If you haven’t set out a feeder for the winter birds, there’s still plenty of time. You may get some of these colorful visitors at your yard.
Last spring one of the first migrants to come through was the Golden-crowned Kinglet, and I would see images of them posted to the Minnesota Birding Facebook Group. I really wanted to see one. I asked Randy where to look, and he replied my yard would be as good of a place as any. So all through spring migration we kept an eye out but never did find one.
Through the summer we got distracted with many other bird chases. Fall migration also kept us on the lookout for good birds, both new and old. Then a couple weeks ago Joel emailed alerting us that he had two Golden-crowned Kinglets in his yard. He went on to say that we should be able to find them easily if we birded certain locations in the area. So went birding immediately. And we didn’t find them.
Then last weekend we took a trip to northern Minnesota with a one-night detour to Minneapolis. The metro was the perfect place to look. Many birders in the Minnesota Facebook Birding Group said we should be able to look anywhere and find them easily. But we didn’t. We birded Westwood Nature Center in St. Louis Park and around Lake Harriet in Minneapolis. Nothing.
While we visited family in northern Minnesota, I continued the search since these birds reside there in the summer and move south in October. While up north, Steve texted me saying he found some in Willmar. Doggone it. I wouldn’t be home for a couple more days. I was always just one step behind these birds.
I held out hope as we headed south because we cut through the Sax-Zim Bog – a phenomenal birding hotspot where reports of Golden-crowned Kinglets had recently surfaced. No luck.
Once back in Willmar, I checked Steve’s location at the MN West Technology Campus. Not a sight or sound of these birds. Argh. Then I ended up getting busy with the work week and didn’t get out birding until Saturday morning. I asked Evan the night before if he wanted to go with me the next morning. He said he wanted to sleep and stay in his pajamas all day. That was fine with me; the kid had a busy week and was getting sick. Plus he has been on several fruitless searches with me for this bird.
My first stop of the morning at MN West yielded nothing. Then I decided to head to the cemetery by Foot Lake. On the way I got a text from Randy saying that he just had some Golden-crowned Kinglets in his yard! In fact he only noticed them because they hit his window. Coincidentally I was two blocks from his house when I got the text. I wheeled in right away. Randy and I looked around his yard and didn’t even see a single bird. You’ve got to be kidding! My timing was impeccable; how could they not have been there?
I moved on to the cemetery by Foot Lake. After driving all the roads in the cemetery I finally spotted some bird movement – and it looked like the behavior of a kinglet! Sure enough, it was the Golden-crowned Kinglet! And there were several! They were all foraging in a spruce tree and a juniper tree. I got out of the car to photograph them, and they didn’t care I was there. In fact, one was in a tree branch just a few feet in front of my face.
These birds move quickly and never sit still. They constantly flit their wings and hover at the ends of branches. It was very fun to watch.
What a rush! I sent out a flurry of texts. One was to Melissa to ask Evan if he wanted me to bring him out here. She responded that he didn’t. The rest were texts to my birding friends who appreciate conquering a nemesis bird and getting a lifer. Some of the responses I got were:
And no, those weren’t from Melissa, Marin, and Evan. The response in the Minnesota Facebook Birding Group was also very positive. It’s a good thing we birders support each other in our crazy, obsessive quests.
Later in the day Evan and I had to go back to Willmar to get haircuts. Melissa checked us in to Great Clips online and said we had a half-hour wait. What to do with the extra time? I drove Evan through the cemetery to take a quick look. And we refound one of the Golden-crowned Kinglets! Evan got his lifer today too! Even though he didn’t show any interest earlier in the day, he said, “Yay, my 204th life bird!” His count might be off, but it’s close.
There are currently no more nemesis birds for us. That will change, I have no doubt. It is a bit sad when a nemesis bird is found because the thrill of the hunt is half the fun.
Birding has slowed down a lot, and life has been busy. Needless to say, we don’t get out much. We have had some fun yard activity recently, though. I was thrilled to see the male Oregon Junco drop by our feeder this past week. Excuse the bad photo as it was taken through a dirty window near dark.
