The AZ FEPO Search: Boots on the Ground

For some time it has been a goal of mine to see all 19 regular species of Owls that reside in the U.S.  Getting the Boreal Owl this past January was a dream come true in itself and put me within one Owl of reaching my goal, with the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl being the holdout. FEPO can be notched relatively easily if you’re willing to pay a hefty fee and travel to the King Ranch in south Texas. And I was. Our family had planned to take a very large cross-country road trip this summer, and my plan was to hit up King Ranch on the journey. Plans changed though. It’s funny how owning two houses for nearly a year with no end in sight will do that.

Eventually sweet relief came in the housing situation in March, but it was too late to resurrect any mega road trip plans. I did start talking to my buddy Tommy DeBardeleben, though, about trying to recreate his AZ FEPO magic from 2016. FEPOs are resident in small numbers at Organ Pipe National Monument along the U.S./Mexican border. They are very tough to come by there, but Tommy and others have proved it is indeed possible.  Success would be even sweeter in AZ considering I’d be with Tommy who’s helped me get so many other Owl lifers.  After discussing the decision with “Screw Texas” Tommy and cajoling my buddy Steve Gardner into making the trip with me, plans were set for a fast weekend trip in mid-April.

April unleashed some of the worst winter weather we’d seen with blizzard after blizzard pummeling us. The MN forecast for our AZ weekend was grim. Steve and I planned to leave Friday after work, and all day long we wondered if we’d make it out of the state. Getting to the airport was sketchy. The temp was hovering right at freezing, causing the road to quickly become ice-covered from the snow/rain which slowed us down. The main thrust of the storm would start that night after we were scheduled to take off. And it was forecast to be a doozy–lots of snow, lots of wind, lots of closures.  We finally made it to the airport and as we waited for the flight, Steve and I distracted ourselves from the possibility of a canceled flight by keeping up with the latest bird happenings on FB. One really caught our eye–a Fan-tailed Warbler was just reported in the Chiricahuas in SE AZ. Steve and I had never even heard of this Mexican Warbler before the posting. It was interesting, but we were focused on the Owl prize. Besides, a Warbler could quickly disappear…

Steve and I were relieved to actually get on the plane (the airport was predicted to be shut down sometime in the night and all the next day).  Getting the plane off the ground was another story. We sat on the tarmac for a long time.

airplane wing

Shortly after we de-iced, we got word that we couldn’t take off until the rain turned to snow, which was frustrating since the rain had been snow when we got on the plane. The possibility of this trip getting nixed was growing. There would be no flight out on Saturday.  Finally, though, the Captain gave the good word and we were in the sky only one hour behind schedule.

The Parents extended their snowbirding long enough (smartly) to not only avoid the lingering MN winter but to also be there to pick us up from the airport, be home base for the excursion, and lend us a vehicle. Thanks Mom and Dad!  Late that night we rendezvoused with Tommy at their house.  There was time for a 3-hour “nap” before our morning alarms would wake us for our 2-hour drive south.

Exhausted as we were, we made it to Organ Pipe. It was FEPO time. Alamo Canyon, Organ Pipe National MonumentOwls aside, I think Steve and I were just enjoying not being in a blizzard. Our sympathies for our families back home were quickly eclipsed by the beautiful weather we were enjoying. We picked a great weekend to be in southern Arizona.

Expectations for FEPO or any new lifers were low as we began the hike up Alamo Canyon. I mistakenly thought I might get one new non-FEPO lifer in Organ Pipe.  Shortly into the hike Tommy announced the presence of a Pacific-slope Flycatcher. Thankfully he did not announce the presence of a smuggler, though anyone smuggling in a load of Mexican FEPOs would have been met with open arms.

smuggle sign

As we continued our FEPOless, smugglerless hike up Alamo Canyon, we notched a heard only MacGillivray’s Warbler lifer. I totally forgot about the fact that we’d be in Arizona during migration. What else might we find? Well, a Gray Vireo was certainly not on my radar but was now on my life list. It was great to see one, but I was kinda saving that one for Janet Witzeman to show me–eventually I’ll blog about that backstory.

Gray VireoNot long after the Gray Vireo fun it was time to head back down canyon sans FEPO. A petty consolation came in the form of another Vireo lifer we missed on the way up, one of the Cassin’s variety.

Cassin's Vireo

Back at the trailhead for Alamo Canyon, we paused to figure out what was next. FEPO searching in the heat of the day is pretty useless, and the Organ Pipe area really held nothing for us (especially after the bonus lifers).  We’d have to travel a significant distance if we wanted to get in some more good birding. We landed on going to Madera Canyon to Owl at night. This was not a deviation from the original FEPO plans; one of the carrots to make the trip appealing to Steve was to do some other Owling as well. He could potentially rack up several Owl lifers in one night.  FEPO searching would resume Sunday night and Monday morning since we would spend Saturday night somewhere near Madera.

By the time we left Organ Pipe, the morning was still quite young, so we had plenty of time to do some daylight birding before the night Owling.  With mindset properly switched, I was ready for some great SE AZ action during the FEPO break. A couple notables on the drive, such as Prairie Falcons and a Crested Caracara, only amped up the excitement.  Our first stop was the famed Santa Gertrudis Lane. Several high-profile birds had been there of late, such as Sinaloa Wren and some Rufous-backed Robins.  As we walked to the Wren spot marked by a weird plastic tricycle from last century, we picked up another couple lifers, flyover Gray Hawks and a confiding pair of Dusky-capped Flycatchers. I was struck by its petite size compared to other Myiarchus species and surprised at how much I enjoyed this lifer.

Dusky-capped Flycatcher

We missed the Wren despite a solid effort, and we nearly missed the Robins too. As we were hiking out, we met a group of birders and traded intel. We had bad news for them; they had good news for us. They had seen three Robins where we had walked by! The nice guy even guided us right to them. I don’t think we ever would have found these Thrush statues without his help. This was a good moment, vindication for a failed attempt in January.

Rufous-backed RobinRufous-backed Robin

After Santa Gertrudis it was on to the De Anza Trail at Tubac to look for some Rose-throated Becards. We were all going in blind. We didn’t really know where to look in the towering Cottonwoods. Like the Wren, it was a bust. We did walk away with more Gray Hawk sightings, however brief due to the limited sky windows in the canopy. A juvenile did provide one quick photo op.

Gray HawkBy this point in the afternoon, it was time we made our way to Madera Canyon. Not wanting to waste any burning daylight, we squeezed out every minute stopping briefly at Florida Canyon for Rufous-capped Warbler for Steve and Black-capped Gnatcatcher for both of us. Nada on those, but the effort was minimal.  At least a Black-throated Gray Warbler was an nice lifer bonus for Steve. Next up was a stop at Proctor Road to try one more time for the Gnatcatcher. We did find a Gnatcatcher that was more Black-capped-like that Black-tailed, but the waning daylight and the bird’s fidgety behavior did not allow us to clinch the key field marks for an ID beyond a reasonable doubt. The regularity of this species makes it highly likely that it will eventually land on my list, just not this day.

