When Will It Ever Happen?

April 22, 2016, that’s when.

Willet

Willet has been my nemesis shorebird for a couple years now. I’ve chased and searched but could never catch a break with this one until Joel Schmidt called me up after work on Friday.  Joel asked me if I still needed a county Willet.  I practically stuttered when I admitted my shame of telling him I needed a Willet period. My bag of shame birds got a little lighter, but I still tote a few around.

Funny thing is that I took this bird for granted in my early birding career.  It’ll come, I told myself. One time I even turned down a similar call from Joel two or three years ago when he found a Willet in the county.  Learning that it was over a 100 yards from the road in the disappearing light of the evening, I turned Joel down thinking that there would be better opportunities.  I have not been more wrong. On Friday I didn’t hesitate. I got Joel’s call as I was pulling into the driveway after picking up kids from school. I promptly dropped them off in the care of their mother and then sped away.

Willet To a non-birder this is pretty drab bird, but it can be quite flashy when it flies revealing a striking white and black pattern.  I watched the bird for over a half hour hoping to catch a glimpse of it flying, but it never did.  Eventually I had to get back to the house.  Flashy wings or not, the Willet never fails to impress Minnesota birders because it is such an uncommon migrant.  As such I posted Joel’s sighting on FB. I love posting birds like this because we are such an underbirded county–good birds may attract a few visitors who in turn could find something great in the home county.

Feeling the energy that a new life bird can bring, I went out birding this morning looking for nothing in particular, hoping to find a rarity.  Cinnamon Teal is always high on the want list for a county bird, but I won’t snub a chance to finally get a good photo of its much more common cousin.

Green-winged TealGreen-winged TealAs I was Teal-gazing, though, someone answered the Willet ad in the classifieds. Visiting birder Brad Abendroth struck out on the Willet but instead discovered a whopping 23 American Avocets at that pond!

American AvocetThe birding fun doesn’t end there. Later in the day I took the kids on a short hike at my Gray Partridge spot.  As we walked a fence-line in 20 mph winds we got lucky and kicked up a single Gray Partridge from just 2 feet away! It startled Marin pretty good; she wanted to walk behind me after that. Evan enjoyed seeing this lifer.  Based on the deep rusty color of the outer tail feathers, it must have been a male.  When I saw the two the other day, one had bright rusty outer tail feathers like this and the other had lighter-colored ones, possibly indicating a pair.  If that’s the case, perhaps the female we didn’t see today was sitting tight on a nest. We can only hope.

Great Tales of Local Listing

After I dropped the kids off at school Monday, my day off could be spent however–catching up on housework, catching up on real work, or birding. Tough decision–thought no birder ever. What was a tough decision was how I was going to bird. A tantalizing list-serv report came in the middle of the night of a Great-tailed Grackle just 40 miles away.  Though it may be a trash bird in the south, this potential state bird has already been the object of two failed chases but could have the honor of being Minnesota #300 if the third chase was successful. But would it be there the next day?  Would I fail again and own that disgraceful statistic?  I have also been hard-pressed to find a Willet for my life list and with the median migration date fast approaching, I thought it would be prudent to look for such a thing instead of going for the Grackle.  The possibility of exploring and discovering was winning out over the possibility of chasing and being disappointed.

I started the day by heading down to the Bird Island sewage ponds, a known mecca for shorebirds during migration.  Except this day; one Yellowlegs sp.  Looks like I chose wrong. The day was young, though, so I thought I’d check one more spot for shorebirds before joining Evan for lunch at his school. On the way I got a text from Melissa who added Common Loon to our yard list as a bird flew so low and yodeled so unmistakable (to any Minnesotan) and loud that she heard it from inside the house.  This was a pretty exciting addition to the list as there is not water around us for several miles!

I knew my next stop for shorebirds was a long shot for a Willet.  But I had to try. As I walked a fence line on the property, the ground exploded at my feet with rushing wings. Pheasants? Small-bodies, gray birds, no long tails, rusty outer tail feathers…not pheasants–GRAY PARTRIDGES!!!

Gray PartridgeSure, it’s a crummy photo but this was taken on the draw as I stalked the two birds for a second flush.  The thrill of this encounter is tough to put into words. Gray Partridges are  tough, tough birds to find in anywhere in Minnesota.  They are most often seen in the dead of winter at dawn or dusk when they are feeding out in the plowed fields. Their dark bodies are easy to spot against the snow.  But even this is a rare occurrence for the luckiest of birders who happen to be traveling down the right gravel road.  Gray Partridges like short grass areas where the cover is “thin” and small in area, quite the opposite of Pheasants.  They hold tight and can hide among little/no cover. Unless a birder is getting off the beaten path and hiking old fence lines, drainage ditches, and abandoned farm sites, they likely will never see this bird.  I actually have seen this bird before and in Minnesota, but I did so as a Pheasant hunter. A few years before I was a birder, a buddy and I kicked up a covey of about 10 birds and harvested one (it was and still is a legal game bird).  But that was the last time I laid eyes on one.  Since then I have started doubting their existence and begun to think, as some bird bloggers have, that this is a mythical bird. The thought of one in my own county was even more preposterous.  Yet with a new county bird–and an exceptional one at that!–count me among the believers again.

Because I have seen Gray Partridges in Minnesota in the past but could not recall the date, this has been the one species that has caused my MN eBird list and my actual MN list to be out of balance.  This find rectified that; I am still reveling in the synchronization.

I have literally hunted (successfully) Gray Partridges, or Hungarian Partridges, in Montana two decades ago; but no worries, I won’t be chasing these two with a shotgun.  In fact, I’m not even sharing the location with birders because I think these two might be nesting at this site. I will be taking Evan out there in the coming week as he told me he would like to get this lifer.

Speaking of Evan, I dashed into town full of birdrenaline to meet him for lunch. And then I went for dessert up in Swift County:

Great-tailed Grackle

Great-tailed GrackleNew yard bird (the state bird!), new county bird(!!), eBird list harmony, new Minnesota bird, 300th MN bird–all in one day.  Good times!!

