Chasing the ABA Code-4 Garganey at Crex Meadows Wildlife Area

Any birder reading this probably has shivers running down his or her spine right now just seeing the title of this post.  For non-birders, this post title can simply be translated as “This is a really, really, really, really big deal!”

What’s a Garganey?  What’s ABA Code-4 Mean?  How the heck do you pronounce “Crex” and where is it?  First off, a Garganey is a Eurasian duck that means it normally resides in Europe and Asia.  Yes, Europe and Asia.  It’s true; I looked it up in Evan’s field guide to birds of Europe.  Every now and again, one finds it’s way into North America.  Kaufmann’s Field Guide to Birds of North America calls it a “very rare” visitor.


But it does visit occasionally and sporadically.  Do you see that line in Kaufmann’s entry that it “might show up on any marshy pond, especially in spring”?  That is the best line in any bird book – ever.  That gives anyone living near a marsh or pond the eternal hope that one day, one just might just stumble across this rare, exquisite duck.  That’s good news for us birders on the prairies of Minnesota.  It’s a fact we tuck into the back, deep recesses of our minds as we go out and scan waterfowl every spring.  In fact, this thought came to mind just last week as Steve was headed out birding one evening, and I couldn’t join him. Being always hopeful and having found my own rarities recently, I told him to go find us a Garganey.  He dismissed my green-horned wishful thinking with a bit of sarcasm – all part of good birding fun.

But back to that second question, ABA stands for American Birding Association, and they have a numerical system to indicate just how rare a bird is.  The highest rating given to the most rare birds is ABA – Code 5.  So a Code 4 is a big, big deal.  It’s a drop-everything and go deal. It’s a Wisconsin state record sort of deal.

And pronouncing “Crex”? Well, let’s back up and talk about Friday night first.  Late Friday, a vigilant birder who resides in the Los Angeles area and has birding ties to Minnesota and Wisconsin and monitors both states’ listservs and Facebook groups, made a shocking post on MOU-net – a male Garganey had been found just a few miles across the Minnesota border in Wisconsin at the Crex Meadows Wildlife Area!  Moreover, this was only 2 hours and 45 minutes away.  2 hours and 45 minutes!  I can’t even get to the Sax-Zim Bog that fast.  My mind was spinning and my guts were churning.  Never mind that I was coming down from an adrenaline rush of another successful rarity chase earlier that day that caused me to get a sub and dash out of school early. (That’s a story for another post).  Well, I’ve already done a lot of birding and a lot of irrational birding lately, so I was really wrestling with the thought of dragging the family to Wisconsin to see a once in lifetime bird…a once in a lifetime bird.

I shook it off and instead went birding early Saturday morning at the Atwater sewage ponds before the family was awake.  I wasn’t going to let birding take over my day.  I had to contain the beast. But then I had another incredible discovery that morning of solitude birding that brought the birding adrenaline back with a vengeance (Yet another story to come later).

As I was mopping up the reporting and documentation of my find, the birding landscape was exploding around me bringing in incredible reports.  Not only were people still seeing the Garganey, but now a Cinnamon Teal shows up 45 minutes away, a mile or so from my Uncle Larry’s house!  This was a chase that was the most logical to discard. We had seen a beautiful Cinnamon Teal drake up close in Arizona a month ago.  But, still, the proximity and the combination of being at my Aunt and Uncle’s house was gnawing at me. And it was a Cinnamon Teal.

Now I was fighting the adrenaline of two major life birds in the last two days and the bombardment of continued reports on the Cinnamon Teal and Garganey.  Then my phone rang.  It was Ron Erpelding, one of the state’s premiere birders who just happens to live in our county.  Ron told me that he had asked Joel and Randy if they were interested in going for the Garganey.  Both declined but told him that I had some interest.  Ron asked me if I wanted to go.  One of the state’s top birders asked me to go along to see – the Garganey.  I’ve never been along with Ron before. This had to be the pinnacle moment of my birding hobby.  The planets were aligned for the most incredible adventure I couldn’t have even imagined.

I think Melissa understood that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and gave her blessing for me and Evan join Ron.  And Evan wanted to go.  He was quite upset over the bird I saw without him on Friday.  The decision was made. We would leave Willmar at 6:00 AM on Sunday morning.  The calm sets in once the decision is made.  I was at peace as I got Evan to bed early and started prepping for the next day.  But the peace disappeared when I needed it most – bedtime.  I don’t think I slept more than a fitful hour or so.  The birding events of the past couple days and the possibility of what the next day held were wrecking havoc on my mind and robbing my body of rest.

I think I finally gave up on sleep and got out of bed by 4 AM to get the coffee going, take care of dogs, double-check gear, and go over maps and reports of other good birds at Crex Meadows.  Crex is pronounced like the cereal Chex, by the way.  Even though it’s in a state that has many French roots, it’s not pronounced “Cray.”  We know because we later asked at the visitor center.  Anyhow, I got Evan up by 5:30.  It’s never hard to wake him to go on these epic adventures.  Waking him on school days is another story.

By 6:00 AM we were loaded in Ron’s car and headed to the Badger State.  I think the birding talk started at 6:01 and didn’t really stop until we got home some 12 hours later. Ron has pretty much seen it all and is a treasure-trove of intel and stories.  Even the guy’s car is birdy – about an hour into our trip he turned on the radio for the first time and some program he regularly listens to on WCCO radio was giving bird feeder advice and highlighting recent migrant arrivals around different parts of the state.  Are you kidding me?