With darkness settling in, it was time for the night show in Madera Canyon proper. Almost immediately we heard the barking of Elf Owls. It was a lifer for Steve and a sought-after Owl do-over for me. My lifer sighting a few years ago was brief and poor. I had wanted a better photo (that showed eyeballs) of this Owl for some time. Finally.

Elf OwlElf OwlElf OwlAfter enjoying the Elf show for some time, we Owled on for Steve. Lofty plans of looking for Whiskered Screech, Flam, and Spotted Owls collided with the reality of our extreme fatigue. We mustered enough energy to look for the easiest of those, the Whiskered Screech. Only one uncooperative bird was enough for us to be successful, but the brevity of the observation left a lot to be desired. But at this point, all we really desired was sleep. We drove on to Sierra Vista to spend the night so we could look for some reported Montezuma Quail at Ash Canyon B&B early the next morning.  Then it would be back to Organ Pipe to resume FEPO searching, or so we thought…

Bird Local and Save

Save time. Save money. Save headaches. Save the fun for another day. The longer I bird, the more rewarding I find local birding. Most anyone can see what birds they want if they have the means and time to hop in a car and drive across the state or get on a plane and go someplace new. But not everyone can see what they want in a limited geographical area even if they have all the time and money in the world. Racking up the numbers in the near-perfect 24×36 mile rectangle that is Kandiyohi County is tough. While I haven’t jumped on the popular 5-Mile Radius bandwagon, I do take my birding pretty seriously in these 864 square miles.  Birding a relatively small area makes the victories all the sweeter and the misses even more anguishing.  Case in point was an Eastern Whip-poor-will found by Dan Orr on April 30 in the far NW corner of the county. Dan found the bird during the day surprisingly, and not surprisingly, I was tied up with shuttling kids around to their activities. I couldn’t make the 40-minute drive until dark, which is okay considering hearing a nightjar is much more probable than seeing one.  Joel Schmidt was on the scene before me having no luck finding it. Then, two minutes before I arrived, he heard it. I stayed on over an hour without hearing a whip or a will. Ugh.

Yet another stinging miss was a Summer Tanager in Randy Frederickson’s yard in May of 2017 while I was across the country. I literally got the news just after landing in Arizona. Talk about bad timing.  All I had to cling to was a thin hope of another one based on Randy having seen this species in his yard a few times over the last couple decades. It turns out that my hope was not that thin. History repeated itself almost exactly a year later, except I was in the right place at the right time for once to get #258. Twice I’ve made long-distance car chases for this species, and here I had one just across town.  Sadly, that story has repeated itself all too often for me with other species.

Summer Tanager

Not long after I enjoyed this Tanager with Randy and his wife in their yard, Randy and I were out birding one morning when I picked up county bird #259*.  *This bird, if accepted, would be a second state record. I’ll write more on that if we have success with it being accepted. If not, just forget this paragraph even existed.

Serendipitous rarities at the local level are always received with great joy since they are completely unexpected. You can’t get too upset about the really rare birds you don’t have on your county list.  However, it’s the birds that you know show up annually but are still missing from the list that really get under the skin. Two of those for me were Sanderling and Henslow’s Sparrow. My battle plan was to hit up shorebird habitat hard during the end of May to hopefully get a Sanderling, a late migrant. Then, during June, I would make it my daily chore to go beat the innumerable grasslands in the county for a Henslow’s. I was looking forward to this struggle, actually. A few visiting birders laid waste to my perfect plans by finding both my Henslow’s AND my Sanderling for me in the SAME day!

County listing gurus, Andy Nyhus and Dedrick Benz, answered my case-of-beer promotion for any non-county resident that finds me a new Kandiyohi bird when they dug up a Henslow’s Sparrow on territory in the far SE corner of the county. It was a bittersweet #260–good to finally get it, but now my June birding plans were in shambles.

Henslow's Sparrow I have wanted this Sparrow for a long time. The last time one was in the county was in 2013, my first summer of birding. I did try for that one, but I was so green that I didn’t really know how to try. Plus I later found out that I was in the wrong spot by like a quarter mile. Needless to say, with this year’s find I immediately raced down to that corner of the county, making me slightly late for meeting up with a friend that morning.  Getting the bird was a cinch as it could be heard from the parking lot. I spent a little time with it and then raced back to my meeting.  When that meeting ended at noon, I promptly went to the liquor store to make good on a promise. I made my purchase but was disappointed to find out that Andy and Dedrick were no longer in the county to collect payment and had vanished like the DeLorean, leaving fiery trails of good birds for others to marvel at.  Two of those birds were some Sanderlings and Ruddy Turnstones that same afternoon on a beach at Lake Minnewaska in neighboring Pope County. The find actually pushed me out the door that very same day to start checking similar beaches in this county. I checked several but did not go to the beach at Green Lake in Spicer.  Though I thought of it, I instead went to lakes to the south. It’s a good thing that county-listing expert, Herb Dingmann, had the same hunch after ticking Andy and Dedrick’s Pope finds. He did stop at Green Lake and found the same pair of species! Twenty minutes after his call, Steve and I were on site, enjoying our latest county bird. This was #261 for me.

Sanderling

Ruddy Turnstone is not a shabby bird either, only my second in the county.

Ruddy Turnstone

Sanderling Ruddy Turnstone

So just like that I was out of birding targets for the immediate future. I almost didn’t know what to do with myself. At my current number for the county, I am essentially waiting on vagrants to show up to get the number higher. There are a couple more regular hold-outs which I will pursue come fall and winter, but what does one do now? I have never understood the appeal of 87-county listing, but maybe this is it how it begins–the local list gets saturated with good birds and one must look across borders for new tics to keep the thrill alive.  Or maybe it happens innocently when a slew of good birds shows up at the ponds at work in neighboring Meeker County. The ponds have been drawn down this year making it tidy little hotspot during migration.

A confiding pair of Northern Pintails that hung out for a week was a fun Meeker tic.

Northern PintailFun as the Pintails were, nothing could make the Meeker slope more slippery like the 1-2-3 punch of Willet, Snowy Egret, and Caspian Tern. The latter two were seen on the same day as I was hurriedly leaving work to chase the Curlew Sandpiper.

WilletAfter work one day, coworker and birding buddy Brad Nelson had seen some smaller Egrets fly over and land at the ponds but wasn’t able to investigate. He asked if I could check it out. Though the Curlew Sandpiper was the priority, I told him I could give it a quick once-over. It’s a good thing, too, because Brad’s suspicion on the Egrets was right. This pair of Snowy Egrets became our first eBird flagged rarity for work, and it allowed Brad to tie the record for being #1 in Meeker.

Snowy EgretAs I scanned the ponds in my haste to get to the Curlew, I nearly missed this Caspian Tern trying to blend in with the Forster’s. Caspian is the better of the two Terns here, and it was the bird that officially crowned Brad Nelson the King of Meeker County.  Congrats, Brad!Caspian TernPerhaps the county listing starts innocently with “just a quick trip” 6 miles from the county line to pick up Dan Orr’s Stearns County Mockingbirds.

Northern MockingbirdOr maybe it happens when you are driving down the Kandi-Swift County line road and find yourself staring at the Swift side of the line.   It’s a good thing I did because it netted me my first real good looks and photos of a Sora. This felt like a lifer, honestly.

