know…you’re wondering when this guy is going to quit with the doggone Snowy Owl posts.  Folks, I’m just out reporting what’s happening on the prairie, and just when I think the climax of the story has been reached, it keeps escalating.  Boston may be getting dumped with snow, but Kandiyohi County is getting buried in SNOW. No fluff owl postings on this site – just hard-hitting updates on the story that’s unfolding daily.  So let’s get right to it.

Monday

After Evan’s piano lesson, Melissa and the kids went out to eat.  I split from them as I was scheduled to work at my buddy Steve’s Knowledge Bowl meet. #neverfullyretired  I had about a half hour to kill, so I went owling.  Right away I found a Snowy, and it looked darkish in the diminishing light.  I didn’t stop, though, didn’t even slow down.  I would come back.  I first had to do my route to see just how many Snowies I could dig up.  I did find Wilbur which now gave me my fourth double-Snowy sighting of the month. #wilburisthebestlookingsnowyowlever

Snowy Owl Willmar

He was waaay up high on one of those metal high-line poles, so he was not bothered by me parking beneath him.  I didn’t have much time left and I wanted to get back to that first Snowy, so I left Wilbur after just a minute or two.

I turned a corner and took one look back and was blown away by Wilbur’s backdrop.

sunset Snowy Owl

Now call it karma, call it luck, call it probability for the number of times I go Snowy Owling, but something remarkable happened.  Last weekend I was bothered by a visiting photographer walking right up to Wilbur, and here while I was enjoying the sunset and Wilbur from a distance, he dropped off his power pole perch and glided…..to a lamp post right next to my car! Wilbur was 25 feet out my window! #crushyouverymuchwilbur

Wilbur Snowy Owl

Wilbur Snowy Owl

As awesome as this was, the clock was ticking as I had a responsibility to be somewhere and another owl yet to photograph.  My initial suspicion was right – it was a dark one, a young female bird and a completely new Snowy Owl for the county!

Willmar Snowy Owl

I was so pumped and so rushed that I couldn’t even get clear picture of her when she gave me “the look.” She shall be called Wilma.

Snowy Owl Willmar

Willma was now the third Snowy I have personally found.  At least.  I may have been counting different Snowies as the same continuing bird. Regardless, it might be time to buy a SNOWblower.  As cool as it was to find Willma, I had decided I was done reporting Snowies for the county (on the listserv and FB anyway).  No worries, she’ll still be eBirded, but my checklists will be hidden until after this season of owls passes.  I still want future Kandiyohi birders to be able to know about this awesome chapter in our history, and I want to help flesh out the national story of Snowy Owls this winter.

What a night! What a season!

Tuesday

Took a call at work from fellow birder/teacher Brad that a custodian had told him about a Snowy that had touched down in Meeker County near Cosmos that very morning.  I knew two hard-core county listers who have made a combined 8 unsuccessful trips to Meeker just for Snowy Owls.  They want one BAD. One of the men was renowned birder and field-guide author Bob Janssen.  Instead of posting, I called them up directly.  One of the men was able to come out to search.  Unfortunately after several hours of looking, it was another trip for the loss column.

I tried hard to find a Meeker Snowy on my way home from work.  I tried real hard.

IMG_1920

I saw no Kandiyohi Snowies during my daily owl prowl.

Wednesday- A Glorious Day

I have been telling the guys I bird with in Kandiyohi County that we need to be checking daily for new Snowies because in looking back at pictures, we may, in fact, be dealing with several owls that we are calling the same owl.  My advice was to not quit looking once one Snowy was found.  Tonight as I started my owl prowl, I was delighted to see Willma again!   She hung on for a couple days and wasn’t just passing through one night. How cool is that?

Wilma Snowy Owl

Wilma Snowy Owl

She’s a sweet gal, but I had to keep my own advice and get moving to look for more.  It was a misty, overcast night – the owls would be perched up if they were around. A few minutes later I had another one!

