Maricopa’s Avian Gems

On the second evening of our trip, Dad, Evan, and I went for a little drive around Maricopa where my folks have their house.  We were going to see what we could see, but first we had to check on the spot in town where they had seen the Burrowing Owls.  Earlier in the day, I had bumped into a fellow taking pictures of birds on the pond where we found the Cinnamon Teal.  He asked if I knew about the Burrowers and then gave me the exact intersection to find them.  He also described where their favorite wall perch was and told me where to find their burrow. Sweet!

Sure enough, we drove by that evening and both Burrowers were right where they were described.

The neighborhood Burrowing Owls

The neighborhood Burrowing Owls

It was awesome to see them in the golden evening light.  Dad pulled up the car so they were on my side just 10 feet away allowing me to nab some stellar shots.

IMG_7037IMG_7040IMG_7038After snapping a couple photos, we rolled along.  Dad was going to drop Evan and me off at Pacana Park to do a little water birding while he ran an errand.  On the way to Pacana we found another pair of Burrowing Owls on a wall in town!  That made for 12 Burrowing Owls for the trip.

There wasn’t a whole lot for us at Pacana Park as the park was mostly athletic fields with lots of sports camps going on.  Of course it’s always fun to see American Wigeon, though.

American Wigeon

American Wigeon

Evan enjoyed trying to trick a pair of Mallards into thinking he had food in his hand.




After Dad picked us up, we continued to poke around Maricopa with no pressing birding objectives.

Grandpa and Evan

Grandpa and Evan

IMG_7055It was a relaxing evening with some good sightings.  All that was left to do was to enjoy another great Arizona sunset.


Having Burrowing Owls so close made it so easy and tempting to just go see them one more time.  I even goaded Melissa and Evan into taking our morning walk in that direction. Of course our little friends were out and about.


IMG_7074IMG_7067It was a lot of fun to show Evan and Melissa this pair’s burrow right under the sidewalk.


Being so close, I checked up on these guys a few times.  It’s hard to not photograph a Burrowing Owl.  One time I even got the shot, albeit a blurry one, that I wanted – the owl in its sidewalk burrow.



That same morning that Evan, Melissa, and I were out walking, we were passing by a park along a beautiful winding sidewalk through the deserty edge of the subdivision when we all saw a flash of red fly out of a tree.  “What was that?” Melissa exclaimed. I knew instantly.  It was the Vermilion Flycatcher!  I had given up on seeing this bird on this trip to Arizona because I had no plans to go near the ideal habitat.  Lucky us.  We were in the right place at the right time.  My initial photos weren’t great, so I went back a couple times to get some better ones.  This was a stunning find and my last major target bird for the trip.  This is one bird that I don’t think I’d get tired of seeing.

Vermilion Flycatcher

Vermilion Flycatcher

IMG_7215IMG_7220IMG_7221So all three major targets – Burowing Owl, Cinnamon Teal, and Vermilion Flycatcher – were all found within a few blocks of each other right in town and less than a mile from my parents’ house.  These avian treasures were fun to have so close because we could see them whenever we wanted.

Burrowing Owl Bonanza

I was still itching to see a Burrowing Owl on that first day.  After all, it was the one bird I just had to see on this trip.   Even though I had already seen a good number of lifers on the first day, this was the itch I had to scratch.  And it was only more aggravated by spending a very frustrating three hours in an urgent care clinic in Maricopa to try to get some answers regarding our sick daughter.

I think the Burrowing Owl was so alluring to me because I was first introduced to it by my non-birding wife.  Yes, it’s true! Melissa has taught the novel Hoot in her seventh-grade Communications class for a number of years.  This fictional tale is about a group of teens in Florida who stand up to protect a pair of Burrowing Owls whose habitat is threatened by the development of a vacant lot for a new restaurant.  In 2006 the novel was made into a movie with some big-name actors.  So, our whole family has seen this movie and been enthralled with these cute little owls.  Imagine my excitement when my dad told me he saw one last winter, and then I find out they are fairly common in the Phoenix area.

We finally made it back to the house after that long doctor visit and sat down to eat supper.  Every minute that ticked by was one less minute to look for the owl.  My rational brain told me that we had several days to make it happen, but my bird brain said we had to go now.  So after supper was over, all six of us piled into the van and went for a drive. I thought we might go to the location where my dad had seen a pair of Burrowing Owls just the night before, but he had other plans.  He wanted to just drive in the country to see what we could see.  I wanted to see more new birds, too, but I really wanted to get the Burrower out of the way.  Then I could settle in for the trip.