SoraThe birding action is too hot at home to be worried about other counties. I’m not and don’t anticipate to be an active 87-lister, though it is fun to add tics when I travel. This spring/summer has produced an abundance of good birds right here in Kandiyohi County, even if they were not new to me. In fact, for the first time ever, I managed to go above the 200 mark in a single year with half the year still to go!  Here are some of the more fun finds I’ve encountered along the way.

Perhaps winning the award for Biggest Surprise was this very late Snowy Owl (April 26!). I had chased some Short-eared Owls (a more expected species at this time) and instead found this guy. Every Minnesota birder will tell you they have looked at countless Wal-Mart bags in fields thinking they had a Snowy Owl.  Given the time period, I was expecting this white mass to actually be a Wal-Mart bag. Nope. This was my fifth Kandiyohi Snowy Owl of this past winter/spring.

Snowy OwlAnother, “What’s that doing here right now?” bird was a presumed nesting pair of White-winged Crossbills this spring found by Steve Gardner in the same place I found a flock last November.

White-winged Crossbill

It was good to connect with two different Red-headed Woodpeckers in the county this year already–not a bird to be taken for granted here by any means.

Red-headed WoodpeckerThough not a rare bird for Kandiyohi County, it’s always good to bump into a Scarlet Tanager too.

Scarlet TanagerThis spring/summer I have many county Seconds, meaning I’ve seen/heard a bird for the second time ever in the county. I was pretty thrilled to discover my second Loggerhead Shrike for the county. I’ve only seen a handful in the entire state, so this was pretty special.

Loggerhead Shrike

Speaking of only seeing a handful of a species in the state, another Second happened when I was looking for my county Sanderling at the Blomkest sewage ponds.  I kicked up a pair of Gray Partridge as I hiked the barbwire perimeter. The exact same scenario played out for me in this spot just two years ago.

Gray Partridge

My favorite Second occurred when I was looking for a year bird, the Orchard Oriole. The Orchard was not a Second, but still a fun bird.

Orchard OrioleI saw this Orchard Oriole along a road between two gravel pits that I have walked many times in the past looking for a county record Blue Grosbeak. Since the record was found last summer and since it’s still not Blue Grosbeak season in my mind, I was not even thinking about that species. The thing about birding is that good finds sometimes happen when you least expect them. I was pretty pumped to finally (after all these years) get a personally found second Kandiyohi County record Blue Grosbeak.

Blue GrosbeakI didn’t have to wait long to get my second county Summer Tanager. County-listing legends, John Hockema and Chris Hockema, found this first-year male at Mt. Tom at Sibley State Park.  Incredibly, other observers found a second Summer Tanager with this one.

Summer TanagerThe Hockema Bros. followed this up immediately with another incredible find at Mt. Tom–my second county Eastern Towhee.

Eastern TowheeContinuing this list of Seconds was my second county observation and first county visual of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo in Randy’s magical yard.

Yellow-billed CuckooThis Hudsonian Godwit was my fourth observation of this species in the county, but this was only my second time seeing one in breeding plumage.

Hudsonian GodwitBirding locally this spring has been absolutely incredible and proof that you really don’t have to go far to find great things. Other fun finds on the road to 200 and beyond included Least Bitterns, Eastern Meadowlarks, Lark Sparrows, a Cerulean Warbler, and more. Even the new yard has had some great action with Common Nighthawks circling over, Purple Finches stopping by the feeders, and a Wood Thrush waking me up one morning with its serenade.

Birding has definitely slowed down the last couple weeks, which is a good thing so I can work on getting caught up on this blog and on various non-birding projects.  Next post (posts?) will highlight an incredible birding trip Steve and I took to Arizona back in April.

The Kentucky Derby is Won at the Finish Line

I know I promised a post on the local birding scene, but it’s going to have to wait on yet another lifer post.  My only failed lifer chase in the last post was a Kentucky Warbler, the second such time I’ve pursued this bird in the past couple years. Thanks to Brown County birding guru, Brian Smith, there was another opportunity. A few days ago, Brian  discovered a Kentucky Warbler seemingly on territory along the KC Road in the Minnesota River Valley just northwest of New Ulm. The Valley is the perfect place for a Kentucky to show up and set up shop.  The mature, deciduous forests create shady understory haunts, complete with quaint mountain-like streams. Additionally, being in the southern 1/4 of the state, this part of the Valley has a more southern, humid feel that might feel inviting to a barely out-of-range Warbler whose northern reaches include southern Iowa and northern Illinois.

Despite this being a good fit for the Kentucky Warbler, this bird was apparently a Brown County first record.  And in spite of that status, this particular bird did not seem to attract the same attention from the MN birding community that Gerry Hoekstra’s Rice County bird did a month ago.  There were a few souls who ventured into the scenic river valley to get this tic. I was waiting for an opportune time but was not feeling rushed since the bird seemed like it was going to be around for the summer.  Clearly I had underestimated my opponent. I arrived early this morning expecting to hear my lifer immediately (these birds are loud) and then have to work for a photo of the skulker. There were plenty of interesting bird songs to listen to on the KC Road–a calling Yellow-billed Cuckoo, a distant Wood Thrush, the scratchy song of a Scarlet Tanager, but no Kentucky. I was patient too, giving it over an hour, even double- and triple-checking that I had the right location. Nothing. This would be my third dip on the Kentucky Warbler, two in as many months. Frustrated as I was, there really was nothing more to do but go home.

There’s something about birders that they have undying hope to the very end, or, more likely, just never want to stop birding at the very end. The KC road was birdy, and the stretch lying to the west looked interesting.  I hadn’t come in that way, but I could certainly go home that direction. The thought did occur to me that I could find my own brand new Kentucky Warbler. Why not? This place was perfect.  As I rolled along the gravel road slowly with the windows down, I was imagining what it would be like to actually hear the clear, ringing song of a Kentucky that I’d only ever listened to on my app. It could happen, I told myself. Almost as soon as that thought went through my head, an actual Kentucky Warbler belted out his song right by the road as I went past! Even though I had a hunch (more like a long-shot hope), I was still somewhat in shock. After all, this was a half-mile away from the original location. I can only imagine it is the same bird considering the first location was devoid of the KEWA. And from what I could tell, he had upgraded his summer accommodations, settling in at a picturesque, babbling tributary of the Minnesota River.

It’s true what they say about Kentuckys being easier heard than seen, but I was afforded a few brief looks at this stunning Warbler as he sang over his new territory.

Kentucky Warbler

Kentucky WarblerKentucky WarblerI am still shocked I got to see this Warbler after dipping in the original spot. Getting a photo was a wonderful bonus as I never counted on getting one in the first place even when I thought the bird would be a cinch. That’s birding for you, though. It’s never over until it’s over and doesn’t always play out like you think it will.  This was a good reminder to bird hard to the end and expect the unexpected.

