Great Faces, Great Chases–South Dakota

October 2004.  Some of you will remember that this was when the Red Sox swept the Cardinals and finally ended their long World Series drought.  I remember watching some of those exciting games on a crappy hotel TV in South Dakota when I dragged my wife of just a year-and-a-half along on a pheasant hunt.  “It’ll be fun!” I said.  Boy, was I green.  Long story short, I am still married and I made South Dakota history by being the only hunter ever to get skunked in the land where the state bird outnumbers the people by 100:1.  It’s true; somewhere near the Corn Palace in Mitchell there is a plaque displaying this bit of trivia.

Fast forward to 2015, and the pull to go back to South Dakota was once again strong.  Only this time the bird was not the Ring-necked Pheasant, and was instead the Lower Rio Grande Valley native, Great Kiskadee.  From deep south Texas, a Kiskadee made history in the five-state area (MN,WI,ND,SD,IA) by making an appearance at a rural residence in the Brookings area.  Apparently the bird, which shares time between two neighboring residences, showed up SEVERAL months ago and was only recently brought to the public’s attention when one of the homeowners eBirded it two weekends ago.  Interestingly, this report came out DURING the annual South Dakota Ornithologists’ Union’s annual meeting in Brookings just 20 minutes away.  Needless to say, the meeting immediately adjourned for a quick field trip to verify the bird’s identification.  The conclusion was that yes, this was for real.  Since then, droves have been making their way to see the Great South Dakota Kiskadee.

I was one of those itching to cross the border.  I made plans to go on Saturday, November 21st.  Melissa was gone to a conference so the kids would be accompanying me.  Since I had been talking it up all week before we left, the kids were actually really excited about going on this bird chase.  I don’t know if it was the prospect of going to another state or that they’d be able to watch Star Wars movies (a recent indoctrination at our house) or if they wanted to actually see this cool bird, but they were making their own preparations for the 3-hour one-way trip, getting most everything packed and ready themselves.  I wish I wouldn’t have been so engrossed in trying to track down the latest sighting information so that I could have paid more attention to their conversations as they gathered belongings, packed bags, and readied the snacks.


Evan was with me on the partially-botched Vermilion Flycatcher chase, so he added an extra checklist item just for my benefit.

When the day came, the kids and I made the long trip to SD.  Seeing that the temperature was only 18º, I was nervous that the tropical bird would have wised up and got out of town.  Once we got there, I was amazed that we were the only birders.  Even more amazing was that despite a two-hour effort, we got skunked.  History had repeated its ugly self.  Two birders showed up just as we left, so I gave them my phone number in case the Kiskadee showed up just after we got down the road.  No phone call.  In fact, those birders put in two hours and came up empty too. Imagine the great frustration, then, when later that evening the homeowner reported that the Kiskadee showed up just after we all had given up!  Yoda could feel my great pain.

I agonized over going back the next day.  I decided not to, figuring some day I’d bird in the Lower Rio Grande Valley and get this bird easily.  So Thanksgiving week happened along with all kinds of birding excitement of its own–stay tuned, and that Kiskadee kept up his daily appearances.  Stupid Facebook.  Videos and pictures and reports of that bird kept taunting me.  So this weekend, Evan and I went back.

We didn’t even get out of the home county before things started to look different.   Getting a FOY Merlin, a female Richardson’s “prairie” subspecies to be exact, at the very end of November got the birding juices pumping early.


Then, just outside of Brookings, a rooster pheasant alongside the road was another good sign.  We did not even see a single pheasant on the last SD run.  Telling.  The good vibes were quickly iced, however, once we got on site and were off to an eerily-familiar start with at least a half hour of not seeing the Kiskadee.  Hopes were lifted when I visited with the homeowner at the north residence who told me he saw it that morning.  He asked for my number and said he’d keep watch at his place if I wanted to go wait at the south residence. As you can see, I got that phone call and redeemed my fruitless trips to South Dakota.

Great KiskadeeGreat KiskadeeIt turns out that Great Kiskadees are quite crushable, especially when they are chilly and don’t move for over 20 minutes.  Either that or the diet of heavy suet and cat food has made this individual lethargic.

Great KiskadeeGreat KiskadeeWhat a month it’s been with Arizona birds and Texas birds popping up in the north.  I know I owe you some more AZ coverage in the next post, but first we’re going to have to take a look at my last ever triple lifer day in Minnesota.  Buckle up, Larus fans.

No More Singing the Blues

I know, I know, I’m really kicking the AZ posts further down the road.  Today is no exception.  The fact is that this November has been the best Vagrant Month I’ve ever seen.  The angst of wanting to take 2-3 hour car trips in every cardinal direction at the same time is a nightmare and a blessing.  ‘How can I grab it all?’ is the question on which my mind has perseverated during these times that try birders’ souls.

With Surf Scoter, Vermilion Flycatcher(!), and Long-tailed Duck locked down and with an accompanying proportional decrease in birder stress, there were just two other birds I wanted bad–a surprisingly reliable White-eyed Vireo just south of Minneapolis and a shockingly late, lingering Black-throated Blue Warbler in St. Cloud.  My schedule in recent weeks didn’t allow for both.  The Warbler won because it was my favorite Warbler and it was close.  Yeah I saw one earlier in the year, and yeah I got a good picture, and yeah I already had it on my state list.  So what gives? It’s a BLACK-THROATED BLUE WARBLER, that’s what.  That’s just plain fun no matter who you are. So, on Monday, November 9th, a.k.a. conference day at school, I carpe diemed by squeezing in a fast morning trip to St. Cloud before I had to report to work at 11. It didn’t take but a couple minutes to locate Tabassam Shah’s incredible find in Talahi Woods at Riverside Park. Who has ever heard of the same migrant Warbler being found and refound for weeks without a territorial song to guide birders to its presence?  What a gift to all of us birders in central MN!