The only other sounds besides our bird talk was the incessant, pounding rain the entire trip.  It was an all-day rain.  It was not ideal, but when going after a Garganey, you can’t be too picky.  One thing that began to worry us as we drove was the noticeable lack of ducks anywhere.  Had the ducks moved out with the front?  It wasn’t a good sign, but as Ron said, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” True enough.

By 9:00 AM we made it to Crex Meadows.  It didn’t take long to find the correct spot – a marshy pool at the intersection of two roads.  It didn’t take a map to find it.  We could see the numerous hazard flashers of cars parked in a row on the side of the road as best they could with no shoulder.  That was a good sign.  We pulled in line and didn’t cut to the front.  The pool was still a couple hundred yards away, but we were parallel with a 10 foot wide ditch with about 5 feet of prairie grass separating the road from the water.  Seeing nothing, we wondered what was happening.  Finally we pulled alongside one of the cars and asked if they’d seen it.  The gentleman replied that the Garganey was here and that it was in the ditch right next to the cars!  We couldn’t see it because it was tucked up against the grass on the road side of the ditch.  Boy, were we giddy now.  It would just be a matter of time.  We got back in the line of cars and waited.  The rain was pelting the passenger side window like you wouldn’t believe.  We’d see a duck emerge, roll down the window to check, and roll it back up quickly after seeing a mere Blue-winged Teal or Northern Shoveler.  I bet I repeated this process 20 times.  My legs were drenched.  Ron could at least look out the windshield but at a bad angle through windshield wipers.  Evan was standing and on full-alert in the back.

All of the sudden Ron hollered, “I see it!” with all the excitement of a kid seeing Mickey Mouse at Disney World.  Ron caught a flash of the diagnositc head as it swam along the near side of the channel.  One down and two to go.  Now Evan and I were really straining to see it.  As our hearts thumped a little faster now, Ron was meticulously recording all the details of his 678th life bird with the same care and precision as doctors and nurses recording the details of a baby’s birth. 68 years old and lifer #678.  And this novice birder and his 7 year-old kid were on the verge of seeing it at any moment. Wow.


As Ron wrote, we were watching and watching.  Then it happened!  The duck swam into the channel giving us remarkable views even if it was raining cats and dogs.  It turned out our car was in prime position.  We had the best seats in the house as the bird was 20 feet out my window. Windows down, legs soaked, camera splattered – I didn’t care. I was snapping like crazy hoping for something, anything that would be decent.  But really, we saw the bird and that was incredible in itself.  Pictures were secondary.

Garganey at Crex Meadows!

Garganey at Crex Meadows!


The excitement of everybody was palpable – and insane.



After getting my record shots, I waited for an opportune time to sneak outside with my umbrella where I could somehow do my best with the worst photography conditions possible.  In that time, though, the bird went out of view.  And in a matter of minutes all traces of ducks and birders disappeared.  It happened so fast.  I guess we all got our great looks at the bird and moved on.

We continued to explore Crex Meadows for a bit to hopefully turn up a reported Chestnut-collared Longspur and a Mountain Bluebird. No luck on them, so it was time to head back.  But, Ron is a county lister which means he tries to see as many bird species as possible in all 87 Minnesota counties.  Ron has averaged over 200 birds for each and every one of those counties, tallying a massive 17,000+ county birds.  His Toyota has 216,000 miles and his last car haad 238,000 miles.  Even so, the guy’s got holes to fill.  We spent some time searching for Greater Scaup and Canvasbacks in Chisago County.  I was the navigator and told to get us by some water.  0427141304

We missed on the Scaup and Canvasbacks, but we were delighted to find a concentration of 66 of our state bird, the Common Loon.

Common Loon

Common Loon

It was also good to be able to get out every now and then to stretch and look at birds.

IMG_7997After several more stops, a lot of bird talk, and some very hazardous driving in the Cities in the downpour, we eventually made it home.  I could only be so lucky to see the Garganey again.  It was a bird and a trip of a lifetime. What a pleasure it was to get to know Ron a little better and go on a thrilling Garganey chase.

The American Avocet – Not a Poop Bird

With spring migration well underway and many things happening all at once, I really quite often don’t know where or how to bird.  Not to mention that I have a family, job, etc. Do I go on another driving quest to find a Short-eared Owl or do I keep checking for those elusive American Black Ducks? Do I take the Christmas lights off the house or do I finally rake last fall’s leaves out of the yard? Decisions. Yet, for some reason, I had American Avocets on the brain.  Maybe this is because a couple of them had been reported out by the South Dakota border or maybe it’s because I remembered that a few had started to sprinkle our state by this time last year.  Whatever the reason, I was feeling avocety today.

I had never seen an American Avocet before, and it’s a bird Evan and I have talked about and wanted to see.  It is an absolutely stunning shorebird.  It is also a scarce bird for our state as we are just east of its normal range. This evening I had a chance to do some birding and quite possibly look for one of these guys on a hunch.  Melissa was taking Marin to dance class, so I dragged Evan in the car with me to go check out the sewage ponds at Atwater.  I told him that he could play his iPad in the car, but he had to come with as I couldn’t leave him home alone.  I debated heading up to Paynesville to check out their sewage ponds, a location that briefly had a couple avocets last year.  But I decided against it and opted for the poop ponds closer to home.  I had actually stopped by them earlier in the evening on my way home from work just to scout it out.  I was astonished to find 10 Bonaparte’s Gulls, a bird that we just saw for the first time last weekend.  No, I didn’t find an avocet, but I decided to return later anyway to investigate some shore birds I didn’t have time to identify. Who knows, there might have been a new one, so I had to come back to check.