Five Fast and Furious Lifers

Birding has been intense this past migration. County birds and new life birds have not waited for me to write up trip reports this past April to SE AZ or even this past February to Duluth! It has been non-stop action which is great for birding and listing but not so great for blogging and documenting. Needless to say, there is a backlog of photos, tales, etc that need to be shared, and frankly, I find the task daunting. So I will chew this elephant one bite at a time by giving a relatively brief run-down of 5, yes 5!, genuine life birds I have seen in MINNESOTA over the span of four weeks. In the last couple years I have tried to scale back on my chasing by only going after true life birds. I have given up on making long distance chases for mere state birds.  Even under these new self-imposed rules, I have been super busy…

On April 29th, I chased a female/1st year male Painted Bunting that showed up at Paul Suchanek’s farm near Owatonna, an unseemly mecca for all kinds of rarities. Seeing PABU was one of my main birding goals for 2018, though I was kind of holding out for the more splashy adult male. But as they say, beggars can’t be choosers. At least I could choose a cute companion for part of my chase–Marin joined me on the trip for a 1/3 of the way so she could hang out with her grandparents in Hutch while I continued on. It was nice to have the company, however brief.

marin

I was expecting this to be a 5-hour round trip dip, honestly. The wind was ferocious that whole day, something I was sure that would move the little vagrant along. Apparently Paul’s set-up was just too bird friendly because the PABU persisted giving me a bittersweet lifer (I wish it was a male).

Painted Bunting Painted Bunting

On May 5th, the kids and I chased a Kentucky Warbler in Northfield, MN. Despite a solid effort, we came up short. So here’s a picture of a Barred Owl we saw in the place of a Kentucky Warbler. Despite their cool factor, Barred Owls do little to sooth the pain of a half-day dip.

Barred Owl

On May 8th, birding phenom and fresh college grad, Garrett Wee, sent shock waves through the Minnesota birding community with the discovery of the state’s fifth ever Curlew Sandpiper. Since this bird was a mere hour away at Lone Tree Lake by Cottonwood, it was an easy chase to make. Steve Gardner and I headed down there immediately after work. Garrett was still there, like a proud papa, greeting all the guests that came to see his baby. It was a stunning find that Garrett picked out from the nearly 2,000 shorebirds feeding in the shallow lake. Wind and distance made for very difficult viewing and photography conditions. I’m not complaining, though. How can I when I got to see a shorebird I never thought I would see?

Curlew SandpiperCurlew SandpiperThis story gets a little more interesting than just a really rare bird. There is a county listing married couple in the state, Barb and Denny Martin, who travel the entire state amassing tics everywhere they go. They’ve been at this awhile and have a very impressive total of 399 and 400 MN birds. The discrepancy bird? Curlew Sandpiper. Needless to say, they came screaming in from the Twin Cities and got on site while we were there. I wasn’t paying attention when Barb was telling someone else the backstory on how the discrepancy came to be, but regardless, there can be peace in the Martin household now that everything is tied up at 400 apiece.

But wait, there’s more. The intrigue doesn’t stop with the Martins.  Back on December 1, 2017, Garrett posted about the potential of this shorebird spot, and birding legend, Bob Dunlap, prophesied this very moment:

bob's prophecy

The fulfillment of the prophecy only served to heighten the lore of Bob and Garrett in the minds of us commoner birders.   To stoke that sentiment even more, Garrett had another great find two days later with the discovery of 15 Smith’s Longspurs at the Echo sewage ponds, including several breeding plumage males. Even though this species passes through Minnesota (and likely Kandiyohi County) every year, I still have never seen one. Once again, Steve and I made an after work chase. This time we got a much later start and only had about 45 minutes of daylight to look. We turned up nothing when we walked the entirety of the small sewage ponds. Then, in a final last-ditch walk with barely any light, I detected the birds vocalizing in the corn stubble field adjacent to the ponds. Steve and I pursued them hoping to get visuals, but we were fighting low light and the bird’s good camouflage.  Steve played a tape, and we had one sing in response. I did catch sight of one bird, seeing its buffy chest, but the look was fleeting and unsatisfying. Still, it was better than nothing.

On May 22, Steve and I were again on the chase when county-listing gurus, Andy Nyhus and Dedrick Benz, found 11 Whimbrels at the famed North Ottawa Impoundment in Grant County. North Ottawa put on a strong showing in 2017, coughing up rarity after rarity. One would think it would have nothing more to offer, but obviously the Whimbrel find proved that wrong. Steve and I almost didn’t complete the chase as we were in contact with another birder on site who wasn’t seeing them at the original location. Whimbrels are notorious for disappearing in a hurry, so I was skeptical. Steve thought we should complete the 1.5 hour trip there anyway. Once we got there, we ran into big year birder, Liz Harper, who came from the Cities hoping to add one more tic to her already 300+ year. None of us were optimistic. Steve and I decided we would just spend an hour birding the impoundment, which, even on a bad day, still beats birding most anywhere else. Liz decided she wasn’t giving up on the Whimbrels. Steve and I went on to find a Sanderling and some Avocets, leaving Liz behind. Then Liz called–she found them! Liz is, indeed, persistent. I mean, would you think to look at a pile of Mallards a half mile away in windy conditions?  Because that’s where she found the Whimbrels were hiding.

North OttawaThe views through the scopes shaking in the wind were tenuous but definitive enough to know what we were looking at. Liz was, appropriately, super pumped by resurrecting these birds and saving the day for all of us. Also, appropriately, she insisted we selfie with her to commemorate this great birding memory. Thanks, Liz, for digging this one out and changing the day’s narrative!

Josh, Steve, LizI was itching for a better look at these Whimbrels, so Steve and I headed to the road that bordered the basin on the east. Finally I got the look I was hoping for–seeing that tell-tale bill. It left me wanting more, but it was enough for now. Maybe someday I’d do better…

whimbrelsThis brings us to this Memorial Day weekend where the family and I made a quick overnight trip to Duluth. Red-throated Loon is annual in Minnesota in both the late fall and spring on Lake Superior during migration.  For whatever reason, I still haven’t made this bird a priority. Five years into my birding career, and I still hadn’t seen one. I decided to change that by going on this trip. RTLOs had been reported in good numbers off Park Point in Duluth the past few weeks.  Memorial Day is one of the best times to look for them. We didn’t waste any time in Duluth, hitting the 12th St. beach access on Park Point immediately upon arriving in town. As the family played on the sandy beach and enjoyed the brisk 55-degree weather (mid 90s back home!), I scanned for this holdout to my life list. Nothing at 12 St., so we continued a few miles east down the Point to the beach house.  There was a lot of chop and sun glare, but I eventually latched onto a trio of these constantly diving Loons. Seeing these Loons, in breeding plumage no less, felt good even if the photo leaves a lot to be desired.

Red-throated LoonSince the main target of the trip was achieved, there was nothing left to do but have a relaxing time with the family. Of course, I’d be up and at ’em the next morning well before the family was awake. I decided to try for more/better visuals of the Loons. I had no luck with that this morning. What I lacked in the Loon-finding skills, I made up for in finding Duluth birding pal, John Richardson. It’s always good to see John. Not only is he a fun guy, but he is one skilled birder. He didn’t find a Red-throated Loon either. Instead, he found something just as good or even better:

WhimbrelWhimbrelJohn and I spent the better part of an hour trying to relocate this single Whimbrel John had first found near the dune bridge at Park Point. It was time and effort well spent. Such a great-looking shorebird! Truly, not many other shorebirds excite birders as much as this one. It was as equal of a highlight as the RTLO, which I am now expecting to get crushing looks of any day at this rate.