Black-throated Blue Warbler

Black-throated Blue Warbler

Getting some birding in on a beautiful 50-degree day in November on conference day–rejuvenating.  Getting a Black-throated Blue Warbler on such a day–exhilarating.

The rest of this post is more or less some good junk drawer items that just didn’t have a home, like this window-strike American Woodcock I found in downtown Minneapolis while attending the National Council for Teachers of Mathematics conference last week. It’s my first photo of this species, so you better believe it’s going on my photographic life list on this blog.

American Woodcock

Finally, my quest to find sea ducks in the home county continues after having some success last year around this time.  So far, nothing of the sort has turned up.  I did, however, finally get a county Red-necked Grebe on one such outing.  I spent many hours last summer looking for one of these, and here I get one when I wasn’t even trying.  I guess that’s birding for you.

Red-necked GrebeWe shall see if AZ makes the next post, but it’s looking doubtful as the vagrant party just won’t stop. ABWCH will hopefully have a tidy little write-up from South Dakota after the weekend.  Keep your fingers crossed everybody.

Arizona? Minnesota? What state is this anyway?

I’ll tell you what state it is–it’s the state of chaos; it’s the state of shock and awe.  Minnesota is simultaneously being invaded by both Snowy Owls and not one, not two, but three Vermilion Flycatchers this week.  Incredibly there hasn’t been such a sighting in 21 years and two of this year’s birds have shown up at the same location.  Moreover, other good vagrants and migrants keep popping up all over the state, sending birders’ heads spinning, not knowing which direction to travel.  I was in such a predicament this weekend–frozen with indecision.

I finally opted for the two reliable Vermilion Flycatchers in Becker County.  It would make a dandy addition to my state list whereas all the other good birds popping up were ones I already had locked down for that category.  I asked Evan if he wanted to go along, and I was delightfully surprised when he said he wanted to go on this adventure.  So this morning we left the house at 4 AM to go north of Detroit Lakes to see those Vermilions at first light. Which we did.  Promptly seeing our MN VEFL upon arrival, I raised the camera, looked through the viewfinder, and read the message “No Memory Card”!  Are you kidding?  It finally happened that I’d go on a rarity chase and forget something so crucial. It didn’t bother me tooooo much because I have lots of photos of striking VEFL males from Arizona already.  But still, it hurts a bit.  Thankfully, birding friend John Richardson pinch hit for me and let me use a couple of his shots for the blog.  And if you’re going to have a pinch-hitter, who better than a slugger like rarity-magnet John, a.k.a. Mr. Brambling, a.k.a. Mr. Black-headed Grosbeak, a.k.a, a.k.a.

Becker County Vermilion Flycatcher #1; Photo by John Richardson

Becker County Vermilion Flycatcher #1; I believe this is the individual we saw; Photo by John Richardson

Becker County Vermilion Flycatcher #2; Photo by John Richardson

Becker County Vermilion Flycatcher #2; Photo by John Richardson

Pretty neat stuff, right? Not only were these some great birds, but the homeowners were top-notch people, very friendly and welcoming.  Evan thoroughly enjoyed their dog, and they thoroughly enjoyed that a youngster had come out to witness a cool phenomenon in nature.  They were even kind enough to tell me where the nearest Wal-Mart was so I could pick up a memory card because…..we were off next to look for reported adult male Long-tailed Duck in winter plumage!  Though the Vermilion was a state bird for me and the LT Duck was not, I was more excited about seeing this duck in this plumage.  There was no way I was going unprepared for this one.

Once we finally made it to the slough south of Stakke Lake in Becker County after spending a ridiculous amount of time in that Wal-Mart, it took a little bit of searching before I found it.  Our views were distant, but I was able to get Evan some looks on the LCD.  His response was something along the lines of “Whoa, cool!” Indeed. It seemed so odd to see an ocean duck sitting on a slough and hugging the shoreline, or in this case, sitting on it.

Long-tailed DuckSuch a striking bird. Check out this chest!

Long-tailed DuckLong-tailed DuckEven though it was far away, it was still such a treat to watch this handsome duck.  Our lifer a couple a years ago was an immature-type bird that did not live up to its name.

Long-tailed DuckLong-tailed DuckAfter that fun, Evan and I hit the road for the 3-hour trip home.  Our second Northern Shrike of the fall was a nice bonus on our drive.  Despite the memory card snafu, it was a memorable trip with Evan where we got to see some really fantastic birds for Minnesota.

We’ll get back to the Arizona stuff, I promise, but don’t be surprised if there’s another interruption or two!

And the Award for Worst Birder goes to…

Dear Regular Readers,

I hate to disappoint both of you, but this is not the next installment of the Arizona series.  Believe it or not, but birding after Arizona does exist and the birds back home don’t wait for blog posts to be written.  This all brings us to today’s story that is a worthy interruption of   the AZ trip reports.  It decisively crushed my moping for not being in AZ anymore.  I think you’ll concur.

So here goes. On Monday, November 2nd, my wife and I each had a scheduled day off.  With the kids in school, I asked her what her plans were.  When she said she was grading papers all day, the spousal guilt was gone and the plans to chase a Surf Scoter on Orchard Lake in Lakeville were on.