We had this western stray show up last February which I reported on eBird.org, a world-wide database of bird sightings. With my new sighting of the Oregon, I decided I’d look up Oregon Junco sightings for Minnesota on eBird. There were not many for our state in the history of eBird. I noticed, though, that my sighting was not showing up on the distribution map. Any rare bird is automatically flagged in the system to be reviewed by an expert before being added to the map. I hadn’t checked on the status of my sighting since I entered it in February. I was annoyed that it still wasn’t showing up. I hadn’t even gotten a rejection notice from eBird. So I emailed them. eBird apologized for the mistake, reviewed my sighting with photo documentation, and subsequently approved it. They also encouraged me to submit my October sightings as well. So I did, and now our yard is one of the few documented locations of the Oregon Junco in Minnesota.
This evening I had another sighting of an Oregon Junco, but this time it was the female! I have submitted this to eBird and am currently waiting on their review. Here is a picture of her. Notice the gray hood and the tan sides and brown body. The male has a black hood with a richer chestnut color all over.
Here are some better photos of the male Oregon Junco from last winter.
The other day as I was watching for more opportunities to photograph and document this cool visitor, I spied a different-looking bird on our feeder. I recognized it instantly as being the female Purple Finch! A new yard bird! The white-eyebrow is the distinguishing field mark that sets it apart from the nearly identical female House Finch. Evan was right with me when I saw it, and he quickly got excited at this “new” bird. We got our lifer last May when we went to Brainerd chasing the Painted Bunting. Even so, it was still really cool to have one come to the yard. Hopefully we get a male next time.
How about you? Are your feeders full of seeds and ready for the winter birds? You just never know what kind of cool birds will show up.
Joel emailed today saying he had two Golden-crowned Kinglets in his yard. This was a bird that Evan and I have not yet seen, and I had asked Joel to keep me in the loop on any he found. Joel suggested going birding around places with water to try to find these kinglets, such as the cemetery on Foot Lake, Berguist Nature Area, and Robbins Island Park.
We started at the cemetery. It was pretty dead there (pun intended), but we did see some bird activity. We never bumped into our target, though. Evan spent more time reading grave markers and asking questions about where bodies were buried. He was creeped out when I told him we were walking above buried people. What struck me while walking through the cemetery was the number of recent dates on tombstones; death is a constant. It was particularly sobering to see that one man was born just four days before me. I was reminded of the brevity of life and the importance of living to the fullest. That’s why I am thankful for this birding hobby to be able to spend so much quality time with Evan and do spur-of-the-moment adventures. That said, when I’m gone I do not want a laser-etched image of binoculars or some bird on my tombstone. I found those type of stones to be incredibly sad.
Despite the numerous reminders of our expiration, the cemetery itself was absolutely beautiful as the trees were adorned in beautiful fall colors against the backdrop of the bright blue sky.
After leaving the cemetery we stopped at Berguist Nature Area for a quick stroll down the loop path. There wasn’t much bird activity at first, but just before we left I spotted a Blue-headed Vireo! This bird has eluded us continually. I was fortunate to see it over a month ago and another time since, but it took me five months to find it. Evan has never seen it. Additionally I have never gotten a picture. Fortunately on this day I was able to point it out to Evan so he could add it to his list. I also got a recognizable photo of this bird. I’d still like a better one.
We saw many other great species of birds at Berguist including Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Wood Ducks, Eastern Phoebe, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, White-throated Sparrows, Lincoln’s Sparrows, and a Song Sparrow. I couldn’t get over how much activity there was on this fall day. No, we didn’t get our target, but it was nice that Evan got another lifer. Plus it was an absolutely gorgeous day to be out.
“A steam locomotive!” Melissa hollered when we both heard the old-timey hollow whistle of a train. It’s a sound we all know well from TV and movies, so I just figured the kids were watching some show on the iPad. I didn’t realize it was an actual locomotive cruising down the railroad tracks near our house. “I read about this last night – quick, take Evan outside to see it go by!” she yelled. Evan and I hustled out the door and looked toward the tracks only to see two big puffs of smoke coming from the west. The train was headed away. We missed it.