I’m putting off the other major trip reports again. Next post will be about the local birding scene.  It’s been off the charts.

MAGO are MAGA

Few shorebirds can deliver on such a campaign promise, but the Marbled Godwit is doing just that–one county at a time. Today it made Kandiyohi County and my respective county list a littler greater. Thanks to Randy Frederickson, I picked up #257 today, a long-overdue and much hoped-for bird this spring. Just like my last county bird, the Long-tailed Duck, all the action went down when I was in church. Thankfully, like last time, it was still there afterward.

Marbled Godwit

Mopping Up in Central AZ

Seeing as how winter is very much still alive in Minnesota, I’m not that late in writing up a report from a late January trip to visit to Arizona. Over the years the Arizona trips and respective lifers have piled up. While there is no end in sight for the former, the latter is definitely petering out. The remnant that remains for me in central AZ is a geographically scattered bunch of birds that never made their way to the top of the wish list, heck, not even the top 10 on any given trip. Gone are the days of going after some cool Owl or Trogon. Instead I’ve entered the errand-birding stage for this area, finally going after some of these ‘nobodies’. Ironically, though, these passed-over birds have become some of the most coveted since they are all that remain for this junkie looking for his next lifer fix. In fact, the one I wanted most was Prairie Falcon.

We had just a couple hours of daylight after we arrived in AZ that first day. I couldn’t not take a stab at this lifer in the agricultural fields around Stanfield where some Prairie Falcons had been reported. Dad, Melissa, and Evan accompanied me on this little quest. Wintering raptors are ubiquitous in these flats with one on nearly every pole top. Time was diminishing quickly, so my identification of most of these birds was reduced to Hawk sp. Once I saw a raptor was a hawk, we got the car rolling again just trying to cover more miles and poles to get the good one. I may have been in a hurry, but there is always time for a road-side Burrowing Owl.

Burrowing OwlFinally, I found the sought-after silhouette at the eleventh hour.

Prairie FalconPrairie FalconMy clean-up operations are not haphazard–my strategy is to try to go after anything rare first and save the most common for later if need be. One of those rarities was the Rufous-backed Robin. This past winter was exceptional for this species with many records popping up in AZ. So that next day, my friend Gordon Karre took me on a mini-outing to stake out a gorgeous backyard in Paradise Valley to hopefully get one of two Robins that had been eating the berries of pyracantha bushes. The problem was that time and berries had run out for this particular Robin pair. We dipped.

So Gordon and I moved on to another target just a couple miles away before retiring the birding efforts for the day. The Bronzed Cowbird, often a forgotten possibility on all these trips, was now at the top of the queue.  Gordon and I found a known wintering flock in Paradise Valley at some horse stables.

Bronzed CowbirdWith that target achieved, the birding was put on hold until the next morning where Gordon, my Dad, and I would follow the same strategy–go after a key rarity and snag as many other lifers along the way. That rarity was the Ruddy Ground-Dove. Though we were going to originally go after one in the Phoenix area, it became a no-show just a couple days before the trip.  We were then forced to go south to the Red Rock feedlot where several had been seen.

Initially, we had trouble finding these birds as we drove the perimeter of the massive feedlot and scanned for birds. There were some interesting distractions among the droves of common birds–a Vermilion Flycatcher, Lark Sparrows, a flock of Yellow-headed Blackbirds, and this lovely female Lark Bunting.

Lark BuntingFinally we got on to the flock(!) of the rare Doves, finding five or six in all. Here are four of them with an Inca Dove that has identity issues, all huddling to keep warm on this chilly morning.

Ruddy Ground-DoveRuddy Ground-DoveIMG_2229Ruddy Ground-DoveThe plan was to cruise through the Santa Cruz Flats on the way home to try for two birds I had long been holding in reserve: Crested Caracara and Mountain Plover. The Santa Cruz Flats are fun place to bird where one can not only stumble across a Mark Ochs lifer but also see cool stuff like Harris’s Hawks.

Harris's Hawk

And a bonus Prairie Falcon.

Prairie FalconThen, thanks to our trusty guide, we finally got onto one of the two targets–a whole heap of Crested Caracaras. Crested CaracaraCrested CaracaraNot long after, Gordon had found us some Mountain Plovers.

Mountain Plover

With some of the longtime holes finally filled in on the list, there wasn’t much to do on this trip in the lifer department especially considering our time was limited. Even still, the birds around the parents’ house provide just as much entertainment and constant opportunities for photo improvement. This year it was the Verdin’s turn for a better photo.

VerdinSome birds practically throw themselves at you when you’re just out walking in the neighborhood. Vermilion Flycatchers seem to be becoming more prolific in the area of Maricopa where Mom and Dad live. I don’t mind.

Vermilion FlycatcherVermilion FlycatcherLast, but certainly not least, checking on our neighborhood buddy is an annual tradition.

Burrowing OwlSo that’s it from this trip. Pretty tame by previous standards, but that will more than be made up for on an upcoming post detailing another trip to Arizona that was focused exclusively on birding. But first, we have to cover another excursion to Duluth. There was an irruption going on this winter, after all.

Boreal Magic: A 5-Year Dream Realized

It was 2012 when this whole birding thing began for Evan and me. By year’s end, we didn’t even have 100 species to our name. Sometime in January of 2013, I discovered Minnesota’s listserv, MOU-net. My eyes were opened to the world of rare birds. At that point in time, rare birds and common birds were all still new to us, so many of the reports were not of great significance to us. While I wasn’t into chasing rare birds at that time, a bombardment of emails regarding one bird was causing me to think I should take some kind of action. The Boreal Owl was irrupting in record numbers that January and February, coming down from Canada. I had only seen a Great Horned Owl by this time, so it was just one of 18 Owl species I had yet to see. But people were describing how this species only irrupts like this every four to five years, and birders were flying in from all over the country to see this Owl. It was a rare event to say the least; I knew I had to try. Melissa was involved in directing a school musical during that same time and couldn’t break away for a weekend getaway until early March which I later found out was a little on the late side for Boreals. Some readers may recall that it was then that we made our first ever birding trip to the Sax-Zim Bog and the North Shore, hoping to see the Boreal Owl as well as the other great northern Owls. Not only did we not see a Boreal, but we saw no Owls at all.

That winter passed giving way to new seasons and new birds. Over the years our life list would quadruple, and it would include numerous Owl sightings from 17 different species. Each winter I’d hold out some hope that there would be a report of a Boreal Owl somewhere along the North Shore of Lake Superior, but there would be none. Eventually it became a mythical bird for me. I kicked myself for not getting my butt up to Duluth in February of 2013. In the years since then, I had amassed a formidable collection of rare bird sightings in Minnesota and across the country, yet I was not a member of the Boreal Owl club.  I had Owled literally from the Canadian border down to the Mexican border seeing really cool Owls.  But the Boreal was not one of them. In fact, I was down to two unseen Owl species of the 19 that are possible: the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl and the Boreal Owl. Watching my good buddy Tommy DeBardeleben accomplish his goal of seeing all 19 Owl species in 2016 only heightened my desire to get the Boreal.  I felt as if Minnesota was a lost cause.  I began to daydream of trips to Washington state, Colorado, or Ontario to look for this Owl.   The winter of 2016-2017 was supposed to be the next Boreal Owl irruption if it truly did irrupt every four years. I eagerly awaited news last year. There were a handful of scattered reports, but nothing of a large scale irruption materialized. Would I have to wait another four years? Would I have to travel far away and spend all kinds of money to finally see this Owl?

