The Story of the Kandiyohi County Blue Grosbeak (Somebody Pinch Me)

Anyone who has followed this blog over the years knows that fewer birds can get me as excited as the Blue Grosbeak, specifically Minnesota Blue Grosbeaks. It is doubtful that I’d even caste a second glance at one if I were birding in some southern state.  I take that back; I mean, it is still an insanely good-looking bird.  It’s the combo of that beauty and the Blue Grosbeak’s industrious efforts to colonize North America that have captured my imagination. Ever since 2014 I have been interested in the species’ northward movement in Minnesota by digging them up in new places and imploring others to do the same.

Of course, much of my drive came from a burning desire to see one in Kandiyohi County.  Time and time again, I’d go out to likely spots in the county only to come back empty-handed. Same story year after year. Each year I’d rethink my strategy and add new locations to my checklist of probable Kandiyohi sites, but I couldn’t manufacture a sighting to save my life. Instead, I’d have to get my annual Blue Grosbeak fix by finding new locations for them in neighboring counties. This year I used satellite imagery to find a few gravel pits in Chippewa County along the Minnesota River. Visiting the sites one July  morning yielded two previously undiscovered Blue Grosbeaks. This first one was so vocal that I heard it over a quarter mile away over the incessant noise of trucks at a very busy pit.

Blue GrosbeakThis second fellow was the quiet type. In fact, I stopped at this abandoned pit and didn’t see or hear a Blue Grosbeak. Playing a tape certainly couldn’t hurt in this situation. I’m glad I did because this bird materialized out of nowhere in an instant.

Blue GrosbeakThese were hollow victories. I wanted one in Kandiyohi in the worst way, especially as county first records fell in county after county: Anoka, Hennepin, and Washington. While I was happy the Blue Grosbeak was continuing to expand its range, I also kept wondering when it would be our turn. Always the bridesmaid. The Washington find really amplified these feelings. Pete Nichols and Ben Douglas set out to find themselves a county record BLGR and succeeded…minutes into their first attempt. I was both super proud and super jealous of these friends.

As we went deeper and deeper into August, my hopes for finding that elusive Kandiyohi Blue Grosbeak in 2017 had completely died. Like any losing sports team, hope was immediately placed on next year. Besides, there was something new and shiny in the bird world to divert my attention–an insane irruption of Red Crossbills! Blue what? We Kandi birders were red-eyed trying to tally this species that had eluded the likes of Randy Frederickson and Ron Erpelding for over 25 years. Now it was a very real possibility we would all get one. Efforts had shifted suddenly and dramatically.

Joel Schmidt was the first Kandi birder to break the ice with the Red Crossbills, seeing a flyover flock at the Little Crow Golf Course in New London on the evening of August 17th. At the time, I was camping at Sibley State Park with my brother and was not far away. I had to abandon my brother and kids the next morning to go look for an hour or so. We were unsuccessful, and so I returned to camping.  While I was playing cribbage with my brother, I got a call from someone in Grand Marais. Who the heck do I know there? I declined the call figuring if it was important that they’d leave a voicemail. Nothing. I then put my phone in the camper to charge it. Sometime much later in the afternoon during a pause between cribbage games, I went to check the time on my phone. It had blown up while I was away from it and was littered with crazy numbers of text messages, missed phone calls, and voicemails. Something really big was going down, and I couldn’t process the information fast enough. As I tried to make sense of the messages, my initial thought was that someone had landed the Red Crossbills, but instead of “red” I saw “blue” and “grosbeak” was where “crossbill” should be and there was a “Hockema” and a “Watson” mixed in. Then it hit me. Oh. My. Gosh.

I quickly learned that visiting birders John Hockema, Chris Hockema, and Josh Watson had stumbled into a private gravel pit, found a Blue Grosbeak, and had secured permission for a small band of us to return. The Grand Marais caller now made sense–Josh Watson was from there. But that call was almost a couple hours ago! Thankfully the guys were still on the scene by the time we got all this info sorted out.  Another bonus was that this pit was just a few miles from my present location at Sibley. I could literally be there in 5 minutes. Once again I abandoned my brother and kids to go on another crazy bird chase.

The entrance to the pit was a long, private road leading west from U.S. Highway 71. The Blue Grosbeak victors were waiting at the gate to meet Randy Frederickson and me and lead us to glory. The greetings were joyous with much laughter and banter. These fellows were relaxed and in good spirits while Randy and I were trying to hide the tension that comes when a county bird is nearby but has not yet been notched. Finally, we hopped in our cars and followed these visiting birders as they led us in our own backyard.  It was a surreal experience, to say the least, when we traveled into this vast complex of gravel pits we had never seen before, not even from a road. It was perfect Blue Grosbeak habitat. I may as well have been looking at Mars, I was so awestruck with the terrain. I had viewed this area on satellite maps many times but had never gotten around to getting permission to enter.

Once we finally got to the spot well over a half mile from the main highway, we got out and started looking. We had other birders on the way, so we were refraining from using a recording until all arrived.  We did not want the recording to lose its effectiveness. While we looked, Chris Hockema showed me the exact spot where Josh Watson had first spotted the bird. And suddenly I saw a bird fly over that had the right GISS. Josh had seen it too from a different angle and confirmed it was the Blue Grosbeak! So it was official, but not yet satisfying. We continued to search and search. Finally Ron Erpelding and Joel Schmidt had arrived, and we could try the tape. Ron played the tune, and instantly the bird teed up on a cedar! Unbelievable! It finally happened!!

Blue GrosbeakBlue GrosbeakAfter hanging out there to our wild delight, it changed perches and hung out for a solid 10-15 minutes not moving. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a Blue Grosbeak this confiding. This was the first time I had shared a county bird with long-time Kandi veterans, Randy and Ron. Giddiness abounded.

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In a year that I had been pursuing new birds for my Kandi list, this one was more than just another tic. This is a bird I have pursued relentlessly for many summers.  This is a bird I simply love to find–anywhere. A wave of joy and rest washed over me. Indeed there was some self-loathing from the Kandi crew that we had not found this ourselves, but in the end it did not matter. We were still overjoyed.

A MEGA thanks goes out to John Hockema who was in a Blue Grosbeak mood that day and decided to try for one in Kandiyohi. It took guts to drag his birding companions into a county that had been searched so hard for this bird already and at a time that was the tail end of the Blue Grosbeak season. One might even say it was a fool’s mission. It’s a good thing John is no fool and that Chris Hockema and Josh Watson are top notch birders. They all are deserving of the honor of having the Kandiyohi County first record Blue Grosbeak along with the case of beer I had publicly offered on social media for anyone who could find this bird.

Randy Joel John

Hero Josh Watson points to where he first spotted the elusive Kandiyohi County first record Blue Grosbeak. L-R: Chris Hockema, John Hockema, Josh Watson, Joel Schmidt, Randy Frederickso

The Blue Grosbeak was Kandiyohi bird #252 for me. #253 was another shared county lifer with Ron and Randy, and it fell the very next day. In fact, I literally still had the camper hitched to my vehicle while in hot pursuit…

My Everest

Most birders keep lists. This is known. Yard lists, day lists, year lists, county lists, state lists, trip lists, lists of birds seen while nude, lists of birds seen while relieving oneself, lists of birds seen relieving themselves, and on and on…these are more or less different ways of keeping the hobby exciting and fresh. Depending on the birder, some lists carry more weight than others and some lists are never even made. My Kandiyohi County list has taken on a greater importance to me in the last couple years.  2016 was full of many new and exciting additions to my list that was already in the 200+ category, creating even more of an interest in this list.  Something happens when you make a list and it starts to become significantly large–you notice others who keep the same list and see how you stack up in comparison.  We have a great cadre of birders in Kandiyohi County who have amassed some incredible totals, and so I had no ambition (or realistic hope) of getting into the top 3. This was just accepted. But 4th place was within reach and was held by a non-resident of the county, the legendary Bob Janssen. Bob’s a great guy who I’ve learned a lot from, who I’ve helped in Kandiyohi County, and who I’ve had the pleasure of birding with a couple times, but I had just one thing against him–he wasn’t from here. I felt that the top spots should belong to those that toil for birds in the county the most, the local birders. Therefore, at the end of 2016, I set out to pass Bob Janssen.