Bonaparte's Gull

Bonaparte’s Gull

When Evan and I got there we saw the Bonaparte’s Gulls and a bunch of waterfowl – all things I saw earlier in the afternoon.  I also found the shorebirds I had seen.  Turns out they were just some Pectoral Sandpipers and a Lesser Yellowlegs. Bummer.

Lesser Yellowlegs and Least Sandpipers

Lesser Yellowlegs and Pectoral Sandpipers

These shorebirds flushed away from me and went to the west shore of the rectangular pond.  They were actually in a place where I could sneak up over a dike and see them pretty close to get some better photos.  As I walked up the dike and looked over the fence, the birds flushed.  But so did another gangly shorebird much further down that had a long bill and legs dragging out behind it as it flew. I couldn’t pull up my camera fast enough to see what it was.  I knew it was one of two birds – the Black-necked Stilt or American Avocet.  Either would have been an incredible find.  To my joy, it was our American Avocet life bird – the very bird I had been thinking about today!  I snapped this horrible shot in the wind and rain and then ran down the dike to tell Evan who was waiting in the car playing his iPad.

Amercan Avocet Lifer!

Amercan Avocet Lifer!

I wish I had a picture of that kid’s face when I told him I just found an American Avocet. His eyes were as big as saucers and he was racing to unbuckle and scramble out of the car.  I was able to show it to him with the camera, but I knew we could do better.  We went back down to the center dike which would put us much closer to the bird.  We then spent the next hour sneaking up on this bird from behind this other dike to get good looks at the bird.

IMG_7841IMG_7839I had texted Steve and got him on the road right away.  I knew that he’d probably want this one for his county list.  While we waited for Steve, Evan and I kept trying to get good looks and photographs of this bird.  I knew Evan was digging this new bird since he was with me the whole time in the chilly 42 degree weather of wind and spitting rain. A couple times we went back to the vehicle to warm up.  When my fingers would thaw, I’d head back out again to try for better photos.  I figured Evan had his fun and would just stay in the car, but when I was out doing my sneaking, I’d look back and see that he had left the comfort of the car for just one more look.

IMG_7852Who could blame him with a bird like this?

IMG_7843IMG_7860Several times I would sneak over the dike to try to get good photos.  The bird would spot me, vocalize an alarm, and then fly out and land in the water about 20 feet from shore. It would then feed and work its way back to the shore.


It was quite a thrill to tally this one on our life lists.  And it was fun to watch Evan’s genuine excitement over seeing this beauty.  It’s hard to believe we found our fourth life bird in just three weeks, three of which have been scarce and even rare.  I’m hopeful and excited about what else migration has in store for us this spring.  It has already exceeded any wishes or expectations.

Marsh Madness


In an effort to keep my kids from turning into zombies as they watch and play their devices, I decided that we should get some fresh air while mom was at the grocery store.  So we went hiking for a little bit on a local Wildlife Management Area.  The kids enjoyed walking through puddles and little rivers everywhere; I enjoyed the Northern Harriers, Northern Flickers, and the sound of numerous Song Sparrows.  But the wind cut our enjoyment short, so we headed back to the vehicle to go home.

Just as we were within mere steps of the car, I got a text from Randy that a friend of his found some American Black Ducks today just a few miles to the north of us!  After consulting Google maps to know where to go, the kids and I were off.

We got to the area, but there must have been at least a dozen sloughs and ponds lining this one mile section of road.  And there were ducks everywhere – Mallards, American Wigeon, Blue-winged Teal, Northern Shovelers, Ruddy Ducks, Buffleheads, Redheads, Canvasbacks, Gadwalls, Wood Ducks, Hooded Mergansers, Common Goldeneye, Ring-necked Ducks, and Lesser Scaup.  We did our best to find the needle in the haystack, but we came up short.  Instead, I opted to take a picture of a few ducks I don’t normally get to photograph.





We gave up the search and headed toward home on some roads we’d never traveled.  That’s always highly recommended.  We encountered some more fun recent arrivals, like a Greater Yellowlegs, Great Egrets, Belted Kingfisher, and an Eastern Phoebe.  One of our staples was in a puddle just off the road and was quite photogenic today – the Wood Duck and his mate.  Wood Ducks have been my favorite duck since I was a kid and long before I was a birder.   They never fail to bring the wow factor.

Wood Duck pair

Wood Duck pair

IMG_7692As we drove on, Evan spied his own pair of Wood Ducks in a marshy little puddle on his side of the road.  The kids and I watched them for quite a while as they tried to evade us in the thin cover.  These two were more in sync with each other than the previous pair as they were at least heading the same direction in life.

IMG_7701Once we got home, the kids hopped out of the car to go play with the neighbor girl.  As I was unloading my things I heard an awful noise, like a cat being murdered. It had been nearly a year, but I knew the sound and I can assure you that, indeed, a cat was not losing its life.  It was the disturbingly cool croaking sound of a Yellow-headed Blackbird! In the yard no less.  It didn’t take me long to locate it at the top of one of the trees.

I snapped a couple unremarkable photos and then went about my business. Later on as Melissa was looking out the kitchen window, she saw two Yellow-headed Blackbirds on the backyard feeder.  The bird is so well-named that she knew what it was without asking and was quite impressed with their beauty.  I went outside to try for some better photos and ended up catching a Yellow-headed Blackbird and one of our many Brown-headed Cowbirds sitting together on a branch.  The cowbird was slightly less photogenic.

Yellow-headed Blackbird and Brown-headed Cowbird

Yellow-headed Blackbird and Brown-headed Cowbird

Our yard has the sounds of a marsh lately with all the Red-winged Blackbirds, Brown-headed Cowbirds, and now Yellow-headed Blackbirds all joining the chorus.  It was just a banner day for blackbirds in the yard.  We, of course, had our Common Grackles but also a European Starling and quite possibly a Rusty Blackbird.

