Look Who the Blizzard Blew In!

Whew!  Evan’s Eurasian Collared Dove is still alive! (More Than Just A Name) It’s been absent from the yard for nearly two weeks after being a regular since summer, and we were getting worried that it had died.  After all, we had a pair of them for several months, which turned into one bird in the last two months.  This morning we are in the midst of a blizzard.  In fact, we are spending the day  holed up in the house as all church services in Willmar were canceled.  It’s a good day for drinking coffee and monitoring the birds. Can you tell that it’s cold and windy outside?

To give you a sense of this bird’s size, here is a shot where I am not zoomed in.  Do you see it in the middle of the picture and how its size compares to the Common Redpolls on the feeder?

Here’s a shot of the feeding frenzy that happens here daily – blizzard or not.

And add a splash of color in this whiteout, and you have a good bird-watching day! (From reading the blog, can you identify all three species in this shot?)

Answers: Male Northern Cardinal, Male Dark-Eyed Junco (Slate-Colored), and two House Sparrows


Meet My Dad – The Wildlife Biologist and Birder

In this blog post I have interviewed my dad, Rick Wallestad, about his history with birds – both official work as a wildlife biologist for the Montana Department of Fish and Game in the 1970s and his unofficial work as an emerging birder like Evan and me.  Whether you know him or he’s a complete stranger to you, I think you will find the following interview with my dad to be a fascinating read.  If you are a pure birder and have no connection to us personally, there is some great “bird stuff” in here.  If you’ve known him in any capacity, then you will now have a more in-depth knowledge of his story.  I was familiar with several of his answers, but I also learned a lot of new things in doing this project.  It was important for me to document and preserve this information for Evan’s sake.  A secondary goal would be that you would find this to be an enjoyable read.

How did your interest in birds begin?

As a young boy in Rolette, North Dakota, my buddy Joey Fox and I would scout out any nest we found to see what kind of eggs were there, and how many. It’s just something we did often.

What are the facts of your education and employment history with the Montana Department of Fish and Game? Editor’s Note: This state department is now called the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

I got my B.S. in Wildlife Management from the University of Minnesota in 1966. While there I worked one year for the Fisheries Department, reading fish scales to determine the age of the fish. Then I spent one quarter at the Cloquet Research Center assisting a research student trapping and radio-tagging snowshoe hares.  I spent another summer at Cloquet assisting a PhD student researching Ruffed Grouse broods using radio telemetry, also. These telemetry projects were some of the first in the country. My adviser, Dr. William Marshall, was a pioneer in the development of radio telemetry. As a result of this experience in telemetry, it paved the way to get a job in Montana studying the effects of DDT on Blue Grouse in western Montana.

I attended graduate school at Montana State University, studying habitat requirements and movements of Sage Grouse hens and their broods. Upon completion of my M.S. degree in Wildlife Management in 1970, I went to work for the Montana Fish and Game Department as a research biologist studying effects of sagebrush removal on the Sage Grouse.  Editor’s Note: “Sage Grouse” in Rick’s responses refer to the Greater Sage Grouse.  In the 1990s it was determined that sage grouse found in the Gunnison Basin of southwest Colorado were a distinct species.  Nearly identical looking but 2/3 the size of the Greater, it is called the Gunnison Sage Grouse. During that three-year period that I was a research biologist, I published five articles on Sage Grouse in the Journal of Wildlife Management and one technical bulletin titled “Life History and Habitat Requirements of Sage Grouse in Central Montana” published in 1975 (pictured at right).  I also worked as a management biologist in Broadus, Montana for three years and managed four Wildlife Management Areas around Sidney, Montana for three years.

You mentioned working in Cloquet, Minnesota studying the Ruffed Grouse.  Did you work with Gordon Gullion, arguably the foremost authority on the Ruffed Grouse?

He was there and I visited with him a lot, but I was working for Geoff Godfrey who was a graduate student of Bill Marshall. Gordy was permanent staff and also worked under Bill Marshall because Cloquet was a year-round research station for the University.

How did you capture Ruffed Grouse?

We captured them with a clover-leaf trap. It was chicken wire arranged like a 4-leaf clover. Each circle of the clover was about 4-feet in diameter. There were two leads of 18-inch high chicken wire, each 100-feet long stretched out into the swamps. Since Ruffed Grouse broods travel by walking, the hen would walk up to the this 100-foot section of chicken wire and being blocked, would lead her brood along it until they walked right around one of the clover circles at the end and were then funneled into the trap.

What are some fun or interesting facts you can tell us about the Greater Sage Grouse?