As we drove along and didn’t find anything, I suggested that we just head back to the neighborhood to look for the one they had already found.  Dad replied that we could do that in the morning real easily.  Yes, but…

We kept driving along seeing neither a Burrower nor any other lifers.  It was excruciating to watch the sun slip down, knowing that the big goal would not be achieved today.  But just as my heart was sinking with the sun, I was jolted back to life when Melissa hollered, “Wait! What’s that?!!”  It was the the Burrowing Owl!!!

IMG_6948I had given up all hope of seeing one that I wasn’t even looking like a birder should.  Way to go, Melissa! Regular readers may recall that she alone found all five Great Gray Owls on that epic December day on Aitkin Co. Rd. 18.  She modestly replies that she was given the job of looking for an owl and that she was just doing her task.

Burrowing Owl Lifer!

Burrowing Owl Lifer!

It was an intense sighting.  With spirits buoyed, we strolled along these gravel roads through agricultural fields and cattle lots. And not much later, Melissa was hollering from the back seat again!  She found not one more, but three more!

IMG_6952IMG_6955IMG_6957We think there may have been more than these three.  It was hard to tell with the birds moving around.  I couldn’t believe it – four burrowing owls.  Now it didn’t matter what we saw or didn’t see.  The night was already made four times over.  My disappointment of not seeing a Burrower quickly changed to being bummed that I hadn’t spotted one by myself yet. Don’t get me wrong; I was thrilled, but I wanted to find my own owl. It’s funny how the dynamics of a birding outing can change so suddenly sending you on a roller-coaster of emotions.  Call it birder mood swings.  And as the saying goes, when it rains it pours because I spotted our next lifer – the very cool Black-necked Stilt!  I did not expect to get this bird this trip.


Black-necked Stilt

IMG_6965What a fantastic-looking creature. And there were two of them.  In addition to the stilts, we enjoyed the chorus of thousands of migrating Red-winged Blackbirds.  For a prairie birder, that has got to be one of the best sounds of spring.  You can see some of these birds in the background below.

IMG_6968It’s pretty hard to top the night we had, but I managed to do just that by spotting my own pair of Burrowing Owls!  Then my mom spotted one herself too!  All told, there were four Burrowing Owls in this new location.  Unbelievable.  Eight Burrowing Owls for the drive. I hadn’t even seen an eBird report listing that many.

IMG_6972 IMG_6971I really love these next photos as I captured a pair of Burrowers in their burrow.  The one just peeking out is classic.  We got to observe these owls walk backward into their burrow at the sight of an approaching hawk.  The poopy whitewash you see shows that these owls regularly perch at their burrows.IMG_6979

IMG_6982IMG_6988IMG_6989This night couldn’t have been any better.  As my dad said, finding our own Burrowers was a lot more fun than just following up on other birders’ reports.  To top it all off, we picked up our Swainson’s Hawk lifer on the way home bringing our lifer total to 11 for the first day!  And my top two targets of Burrowing Owl and Cinnamon teal were already found.  Now I could actually enjoy the sinking sun instead of lamenting its passing. IMG_6999

There was still a lot more owl action to be had on this trip, so check back to see what else we dug up!

Birding Arizona for the First Time

Somehow life has come full circle as I found myself planning a trip to Arizona this year to visit my snowbird parents.  I can remember many long car trips as a kid when we would go to Arizona to visit my dad’s parents in Sun City and then there were sporadic trips several years later to visit my mom’s parents in Yuma.  And now I’m hauling my family across the country to repeat history for our 2014 spring break.  But this was my first trip to Arizona as a birder.  Other birders know just how exciting it is to escape to a new state, complete with its own collection of unique birds. It doesn’t take long to exhaust the novelty of the birds on your home turf, so one must wait for a rarity to fly in or for a chance to visit a new destination. Birding changes everything – old places become exciting, you’re never bored when you’re outside, and someone else’s ordinary birds are prizes to find.

So this past Sunday we flew into Phoenix early in the morning, and I was ready to enjoy the fallout of lifers that was sure to happen.  My parents picked us up at the airport and drove us through the myriad of freeways and highways down to their place in Maricopa. I couldn’t help myself.  Yes, the t-shirt weather was dreamy and it was good to see my folks, but I had to look at everything that flew. The problem, though, was that I knew I was seeing a lot of new birds, but we were going freeway speeds and I couldn’t make anything out.  I think I was able to discern some Great-tailed Grackles flying across the road, but I needed a good, long look.  Anything else is most dissatisfying.