Orchard LakeI drove along the west shore of the lake and pulled into a boat launch to scan the waters.  Right away I saw a binocular-clad gentleman loading a spotting scope into a shiny Prius–this birder could be spotted a mile away.  I asked him if he saw the duck.  He told me no and said he’d missed on it multiple times.  Odd, I thought, as I recalled the duck being reported every single day for the better part of a week.  After this exchange, he and I both headed to Orchard Lake Park on the south end of the lake where people had said was the best place from which to see the Scoter.  He had the lead as I followed his car into the parking lot.  Rather than parking in a stall, he faced his vehicle directly at the water.  I parked, looked at the water and instantly saw a distant, giant, black-and-white blob that had Surf Scoter GISS written all over it. Before I could get my binoculars up to verify, the other birder, who never left his car, turned around after 30 seconds and drove out of the park!  My desire to look at my Surf Scoter lifer was suddenly replaced by the fear that this guy might have, somehow, missed it.  Was it diving when he looked?  Did he not recognize this juvenile form of this species?  Did he see it, get his tic, and just peel out? Even if the guy was just a lister, who doesn’t spend at least a couple minutes enjoying looking at an ocean-going Scoter in MINNESOTA I panicked. I hesitated.  Do I race after him on foot and pound on his trunk? Do I hop in my car and chase him down? You can’t save them all, I guess. Oh, well.  Let’s have a look at that Surf Scoter…

Surf ScoterThis is now my fifth species of sea duck in Minnesota with White-winged Scoter, Harlequin Duck, Common Eider, and Long-tailed Duck making up the others.  I kind of prefer my sea ducks on the turbulent, cold waters of Lake Superior on a gray day.  That kind of backdrop adds to the mystique and allure of sea ducks. Seeing one on a placid metro lake reflecting lingering fall colors on a 72° day is just kind of so-so.

Surf ScoterBut even still. It’s cool. I mean, it’s a Scoter.

Surf Scoter

This Scoter was kind enough to land in a location which would cause me to literally drive right by my brother’s office in Burnsville.  Having lunch with Jason made a successful chase even better, all the more so because he took me to a secret hole-in-the-wall called J’s Cafe with amazing down-home cooking.  After catching up with Jason, it was time to hit the road: he had to get back to the office, and I had to make the 2-hour drive home to pick up my kids after school.

Despite being crunched for time, there’s always time for one more bird.  I took a route home through Glencoe, hoping to see Pumpkins, the reliable, super-early Snowy Owl that got its name from landing on a cart of pumpkins for sale. Pumpkins wasn’t selling any pumpkins to me, though.

Moving on, I was racing the clock to get back in time for the kids.  When I was traveling down a county road just a few miles away from the school, I saw a large raptor perched on a pole.  I always look even though practically every raptor is a Red-tailed Hawk in these parts.  As I streaked by, I saw the GISS for a Red-tail was off, way off.  I stopped to look.


I saw heavy streaking on the breast on this large bird and a white eyebrow, and thought I just might be looking at a juvenile Northern Goshawk! Instantly I started taking pictures like mad to document such a rarity.  But honestly, as I looked at the bird, I wondered, ‘What in the world is this thing?’  Comparing my photos to Goshawk photos on my phone, I saw that was wrong.  I realized then that the face looked like that of a Falcon. The best I could figure on my limited knowledge was that it was a juvenile Peregrine Falcon–the most probable of all the larger Falcons for our area.  A Peregrine is one of those feel-good birds.  It’s not listserv-worthy, but it’s just rare enough that when you lay your head on your pillow at night you think, ‘That was pretty neat.’  It’s the kind where you giddily submit your eBird checklist and post a picture to the regional birding FB group…even if it didn’t quite look like juvenile Peregrines in Sibley or online…

That’s when my naivete was laid bare to all. I hadn’t studied for the test. I winged it. When I saw there was a lengthy comment from Bob Dunlap, one of the lords of bird identification in Minnesota, I couldn’t read his words fast enough.  Bob was asking for more photos and asked me about my impression of the size.  The all-gray cheek and faint mustache wasn’t exactly giving him a Peregrine vibe on this Falcon… To remove all doubt about his line of thinking, he followed up with another comment, “And by the way, Merlin is not the direction I’m leaning…”

No. Nooooo way.  A Gyr–? I couldn’t even type the name; I was afraid to even think it might be true.  It couldn’t be true. Could it?  I mean, a bird that’s never been in Minnesota since I started birding? Here? In the home county? Unh-uh.  Can’t be. But under Bob’s advisement I sent out a cautionary report of a possible G….Gy…Gyr…Gyrfalcon on both the listserv and the Minnesota Birding FB group.  Beforehand, I set up a new page on this blog, called “Falcon Photos,” where I dumped all my photos so people could analyze them.

The responses were as overwhelming as they were fast:

“Wow!!! Gray type juvenile Gyrfalcon for sure! Awesome find, and great photo!” -Alex Lamoreaux, Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory Counter

No question gyr!” -Kathleen MacAulay, Veterinary Intern at the Raptor Center

“That looks like a gyr to me.” -Jean Matheny, Falconer

“Great bird. Looks like a gyr to me. I chase sightings in S.D. where they are annual visitors on the grasslands near Pierre.” -Jim Williams, Bird Blogger/Columnist for the Star Tribune

And here was the one that put a big fat bow on it all:

“Josh – My first impression was a juvenile gray-morph Gyrfalcon, so I asked Frank Nicoletti (Hawk Ridge bander & former counter, and one of MN’s foremost raptor experts) his opinion. Without hesitation, he confirmed the ID as a juv Gyr. Hope this helps, and nice find!” -Kim Eckert, one of MN’s most experienced and highly regarded birders


GyrfalconGyrfalconGyrfalconGyrfalconI still can’t believe I saw this bird; the adrenaline is still pumping.  I thought it would be another 10 years at least before I’d get this arctic visitor on my Minnesota list (I got my lifer in WI last winter).  Then I see a Gyrfalcon in my own county…and I never even knew it.  I was caught off guard and completely unprepared for encountering such a rarity.  It just goes to show that one can never study enough in this hobby and that even the most boring, familiar back roads can hold the monumental.  So thanks, Bob, for chasing me down and pounding on my trunk.