It turns out I was not alone in my longing for a Boreal. Buddy Jeff Grotte who started the popular Facebook group, Owl About Minnesota, has seen over 1,000 Owls in the last five years. He even tried for Boreal a few times back in 12-13, but he was still Boreal-less too. Jeff and I talked often of hoping to see this bird. Then in December, a friend of Jeff’s from Indiana had a brief sighting of one in the Sax-Zim Bog. It was a fluke sighting, or so I told myself. This wasn’t the irruption year–that was supposed to be last year. Jeff and I decided to try for this Owl the very next morning. It literally was our first opportunity in five years of waiting. We had to try. Rising early, we got up to the Bog just after dawn. Great Grays, Hawk Owls, and Snowies were all off to a banner start up there, but Jeff and I have both seen plenty of each. We wanted the prize bird more than anything else. By noon we were still without a Boreal sighting and decided to call it quits. The three Owls we did see were of little consolation.Northern Hawk OwlSnowy OwlSnowy OwlHeartbroken at the time, little did we realize that the Boreal we chased was just the tip of the spear. More sightings kept popping up during December of both live and dead Boreal Owls. By the time news of one would come out, though, it would either be during the work week or late in the day making a chase impossible. Jeff and I were hopeful that our day would finally happen, but we were very antsy about it. I had an upcoming trip to Arizona that I was now dreading. I did not want to miss my chance.

Jeff, myself, and several others decided we should just head up to Duluth and the North Shore the weekend of January 6th-7th whether we had sightings to go off of or not. Clearly the Boreals were irrupting, so the plan was to either look for one on our own or geographically put ourselves in position to quickly get on a bird if there was one. I decided to drag Evan along on this trip; even if he didn’t care about Boreal Owls so much, I knew it would be a fun father-son adventure. We would travel all the way to Grand Marais to stay in my brother’s vacation home, looking for Boreals along the way.

Late in the day on January 5th, one of our group had accomplished the unthinkable: while looking for Saw-whet Owls, teenage birding brothers Ezra, Isaac, and Caleb Hosch had discovered their lifer Boreal Owl near the Twin Cities! Four days prior to that, these brothers had come out to Kandiyohi County to try to help me find a Saw-whet out here. Jeff opted to look for the Boreal these guys found that next morning. I decided to continue with my plan of heading to the North Shore. After all, Scenic 61 between Duluth and Two Harbors is where the Boreals usually pop up. Furthermore, a fellow living outside Grand Marais had one coming to his yard for a few days in a row. This Twin Cities Boreal could easily be gone the next day, and chasing it could cause me to lose valuable search time along the North Shore. Jeff planned to call me that morning if it was relocated. Sure enough, two hours into my journey north I got the call from Jeff. I was just north of Hinckley at the time, heading north on I-35. I continued to the next exit where I could get turned around to head south. It would take an hour to get there. It was a strange detour, but you know, a bird in the hand and all that…

Evan and I got to the site. Jeff was waiting for us in his car trying to get warm.  Little did we know that it was nearly a mile hike in the single-digit temps out to this Owl. Jeff did warn us that the Owl was extremely high in a pine tree, like 60 feet high, and the views were terrible. The Hosch family was also there to guide us out to where the Owl was. Visiting with the Hoschs, I learned that Jeff had called me to get me turned around on the highway before he even laid eyes on the bird himself. Nice guy. When we got out to The Tree, Isaac and Ezra were helping people get on their amazing find. I could not see the darn thing despite patient birders trying to describe where it was. Just as I was about to zero in on it, it flew! So, technically I had a Boreal Owl, but it didn’t feel like it. Evan never took his eyes off it and saw it land in another pine just as high off the ground as the first. Evan was able to see it with no optics, but again, I could not pick it out. And then it flew again. Argh! The bird had been notched, but there were no solid looks or photos. This was not just some western Empid that you could be satisfied with a brief, distant look–this was the freaking Boreal Owl!  Two hours had now passed since I got that phone call from Jeff. Evan and I could still make it Grand Marais before dark and get at least some searching in along the way if we hurried. I was hoping we could get onto a more cooperative Owl. So with temps hovering around zero, Evan and I jogged most of the mile back to the car and quickly got on the road to go back north. There were more Boreals to be found, and we wanted a better look.

We got to Duluth around 1:00. I wanted to be in Grand Marais by 4:00 in case that gentleman with the yard Boreal called me. He had said he would make sure to tell me if it made its usual appearance at dusk. Once in Duluth, Evan and I hopped on Scenic 61, a highway that hugs the shoreline of Lake Superior. Boreal Owls are often found here during irruption years because when they come south they hit the lakefront and keep moving southwest along the shore. The stretch between Duluth and Two Harbors is often the best section for them. We, though, didn’t find any by the time we hit Two Harbors. We stopped at a city park where a Boreal had been seen a few days earlier.  We planned to leave by 2:30 to get to Grand Marais in time. The park yielded nothing.  Evan and I were walking back to the car to continue northeast to GM when my phone rang. It was Jeff: “Hey, where are you at?!”

“I’m in Two Harbors.”

“Turn around right now! There’s one in Duluth!”

I was literally running while getting the location from Jeff and hollering to Evan (who had fallen a hundred yards behind) to start running back to the car. Huffing and puffing, we hopped in the car and quickly got on the expressway back to Duluth. Another jaunt south on this north-south zig-zag adventure. No Scenic 61 this time. In about 25 minutes we made it to the Hartley Nature Center where Erik Berg and Kelly Raymond had seen this Owl and notified Jeff. It took a little bit of time to figure out where Erik and Kelly were, but eventually we found them quietly looking at this!

Boreal OwlErik and Kelly made some room for us to see this brush-loving bird through a small window in the branches. It felt good. We had made it. We were looking at a real-live Boreal Owl! Now, we were just waiting to see that face. This was our first glimpse.

Boreal OwlAnd then:

Boreal Owl

Even Evan was in awe, saying how cool this was. I was genuinely surprised at this reaction from the kid who has turned down seeing Flammulated and Whiskered Screech-Owls. “This is so cool! Dad, I see its face!”

Conditions for viewing were not perfect. I was sitting in the snow in jeans to get these photos. Eventually this sluggish bird came to life and started actively hunting! The photo opportunities (and the crowd size) started to increase.

boreal Owl

Boreal OwlBoreal OwlBoreal OwlThis was, by far, the coolest Owl I had ever seen. This Owl eventually flew away from this spot. I noticed it actually flew close to a different trail. John Richardson and I walked that way and spotted it on top of a brush pile. The views were much better and gave me my best Boreal photo, which Jeff helped me enhance.