Though it was a reachable goal, this was no small task. I ended 2016 with 244 county birds. Bob was at 250. I needed 7 new birds to meet my goal. It seems like a small number, but any longtime Minnesota birder knows that new county birds are very hard to come by with a total like mine. Nevertheless I was determined. To accomplish such a feat would require a lot of work and a lot of time birding. I didn’t waste any time either, getting #245 on January 1st.

January 1: #245–Short-eared Owl, 6 Birds to Goal

The Kandi birding crew joined forces on New Year’s Day, and thanks to some scouting by Aaron Ludwig on New Year’s Eve, we were victorious.  It was a banner year for Short-eared Owls across the state.  It felt really good to finally notch this one.

Short-eared Owl

February 4: #246–Townsend’s Solitaire, 5 Birds to Goal

Another Kandi birders’ group event was successful as we targeted Townsend’s Solitaire. This individual was found by the team consisting of Milt Blomberg, Dan Orr, and Herb Dingmann.  This was another overdue, feel-good county bird.

Townsend's Solitaire

February 19: #247–Long-eared Owl, 4 Birds to Goal

A second county Owl in as many months?! Steve Gardner and I went looking for Long-eared Owls on this day. Despite many, many fruitless attempts in the past, we did not come up empty this trip. Victory never felt so sweet.

Long-eared Owl

May 18: #248–Black-throated Green Warbler, 3 Birds to Goal

Three months had gone by without a new addition to the county list.  Serious doubt about achieving the goal was setting in hard. With that said, there was one bird that I simply had to nail down this year, a bird that had painfully eluded my county list year after year. Each year I have a very good chance of getting it too. I have chased this bird in the county many times, even literally once to the point I had to catch my breath in the process.The BTNW was a waaaaay overdue county bird. I had gone out many, many times this past spring to look for one. And it still continued to slip my grasp.  Then, on May 18th, Joel Schmidt called me about an hour before sundown saying he found one at a country church and cemetery in the western part of the county.  I got out there just before dark and was able to dig it up. Finally.

IMG_0489

May 26: #249–Connecticut Warbler, 2 Birds to Goal

Spring migration is one of the best times of year to try to pick up a new county bird.  However, at the end of May, migration was wrapping up quickly as birds started settling in to raise families wherever they called home.  I was still checking for a couple a shorebirds I needed in this last week of May, like Marbled Godwit and Sanderling. Then somehow I started to notice that Connecticut Warblers were being reported in various places, and these birds were all singing. This is a bird that was never on my radar. I figured if I was to get this one on my county list, I would have to get lucky some spring migration and catch a quick glimpse of this skulker. So I asked the godfather of Kandiyohi birding–Randy Frederickson–about them, and he said he will have a Connecticut singing in his yard about one out of every four Memorial Day weekends. What?!  I’ve come to learn that Randy is a huge deposit of birding information that has to be continually mined to get the nuggets of birding intel out of him. So even though this bird was never even a candidate for my goal of seven new county birds, it quickly became one.  I found a singing Connecticut Warbler in neighboring Meeker County on May 25th, so I was even more obsessed with finding one in Kandiyohi.  For awhile I was making daily trips to Robbins Island Park in Willmar just to look for this bird. Even though most migrants had moved through, there was still hope for this one. And I was less intimated to look for this bird armed with the knowledge that these birds often sing during migration.

On my trip to Robbins Island on My 26th, I was stopped dead in my tracks by this:

No, it wasn’t the Connecticut I was after, but I don’t know if getting my first personally found and second county Cerulean Warbler was any less exciting!

Cerulean Warbler

I must have spent an hour listening to this bird and following it through the trees.  It was singing constantly and staying to a confined area.  I was convinced the bird was on territory but later visits by myself and others proved otherwise. It’s a good thing I spent so much time with this Warbler because when I had to decided to give up on finding a Connecticut and was on my way out of Robbins Island, I heard this!

Connecticut Warbler!! I couldn’t believe it! Two new county Warblers within one week and two incredible Warblers in this outing! Suddenly, the dream of reaching #251 was very much alive. And to add some Warbler icing to the delicious Warbler cake was a singing and posing Black-throated Green–proving once again the birding law that says once a hard-fought bird falls, it falls hard.

Black-throated Green Warbler

May 30: The One That Got Away

In any kind of big year or any regular year with a big birding goal, there will inevitably be pain. This is a given. There is also a long-standing birding rule that says that really good things will happen back home whenever you go on a trip somewhere.  Well, on the afternoon of May 30th, my family and I had just landed in Phoenix for our Flagstaff vacation. As we were heading up I-17, my phone started blowing up with group text messages: Randy had a Summer Tanager make some appearances at his feeder.  It was reliable enough that Steve Gardner and Joel Schmidt were able to pop over and see the bird after a brief wait.  My wait was a lot longer, like several days longer.  It was as good as gone. I was really bummed, and it definitely dampened the birding mood a little bit while I was in Arizona hunting down my Flam lifer.

June 16: #250–Snowy Egret, The Penultimate Bird

One thing my buddy Tommy DeBardeleben taught me is that when a good bird slips through your fingers, you get back out there and find your own rarity. The last time I went to Arizona I missed a Brant and Red Phalarope back in Minnesota. When I came home I poured my woes into my ongoing Surf Scoter hunt and dug out a Kandiyohi County first record Surf Scoter.  Experiences like that give you something to draw on when the tank is empty.  Though I was tired from the vacation, a move(!), and chasing life birds at North Ottawa Impoundment, I was pushing myself to get that next county bird. Summer had settled in, and my options for a new county bird were very limited. One bird that I really wanted to get and one that I felt was probably in the county every year somewhere was a Snowy Egret. On the morning of June 16th, I set off to find one. I expected to come home empty-handed as I have so many times on my numerous outings this year. Regardless, I was going to check several spots around the county, mostly drainages and some wetlands where I’d seen Great Egrets congregating.  After several hours and dozens of miles, I made my last stop: a newly formed wetland just off the Willmar bypass. I spotted a lone Egret out there, and I was well over a quarter mile away.  I don’t own a scope, so I had to use my camera to take some blurry long-distance shots. As I reviewed them, I couldn’t believe it–a small Egret with a long, black bill and yellow lores. It was the Egret I wanted!

Snowy EgretAn Egret vs. Egret pic is always a nice assurance for an ID of such an important bird.

Snowy EgretI was now tied with Bob. Wow. Some people get excited over reaching round-number milestones, like this 250, but not me. I wanted a crooked number. I wanted that #251 in the worst way.  While my motivation in the beginning was to pass Bob’s number, my motivation was now about me meeting what I once thought was an unattainable goal.  More than anything I wanted to do what my mind had declared an impossibility or at least a far-fetched possibility way back in December. I wanted that 7th bird in the worst way, more than a lifer even.  And it was only June.  I had averaged one new county bird for each month in 2017, and I still had 6 months left to get just one new county bird.

My birding intensified from that point on. I was obsessed, waking well before daylight and going out every morning. But with the Snowy Egret secured, I really had very little to search for in June.  My searches were mostly after Henslow’s Sparrows and breeding Marbled Godwits in the very northeastern corner of the county, both of which were long shots. But I pressed on. Day after day I pushed myself out the door trying to make something happen.  I’m a very impatient person. Even though I had half a year to reach my goal with just one bird, I wanted it now. I was driving myself crazy.