TOBY’s MSP Touchdown

Obsession has put down deep roots here at ABWCH over finding Eastern Screech-Owls in anticipation of finding one for TOBY (Tommy’s Owl Big Year) in June.  The more I researched and chatted up the wise old birders, the more nervous I was getting about our prospects for this bird in June–sightings drop off dramatically in the summer months. Meanwhile, Tommy DeBardeleben had been blitzing toward his goal of seeing all 19 Owl species that can be found in the U.S., seeing 15 of them already by April 7th. Accomplishing this unique goal was no longer a pipe dream, but now a very realistic possibility.  TOBY could not fall apart over the relatively common ESOW.

Seeing as how we had a “bird in the hand” with the Lake Harriet Screech in Minneapolis, I got the crazy idea to explore the possibility of flying Tommy in for a lightning-fast trip to knock out this Owl. To my amazement, airfare was ridiculously cheap. I proposed my idea to Tommy and like the proverbial tossed spaghetti, it stuck.  After coordinating work schedules on both ends and shopping for airfare, Tommy was all set with a $127 plane ticket and a round-trip that would only take 21 hours from the time he walked into Phoenix Sky-Harbor Airport to the time he walked out. Tommy is likely the only birder to ever make a cross-country chase just to see an Eastern Screech-Owl.

Last Tuesday after I tucked the kids into bed, I drove to the Cities and crashed at my brother’s place for a few hours.  Tommy’s plane got in at midnight, and I was there to pick him up by 2:45 AM.  We would be Owling right away.  We traveled to Chimney Rock Scientific and Natural Area near Hastings to search for Screech-Owls in the dark.  Several had been reported here in the past.  However, as soon as we got to the location, we knew it was likely a lost cause–wind was gusting up to 20 mph.  There would be no way we could hear Screech-Owls vocalizing.  We Owled on regardless, hoping to get lucky.  The only bird we had any luck with was a Dark-eyed Junco that was equally stunned to see us.

Dark-eyed Junco

After an hour or so in the wind and spitting rain we gave up and decided to make our way to Minneapolis so we’d arrive at the location of the famous Lake Harriet Screech just before dawn.

Once we were at Beards Plaisance, a park on the southwest side of Lake Harriet, I immediately checked the famous roosting cavity with my flashlight.  Nothing. Then I checked a couple of White Pines where it can be found, and again did not find it.  It was somewhat discouraging, but Tommy and I were still confident the famous Screech was near us…somewhere.  I had given up on searching until it was daylight out when Tommy had called out that he had it! Lifer Owl #18 for Tommy, and #16 for TOBY! In the pre-dawn light Tommy caught a glimpse of it flying right by him as it was being chased by a Robin. From that point forward, we spent a great deal of time enjoying the Eastern Screech-Owl.  Prior to this I had only ever seen this species in a hole of some sort.  To see one out in the open and being very active felt like I was seeing this bird for the first time.

Eastern Screech-OwlThe Owl vocalized often and moved from perch to perch.  It was simply awesome.

Eastern Screech-OwlI was amazed by how hyperactive this Owl was–it pays to observe a nocturnal bird nocturnally!  Here’s a short video where you can see what I mean.

Watching and photographing this Screech-Owl alongside Tommy was incredibly fun.  We got to observe this Owl as few people do since most people come during the daylight hours and see a sleeping bird.

Eastern Screech-Owl

Eastern Screech-OwlThis bird called often with its monotonic trill.  Hearing it was a new thing for me and just as thrilling as seeing it.  Check it out.

The Screech continued to be active and vocalize even as it was getting more and more light out.

Eastern Screec-OwlEventually, though, it retired to one final perch and quieted down.

Eastern Screech-Owl

Eastern Screech-OwlIt was now to time to take celebratory photos.

Ten Arizonan Fingers for 10 Arizona TOBY Owls; 6 Minnesotan Fingers for 6 Minnesota TOBY Owls, sub-divided into two hands--a hand of 5 fingers for 5 Tommy Owl Lifers and 1 Thumb for a big thumbs up on Tommy's progress

Ten Arizonan fingers for 10 Arizona TOBY Owls (so far); 6 Minnesotan fingers for 6 Minnesota TOBY Owls, subdivided into two hands–a hand of 5 fingers for 5 Tommy Owl Lifers found in MN this year and 1 thumb for a big thumbs up on what Tommy is working so hard to accomplish

Tommy

18 Owl Lifers, 16 TOBY Owls, 1 Happy Tommy

We left the Screech to enjoy the rising sun over Lake Harriet before taking his daylong nap. It had put on quite a show for Tommy and me.

Eastern Screech-OwlWith the major trip goal of seeing an Eastern Screech-Owl all locked up by 7 AM, Tommy and I had a good 5 hours of free birding time before I had to drop him off at the airport.  I was thinking as a lister and giving Tommy options for some life birds he could get.  Tommy had his Owler hat on that day, though, and he instead opted to see Barred Owls again with this free time.  We went to Fort Snelling State Park to see the famous pair, but unfortunately they were a no-show. Fortunately, Tommy picked up his American Tree Sparrow lifer for a nice bonus on the day.

We next went to the Minnesota River National Wildlife Refuge Long Meadow Lake Unit to look for another famous pair of Barred Owls that are nesting there.  As we searched we came across many fun birds as migration is just getting underway.  My personal highlight was detecting a singing Winter Wren.  Their song is one of the best of the northwoods where it lives; I was surprised that it was singing in migration.

Winter WrenWinter WrenEventually Tommy spotted what we presume to be the male of the nesting pair of Barred Owls.  I was surprised when he pointed it out to me–I really wasn’t expecting a Barred Owl in this spot.  It was a reminder to be vigilant always.  Tommy never lets his guard down.

Barred Owl

Barred Owl

This Owl was not very photogenic and quite skittish.  After following it through the woods a couple times, we decided to leave it alone and go look for the nest.  Eventually we found it.  The Mrs. was much more photogenic.