Boreal Owl

Evan was cold at this point and wanted to wait in the car while I continued to enjoy the bird.  I walked him back to the car. When I returned, the Owl (and the crowd) had moved.

IBoreal crowdThe Owl was now very close to the trails and out in the open. I felt bad that Jeff wasn’t there to experience these photo opportunities; he had not felt well after the Twin Cities Boreal expedition and decided not to come north.

Boreal OwlBooks describe Boreals as having a surprised look on their face. It is definitely true. Boreal Owl

Finally, I had been satisfied enough to pry myself away from this spectacular bird. Evan and I could continue on our trip to Grand Marais in perfect peace, even if my pants were soaking wet for the two-hour drive. The Grand Marais birder with the Boreal Owl in his yard never did call me, so things worked out perfectly. It was a dream come true. We had brought our birding full circle from that very first year; we were now members of the Boreal Owl Club.  Evan and I celebrated by eating supper in Grand Marais at a family favorite restaurant, Sven & Ole’s Pizza.

Evan Sven's

Josh Watson, of Kandiyohi County Blue Grosbeak fame, stopped by to join us for a celebratory beer (Evan had ice cream) and we had a nice visit about Boreal Owls and other cool birds of the North and beyond. It’s always fun to catch up with birder friends you don’t see often. It was just a great way to end a great day.

The next morning, Evan I got up and poked around Grand Marais for cool birds. We didn’t find much, but it didn’t matter–it was a completely relaxing trip now with zero anxiety. Jeff was on his way up to Duluth that morning to see if he could get onto a good look of a Boreal Owl. Evan and I continued to look for Boreals on our way southwest to Duluth.  We were hoping we could find one for Jeff. One of our stops was Sugarloaf Cove Nature Center where we were hoping to find a Boreal on a little hike. No Boreals, were had, but Evan was excited to get a lifer Snowshoe Hare. Snowshoe HareWe also took a moment to take a Lake Superior selfie.

Josh Evan

Once again, we stopped in Two Harbors to poke around. Of course we wanted to find a Boreal Owl there, but we also took a moment to get Evan a Harlequin Duck lifer, one of two continuing birds in Agate Bay along the jetty. These birds could be seen very well with the naked eye.

Harlequin DuckHarlequin DuckWe had barely been in Two Harbors when I got a message from Jeff that he had found his very own Boreal Owl down by Duluth! I was happy he had finally gotten good looks at a bird low and in the open. Knowing there were Great Gray Owls in the area, I asked Evan what we should do. Evan thinks like a true birder because he said we should go after Jeff’s Boreal since we can see Great Grays any year. So once again we were on our way back to Duluth for a Boreal Owl. This one was snoozing in a tree right along Scenic 61. That, combined with the fact that we had gotten our Boreal the day before, meant we did not have to rush this time. Sure enough, this Boreal was right where Jeff had spotted it.

Boreal OwlSome people, like myself, have trouble spotting these Owls. Thankfully, people like Evan can point them out.

Evan Owl

What a trip–three Boreal Owls! It was beyond a dream come true. This trip with Evan was second only to the Greater Sage-Grouse trip he and I took three years ago. Many thanks to all the people that helped us, especially the Hosch Bros, Kelly Raymond, Erik Berg, and most importantly, Jeff Grotte who helped me get on all three of these birds after he and I shared the Boreal-less struggle for so long together.

There is now just one Owl left for me to find in the United States. I’m hoping that happens in 2018. But first there will hopefully be some more Boreal Owl encounters this winter–we will be helping legendary Arizona birders Tommy DeBardeleben and Janet Witzeman hopefully get on a Boreal or two.  Speaking of Arizona, the next blog post will feature a few lifers and other favorites I picked up on a trip there last weekend.

Two Long Lost Lifers

Falling behind on this blog seems to be the new normal for me. Despite the lack of new content, the birding has continued on. There have been some pretty monumental moments, in fact. Since life continues to get busier with family, responsibilities, and other projects, my postings will now probably just be limited to new life bird experiences. New birds have come at a slow, yet steady drip. There are a few I need to catch you up on. Let’s start with two new birds I got this past fall.

In late September, I traveled home to northern Minnesota to attend the funeral of a family friend. It was, of course, Jaeger season down at Wisconsin Point on Lake Superior at the time. So one morning on this unplanned trip, I went across the border to see if I could nab at least one of three possible Jaeger species for my life list. Luck would have it that there was a Hawk Ridge field trip that very morning to find Jaegers! Field trip leader Clinton Nienhaus graciously allowed me to merge into the group, and all of us got to enjoy this dark morph Parasitic Jaeger. It was a pretty cool experience to not only get a lifer, but to also see a brand new family of birds, complete with their own look and behaviors. Watching this Jaeger chase the Gulls was fun to witness.

Parasitic JaegerParasitic Jaeger

On November 25, 2017, it was me chasing the Gulls.  A report came in of a Black-legged Kittiwake on the Mississippi River south of Cottage Grove at the far eastern edge of the Twin Cities. Since it was a life bird, I was compelled to make this chase which almost ended up being a dip. I arrived to find out the bird had been seen all morning up until 15 minutes prior to my arrival. After searching with dozens of other birders for an hour, I called it quits. I made it a third of the way home when I got the notice from buddy Pete Nichols that it had returned to loaf on the ice in the same spot it had been seen earlier. I had a decision to make: continue home or race back east. Well, I went for it. And thankfully, it was still there when I arrived. My timing couldn’t have been any better as I enjoyed it for all of 10 minutes before it flew away never to be seen again.

Black-legged Kittiwake

Unfortunately, Brad Nelson, Garrett Wee, and I did not have that same luck when we chased the state’s first record Tufted Duck this month, also on the Mississippi but down at Red Wing. Instead, here is a picture of a Tufted Titmouse from Frontenac Cemetery on that same trip. It was a lifer for Brad, a state bird for Garrett, and my second only sighting of one.

Tufted Titmouse

The next post is a lifer of epic proportions that I cannot wait to share. Second only to the Greater Sage-Grouse adventure, this was the best birding adventure I’ve ever been on with Evan.

An Even Dozen

Anyone who has been keeping up with the sporadic posts of this blog lately knows that my interest in local birding has intensified.  Specifically I’ve been working hard on growing my Kandiyohi County list. My self-imposed mission for the year was to try to pass the legendary Bob Janssen. Doing so would require me to get from 244 to 251 in a single year–a daunting task for sure, but one that I accomplished by mid-summer.  The first six birds (245-250) did not come easily and were the result of a lot of effort, both as an individual and as a part of different groups. The goal bird, #251 (Common Gallinule), on the other hand, was a gift from the efforts of another birder. Little did I know at the time, but gift birds would be the theme for the second half of the year which would hold nearly as many new birds for me as the first half! The last post featured the next such gift, #252, the long sought-after Blue Grosbeak.