Just then Melissa burst out the door with Marin in her arms. “Did you see it?”
“No, we just missed it.”
“Do you have your keys?”
“Yeah, let’s go!”
In a frenzy the four of us piled into the car, and we were off, racing out of the neighborhood and nearly taking corners on two wheels. We got onto the highway that runs parallel to the tracks and were straining to see where it was. Unfortunately traffic was moving slow because the lead car was running right beside the locomotive giving himself a good view while the rest of us couldn’t see it. Apparently everyone else knew what was going on today because at every train crossing there were lots of cars with people standing out in the rain, hoping to catch a glimpse of this old train in operation.
We finally got near the locomotive as it slowed down in Willmar where it was stopping at the Old Depot. There were people everywhere, and most of them were men past the age of 60. People were driving wrecklessly as they jockeyed to catch a view. I never would have imagined being cut off by an 80-year-old man.
We were able to find a place to park. We were a little bummed that neither of us had a cell phone along to take pictures with until I realized that I had my birding camera in the car. So we were able to get out for some fun pictures.
The locomotive then detached from the old passenger train it was pulling. We determined (after chasing it) that it decoupled from the train to get on another track, turn around, and attach to the other end to pull the train back east.
It was an exciting chase. I even told Melissa that it was just as much fun as chasing after a good bird. This was a really fun, unexpected outing on this day. I’m sure my dad, who is a train buff, would have loved to see it. He would have been even more excited to learn this locomotive was built in June 1944, two months before he was born.
Since we knew that train was heading back east, we went on ahead of it to an old bridge that goes over the tracks to get a really good view of the train passing under us. We got tired of waiting and decided to head back home on the country roads. That’s when we started to see some bird action. There were numerous Vesper Sparrows on the roads. But then we saw a bigger bird fly up on to a wire. It was a Western Meadowlark – another reminder of my dad as that’s his favorite bird. These birds are in decline and are always a delight to see. We were able to get a few pictures of this guy before finally heading home.
So we went after a train on a lark, and we ended up finding a lark too. It was a memorable adventure.
Hopefully we haven’t lost all our devoted readers to this month-long hiatus from blogging. No, the birding hasn’t stopped, but the uptick in life activity along with the decline in birding activity has provided little opportunity to write. Fall migration has been slow, but we’ve still managed to see some good birds. Life, on the other hand, has been fast and furious. The start of a new school year is always hectic for Melissa and me as we both teach. First-grader Evan is also busier as he now has homework, Cub Scouts, and piano lessons. Add in a birthday party sleep-over and a new obsession with playing catch with a football, and there is very little room (or interest) for birds. Marin is also experiencing her own busy little life as she started a new daycare this fall and is enrolled in a dance class. And we are all busier with church as small-group Bible study and Sunday school classes have resumed with the fall season.
One thing that’s been keeping me busy in my limited spare time is the development of a a new birding website called Birding Across America. This site is a national platform for birders across the country to connect with each other allowing traveling birders to see more birds when they are in unfamiliar lands. On the site each state has its own page with a featured photo gallery where registered users can upload photos, share sightings, and read the rare bird alerts of that particular state’s listserv. It has been time-consuming to say the least, but the site is growing and I have met a lot of friendly birders through the process. It’s my hope that this new website will satisfy my own birding and coding interests and allow me to stick to the integrity of this blog: writing about birding outings with my family and documenting those memories and sharing them with you.
Speaking of that, I’d like to start the birding part of this post by showing you some pictures of one of our regular birding stops in early September – a mudflat near Willmar that was a stopping point for many shorebirds.
Here are two Wilson’s Snipe. Yes, Jeff, snipe do exist.
A crazed Green Heron flew in and ran about the mudflat.
