A Tale of Two Hawks

One thing that’s cool about migration is that huge flocks of small birds actually show up on radar.  Sites like www.woodcreeper.com show radar maps of recent migration activity.  Last night a birder posted to the Minnesota Birding Facebook page that this morning would be good for finding birds. I asked Evan if he wanted to go out in the morning.  He sometimes declines my offers to go out birding, but he said he wanted to go this morning.

I woke up early and decided to let him sleep in, even if it meant missing the prime time for seeing birds.  In fact, I was considering not going at all, but he woke up early on his own and said, “Dad, I thought we were going birding.” So off we went.

We got to Robbins Island Park right at peak time around 7:30.  We didn’t get too far from the car before we started seeing all kinds of bird activity.  Standing in one spot we saw a good number of warblers and vireos.  The most notable vireo was a Yellow-throated Vireo.  I wasn’t quick enough to get a picture of it, but I did manage to photograph a Blackburnian Warbler and a Wilson’s Warbler.


IMG_5063The warbler activity was intense for about 15 minutes, but then it was as if someone flipped a switch.  We could hardly find anything.  So we left our stationary birding spot to go walk through the park.

We were walking down a large, grassy hill and noticed about a dozen crows on the ground downhill from us.  Just then my sandal slipped on the dewey grass sending me to the ground.  I managed to keep my binoculars, camera, and body from injury, but now I was concentrating on not slipping again instead of watching those crows.  I did notice that they flushed, and then I heard Evan holler, “That was a hawk!” I then saw that the crows were indeed mobbing and chasing a hawk.  I’ve heard other birders describe how seeing this behavior had led them to finding hawks and owls, but we’d never witnessed it ourselves. The chase was on!

The hawk tried to take refuge in a tree as the crows kept pestering it.  I was able to get a glimpse and see that it was a Broad-winged Hawk!

IMG_5066The crows kept after this hawk, chasing him out of this tree and through the park.  We weren’t far behind as we were now running along trying to get another glimpse of the action through the canopy of the trees.

IMG_5067As we followed this circus, Evan claimed to have seen a second hawk being chased by the crows.  We eventually caught up to the flock of crows at the end of a long skinny peninsula on Foot Lake.  We watched from a distance and were able to see that a hawk was still with the crows.  Shortly afterward, the crows chased the hawk back toward us, and I was able to get this flight shot.IMG_5078Though the light in the picture was bad, I saw that this hawk belonged to the Accipiter family – hawks with long tails.  The Broad-winged hawk is a Buteo – a hawk with a wide fan tail.  Evan was right – there were two hawks!  Now we were dealing with either a Sharp-shinned or Cooper’s Hawk.  We eventually lost track of this hawk without making a positive ID.

We made our way back to the other end of the park and caught up with the flock of crows again.  Once more they were dive-bombing a hawk!  Back to jogging we went. Finally we caught up to the hawk, but what was it?

IMG_5079The crows helped me out by continuing to pester the bird until it was in a good view. And we saw that it was a Cooper’s Hawk.


So a relaxed morning of looking at warblers turned into a hot pursuit of hawks.  It was exciting to see not one, but two different hawk species.  It was also fun for us to witness a mob of crows dive-bombing raptors and be a part of a thrilling chase.

A Book Review: The Warbler Guide

IMG_5039June 2012. I was driving a four-wheeler on my dad’s property when I heard a loud and beautiful bird song over the engine noise.  I had to find out what that bird was.  It didn’t take long to find the mystery bird singing its heart out on a low branch. I was awestruck with its beauty – a bright yellow cap and rusty sides on a white body.  I raced back to the house and searched through my dad’s tattered 1960s Peterson field guide.  The bird was easy to find – it was a Chestnut-sided Warbler.  At that moment a birder was born, and I went on to discover that over four dozen species of these beautiful birds known as warblers can be found in the United States.