As you can see in the photo above, the gloomy, overcast day started to brighten up.  I was walking through our house later on when the glorious late afternoon sunlight caught the breast of one of these Yellow-headed Blackbirds on our front feeder.  More than once I have been caught dead in my tracks by the likes of an Indigo Bunting, Baltimore Oriole, or Rose-breasted Grosbeak bathing in this perfect light.  Today it was the Yellow-head’s turn.  Our house makes for the perfect photography blind on such an occasion.



We ended up with four of these beauties in the yard tonight.  Migration is a fascinating thing.  Just a couple hours prior to this mini-invasion I had seen a report from about 60 miles south of us that huge flocks of these birds were coming through.  It was phenomenal that these birds just appear all the sudden and seemingly out of nowhere.

The arrival of this special yard bird caused Evan to reminisce/gloat about how he got his Yellow-headed lifer before me last year when five of these guys invaded the yard while Melissa and I were away for the weekend and Grandma and Grandpa were holding down the fort.  It took me a good couple weeks before I eventually found my own.

Yellow-headed Blackbirds and the rare Yellow-vented Blackbird

Yellow-headed Blackbirds and the rare Yellow-vented Blackbird

The celebration of blackbirds continued as the different species found their way into the spotlight, or sunlight rather.


Brown-headed Cowbird

Common Grackle

Common Grackle

Migration certainly is an exciting time.  With the uptick in yard activity, this grackle nearly exploded because he couldn’t contain his excitement.


But migration is also a time of good-byes.  We seem to be having the classic long Minnesota good-bye with our American Tree Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos.

American Tree Sparrow

American Tree Sparrow

Today our yard had the sound and feel of a prairie marsh.  Pretty soon there will be warblers spazzing in the treetops and tough sparrows lurking under the shrubs.  One birder I follow once equated birding to one big Easter egg hunt.  And I can’t wait to see what the Easter Bunny brings tomorrow.

A Consolation Prize that Trumped the Target

Sometimes a perfect storm comes along that produces some great birding.  No, I’m not talking about Wednesday’s blizzard whose 11 inches of snow and limited visibility thrust us back into the heart of winter.  Instead, I’m referring to Melissa having a planned crafting night with some girlfriends and me wanting to go see an easy-pickings Eastern Screech Owl in Hutchinson.  The problem with this owl is that it is nesting in a Wood Duck nesting box and only pokes its head out close to dark. Normally that’s not a problem, but when it’s nearly an hour’s drive and the sun sets around 8:00, it gets too late to bring Evan along, especially on a school night.  But this was no school night and I was fed up with being housebound by the snow when I should be out doing anything, really.

So I got the van set up with the DVD player, rented Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2, and the kids and I set sail for Hutch.  They were excited to be in their pajamas watching a movie in the car and going on another one of dad’s owl quests. As we drove I did my best to tally species and count birds for an eBird checklist.  Ordinarily that’s easy to do in the winter when we hardly have anything with feathers to look at.  Now, though, there are birds everywhere.  I quickly gave up counting and only made note of the notable ones – go figure. Mostly the birds were migrating waterfowl.  Since we’ve nearly seen all we can see in that department, I did not slow down for the birds.  I had to keep focused on the mission of getting to Hutch.  I did keep one eye open for American Black Ducks – an uncommon bird here, getting even harder to find with each day of migration that passes by.  I imagine that to see them, though, I’ll have to man up and stand in the freezing cold to sort through hundreds of Mallards and thousands of Canada Geese when the only thing creating open water is the incessant paddling of the ducks and geese.

Anyhow, as we cruised through Cosmos and were traveling by a good-sized slough, I saw a small, white water-bird of some sort constantly flying over the water and touching down every now and then. It was quite small with a black head.   What the? Was it a tern of some sort back already? In any case, I had to pull over and see what this was. I knew already that it had a black head and was a white bird, but the binoculars revealed a most impressive clue as to what it was.  That clue, or clues rather, where the white triangles on the outer parts of the wings – a field mark that clinched this as our lifer Bonaparte’s Gull!

Bonaparte's Gull lifer!

Bonaparte’s Gull lifer!

I’ve never gotten into gulls, but this might very well be the turning point.  When I first got into birding I wrote off sparrows and gulls as drab, boring birds that all looked alike.  Well, I’ve come to really enjoy the sparrows the more I’ve seen, so now maybe gulls will follow suit.  This was a crisp-looking gull whose petite size and rapid flight made it fascinating to watch.

IMG_7650The rapid flight also made it a bugger to photograph. The bird was often flying far away but when it was close, it was zipping by too fast.  It gave me a great example for the next time I teach related rates in calculus – as the bird’s distance to me decreased, the speed at which the angle from me to the bird increased, reaching its fastest point when it was directly in front of me and slowing down again the further away the bird flew.  The translation here is that I basically got lots and lots of blurry shots for the split second it was right by me or lots and lots of clear shots when it was far away.  Finally, though, I was able to put calculus (and the bird) on my side to get some photos I could live with.  Adding to the difficulty of photographing this bird was that I was standing along the very busy Hwy. 7 – I am sure that I will be asked a hundred times next week in school about what I was doing.


Me -1 Calculus - 0

Me -1 Calculus – 0


I only saw this gull land twice.  I couldn’t get over how small it was.  Here it dabbled with some dabblers, the Blue-winged Teal.

Bonaparte's Gull with a pair of Blue-winged Teal

Bonaparte’s Gull with a pair of Blue-winged Teal

My meatballs endured this lengthy photo shoot since they were engrossed in their movie.  Evan did pause long enough look at his new life bird.  He’s all about the ticks – his interest in birding spikes, albeit briefly, when there’s a new bird on the line.