We had planned to hit up Zanjero Park on the way home to look for the number one target, the Burrowing Owl, but with a couple of tired kids, one of which had become quite sick, we just needed to get to Grandma and Grandpa’s. On the ride Dad did inform me that he saw a pair of Burrowing Owls near their house the night before.  What?!  That was something that could not be delayed – we must check it out before we got to their house.  Sick kid or not.

As we got near the vacant lot where my parents saw the owls, we drove by a small, man-made pond.  To my amazement there was a duck on the pond shining like a red beacon in the early morning sun – the Cinnamon Teal!  This was major target number two and it was already in the bag.

Cinnamon Teal Drake

Cinnamon Teal Drake

IMG_6844Bam! What a way to start the Arizona birding! As I was standing in the middle of the street photographing this bird, the air was filled with the most exotic bird noises I’ve ever heard.  What I was hearing were the clicks, whistles, and squeaks of Great-tailed Grackles everywhere. I’ve heard them called nuisance birds before, but I thought they were simply amazing.  Maybe it was the sounds, maybe it was warmth, maybe it was the cool cacti and palm vegetation everywhere, but I was enjoying the euphoria of birding in this wonderful new environment.

Great-tailed Grackle

Great-tailed Grackle

But the lifer party wasn’t over on this little stop.  Across the shore I spotted a Neotropic Cormorant.  I really don’t care for cormorants, so this shot is more or less just to document a life bird.

Neotropic Cormorant

Neotropic Cormorant

Finally we got back to the house and got sick Marin situated so she was comfortable.  But I could only take being in the house so long.  There was a hot, blazing sun outside and new birds everywhere.  My quest started on the patio.  At first all I was seeing were Mourning Doves, House Finches, and House Sparrows.  Ugh. I didn’t fly across the country to see my own yard.  But with a little patience and careful observation, life birds began to make their appearance.  The first to show up was this Say’s Phoebe.

Say's Phoebe

Say’s Phoebe

Then one of Arizona’s hummers came in – the Black-chinned Hummingbird!


Black-chinned Hummingbird

I had also observed a warbler darting in and out of my dad’s trees and was pleased to see it was the Audobon’s Yellow-rumped Warbler.  This is not a new species, but we don’t often get this variety of the butter-butts in Minnesota.  Ours are mostly the Myrtle’s variety.

Audubon's Yellow-rumped Warbler

Audubon’s Yellow-rumped Warbler

Another bird that was flitting around in this same tree was a life bird – the Verdin.



Not only were there new birds everywhere and warm sun beating down, but there were all kinds of other cool critters moving about the backyard.

IMG_6894IMG_6896After some time of going in the house to check on Marin and going out of the house to look for new birds, I was getting the itch to see what other avian treasures the neighborhood held.  So Dad and I went for a little walk.  Right around the corner we found another life bird, the Northern Mockingbird.

Northern Mockingbird

Northern Mockingbird

And it doesn’t take long to bump into the ever-present non-lifer that is so unique and beautiful that I remember it from my non-birding days, the Gambel’s Quail.


Gambel’s Quail


Gambel’s Quail are skittish but easily found in both the city and desert environments of Arizona.

As Dad and I concluded our walk, I saw a flash of copper and whir of furious wings buzz right by us.  It was a new hummingbird of some sort.  I tried to snap a photo.  It’s blurry, but this photo helped me determine I saw the Rufous Hummingbird – a migrating bird that was just passing through.  My Arizona birder friend, Laurence Butler, told me this was quite a find at such a low elevation.  So, even though the picture is blurry, I decided to post it because it was such a cool lifer. And let’s be real.  It’s a hummingbird. They move at like Mach 2, at least.

Rufous Hummingbird

Rufous Hummingbird

The trip was off to a great start.  Eight lifers, a couple really cool non-lifers, and one major target checked off.  And this was just the tip of the birding iceberg for this trip. Check back to see some more posts from our time in Arizona.  If you’re a fan of owls (who isn’t?), you won’t want to miss the next couple posts.

The Cathartic Effect of Owling with my Boy

Early this morning, I do what many of us do when our phone alarm wakes us – I check email and text messages. This morning I woke up to a text message from school: report to work 15 minutes early for a staff meeting – make every effort possible to be there at that time.  That could only mean one thing. Tragedy.  I scrambled to get myself and Marin out the door.  In the mean time I traded texts with colleagues and quickly found out what I had expected – one of our seniors lost his life as the result of an avalanche while snowmobiling in Montana.  I was stunned and confused.  It didn’t make sense to me.  Just the day before I visited at length with a young man who had returned early from that trip because he and several others were rattled by a close-call with a different avalanche.  It wasn’t until later that I learned a few of them remained in Montana  to continue snowmobiling after the others left.