Warblers are by far my favorite group of birds to pursue, so I was thrilled to be able to do a review of The Warbler Guide – a new, extensive field guide by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle devoted just to this family of birds.  It goes where no other field guide has gone before in terms of its coverage and revolutionary approaches for warbler identification. To give you a sense of just how comprehensive this book is, look at the photo below.  The warbler section of the Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America is paper-clipped below.  As you can see, The Warbler Guide is a significant expansion of information on these birds.


Don’t let the size of this book intimidate you.  While you may not cart it along on a birding walk, I think you’ll find it to be an invaluable resource to supplement your favorite field guide(s).  There is something in here for everyone, whether you are a complete newbie or an expert birder. As such, I will review this book as it relates to three levels of birders: Beginner, Intermediate, and Expert.

Beginning Birders

I use the term “beginning” to describe someone who can at least tell that a bird is a warbler when they see a small, hyper-active, colorful bird with a narrow, pointed beak. One of the most stunning features in this book that can help a beginner identify a warbler are the Quick Finders.  These full page photographs lay out pictures of all the warbler species next to each other from many different vantage points including: side view, 45° view, and under view.  One does not need to page through multiple pages back and forth to find the right bird because they can all be viewed at once.

Side View Quick Finder - The Warbler Guide

Side View Quick Finder – The Warbler Guide

I showed this to a seasoned birder, and his response was, “Huh, I’ve never seen them all laid out together like that.”  This feature alone is priceless as it allows a beginning birder to quickly scan these images to find one that matches whatever bird was seen. Here is the Face Quick Finder – another quick tool for figuring out which warbler you’ve seen.

Head View Quick Finder - The Warbler Guide

Face Quick Finder – The Warbler Guide

Princeton University Press has offered these Quick Finders as free downloadable files so that you can print them off and laminate them to take along when you go birding. I printed the side-view Quick Finder as a 16″ by 20″ poster for Evan’s bedroom wall. Here is the link for these files: The Warbler Guide Quick Finders.

In addition to the Quick Finders, each species has its own section in the book which are laid out in alphabetical order and not taxonomical order.  This intuitive approach is inviting to the beginner.  Additionally, each species section has a clean design that communicates key information visually.  There are loads of photos from different angles along with descriptions of key behavior. The reading is light but still gives the essential information.  Here is a sample.

Northern Parula Section - The Warbler Guide

Northern Parula Section – The Warbler Guide

What is particularly helpful is the silhouette section. It is mostly self-explanatory, but one graphic in particular deserves a lot of praise.  Note the green/black tree and bush.  This indicates the vertical level of where this particular warbler is found.  Until I went on a birding walk with a naturalist, I didn’t know that some species of warblers are found on the ground, others in the understory of the forest, and still others in the canopy.  You need to know where to look to find a certain bird, and this graphic quickly shows you. You have to carefully read other field guides to get this same information.

IMG_5040Another feature I like for beginners is the check mark that you notice above.  If you see that particular feature on a mystery bird, you can safely use that alone to correctly identify the bird.

Intermediate Birders

I would classify myself in this group.  I know all my male warblers by sight and some females.  I know several songs and have many more to go.  So here are some features that might be beneficial to other birders at this same level.

I really like the Quick Finders that focus on the underside of the bird.  Most of the time you see warblers from underneath as they flit about in the trees through the leaves.  Often you will just see a butt shot for a couple seconds at most.  I have found that I take lots of photographs and identify birds later.  Until The Warbler Guide came along, I had no idea that the underside of the tail is unique to each species of warbler.  It is now possible to make a positive ID just with a view of the underside of the tail.

Underside Quick Finder - The Warbler Guide

Under View Quick Finder – The Warbler Guide

Undertail Visual Finders - The Warbler Guide

Undertail Visual Finders – The Warbler Guide

I put these visual finders to the test the other day when I was out birding.  Fall migration is underway, and the warblers are on the move.  In the picture below, I thought I might have seen a Northern Parula.

IMG_4960I compared the tail patterns, and my photo of the tail did not match that of the Northern Parula.  However, I did find this tail pattern to be that of a female American Redstart. I went to the American Redstart section to find more photos of the females, and I saw that the details were lining up with those on my photo.