We continued on to Hutchinson and drove around for a bit before staking out the yard with the Eastern Screech Owl.  I was hoping to find our beloved state bird, the Common Loon, simply known as the “loon.”  I heard several of them have been back already. We didn’t have any luck on the loon but did find an environmental learning center where corn had been set out for ducks and geese.  It was pretty neat to see wild Snow Geese up close, but the chain-link fence made for difficult photography.

Snow Geese -  "Blues"

Snow Geese – “Blues”

We finally got to our stake-out.  The truth is that I didn’t want to stay long as I was a bit uncomfortable parking in front of someone’s house and watching their front yard.  More than once I have felt like a creep in the name of birding.  Anyway, we watched for the owl, or I watched anyway, while the kids started their second movie.

Alas, there was no owl.  A new and local birder, Kristine, who had put me onto this owl and who discovered the incredible McLeod County record Northern Hawk Owl told me that the owners of the Wood Duck box have a video camera inside the box.  The Screech now had 5 eggs and wasn’t as regular in her game of peek-a-boo anymore.

Finally darkness arrived, and it was time to head home. But, as is protocol on our bigger birding trips, we stopped off for a fast-food snack before hitting the road.  And now my birding eyes switched to deer mode while I drove home in the darkness listening to two kids laughing simultaneously at the antics of Tom and Jerry.  We didn’t see what we came to see, but that’s okay.  It was a fun outing with an unexpected life bird.  Seeing the Screech would have just been the icing on the cake.

Good Birding Can’t Be Muted

It just seems that the good birding won’t stop.  While the Arizona birding was a grand adventure and the Spotted Towhee was a mountain-top experience (far from literally, of course), I have continued to experience some great moments in birding.  Sticking to the integrity of this blog that documents shared family experiences, I often do not write about those times.  Today, however, the family was along and got to experience some unplanned, unforgettable birding.

This afternoon we went down to Stewart to visit my Aunt and Uncle.  My Uncle Larry is our CPA and had just finished our tax returns, so we were going to head down that way to visit for a bit, go through the returns, and find out the good or bad news.  Not only was it fun to visit with Larry and Les as always, but we got to check out the resident and migrating birds that were actively moving around on their acreage.  At one point several of us were watching a group of 8 Northern Flickers (I’ve been seeing them in large groups lately).  Then Larry asked what kind of larger bird was sitting in the middle of the yard.  Wait, what? I had seen what he was looking at earlier but dismissed it as a fallen branch.  Here it was a motionless Cooper’s Hawk that had a Northern Flicker pinned to the ground the whole time we were watching the Northern Flickers bopping all over the yard!

Cooper's Hawk on top of  a Northern Flicker

Cooper’s Hawk on top of a Northern Flicker


We all watched in awe (or horror depending on the person) as this flicker fought for his life and flapped like crazy.  The whole time the hawk just stayed on its head/neck.  Eventually, after several minutes, the flicker gave up the ghost and the hawk proceeded to rip him to shreds.  Evan was beyond excited and wanted to go flush the hawk so he could see the dead bird.  We told him he couldn’t disturb the hawk’s dinner.  But when we left a short time later, he ran over to that spot anyway.  The hawk and the flicker were both gone.  It was a cool display of nature.

Speaking of cool raptors killing and eating stuff, here is a shot from the previous night when I went out with Steve for some serious birding around Kandiyohi County.  We had many highlights, but this one took the cake – a Merlin eating a Dark-eyed Junco.  The junco was enough of a distraction to the Merlin that I was able to get close (and use Steve’s sunroof on his new car) to get some good photos of this uncommon bird.

Merlin eating a Dark-eyed Junco

Merlin eating a Dark-eyed Junco

IMG_7541On the way home from Uncle Larry’s we were driving along when I spotted a suspicious-looking white egret all hunched up in our 35-degree weather.  I had to turn around to see if it was a Snowy Egret or a Cattle Egret, both of which are rare but regular birds to our area.  Nope, it was just the common Great Egret.

Great Egret

Great Egret

I had seen a large, white bird on the same pond while driving by at 60 MPH but just dismissed it as an American White Pelican, Trumpeter Swan, or Tundra Swan.  In any case, it would have been boring and not worth a second glance.  However, after we stopped and looked at the egret, Melissa asked me what the big, white bird was.  So I put up my binoculars and couldn’t believe my eyes! It was a lifer AND a rare bird – the Mute Swan!  I really need to bring Melissa with me more often.  She finds all the good stuff!

Mute Swan!

Mute Swan!

IMG_7572Wow, what a find! This species was introduced to the United States and is actually an invasive species in certain areas that threatens the comeback of the Trumpeter Swan. Nevertheless, not a lot of them show up in Minnesota.  In fact, the one we found this evening is a Renville County first record!  It was truly an exciting find and one that made me fumble with my phone trying to put out a lightning-fast post on the listserv so other interested birders could see it too.

Oh, and by the way, we got a nice refund.  🙂

Birding the Phoenix Zoo with a Couple of Monkeys


From a birder’s perspective this final Arizona post may feel anti-climatic given the previous posts on Burrowing Owls as thick as flies, an adreneline-pumping Long-eared Owl chase, and my non-Arizona discovery of an Arizona-type bird back in Minnesota. However, this post is about the high point of our family vacation. Or I should say it was about the only fun we got to experience as a whole family with Marin being sick the entire trip.  But hopefully there are enough birds in this post to keep the birders scrolling down and it won’t just be entertaining for long-lost relatives and friends.