When it came time to visit family in northern Minnesota in late July, I didn’t want to go. I was afraid to go. That’s always when something good happens at home.

July 30, 2 AM: The Gift

I had made it through the up north trip without a birding emergency happening back home. Whew. We were scheduled to head home the morning of the 30th. We went to bed on the 29th, and I was awakened by my daughter who had a bad dream. After I got her settled down, I looked at my phone to check the time.  On my homescreen I saw two emails that had come in while I was sleeping–one an eBird rare bird alert and the other an eBird needs alert for KANDIYOHI COUNTY!! What the?! I was wide awake now. Not many people bird in Kandiyohi County, let alone eBird in Kandiyohi County, let alone find rare birds and especially rare birds that I’ve never seen in Kandiyohi County.  I couldn’t open the emails fast enough. Our county had a visiting superstar birder whose incredible find had tripped both alerts. Kathleen MacAulay known for many incredible finds, including a state record Mottled Duck, had unearthed a rare bird that is incredibly hard to discover because of its choice of habitat. Kathleen had found an entire family of Common Gallinules at a wetland I had never birded.  I was in shock. Finally, finally, we got a gift bird–something that had been missing the first half of the year.  Usually every year holds one or two random bird surprises. So far we hadn’t had one.  All the rare birds I had seen in the county this year were reasonable expectations that were targeted and found.  I couldn’t sleep the rest of the night. I knew that #251 was as good as in the bank since these Gallinules had young. I just had to get 265 miles across the state. That next morning the minutes felt like hours as we got ready to leave.

July 30, 5 PM: #251–Common Gallinule!

Not only did I have to get my family back home, but then I had another half hour trip to the location of these Gallinules. But finally I made it there. Others had seen the birds a few hours earlier. I was patient but I wasn’t patient.  I knew it would happen, but I wanted it to happen instantly.  While I watched the small corner of the cattail slough, I caught sight of my second county Least Bittern.

Least Bittern

Least BitternThe Bittern was a fun find, but I wanted to see those Gallinules bad.  I did hear one of the adults vocalize at one point, so it was officially notched. Since it was such a monumental bird, though, I really wanted to see it. Finally, patience paid off as I spotted one of the babies.

Common GallinuleAnd then I saw two of the babies with one of the parents.

Common GallinuleIt was finished. I was ecstatic. The impossible had been achieved with a whopping 5 months left on the year. I had made it.  Kathleen, if you’re reading, thank you very much for your great find!

I learned something important from this entire experience: set high goals for yourself even if they seem like a pipe dream.  Then write them down and work like crazy. This goes for birding or anything, really. Having my goals written out on paper back in December focused my birding and kept me driven. It was a huge thrill to add each new check mark and fill in those blanks on the piece of paper I keep tucked in my Sibley. Aim high and look high–the good birds are out there.

The astute reader will look at the picture below and realize the county listing story did not stop with #251. Hang on for the next post–longtime readers will get to see a long-running story line reach its wonderful conclusion.

list

Pounding the Lifers at North Ottawa Impoundment

Ask any serious Minnesota birder where he or she was in June of 2017, and you will get one common response: the North Ottawa Impoundment in Grant County.  While not exactly new to hosting good and rare birds, North Ottawa outdid itself this year.  Or more accurately, an army of skilled birders outdid themselves as they descended on the Impoundment in waves and created a bonafide, honest-to-goodness Patagonia Picnic Table Effect.  That term is sometimes used pretty loosely, but this was the real deal–a cascade of Accidentals, Casuals, and Rare-Regulars so intense that it threatened to rename the very phenomenon itself.  Below is the timeline of the major birding events, including my multiple trips with Steve Gardner to the site in June.  Even though this info is old news to Minnesota birders, I think the end of this post will hold a nice surprise for all.

June 5th

Shawn Conrad and Becca Engdahl separately report finding a Glossy Ibis, an accidental species that would be a lifer for me.

June 7th

Undoubtedly following up on the Glossy Ibis reports, Minnesota Big Year birder Liz Harper helps her own cause by discovering a Little Blue Heron, a rare-regular species which would be a state bird for me.

June 8th

Among the masses of birders now swarming the Impoundment, Gerry Hoekstra sends MN birders into a complete frenzy, including yours truly, when he finds a Snowy Plover, a casual species that would be a lifer for me.

June 9th

Steve and I go to North Ottawa.  Any one of the three aforementioned birds would have justified the trip.  Three in one spot was just ridiculous.  We were hoping for at least one of these goodies.  Fortunately I didn’t have to wait long to get that wish.  I got the Little Blue Heron as a flyover almost right away. Unfortunately Steve missed it at that time but got it later in the day.

Little Blue Heron

We tried unsuccessfully for the Snowy Plover but had no luck.  Considering there were over a dozen birders out looking and no one was turning it up, it was safe to say that it was gone. We did, however, see the Glossy Ibis thanks to Wayne Perala, local birding guru who knew the bird and its habits so well that he told us where to look. And almost on cue, the bird flew up out of the cattails right by Wayne as he said, “There’s your Ibis.” This bird was super cooperative giving us great looks in perfect light.  It was a life bird for me but just a state bird for Steve.

Glossy IbisGlossy IbisSteve and I were pretty thrilled with going 2/3 on our targets. In addition to these birds, we also nabbed some nice birds that we don’t get to see too often, like this Snowy Egret.

Snowy Egret

Western Kingbird never goes unappreciated in Minnesota.  We were lucky to see this one.

Western KingbirdAnd who does not love seeing an Upland Sandpiper, especially one so crushable?

Upland SandpiperUpland SandpiperSteve and I felt pretty darn good about our trip and our nice haul of birds.  We were completely satisfied, until….

June 15th

Wayne Perala (remember nice guy, Wayne, from the Ibis story?) sent another shock wave through the Minnesota birding community by posting incredible pics of a King Rail, another accidental species that would be a lifer for me.  Unfortunately timing was bad for me as I was getting ready to go on that Madeline Island trip that was highlighted by the last post.  Indeed I had to suffer through pics and reports of many people adding the most recent North Ottawa mega to their lists.

June 23rd

Finally back from that Wisconsin vacation, Steve and I sneak up to the Impoundment in the evening.  In the week since the Rail was discovered, other birders discovered there were two King Rails!  Despite now having double the chance to see this lifer, our Rail search was a bust.  The wind was raging and we were searching in slightly the wrong spot. We also tried searching for a lifer Nelson’s Sparrow reported by Becca Engdahl, but nothing likes to be out in the wind.  Except Western Grebes, they don’t care.

Western GrebeSteve and I did, however, see another casual species that was also discovered during this historic period of MN birding which I have failed to disclose in the timeline.  A pair of Black-necked Stilts had set up shop in one of the shallow pools of the Impoundment. Considering I already had Black-necked Stilts for Grant County from several years ago and that Steve had just gotten this state bird recently, we just weren’t too fired up about it, especially after our double dip.

June 29th

With a renewed sense of optimism freshened up by continuing reports of the Rail pair, Steve and I headed back to Grant County for the third time in a month.  This time we arrived at the crack of dawn on gloriously still day…in the right spot. Success.

King RailLook at the size of these things compared to the Mallards in the background.  No wonder it’s the King of the Rails.King RailKing RailBirding is a roller coaster of emotions, and Steve and I were back on top after this sighting.  Steve suggested we try for those Nelson’s Sparrows again.  Despite our good fortune of the morning, I was skeptical we would find the Sparrows.  But not looking certainly guarantees that outcome. So we walked the dike berm that we had a week ago.  This time it definitely felt more Sparrowy–no wind, early morning, etc.  We played the tape and didn’t get a response.  Then a couple minutes later, I heard the recording, or what I thought was the recording, again.  I asked Steve if he had left his phone app on.  When he replied that he hadn’t we knew were hearing the real deal! We continued to work the area, and eventually we saw two Nelson’s Sparrows!