The Great Arizona Encore: The Patagonia Preparty

Leaving Green Valley was not easy. Breathtaking scenery, perfect temps, and posh accommodations are hard to leave behind.  On the other hand, leaving Green Valley was necessary in order to tour new (to us) parts of beautiful, southern Arizona and visit more hotspots of birding fame.   Our route for the morning would basically circle the Santa Rita Mountains taking us all the way down to the border at Nogales and back up north via Patagonia and Sonoita.  Then it would be back to Maricopa.

Sitting outside on the patio that morning, I was not focused on birding. I was having a slow morning after the epic Huachuca madness from the day before, a birding hangover if you will.  Sure, visions of Violet-crowned Hummingbirds and Barn Owls danced through my head, but it was the thought of breakfast that was winning the war for my mind as I waited for my family to pack, assemble, powder, puff, etc. Not even an unfamiliar bird song was getting me to move. Meh, I’ve seen it all around here, I thought.  But then, the bird song that sounds like a motor that won’t start actually got my birding motor started for the day. Thank you, Honorable Cactus Wren. This ability to coax even the most reluctant into birding and into beautiful Arizona deserts must be how you got your title of State Bird.

Cactus Wren

It didn’t take me long to realize the desert scrub around the hotel was quite birdy.  It was simply hopping with birds.  I could hardly believe it when I pulled up the binoculars on one of the first birds–Rock Wren a.k.a. the day’s first lifer.  And I almost didn’t even bird here.

Rock WrenI really, really like the pot-bellied appearance of this bird.  This may be my favorite photo from the trip. And is it just me, or does ROWR bear an uncanny resemblance to our 27th President?

President William Howard Taft Source: National Archives and Records Administration

President William Howard Taft                                         Source: National Archives and Records Administration

Turns out the Taft Wren wasn’t the only delightful surprise of this little foray beyond the parking lot.  A pair of Cassin’s Kingbirds gave a second lifer of the morning.  And yes, I did peek under their undergarments to look for white tail edges to make sure they weren’t Western Kingbirds, though once you see them in real life, they are obviously different.

Cassin's Kingbird

Cassin's KingbirdHigh on two completely unexpected lifers, I continued to scope out the fun birds around the hotel, not the least of which were numerous Lark Sparrows.  I have not seen enough Lark Sparrows yet.

Lark SparrowWhat I have seen plenty of in recent years are Say’s Phoebes, and I already have plenty of photos to prove it.  But these birds just know how to pose…

Say's PhoebeIt was also fun to see a prickly-looking Curve-billed Thrasher.  I’m glad they didn’t choose him for state bird.

Curve-billed Thrasher

Eventually the family was assembled and ready for breakfast, and the parking lot birding was over. But what a gem of a spot.  Last spring I had Hooded Orioles, Great Horned Owls, and Black-throated Sparrows here too.  I’ve got a nice little patch list going.

I know I promised Patagonia in this post, but we’ll pick up this story in the next one and get it started off right with a BARN OWL search.  But first, breakfast.

The Great Arizona Encore: Ash Canyon and Miller Canyon

Let’s face it, this blog title is pretty plain.  But anyone familiar with these two SE AZ birding hotspots knows that the birds there are anything but. After our adventure in Hunter Canyon, we made the short trip to the next canyon to the south–Ash Canyon.

Evan Ash Canyon

Much to my relief, we weren’t going to take another hike up a mountain.  Instead, we were going to the Ash Canyon B&B for a little geri-birding–or feeder watching from comfortable chairs.

Ash Canyon B&BWe got some great views of some fun birds while we rested from our recent hike in Hunter Canyon.  It was nice to finally see a much nicer Canyon Towee than the haggard one I saw in Florida Canyon last spring.  This bird was a lifer for Evan.

Canyon TowheeWe also got to see another Scott’s Oriole (female), but this one did not show itself well either.

Scott's OrioleSeeing a lifer Dark-eyed Junco sub-species, like this Gray-headed variety, is always fun.

Gray-headed JuncoAcorn Woodpeckers were a common sight at all our stops in the Huachucas. At least at Mary Jo’s feeders, you can get a good photo while sitting down–a great combo.

Acorn Woodpecker

Of course, some of the main attractions at the Ash Canyon B&B are the Hummingbirds.  Mostly there were Anna’s Hummingbirds, and most of those are unimpressive-looking right now.

Anna's HummingbirdEvan also got his Magnificent Hummingbird lifer with the help of owner Mary Jo who seems to constantly monitor the bird activity in her yard. Tommy and Gordon were watching a different set of Hummingbird feeders and had seen one of the reported Lucifer Hummingbirds.  So Evan and I joined them and watched those feeders for a short time to see if we could get this rare Hummer too.  That said, Miller Canyon was beckoning, both for what it held and for the short amount of time we had left to bird.  Thankfully the Lucifer was understanding and showed up in short order.  Note the thick, decurved bill.

