Savoring a Lifer, the Last of its Kind

It is no coincidence that this blog has gone silent during the month of September as the entire family is in the throes of another school year beginning with all its extra-curricular chaos.  We are busy. But. There has still been some good birding squeezed, packed, even shoe-horned into the narrow margins of life.  Shockingly, there have been multiple new county birds and multiple life birds added. It’s actually been a really solid month for birding.  Instead of showing blurry pics of some new county tics or detailing some chases I’ve been on, I am going to tell the story of a lifer experience that I will likely never have again.  The bird is the Le Conte’s Sparrow.

First, though, a brief history: Le Conte’s Sparrows breed in the northern half of Minnesota but are only ever seen in my county in central Minnesota during migration.  The time to look is late September to early October.  While it is a very uncommon species, it is an expected species every fall in my county in the right habitat. Inevitably, though, I am busy with other things this time of year and can never seem to make it out to one of the numerous grasslands in my area to look.  Two years ago, Steve Gardner and Joel Schmidt invited me to look with them one day after school at Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center.  I passed. Sure enough, Steve and Joel lifered on Le Conte’s on their first attempt that afternoon.  As time passed I would forget about Le Conte’s.  As more and more birds have been crossed off the listed of wanted birds, though, Le Conte’s has started rising to the forefront of my desired birds.  Last summer I tried to relocate several Le Conte’s Sparrows on breeding territories in the Sax-Zim Bog but was unsuccessful. That was my only previous attempt to see a Le Conte’s Sparrow.

Fast forward to this fall, and I was determined to make every effort to look for this species in my home county during migration. Getting a lifer in the county is indeed a rare event and therefore quite exciting.  This species is the last “easy” lifer I can get at home.  The more I thought about it, the more excited I became to get this one at home rather than in northern Minnesota. So on Friday I made my first attempt with Steve Gardner, Randy Frederickson, and Jeff Weitzel. The after-work search was short-lived and unsuccessful as raging mosquitoes drove us all to the brink of insanity. On Saturday morning I tried a WMA close to my home.  While there were gobs of migrating Sparrows of a half dozen different species, I didn’t find the one I wanted and had to quit early to go camping with Evan and his Cub Scout pack.

That next day on the way home from the camp-out, Evan and I stopped at the same WMA which is a mix of prairie and cattail slough habitats.  It was an absolutely perfect October day: temps in the 70s with a clear blue sky, golden-brown corn fields and prairie grasses, cattails that are still bright green, all accented by the mesmerizing palette of oranges, yellows, maroons, and reds of shrubs and trees on the prairie. It was a good day to be outside, even for Salamanders.Evan salamanderEvan was quite pleased to get his lifer Tiger Salamander. The Le Conte’s was just not a big deal to him.  In fact, when I noticed a promising-looking patch of prairie that butted up to a cattail slough, he declined to walk it with me, opting instead to stand in one spot observing, whittling, etc.  It was on this solo walk-about where the magical moment finally happened: I flushed a Sparrow from the prairie hillside toward the cattail slough in front of me.  I advanced, somewhat hopeful, and stopped about 15 feet short of where it landed. I gave a little pish, and a yellowish bird popped up to investigate.  I knew what it was before I even pulled up the binoculars.  Then, with the sun at my back, I looked through the binoculars and finally saw this striking lifer.  What a thrill–and to experience it so close to home made it even better.  Not only did I finally get this lifer, but a little more pishing allowed me to get some photographs before it disappeared into the cattails forever.

Le Conte's SparrowLe Conte's SparrowAnd with that I met back up with Evan and went home. It was perfect.  Finding the last regular lifer I can possibly get in the county on such a beautiful day was bittersweet.  I don’t know how many more lifers, if any, I will get in the county, but it doesn’t matter.  This was a day to remember.

You Gotta Play Ball to Lifer in Kansas City

If you are a birder who yearns to go on an out-of-state lifer grab but can’t because of your commitments to non-birding family members or significant others, pay attention. If you are stuck at home drooling over others’ epic blog posts of exotic birds from far-off lands, listen up. This post is for you.  Like you, when it comes to birding I don’t have the devil-may-care attitude of the retired, the single, or the extremely rare birding couple. In recent months I discovered there was a whole pocket of lifers waiting for me not too far to the south in the Kansas City area. KC is less than 8 hours away by car, which is nothing considering its potential for lifer glory.  Dragging the family there for birds was not going to fly. Neither was spending the time and money to go on a solo adventure.  So I hatched a plan to get to KC where everyone won.

Since Melissa and Evan are die-hard Minnesota Twins fans, all I had to do to sell them on the idea was an offer to take them to KC to see their beloved team take on the Royals.

KauffmanThat pretty much sealed the deal for them, but for added insurance I got seats which put Evan in a position of high probability to check off a major bucket-list item. It worked.

Evan baseballHaving the entire family on the jumbo-tron and on TV was the icing.

Josh Evan Melissa Marin baseball

So what about Marin? She is neither a fan of birds or baseball. All it took to win her over was the promise of three nights in hotels with pools.  It helped that the kids thought these pools were awesome.

poolI mean, seriously, an indoor/outdoor pool where you can actually swim under the freaking wall of the hotel–how cool is that? This is the kind of thing that blows kids’ minds.

poolSo what about the birds? Let’s get on with it then. I had a number of targets of regular breeders in this central part of the country. The first one I targeted is one that has caused me heartache on a couple of occasions in Minnesota, the Least Tern.  Since this bird breeds in shallow rivers with sandbars, Omaha is a great place to go after them because of the nearby Platte River.  Unfortunately, though, it was getting late in the year to find any, and my chances were slim. Regardless, we were going to give it a try, checking out a couple of spots on the way to our Omaha hotel. The first stop was a place I’d been watching on eBird for months and was eager to see, a sandpit lake in Fremont, Nebraska.

sandpit lake

Upon initial inspection, I didn’t see what I came to see. I don’t know if I just overlooked it at first or if it flew in when I wasn’t looking, but after ten minutes I spotted a Least Tern bathing off a sandbar right in front of me!