Here is a fleeting shot of some warbler I saw that same morning.  I know there are many warblers that are yellow underneath, so I couldn’t safely identify it.

IMG_4972From the Quick Finders, there was only one bird that had a tail like this – the Yellow Warbler.  In fact, the picture of the tail had the signature check mark which indicates this feature alone is enough to make a safe identification.

In this next photo, I thought for sure I had the Pine Warbler.  But checking against the under tail pictures, I saw that a Pine Warbler’s tail is white underneath.  So what was it? Fortunately, the under tail visual finders also show pictures of non-warblers.  This helped me determine that this bird was the Yellow-throated Vireo.



In addition to the Under View Quick Finders, I also loved the migration and range maps.  You can see a separate map for spring migration routes and fall migration routes.  Additionally, you are given a time reference chart to know about when during migration you will see these birds: early, middle, late.


Expert Birders


Sonograms of American Redstart Songs

I am far from being a member of this class, but still I can recognize what they might appreciate in this book.  One of the incredible features of this book is the emphasis placed on the auditory component of bird identification.  The book introduces a system to differentiate songs, flight calls, and chip notes by their elements.  This is enhanced visually by sonograms of every possible sound a warbler could make.  To hear these sounds, you can buy The Warbler Guide Song and Call Companion and play any of the 1,000 audio files that are described in the book. Not being an auditory learner, this system is currently beyond my ability.  I foresee using this for when I really want to learn a target warbler’s song well in order to find the bird.  For example, the Hooded Warbler is my top-priority warbler for next summer, so I will be sure to learn all its vocalizations before I go out.

Something else that advanced birders will appreciate is that this guide helps to age and sex warblers and provides key photos in order to do that.



Connecticut Warbler - The Warbler Guide

Connecticut Warbler – The Warbler Guide

This book is a must-have for a birder at any level.  It is ground-breaking in its visual and auditory approaches to warbler identification. Though the book is big, it has a very simplistic, inviting feel on each of its pages.  There is a nugget of knowledge for any birder, and everyone will appreciate the more than 1,000 incredible photos.

The only thing that could make this book even better would be photos and descriptions of typical habitat during the breeding season.  Most birders in the U.S. only see these birds during migration, so it is understandable why this information is not included.  But some of us like to go on the hunt for these birds during the summer months when they are on territory, and that information would be helpful.  Another feature that could have enhanced the book would be a state-by-state cheat sheet of where one could find certain species with relative ease.  For instance, Oberg Mountain in Minnesota has been a reliable place for decades to find the rare-regular Black-throated Blue Warbler.  I’m afraid, though, that the inclusion of that information would make this book even bigger. Perhaps, though, there will someday be companion book containing that information that will be just as awesome as this one.

Disclaimer: This review expresses the honest opinions of Josh Wallestad at A Boy Who Cried Heron.  The Warbler Guide was provided at no cost in exchange for this review.  A Boy Who Cried Heron received no monetary compensation from Princeton University Press or the authors.


Warblers Redux

For you birders that read this blog and live at our same latitude in west central Minnesota or further south, I have some great news: the warblers are in the midst of fall migration. I have been out birding in the early morning hours the last couple days while my family has been camping at Sibley State Park, and each morning has been action-packed.  I birded for nearly an hour the other morning just staying in one spot, and there was no shortage of warblers to look at.  I was brought back to that magical day in late May when the trees were dripping with warbler migrants on their way north.  Those of us who do not live in the nothern reaches of this country only get to see most of these birds when they pass through during spring or fall migration, so right now is a real special time!

I fully realize that many readers of this blog may not be birders and may not know a warbler from a vireo. For that reason, I thought I’d do a photo post of warblers from a spring and summer of finding them and chasing them.  I hope these pictures will open your eyes to this amazing family of birds that do not come to bird feeders as they are insect eaters.  The beauty is astonishing to say the least.  I am also doing this post as a preface to the review I’ll be writing on a new, exhaustive field guide I was given by Princeton University Press called The Warbler Guide by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle.