Barred OwlBarred Owl

Barred owl

Barred OwlAfter enjoying these Owls and the other birds it was time to wrap up this flash of a visit.  Tommy and I enjoyed a hot meal of Swedish meatballs at IKEA in the shadow of the Mall of America before getting him to the airport at noon.  I told Tommy that perhaps there were some Arizonans who flew to MSP the same day as he did to do something just as frivolous–spend their time and money at that retail behemoth.  The difference, though, is that what Tommy came to get will not end up in a landfill some day.  Instead we created yet another fun memory that will always be with us.

I’ve known Tommy for just over a year now, and in that time we have gone on four major birding adventures together, each with its own major goal.  And each time we have succeeded in meeting our goal.  Here’s a quick recap:

April 2015 – Elegant Trogon – Madera Canyon, AZ

October 2015 – Rufous-capped Warbler – Hunter Canyon, AZ

January 2016 – Great Gray Owl, Northern Hawk Owl, Snowy Owl – Northern MN

April 2016 – Eastern Screech-Owl – Minneapolis, MN

Little did we know that the winter MN Owling trip would spark TOBY, making it a real possibility.  Tommy has just three Owls left to find for his Big Year: Flammulated, Short-eared, and Boreal.  Working on TOBY is not over for me yet, the focus is just shifting.  Tommy is counting on another trip to Minnesota as Plan A for one of these birds. Perhaps Minnesota will even have a remote, unlikely chance of being Plan C for another. Time will tell.

It was a thrill to be able to do this compact, high-adventure with Tommy.  I am looking forward to the next adventure. Congratulations, Tommy, on your new lifer Owl and getting Owl species #16 on the year!

 

One Eye Open and Always Listening

Call me a curmudgeon, but I just have not been pumped up for migration this spring and often let the world of birds buzz around me without taking notice.

Eastern Screech-OwlMaybe it’s work, maybe it’s my unfinished taxes, maybe it’s the fact that the regulars have become blasé, but my obliviousness is mostly due to my OCD over ESOWs for TOBY (Tommy’s Owl Big Year).  Nights are filled with mining the data, pumping the contacts, and even prowling the woods.  There has been little time for the ordinary.  This indifference should not be mistaken for a lack of awareness of my surroundings or of the current events in the birding world.

Eastern Screech-OwlSometimes things do catch my attention requiring me to investigate matters further.

Eastern Screech-Owl

As I’ve been Screeching lately, some of the ordinary birds have stopped me cold–only because I thought I was taking machine gun fire.  Turns out it was just a Good God Bird.

Pileated Woodpecker

Screech-Owls love tree cavities.  So do Wood Ducks.  Still, I was astonished to find no fewer than six pairs of Wood Ducks in the treetops in two small city parks.

Wood Duck

Wood Duck

The Eastern Screech-Owl focus has been pretty laser-like, but I am still doing my due diligence when it comes to listing/chasing.

I recently went after a lifer Red-throated Loon in Brainerd which had a decidedly not-red throat and even more decidedly un-Loonlike appearance, as in it didn’t appear at all.  The consolation was a small flock of Bohemian Waxwings under a blue sky.

Bohemian Waxwing

Bohemian Waxwing

Bohemian Waxwing

Also in recent birding adventures, I picked up MN #299, Mountain Bluebird, after two attempts. I even have a crappy photo to prove it.

Mountain Bluebird

A nearby American Tree Sparrow was slightly more accommodating.

American Tree Sparrow

At the county level, progress on the list has been steady, albeit unexciting. Ross’s Goose was a solid add and bonus points were earned for a three-Goose photo.

Ross's GooseAnother overdue addition was American Woodcock, peenting style. (Turn the volume way up)

Though not a new county bird, I continue to document the rare ones, like the Mute Swan, for eBird.

Mute Swan

One only knows what more will show up this migration.  One bird that migration won’t drop in my lap is the Eastern Screech-Owl.  For that I must fight the good fight and play the numbers game.  I’ve got two months to figure it out.  The truth is I love the focus of a singular goal, even more so when it’s a challenging one. Bring it on, Screech.

Eastern Screech-Owl

An Unadvanced Birder working on a VIB’s Advance Team

Every so often in our quirky, obsessive hobby of birding, someone gets the idea of doing a Big Year in the hopes of becoming a record holder for his or her county, state, or continent. Pursuing such a number is nothing new and most birders succumb to number seeking in one way or another. Maybe I’m a bit biased because of my personal investment, but when Tommy DeBardeleben announced his Owl Big Year, I was genuinely intrigued.  According to Tommy, he must see and photograph all 19 species of Owls that regularly occur in the United States in 2016.  Seeing all the Owls in one’s lifetime is quite the achievement, let alone seeing them all well in a single year. Tommy got off to a good start in Minnesota in January and has continued knocking out Owl species left and right since he got back to Arizona.

Just as surprising as Tommy’s Owl Big Year announcement was his decision to return to Minnesota in June. The TOBY immediately makes Eastern Screech-Owl the number one target for his return to the land o’ lakes.  Not only does he need it for the TOBY, but it would also be a lifer for him.  As Tommy’s host, the pressure is on…again.  Unlike those winter Owls, though, I have only ever seen one ESOW in my life and not by any skill on my part {gulp}.   ESOW is a year-round resident that can be found throughout the state.  That does not translate into them being easy finds.  I’ve made seeing/finding the easternmost Screech species my main goal for 2016.  It is a good goal, a solid goal. It has given some direction to this new year of birding in which I was just drifting along.  It is a goal that requires a great deal of inquiry of wise old Owlers as well as searching on my own–no stone unturned as they say, or more appropriately, no cavity unchecked.

Eastern Screech-OwlThis Eastern Screech-Owl was brought to the public’s attention this past week when  skillful Twin Cities Owler Erik Berg discovered it on a regular cavity check in Minneapolis.  Since then, the bird paparazzi have been encamped underneath this tree.