Nelson's SparrowWith some pishing we were able to get them to pop up for some great looks at these skulkers.Nelson's SparrowNelson's SparrowSteve and I followed these birds around for a bit, thoroughly soaking up the experience.  I don’t think either of us ever expected to lifer on this bird with such good looks.  We certainly didn’t expect to get this lifer in Grant County.  This nighttime singer is often a heard-only bird that people trek to middle of nowhere (McGregor) to find in the middle of the night.  We were stupefied.  Talking it over on the ride home, we concluded that the Nelson’s Sparrow lifer experience topped the King Rails even though the Sparrow is a summer resident in our state.  More than once I have been surprised by how much of an impact a Sparrow lifer has on me.  A huge thanks goes out to Becca Engdahl for her find and her tips on locating it!

The reports out of North Ottawa definitely dried up in July.  That was okay with me because I, along with many others, were spoiled rotten by the place.  Additionally, I was okay with not having to run up to Grant County again because I had been working hard on achieving a birding goal much closer to home, a goal that has since been achieved and will be the highlight of the next post.

Island Life–The Boys of Summer

Every other summer my side of the family holds a small reunion of sorts on Madeline Island, the flagship island of Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands on the south shore of Lake Superior.  It is a beautiful place to rest, reunite, and play–a place where boys can be boys.

EvanOf course, no boys take this more seriously than the male Warblers of the island. With nearly twenty different species being present on the island, one cannot escape these singing sensations as they belt out their territorial songs telling rival males and the whole world that this is their house.

Northern Parula

Northern Parula

The Warblers are so thick on Madeline Island that one may escape a particular Warbler’s territory only to immediately land in another’s. Or sometimes, several different species all have territories in the same spot, tolerating each other’s different songs but ready to battle any male of their same species.  While I enjoyed a great number of Warbler species, this was not a birding trip and so the camera was rarely raised. Besides, none were new for me. One Warbler that always feels new, that I feel compelled to photograph every time, is the Blackburnian Warbler.  Such a looker! And he knows it.

BlackburnianPhotographing Warblers in their natural habitat is the best. Here this Blackburnian is posing where he is most comfortable–atop a Black Spruce in a decent-sized (and only) bog on the island.Blackburnian Warbler

Though I did not photograph all the Warbers I encountered, I detected many different species:

  • Yellow-rumped Warbler
  • Black-and-white Warbler
  • Northern Parula
  • Blackburnian Warbler
  • Pine Warbler
  • Yellow Warbler
  • Common Warbler
  • Cape May Warbler
  • Black-throated Green Warbler
  • Ovenbird
  • Common Yellowthroat
  • American Redstart
  • Mourning Warbler
  • Chestnut-sided Warbler
  • Nashville Warbler

Naturally I have saved the best for last.  This was my big Madeline Island souvenir, a male Black-throated Blue Warbler.

Black-throated Blue Warbler

Two years ago I searched for this species when I saw appropriate habitat of mature maple forests on the eastern end of the 14-mile long island.  Trying that same area again this year, I stopped at a spot along North Shore Road that looked good–a deep ravine in the Maple/Hemlock woods which created a relatively open understory that BTBWs like.  Immediately I was rewarded that sweet zoo-zoo-zoo-zoo-zoo-ZEE!  Making this sighting even sweeter was that I had been participating in Wisconsin’s Breeding Bird Atlas project, and this bird was right in the corner of one of the priority blocks on the underbirded island.  BTBW is a very good atlas bird for Wisconsin.

Black-throated Blue Warbler

As fun as the Warblers were, they were merely a distraction to bide my time while I anxiously waited to get back to the mainland in Minnesota where all kinds of birds–life birds–were popping up. Stay tuned for the fully-loaded lifer post next.

2017 Summer Trip to Northern Arizona–The Best of the Non-Lifers

An unfortunate consequence of visiting a place like Arizona multiple times is that some birds lose that ‘wow’ factor from when they were first seen.  The excitement level for a bird is inversely proportional to the number of times that bird is seen. Take the Acorn Woodpecker, for instance.  I remember drooling over the thought of seeing one. Now on this trip, after having seen them on other trips, I didn’t even raise the camera. This is just birding reality.   It cannot be helped.  Some birds still bring it, though.  Some just haven’t been enjoyed enough or savored fully.  They still feel somewhat fresh and exciting when you bump into them.  This post highlights those birds for me on this latest trip.

Many of the these were fun mountain birds that I encountered right by our condo at the Wyndham Flagstaff Resort (great place if you go, btw). First up is the Steller’s Jay, a bird not known for its shyness. Before this trip I had only seen one on Mt. Lemmon, a brief sighting on a cloudy day.  Here, they were all over the place basking in the sun. And I looked at each one.Steller's JaySteller's JayAnother montane, neighborhood bird at the resort was the Black-headed Grosbeak.  Though I’ve seen them in Colorado and South Dakota, the views have always been fleeting and unsatisfying.  This encounter went a long way toward rectifying that.

Black-headed Grosbeak

Anywhere from the Wyndham Resort to the Schultz Pass Road, a mountain-loving bird that was seemingly ubiquitous around Flagstaff was the Western Tanager.  Even though I have seen this bird and photographed it in my home county in Minnesota, I continue to find myself in a state of face-melt when I see this bird, and I photograph it way too much.  It is illogical, really. Three individuals with varying amounts of red on their faces are shown below in three different species of trees.

Western TanagerWestern TanagerWestern TanagerLiterally a neighbor bird inhabiting the Ponderosa Pines right outside our balcony was the Pygmy Nuthatch.  These guys are industrious little busy-bodies. As such, my only other time seeing them in the past resulted in a poor photo op.  Not much changed on this trip despite being merely 5 feet away.  Pygmy Nuthatch could see blog time again.

Pygmy Nuthatch

The last bird from the resort was a parking lot bird but was by no means a trash bird. In fact, this papa Western Bluebird was a photographic lifer for me.Western BluebirdWestern BluebirdAway from the resort there were some other non-lifer favorites, like this American Three-toed Woodpecker along the Schultz Pass Road. Keep in mind that I had only ever seen one before just this past spring in Minnesota.  This bird very much still has lifer freshness associated with it.  While the unique drumming sound of this Woodpecker was the same as the one back home, its back was not.  Note how white the back is on this Rocky Mountains subspecies of the ATTW; the back of the East Taiga subspecies that we have in Minnesota is nearly all black with small white flecks.

American Three-toed WoodpeckerIn Oak Creek Canyon at Grasshopper Point Recreation Area, a Bridled Titmouse was a pleasant surprise.

Bridled TitmouseAnd the Grand Canyon is never more grand than when it serves as a backdrop from a rim-perching Black-throated Gray Warbler, a bird I have wished to have better photographs of for a long time.

Black-throated Gray WarblerBlack-throated Gray WarblerThat’s it for Arizona this time.  There will be more this winter.  For the next post we’re headed to Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands for some Warble action.

2017 Summer Trip to Northern Arizona –The Lifers

Flammulated Owl was literally and figuratively the number one lifer of the trip (see the last post if you missed it), but there were many other fun lifers that followed the Flam.  After all, one cannot go to Arizona and not come home with a few lifer souvenirs.  While I did not hit double-digits, I did snag some really exciting new ones.  One of these was a major target bird that I was just as eager to see as I was the Flam. Perhaps, though, the biggest (literally) lifer for me and the whole family was the Grand Canyon.