It felt great to see Marin healthy and be able to salvage one day of vacation with Marin by getting her out of Grandma and Grandpa’s house to go to the Phoenix Zoo. Everybody was excited. Even the birder – there had to be some bits and scraps of life birds out there to pick up.  But even if we didn’t find any, it was still good to see this monkey smile.


As we strolled through the zoo enjoying the somewhat cooler day with a breeze, the boisterous Great-tailed Grackles could be heard everywhere.  I finally started to understand why some people call them a nuisance bird.  Adding to the cacophony were many Curve-billed Thrashers.

Curve-billed Thrasher

Curve-billed Thrasher

I noticed another little bird in a tree that I didn’t recognize.  Zooming the camera on it, I saw it was a lifer – the Inca Dove!  I didn’t realize how much smaller they were than Mourning Doves – I kind of passed over that detail in the field guide. The scaly appearance was a dead give-away on this one.  I grabbed Evan to come back and see it.  The non-birding family went on to look at non-birding things, like zoo animals.

Inca Dove

Inca Dove

All of us were very impressed with the natural trails through a desert landscape as we hiked our way up to the Big Horn Sheep pen.  I got some killer looks at some of the birds we had seen earlier in the week, like this Black-chinned Hummingbird.

Black-chinned Hummingbird

Black-chinned Hummingbird

Or the Gila Woodpecker.

Gila Woodpecker

Gila Woodpecker

It was a real treat to be able to get a good look at the Abert’s Towhee and have Evan get this lifer.  I saw it on that desert adventure with Laurence Butler, but it was so dark that when I took a picture that night, all I had to show for the Abert’s were two glowing eyes in a black picture.  I think this one’s a lot better.

Abert's Towhee

Abert’s Towhee

I could tell this zoo story by recounting all the animal species we saw, but the truth is that I wasn’t paying a whole lot of attention to them.  Nope, I was looking for the ones that didn’t require a paid admission to see.  That being said, I couldn’t resist this photo op.  There’s just something funny about kids laughing at monkey butts.  Go ahead, try not to smile.IMG_7258

Speaking of butts and getting back to birds, this modest flicker wouldn’t show me her underside to see the yellow that would confirm it as a Gilded Flicker instead of a female Red-shafted Northern Flicker.  I’m pretty sure it’s a Gilded.  I’ll go with it.  Regardless, I like how this flicker is acting like a bird dog by being “on point.”

Gilded Flicker

Gilded Flicker

At one point when we were looking at something that was neither butts nor birds, Evan hollered, “Dad, look at that! We’ve got a new bird!” He was right! It was the Common Gallinule lurking in the shadows of this murky water.  Then I thought, ‘Wait a second, we’re in a zoo and this bird is some animal’s pen.’  I quickly scanned all the signs for the enclosure.  No Common Gallinule – sweet, we could count it!  I went back for a second look not long after, but he sneaked away to his lair of grasses and shadows.

Common Gallinule

Common Gallinule

Nice job spotting the shadowy lifer, Evan.  That deserved a ride on one of those non-bird things we came to see.


At one point along our journey through the enormous Phoenix Zoo, I spotted an Anna’s Hummingbird.  It was not a lifer on this day nor a particularly exciting bird, but I was pleased to finally properly photograph one of these buggers.

Anna's Hummingbird

Anna’s Hummingbird

Evan, once again, found it much more entertaining to tease the Mallards in this flamingo enclosure.  Sorry, they’re not “real” birds, so I left them out.IMG_7292I found the wild birds much more entertaining.  I absolutely love American Wigeon.  This was my chance to properly photograph one.  Forgive the scuzzy flamingo water and just look at this drake’s beauty.

American Wigeon

American Wigeon

We also spied another (or the same) Common Gallinule being sneaky again – this time stealing food that wasn’t his.  It was pretty funny to watch him fall in this bucket a couple times.


Later on when we were all lounging by the Zebra enclosure, Evan once again hollers, “Dad, a new bird!” We looked in the enclosure, and there, wading in a stream, was a Snowy Egret.  Once again, we checked all the signs.  No Snowy Egrets were supposed to be there, so it was fair game.  A later encounter with some Black-bellied Whistling Ducks at another enclosure wouldn’t be the same as a zoo volunteer told us those ones were part of the exhibit (clipped wings) even though they weren’t on the signs.  Oh well.

Snowy Egret

Snowy Egret

Then there was that devious gallinule again – this time photo-bombing the egret.

IMG_7306Later on we saw the gallinule in another part of the zoo acting suspicious. IMG_7315

I’m not sure, but this Orangutan may have been hiding from the gallinule’s antics.


One of the exhibits that everone seemed to enjoy was the bird cage where we could walk among the birds.  I don’t know what this bird is called – some kind of crazy prehistotic pigeon probably from a land where rats are the size of dogs.  Maybe it’s just my North American arrogance, but I’m content to only concern myself with the 700+ birds on this continent and not worry about the rest of the 10,000+ that are out in this big old world.


This Golden Pheasant turned all our heads, though, and made us pause long enough to remember his name.

Golden Pheasant

Golden Pheasant

My kids found just as much pleasure with the non-living animals as the breathing ones.  Do you think Evan has seen just a few too many gator-wrangling shows on cable?IMG_7364

I certainly enjoyed seeing the numerous birds that aren’t “supposed” to be at the zoo.  It was a thrill to get three lifers today (four for Evan).  I also love opportunities to get a good photo of a bird that is plentiful back home, such as this Ring-necked Duck where you can actually see the brown ring on its neck for which it is named.