Will this Owl be around for Tommy? Doubtful.  Still, it had been a long time since I had me an ESOW sighting. I had to go check it out and scope out the lay of the land for the TOBY, just in case. Also, I had never seen ESOW eyes before.

Eastern Screech-OwlSince this Owl was just 5 minutes from my brother’s house, the kids came along and got some solid cousin time.  Jason joined me on this Owl check-up and got some great looks through others’ scopes.

Eastern Screech-OwlAfter going back to Jason’s house, I came back a little later for one last check hoping the Owl would be more in the open.  It was slightly better this time.Eastern Screech-OwlRest up, little buddy, you may have quite the visitor to entertain in a few months.

Eastern Screech-Owl

All Tied Up at 15 Apiece

Long-time followers of this blog may recall in the early years how upset Evan would get if I got a life bird and he didn’t.  Over time, though, his interest in birds has waned to a level that is healthy. Unlike Evan, my addiction has only continued to rage, and I have gone on many chases or birding outings in recent years without him.  And it doesn’t bother him when I then add new birds.  There was one bird, however, I saw a couple years ago that Evan didn’t that did kind of bug him.  I’m referring to the Long-eared Owl I saw in Arizona with Laurence Butler when Evan opted to go back to the car with Grandpa.  That’s the kind of missed opportunity that can haunt a person.

But here’s the good news: Evan got his Long-eared Owl lifer this winter, and–newsflash–it happened on the epic Tommy & Gordon Owl Expedition!  Time and circumstances have not allowed me to share until now.  We made a stop to look for Long-eareds…somewhere in Minnesota…on our way south that last day.  And Tommy, who was responsible for originally finding the AZ Long-eared, delivered for us here in Minnesota by spotting Evan’s lifer and my state LEOW.  That gave us an incredible SIX Owl species for that trip (Great Gray, Snowy, Northern Hawk, Barred, Great Horned, and Long-eared).

Long-eared OwlSo the Long-eared got Evan caught up with me on Owls at 14 Species. Then there was that Northern Saw-whet I went to see, which for reasons I still cannot figure out, Evan opted out of that easy, guaranteed, short chase and instead went to his sister’s dance practice. Once again the Owl numbers were askew.  However, our whole family recently made a stop at the Saw-whet location so my coworker, Brad, could collect the pellets for some science students to dissect.  Evan got his lifer and tied me once again.  A bonus was that we saw it with an un-pelletized deer mouse.

Northern Saw-whet OwlEvan and I both now stand at 15 Owl species apiece.  Here are the species we have seen listed in the order that Evan saw them:

  1. Great Horned Owl (MN)
  2. Great Gray Owl (MN)
  3. Barred Owl (MN)
  4. Snowy Owl (MN)
  5. Northern Hawk Owl (MN)
  6. Eastern Screech-Owl (MN)
  7. Burrowing Owl (AZ)
  8. Elf Owl (AZ)
  9. Western-Screech Owl (AZ)
  10. Northern Pygmy-Owl (AZ)
  11. Spotted Owl (AZ)
  12. Barn Owl (AZ)
  13. Short-eared Owl (MN)
  14. Long-eared Owl (MN)
  15. Northern Saw-whet Owl (MN)

There are 19 species of Owls that occur regularly in North America.  The four that we have not seen are Boreal Owl, Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Flammulated Owl, and Whiskered Screech-Owl.  As our good friend, Tommy DeBardeleben, pointed out, all 19 can be seen by visiting just Arizona and Minnesota. That’s a pretty fun fact for a couple of MN birders that go to AZ annually. The Boreal is the only one of the four remaining Owls that can be found in Minnesota, making it the number-one most wanted bird here.  Next year is supposed to be an irruption year.  Boreal Owls irrupt every four years, and the winter of 2012-2013 was incredible for them. Hopefully by this time next year we will have secured that bird.  Regarding the other AZ Owls, I’m sure it’s just a matter of a couple more trips…

Say-what? You Saw-what?!

Birding. It never stops throwing surprises at me. After going on those raging birding benders this past month in northern Minnesota, it was time to settle down. Time to get back to the real job, back to responsibility.  And that’s exactly what I set out to do this Wednesday when I woke up ready to get stuff done. My work for the day involved collaborating with some of our district’s elementary teachers. Responsibility was going well. Productivity was happening.  But just as I was packing up to leave, Jeremy (Barred Owl Jeremy) started telling me about a “baby Great Horned Owl” in his friend’s yard.  My mind was slowly processing this information–February, baby Owls…something isn’t adding up here. While I struggled to understand, he held his hands about 8 inches apart and said, “Yeah, it was this big.” Now I was awake and shock was setting in as I realized he was talking about a Northern Saw-whet Owl. And the evidence kept mounting: “It just sits in a pine tree all day right by their window.” I nearly dropped my laptop. A quick Google image search had Jeremy confirm what I suspected. Jeremy then added fuel to the fire that was raging in me when he told me the Owl was in the tree that very morning. Then, nice guy that he is, Jeremy, through a flurry of text messages, arranged for me stop by his friend’s house that very evening after work.

Birders know that Saw-whets are tough, tough birds to get.  They aren’t rare, but hardly anyone finds them because of their size and their ability to remain still in well-concealed perches.  Then, when birders do find them, they often don’t share for fear that numerous birders will come and disturb the Owls on their roosts.  If a generous or green-horned birder does post a location of a Saw-whet on FB, you better screenshot it quick before Admin takes it down.  So, to find one, you either have to put in a lot of time searching, have a serendipitous encounter, or know a guy who knows a guy that owes that guy some kind of an Owl favor.  Nearly 4 years and 400 birds into this hobby, I had yet to be successful in getting a Saw-whet through any of those means.  I had seen 14 of North America’s Owl species, and this was not one of them.  I knew it would happen eventually.  I’ve put in time searching near and far.  I even went to great lengths to track down a roost site that was public knowledge for all of 5 minutes on FB.  But not even three visits to that white-washed tree this winter netted me that bird. Then a couple weeks ago I found out I there was one on a very road I had traveled that very same day in the Sax-Zim Bog.  The Saw-whet saga dragged on. Until this day.