Yellow-throated Warbler


Cerulean Warbler




Northern Parula


Blackburnian Warbler

Nashville Warbler

Nashville Warbler

Black-throated Blue Warbler

Black-throated Blue Warbler


Black-throated Green Warbler

American Redstart

American Redstart


Yellow Warbler

Common Yellowthroat

Common Yellowthroat


Yellow-rumped Warbler

Cape May Warbler

Cape May Warbler

Tennessee Warbler

Tennessee Warbler

Northern Waterthrush

Northern Waterthrush

Blackpoll Warbler

Blackpoll Warbler

Chestnut-sided Warbler (my spark bird)

Chestnut-sided Warbler (my spark bird)

Golden-winged Warbler

Golden-winged Warbler

Wilson's Warbler

Wilson’s Warbler

Magnolia Warbler

Magnolia Warbler


Canada Warbler

Black-and-White Warbler

Black-and-White Warbler

If you’re a birder, I hope these photos get you excited for migration.  If you’re not a birder, maybe these gems of the forest will spark an interest.  Whether you’re a serious birder or not, we’d love you to comment below on what you’re favorite warbler is and/or which one you’d most like to see!  Stay tuned for my upcoming review of The Warbler Guide.

The Cottonwood Wastewater Treatment Ponds – A Beautiful Place to Bird

IMG_4873Today was one of those days where the kids were driving us crazy, and we had to do something.  Plugging into our individual technologies all day was not an option.  So we decided to take a little day trip down to Lyon County’s Garvin Park.  Evan and I discovered this park when we chased the Cerulean Warbler in July.  On the way to Garvin is the town of Cottonwood which has surrounding marshes, lakes, and poop ponds that are known for its shorebirds.  The Cottonwood wastewater treatment ponds were also the location of a reported Western Kingbird – one that I’ve had my eye on for some time.

Driving around the poop ponds was a lot of fun.  Unlike other wastewater treatment facilities I’ve visited, the gate for this one was open.  Most have “No Trespassing” signs and have their perimeters secured with a fence.  This place was very inviting.  There were several of these large, perfectly rectangular ponds.  We were able to drive around them on the dikes that separated them.  Here’s a shot of Evan riding and checking out the rocks below – the perfect hiding spot for many of these shorebirds.

IMG_4878These tiny birds hide in plain sight as many are seen only when we flush them with the vehicle.  Here is a Least Sandpiper.

IMG_4879This next one was a new bird for us – the Semipalmated Sandpiper.

IMG_4859I really like this next shot because it captures three species: (top to bottom) Killdeer, Pectoral Sandpiper, Spotted Sandpiper.

IMG_4866Here is another shot of the Semipalmated Sandpiper.

IMG_4868And another of a Least Sandpiper.

IMG_4872I really enjoyed the beauty of the water at the poop ponds.  The blues and greens were amazing, and it didn’t stink!  Well, that is until we drove by one of the ponds which was very nasty.  We struck out on the Western Kingbird, but we did get another lifer when we stopped by a different marsh – the Solitary Sandpiper.  He was all by himself.  Go figure.

IMG_4883We finally went down to Garvin where the kids could enjoy this:

IMG_4923The kids had a great time playing on the equipment and running around, and we all enjoyed grilling out and eating a picnic supper at a quiet park.

IMG_4919IMG_4906We left and stopped by Cottonwood one last time to look for the Western Kingbirds.  Right when we got there I spotted two larger birds on a wire.  As I was reaching for the binoculars, one flew away and Evan calmly said that it looked like a Blue Grosbeak!  I got the binoculars on the second one before it was gone and confirmed his sighting by viewing the female of the pair!    I had seen a report that a pair was seen down here last week, so it wasn’t a complete surprise. It is still a very, very good bird to see in Minnesota.  We saw the Blue Grosbeak in June, but it was no less thrilling to see tonight.

The Spotted? Sandpiper

Until tonight, Evan and I had not been out birding since the night he got his 200th life bird last week.  We’ve been busy around here doing projects, going to the county fair, and celebrating our anniversary.  I could see that Evan was logging a lot of hours in front of the TV, so I decided we needed to get back out into nature tonight.