Ring-necked Duck

Ring-necked Duck – often incorectly, albeit logically, called the Ring-billed Duck

It was a good day with Grandma and Grandpa, walking around together and seeing all those birds and non-birds.  It was our last full day in the beautiful Arizona weather. Overall it was nice to get away and great for us birders to put a few more notches on the old birding belt.  We are definitely looking forward to our next visit. But, we northerners had to get back to the land of blizzards for winter’s last(?) shake of its fist.

American Tree Sparrow

American Tree Sparrow

A Moment of Glory – the Good, the Bad, the Ugly

Disclaimer: The Arizona series has been interrupted by a birding event so big that it might just cause the author to burst if he could not spew his memories and thoughts now. There is nothing Arizona-esque about this post. No cactus. No sand and rocks. Certainly no sunshine.

Birdwatching may seem like a peaceful, passive activity.  I can tell you that it is most definitely not that way for this birder.  The migrating birds appear deceptively serene as they glide through the air and stop by the feeders.  But they are on a tight schedule.  If they were people, you’d catch them watching the clock constantly, waiting for that moment they had to leave for their next stop on their way to wherever they’re final destination is for the spring.  The birders are watching their clocks and calendars too.  We have about a three-week window to find three species of migrating owls – Northern Saw-whet, Long-eared, and Short-eared – and that window just opened.

Yesterday after supper I decided to go to a Wildlife Management Area just a couple miles from the house.  There was a plantation of pines on the slough-dotted prairie – the perfect roosting spot for an owl layover.  I told Melissa I was only going to take a 15 minute walk around this stand of pines, a time-limit she should, and does, know is not realistic.  I asked Evan if he wanted to take a short hike with me before bed.  He declined.  Apparently the iPad had a greater pull this evening.

The Good

I got to the WMA in short order and began my walk toward the pines.  Canada Geese were standing on the ice of a slough, staking their claim for a nesting spot for when or if the ice melts. I saw a few Red-winged Blackbirds and listened to a Great Horned Owl hooting from the nearby farm place.  I was making careful observations of all my sightings because I’ve been doing more and more reports on eBird, a worldwide sightings database that isn’t widely used by Minnesota birders.  I knew no eBirder had ever walked this WMA, so I wanted to begin to tell its story for future birders and scientists.

As I walked a path between a shrubby area on my left and the pines on my right, I saw a chunky bird in the brush in the low light of dusk.  Pulling up the binoculars, I saw it was a migrating Fox Sparrow, an excellent find that already made it a good walk.  These guys are some of the coolest, toughest sparrows I know.  With their grumpy face and two-footed kicking action in the dirt, they are all-in, can-do sparrows with an attitude.  There is nothing half-hearted about them.  Not even a half foot of fresh snow on the ground is keeping them from kicking their way down to the grass for some food.  If Teddy Roosevelt were a bird, he’d be a Fox Sparrow – that’s how robust they are.  But maybe I’m just partial to TR since we share an affinity for Chestnut-sided Warblers.

Fox Sparrow (Archive photo taken during one of last year's April blizzards)

Fox Sparrow (Archive photo taken during one of the two April blizzards last year)

Not long after the Fox Sparrow, I see another chunky-type bird in the brush.  Another Fox Sparrow? No, no, a hundred times no. The binoculars revealed something far, far greater.  Rufous sides, black head and beak, white belly, white spots on the black wings and back.  I could not believe it.  I was staring at a Spotted Towhee, an obvious life bird for me but more importantly, a very rare bird for Minnesota. I had never even seen the locally uncommon Eastern Towhee, let alone the Spotted Towhee from the western United States! My mind was swirling, but I knew I had to get pictures or this green-horned birder would not be believed by anyone.  I fumbled for my camera and fired off a couple quick, horrible shots.  I knew my images proved the identity, so my thinking was thrown into an avalanche of thoughts about what to do next. Do I post it to the listserv from my phone right now? Do I keep chasing this bird to get that killer photo? Do I call my local birding buddies first? Do I run home to get Evan even though he is probably getting ready for bed and race back here to hopefully find it?  What do I do?

The bird was helping me make my decision.  It was in an isolated bush on the prairie and then moved to an isolated Cottonwood tree down by the large slough. Okay, I’ve got it pinned.  Photos can wait until after I get people mobilized. I knew I had to stay with the bird and couldn’t go home.  Certainly this bird was either a life bird, state bird, or county bird for my friends.  I decided to call Steve first.

The Bad

As I was on the phone with Steve, I lost track of the towhee in the lone tree on the prairie.  Argh. I obviously can’t multi-task.  Despite the darkness that was closing in with the setting sun, Steve said he’d come out my way to help me search.  It would be a lifer for him, #300, in fact.

Steve got out there, and we walked around all the brushy places and the wet places in the vicinity of the sighting.  Nothing. No luck.  To add to the dejection, Steve hadn’t worn any rubber boots and ended up getting wet feet in the slough. I felt bad that Steve didn’t see the bird. I felt bad for Steve’s feet. I felt bad that Evan didn’t come out. I felt bad that I didn’t get the photo I wanted.

The Ugly

Here are the shots I got.  No, they won’t win any blue ribbons at the county fair, but they are still cool souvenirs of the best bird I have discovered on my own.

Spotted Towhee

Spotted Towhee



It has always been a goal of mine to find a really good bird on my own and be able to share it with others.  I’ve reported a lot of Snowy Owls to the birding community, but all of them have been reports handed to me by my non-birding friends and coworkers.  I’ve seen a lot of rare birds because of the skill and generosity of other birders.  I’ve always been sort of a birding mooch, not ever much of a contributor. This was my own, bonafide discovery of a rare bird that others would indeed enjoy.  It was only the second time a Spotted Towhee has been reported in Kandiyohi County, and only a handful have ever been reported in Minnesota on eBird.  Despite that others didn’t see it and that I didn’t get superb photos, I was still very excited.

