The Red-headed Woodpecker!!

On Tuesday I woke up early to try to see the Bell’s Vireo and get a picture of it.  When Evan and I went on Monday we could only hear it as it was embedded deep inside the shrubs.  With a great deal of patience and a fair amount of wood ticks, I was able to see the Bell’s Vireo several times while out by myself.  The problem, though, was that I’d only see it when it would fly from one shrub to the next.  Once inside a shrub, forget about trying to find it.  I was motivated to get a picture of this one because it is a county record.  By the way, its location is no longer a secret as Randy posted it to MOU-net tonight.

After nearly two hours of chasing the bird, all I could come up with was this butt-shot. Can you find the bird?  If you can believe it, this was a good viewing for me.IMG_4080It was a gorgeous morning even if my pants and feet were soaked from the dew of the tall grass.  I added a life bird, the Willow Flycatcher, by making the identification from its vocalization.  Sound is the best way to tell the five Empid flycatchers apart since they basically all look alike.  His “Fitz-bew!” call was very distinctive and heard often from several different birds. I wasn’t worried about Evan getting this lifer.  There appeared to be many of these birds; it’s just a matter of bringing him out there to get it.


I also couldn’t resist this shot of the Yellow Warbler.  I never tire of seeing them.

IMG_4083I finally gave up on the Bell’s and decided to head home.  A few days prior, Joel had told me about a Red-headed Woodpecker that he saw just a few miles from this location. This woodpecker was a major target bird for our life lists.  It has an absolutely stunning appearance.  To make it even more unique, the bird’s population is declining due to European Starlings taking over their nesting cavities.  Therefore this bird is becoming increasingly hard to find.  When we went to Blue Mounds State Park, this bird was target #2 right behind the Blue Grosbeak.  Although we hit our primary target that trip, we missed on this one.

As I drove down the road to the residence of the sighting, I didn’t think I’d see the bird. After all, that sighting was a few days ago.  But within a minute or two of being on that road, I spotted a woodpecker on a telephone pole.  I quickly pulled over to get out and look.  No bird.  I figured it just slipped to the back side of the pole.  I was right because soon the bird flew across the road and perched on top of a post only 100 feet away.  It was the Red-headed Woodpecker indeed!  To make it even better, the sun was at my back and the early morning light on the bird was incredible.  Camera time.  I hit the power button and saw the message, “Charge the battery.” You’re kidding.  I couldn’t even get one picture of this amazing bird in this perfect set-up.  All I could do was just watch through the binoculars until it disappeared into a grove a minute later.

This was a bitter-sweet sighting.  The thrill of finding this good lifer was quickly replaced by the depressing fact that Evan wasn’t able to see it too.  That stole the joy I first had. Even Melissa winced when I told her that I found the Red-headed Woodpecker. Because this was such a good bird, I decided not to tell Evan.  This was no LBB (little brown bird). He would have been crushed.

This morning I again woke up early and went out to try to photograph the Bell’s.  After nearly an hour-and-a-half, I gave up without a single picture. Plenty of sightings, but no picture.  Once again I left and traveled down the road that held the woodpecker hoping I’d see it and could race home to get Evan.  No luck.

When I got home, I had to hop in the car again to run the kids into daycare for a few hours.  There was no hurry to get there, so on a whim I decided to take a huge detour to travel the woodpecker road again.  I’m so glad I did.  Shortly after turning onto the road, we spotted the Red-headed Woodpecker on a telephone pole!  It flew into the neighboring yard and back to the poles again, so we got plenty of good views.  Though the light wasn’t as good as yesterday, I was able to get some decent pictures. I hope you can forgive all the pictures; I tend to photo-bomb a great bird when we see it for the first time.  IMG_4101




IMG_4092IMG_4095It was such a relief that Evan got the bird.  Now my joy was complete, and it actually felt like I was seeing it for the first time too.