There’s always an excitment about heading out birding.  You never know what surprise awaits you.  I’ve heard people liken this sport to one big Easter egg hunt.  It is continual hope and adventure all rolled into one.  Tonight was no different as we were eager to get to the Atwater poop ponds for some potential migrating shorebirds.

The scene was very similar to last week: Canada Geese, Mallards, Franklin’s Gulls, and Killdeer. But this time there was no Red-necked Phalarope.  Apparently our discovery of that bird last week was pretty unique as only a few have been reported across the state so far this year. I did get excited tonight when I thought I found a pair of new shorebirds. After studying the field guide, though, it turns out they were Spotted Sandpipers, a bird we already had.  That white wedge on the shoulder of the bird was the key field mark that solidified the ID.

IMG_4816But where are the spots? This bird, like many shorebirds, looks different in the fall than the spring (Ornithologically speaking, fall starts the first of August).  Here is a picture of when we saw the Spotted Sandpiper in early June.  Here its name makes sense.


Not a new life bird, but we added to our birding knowledge tonight.  Shorebirds are tough to identify as it is, and then you have to consider that many look different during the fall than the spring.  There’s always so much to learn! It was also good for Evan to see this bird tonight because he took great liberty in counting the one in the picture above for his life list even though he didn’t actually see it.  He claimed it counted since he was along on the outing.

On our way home we stopped by another spot for shorebirds.  It wasn’t a hotbed of activity.  We did find these Siamese Least Sandpipers, though.

IMG_4825Nothing new tonight.  That’s okay.  It felt good to get out on a beautiful night.

Welcome to the 200 Club, Evan!

Today I was thinking about doing something special to try to get Evan’s 200th bird.  I decided we’d take about an hour-long drive down to Cottonwood to look for a Western Kingbird and possibly some new shorebirds at the surrounding lakes and marshes. Just before we left, however, I saw I had missed a call from Joel.  I gave him a call back, and he said he found a few Buff-breasted Sandpipers in a field just a few miles west of Willmar.  I had gathered from recent posts to MOU-net that this bird had started to migrate, so it had been on our radar.  Little did I know that it is a significant bird, though I should have been clued in when Steve was trying to get ahold of me while I was still on the phone with Joel.  Steve told me he left work to go out and see it quick.  Huh, this must be a good bird.

This field now became a must-stop before we headed to Cottonwood, especially since Joel said there were also Semipalmated Plovers, another would-be life bird.  We could potentially hit the big number without going very far at all. We got out to the field where this muddy area with a couple of puddles and surrounding grass was the hotspot.

IMG_4756Scanning the mud and the surrounding field, we could see lots of birds. I started taking pictures of anything that wasn’t a Killdeer.  I really do not know shorebirds, so I rely on the photos to help with my identification.  I was certain we had to have something new, but confirmation would have to come when I could study the pictures.  At one point a larger shorebird flew in – it was the Upland Sandpiper!  I saw one earlier this summer, but Evan needed it for his list.  Lifer #199.

IMG_4736Upland SandpiperThis was a great find.  We missed on it at Blue Mounds State Park and Felton Prairie. Hopefully #200 was on my camera roll waiting to be identified.  There was so much to look at, but we had to get going to run an errand and go out for a celebratory supper before going to Cottonwood.

IMG_4719While in the car I started going through my pictures and scouring the field guide.  As desperate as I was for something new, my pictures were just turning up two shorebirds besides the ever-common Killdeer: the Least Sandpiper and the Pectoral Sandpiper. We’ve seen both.  There was no Buff-breasted Sandpiper. Here are two pictures of the Least Sandpiper, a tiny shorebird about the size of a sparrow.  They are often referred to as “peeps.”  They’re kind of cute.

IMG_4711IMG_4735Here is the Pectoral Sandpiper – yesterday’s new life bird.

IMG_4724So we were sitting at #199 while we prematurely celebrated by eating out at Evan’s restaurant of choice, Burger King.  The evening was coming to a close leaving very little time to go to Cottonwood.  I decided we’d head back to this muddy field to try one more time for the Buff-breasted Sandpiper instead of making the long drive.  Maybe there’d be something else too.