My moment had finally arrived.

On hardly any notice, birding buddy Steve Gardner was ready to roll with me just as soon as I got out of work, picked up kids at school, and dropped Marin off with Melissa. I just assumed Evan wanted to go.  Strangely, and this may haunt him someday, he opted to go along to his sister’s dance practice instead. What the heck? He hates going there, and this was a lifer Owl.  As Steve and I pulled out, Melissa asked Evan if he was sure he knew what he was doing to which he responded, “Mom, I’m 8. I have my whole life to look for that bird!”

Steve and I don’t have our whole lives and much has already slipped by Saw-whetless. Needless to say, we were booking it to get to the location an hour away just before sundown. I don’t think Steve and I were prepared for how cool this Owl was in real life.

Northern Saw-whet OwlThe Saw-whet is not much bigger than a pop can. I don’t think I’ve seen an animal that’s cuter. Jeremy’s friends pinpointed it for us right away.  That was probably a good thing…

Northern Saw-whet Owl

Northern Saw-whet Owl

This tame Owl just sat and watched me and Steve, mostly Steve.

Northern Saw-whet OwlOccasionally it looked at me.

Northern Saw-whet OwlBut it was mostly captivated by Steve.

Northern Saw-whet OwlNorthern Saw-whet OwlWhat was fascinating to me was how sloth-like this Owl was in moving its head.  The movement was almost indiscernible. The fact that we were finally looking at a real Northern Saw-whet Owl combined with a close encounter with a tame bird makes this one of the best Owl experiences I’ve ever had.

Northern Saw-whet OwlAfter taking last looks at the Owl and admiring the massive pile of pellets and all the whitewash from an Owl that has sat in this same spot every day for the winter, Steve and I thanked the homeowners and headed home feeling good…or evil.  Steve called up his twin brother who is also a birder and rubbed in his new lifer.  I went to the liquor store.

This was a long-awaited day.  It felt so good. I honestly thought it was still years away from happening.  A huge thank you to Jeremy for an extraordinary addition to mine and Steve’s life lists!

SNOW Day–Faculty Must Still Report

Much to the my childrens’ great annoyance, there has not been a single day of school called due to weather this year.  We are generally bereft of the white stuff this mild winter. I’m totally okay with no snow so long as we still have SNOW.

Snowy OwlLong-time readers of ABWCH may recall that two years ago, my coworkers and students were feeding me sightings nearly daily of a crazy number of Snowy Owls.  Those were the gold old days of the first of two consecutive irruption years. Fellow teacher, Bonnie, spotted this one this past weekend.  Bonnie has a way with the SNOW–she found me two of them a couple years ago.

Snowy OwlDespite this being a non-irruption year, I’ve had reports this winter of at least 5 Snowy Owls in my two-county birding area. This, however, is the first local one I’ve seen this season. Fellow teacher and birding friend Brad relocated Bonnie’s find Monday morning.  Brad did the Minnesota-nice birder thing of babysitting it until I got on scene.  Another birding/teacher friend, Theresa, also joined the mix.  Monday was a scheduled day off for all of us, yet here we were holding a staff meeting in the open countryside.  It was a pretty good meeting.

Snowy OwlAfter this meeting of the minds, I actually went off to a real meeting at school.  But then it was back to birding business as I traveled up to Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge that same day to look for the White-winged Crossbills that have become very reliable there.  My previous lifer-sighting was a quick glimpse at a female; I was wanting to see and photograph a male.

I did find the Crossbills when I was walking the Blue Hill Trail through the Spruce forest at Sherburne NWR.  I saw pine cone debris raining down from above.  It was a glorious sight and sound because I knew what was causing it–Crossbills feed on the seeds in pine cones, destroying the cones in the process. The problem was that I couldn’t get a view of the top of the tree. After tracking birds from below as they moved from tree top to tree top, I finally found an opening where I could see the birds at the top.  I wanted a photo, but first, I wanted to get a good look with binoculars.  Picking out a reddish/pink one (male!), I watched it until it turned and I saw those diagnostic bright, white wing bars on the black wings.  I was happy.  Now the photo hunt was on.  I took a step to get in position, but my foot snapped off a dead branch from a tree and created a loud ‘crack’ that scattered the birds. And so I chased the White-winged Crossbills around and around the small woods only to come home empty-handed. Perhaps the outcome would have been different if my coworkers were there. We seem to work well together and get things done.

#FloridaMan Slays Birds at Sax-Zim Bog Birding Festival

Fresh off my birding binge with Tommy and Gordon, the Northland was once again calling me back.  No rest for the weary as they say, or more accurately, no good birds for the well-rested.  This time I was headed back to work as a field trip leader at the annual Sax-
Zim Bog Birding Festival.  It would be my second time guiding in as many weeks, only this time would be so much different.  Instead of taking out a couple of hardcore listers, I’d be with a huge group of all ability levels.  To compensate for such disproportion, there was a great number of fellow guides, most of whom were more skilled at the art of bird and people wrangling than I.  Some I knew, many I did not. The camaraderie of this team was instant, though, and brought a bit of warmth to the air that flirted with 30 below. Of course, this is bound to happen when the guides are quartered in the wood-heated Ringhofer farm house where you are instantly welcomed by the hosts with smiles, handshakes, and multiple glasses of wine. Meadowlands truly does welcome birders.  We were, in many respects, in the heart of the Bog. Stories and laughs abounded. Little sleep was had. Anticipation was high.

Sax Zim Bog Sign

A key difference between this trip and my last was the food. Birding like madmen the last go-around did not lead to the best diet which was a strange mix of fast-food and hastily thrown-together, sometimes sketchy meals by us crazed birders who were always on the run. On the other hand, the good people of Meadowlands see to it that you eat like kings, giving us three squares a day that tasted like it was cooked with a grandma’s love.