Even though I’ve been through this in my career before, there are no words to describe what a sickening feeling it is.  Death is always hard to take, but it is even worse when it happens to someone so young.  It just isn’t the way it’s supposed to be. In a small school like ours the devastation ripples through the entire school community.  Somehow as staff and students we would have to muddle our way through the confusion and sadness of what was to be a very long school day.  There is no protocol for such an event.  The day started with our scripted announcement in class.  To my shock, most students had no idea.  I wrongly assumed in this day of social media that they knew what I knew. Students wept, they sobbed, they huddled, they moved from room to room. The collective grief was palpable in the hallways.  They didn’t know what to do and neither did we.  Older students were affected more than younger students, so as I went through my day I had to play to both sides – allowing the older ones to do whatever they needed and having the younger students do learning activities that weren’t too taxing yet kept their minds and bodies busy by doing something productive. Somehow we made it to the end of the day.

Though I’ve been around student deaths before, this was the first time something like this has happened since I became a dad.  It takes on a whole new weight.  I can’t imagine the parents’ pain.  That spark in their life was snuffed out so unexpectedly.  Simple things like tousling a kid’s hair or hearing him laugh are gone. I get to go home and do those things.  It’s just unfair.

Evan and I did have plans to go look for another Eastern Screech Owl this evening at one of my student’s houses.  I figured it wouldn’t be wise for a teacher to go after such a selfish pursuit at student’s property on this day, so I canceled.  But today the owls found me and the owling would be unavoidable.  When I finally walked out those school doors today, I was savoring the fresh air and mental renewal it triggered when a text came in from Randy.  His Great Horned Owl was in his yard.  Randy knew I’ve been wanting to photograph one.  It was just the break I needed after this day.  The grief counselors told us we needed to find something fun, something exciting to do in the next couple days.  This was it for me.  I never feel more fully alive than when it’s go time for a good bird.

I picked up Marin from daycare and gave her a big hug right away.  Then we got home and got her ready for dance class while we waited for Melissa to come home and bring her to class.  While we waited, Marin wanted to play a new board game she got for her birthday.  After today, I couldn’t just brush her off.  Even though she and I both had to be somewhere shortly, we played the game for a bit.  She absolutely loves interactive games and puzzles.  While we played, I got a phone call from Jeremy, a fellow teacher – his Barred Owl showed up in his yard this evening back in Grove City!  Wow! With daylight savings time last weekend, we now had the daylight to go after both owls!  I spoke with Melissa while she was en route home and filled her in with what I was planning.  She said that was good news because Evan was disappointed about not going after the screech owl.  This surprised me a little because Evan has become somewhat apathetic towards birds he’s seen before.

Melissa came home, and Evan and I were off to Randy’s.  It took forever to find his Great Horned Owl.  He finally relocated it for us, but it was obscured by branches and quite far off. As we searched, it was fun to watch Evan have fun by playing with Randy’s pet bird and laughing at Randy’s teasings.  They were moments to cherish. Despite Randy’s best efforts to lure the owl close to the window for some pictures, it wasn’t budging.  Finally I went outside to get some photos, and it flushed to a different perch.  The perch was far away, but it wasn’t as obscured as before.  Nevertheless, I was able to get what I wanted.

Randy's Great Horned Owl

Randy’s Great Horned Owl

IMG_6797 IMG_6808IMG_6815This was a real treat.  They are common owls, but I rarely have seen them in the daytime.  They are absolutely fascinating to look at.  And this one was so different than the nearly all-white one I had seen a couple months ago.

While at Randy’s I was in communication with Jeremy who lived 20 miles away.  He assured me the Barred Owl was still there.  I invited Steve along because he still needed a Barred Owl for the year. We got to Jeremy’s house, and I found the Barred Owl immediately in his tree when I caught its silhouette against the sky.  Looking at it straight on made it much harder to find – check out how well it blends in.


Jeremy’s Barred Owl

Barred Owls are fantastic birds with a real unique look.  I love the gentle expression of their face with the soft, black eyes.  Most owls have the yellow eyes that seem to pierce your soul.IMG_6828IMG_6825

An owl always puts a bright spot on a normal day.  Seeing two species with my kid on such a gloomy day was just what I needed.  I don’t know how long Evan will enjoy looking at birds with me.  It will probably ebb and flow.  I’m okay with that.  He got me into this hobby, so who knows what else I’ll pursue because of him or Marin.  What I do know is that I intend to spend as much time as possible with both of them doing things that make them tick.