While I was taking pictures, my phone rang.  Coincidentally it was Joel.  He called to say we could go look at a Red-shouldered Hawk that was nesting at his friend’s house. Joel knew from checking our life lists on the blog that we still needed that one.  After photographing the Red-headed Woodpecker some more, we went north to meet Joel.

As we drove I couldn’t believe our luck.  We saw an amazing life bird today, and now we were about to get another!  Once on site, we weren’t able to locate the nest.  Bummer.  I wasn’t worried, though. It will just be a matter of time before Joel finds the nest and calls us back.  We also made a quick stop to look for the Grasshopper Sparrow – another bird that Joel knew we still needed.  That bird wasn’t showing today either.  I’m okay with that.  We had a monumental morning, and these other missed birds just give us something to hunt for in the future.

The Bell’s Vireo – A Top Secret Search

While en route to Fargo last Saturday, Randy texted me to let me know that he found a Bell’s Vireo. The significance of this sighting goes beyond a “good” bird or a potential lifer for us. Rather, this was the first observation of this bird showing up in our county – ever.  We are beyond its normal range but close enough where one could slip in.  This bird was on Randy’s list of birds he wanted to find for the county records, and he finally found one.

Because Randy works for the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas, a bird conservation project that seeks to document every species that breeds in the state, he needed to establish that the Bell’s Vireo was breeding in our county.  Such a determination would come from multiple observations over a period of days.  Randy did not post this sighting on MOU-Net out of fear that multiple birders would flock to see this rarity.  Birders, in their zest to see such a bird, have been known to play the bird’s song on electronic devices in order to attract it. This could ultimately cause the bird to move away from the area.  Randy’s plan was to post the sighting after five days, but he let a handful of us know about it right away, trusting we’d be mindful of our interaction with the bird.

Today I took a break from working around the house to take Evan out to find the Bell’s Vireo.  Right away when we got on site, we heard it singing.  We tried our hardest to see it, but it moved around often and would sing from new locations.  We never did get our eyes on it.  Evan wants to count it anyway.  Considering the rarity of the bird, I think we just might.

In our search today we did get a new life bird, the Savannah Sparrow.


And then Evan picked up his Clay-colored Sparrow lifer.  I found mine in our yard over a month ago.  Evan gets upset when I find birds he doesn’t, so for the last month he’s claimed multiple times he’s seen one.  He’s been trying awfully hard to turn all kinds of birds into the Clay-colored Sparrow.  He can finally put that bird to rest after this morning.


We’ll count the Bell’s Vireo on our life list because it is a special sighting and we did locate it by sound, but I’ll be heading out tomorrow to try to get that picture.  Bell’s or not, it was really cool that Evan got two bonus lifers out of our brief search today.

Father’s Day: Fargo, Friends, and Felton Prairie IBA

Fargo.  Not exactly a birding destination.  But we weren’t going there for birds.  Rather, we headed to the great state of North Dakota this weekend to visit my old college roommate, John, and his wife, Sarah.  It had been nearly two years since we’d seen them, so we were excited to make the trip.

Travel always affords the possibility of new birds.  However, nothing really jumped out at me as being a Fargo specialty that we couldn’t get back home.  I considered subscribing to North Dakota’s rare bird list serve so I could ask ND birders about what we might get close to the city.  As I debated whether or not to do this and deal with another state’s worth of bird emails to sift through and delete, the Northwest Minnesota RBA (Rare Bird Alert) came to my inbox.  Normally I read through this summary of recent sightings rather quickly since this area of the state is a long way from home. This time, though, I read it carefully and looked at maps to see if anything was close to Fargo.