It’s one of the few birds that is totally dependent on sage brush for survival. Without sage brush there would be no Sage Grouse. The entire overall 10-year study, a cooperative study with the Bureau of Land Management, was instrumental in stopping the practice of spraying sage brush.

On the strutting ground (breeding ground) with 20 or more males, only one or two males will do the breeding. The average clutch size for a yearling bird is 5-6 eggs, and for 2+ years is 7-8 eggs. Most Sage Grouse hens nest within 1-2 miles of the strutting ground.

Editor’s Note: All photos of Greater Sage-Grouse and Sharp-Tailed Grouse on this post, with the exception of the photo of the radio-tagged Greater Sage Grouse taken from Rick’s aforementioned technical bulletin, are courtesy of Bob Martinka, a former colleague of Rick at the Montana Department of Fish and Game.  Bob has graciously allowed me to use these photos.  He has his own bird blog at BirdManBob, and his amazing bird photography can be viewed at his Flickr Photo Site. Thanks, Bob!

Describe how you captured Greater Sage Grouse.

We would catch them on the strutting ground using cannon nets which were set with explosive charges. The two 100-foot cannon nets running parallel were set about 40 feet apart. These would cover the main part of the strutting ground, which was identified by the droppings and feathers. When a big group of males assembled and were strutting, a cluster of hens would come onto the ground. The net charges would be deployed and the nets would spread out overlapping each other, floating down on the grouse, holding them to the ground. (Google cannon nets to see some pictures. You can also Google clover-leaf traps to get an idea, even though the ones we found were fish traps.)

Another method of catching Sage Grouse hens was to drive through sage brush areas. When we saw a hen with a brood, Dr. Bob Eng would get out and whistle like a chick which would draw the hen in. Then with a telescoping noose pole, which would extend from 6 feet to 20 feet with a noose on the end, the noose would be slipped over the hen’s head and tightened just enough to bring the hen in so it could be fixed with a leg band and a radio tracking device.



What kind of expert advice do you have in locating and viewing Greater Sage Grouse?

They can be located by driving through sagebrush country, but they are hard to see because they are brown and blend in to the surroundings. Bob Eng would spot them by looking for the eye. They can also be found by listening for the sound of the birds as they are strutting in the early morning, often for a distance of about a half mile.

The distribution of Sage Grouse is found only where there is sage brush. It would be in the west…Montana, Idaho, eastern Washington, eastern Oregon, Wyoming, eastern Colorado, parts of Nevada and New Mexico.



How do you locate a strutting ground for Sage Grouse?

Contact a biologist in any of those states’ fish and wildlife departments to ask the location of a strutting ground. 


Besides your extensive studies of the Greater Sage Grouse, what other official duties did you have to perform regarding birds?

We did roadside crowing counts for Ring-Necked Pheasants, strutting ground surveys for Sage Grouse, and dancing ground surveys for Sharp-Tailed Grouse.


What fun or interesting facts can you tell us about the Sharp-Tailed Grouse?

I’ve had very little experience with “sharptails.” Their grounds are called “dancing grounds” compared to “strutting grounds” for Sage Grouse. They are usually located on the top of a hill. I experienced seeing some of these in grassland areas like Kenny Simonsen’s ranch near Sidney, Montana. There are generally not as many males on the dancing grounds, maybe 6 to 15 per ground.


Do you have any fun or interesting bird stories you can share from your days with the Montana Department of Fish and Game?

I was contacted by some birders one spring who had never seen Sage Grouse, and I took them out to a strutting ground. I was able to drive into the middle of the strutting ground with Sage Grouse strutting on all sides of the truck. They were very thrilled because it was another bird on their life list.

We referred to birds in two ways: game birds and “dickie” birds – small songbirds.

What is your favorite bird of all time? Why?

The Western Meadowlark because of the beautiful song, and it reminds me of the prairie where I grew up.

What is the “best” bird you have ever seen? Why?

The Trumpeter Swan because of the rarity of it. As I recall, the only place I’ve ever seen one is in Saunders Bay on Pelican Lake near Orr, Minnesota.

What are your target birds in 2013 that you want to add to your life list?

I’d like to identify all the warblers on our farm in northern Minnesota.

Give us an update on your birding in Arizona. Seeing other snowbirds does not count.

We saw a Red-Tailed Hawk near Maricopa and Common Egrets near Gila Bend. In Oak Creek we saw a large blue bird that we haven’t identified yet. We also saw a bird high up in a tree that had an incredibly beautiful song, but we also haven’t identified it.

What are your impressions of Evan’s birding abilities, and what lasting birding advice can you give him?