Least TernI’ve been yearning to see that bright yellow-bill for awhile.  My family waiting in the car probably didn’t even notice the fist-pumping going on outside over this lifer.

Least TernGetting a lifer at the first stop for that species keeps the non-birding family happy. And even better (for them) was that this bird only stuck around for 10 minutes before flying off forever.

The plan for Day 2 of our trip was to meander our way from Omaha to Kansas City via the back roads in the hopes of turning up a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, the number-one target of the trip. STFL is a rarity in southern Nebraska even though northern Kansas is part of its normal range.  I decided to drive to a spot in southeastern Nebraska where a pair had nested in June.  There hadn’t been reports for two months, but I figured it was worth a shot anyway. When we were still five miles from the site, I was shocked when a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher lifer flew across the road in front of us. Unfortunately we could not track it down for better looks, so it was a bittersweet sighting. I wasn’t worried because I picked a southerly route that would put us by several reported STFL sightings in Kansas. But one-by-one as we drove by those sites, I was getting worried. We weren’t having any luck. Common Nighthawks are nice, but this was supposed to be a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher on this wire.

Common Nighthawk

I was frustrated, but it was time to switch gears to look for another lifer at Baker Wetlands just outside of Lawrence, Kansas.  The Little Blue Heron shows up in Minnesota every few years, but I haven’t connected with one yet.  I was hoping to fix that here. It took awhile, but eventually we found a distant bird toward the far eastern end of the Baker Wetlands. I was going to settle for some blurry distant shots until Melissa noticed a service road that would put us closer to the bird.  What a fantastic-looking Heron.

Little Blue Heron

Little Blue HeronIt was finally time to get to our hotel–Marin was getting antsy for a pool fix. The Heron lifer felt good, really good, but I was still bummed about the lack of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers. Then just 20 minutes from the hotel, I spied one on a fence and turned around for some looks. It was a STFL alright, but a nub-tailed one and not the big male I was hoping to see. Hopes for that, along with a few other birds, would have to be pinned on Day 3.

Day 3 would be an exciting one. My old friend and college roommate, Malcolm Gold, picked me up early that morning to help me find some of the birds I was looking for. Malcolm and I both got into birding long after college and have previously only birded once together back in 2013. Having lived in the KC area for a few years now, he knew where to go and was literally and figuratively in the driver’s seat for this outing.  It was good to see Malcolm again and nice to be with a local who knew what he was doing.  Malcolm thought we should try for a Painted Bunting right away along a brush-lined, somewhat abandoned road in an industrial area.  While a PABU would be sweet to land on the life list, I knew that late August was pushing it for having this bird still be around.  We never did find one, but Malcolm did point out a lifer of sorts, the Yellow-billed Cuckoo! Previously I had only ever heard one, so this was quite a treat to finally see one.

Yellow-billed CuckooYellow-billed CuckooShortly afterward we heard another hoped-for/expected lifer, the Carolina Wren.  Eventually I got to see a couple of them. Their tea-kettle song is awesome.

Carolina WrenAfter giving up on the Painted Bunting search, we headed out into the countryside south of Kansas City. Malcolm had some ideas about where to find Scissor-tailed Flycatchers. And find them, we did.

Scissor-tailed FlycatcherWe never found any with super-long tails, but at one point we had about 30 of them all together on the wires and fences around us.  It was a crazy, cool sight even if most were nubby.

Scissor-tailed FlycatcherSome had tails of decent length, enough to showcase the big forked-tail when they flew.Scissor-tailed FlycatcherScissor-tailed FlycatcherAfter enjoying the pile of Scissors for awhile, Malcolm took me to a spot to look/listen for Northern Bobwhite.  We weren’t having any luck, so for the heck of it I tried playing a recording. Almost immediately a Northern Bobwhite called back!  We never did see one, so this bird will have to enter the life list as a heard-only.  I’m okay with that.

Here’s a tip for you when going on a trip like this: set aside a limited amount of time to go birding away from the family and stick to it; don’t get greedy.  With just a little over an hour left to bird before I had to be back to the hotel at noon, Malcolm took me through some neighborhoods near our hotel to try to dig out a lifer Mississippi Kite.  MIKI just wasn’t in the cards for us that day.  Even though we were Kite-less, it was a great morning of birding with a friend. Thanks Malcolm! After he dropped me off, the agenda switched to getting some authentic KC barbecue and going to the K to see the Twins. On the way to the game I was 95% certain I saw a Mississippi Kite gliding above the freeway, but I didn’t claim it.

Day 4 was the return trip home. This time we would be taking the freeways to bust home quickly. Before we left town, though, I wanted to check along a certain street in the KC suburb of Shawnee for one last try at a Mississippi Kite. Almost right away we saw a raptor that looked odd to us lift off a pole. In fact, Evan who didn’t really know I was still looking for a Kite, piped up from the back seat, “Dad, I think I just saw a Mississippi Kite.” I thought so too, but we needed something better. After cruising up and down the street a couple times we finally had a no-doubt-about-it sighting as one flew over. After a couple more up-and-down passes on the street, we saw it again and this time it perched in someone’s backyard tree offering incredible views of our newest lifer.