#253

That Blue Grosbeak was found in the midst of a major Red Crossbill irruption that was engulfing western Minnesota.  In the days leading up to the Blue Grosbeak, Randy Frederickson and I had been searching high and low for one in our county. At the time of the Blue Grosbeak discovery, I was on a camping trip to Sibley State Park with my brother and his family. Twice I had to ditch the campsite and my family to chase county birds–once to look for Red Crossbills Joel Schmidt found and the other time to nab the Blue Grosbeak. Though unsuccessful on the Red Crossbills that day, we knew from reports in the surrounding counties that our Red Crossbill moment was imminent.  It was like being at a Twins game and waiting for the wave to overtake your section. We did not have to wait long. Just as I was literally towing the camper back home, Randy texted saying he found 4 of the “red bastards” on a golf course in the southwestern part of the county. The Red Crossbill had eluded Randy for nearly three decades. I didn’t have nearly as long of a wait, but I was still in a hurry.  I didn’t even bother unhitching the camper at home as I went straight from Sibley to the Raymond golf course.  When I arrived, I called Randy to find out where he was on the course which was not in use at the time due to flooding from heavy rains.  As we were talking, Randy was approached by the groundskeeper who was questioning what he was doing. The guy turned out to be rather friendly and even drove his golf cart to the clubhouse to pick me up and bring me out to where Randy was! Not long after, he did the same thing for Ron Erpelding. And the three of us enjoyed our second new Kandiyohi bird in as many days.

Red CrossbillThe Red Crossbill irruption was/is nothing short of incredible. This was my first sighting of many just within our county alone. I had several personal finds of this species in the following months, including finding a flock while driving highway speeds and a flyover flock while walking out to my mailbox!

Here is a pair from a flock of about 20 found by Steve Gardner at MinnWest Technology Campus in Willmar.

Red CrossbillThis next picture shows a Red Crossbill that I was disappointed to find this past October. I was actually looking for the other regular Minnesota Crossbill species which was also showing signs of irrupting. Birding can be strange. Somehow I ended up with the much more difficult Crossbill species before getting the supposedly much easier White-winged variety. I was the only serious Kandi birder who still lacked this species. I desperately wanted to see wing bars on this bird.

Red Crossbill

#254

During late summer and early fall, I managed to get an Eastern Screech-Owl in two neighboring counties but not in the county where I wanted it most. Both birds were found at ordinary farm groves and had me rethinking my whole strategy for finding this species in Kandiyohi County. I always thought that I would have to search in the northern part of the county which is more heavily wooded and not as agricultural. Now, though, I reasoned that if I simply put in the reps of going to farm groves in the southern half of the county and played recordings, I’d eventually connect with a Screech.  As luck would have it, I never had to enact that plan. In early November some junior high students were wondering about the ID of a “small owl in a tree cavity with pointy ears,” a bird they had discovered while hunting squirrels in their patch of woods. Unbelievable! Leave it to the sharp eyes of some young kids to finally–finally!!–get me on one of my most-wanted birds for the county. An added bonus was that it was gorgeous red-morph. Seeing this color Screech was another major birding goal of mine for 2017. Because of circumstances surrounding this bird, I am keeping location details under wraps.

Eastern Screech-Owl

Eastern Screech-Owl Eastern Screech-Owl

#255

The Screech was an incredible high point for me, but this was not the time to rest and take it easy. As I mentioned earlier, White-winged Crossbills were irrupting in northern Minnesota, most prominently along the North Shore of Lake Superior. I have wanted to see this species in Kandiyohi County for a very long time. It turns out there was a flock in Willmar the very first winter I started birding in 2012.  Unfortunately I was not connected with local birders at the time and therefore had no idea about these Crossbills until long after the fact. I was excited to learn that some were seen on last year’s Christmas Bird Count at the MinnWest Technology Campus in Willmar, the very same place they were in 2012.  I visited the site that very day but had no luck. I continued to make visits there throughout last winter only to get the same result. This year was different, though. Based on reports, I knew I had a good chance this year. And since I was the only serious Kandi birder without the species, I knew finding it would depend on me alone. So once again, I made several trips this fall to the same small stand of Spruce trees where this species tends to show up. I was undaunted by my misses because of the positive reports out of the north. Then, finally, a mere four days after getting my Screech, I walked to the same stand of trees at MinnWest and instantly had a flock of Crossbills fly over my head and land in a nearby tree.  I thought they might be Reds, but I had to get my eyes on them to be sure. This proved difficult since the 40+ birds were buried in Spruce tops. Finally one popped out to the end of a branch. Wingbars!!!

White-winged CrossbillsGetting this DIY county lifer was incredibly efficient and felt amazing. I enjoyed these birds for about a half hour before heading home. It was one less bird for which I was on my own.White-winged Crossbill

#256

This year I organized a campaign of nearly a dozen birders to do daily patrols of our county’s most probable location for sea ducks, Lake Lillian. The county has no official record of a Black Scoter, and a few of us needed Long-tailed Duck besides. While the Lake Lillian vigil did not produce either of these, Dan Orr did manage to find a Surf Scoter which was a county first just the previous year. By late November, Lake Lillian froze over and the 2017 sea duck season was over. Or so I thought. Green Lake by Spicer was still open. Green has held sea ducks before too, but its large size often makes it difficult to search as ducks can be far from shore. One Sunday morning in early December, Joel Schmidt drove through Spicer and noticed ducks on the water. Joel stopped to scan them and found the much coveted Long-tailed Duck many of us still needed!  The action went down while I was in church, so I wasn’t aware of the flurry of activity until I looked at my phone after the service. By this point, everyone else had nabbed the bird, eBirded it, and packed their bags for home. I was on my own! Moreover, we had tickets for the community theater at 2:00 that afternoon. and our family hadn’t even had lunch besides. I was crunched for time. To add to the drama, I had ditched my family all day the day before to chase a life bird in the Twin Cities, and now I was headed out again. This was not good. Why do all the good birds come at the worst times? I had to go for this one. I knew I had time, but it would be tight.  We hopped in the car and went, hoping to snag a county lifer and some fast-food lunch all before the curtain went up at 2:00. When I got to the Spicer beach/boat launch area I could not find it. It was sickening. I called Steve who had seen it an hour earlier, and he said he last saw it swimming north. I hopped in the car and raced to the next access point that direction, the Spicer city park. Then, thankfully, after a few minutes I was able to pick it out. Whew!

Long-tailed Duck

This year has been an unbelievable ride for my county birding. I was hoping to squeeze out 7 new ones with a lot of work, and I ended up getting that and more, much more. Here is a recap of the 12 new birds I ticked in Kandiyohi County this year.

#245–Short-eared Owl

#246–Townsend’s Solitaire

#247–Long-eared Owl

#248–Black-throated Green Warbler

#249–Connecticut Warbler

#250–Snowy Egret

#251–Common Gallinule

#252–Blue Grosbeak

#253–Red Crossbill

#254–Eastern Screech-Owl

#255–White-winged Crossbill

#256–Long-tailed Duck

This year has shown me the enormous potential of what can happen in one’s own backyard.  Seeing rare birds is always fun, but they are even more special the closer they are to home. Seeing so many was incredible, and the year is not even over! With some luck and some effort, I might even be able to make it a baker’s dozen. There are some very real possibilities in these last two weeks including Northern Saw-whet Owl, Pine Grosbeak, and Bohemian Waxwing. Stay tuned!

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.

IMG_2012

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…