Despite enjoying my hot breakfast that first morning, I was apprehensive about this new form of guiding. Where I once I had heated seats, defrosted glass, and vehicular independence, I now had the cold, hard bench seat of a school-bus that was slow to warm and a trademark SZ Festival ice scraper for keeping my pane clear of frozen condensation. What was the same between this trip and the last, though, were the birds and the high Great Gray hopes of those I was showing around.  Because of that I was grateful to be with experienced Festival guides, Alex Watson and Ben Harste.  Meeting Alex was a highlight for me–he was previously a mystery birder that has shown up occasionally in my home county and filed some reports that led me to my county Cerulean and Blue-winged Warblers.  Alex is not only good at finding good birds, but he was also at ease being the main tour guide on our bus.  So as Alex talked over the constant window-scraping, I was able to concentrate on trying to keep my feet warm while looking for birds and visiting with those around me.

Our first stop was the Sharp-tailed Grouse lek which did not pan out. From that point we were puttering along at 5 MPH, scraping windows and trying to spot one of several Grays known to inhabit the Bog.  Our route and plans were quickly abandoned when John Richardson on Bus #2 texted me that Frank Nicoletti had a Great Gray over ten miles to the north.  This bird is the main attraction, the kind that attracts birders to our frozen state in the winter.  Needless to say, we informed our group and told Amy, our bus driver, to kick it into high gear.  The nerves of the group were palpable.

As we were nearing the location, though still a bit out, fellow guide Ben Harste hollered “Stop!” from the back of the bus. I don’t know how he did it, but through the frosted, fogged up windows from the BACK of the bus, he spotted a Great Gray Owl DEEP (100 yds) in the Aspen stand of all forests and became a hero to a busload of overly excited birders, myself included.  The bus was nearly on two wheels as everyone piled on one side to get a peek.  Once they got their life look, I slipped out to get a scope set up so people could get a real good look.

Sax Zim Bog FestivalFumbling with the scope barehanded in 30 below caused me to climb back on the bus immediately after setting up the apparatus, but eventually I did get back out for a couple quick photos myself.

Great Gray Owl

Great Gray Owl

As we were watching this bird, it dawned on me that we hadn’t yet reached the bird Frank reported, which meant there was a second one! We loaded everybody on our bus back up and continued on down the road.  Minutes later one of our group members spotted the second Great Gray, only it was far more skittish and dove for the cover of the bog even before the bus could stop. Oh well, we got a good fix with the first one and it was bathroom break time at the McDavitt Fire Hall anyway.  Breaking gave us a chance to mingle more with the festival-goers.  I visited with a man who looked like he was dressed for a chilly October day in Minnesota, much less for sub-zero.  Sadly this made sense when I saw on his name tag that he was from Florida. But if he was cold, he wasn’t letting on.  I think the birding adrenaline was pumping hard in this one. Whenever we asked the group about wanting to see this bird or that bird, Mr. Florida would instantly pipe up to let us know those birds would be lifers.

So after the break, it was time to hit the Bog hard looking for lifers for Mr. Florida et al. One of those was the Admiral Road staple, Boreal Chickadee.

Boreal Chickadee

I know I’ve posted photos of this bird already this year, but just like the Chickadee himself cursed with his own addictions, I just can’t stop…

Boreal ChickadeeAnother crowd favorite were both species of Grosbeaks, though on this day I only photographed the “yellow ones” as locals sometimes call them.

Evening GrosbeakI checked in with Mr. Florida a couple times throughout the day to see what his lifer tally was. Besides the Great Gray, both Grosbeaks, and the Chickadee, he also picked up Northern Shrike, Common Redpoll, and a surprisingly hard-to-find Gray Jay.  Despite missing on Ruffed and Sharp-tailed Grouse, Mr. Florida had the highest lifer total for our group. He was happy, especially because he told me he was not expecting the Great Gray.

In addition to the bird lifers, we got the folks their porcupine lifer.  People go crazy over porcupines when they visit, an infatuation I don’t understand.

porcupineAfter birding for some time, our day was truncated late afternoon and did not allow for more Owl searching during prime evening hours as we had to get back to Meadowlands for the dinner and program by Canadian Great Gray Owl researcher, Dr. James Duncan. Listening to an authority on Great Gray Owls give a captivating presentation in a Canadian accent is like a giant exclamation point on a day in which many got their coveted lifer.

Day 2–Lake County Field Trip

The second day of the Festival I was scheduled to be a guide on a far-flung field trip to Lake County.  The birds would be few even if we found them, but mighty birds they would be.  We were targeting Spruce Grouse, Black-backed Woodpeckers, and Bohemian Waxwings.  There was, of course, the potential for more Great Grays and Boreal Chickadees.  More impressive, though, was the fact that the Lake County team the previous day found the very-rare-for-Minnesota American Three-toed Woodpecker!  I was beyond stoked to go along on this trip with that news.

Even better than a Three-toed was that we were riding a cushy, warm coach bus for the long haul east and north. That was, unfortunately, about the most exciting the day would get as we failed to turn up any of those boreal greats. We would be going through several towns on the way home in the hopes of finding nomadic Bohemians feasting on decorative fruit trees in residential neighborhoods. When we were in Ely we stopped to look at some Pine Grosbeaks in a crabapple tree.

Pine Grosbeak

Then, as I watched the birds point-blank out those coach windows, I noticed one of them wasn’t very Grosbeak-like and was in fact the sought-after Bohemian! A bizarre, lone Bohemian! I alerted the group and finally felt like I earned some of my pay. It was an overdue sighting on a very slow field trip.  Georgia woman was very happy and by extension so was Georgia man.  We did later see a fly-by flock of about 30 Bohemians, but this was the only individual our group could photograph.

Bohemian WaxwingThese were photo upgrades for me, though much work still needs to be done with this species.  Considering I was sandwiched between a bus and a snowbank, I’ll take them though.Bohemian Waxwing

One of our other stops for this field trip was the Blue Heron B&B near Ely where we would eat our sack lunch and have coffee and cookies while watching their bird feeders. I was not excited to watch Redpolls, Chickadees, etc.  I was excited about my sandwich–so much so that I could have choked on it when someone shouted, “Boreal Chickadee!” This brought feeder-watching to a whole new level. I was not expecting this.