Mississippi KiteMalcolm had told me that MIKIs catch dragonflies on the wing, and that’s exactly what this one had done.Mississippi KiteBut then I noticed there was a juvenile MIKI. That dragonfly was the dinner that its mom or dad brought back for it.

Mississippi KiteMississippi KiteAfter the dragonfly transfer had been made, the adult took to the skies to find another. Seeing these birds glide around gracefully like their namesake is quite the sight.

Mississippi KiteMississippi KiteHaving now seen one fly, Evan and I are certain we did see one the previous day on the way to the Twins game. This experience has also given me confidence that I would recognize this unique silhouette should I see it in the skies over Minnesota some day.

With the Mississippi Kite, I had now seen all the lifers I thought I had a chance of seeing on the KC adventure.  It was a great way to finish the trip.  There were six lifers in all, seven if you count the Cuckoo, and a lifer was seen on each of the four days we were gone. It was a great trip of baseball, pools, and birds. Everyone went home happy.

Not Again, Dad

I have this working idea that all Minnesota birders should band together and chip in to pay John Richardson a salary to find us good birds full time. John’s long list of great finds is extraordinary, and he seems to turn up something spectacular wherever his peregrinations take him. August 10th was no exception as he and Butch Ukura turned up a Red Knot at the North Ottawa Impoundment in Grant County on their way home from seeing the Black-headed Gull in Lyon County.

This Knot was the second one to come up so far this year, but I hadn’t been able to chase this potential lifer last spring. Since I did have a free schedule this time and since the bird was just 1.5 hours away, it meant a chase was on when the bird was relocated on August 11th by Charlene Nelson.  Much to my kids’ frustration, I was watching them while Melissa was at a meeting when the chase status had been upgraded from ‘maybe’ to ‘go-time’. This meant they had to go with me. Actually the kids are pretty good about this type of thing and are used to quickly and independently assembling a bird-chase-survival kit of electronics, books, and everything they might possibly need to endure another one of dad’s trips…except food.  A quick stop for pretzels turned into a subsequent stop down the road for drinks.  Eventually we made it to North Ottawa, just not within 1.5 hours. 🙂

North OttawaIt was fun to return to this area. Two years prior, Randy Frederickson, Evan, and I came up here for a tidy haul of good birds in one trip: White-winged Dove, Cattle Egrets, Black-necked Stilts, and Loggerhead Shrike. This time I was looking for another great gift from Grant, and luckily, I found it.

Red KnotInitially I couldn’t find it and panicked since Joel Schmidt had just been there before me and assured me it was still there.  It took me a good ten minutes to finally spot it, and I may or may not have been crabby and short with the kids during those tense first few minutes as they loudly pestered one another in the backseat to fight off the boredom. But with the chubby red bird now officially in sight, I was much more at ease and took things in stride.

Red Knot

Red Knot

Evan opted not to see this bird and instead stayed in the car with Marin where they were play-fighting/wrestling/giggling and just generally getting along.  He did hop out once when we spied a Garter Snake cross the road as the kid has become a herper lately and has been wanting to catch a snake bad. He missed the snake as it slithered into the grass off the road. Shucks.

After spending some time photographing the Knot, we drove around the entire impoundment.  Our only other significant find were four Western Grebes which is always a nice year bird to tally.  Then we were FINALLY (as the kids would say) on the road home. But then I got a message from Dan Orr that he had found some Buff-breasted Sandpipers in Kandiyohi which were conveniently on the way home. The kids found nothing convenient about it– the resulting groan from the announcement of another birding stop was deafening. They have learned that there is no such thing as a quick stop when it comes to birds. But stop we did.  Joel Schmidt had gotten there ahead of me and hadn’t yet located the Buff-breasteds but had located a dashing Black-bellied Plover in full breeding plumage! This felt like a lifer in its own right since I had never seen one so properly dressed before.  Too bad it was so far away for decent photos.

Black-bellied PloverEventually Joel and I found the Buff-breasteds and eventually I did get those kids home.  After all, we had a lot of things to do at home, like get ready for out-of-state birding trip to grab some lifers and do some other fun things. That story is coming next.

You Answered the Call (of the BLGR), Minnesota

Since my last post in which I explored the possible range expansion of the Blue Grosbeak and how it might be occurring via waterways, there have been a couple of exciting developments. Two new county records for Blue Grosbeak have been found! Those two red markers in the upper left of the photo are new since my last post.


On August 13th, a new county record Blue Grosbeak was found in Big Stone County by Milt Blomberg, John Hockema, and Lance Vrieze.  Not only is this significant for being a county first, but these guys found a family of this species the furthest north they’ve been found in Minnesota, vagrants excluded. Moreover, their find fits the pattern of the bird being found all along the Minnesota River Valley.  These guys stopped at a gravel pit, thought the habitat looked right for BLGR, and played a recording. Instantly they had Blue Grosbeaks come in without ever having seen or heard any before playing the recording.

I don’t know whether or not my article influenced their decision to try for Blue Grosbeaks in Big Stone County, but Dan Orr had told me that my last blog post got him curious about Swift County as the very southwestern corner of that county is along the Minnesota River.  Swift previously had no BLGR record.  I was excited about Dan’s search and started to scout satellite imagery in southwestern Swift for appropriate habitat.  I shared with him a gravel pit area just north of Appleton. However, Dan told me he had already birded that spot in early summer. Since Blue Grosbeaks seem to be actively singing in August, I encouraged him to try again and told him how Milt Blomberg et al. “cold-called” their Blue Grosbeaks. So Dan tried it on August 15th. He went to that area, played a tape, and bam–a pair of Swift County record Blue Grosbeaks showed up!