Grand Canyon Technically speaking it was not a lifer for me as I had been here as a small child.  Since I have no memory of it and I have a family of my own who hadn’t seen it, the time was right for a visit. Plus, the visit to Grand Canyon National Park was completely FREE thanks to the government’s Every Kid in a Park program where each 4th grade student in America can get his/her entire family and vehicle into any national park all summer long at no cost.  The lack of entry fee was definitely the icing on the cake because this place is impressive regardless.  The grandeur of the Grand Canyon and how it makes you feel when you are standing next to that vastness is nearly impossible to describe in words and capture in photographs.  Hopefully these kids will at least remember the experience.

Evan Marin

Tommy DeBardeleben joined us on the trip to the Grand Canyon.  Tommy was actually hoping to see a bird that I wanted to see, the California Condor.  The California Condor was reintroduced to the Canyon in 1996 and has done well there since.  Over 70 birds are in the Utah/Arizona population with many of them frequenting the Canyon.  Tommy had seen them here many years ago.  Unfortunately they were not a “countable” bird when he saw them because they were still in the early years of reintroduction, so Tommy technically did not have California Condor on his official life and state lists.  Neither did I, so as we enjoyed the Canyon at every possible pull-off, Tommy and I were always watching the sky above and below(!) in an effort to find this bird.  Unfortunately we never had any luck.  Later that night we learned one had been seen on the cliff face right beneath Bright Angel Lodge less than an hour after we had looked at the very same spot. Argh. The good news is that we were so impressed with the Canyon that we will be back some day.  The Condor can wait until then.

There were, of course, other potential lifers for me at the Canyon.  I did see one, the Juniper Titmouse, fly across the road in front of me.  It wasn’t until the drive back on US-180 to Flagstaff that I actually got to see one well and photograph it.

Juniper TitmouseJuniper TitmouseTommy found me this bird while we were stopped for a different lifer.  As I had been driving I knew to be vigilant for Pinyon Jays.  There were a couple times while cruising at highway speeds that I thought I saw blue-colored birds cross the highway, but with no shoulder on which to pull off, I couldn’t stop to check.  All doubt was erased at one point, though, when several blue-colored birds were flying across the highway in groups.  I found a spot to pull over and observe my lifer Pinyon Jay.  Photographing them proved impossible as the birds were between me and the sun.  They also hid remarkably well in the junipers, only giving away there presence as they flushed away.  This happened over and over as we probably saw over 50 in all, flushing in small groups.  It was frustrating but still fun to see the behavior of this bird and hear its fun, laughing call.

Pinyon JayPinyon JayThe morning after the Grand Canyon adventure, Tommy and I birded the Flagstaff area hitting up Elden Springs Road and the Schultz Pass Road. The birding was incredible, but since this is just a lifer post, we’ll stick to those. The first lifer was the Grace’s Warbler, a striking bird that loves the Pines.

Grace's WarblerGrace's WarblerWhile lifering on this bird, I simultaneously lifered on Plumbeous Vireo.  This is another bird that loves life in the Pines.  Both my new lifers could be heard and seen at the same time, sometimes even in the same tree!

Plumbeous VireoPlumbeous VireoElden Springs Road merges on to Schultz Pass Road, which was a reported location of numerous individuals of the bird I wanted to see most, the Red-faced Warbler.  Tommy had me stop at a spot that looked like good habitat for this warbler–dense stands of Douglas Fir on a slope next to a somewhat open area of Aspens.  Sure enough, Tommy picked out a singing Red-faced Warbler almost immediately.  As we were trying to get visuals on it, Tommy spotted another lifer for me and one I had been hoping for–a male Williamson’s Sapsucker! Even though the Red-faced Warbler was my most wanted bird after the Flam, we know that would be a relatively easy bird along Schultz Pass Road.  Therefore, we ditched the Red-face we had been hearing in an effort to track down the dapper and somewhat elusive Sapsucker. It sure was a tease at first and not offering up much to view.

Williamson's SapsuckerEventually we got the full monty as it was too busy drilling sap wells to care about a couple of gawkers.

Williamson's Sapsucker

Williamson's SapsuckerOnce the Williamson’s was fully enjoyed, we turned our attention to the Red-faced Warbler.  I was highly impatient to finally see this bird that we were hearing.  And then it finally happened, and it was glorious.

Red-faced WarblerAdding to the pleasure of finally seeing this bird is that Red-faced Warblers are curious and therefore crushable.

Red-faced Warbler

Red-faced WarblerRed-faced WarblerBy the time we were done birding Schultz Pass Road, we had seen several of these Warblers.  Each was just as exciting as the last.  Even Tommy has to stop and look at each one, they are that captivating.Red-faced Warblers are curious and quite crushable.There were no more lifers on this morning of birding around Flagstaff.  Tommy and I had found all my targets with relative ease, and there was really nothing left to go after.  I’m kicking myself for not doing more research because MacGilivray’s Warblers breed in the area by Hart Prairie which is just northwest of Flagstaff.  Oh well, something to add to my northern Arizona to-do list next time we come back to view the Grand Canyon (and the California Condors!)

My last hope for lifers on this trip would occur on our drive from Flagstaff back to Phoenix.  We were able to take a leisurely drive south since we were overnighting in Phoenix and didn’t have to catch a plane until the next day.  So instead of hopping on I-17, we drove through Oak Creek Canyon and Sedona.  Oak Creek Canyon and the red rock formations of the Sedona area are a must-see experience for anybody.  For the birders, there is even more to experience.  My list of hopefuls was short: Yellow-breasted Chat, Common Black-Hawk, and Brown-crested Flycatcher.

After scouring eBird, I had picked a spot caled the Encinoso Picnic Area as a place to look for the Chat.  It looked really small and held multiple birds–perfect for a quick search while a non-birding family waited in the car.  Evan’s 4th grader park pass got us into this National Forest Service fee site for free too (it works for all federal lands and not just national parks). Anyhow, when I stepped out of the car I heard the distinctive calls, croaks, and whistles of a Yellow-breasted Chat immediately.  And then I found a second and third equally loud Chat.  Getting visuals on any proved very difficult.  I did see one as it flew straight up out of the thicket it was calling from.  The yellow breast was as impressive as it was unmistakable.  Trying to find a perched bird was nearly impossible though. My family waited for nearly an hour in the air-conditioned car while I tromped through the picnic area picking up ridiculous amounts of painful, thorny grass seeds of some kind in my shoes.  And here is all I have to show for my toil:

Yellow-breasted ChatI’m not naive. I understand this is a typical experience with this bird species.  It was still frustrating.  At one point I could hear a Chat singing in the thicket right in front of me.  I figured it had to be perched on top somewhere.  So I climbed a rock, held the camera above my head, snapped a picture, and hoped for the best. Well, I got him. Can you see it?

Yellow-breasted ChatHere it is at a different perch.  Same effect.

Yellow-breasted ChatYellow-breasted Chat is just one more bird to add to the list of ‘Better Looks Desired’ birds.  At one point I saw a Chat fly into a tree in the distance, and I saw a fleck of yellow among the green leaves, so I just snapped photos of that yellow spot like crazy. Turns out I got a lot of photos of a yellow leaf instead. What an aggravating bird.

IMG_0794As we continued our drive to Sedona enjoying the views of the canyon walls from the bottom of Oak Creek Canyon, we decided to pull into the National Forest Service’s Grashopper Point recreation site.  This was another fee area that we got into for free–thanks Evan.  The draw of this site is that people like to cool off in Oak Creek here. More specifically, people cliff jump off a high rock face into a 15-foot wide creek below! Apparently this narrow creek is quite deep, allowing the people we saw jumping to come out unscathed.  We did not attempt it. I was not completely sold on its safety.