Boreal ChickadeeThen again, maybe I should have considering the address.

Borealis LaneOur group continued on from the B&B searching towns on the way back for the ever elusive Bohemians. A Snowshoe Hare, thought he was elusive and brought some excitement to the group when the birds were lacking.

Snowshoe HareWith one major bird lifer and one mammal lifer for the group, it was a long, sleepy day.  We did have a slight pick-me-up when we were coming back into the Sax-Zim Bog and spotted a very out-of-season Common Grackle.   But still, it’s a Grackle and doesn’t come close to filling the Sprucie void.  There’s always next year.  After all, it gives the festival-goers and guides a reason to return. As if they need another reason…

Great Gray Owl

Guide Series: Gravy Day–Redemption Birds and Bonus Lifers

Since Tommy DeBardeleben and Gordon Karre did not fly out of MSP until late in the evening on February 1st, we basically had most of the day to bird in the Northland and on our way south.  And since we had knocked out their Owl targets the previous three days….

Great Gray Owl

Snowy Owl

Northern Hawk Owl

Barred Owl

…we had a great deal of flexibility and freedom for how to bird on that final day.  We had succeeded in our goals which I still find hard to believe even as I sit down to write this. There was zero pressure for that final day.  Options on the table included going back for more Great Gray action in the Sax-Zim Bog, heading up to Lake County to try for Spruce Grouse, going to a birding friend’s yard to photograph Ruffed Grouse that frequent her feeders, or trying for a number of other Owls on our way south.  Ultimately, though, we decided to bird much closer to our base camp.  While we were on the Hawk Owl hunt in the Northwest the previous day, Evan had called me with a credible report of three Spruce Grouse seen on a road right near my parents’ house.  Since I have seen Sprucies there in the past, I had no reason to doubt it.  So that’s where we started our day. Evan was along with us as Marin and Melissa headed back home separately.

I was excited about birding around my parents’ house.  First, it meant we could sleep in for once which felt great after the breakneck pace we’d been keeping.  Second, and more important, I have tried for years for some really great birds that have been found on a road through a mature Black Spruce bog near the folks’ house.  I had secured a nice male Spruce Grouse in this spot the previous year, but I have never given up searching for the Great Gray Owl and Black-backed Woodpecker that Sparky Stensaas discovered there over two years ago.  I have lost track of how many times I have tried for these birds.  These birds are pretty special anywhere, but even more so when they are in the backyard.

When we got to the Spruce bog and made one unsuccessful pass down the road for Sprucies, Great Grays, Boreal Chickadees, and Black-backs, Tommy suggested getting out of the car in order to walk and listen.  It was a mild day, so I thought that was a good idea.  Rather than joining them and having all of us have to walk back to the vehicle, I decided to stay in the car and go pick them up.  Unannounced to them, I took off in a different direction in order to complete a large loop to cover more ground.  Gordon later told me that when he saw me leave he had flashbacks of Snipe hunts from his youth.  But I knew it wouldn’t be long and that they’d be okay. :)

Almost instantly on my solo tour I had a large gray and black raptor fly from a perch in the Pines on the right side of the road to a large stand of Pines on the left–adult Northern Goshawk!  I wish I could have had a longer look, but such is the way NOGO sightings go. I finally did make it back to a frigid Tommy and Gordon (my loop took me longer than I thought–oops!).  I asked the guys what they had seen, and Tommy told me they detected the drumming of a Black-backed Woodpecker.  I’ve birded with Tommy enough to know that he can be a kidder and try to get one over on somebody, so I laughed and told him I knew better than to believe his story….except he didn’t break into a smile.  He was serious! So I got out and we played the tape.  Almost instantly the Black-backed Woodpecker flew out of the bog and finally gave me the sighting I’ve been waiting on for years!  Even better was that this was a lifer for both Gordon and Evan!! It was a great moment that wouldn’t have been possible without Tommy and Gordon walking–thanks guys!  This one felt really, really good.

Black-backed WoodpeckerSomething even more amazing happened while we tried to lure out this guy–a second Black-back showed up! There was a male and a female! Unfortunately I never did see that classic field mark of the yellow crown on the male, but Tommy and Gordon each got to see it.  I will continue to search for these birds until I finally see that and finally get good photos of this species.

Black-backed Woodpecker

We had a pretty tight schedule to keep for some more birding stops on the way to the Cities, so we had to leave this special bog by 9:30.  The rest of the day had various stops for various things as we ventured south.  We tried for a Northern Saw-whet Owl that would have been a lifer for me if we would have found it. We did not, however.  This was my second attempt, and I’ve since made an unsuccessful third attempt.  It is just not meant to be at this point in time.

As we traveled we did get to see a couple more Pileated Woodpeckers, including one close up on a power pole.  Getting photos of this bird was another story, but the sightings were still exciting for the guys.  Tommy was able to finally get a Blue Jay photo which was a photographic lifer for him.  We did bump into an unexpected but not surprising Red-bellied Woodpecker in a suburban neighborhood which was a lifer for Tommy!  No one was able to get photos of this striking bird.  The one pictured below is one I recently photographed in my yard.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

We had a couple of revenge stops to make right by the airport itself.  When I picked the guys up late in the afternoon on January 28th, we had about 20 minutes of daylight to search for the Ft. Snelling State Park Barred Owl which is a 5-minute drive from Terminal 1.  Not being successful there on that first night, we quickly got over to the aircraft viewing area on Cargo Road just as it was getting dark to look for a reported Snowy Owl.  No luck on that one either.  Even though Tommy and Gordon got their Snowy and Barred Owl lifers, we all wanted revenge on these particular Owls, especially the Barreds which NOBODY misses on.  Anyhow, we were all optimistic and relaxed on this second attempt.

As we were driving into Ft. Snelling State Park, Evan casually mentioned seeing some Trumpeter Swans. This immediately caught Gordon’s attention who informed us that would be a lifer for him!  Evan’s eagle-eye had come up with a lifer that wasn’t even on my radar. Tommy was also excited about this sighting as it was the first time he had seen adult birds and only his second time viewing the species.  Way to go, Evan!