As exciting as the Big Stone and Swift Blue Grosbeak finds are, I am concerned. Now that two county records have fallen, birders have been going to these stake-outs to get their tics.  And once they have their tic for a county, many birders are less likely to explore new areas to look for more Blue Grosbeaks in those counties.  With the Swift and Big Stone records, now very few counties along the Minnesota River still do not have a record.  In fact, I believe Sibley, Carver, and Hennepin are all that remain. Hopefully the county-listing bug will help turn up new records in these counties. But I continue to think that there are many, many more Blue Grosbeaks to be found in Minnesota where county records already exist, namely along the Minnesota River Valley and anywhere in southern Minnesota. So call up a birding friend, go exploring, and find some Blue Grosbeak habitat. There is probably a two-week window left to find these birds before they head south again. And if you find appropriate habitat and don’t hear or see one, play the recording and see what happens. You might be surprised.

Hey, Minnesota Birders, Go Find a Blue Grosbeak

Just like the birds themselves, birders have certain habits and habitat preferences at certain times of the year, almost reliably so. When August rolls around, most birders will seek out a good mudflat for some shorebird action. For me, though, my preferred birder habitat for August looks something like this:

Gravel Pit

I explore gravel pits like this and other scrub lands in the hopes of finding one bird:

Blue Grosbeak

The Blue Grosbeak and its apparent range expansion fascinate me, especially since this bird has now been documented within just three miles of my home county, Kandiyohi.  I became interested in this range expansion back in 2014 when it seemed there were more and more reports of these birds outside of their stronghold at Blue Mounds State Park in Rock County, the very southwestern corner of the state.  Here is what the Blue Grosbeak eBird map looked like back in 2000.

IMG_0771Fast forward to 2012, and it looked like this:

IMG_0773This uptick in Blue Grosbeak observations on eBird can partly be attributed to the beginning of eBird’s popularity in Minnesota and the tenacious efforts of people like Garrett Wee and Doug Kieser.  Many of Minnesota’s experienced birders do not use eBird and have also been turning up Blue Grosbeaks outside of the “normal” Minnesota range of Rock County for years. But even some of these birders have told me that the Blue Grosbeak has definitely expanded its range and its numbers in Minnesota.

In 2014 when I became interested in this expansion, I used satellite imagery on Google Maps and eBird to find probable sites in northern Renville County.  I was interested in Renville County because it bordered my home county of Kandiyohi, it was at the northeastern fringes of the Minnesota range for this bird, and because Joel Schmidt and Randy Frederickson saw a family group of Blue Grosbeaks in this area in 2012. So in using the satellite photos, I looked for new sites that showed gravel pits or any kind of disturbed earth. The success of that endeavor surpassed my expectations as I turned up four Blue Grosbeaks in four separate locations spanning a total of three miles.  Other birders who followed up on my reports added even more Blue Grosbeaks.  Not only did it appear the Blue Grosbeak had extended its range to northern Renville County, but it was thriving there. If you want to read my account of that Blue Grosbeak investigation, click here.

2015 was a bit of a disappointing year because I could not find Blue Grosbeaks at any of the sites I found them in 2014.  Even still, I added one brand new Blue Grosbeak site in Renville County in 2015, and even more exciting was that Ron Erpelding and others found more Blue Grosbeaks north and west of the pocket of birds I found.  This put Blue Grosbeaks within about three miles of the southwestern corner of Kandiyohi County. Here is the map to this day:IMG_0770

As you can see by the red markers, 2016 has been a good year too. Here’s a close-up of the area I’m interested in.


Even though this year’s recheck of the 2015 sites turned up negative, there has been a lot happening this past week in the hunt for Blue Grosbeak.  A week ago I guided Pete Nichols and Ben Douglas around Chippewa and Renville Counties in the hopes of getting their BLGR state bird and life bird respectively, and we found two males at one of the 2014 sites!  I was thrilled; they were thrilled. There was much high-fiving, especially since we got the bird at the last possible second before Pete and Ben had to leave.

Blue Grosbeak IMG_9315So that explains one of the red markers. Here’s the story (and photos) of the others. A couple days after the Renville sighting with Pete and Ben, I went to Gneiss Outcrops SNA in the very southeastern corner of Chippewa County to follow up on Bill Marengo’s earlier report of a Blue Grosbeak.  Ron Erpelding and Herb Dingmann had found one here in 2014 that I was unsuccessful at relocating that same summer.  However, I was able to find Bill’s bird this year.

Blue GrosbeakIMG_9350And just yesterday I checked some new-to-me sites in southern Renville County where birds had been reported by others in 2012 and 2013.  It was a very successful recheck.  At the gravel pit on 200th St (pictured at the beginning), I found this Blue Grosbeak and heard a second male.

Blue GrosbeakBlue Grosbeak

Not long after that and over a half mile from these two birds, I spied a suspicious-looking silhouette on a wire. It turned out to be yet another Blue Grosbeak!