Lucifer Hummingbird

Lucifer HummingbirdThe rarity of this bird was really cool even if the plain looks of this juvenile bird were not impressive.  I regretfully later found out that an adult male Lucifer had been visiting these feeders on the very day we were there. Doh!

After a total of 20 minutes at the Ash Canyon B&B, it was time to shoot north passing by Hunter Canyon where we had been and then stopping at Miller Canyon.  When I first wanted to go to Hunter Canyon, I had no idea how close it was to Miller Canyon, a place I’d read about many times.  Miller Canyon is arguably most famous for reliable and cooperative Spotted Owls.  So the thought of getting another Owl lifer on this trip, and a federally threatened one at that, was almost intoxicating. Hopes were raised further by a fresh listserv report that a pair them had been seen in the upper parts of Miller Canyon near Split Rock. It, of course, would mean another good hike up a steeper canyon than Hunter.  With an Owl prize at the end, it was worth the exercise…if we could gain access.

Miller Canyon

Like the power lines that obstruct a perfect view of Miller Canyon in the photo above, so too the Beatty Guest Ranch’s land blocks the easiest access to Miller Canyon.  Convenience always comes at a price.  We were more than willing to pay the $5/person fee to cut across the Beatty land, but a sign on the gate said it was closed for the season and no one was at the house. :( Then, however, we spied a gun-toting man with four coon hounds coming down the path toward us.  It was the owner’s son, and he said he’d take us up the canyon.

We paid the man and dutifully followed behind him.  As a hunter myself I’ve been around a number of people with guns, but following this quiet stranger holding a lever-action .30-30 gave me a certain unease.  This is now the second time this year that birding has put my son in the company of a gun-toting, plaid-clothed, non-hunting stranger.  Any hopes of that Father-of-the-Year award have long gone out the window, especially if you note my position relative to Evan’s:

Evan Tommy Gordon

As we walked along, thoughts kept flipping back-and-forth from ‘I bet he’s perfectly safe’ to ‘I bet he’s pretty quick with that lever-action’.  You can see which thought won out as there is more to this post.

Evan was oblivious to such concerns and thoroughly enjoyed the canine companionship of the four coon hounds that crashed the brush around us on this oddest of all bird hikes.  Two of the hounds were spitting images of Old Dan and Little Ann.  Our mysterious, quiet guide showed his soft spot for nature when he scooped up a chilly Alligator Lizard on the path and showed it to us all before depositing it off to the side. Of course, I was hoping for a photo of it in its more natural, original state, but this one’s fun too.

Evan Alligator LizardAfter hiking nearly a mile uphill, we finally reached Split Rock.  Here there were two elderly women had been brought to this location earlier to look for the Spotted Owls.  Our guide checked out the usual perches for the Owls, a family group of four birds, but none of them held anything.  Then, real casually, he points to a different tree and says, “Oh, here’s one.” Sweet!

Spotted Owl

It was a relief, physically and mentally, to pause and enjoy this rare bird.  It also seemed to lighten the mood considerably as our silent guide unleashed a wealth of information on the owls and describing them and their habits and occurrences in the canyon with great delight.  It would have been the perfect moment for a beer.  Too bad no one thought to pack some along.

Spotted OwlThis Owl was a pretty mellow fellow, which I understand is typical for this species.  It could not have cared less that we were ooing and awwing over it.

Spotted Owl

Here is a contextual photo for you.  Can you spot Spotty?

Spotted OwlTommy and I went a little further up the canyon hoping to spot one of the other Spotted Owls on our own which is half the fun of owling.  But without any more luck, it was finally time to head back down the canyon. What a thrill it was, though, to get this prized lifer:

Spotted Owl

As we got closer to the parking area, a Canyon Wren decided to play nice for some photos.  This was a lifer for Evan as well.

Canyon Wren

Canyon WrenThen there was one last big gift for our big day in the Huachucas.  We were nearly to the car when Tommy thought he heard a Black-throated Gray Warbler.  I saw one last spring, but only briefly.  I was hoping for a better photo.  However, I’m just going to have to wait for that because the bird turned out to be a lifer Townsend’s Warbler instead! Now I need a redemptive photo of two western Warblers.

Townsend's WarblerWhat an incredible day it was at our three stops in the Huachuca Mountains.  It was finally time to hit the road to join my family back at Green Valley.  Once again, Tommy and Gordon outdid themselves and provided another fun set of SE AZ memories.  We said our goodbyes and vowed to meet up again this winter back in Minnesota where it’s not as warm, definitely not as scenic, but with just as cool (if not cooler) Owls.  Hopefully Evan and I can repay these guys with some awesome lifers of their own.

Coming up is still one more day in SE AZ…but without Tommy and Gordon’s help, how would we fare?  Check back and see.  Next stop: Patagonia.

The Great Arizona Encore: Huelcome to the Huachucas

Going to Arizona annually is incredibly exciting for a birder because that state never seems to run out of new birds, and if it does, it can always borrow a couple from Mexico.  But fall in general is a tougher time to bird and central Arizona hardly held anything new for me at this time of year.  On the other hand, Southeast Arizona can hold wonders and surprises for even local birders. It’s a place where magic happens. Therefore my family and I went on to Green Valley after Mt. Lemmon for a two-night stay or a vacation within a vacation.  The Santa Ritas were splendid as were the cooler temps in the higher elevations of southern Arizona.