We also redeemed our failure from the previous night when Tommy spotted the female Barred Owl.  The guys enjoyed getting another chance at photographing a more cooperative Barred Owl.

Barred Owl

Because we found the Barred in such short order, I told the guys I had enough time to make one quick check for the airport Snowy Owl before I had to hit the road.  When I asked them if they were interested in looking, they responded with an emphatic yes.

Driving down Cargo Road we did not spot the bird on any of the perches on which it had been seen recently, like the FedEx building.  It turns out that this bird does not play favorites, though, as I spotted it way in the distance on top of the UPS depot as we drove back out from the aircraft viewing area.

Snowy Owl MSP

Afterwards, we took the guys to the terminal, said a hasty goodbye, and vowed to go birding again together either here or in Arizona. It was a great last day of birding that added its own unique excitement to a truly epic trip.  Here is the summary of day 4’s life birds for Tommy and Gordon.

Black-backed Woodpecker – Gordon, Evan

Red-bellied Woodpecker – Tommy

Trumpeter Swan – Gordon

Trip Analysis

This trip was unforgettable, no unbelievable.  It was simply magic, even for me.  Though I have seen all of these birds many times, the fact that we saw so many good birds in such a short period of time makes this trip rival some of my out-of-state trips where I have gotten lifers.  I enjoy birding northern Minnesota more than anywhere, and I never get tired of its special birds, especially those Owls.  It was a thrill to be able to help Gordon and Tommy see them for the first time.  To end this trip series, I’d like to point out some fun factoids.

Tommy and Gordon got their three main targets in this order: Great Gray Owl, Snowy Owl, Northern Hawk Owl.  For those who are not fans of permutations, there are exactly six orders that this could have happened.  Coincidentally I saw those same lifers in that same order.

The number of individuals we saw of these three Owl species made for a nice arithmetic sequence:

Great Gray Owl – 1

Northern Hawk Owl – 2

Snowy Owl – 3

Tommy and Gordon saw the Northern Big 3 on three consecutive days.  That is substantially faster than I did it (nearly a year), even after making several northern trips.  Here are the dates that I got my lifers.

Great Gray Owl — March 13, 2013

Snowy Owl — December 3, 2013

Northern Hawk Owl — December 26, 2013

Before this trip, I had (surprisingly) seen more Owl species than Tommy.  He had 13; I had 14. Now, though, Tommy has 17.  Of the 19 regularly occurring Owl species in North America, he is only missing Boreal Owl and Eastern-Screech Owl, both of which reside in Minnesota.  I’m trying to convince him that he should get them here, especially since I need one of those as well.  After all, how cool would it be to say you got all of North America’s Owls in just two states?

Speaking of Owl lifers, Tommy and I split the work of spotting their four lifers.  Never mind how many more Owls Tommy found overall!

Great Gray Owl – Tommy

Snowy Owl  – Tommy

Northern Hawk Owl – Josh

Barred Owl – Josh

Overall, Tommy ended the trip with 15 life birds and Gordon had 18.  That is a whopping number, especially when I have only seen 60 species total in Minnesota for 2016.

Tommy and Gordon saw a LOT of GOOD birds in a SHORT amount of time. Below I’ve listed the most difficult species they saw on this four-day trip along with the dates that I got my lifer for each to give some perspective as to how good of a trip they had.  As you will see, it’s taken me a long time to get these key birds after many, many trips to the north. I’ll start with my most recent lifers.

Great Black-backed Gull — November 28, 2015

Iceland Gull — November 28, 2015

Glaucous Gull — November 28, 2015

Black-backed Woodpecker — June 22, 2015

Gyrfalcon — March 8, 2015

Thayer’s Gull — November 8, 2014

Boreal Chickadee — December 28, 2013

Northern Hawk Owl — December 26, 2013

Snowy Owl — December 3, 2013

Great Gray Owl — March 13, 2013

Favorite Sighting of the Trip: Black-backed Woodpecker

Favorite Personal Find of the Trip: Barred Owl just south of the Canadian border

Best Overall Bird Experience: Hanging with the Northern Hawk Owl in the Beltrami Island State Forest

Biggest Relief of the Trip: Getting the Great Gray immediately

Biggest Stressor of the Trip: Driving in reverse for 3.6 miles on the Pitt Grade Road Snowmobile Trail in a mini-van

Biggest Miss of the Trip: American Black Duck

Thank You!

This trip’s success is only because so many great Minnesota birders and non-birders made it happen.  Therefore I’d like to acknowledge those folks.

Clinton Nienhaus – For all his Sax-Zim Bog advice on the Bog’s birds and their habits.  Additionally, Clinton spotted the guys’ Glaucous Gull lifer at Canal Park.

Jason Mandich – For his SZ Bog advice and extra set of eyes in the Bog.

Jeff Grotte – For his Owling advice that made for an incredible final day of Owling in the Twin Cities.

Peder Svingen – For his Gull identification counseling and superior Superior Snowy Owl tips.

Randy Frederickson – For giving us timely heads-up texts on the Iceland and Great Black-backed Gulls.

John Richardson – For being an extra set of eyes at Canal Park, wearing his trademark Union Jack stocking cap, and bringing his British cheer to the Canal Park Gull party.

Kim Risen – For pointing out a bonus Snowy Owl in Superior.

Sandy Aubol – For her Northern Hawk Owl advice in Roseau County.

Evan – For always having an eagle-eye that ended up getting Gordon a bonus, unexpected Trumpeter Swan lifer.

Mom and Dad – For the generous use of their home and vehicle for our epic birding odyssey.

Melissa – For her enthusiastic support of this trip that kept me away from the family for so long.

 Hungry For More?

Me too! This past weekend I worked as a guide at the annual Sax-Zim Bog Birding Festival.  Later this week look for a write-up and photos of more great northern Minnesota birds from that trip!