Blue GrosbeakFinding five Blue Grosbeaks in Renville County and one in Chippewa County this past week has re-energized my interest in this bird’s range and population expansion.  Lately I’ve started to think that gravel waste sites are not necessarily the only factor in finding this bird.  I think proximity to water is a key element. Thinking back on all the Blue Grosbeaks I’ve found, there has either been a pond, a drainage ditch, or stream/river in very close proximity to the birds. This bird is often found in riparian areas in the south.  I’m even wondering if water has actually been the cause of its range expansion.  Could the river valleys and streams actually serve as conduits for its range expansion? Consider the stronghold of Rock County where the first MN Blue Grosbeaks were found–the Rock River runs right through it and the Big Sioux River that runs through Sioux Falls (a stronghold for BLGR sightings) is not far from there either. Then consider the Minnesota River Valley.  Many Blue Grosbeak sightings have happened along the valley from Granite Falls all the way down to Mankato.  Even the far northern sightings in Lac qui Parle County are within 30 miles of the Minnesota River.  The pocket of birds I found in 2014 is about 12 miles from the MRV, so now when I look at satellite photos of the landscape, I get curious. Did the northern Renville County birds come up from the MRV along the creeks and drainage ditches?



Could the Minnesota River playing a key role in the expansion of the Blue Grosbeak’s range across the entire state? Or is something more random going on? Right now this is just an idea that gets me out looking for Blue Grosbeaks and other birds in new locations. I get excited when I look at satellite imagery of Minnesota River tributaries and see stuff like this:

IMG_0774This spot turned out to be negative, by the way, at least from what I could hear/see from the roads during my brief check.  However, there are a LOT of places where the roads transect these creeks and ditches in Renville County, so there are a lot of places to check.  While I have found Blue Grosbeaks in gravel pits, I do not think that is the exclusive habitat preference for this bird.  They are described in some literature to be habitat generalists that will occupy a variety of habitats in the southern U.S. where they are much more common.  I would think any brushy or waste area in this bird’s Minnesota range could be good, especially the more numerous they become. One of the 2015 sites I was most excited about was just an ordinary farm yard.

What does all this mean for Minnesota birders?

If you are birding anywhere south and just barely north of the Minnesota River that cuts through Minnesota like a giant V, Blue Grosbeaks should be on your radar as a possibility even if the habitat doesn’t have the classic “feel” of being an exposed gravel/waste area.  Doug Kieser wrote in one of his eBird reports this summer that he was surprised to find a PAIR of Blue Grosbeaks while scanning a mowed hay field of all places. Most of us would be surprised because, through our Minnesota experiences with this bird, we tend to associate Blue Grosbeaks with their more typical habitat.  Those more typical habitats south and barely north of the Minnesota River should ESPECIALLY be looked over carefully.  Anywhere there are municipal brush sites, sewage lagoons, rock outcroppings, landfills, brush-filled drainage ditches and creeks, and yes, gravel pits, you may just find a brand new Blue Grosbeak.

Besides habitat/location, what else could help a Blue Grosbeak search be successful?

  1. Learn the song well.  It’s pretty distinctive.  Most of the Blue Grosbeaks I have found have been by hearing these loud singers first.
  2. If you are lucky enough to hear one, scan the tops of shrubs, trees, and other perches. They are conspicuous birds that often sing from high, open perches.
  3. Know the profile. This is something I have just keyed into lately that has helped me spot three non-singing Blue Grosbeaks from a distance, sometimes in bad light. Blue Grosbeaks have a near vertical posture when sitting on a wire, and they appear very top-heavy with that short tail.  Their big, blocky head also helps set them apart from other wire-perching birds. Then there’s that massive, conical bill…IMG_93754. Don’t think of them as a rare bird in the previously described areas of Minnesota.  If you expect to see them, you are more likely to stop the car to investigate a bird on a wire or drive slowly by a shrubby pasture with the windows down to listen for one. True story: I have seen/heard 11 Blue Grosbeaks in Renville County compared to just 2 Eastern Towhees there, yet the Blue Grosbeak is still considered rare in that county by eBird while the Towhee is an expected species.

Final Thought

Most of the Blue Grosbeaks sightings on eBird are fairly well pinpointed and therefore chaseable.  And, if you’ve never seen one before, by all means, go look for one of those. But if you have seen one already, strike out on your own and turn up a brand new Blue Grosbeak. I guarantee you’ll have a lot more fun exploring and discovering something new than chasing something old. Who knows, you may have one a lot closer to home than you thought!

Flame-grilled Hot Dogs and Scorched Woodpeckers

Like most Americans, I celebrated the 4th of July weekend with family, doing the typical things like picnicking outside all day, tossing the ball around, and cruising a lake in a boat in search of a good fishing hole.  Most people are able to focus on these activities exclusively; birders always have the incidental birding meter running. That’s how you ride in a boat and show your companions a patriotic scene, fitting for the weekend.

Bald Eagle NestIt’s also how you can point out to Grandma during that all-day gathering that the bird that flushes from the house each time someone goes in or out is actually a pretty cool bird and not some lame Robin that none of us can stand to have making a mess on our house.

Eastern Phoebe nestUnlike the Robin, the Eastern Phoebe’s nest is quite aesthetically pleasing and well-constructed.

Eastern Phoebe nestI almost passed on the opportunity to get crushing photos of the most accommodating Eastern Phoebe I’ve ever seen. That would have been a shame.