Arriving there we saw the scene was pretty much the same: Killdeer, Least Sandpipers, and Pectoral Sandpipers.  Bummer.  As we were watching, though, the cavalry arrived in the form of Ron Erpelding.  Ron is a well-known birder around the state who’s been at this sport for over 50 years.  Apparently he had heard from Joel too.  Ron set up his Swarovski spotting scope and went on the hunt for the target in the short grass far beyond the mudflat.  Evan and I weren’t concentrating on the right habitat.  Within minutes, Ron located three of the Buff-breasted Sandpipers and let us look through his scope to see them.  Lifer #200 for Evan! They were way out there, but I managed to scratch up a recognizable photo.

IMG_4754There’s always so much to learn about birding.  Ron taught us about habitat types for this bird and other shorebirds.  He also told me that this was a good bird to get – that Joel had only found them one other time in the county over a decade ago. Wow!  Here I was kind of bummed that #200 was a shorebird and not something spectacular like a new warbler or other colorful songbird. With this find, however, I’m now starting to catch the shorebird bug. The birding addiction is in full-effect.

Not only did Ron put us on to the Buff-breasted Sandpiper, but pointed to some small birds flying overhead, peeping as they went, and told us they were American Pipits. Lifer #201 for Evan.  It was a cool bonus. The road to 300 has started.

After Ron left, I moved to a different location to try to get a photo of the Buff-breasted.  It was fun to be able to find this one myself even if it was still way out in the field.


These birds blend in very well.  As Ron said, when they stop moving they are tough to see because of their buffy color and the habitat they love.  Can you find it in the picture below?  The white ones are Killdeer.
IMG_4785With three lifers today, Evan crossed the monumental threshold of 200.  The next 100 will be tougher and slower to come by, but you can bet we’ll be hacking away at it.  For those of you following the giveaway contest, Julie had the closest guess of August 11 and has won the Kaufman field guide.  Julie, we have your contact information, but we need you to acknowledge your win by commenting on this post.  Thanks for playing the game, everyone.  Look for another giveaway at #250.

Celebrating #200 with ice cream…

Evan 200

Much like celebrating #100 last spring…

Evan Blizzard


The fun thing about birding is that birders are never not birding.  A birder is very in tune with the sights and sounds around him and can easily find a target bird to go after and a place to go birding anywhere he goes.  That was the case this weekend as we traveled to the Twin Cities to spend some time with my sister on her last day in the country before she and her family flew home to Nigeria.  We stayed at a hotel in Brooklyn Park, which was near a reported location of the Western Kingbird in Ramsey.  So, naturally we drove by the spot to see if we could find it.  Birding on the busy, divided U.S. Highway 10 was scary.  I think I pulled over once to look at a bird, but that was enough. We may have seen it, but we’ll never know.  We’ll have to find that bird in a safer location.

Being in the northwest metro also put us near the Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge.  I’ve seen many reports from here, so we decided to drive the Wildlife Tour Loop.  I was hoping for an Eastern Towhee and maybe even a Henslow’s Sparrow.  It was a beautiful drive in this completely undeveloped land, but we didn’t see any new birds.

We continued our travels home, and I held out hope for a Western Kingbird on Hwy. 10 in a couple different spots where they’d been reported.  We still didn’t find any.  So much for good incidental birding on this trip.  But then I remembered all the poop ponds and flooded ditchs by Paynesville – we might still have a shot at something!  I pulled off the highway and got out to look at one of the ponds that looked ripe for shorebirds with its exposed mudflats.  I scanned the landscape for anything different.  It didn’t take long to pick out some small brown shorebirds that looked promising.  I didn’t know what they were, so I took lots of pictures to help with the ID when we got home.  I was right that this was a new one for us – the Pectoral Sandpiper!IMG_4672There were about ten of them scurrying about with a couple Killdeer mixed in.

IMG_4679Two birds are all that stand in the way to the monumental 200 for Evan. Keep watching to see what they are and who’s going to win the Kaufman field guide!