Evan MarinThe deep part of the water is quite narrow as you can see the wading area takes up almost half the creek width. This spot where Evan and Marin are wading is where teenagers were jumping into the water from 15-20 feet up the rock face!  As I kept an eye on my kids, I also kept an eye out for a Common Black-Hawk in the riparian corridor.  Unfortunately one never materialized.  I was also keeping an eye and an ear out for a family of Brown-crested Flycatchers that had been reported here. I had actually given up on them too, but seconds before we got in the car to leave I spied a silent flycatcher on top of a snag a long ways away.  I snapped some photos and was pleasantly surprised to see I had captured my lifer Brown-crested Flycatcher!

Brown-crested FlycatcherThe Brown-crested Flycatcher is distinguished from the similar-looking Ash-throated Flycatcher which inhabits the same area by its larger bill, completely rufous tail underneath, and a brighter yellow belly.  Thankfully, this Flycatcher turned around to make sure I could see all the appropriate field marks.

Brown-crested Flycatcher The lifering on this fifth trip to AZ was definitely a quality over quantity sort of thing. And unless I make a summer trip to SE AZ, the lifering will be significantly limited on subsequent trips to visit my parents in central AZ in the winter months. Regardless of lifers being available, good birds can ALWAYS be had in Arizona.  In the next post, I’ll highlight my favorite non-lifers from this most recent trip.

#17

It’s hard to be a part of Tommy DeBardeleben’s Owl Big Year (TOBY) in 2016 and not have it rub off on you in some way.  Watching my friend Tommy see all of America’s Owl species in one year was inspirational and got me thinking about completing my own “set” of Owls since I was so close.  In the fall of 2016, I made it my goal to see a Whiskered Screech-Owl on our annual trip to Arizona.  After that Owl was secured, only 3 Owls of 19 remained: Boreal Owl, Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, and Flammulated Owl–none of which would be particularly easy.  In fact, all of them are quite challenging. Nevertheless, a plan was hatched to make a rare summer trip to Arizona to attempt Owl lifer #17, Flammulated Owl.  Going in summer was necessary since this Owl is a migratory summer resident that is not around in Arizona during the fall/winter when we usually visit.  And since Flams are associated with the forests of higher elevations, we’d have to head to the mountains for this bird.

There are many places in Arizona to look for Flams, but to make it a family-friendly trip I opted for northern Arizona so that we could knock out our lifer Grand Canyon too.  Tommy had suggested that the Flagstaff area held great Flam habitat.  I liked his suggestion, so we made plans for a quick, end-of-school-year vacation at the Wyndham Flagstaff Resort.  Tommy made plans to join us for a couple days of our vacation so that he could help me get yet another new Owl.  Previously Tommy had shown me six Owl lifers on other Arizona trips.

The Owling was to commence on the first night of our vacation. May 30th was travel day and got off to an early start.  We landed at PHX around noon local time and proceeded to make the 2-hour trip north to Flagstaff.  Tommy drove up from Phoenix later in the afternoon and after some grocery shopping and enjoying a meal together, Tommy and I were off for a night of Owling while the family stayed back at the resort to relax.

Tommy and I had an hour’s drive to the southeast along the Lake Mary Road to make our Flam attempt at arguably the best place to try for them: Happy Jack Lodge.  The Flam fame for this location started when Caleb Strand discovered multiple reliable, accommodating birds here a couple years.  This was the site where Tommy got his TOBY Flam in 2016.  I have seen many crushing photos of Flams from Tommy and Caleb from this site and have drooled over the possibility of Owling here.  And now it was finally going to happen.  Although, daydreams of Flams perched low in Oaks were interrupted by a couple close encounters with Elk on the road.  Thankfully Tommy was driving and was skilled at spotting them.  The Elk weren’t the only distraction. We cruised right by Mormon Lake, the site of the the Arizona first state record Common Crane that showed up earlier in the month and disappeared just a week or so before our trip.  I found out later (back in Minnesota) that the Common Crane was refound on our last day of vacation! Doh!

We got to Happy Jack Lodge just as it was getting dark.  After a short walk through the campground, we started Owling in the adjacent forest which was fairly wide open.  I was expecting magic at any minute. But it was eerily…silent. We forged on, stopping every now and then to listen and play tapes. Nothing.  What was going on? In my mind I had billed Happy Jack as a sure thing, so disappointment was quickly setting in.  We weren’t hearing any nighttime sounds. The lack of activity coupled with the long day of travel was finally taking its toll on me.  I found it difficult to stay awake and focused and had to pause often to sit down and rest. Finally, enough was enough, and we ditched Happy Jack altogether.  We were now entering the unknown territory for getting me this Owl lifer.  It’s a good thing Tommy is a skilled Owler and is not at all daunted by the unknown.

On the drive back to Flagstaff, Tommy decided to stop at Wiemer Springs Road where he had seen a recent eBird report of a couple Flammulated Owls.  It was worth a shot.  Tommy had never been here before, but he got excited once he saw the habitat.  He felt really good about our chances.  We continued the ritual of hiking, pausing to listen, and playing tapes. Then, a short time after playing the tape, we heard a “Poot!” It was a Flam! And once it started, it kept going: “Poot!….poot!….poot!” Tommy said, “Let’s go get it!” and led the way into the woods as we tried to pin down the Owl for visuals and photos.  We tracked down what tree it was in, but Flams can perch high and remain out of sight as they perch close to the trunk of the tree.  We scanned and scanned with our flashlights.  Finally, Tommy shouted, “Josh, I’ve got it!” I hustled over to where Tommy was, but just then it flew and I never saw it.  This played over a few times: we’d hear the bird, track it down, Tommy would get a quick visual, and then it would fly as I approached.  It was so frustrating.  We even had a second Flam that we heard, but neither was being cooperative for us.  Eventually the Owls were quiet and we were super tired.  We had to call it a day for Flam attempt #1.  Officially, #17 was on the list as a heard-only, but it wasn’t as gratifying as it could have been if I had actually seen it.

The next day Tommy accompanied our family on a trip to the Grand Canyon.  Throughout the day we discussed what we should do for our next and final night of trying for the Flam.  Options included Owling closer to Flagstaff, returning to Happy Jack, and returning Wiemer Springs Road.  We finally decided on the latter as we knew there were actually Owls at that location.  Their reclusive habits made us nervous, though.

When we got to Wiemer Springs Road, Tommy had commented that it would be funny if we got the Flam right away.  We began the walk we had taken the night before and  played the tape in the same spot we had found one.  Immediately we got a response! I followed Tommy through the woods.  Rather than scanning with my own light apart from Tommy, I basically stayed right at his side.  This time it paid off as Tommy quickly got on the Owl with his light, and this time it stayed put!! Flammmmmmmm!!!!!

Flammulated Owl

Flammulated OwlFlammulated Owl

We literally had about one minute to view/photograph this bird before it flew off from its 30-foot high perch.  From the time we had started walking to when this encounter was over, only 12 minutes had gone by! It was quite the stroke of luck, or more likely, an answer to prayer as Tommy had said.  Wow, what a thrill it was to get this Owl with my buddy, Tommy! I was very satisfied with the experience and the photos I got, but since the night was still very young, we decided to keep trying for more visuals.

The rest of the night would play out like the night before where additional visuals and cooperative birds could just not be had.  We did hear a couple more Flammulated Owls, but none was willing to sit still.  However, the excitement for the night was not over.  As we were chasing yet another Flam vocalization, I heard something faintly in the distance that sounded like a Western Screech-Owl.  Unsure of what I was hearing, I asked Tommy if there were Screech Owls in the area.  He told me they were very unlikely at these high elevations.  We paused to listen, and I kept hearing it! The bouncy ball song was unmistakable.  Tommy wasn’t picking it up though which surprised me and caused me to doubt my senses.  But then he caught part of the distant vocalization and confirmed it was a Western Screech!  It was a Coconino County first for Tommy besides! Since this bird is somewhat rare for this part of the state, we decided to track it down for visuals and photo documentation.  Unlike Flams, Western Screech-Owls are very cooperative.  Tommy knew we would have no trouble seeing it.  Tommy was right.