William Snowy Owl

The more I looked at this bird the more excited I got. The GISS and markings were wrong for Wilbur and the location was far from his hunting grounds.  This wasn’t Wilbur, and Wilbur is the most reliable Snowy I’ve found.  Instantly I recalled a hallowed tale of the great Gandalf Kandiyohi Birder, Randy Frederickson, who one day, long, long ago saw three Snowy Owls in one day in Kandiyohi County.  My heart was thumping – I had a chance to tie Randy!  I raced to Wilbur’s turf, still scanning for other owls along the way.

I got to his haunts and couldn’t find him.  What the heck? We have zero snow right now, which is super weird, and I can’t find the whitest Snowy Owl on the planet.  Maybe I was wrong, maybe that last owl was Wilbur.  I gave up and was about to get on with my responsibilities.  As I looked left before making my turn, though, there he was!  I did it! Three Snowy Owls in one day in the county!!! #hattricksandturkeysarethetriosoflessersports

Wilbur Snowy Owl

Wilbur Snowy Owl

And all of them were right here at home. By the way, the  Snowy #2 in this post shall be called William.

Willmar Snowy Owl sign

I wanted to keep up the search for #4, but I had responsibilities which needed my attention, namely picking up Evan from school.  I was able to show him two of these birds on the way home. He’s Snowy-owled out, but the look on his face was shear awe and amusement when he saw Wilbur perched at eye-level in the photo above.

I ended my night by calling Randy.  Randy was genuinely excited about the news.  I think we are all in shock and awe over what is happening this year.

#lastyearsirruptionaintgotnothinonthisone

* #tiesarehistorytoo

Evolution

Last time this birder checked in the mirror, his horns were still very green – much too green to take knowledgeable stands on birding issues, let alone to refine and redefine such stands.  For example, when I first got into birding, I didn’t understand why people were so secretive about owl locations.  I thought they were just hoarding good birds for themselves or were just jerks, plain and simple.  Over time, though, I started to understand that many withheld to protect the owls from bird paparazzi and overzealous birders who know no boundaries.  I understood, yet I still remembered how it felt to be left in the dark and have to start at ground zero.  Therefore when coworkers and students fed me a multitude of Snowy sightings the past couple years and when I discovered my own two this year, I freely shared the sightings and gave specific locations.  I saw many people get excited over seeing their first Snowy Owl or finally seeing one for a specific county. That was quite a thrill for me; it was like playing Santa Claus for a bunch of bird-nerds.  I vowed to myself I wasn’t going to be an old scrooge who keeps an owl to himself because he thinks the masses can’t be trusted with it.

In light of an event this weekend, though, I find myself in a weird state of change.  It seems the Willmar Snowy Owls I have found have garnered the attention of those from afar, bringing out-of-town visitors.  Quite possibly this is because I have been reporting them as all-white males, a coveted sex/plumage combo for birders and photographers as evidenced by all the blog hits I was getting directly off my list-serv postings.  I mean, who can blame them. Wilbur is quite stunning.

Snowy Owl

Wilbur remained on this perch after I left. My camera’s zoom allows me to get close without being close.

It was reported to me that a photographer with a large lens was traipsing (more than likely trespassing) on private land to walk right up to Wilbur for closer shots while Wilbur was resting on a pole in a field far from the road.  It was not nearly as atrocious as some birder/photographer behaviors you hear about when Snowy Owls show up closer to the Twin Cities metro area, creating mobs armed with cameras and binoculars, but still it was enough to rub me the wrong way.  A little bit of innocence was lost.

So now I find myself wondering what/how to report if I get lucky enough to be in such a position again.  I doubt I’ll go completely dark, but maybe I will.  A highly-sought all-white Snowy may not be reported with that level of description or may just not be reported at all. I might report a Snowy like this one I found 2.5 miles from Wilbur just ten minutes after the sighting pictured above (my third double-Snowy day this month).  I doubt anyone will cross a field to photograph his ugly mug.