Eastern PhoebeEastern PhoebeBut don’t let me fool you, it wasn’t all incidental birding.  I was in northern Minnesota, after all, a land ripe with fascinating birds in all seasons. Local birding friend, Julie, had told me about a Connecticut Warbler she had recently found in a Black Spruce/Tamarack bog not more than 20 minutes from my parents’ house.  The Connecticut was a bird I had previously only had as heard-only in the Sax-Zim Bog, so I rose early one morning donning some knee-high rubber boots, long sleeves, long pants, and an unhealthy dousing of bug spray.  I was going all in to mosquito central.  No sane person does this.bogBut we die-hard birders do, especially when we think of the possible reward of visuals of a skulker like the Connecticut. It’s worth some welts and the loss of a little sleep.  Julie had made things easy for me by marking a tree where the Connecticut had set up a territory along this abandoned, water-logged road pictured above. However, as we are getting into July, the Warblers just don’t sing as much.  When I got to the spot after hiking a quarter mile, I didn’t hear it.  But patience eventually rewarded me with that clear, ringing sound of the Connecticut: “Bea-cher, bea-cher, bea-cherbeach!” After waiting it out a little longer, I did get some great up-close looks, but I wasn’t quick enough to get a photo.  Seeing one was a good improvement on my heard-only lifer, but I really wanted that photo.  Maybe this Warbler was busy with a nest because it never did show itself again despite me waiting for an insane amount of time in the cloud of mosquitoes. I finally decided to call it quits and head back to rejoin the family.  A heard-only Boreal Chickadee and a Lincoln’s Sparrow were a couple of good birds on the hike out.

The next day on our final morning in the northwoods, I decided to give Julie’s spot one more try.  That Connecticut photo seemed in reach; like with the Phoebe, it would be foolish to pass on the opportunity to try. Thanks to a late night fireworks show, I was a little slower getting out of bed that next morning.  In fact, I arrived at the trail a full 40 minutes later than the day before.  Considering I had heard the bird right away that day and that it was singing sporadically, I didn’t like my chances for a repeat on the visual I got. When I got there and opened the car door, though, I didn’t hear the Connecticut but instead heard something just as cool–the unmistakable drumming of a Black-backed Woodpecker! And like that my search priorities shifted. I followed the sound of the steady drumming which echoed through the bog. And there, there he was just 10 feet off the waterlogged road about 10 feet up. I was blown away.

Black-backed Woodpecker

The Black-backed was not a lifer, but I have never seen a male before with his bright yellow crown and have always wanted to.  In a sense this felt just as fresh as a lifer. So I set out to accomplish one goal (photo of the COWA) and inadvertently and delightfully accomplished another.

I spent a lot of time enjoying this Woodpecker all while keeping an ear open for the Connecticut which did not vocalize even once. Black-backed WoodpeckerHere you can see and hear that distinctive drumming.  It’s such a cool sound.

I’ve heard that Black-backed Woodpeckers are quite tame and don’t really care about a person’s presence.  This experience certainly seemed to back that theory up. And if you have doubts about whether this bird was appropriately named…

Black-backed Woodpecker Black-backed Woodpecker Black-backed WoodpeckerBlack-backed Woodpecker Black-backed WoodpeckerHere’s another video.  I was hoping to capture him drumming some more, but instead caught him itching himself. Mosquito bite?

Eventually the bird went on its way, and so did I, trying to dig up that Connecticut.  I finally called it quits on the Warbler, vowing to try again next year when it was earlier in the breeding season and the birds’ hormones are still raging causing them to be more vocal. On my way back to the car I again spotted the Black-backed Woodpecker, but I noticed something different–no yellow crown, a female!

Black-backed WoodpeckerThrilled with the bonus Woodpecker, I continued my waterlogged hike back to the car.  Then I again heard a Black-backed Woodpecker a couple hundred yards from the first two, and then I saw one of them following the other around.  I thought they must be those two that I saw earlier.  I glassed the two birds as one followed the other up a Spruce and was shocked to see that both were males–an adult being followed by this juvenile!

Black-backed Woodpecker

This meant I had for sure seen three different Black-backed Woodpeckers and maybe four if the second adult male was a different bird than the first.  It’s not everyday you see a Black-backed Woodpecker, let alone a small pile of them.  Additionally, seeing a good northern bird like this outside of a birding mecca like the Sax-Zim Bog and close to “home” is always a huge thrill for me.  This encounter did not go unappreciated by me and will likely be one of my all-time birding highlights.

The Tanager Trifecta

Summer TanagerOne of the most popular birds in Minnesota this summer has been the Summer Tanager discovered by Wilmer Fernandez at the University of Minnesota’s Landscape Arboretum in Chanhassen.  Summer Tanager is rare-regular in the state, but the fact that this bachelor bird was in the Twin Cities and singing endlessly on territory made it all the rage for the better part of a week.  Not even the Arboretum’s steep per person entry fee could keep birders away, including yours truly.

Summer TanagerIf you’ve been following ABWCH this past spring, you may recall that I already made a Summer Tanager chase to get my lifer.  So why did I go after another if I’m not a county lister? Two reasons: this bird was solid red, unlike that tye-died creature I saw earlier this year, and this bird was singing on territory.  I wanted the full SUTA experience.  That quick migrant sighting didn’t fill the void.  Plus this bird was relatively close to home, and I had the time off.

Summer TanagerA couple of others who had the time off were teaching colleagues Brad Nelson and Theresa Nelson. The mother-son Nelson duo joined me on this little excursion. Our semi-annual birding get-togethers are always productive and fun–the last time the three of us met up was over a Snowy Owl near one of the towns in our district. Just like we had no problem getting that Owl, seeing this Tanager was a piece of cake.  We could hear it singing immediately once we got out of the car at the nut trees section of the Arboretum where it apparently has set up shop for the season.  We spent the better part of an hour following it around as it sang endlessly from its various perches, not even stopping its song while it feasted on insects:

Summer TanagerSummer TanagerIt’s been the year of the Tanager here in MN. To close out this post, here’s a pic of each of the two rare-regular Tanagers and a brand new Scarlet Tanager all seen in state this year.  Sorry for turning the Scarlet into a trash bird on this blog. No, I’m not–they are still an exciting bird and this post celebrates all things Tanager.