Evan’s abilities are amazing in the way he can pick out minor differences in birds. It has been impressive to see his powers of observation.  His enthusiasm is contagious. As far as giving him advice, I’d say I’ve learned a lot from this 5-year-old, and it has encouraged my interest in birding.

To see what Rick is talking about regarding Evan’s “powers of observation” read More Than Just a Name.

If you want to see an amazing Ruffed Grouse video that I shot that includes male grouse on display and Evan as a 2-year old birder with Grandpa Rick, stop by the blog next Saturday.  I couldn’t believe this video that I shot four years ago and how it foretells the adventures we’re having today!

Some Fun Bird Pics for your Wednesday Morning

This is just a quick photo post to highlight more of the diversity that we’ve had this year in our first winter of feeding the birds.  When I went on my “Big Day” of birding from inside the living room on Saturday, I captured photos of nearly all of the regular species that visit us.  However, there were a couple of absences that day.  One of those was the Northern Cardinal which was photographed extensively Sunday.  If you haven’t seen this amazing bird, go to the Home page and scroll down a couple of posts.

The Blue Jay finally showed up today.  He used to be here regularly, and earlier in the winter there used to be several.  Lately the one jay has been elusive.  Even today I saw him for just a flash.

The Blue Jay is very commonplace, but its beauty is undeniable – even if they can be jerks at the feeder.

I am very excited to show you these next photos.  The first is the male Oregon Junco. The second is the female. On Saturday I showed a slightly blurry, close-cropped photo of the female.  As I said before, this has been one of my prize birds all winter.  We are at the very eastern edge of its winter range, and I haven’t seen it around my feeder much.  I was super excited to make this discovery about a month ago by first seeing the female.  In the last week or so, the male has started coming!

And, I know I showed several images of the Hoary Redpoll in Saturday’s post, but I am captivated by this bird because it is such a rarity and travels so far to us.  In the last week, we seem to have several mixed in the Common Redpoll flocks at our house.  Plus, I used to doubt whether I’d actually seen one when I first blogged about it a couple weeks ago.  The photos prove it a certainty and have erased all doubt.

The only other regular yard bird that’s missing is one that I’m dying to show you – Evan’s Eurasian Collared Dove.  It is magnificently large and its back story is very special to me in regards to Evan becoming a birder.  I’m worried, though.  We used to have a pair that regularly came by.  For the last few weeks, just one has shown up, and now it has been a week since we’ve seen that one.  I’ll watch the feeders.  You watch the blog.  Hopefully we see him.

Brrrrrding Before School

I love Mondays.  There, I said it.  The truth is, though, that I do not work most Mondays as my school is on a 4-day week.  It is on these Mondays that Evan can sleep in a little longer since I can drive him to school, and he does not have to wait at his school’s childcare.  Not only that, but Marin and I then usually have a “Daddy Day.”  Basically we just hang out, play some games, read books, watch movies, run errands, and so on.  Today we have a lunch date planned with Mom.

The added bonus of driving Evan to school is that we get a chance to do a little birding, which just means we look for birds on our short 5 mile trip to town.  This morning the sky was a vivid blue and the sun made the snow sparkle and everything dazzle with color.  It was the perfect morning for Ring-Necked Pheasants.  We kept an eye out, especially at “Pheasant Corner” – a nickname we’ve given to an intersection near our house that is a favorite haunt for pheasants.  Sure enough, we found some.

Do you see the pheasants in the picture below?

No? How about now?

Or now? These shots were taken through a dirty car window when I had the camera almost fully zoomed, so excuse the quality.  The temp was -3°.  Can you tell looking at these footballs?

Editor’s Note: The same camera, the Canon SX50, took both the photos of the kids in the car and these zoomed-in photos of pheasants with the same lense.  By the way, Marin’s owl hat was given to her before we became birders.  It fits her personality to a T.

Sundays are for the Birds

And the birders.  Today was a beautiful winter day in Minnesota with a light snow falling, making everything quiet and white outside.  Our day started with going to the early church service so that we could come home, grab a bite to eat, and then head to Hutchinson to see their Middle School’s production of The Little Mermaid.  We went to see it because Melissa is directing the exact same musical in less than a month for Willmar Middle School, and my cousin’s wife is the director of Hutchinson’s show. Anyhow, when we got home after church and before we headed south, we sat down to eat lunch. I had just got done scolding the kids for leaving the table before they were finished eating, when I spied Mr. Northern Cardinal at the backyard feeder.  Now I had that brand new camera and an awesome bird to photograph, so I, too, left the table before I was finished.  So I won’t be winning any Father-of-the-Year awards, but I got some great shots!