Snowy Owl

Ugly Mug stayed on this perch after I left.

Then again, he’s not that bad-looking.

Snowy Owl

This pole was in the middle of a field. No boots were muddied in the taking of this photo, and it was taken from within my car. Yeah, the picture quality is terrible, but sometimes that’s just the way it is.

So maybe I will keep ones like this quiet – tell a few friends, delay my eBird reports until long after the fact, etc.  I really don’t know as I am still in a state of transition.  One thing I do know is that I still want to be able to help anyone looking for a lifer Snowy.

More than likely I will still report cool non-owl species.  It’s unlikely that a bird like this overwintering Western Meadowlark I found will create a circus, and serious birders would be interested in knowing about it even if they didn’t want to go see it.  Owls are different though; people (birders and non-birders) get whipped up into a frenzy over them owls.

Western Meadowlark

Western Meadowlark – a delightful dose of unexpected variety during this SNOWy winter. Plus it’s Dad’s favorite bird.

So it’s a new year and a new outlook.  And my next post will highlight how I’d be put to the test right away.

Time To Get A Bigger Shovel

It’s getting crazy around here.  We seem to be in the midst of an epic winter SNOWstorm that is dumping excessive amounts of SNOW right here in Kandiyohi County.  In addition to the two Snowies I found last week, I saw a recent eBird report of one near Raymond and two days ago I had a student report that he saw a Snowy Owl by Bushmills ethanol plant just west of Atwater.  So this morning I went exploring to see if I could find the Atwater Snowy; I was unsuccessful looking for the Raymond bird yesterday.  Not having any luck at Atwater, I decided to go check up on Wilbur in Willmar.  Goold ol’ Wilbur was found in his usual area just south of Willmar.  This morning he was catching the last rays of sunshine before the day turned gloomy.

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl

Not long after seeing this owl I was pleased to finally see some Horned Larks as they’ve been noticeably absent all winter.  Additionally I had the good luck of seeing a Rough-legged Hawk, a rare treat for Kandiyohi County.

After this short birding foray, it was time to head home for getting back to the business of Saturday, which was cooking breakfast and then doing absolutely nothing at all.  We did, however, have a dinner scheduled with friends for the evening, but as we were getting set to walk out the door, Marin’s preschool teacher texted Melissa that she just saw a Snowy Owl at Bushmills in Atwater!  It was only a ten-minute drive, so we zipped over there and saw the glowing white form from afar as it contrasted dramatically with the darkening clouds in the twilight. To my amazement, it was yet another adult male Snowy Owl.  That makes for three distinct male Snowies in the Willmar/Atwater area this past week.

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Snowy Owl

This was by far the whitest Snowy I had ever seen.

Snowy Owl

I’m a sucker for a Snowy Owl photo with a barn in the background.

Snowy Owl barn

It’s unclear just how much SNOW has been dumped by this storm.  All these recent owls begs the question of just how many are out there right in our very own county?  It might be time to get the search party organized…

Wilbur

Snowy Owl

I caved. I named my Snowy Owl like so many photogs have done, like “Cellie” the famous SNOW last year that perched on a cell tower, or “Ramsey” the owl who came to the town of his namesake. So why Wilbur?

  • It sounds like Willmar (pronounced will-mer) where he’s living for the winter.
  • E.B. White, duh.  Plus the guy had to be a birder for writing The Trumpet of the Swan.
  • And because, well, he’s…

Some Owl

And Then This Happened: Drama on the High Lines

Buoyed by low gas prices and spurred on by Caleb Strand (this post is dedicated to you, buddy!), I have yet to take a direct drive anywhere this winter as hordes of Snowy Owls are on the loose, causing me to have dust-caked vehicles from all that backroads travelin’.  On January 2nd, I found a Snowy Owl right outside Willmar.  Since then I have driven around that general area numerous times while running errands in the hopes of relocating it. Tiring of that routine, I changed things up a bit this weekend and began hiking some unbirded wildlife management areas in an effort to get some exercise and contribute some data to eBird.  On one outing at Kandi WMA, I saw a raptor land in a tree over 200 yards away.  I used my camera to zoom in so I could make the ID.  I was pleasantly surprised to look at my picture and see a Great Horned Owl, which is always a fun find.