Owl About the Family

I have a great wife. Yesterday I received a message in the early afternoon from a fellow birder in Otsego that his Eastern Screech Owl was in his Wood Duck house for the day. I checked in with Steve to find out if he wanted to make the two-hour trip.  When Steve said he wasn’t able to go, I gave up on making the long trek.  But then, without me asking, Melissa said she would be up for a drive and a little adventure. Yes!

Let me give you a little background on this species and this particular owl itself. Obviously because I was willing to travel that far, it was a life bird.  Eastern Screech Owls are fairly common, but because they are strictly nocturnal and small (8 in), they are rarely seen.  Occasionally people see them in the winter when the owls poke their heads out of Wood Duck houses or tree cavities. To put an emphasis on how seldom they are found, the bird we were going to see is the only recorded sighting in Minnesota on eBird this winter.  This particular owl had been seen off and on for the past couple months.  Because it usually pokes its head out just before dark and because it’s not in the box every day, a trip up to Otsego on any other day would be a gamble and a potentially a waste of a trip.  However, when the owl is in the box for the day, it stays.  The property owner said that if, on the rare occasion, it showed itself early in the day, he would let me know so I’d have time to react and get up there. Yesterday was just such a day.

Complicating the decision to travel yesterday was that a student at my school had showed me pictures of an Eastern Screech Owl that had been occupying his Wood Duck house in recent days.  So I’ve been waiting for a call from him too. But like they say, “A bird in the hand…”  Plus, the Otsego screech owl was a gray phase.  The one at my student’s house is a red phase.  I want to see both.

So it was go time.  Though Melissa had changed into her hangout clothes for the afternoon and the kids were finishing a playdate with the neighbor girl, we hustled to get the car loaded for the little trip.  After a busy musical season followed by two kids’ birthdays, Melissa was ready for the kind of nap that only a long car ride can give. In fact, she decided she wasn’t changing out of her flannel pajama shirt that had birds all over it – something I tease her about by calling it her bird smock.  Because it is the center of some ribbing she decided that though she was going on this chase, she wouldn’t change out of it just to be playfully spiteful.  I told her it didn’t bother me, but it was definitely making the blog.  Notice, though, that there are no pictures.  I’m not that dumb.  After all, I’ve got a girl who volunteers to go on bird trips.  How great is that? Plus I value my life.

The trip up was uneventful.  Notable bird sightings included 9 Ring-necked Pheasants (7 hens – a promising sign for the following year), 3 American Robins (Yes – spring!), a Bald Eagle, and a pair of Trumpeter Swans.  We found the house without trouble and were invited in to his house to view the owl since it can only be observed out his backyard patio door.  Both kids wanted to see the owl, so they came in with me.   And it was sticking its head out right away – do you see it?


Do you see the Eastern Screech Owl?

Here’s a better shot.  While I photographed the owl, the kids had more fun looking at this birder’s pet fish and caged birds.It was fun to finally see this owl, even if it didn’t do anything but sleep the whole time.


Sleeping Eastern Screech Owl – Gray Phase


You are seeing most all of the Eastern Screech Owl as its feet are on the lip of the hole.

Since the owl wasn’t doing much and I had gotten the best pictures I could muster, it was time to leave this generous birder who shared his home and owl with us.  It was fun to chat birds a bit and match a name with a face.  The friendliness of many fellow birders never ceases to amaze me.

Being in Otsego, we were just a 10 minute drive from the state’s most famous Snowy Owl, named Ramsey for the town it was discovered in.  This owl has had throngs of people visit it and walk right underneath it while it perches on poles or rooftops.  It has been on the nightly news and is even one of about a dozen Snowy Owls across the country that has been captured and outfitted with a GPS tracker to study the movements of these owls during this historic invasion.  This huge research initiative, called Project Snowstorm, sprang up rapidly in response to this Snowy Owl phenomenon this winter.  You can follow these owls’ movements on interactive maps at  There are actually two Snowy Owls at Ramsey’s location, and we ended up finding Cellie, named for being discovered on a nearby cell tower.  Do you see Cellie?


Cellie – one of two Snowy Owls in Ramsey by US Hwy 10

It was finally an opportunity to get some good Snowy Owl pictures.  Though I have now seen 9 Snowy Owls this season, I’m not completely satisfied with my pictures.  I still wish the sky would have been blue for these, but I’m pretty happy with them.IMG_6761IMG_6771 IMG_6765

 Finally it was time to go.  We grabbed a bite to eat at Denny’s and then got home to put kids to bed.  It was another fun, impromptu bird trip full of owls.  All of these owls have taken some of the sting out of this wretched winter and given our family some fun adventures.  To some extent I will mourn the end of this epic owl season.  Who knows, given the weather and the abundance of Snowies, there may still be more owls to find long into spring.