There was a report from Clay County which is the MN county right next to Fargo.  The report mentioned the Loggerhead Shrike which is a threatened Minnesota species that we have never seen.  While we want to see all species, this one was on our short-list. This particular bird was found on Co. Rd. 108 at Felton Prairie.  Felton Prairie? What was that – a town, a wildlife management area?  I Googled it and discovered that the Felton Prairie Complex is a cluster of land tracts that belong to Clay County, the Nature Conservancy, and the state of Minnesota.  The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has designated it as an IBA (Important Birding Area).  That’s the same classification as the Sax-Zim Bog! I discovered that many rarities can be found here – Chestnut-Collared Longspurs, Greater Prairie Chickens, Loggerhead Shrikes, Swainson’s Hawks, Ferruginous Hawks, Burrowing Owls, and more!  The more I read, the more excited I got to go here for some side-trip birding.

I knew Randy would know Felton Prairie, so I hit him up before our trip for advice on how to attack this place.  He basically said to just concentrate on the Chestnut-Collared Longspurs as there are only a few that nest in the state, and this is about the only place to find them reliably.  He gave me his map and told me what road was the hot zone. Armed with this knowledge and a license to go birding from my wife (it was Father’s Day after all), we were set to go to Fargo.

Fargo was an absolute blast.  John and Sarah were great hosts who spoiled and entertained the kids.  One of the things we got to do was go to the zoo in Fargo.  Evan was able to determine some exotic bird was a crane (from Asia) even before we read the sign, and he was arguing he should get to count the Cattle Egrets we saw even though they were in an exhibit that was covered with a net.  I told him life list birds need to be wild ones. Evan and I did determine, however, that we saw the Brewer’s Blackbird which was there on its own free will.  It was a shaky ID, but we’ll count it for now and hope for a more definitive one later.

Later that night we were treated to watch a different kind of bird – the Fargo-Moorhead Redhawks minor league baseball team.  We all had a really fun time at the game.  The whole family even made the jumbo-tron!  I don’t think we can add “Hawkeye” to our life lists, but the kids were super excited to high-five him and get his autograph. Nice photography, John!Hawkeye

After parting company with our friends today, Melissa and the kids took me to Gander Mountain to pick up my Father’s Day gift – a birding vest!  Now Evan and I will match and be set for more adventures afield.

On our way home we finally got out to Felton Prairie.  I drove down Co. Rd. 108 to look for the Loggerhead Shrike.  As we crept along, a large, loud bird startled us all as it flew right over the road, back and forth.  The Marbled Godwit!  This was an advertised special of this area, so it was on our radar and made identification easy.  It was very nice to get this life bird.  There were actually two of them.

IMG_4022We traveled a mile or so to the end of Co. Rd. 108 where the Loggerhead Shrike is known to frequent.  Nothing.  Nuts.  Well, it was time to head to a ranch road running through private land that is nicknamed Longspur Road.  We were after the Chestnut-Collared Longspur.  It was extremely windy today, so there wasn’t a great deal of birds to be found.  We were delighted to see several more Marbled Godwits floating in the air as they flew into this fierce wind.



We got to see lots of Bobolinks and Western Meadowlarks, but none of the other Felton Prairie specialties were showing.  It was time to make the long trek home.  I couldn’t let the Loggerhead Shrike go, though.  They are declining in numbers and are very difficult to find.  Co. Rd. 108 has been a known hot-spot for them for years.  So, I decided to drive the 5 miles back to that spot and check it one more time.

I made the right decision.  I spotted a bird on the telephone wire by the road and saw that it was our target!  It quickly flew far, far away.  No pictures, but we saw it.  We continued down to the end of the road where I found some more birds on the wire.  One looked like it could be another Loggerhead Shrike.  Sure enough, it was!  I parked far away so I didn’t spook it in order to get a quick picture to document this sighting.  IMG_4054The quality of the picture was poor, so I tried to inch the vehicle closer to get a better shot.  This bird didn’t like that and flew away, far out of sight.  Even though we don’t have a good photo, it was still very cool to see not one, but two Loggerhead Shrikes! This was another summer target bird checked off.

It was a great trip and a great day.  We saw some good friends, secured a couple of notable lifers, and got to hang out as a family.  It doesn’t get much better than that.