Santa Ritas

I had a tougher time picking out a main target bird for this Arizona trip.  Whatever I picked just seemed dramatically anticlimactic after last spring’s Elegant Trogon and Painted Redstart.  I finally settled on a good one, though, a worthy objective.  I wanted to see the Rufous-capped Warbler, a rare visitor from Mexico that, in recent years, has acquired resident status in certain mountain canyons in SE AZ.  The most notable of those is Florida Canyon, so that is where I wanted to bird.  As time went on and I communicated with Tommy DeBardeleben, he advised me that Pena Blanca Canyon would probably be better for that bird.  Okay, sounds good to me.  Then as the weeks got closer, I started paying attention to the listserv and was seeing that an even rarer Mexican Warbler was being seen quite regularly even up to a couple days before our trip! That bird was the Slate-throated Redstart.  Not only was this bird being seen in Hunter Canyon of the Huachuca Mountains, but there had been as many as five Rufous-capped Warblers in the same area!!!!! Tommy and Gordon were going to be birding with me.  I brought up the idea of going to Hunter Canyon, and they liked it.  So last Friday Evan and I met up with Tommy and Gordon at a Fry’s parking lot in Sahuarita in the pre-dawn hours, and soon afterward the “Elegant Trogon Fantastic Four” was on its way to the Huachuca Mountains for what would turn out to be yet another epic SE AZ adventure.

The Huachucas run north and south and have many famous birding canyons on its eastern side.  We would be hitting up Hunter Canyon, Miller Canyon, and Ash Canyon.  It felt incredible to be in this area that I’ve read about on blogs and in books.  Hunter Canyon, the site of both ABA-rare Warblers, was where we started.

Hunter Canyon

Even though we didn’t see any Montezuma Quail (darn it) on the long drive up to the parking area, we got out of the car and had a good bird right away.  In fact, it’s one Evan and I needed for our life lists–the Northern Goshawk.

Northern Goshawk

The Goshawk wasn’t coming any closer, so we began our ascent up the canyon listening along the way for anything new or interesting.

Tommy Hunter CanyonTommy’s ear for bird sounds is truly impressive–hardly a chip note, flight call, or song gets by him.  In fact, he doesn’t even announce all that he’s hearing unless it’s important, like this lifer Bewick’s Wren.

Bewick's Wren

For the most part, though, all that could be heard was the huffing and puffing of the two flat-landers of the group as we climbed on and on.  We were missing our oxygen-rich 1,100 feet back home.  Evan sat down on rocks several times, and I had to keep coaxing him to go on.  Besides, we were almost to the exciting part of the canyon where the walls were steeper and the trees towered above us and where the Warblers are…

Evan TommyIt is where this lowland scrub terminates and the forest of the canyon begins that the Slate-throated Redstart had been seen just a couple days prior.  We paused to look and listen, but it seemed well-known at this point that the Redstart was gone.  We did, however, start to hear multiple Rufous-capped Warblers all around us! Getting a visual of this brush-loving bird is another story.  The sound seemed to come from everywhere and then stopped all of the sudden.  Weird. So onward and upward we kept going.  At least the view back down the mountain was nice.

Hunter Canyon

The life birds were definitely not coming at a fast pace, so a Spotted Towhee was a nice distraction for the time being.

Spotted TowheeIn hindsight, this was the calm before the storm because things took off in a hurry.  It all started when Tommy spotted a male Hepatic Tanager which was a lifer for Evan and me.  I didn’t see it, but I spotted my own Hepatic lifer (female).

Hepatic TanagerI really wanted to see the male Tommy found.  Eventually I saw it, but it was not being cooperative at all.

Hepatic Tanager

I did catch it out in the open once.  Not the best photo, but it shows the subtle red coloration compared to a bright red Summer Tanager.Hepatic TanagerTommy said that sometimes Tanagers will respond to a Northern Pygmy-Owl call.  When he played it, a live Pygmy-Owl tooted back! Tommy took off up the canyon trail to see if he could locate it.  I started soon after but then saw bright flash of yellow and black come across the blue sky–Scott’s Oriole!  What a looker it was! It landed at the very top of a tree offering me nothing but butt views. It’s a pretty nice-looking butt, anyhow.

Scott's OrioleAs I was jockeying for a position from which I could see the Oriole better, Tommy called out calmly, “Guys, Pygmy-Owl.”  For some reason I thought this meant he was hearing it, and so I continued to keep working on the Oriole.  A few seconds later, Tommy’s voice carried a little more urgency. An Owl lifer trumps an Oriole photo.  Evan, Gordon, and I hustled up to where Tommy was.  Sure enough, he had eyes on it.  Wow, just wow.

Northern Pygmy-Owl

Seeing this awesome Owl with my naked vision was much easier than trying to find it in my viewfinder.  I was amazed at how small it was.  Here’s a reference shot.  These pine cones are about the size of an adult’s fist–do you see the Owl?

Northern Pygmy-OwlThis was such a fun life bird.  I was not expecting this one on this trip. Excuse the numerous photos–I was, and still am, very excited about this sighting.

Northern Pygmy-Owl

Northern Pygmy-Owl

Northern Pygmy-OwlTime waits for no man, though, and neither do Rufous-capped Warblers.  As I was photographing this cool Owl and trying for better angles, a Rufous-capped Warbler started singing nearby and Tommy was off again!  In seconds Tommy got a visual on the bird and called me over.  I’ve learned from Tommy and Gordon to first get a good look at a lifer with binoculars and then worry about a photo second.  So that’s what I did.  In no time at all, I also saw the Rufous-capped Warbler pop up for a second and got to see that amazingly yellow throat.