Western TanagerSummer Tanager

Scarlet Tanager

Blogger’s Potluck: Leftovers, Locals, even a Lifer

The birds have not allowed any dust to collect on this blog.  It is, of course, hard to collect dust when the bird clutter is accumulating at an alarming rate.  Lest I be featured on some blogger hoarding show, it’s time to start shoveling.  This post ties up a lot of loose birding ends.  In truth I haven’t been too excited about writing it since it does not coalesce around a single bird or birding locale.  Despite that, there are a lot of good nuggets in here–hopefully something for everybody.

Tommy Trip–The Rest of Wisconsin

Let’s get started with wrapping up the Tommy trip.  Not making the cut for the Wisconsin posts was the locally common Eastern Towhee.  Before this trip, this bird was still very novel to me as I had only ever seen just one male and one female.  I got my fill after this trip. This bird, which was a lifer for Tommy, was everywhere.

Eastern Towhee

Birders like to say EATOs sound like they are saying “Drink your tea!” when they sing.  This has been true in my very limited experience in Minnesota with this bird.  But well-traveled birders know that birds in different geographical regions often have different dialects of the same song.  I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, but in Wisconsin the Eastern Towhee sounded more like it was singing “Drink your beer!” Given how commonplace this bird was, it explains so much.

Another lifer for Tommy in Wisconsin that was surprisingly hard to track down was the Ruby-throated Hummingbird.  Also surprising was that I had never before taken the time to photograph a male of our only, fairly common Hummingbird species. Luckily they had a feeder at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge with one lonely male showing up, allowing Tommy and me to rectify our respective deficits.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Another great find near the Visitors Center was a lifer Yellow-billed Cuckoo for Evan and me.  Tommy found the bird for us which started as a heard-only bird and then eventually give us a quick fly-over sighting.  It left me wanting more. Tommy always likes to “give back” something when he comes up birding.  Last winter it was the Black-backed Woodpecker near my parents’ house that I had been wanting to see; this year it was the Cuckoo. So, thanks for the cool birds, Tommy!

Tommy Trip–Night Birding in the Minnesota River Valley

One night during Tommy’s stay, he and I ventured down to the Minnesota River Valley just east of Granite Falls for some night birding.  Birding at night is always safer and more fun in good numbers, so we joined forces with Steve Gardner and Garrett Wee.  Our prime target for the night was the Eastern Whip-poor-will.  Tommy needed the lifer, and I was hoping to finally photograph one.  Chippewa County Road 40 is probably the best place in the state to reliably find this bird.  Despite Garrett already being down there before we arrived and having heard a half dozen of the Whips, the woods was completely silent when Steve, Tommy, and I got there. We birded on anyway and soon understood why the Whips weren’t whipping it good–a pair of Barred Owls vocalized right near us.  We got amazing flashlight views as one soared just over our heads.  It was eerie and awesome.

Eventually the Barred Owls disappeared, and the Whips began to sing their unending songs as they are so well known for.  We never could get a visual unfortunately, but at least Tommy got to tally the bird for his life list. I also got to tally a new bird for my Minnesota list: a calling Yellow-billed Cuckoo in the dark!  Even though Tommy had it directly above his head at one point, we never were able to get the flashlight on it.  So the bird went from being a lifer to a state bird in a matter of two days but still left me unsatisfied.

Tommy Trip–Keeping it Local

For Tommy’s last full day of birding we decided to bird close to home even though two Minnesota Megas showed up that very day, a Baird’s Sparrow and a Calliope Hummingbird. A chase would have been fun but exhausting given all our recent travels.  We started at Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center.  I had never really explored this place before, so it was fun to give it some serious attention.  One of our highlights was yet another Scarlet Tanager. This one behaved like a proper Scarlet, hanging out exclusively in the canopy.

Scarlet TanagerThe other highlight was when Tommy picked out the sound of a calling Yellow-billed Cuckoo, a county bird for me! Once again, Tommy gives back! So in three successive days, this bird went from life bird to state bird to county bird.  But it still was a no show.  Someday.

One of our other stops of the day was Sibley State Park.  Despite this gem being so close to me, I haven’t given much time to explore it which is something I really need to resolve.  Tommy and I gave it a good effort that day, though.  It was fun to look at some common-place birds through Tommy’s fresh perspective.  We took time to enjoy Ovenbirds, Field Sparrows, and Swamp Sparrows.


Field Sparrow

Swamp Sparrow

We also had a couple of good finds in the more uncommon species, like three additional Scarlet Tanagers…

Scarlet Tanager…and two Blue-winged Warblers, a very good bird for central Minnesota.

Blue-winged Warbler

Birding After Tommy

After Tommy went home with a hefty bag of 26 lifers and a plethora of good bird sightings, I have continued to poke around close to home.  The Dickcissels have invaded the state in good numbers this year.  In fact, I even added one to my yard list.

DickcisselAnother fun find I had one evening when I went out to a local wildlife management area was a completely unexpected county Least Bittern.  Though I had a killer look at one flying toward me, I wasn’t able to get any photos but did record two Least Bitterns giving their “chuckling” call.  You may have to turn up the volume.

Birders can never turn off the birding.  Even when I accompanied Evan to a Cub Scout camping weekend, I had a couple of fun finds.  Highlights included yet another Scarlet Tanager and this Pine Warbler.

Pine WarblerPine Warbler

While the Pine Warbler was a good find this far south, I found something even better at Scout camp, probably my best sighting yet…


There are two more fun posts coming out soon–a chase to see a rare bird and an exciting Woodpecker encounter while visiting family in northern Minnesota over the 4th.