Great Horned OwlBut this morning after I dropped Evan off at school, I was again tempted to take the long way home in the hopes of refinding that Willmar Snowy. So I did take the long way, and this time I finally refound the all-white, male Snowy again since I last saw it over a week ago.  With no camera on me at the time, I vowed to return later in the day to get some photos. After all, it was a beautiful sunny day with clear blue skies – a great day to photograph a white bird.

So Marin and I went back this afternoon and found the Snowy in short order.  I got out and took a couple photos.

Snowy Owl Willmar

Despite the fact that I was on the ground, he didn’t mind me and appeared a bit distracted as he gazed west, even alarmed…

Snowy Owl -Willmar

The owl flushed just after I took this photo.  I was cursing myself because I assumed I had flushed it.  The owl was flying east right along MN Hwy 23, going far, far away.  I had to go that direction anyway, so I hopped back in the car and began driving, following it to see where it would finally land.

And then this happened – a second Snowy Owl flew over my vehicle from behind!  All of the sudden I was tracking two flying Snowy Owls!  I decided to focus my attention on this new bird which was much closer.  It perched on a pole on the minimum maintenance road, 30th St. SW, so I pulled up close to it so I could take some pictures.  As I did so, I spotted the first Snowy Owl about a half mile further east on another pole.  Amazing.  Two Snowy Owls in Willmar, together, and both all-white males.  Since I was currently by Snowy #2,  I began snapping away.  These two birds could have been identical twins; the only difference I found in my pictures is that Snowy #1 had very light barring on his belly, indicating a younger bird.  Snowy #2 had a pure white belly.

Willmar Snowy OwlWillmar Snowy Owl

But this guy appeared distracted too, looking in the direction of the other Snowy Owl a half mile to the east.

Snowy Owl Willmar

Then he took off.  Again I cursed myself, thinking my presence caused him to scram.  As I watched, though, he was flying right toward Snowy #1.  I started driving again so I could get closer to the action.  As I was watching through the windshield, it looked like he was going to pull up on the next pole to Snowy #1! Then some SNOW drama unfolded before my very eyes.  No, Snowy #2 was not, in fact, going to the next pole; he was instead going straight for Snowy #1′s pole!  Sensing a potential butt-whooping, Snowy #1 hopped off the pole and landed briefly on the wire.  Not good enough for Snowy #2.  Talons out, Snowy #2 came screeching in and made contact in the air with an alarmed Snowy #1, sending him packing to the east in a hurry.  Snowy #2 promptly then landed on the pole that Snowy #1 had just warmed up for him and began surveying his turf.

"Who you calling #2?"

“Who you callin’ #2?”

I never did see Snowy #1 set down – he was over a mile away before I lost sight of him.  I could not believe what I had just witnessed. Birding continually surprises me.  Looking at photos, it appears that Snowy #2 is the same owl I had found on January 2nd. Here’s a photo from that day.

Snowy Owl

If that’s the case, his behavior today made sense in that he has probably staked out a winter territory and was having nothing to do with a younger male owl encroaching on his territory.  Whatever the case, these are exciting times which may call for a Kandiyohi County Snowy Owl roundup to see just how many birds are wintering here.  Stay tuned!