And this next one is a lifer. The problem is we don’t know what it is. It’s either a Baird’s Sandpiper or White-rumped Sandpiper. Shorebirds are so frustrating. On one of our trips to this mudflat, there was just a trio of yellowlegs – two Greater Yellowlegs and one Lesser Yellowlegs. They are very similiar in appearance and their size is only discernable when they are next to each other. As we watched these three, we heard a sharp “Ki-ki-ki-ki” and saw a Merlin fly in and try to nab one of the yellowlegs! It was very cool to see this raptor. If only I could have gotten a decent shot of it.
Another local haunt that I brought the kids to in September was Robbins Island Park. I don’t even remember how many times we came out to look for migrating birds. We saw lots of warblers and vireos. I even managed to see my nemesis bird, the Blue-headed Vireo, but was unable to relocate it for Evan or for a photograph. On one of my solo outings I did capture this migrating vireo – the Philadelphia Vireo.On these frequent outings to Robbins Island, the kids were more interested in being kids while I scanned the trees for birding activity. Looking down at the ground showed some other activity. Note Marin’s “birding” boots.
One time when I was alone at Robbins Island, I happened upon this very tame Red-tailed Hawk sitting on top of the swings! I was able to walk within 10 feet of it. It freaked me out a little, and I made sure to put a light pole between myself and the bird while I took these pictures. I didn’t want a face full of talons. I found its perch to be humorous as I wondered if it was waiting for an unsuspecting toddler.
One time that Evan and I went by ourselves to Robbins Island, we caught up with our Cooper’s Hawk again that we wrote about in the last post. Last time we saw the Cooper’s Hawk being dive-bombed by crows. This day, however, the hawk was chasing the crows!
In late September we were able to sneak away for a camping trip to St. Croix State Park with Melissa’s parents and nieces.
It was a gorgeous weekend with perfect weather. The cousins enjoyed their time together as did the adults, and I even managed to take a couple bird photos of some migrating birds. Here is a Yellow-rumped Warbler.
And another late-migrating warbler – the Palm Warbler.
It’s hard to go birding/camping without playing around the water.
Looking up from the water into beautiful blue sky revealed a kettle of Broadwinged Hawks riding the thermals as they migrate.
After our St. Croix trip, the kids and I found ourselves out birding again the following weekend. I had to find something to write about for my October contribution to Birding is Fun!. So we went out with no real birding plan but happened upon a pair of Trumpeter Swans. This is always a fun bird to see. Evan and I first became enamored with them when we read E.B. White’s The Trumpet of the Swan. Seeing as this bird has a limited range in the United States and that is was once endangered, I figured it would make a good article for Birding is Fun!
The size of the Trumpeter is massive! That’s a Mallard in the foreground if you have any idea how big they are.On this same day, the kids and I went on to check out another favorite birding haunt: the Atwater sewage ponds. Among the hundreds of Canada Geese and Ring-billed Gulls, we were delighted to find seven more Trumpeters! This was the bird of the day.
On the way home I stopped to take some pictures of sparrows. Here is a Savannah Sparrow.
Speaking of sparrows, I finally filled our bird feeders at home just in time to see some of the neat migrating sparrows. This next picture is very bad, but it is also very cool. In this one shot you will see three migrating sparrows. From left to right: White-crowned Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, and Harris’s Sparrow.
Here’s a better shot of the Harris’s Sparrow.
In addition to these fine three, we had a new yard bird – the Lincoln’s Sparrow! I didn’t get a picture, and Evan didn’t see it (he’s seen a Lincoln’s before), but he was really excited when I told him the news. And just today we saw our first returning Fox Sparrow – also not pictured.
The best yard bird, though, and arguably one of my favorite birds, has also been showing up regularly – the Eurasian Collared Dove. Evan first discovered this bird in our yard over a year ago and proved himself an observant birder as he argued with me (correctly) that he saw this bird I had never even heard of at that time. You can read more of the story at More Than Just a Name. Moreover, during the past year I’ve learned that this is a good bird in Minnesota that people get excited to see. Almost every day I get to see it and remember how this whole journey of birding began. I don’t know what kind of birding adventures we have in store for the fall, but we are eager for winter to come so we can chase after northern owls and other migrants from the north.