Western Screech-Owl

Strangely, though, this bird stayed very high and wouldn’t come close for photos.  We actually detected at least three Western Screech-Owls, two adults and one juvenile.

Western Screech-OwlAfter the Screech-Owl fun, we kept up our search for Flams with no further sightings.  A pair of dueting Great Horned Owls did give us a three-Owl night, however.  With Flammulated Owl locked down and photo-documented as my 17th Owl lifer, the trip was a huge success.  A fun coincidence is that the Flam was Tommy’s 17th Owl species for TOBY. I can’t thank Tommy enough for all the Owl species he has shown me (7 in all!).  The next day we celebrated in a most appropriate way–eating at the Toasted Owl Cafe right by our resort in Flagstaff.  It’s very good, by the way.

Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, people standing and outdoor

So now only two Owls remain for me.  I got Owl lifer #16 in 2016, #17 in 2017, so I’m putting it out there as my next birding goal: #18 in ’18 and #19 in ’19.  Research and plans are already underway.  There is a chance Tommy still might be able to help me with one of those, but I may be on my own in other parts of the country for the rest of the journey.  Thanks again, Tommy!

Coming up in the next post will be the other lifers of this Arizona trip, highlighted by a real show-stopper which was the other major target bird of the trip!

In the Spruce Bog, Three’s Company but Four’s a Party

So like your favorite show, I’ve left you with a cliffhanger in that last post that alluded to a tantalizing lifer and I made you wait for the next season (literally) to get some resolution.  Turns out that a busy career, life with kids and their activities, and a move(!) have hindered the blogging efforts even if the birding has still raged on in spite of the chaos. There have been trips to Arizona, Wisconsin, lifer trips here in Minnesota, and much more. It’s been a wild ride, but things are finally a little more conducive to getting caught up, so you can expect a mass release of posts and start binge-reading ABWCH.

We left off with a birding excursion to a Black Spruce bog back in the homeland of northern Minnesota with birding friends Julie Grahn and John Richardson in late March.  Winter still had a somewhat icy grip on the northwoods, but there was a fire of birding excitement burning inside as John, Julie, and I pursued Julie’s latest great find–an American Three-toed Woodpecker.  While this species may be easier to find out west in the mountains, this woodpecker is incredibly rare for Minnesota.  In fact, in all the years that I have been birding there has not been a chaseable one until this past spring when Julie found FOUR of them in three different locations!  Julie’s fame grew as throngs of birders trekked up north to see a pair of these elusive Woodpeckers at one particular spot.  I was somewhat late to the party, actually, and had to wait for an opportune time to sneak away.  So when the kids had their spring break, I took them on a trip to see Grandma who graciously watched them while I went hunting for this lifer.

Back to that same day that we saw the Spruce Grouse, John, Julie, and I walked back and forth along a two-mile stretch of road through a Black Spuce bog in the hopes of hearing/seeing this ghost of a Woodpecker.  After a couple hours we finally heard drumming, and we all raced ahead to track it down.  It seems like heresy to say this, but I was dejected to be looking at a Black-backed Woodpecker.

Black-backed WoodpeckerWe carried on with our walk that had us traversing the same stretch of road several times.  Then we heard drumming quite a ways from the Black-backed and knew it was a different bird.  We repeated the drill of tracking down the source.  Only this time it was different.  John was the first one to get eyes on it and announced it was the American Three-toed Woodpecker and the male at that!

American Three-toed WoodpeckerIt was a huge lifer for me–there are only a handful of regular birds in Minnesota I can still add to my life list, and the icing on the cake was that this was a hometown bird.  It really doesn’t get better than that, and I spent a lot of time soaking up the experience and taking lots of photos.

American Three-toed WoodpeckerAmerican Three-toed WoodpeckerAt one point this Woodpecker flew down and worked the bark along a downed tree.  This bird was oblivious to my presence and let me approach within 5 feet as it frantically flaked bark to look for insects.

American Three-toed WoodpeckerAmerican Three-toed WoodpeckerAmerican Three-toed WoodpeckerAmerican Three-toed WoodpeckerIt was a beautiful day to be birding back home and enjoying a long-awaited lifer.  John had gotten his fill long ago and left. Julie was quite patient as I spent an inordinate amount of time photographing this incredibly accommodating bird.American Three-toed WoodpeckerI did, finally, pry myself away and Julie and I wrapped up our birding for the day.  However, I found myself back on this road the next morning because the allure of these Woodpeckers and the Spruce Grouse was just too strong.  That second morning I decided to drive the stretch of road first with the windows down.  Unlike the day before, the action started almost immediately.  I heard the unmistakable rattle call of TWO Black-backed Woodpeckers that seemed to be chasing each other around in some sort of courtship dance. I got lucky enough to catch them on the same tree together.

Black-backed WoodpeckerThen all craziness broke loose (as if it hadn’t already). There were now four Woodpeckers chasing each other around. As I tried to make sense of it all, another unexpected sighting happened–Sparky Stensaas came bursting out of the woods with a large camera and tripod in hot pursuit of this action.  All of this action was just nuts. I started photographing two Woodpeckers on a dead snag and realized I had the male Black-backed and male Three-toed together on the same tree!

IMG_2030

They appeared to be in some sort of dispute over territory which was a fascinating development for us onlookers.  Meanwhile, the females of these respective species kept each other company on their own tree, though I did not photograph them.  I was too busy watching the males who were vying for superiority.

IMG_2031And in the end, one Woodpecker clearly won out.

American Three-toed WoodpeckerEventually, the Woodpeckers (and Sparky) dispersed into the woods and the excitement was over.  Later on, Julie Grahn and Dee Kuder showed up, and along with Sparky we all enjoyed the Spruce Grouse show that was highlighted in the last post. A huge thank you goes out to Julie Grahn for finding and reporting these birds and assisting me in finding them.  It was an incredible experience–I couldn’t have asked for a better way to get this lifer.

Finally, to close this post and whet your appetite for the next post (and Chinese food), this is a fortune I got while stopping to eat on this northern MN trip, a fortune that came true…

Sprucing Up the Day

Recently I had the opportunity to travel to the Northland, the homeland.  In addition to visiting family while up north, I also took the opportunity to pursue a life bird.  That life bird was found and immensely enjoyed, but there was another bird found during the pursuit that was so distracting and almost literally underfoot at times that it demanded its own post.  This bird kept my birding companions and me from the task at hand of lifer searching, much like this post is keeping us from that lifer story.  I don’t know what it is about this bird that I just can’t get enough.  It is a bird whose combination of beauty (certainly not brains) and playing hard to get make it irresistible and cause even the most hardened birder to go weak in the knees.  We are, of course, talking about the Spruce Grouse.

Spruce Grouse

Spruce GrouseSpruce GrouseThis male Spruce Grouse was the first bird my local birding friend Julie Grahn spied while we hunted for the life bird that Julie had found weeks earlier on this same road.  I was thankful that this Grouse finally flew off so we could get back to the more important search at hand.  But doggone it, an hour later I looked behind me and saw that another male had come out to the road.

Spruce GrouseI had actually been looking behind me to see if another friend, John Richardson, was coming.  This was good timing because John was hoping to see this bird too.

John Richardson spruce grouse

While it looks like John is about to miss his opportunity, rest assured he saw it and saw it well with Julie and me when it flew from the road into this Black Spruce about 20 feet up.