Necedah: Refuge for the Red-headed Woodpecker

One bird that Tommy, Evan, and I kept watch for as we traveled through Necedah National Wildlife Refuge was the Red-headed Woodpecker.  Tommy got his lifer a couple days prior on his Grand Forks trip.  This was a bird I hadn’t seen since 2014.  And whether you have freshly lifered on this bird or seen dozens, it is one that you really can’t get tired of seeing.  I was pretty excited about the possibility of finally ending my streak of days passed since seeing a Red-headed Woodpecker.

Once we got closer to the Visitors Center on the south end of the refuge, we started driving through some Oak Savannah habitat–good-looking stuff for a Red-headed Woodpecker.  It didn’t take long to spot one. Or two. Or three. Or a dozen.  They were everywhere.  It was insane and wonderful all at once.

Red-headed Woodpecker

IMG_8752What’s this bird looking at? Probably a mate or a competitor for a mate. There were two that were involved in a seemingly endless chase, never once pausing for a good picture.  At one point we saw them lock feet and fall to the ground like Eagles.  It was fantastic.

Red-headed WoodpeckerMy own personal RHWO drought along with the near-threatened status of this bird made seeing this abundance of Red-headed Woodpeckers extremely thrilling.  Never mind that this Woodpecker is ridiculously striking in appearance, sporting a bold, simplistic color pattern.

Red-headed WoodpeckerRed-headed WoodpeckerEvan enjoyed looking at all these cool Woodpeckers flying around us everywhere.

EvanThen again, who wouldn’t?

Red-headed WoodpeckerIt’s unfortunate that we didn’t have more time to spend with these Woodpeckers at Necedah as other areas of Necedah required exploration before we had to break for supper, hotel check-in, and Kirtland’s scouting.  But it’s good to know there is a place where one can go and see this species with ease.

On the home front, Red-headed Woodpeckers are getting harder and harder to come by.  As I mentioned before, I saw zero RHWO anywhere last year.  So I was quite thrilled when Randy Frederickson and I spotted one just recently in the home county while conducting our annual search for Blue Grosbeaks.

Red-headed WoodpeckerRed-headed Woodpecker

We can only hope that our local population will rebound to become even a fraction of what we saw at Necedah.

Necedah: Refuge for the Golden-winged Warbler

The prime target at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge was, of course, the endangered Whooping Crane.  But there were so many other good birds there, birds that have also faced steep population declines.  In reflecting on how I’d write about the rest of our birding at Necedah NWR, I decided to do two more posts, each focused on a singular, struggling species that we saw.

This post will be on the near-threatened Golden-winged Warbler.  Tommy, Evan, and I were fortunate to find a male Golden-wing on territory at the Refuge.  This was a key lifer for Tommy, and like the Cerulean, it was a bird I had only seen just a few times prior.  This observation marked the first time I had seen one on its breeding territory outside of migration. As such, it was the first time I got to see and hear one sing.

Golden-winged WarblerIf Minnesota did not already claim (appropriately) the Common Loon as its state bird, the GWWA would make a fine choice.  Minnesota plays host to roughly 50% of the world’s entire breeding population of this Warbler species.  Wisconsin and Ontario are the other major stakeholders in rearing these birds.  Maybe if most Wisconsinites knew this, they’d hold a referendum to denounce the Robin as their state bird and choose this Warbler instead.

Golden-winged WarblerThe Golden-wing’s preferred habitat is shrubby edges along wetlands and young forests. While the breeding population has remained stable in Minnesota over the last 45 years, this species has suffered a 60% population loss over that same time in the rest of its breeding range in North America.  Even though Minnesota contains only 10% of the GWWA’s breeding range, we host nearly half of all the birds of this species.  That puts an emphasis on just how much human development of wetlands and shrubby areas in other parts of the northeast has impacted this bird.

Despite Minnesota and Wisconsin being a major stronghold for this bird, the future is unclear for them here too.  GWWAs are early successional specialists that benefit from young forests that emerge after logging and/or fire.  With better fire control than ever and a decline in logging activity, prime habitat areas for the Golden-winged Warbler are growing up and not being “renewed” as often. Below is my favorite photo I took of the bird we observed because it shows the bird in a young Aspen tree, stands of which are prime habitat for this bird.

Golden-winged WarblerBesides human activity threatening this Warbler, the closely related Blue-winged Warbler is expanding its range in Minnesota.  This is problematic because the more dominant Blue-wings prefer the same type of habitat.

Blue-winged WarblerAnd when the Blue-wings aren’t kicking out the Golden-wings, they are hybridizing with them.  I have yet to see one of the two main hybrids.

I’m not sure what Wisconsin is doing regarding the conservation of this Warbler, but I’m proud of my state for taking their responsibility seriously as stewards of this bird. Something going on that’s pretty cool in Minnesota is that in 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service signed an agreement with the Red Lake Band of Chippewa to restore 1,000 acres of Golden-winged Warbler habitat each year for the next 12 years.

Golden-winged WarblerLike the Cerulean Warbler, the Golden-winged Warbler also winters in Central and South America, thriving in shade-grown coffee plantations.  Again, another reminder to drink bird-friendly coffee.  This beautiful home-grown bird is truly a treasure that needs all the help it can get.

Golden-winged WarblerKnowing how fragile a species is makes you appreciate a sighting like ours all the more. Hopefully the Golden-winged Warbler has a bright future.Golden-winged Warbler

Coming up: another stunning bird that is not just surviving but truly thriving at the beautiful Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in central Wisconsin.