Then it took a lot of patience and blurry photos of sticks and brush as I made many failed attempts at getting a photo.  Hmmm, colorful fall foliage?

Northern Pygmy-Owl


Rufous-capped Warbler

OH YEAH!!!!!!!!!!!!

This was the numero uno (Mexican bird, get it?) target and therefore the biggest thrill of some pretty monumental thrills in Hunter Canyon.  The lifering was fast and furious.  From the Hepatics to the Rufous-cap, I would guess a maximum of ten minutes had elapsed.  It was mind-blowing and overwhelming, leaving no time to linger and soak up the enjoyment of any one of those species.  I guess you take whatever SE AZ throws your way.  Sometimes that means the cool birds are shoved down your throat.  And if that’s the case, you eagerly open your mouth wide in anticipation.

After this, there was nothing else to do but walk down another Arizona mountain victorious…

Evan Tommy…and then go to next-door Miller Canyon and Ash Canyon for even more adventure! You don’t want to miss it–there will be coon dogs, guns, and yes, more cool lifers.

A huge thanks to Tommy DeBardeleben and Gordon Karre for a incredibly memorable bird hunt in Hunter Canyon!

The Great Arizona Encore: When Life Gives You a Lemmon…and a Tangerine

I can hardly believe it myself–a bonus trip to AZ in 2015 is now on the books and coming to you on the blog.  It turns out that fall break is a much more convenient time for our family (NOT for birders) to go on our annual peregrination to visit my snowbird parents in Maricopa. Sadly, spring trips will be no more. It seemed strange to trade our lovely fall weather for the desert heat.  Also strange was the fact that we, my parents, and this Golden-crowned Kinglet were competing in a race to the south.

Golden-crowned Kinglet

Thankfully my parents won (barely) and were able to welcome us all to their home. The Kinglet, rudely, did not show.  Of course, my parents who were traveling by car were greatly aided by an airline that had devious plans for messing with my perfectly picked schedule and meticulous birding plans that would have given the old life list a couple bumps within an hour of landing.  Yep, a mechanical problem grounded the plane and delayed us 5 HOURS while we waited for an empty plane to fly up from Phoenix to pick up our moping, angry selves.  Then again, this is a much preferred state of being than say, dead in a crash because of a mechanical failure. But still.  Now we would be getting into Phoenix just as the sun was setting–an inconvenience to your average traveler but a complete devastation to a birder.  I guess the Brown Pelicans and Rosy-faced Lovebirds in Tempe would just have to wait.

Or would they? Relatively speaking, we got to Phoenix faster than expected with an hour left of the day!  I thought the rental car process would be speedier.  I also thought the rental car would be considerably less orangey.

orange carThe sun was sinking but things were still glaringly aglow around us as we Dodge Darted ourselves across town to Tempe Town Lake where Gordon Karre was waiting for us to hopefully helps us salvage the Brown Pelican lifer on the first day.  Maybe the car blinded his vision, but Gordon just couldn’t find the target in the now twilight of the evening. Arrghh!

Fast forward to the next day when my parents and my family headed out on a big, two-night expedition to SE AZ.  The first agenda item was a trip up to the top of Mt. Lemmon just northeast of Tucson.  Ever since I traveled that road with Gordon Karre and Tommy DeBardeleben last March, I wanted to bring my family back here.  The scenery is amazing as you travel the twisting mountain road from the Saguaro-studded hillsides in the lower elevations to the majestic Pine-forests in the higher elevations all while looking out over stunning vistas.

Looking SW from Mt. Lemmon; Tucson is the flat area below.

Looking SW from Mt. Lemmon; Tucson is the flat area below. Photo from March 2015.

There was also a bird of interest for me.  Steller’s Jays are quite reliable near the summit of Mt. Lemmon on which rests a tiny village called Summerhaven. Despite two trips to the Colorado Rockies and a previous trip up Mt. Lemmon in recent years, I still had never seen one.  I reckoned I would finally fix that.

What I could not fix was the weather. Gloomy skies and steady drizzle diminished the beauty of the drive up the mountain, so it was now just an A+ instead of the normal A+++. And it was chilly, 52º.

Evan MarinOnce we completed the hour-long, 26 mile drive up to Summerhaven, I immediately started scanning for my target bird, a bird that Chris Rohrer assured me would be super easy to get.  I kind of expected them to just be everywhere, so depression was starting to set in when we drove through the town and I wasn’t seeing any birdlife.  We got out of the van and Melissa asked me what that weird noise was.  Then she said, “Oh, here’s your bird.” Twenty feet in front of the car–Chris was right.  Ah, the Steller’s Jay, at long last.

Steller's Jay

While the fam scoped out a trinket shop, I went on the hunt for a better photo of the target and to see what else I might turn up.

Numerous Yellow-eyed Juncos were foraging all over one of the streets.  Evan was later able to add this bird to his life list as well as Pygmy Nuthatch, birds I first saw on Mt. Lemmon last March.

Yellow-eyed Junco

I also discovered the Frankenstein of the Junco world.


Eventually I caught up with a Steller’s Jay again and got what I was after despite the drizzle and clouds. What a great-looking bird and a long-awaited addition to the list!

Steller's Jay

Steller's JayAt least day two was going according to plan.  Now, could we say the same for day three in the Huachuca Mountains where there was not only a Slate-throated Redstart but also SEVERAL Rufous-capped Warblers?

Lewis and Clark: Two Minnesota Explorers

Two years ago a reported Lewis’s Woodpecker near the Canadian border caused Steve Gardner and I to go on our first major chase together.  We left around 2 AM, traveled 6.5 hours, and arrived in Roosevelt, MN shortly after daybreak where we spied the prized Woodpecker in about 30 seconds.