Spruce Grouse Spruce GrouseYou want to know why so many people have trouble finding this bird?

Spruce GrouseThat is actually a fairly conspicuous shot.  There were times that it was so well hidden, camouflaged, and motionless at the top of this small tree that we would not have known it was there had we not just been observing it.  Only the slightest rustle of the boughs gave away its presence as it consumed the Black Spruce needles.  We were treated to full monty looks as well and could just not pull ourselves away…

Spruce GrouseSpruce GrouseSpruce GrouseWe finally managed to leave this incredibly accommodating bird and get back to our priority of lifer-searching. But one lifer and one day later, I was back on this road birding again just to see what I could see.  Though I started the day alone, I bumped into fellow birders Sparky Stensaas, Dee Kuder, and Julie Grahn.  At one point I was bushwhacking to join Sparky in the heart of the Spruce bog when the ground fluttered in front of me. Spruce Grouse–again!  This was much later in the day than the sighting the previous day, and the bird was not gritting out on the road.  I had stumbled upon it just relaxing in the dark recesses of the bog for the day.  Known by locals as the Fool’s Hen, this Sprucie was not overly concerned about me and settled back down under his Spruce bough.

Spruce GrouseAs I observed the Grouse, it began displaying!  While I quietly watched from 15 feet away, I spied a hen Spruce Grouse near the male.  She made little clucks that would cause the male to puff up and fan his tail straight up.  Then a third Spruce Grouse flew in and landed 20 feet up in a Spruce Tree!  This sound of the second one fluttering its wings also excited the male on the ground.  The birds and I were both in obstructed quarters which didn’t allow for the best viewing, but I was eventually able to get in a position to better capture the displaying male.

Spruce Grouse

I even managed to snag a quick video to better show this display:

As Sparky and I watched this bird, we realized that we were probably on the lek which was why there was so much activity.  The lek was a small, open area in the Spruce bog about 10 feet in diameter with an angled dead tree positioned in the center. Sparky described how the males will walk up the angled tree and do a flutter flight down to the lek to attract the females. As we continued to watch this bird, I spied the second male Spruce Grouse that had landed 20 feet above us in a Jack Pine.

Spruce GrouseThis bird did not mind that we were standing underneath him, nor did the female mind when we eventually got into a better position to check her out.  We got to enjoy her taking a dust bath in the afternoon sun.  I’d say she cleaned up pretty nice.

Spruce Grouse femaleEach encounter I have with a Spruce Grouse is special and never taken for granted.  I am still awestruck by this bird and may have finally gotten my fill, at least for a little while. And now, NOW, that we have dealt with the horribly distracting Spruce Grouse, we can move on to that incredible lifer in the next post.

DIY Owling–A Longing Fulfilled

As it’s been stated here before, 2017 is mostly about taking care of business here at home, mostly in the Owl Dept. There are four regular species, either residents or migrants, that were missing from my county list prior to the start of the year: Short-eared, Long-eared, Eastern Screech, and Northern Saw-whet.  These have been my most wanted county birds as of late.  The Short-eared was knocked off in short order on the first day of the year, filling a major void and leaving only three more.  One could sit around and wait on news of a serendipitous encounter for those others, or one could get out there and try to make something happen.  Never one for patience, I often choose the latter, drawing inspiration from intrepid Owlers like Tommy DeBardeleben and Jeff Grotte.

So along with buddy Steve Gardner, I’ve been getting out there.  On one recent excursion, Steve and I stumbled into the biggest cache of whitewash and small owl pellets we’d ever seen.  Actually, I don’t think we’ve ever found Owl evidence before. Four roost sites in all in one small stand of Red Cedars got the owl juices flowing fast.  Steve and I expected to come face-to-face with a Saw-whet at any moment.  While we came up empty, we were excited nonetheless to find such evidence and be in hot pursuit.  Steve and I have been on many, many fruitless Owl hunts together in the past.  This may have been a turning point for us…

A week later I was itching to get back to this site to take another look around. In the meantime Steve and I had both received intel on some Long-eared Owls in another part of the state.  Never having seen one before, Steve wanted to pursue those and invited me along. I declined, opting instead to spend my birding time that day looking for a county Saw-whet back at that spot. Well, Steve and I both saw Owls in our respective locations that morning, but his Owls were much cooler than mine:

Great Horned OwlAny Owl sighting makes for a fun outing, even if it’s not post-worthy. But Steve’s lifer LEOWs were post-worthy, and something about his post caught my attention: he had seen his Owls in a plantation of Spruces. I had associated LEOWs mostly with Cedars. A connection was made in my brain, and I asked Steve how the site he was at compared with a plantation of Spruces in our county that we have unsuccessfully Owled a few times. Steve said they were very similar. Plans were made immediately to check it out the next day. It had been over a year since we last tried for Long-eareds at that spot.  It was time to hit it again.

That next afternoon, Steve and I met up to walk this Spruce plantation, walking abreast down the lanes between the tree rows. And I kid you not, 30 seconds into our walk, Steve hollered out that Owl flushed from a tree in front of him and was coming my direction. We both knew what it was instantly–too big for a Saw-whet, too small for a Great Horned, and wrong habitat for a Short-eared and Eastern Screech pointed to one bird only: Long-eared Owl!  We were stoked to say the least. Whenever the Owl flushed it would always land a short distance away and was unwilling to leave the stand of trees. This further proved we were dealing with a LEOW since GHOWs make fast beelines out of an area when they flush covering a half mile or more. One time this LEOW even went out of the grove, circled around looking at us, and re-landed only to disappear.  I got a good look that time.  We were too amped up and excitedly talking to put on a quiet stalk. Finally, finally, Steve and I had a successful Owl hunt!

As we continued to try to re-see the bird and hopefully get a look at it perched, we encountered piles of Owl sign–whitewashed trees everywhere and pellets scattered all over the place like popcorn on a movie theater floor. We also found the smoking gun of LEOW evidence: the remaining wings of our newest county bird’s predated partner:

Long-eared Owl wingWe did flush it a couple more times but eventually decided to move on and give up on seeing it perched.  Even still, the victory was immense. Steve said it best when he said it was cool that we did not have to rely on anyone else for this bird.  I couldn’t agree more.

The Owling didn’t stop there.  Steve and I found some Red Cedars in the area to check for Saw-whets. Once again, we found heavy evidence that Saw-whets were/are in those trees.  Then we later flushed a Great Horned Owl and wondered if the Saw-whet(s) had gone the way of LEOW #2.

The next day I was able to revisit the LEOW site with some other local birding friends who had never seen one.  Two Great Horned Owls flushed right away giving everyone a false start.  As we got near the end of our respective rows of trees, conversation picked up among the others and I got the impression they thought this would be a non-event.  From the previous day’s experience, I knew that it wasn’t over until we actually emerged from the trees.  I kept up my constant scanning of every tree I quietly and slowly walked by. Then I nearly lost my breath when I spied the tall, skinny Owl near the top of a tree looking down at me!  I quickly snapped a photo of the shadowed tangles it was buried in, not even able to see the Owl in my viewfinder.

Long-eared OwlThis was the final, definitive proof that Steve and I had seen a Long-eared Owl the day before.  And, man, did it feel good.Long-eared OwlAt this moment in the adventure I was multi-tasking, trying to get photos while snapping my fingers and whispering to get the attention of my fellow birders.  I never got them on the bird before it flushed, but everyone was able to eventually see the Owl.

Nothing beats finding Owls on your own and having a local spot to go see a cool species like this.  Now, if only the resident GHOWs will leave this bird alone…

Great Horned OwlAre the Owl adventures over? With 2 of my 4 wanted Owls knocked off in February already, I think we are just getting started.