Here he’s enjoying one of the few pieces of cracked corn in the feeder.

Check out the picture above.  Not only can you see him crack the sunflower seed, but you can see him nabbing the sunflower heart with his tongue!

Resting.  Look at all that red!

Prowling.  Until I got this camera, I had no idea how dark a cardinal’s back was.  The gradient of red is amazing.

So after this spontaneous photo-shoot, I finished my lunch and we were off to Hutchinson.  Since I go to work in the dark and get home really late in the evening, our birding opportunities are limited to the weekends.  I threw the camera in the car “just in case.”  After all, we were traveling 45 miles.  You never known what you are going to see.  Just over a mile down the road, we found 10 Ring-Necked Pheasants right in the ditch.  Oh, how I wanted to get a shot of them, but I couldn’t risk being late to the musical.

We thoroughly enjoyed the performance of Hutchinson’s students, and it was nice to visit for a bit with my cousin, Brett, and his family.  But they had a set to tear down, and we had to head home.  With plenty of daylight left for the return trip, I was excited for the possibilities.  In less than 15 minutes, here is the first major bird we saw.  This wild turkey was much closer to the road before I gave my family whiplash turning the vehicle around.  As I monkeyed with the vehicle and camera, he was disappearing deep into cover. However, with that camera I was able to reach out and touch him.  This tom is smart and ready for the spring turkey hunt – he kept his head out of view.  Look at the beard on this guy!

We got on our way, and I was excited to get back to a spot on the road where we had flushed a flock of Snow Buntings on the trip down.  Sure enough they were there.  Snow Buntings visit us in the winter only and prefer open fields and roads.  If you’ve traveled any country road in west-central Minnesota, then I’m sure you’ve seen large flocks of these white, tan, and black birds flush from the shoulder and swirl about in the air until they eventually land again.  These poor Snow Buntings were on a busy road and would get flushed by a car, fly about, land in the same spot, only to have a car come 5 seconds later.  This happened over and over.  I got a few shots, but I did not have much time so they are a bit blurry – you have to hold that camera super still when it is zoomed out so far.  I was excited to see these images because I’ve never seen these birds up close except for in field guides.

 Even my wife was amazed by these little guys and asked if there is a flight leader that directs their fast and furious cloud one way or the other.  I don’t think she minded this birding stop.  It helped that I didn’t pull any Gs and was able to bring the vehicle to a comfortable stop.

As we continued our journey home, we would have one more bird encounter.  I spotted a Bald Eagle flying high from left to right.  Again, I screeched to the shoulder and slammed on my brakes.  As my assistant – my wife – fumbled to get me the camera and get the sunroof open (Yes, it was only 15 degrees) so I could take the shot as it went to the right and after I got the camera on the sports setting and zoomed out, he was almost gone.  I got a couple of parting shots.  They were blurry, but I think you’ll recognize this bird.

What an eventful “birding” trip!  You have to take what you can get in Minnesota in the winter, and considering the limited time we have to bird, this was an excellent outing.  I think my wife might have even thought so….I caught her viewing the photos on the camera before she’d put it in the case for me.

Take a Look Out Our Window

We finally got our Canon PowerShot SX50 HS camera to improve the quality of bird photos we put on this blog. Today I started shooting pictures of our yard birds. The birds featured in this post come by nearly every day. In fact, a few of our regulars did not show today: the Northern Cardinal, Evan’s Eurasian Collared Dove (click HERE to read the story behind that), and the Blue Jay (He showed up, but not long enough for a picture.) Below is what we captured today. Enjoy.

Red-Bellied Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker

Black-Capped Chickadee

Dark-Eyed Junco – Slate-Colored

Dark-Eyed Junco – Oregon Race (F)

The Oregon Junco is one of my favorite visitors as we are near the very eastern edge of its winter range.  I don’t get a lot of opportunities to photograph it, so please excuse the blurry shot I took.

House Sparrow

American Goldfinch (Right)


Yes! American Goldfinches stay throughout the winter.  I didn’t know that until this winter.  Their plumage is a duller, greener color, but they are still fun to see!

White-Breasted Nuthatch

Common Redpoll

Hoary Redpoll

 This bird looks very similar to the Common Redpoll and mixes in their flocks.  It is paler or frostier in appearance (compare with the picture of the Common Redpoll above), it has a white rump, and its beak is smaller and more conical in shape.  See if you can pick out the one Hoary amongst the Commons in the last picture in this series.

And one of our pests…