Winning Solitaire is OK Too

When the winter season started, Steve and I started tossing around a couple of names of “must-have” winter birds.  Two regular winter vagrant species were at the top of the list of birds we were determined to chase.  One of those, the Varied Thrush, was delivered to us on a silver platter when it showed up in the backyard of another fellow birder in Willmar at the beginning of November.  The other bird, the Townsend’s Solitaire, is a much more frequent visitor to the state but wasn’t being nearly as accommodating as the Varied Thrush.  With patience and some hard searching, I suppose we could have even turned one up in Kandiyohi County.  But Steve and I were anxious to put this bird to rest on the life list, so we went after one that had already been found.  The Long Prairie CBC turned one up in southern Todd County a few days ago.  So on Sunday Steve and I made the one-hour drive. After a little bit of searching we found the Solitaire.

Townsend's Solitaire

Townsends Solitaire

Townsend Solitaire

This Solitaire chase was the last planned birding adventure for the winter, and now it’s already on the books.  Posting this is kind of bittersweet.  So now what?  Snowy Owl searches and other owl searches may keep the birding and blogging alive for the next couple months until migration and some out-of-state trips can be bring some renewed excitement again.  And of course, we could always shuffle the deck and play another game of Solitaire in the hopes of turning up a Kandiyohi TOSO.

The Best Game of Solitaire I Ever Lost

Steve and I have a number one target bird for this winter: Townsend’s Solitaire.  Neither of us has seen one, and this species is a regular, albeit sporadic, visitor in the state during the winter months.  Plenty of them seem to be showing up all over the place.  Ideally we do not want to have to go far to see this bird.  A couple of them have shown up within an hour’s drive lately, so yesterday I packed the kids in the car to take them on a little adventure and give Melissa some peace and quiet to do some grading.  Of course, the promise of a Solitaire was not enough to get the kids to go with – on-board movies, the family dog, and the promise of a pop may have influenced their decision.

As the kids watched their movie while we sped by Willmar on MN 23, I watched pole tops. We are experiencing an echo irruption of Snowy Owls, so my eyes are constantly scanning pole tops, shed roofs, irrigators, and other available perches whenever I drive.

Snowy Owl

For once, that obsessive habit paid off when I spotted a Snowy Owl! And right by Willmar no less!  For as many Snowies as I have seen, reported, or helped others see, each one of those has been someone else’s discovery that I have refound, reused, or recycled.  This was the first one I’ve found on my own – a pristine, undiscovered Snowy.  And boy was he a nice looking all-white male too!  Not bad for my first one, eh?

Snowy Owl

Finding a Snowy Owl on my own has been a goal of mine since last year’s historic irruption.  To find one right in our own community made it extra special.  It also felt pretty good to lock up a 2015 county Snowy on just the second day of the year.  Of all the Snowy Owl eBird markers I have dropped in Meeker and Kandiyohi Counties the past two years, this Willmar marker will forever be the one I am most proud of.

After reporting the owl through all necessary channels, the kids and I continued to Redwood County to hunt for the Solitaire.  Going through all that flat country I half expected to find more Snowies.  But we didn’t, and we struck out on the Solitaire too.  No big deal, it was already a great day.

Having a Snowy close-at-hand means you can check up on it when you run errands, like I did later that same afternoon.  This Snowy picks some far-out perches; I’m okay with that so it can’t get mobbed by birders and photographers.  I enjoy this photo because you can read the Willmar water tower in the background.  The SNOW would make a much better school mascot than the Cardinal.

Snowy Owl Willmar

Hopefully this Snowy has set up a winter territory here.  The terrain sure looks right – very flat, wide-open land with many quiet perches.  Randy refound it this morning, so I went out hoping for more photo ops but the bird was way too far away.  Here’s an authentic scenario that will give you somewhat of a feel for a SNOW search – can you find it below?

Willmar Snowy

Were you right?

Willmar Snowy

This may not be the last you see of this Snowy Owl as it is just a few miles away.  Are you sick of Snowy Owl postings yet?  Well, too darn bad!  This year is getting to be as historic as last year, and I aim to soak it up and celebrate it as much as possible. Farmers’ Almanacs don’t predict SNOW storms after all – we just don’t know when SNOW levels will fall back to normal.