Lewis's WoodpeckerThis trip, besides giving us a cool lifer, brought us to the edge of the world, which is somewhere near Baudette. We were within spitting distance of Ontario, an experiment in which the spit would shatter upon impact 11 months out of the year. Yes, that Woodpecker got us to explore a corner of the state we probably never, ever would have dreamed of going…ever.  And then we would have missed seeing Willie, Minnesota’s largest walleye.


Fast forward to last weekend. A few days prior to that weekend, an incredible report came out of the southeastern corner of the state of a Clark’s Nutcracker.  Steve needed it for his life list; I needed it for my state list.  Last we checked, this was a bird found in the high-elevation forests of the ROCKY MOUNTAINS.  As reports kept barraging our inboxes of this bird being exceptionally reliable and accommodating at its chosen home away from home near Winona, Steve and I once again made the decision to go to the ends of Minnesota to complete the Lewis and Clark bird combo for our state lists. (The blue dot is home.)

Lewis and Clark

Since it was only four hours one way, this chase was easy.  (Oh, how our perception of “far” has changed since that first chase!) The finding was a little tougher this time, though– it took us a whole minute on scene before we got on the bird.  And right on this bird is practically what we were.  I don’t recall a bird more willing to be approached for a crush fest. Nor do I recall a bird with such an out-of-whack head-size to body-size ratio.

Clark's Nutcracker

Clark's Nutcracker IMG_5955

Clark's NutcrackerThis bird did do more than sit on a wire, not much more, but we saw it fly down to the road to forage.  It’s tail pattern in flight is quite a sight.  The homeowner who discovered this bird told us to watch for that pattern when it flew.

Clark's NutcrackerOne can only imagine the thoughts running through this grasshopper’s head in this moment.  Is it just me, or is it on its knees pleading for mercy?

Clark's NutcrackerHunger trumps mercy apparently.

Clark's Nutcracker

Clark's Nutcracker

Clark's Nutcracker

After a half hour with the bird, Steve and I were back on the road.  This time, unlike the trip to the frozen tundra to see Lewis, we were in awe of the beauty of the bluff country of southeastern Minnesota as we drove the scenic Hwy. 61 along the Mississippi.  This route is a must for any serious Minnesota explorer.

One can only imagine what vagrants will show up next and to what other corners of the state they will take us.  Wherever they are, going off on a crazy quest is much easier with a fellow adventurer.

The Golden Hour

While logical people might conclude that birding for ABWCH has slowed down due to school starting back up, the truth is that we’ve still been getting out regularly.  It’s just been, well….pretty dead out there.

Dead Starling

Though not as thought-provoking as the Starling’s situation, one might also wonder why we’ve continued to go out birding despite being busy with school, despite the lack of birds.  The answer is simple and not intriguing: a number.  Considering my profession, I am, ironically, not a numbers person when it comes to birds–I don’t readily have my year totals, know what my 200th or 300th species were, or even know exactly how many birds are on my life list.  However, with all my out-of-state travel this past year I was poised to do something kind of cool, something I don’t know that I’ll get to do again–see 300 species in a single year.  When I saw mid-summer that I was in the 280s I was motivated to chip away at it.  That may not seem like a great deficit to make up, but we were heading into the slow part of the year with not many chances for new birds.  The long-story short is that, by brute force and a bit of luck, I fought my way to 299, where I sat for weeks.

I wanted #300 to be a special bird that I was aching to see again anyway, the Red-headed Woodpecker.  Despite seeing dozens last year, I have had zero luck with them this year. And it hurts.  Bad.  Anyhow, the kids were dragged along with me on yet another fruitless RHWO search last weekend out in Swift County (Mom was at a Twins game).  While we were out, though, MN birding heavy-weight Doug Kieser posted to the listserv that there was a single American Golden-Plover and a single Black-bellied Plover at the Bird Island sewage ponds.  Either would fill the 300 slot (thanks for nothing, RHWO) and finally end that saga, so the kids and I charted a new course to Renville County.  It would, of course, mean watching more movies in the car, staying out past bedtime, and eating a to-go pizza in the van sans napkins, plates, etc.  That’s just how we roll when Mom’s gone.

We got down to Bird Island with precious minutes left.


Using my better judgment and recalling my run-in with the law at the Pennock sewage ponds last year, I decided to not let my kids watch their movie in the suspicious-looking, parked mini-van while I hiked around the ponds. So they took a little hike with me.  In no time we found a couple big Plovers on the grassy dikes between the rectangular ponds. From what I could tell, both were American Golden-Plovers.  Finally, 300 birds in a year could be crossed off the bucket-list (unless I get the crazy hair my brain to do 400 sometime).

American Golden-Plover

Even though it was not a new bird for the year, it was fun to see a Buff-breasted Sandpiper (in the background) associating with the two American Golden-Plovers.  The kids had more fun checking out snake holes.

American Golden-PloverWith the rapidly diminishing light, photos were getting harder to take and kids were getting colder. So we left the Plovers and snake holes and headed back to the van, occasionally looking behind us:

IMG_5929Time moves way too fast.  But it is that quality of time that causes us to take note of the significance of certain things: 300 birds in a year, a sunset at the end of a day, or a rare, non-posed moment of affection between a brother and a sister.

Evan MarinSo what will the rest of this year hold?  Who knows, but the adventures will continue–with or without napkins, with or without birds, and with or without two kids getting along.