Last night as I was going to bed processing the ups and downs of the sighting, it occured to me that I saw some cribbing near the sight of the towhee that contained corn silage.  Juncos and sparrows were feeding on the kernels all over the ground.  It was a feeding station that the DNR had put out for the wildlife. Then it hit me that the Spotted Towhee, a bird known to frequent feeders when it does visit Minnesota, might be using this as its primary food source.  Maybe it was some freak sighting of a migrant bird. Or maybe it had been there for awhile and will continue to be there.  I went to bed encouraged – for Steve, for Evan, for myself. I would be back the next day after school to check it out.

So that’s what I did, even though a roaring blizzard had just started.  Joel beat me there by ten minutes.  I was puzzled when I pulled into the parking lot and saw him in his car. He got out and said he’d already seen it!  This was a state bird for Joel.  I immediately got ahold of Steve who then bailed out of work to meet us.  While we waited for Steve, Joel and I did not refind it.

Steve got out there shortly, wih rubber boots this time. In fact, he brought them to work just hoping I’d call.  Steve and I explored for upwards of an hour before we finally found it again!  We had great looks at it out in the open in the very bush I first found it in, but the deluge of snowflakes and distance from the bird kept me from getting nice photos.  So for now, I can live with these.  I will certainly be back out there to get that perfect shot and to help Evan get this phenomenal lifer.


Birding with Butler – Exploring the Sonoran Desert in the Phoenix Mountain Preserve

IMG_7164Every now and then my virtual birding world intersects with our actual birding activities. More than once I have found myself in the company of another birder trying to see a rare bird only to find out that person is some birding legend whose reports I have read. The Arizona trip would be put us in the company of just such a birder – but not by chance.  Through my venture with Birding Across America, I have met many great birders who have contributed pictures and blog posts to my site.  One regular contributor who graciously shares his phenomenal photos of those amazing Arizona avian creatures is Laurence Butler.  Reading Laurence’s blog quickly shows that this guy can get the birds. When we planned our trip, I reached out to Laurence asking for tips on locations for target birds.  Not only did he provide such information, but he even asked if we would be interested in going out birding together. Umm, yes please.

Prior to the trip, Laurence and I had settled on birding the Phoenix Mountain Preserve – a large park in Phoenix where the Sonoran Desert is allowed to run wild.  I couldn’t wait.  Our trip thus far had failed to produce those classic, deserty birds. This would be the chance. Laurence promised us our fill of the desert classics and even mentioned we’d have a shot at seeing a Long-eared Owl.  I took the former with a grain of salt because I know what a tough species that owl is to find, even in Minnesota.  The truth is, I didn’t care what we would find because I knew it would all be new.

Last Tuesday my dad, Evan, and I were headed to the preserve to meet Laurence after his work day.  Being out-of-towners we were unfamiliar with how long it took to get to the preserve, so we were running late.  It didn’t matter – Laurence was already at work finding feathered treasures for us.  He called me saying he had a Harris’s Hawk pinned down in a tree along the street leading to the parking area.  This guy didn’t waste any time.  Our first in-person meeting was hastily executed in the middle of a street while dealing with the distractions of getting a view of the life bird while not getting flattened by a motorist.


Harris’s Hawk

As we walked to get a closer and arguably safer view of the hawk, Laurence pointed out a female Costa’s Hummingbird lifer for us.  But after nabbing a couple shots of the hawk, we were back in the vehicles to drive the remaining few blocks to the preserve.  There were a lot more birds to find and no time to lose.  In fact, on that short drive Laurence stuck an arm out the window of his car pointing out yet another lifer for us – the Curve-billed Thrasher.

Curve-billed Thrasher

Curve-billed Thrasher

Once we got to the preserve’s parking lot, the towering Butler led us on the rocky path into a bustling desert full of human and bird activity – mountain bikers, hikers, runners, and birds were everywhere.  I don’t think we knew which way to look or what to listen to first.  Never mind that we were somewhat preoccupied that we might step on a rattlesnake, get sunburned in the 80+ degree sunshine, or trip onto any of Arizona’s inhospitable plants.  Finally my attention settled on something familiar – a Gambel’s Quail that was just sluggishly lounging on a branch.  Mostly these birds seem so high-strung and dart away, but it’s almost as this one looked at us and said, “Meh.”

Gambel's Quail

Gambel’s Quail

He was no lifer, but it took only seconds for the first of a long-procession of lifers to make its appearance – the very handsome Black-throated Sparrow.  I think this is the king of all the sparrows.  It almost belies its namesake since it’s not just some drab, brown, well, sparrow.

Black-throated Sparrow

Black-throated Sparrow


This was a cool sighting.  It’s a bird I easily overlooked in the field guides.  Only after seeing it come to life on Laurence’s blog did I realize that this was a bird I needed to see.

Not long after the sparrow, we got to see Arizona’s state bird – the loud and boisterous Cactus Wren.

Cactus Wren - Arizona's state bird

Cactus Wren – Arizona’s state bird

We got to see this bird a couple times.  It always obliged us by posing atop a cactus, even on top of the Saguaro Cactus, whose bloom is the Arizona state flower.


Birding with Butler is fast and intense.  Well, maybe that’s because us short-legged northerners, one of whom was 69 and the other 7, weren’t used to the fast and furious birding and walking.  And Evan was busy cataloguing every bird and plant species we saw in his notebook, an excruciatingly slow but cute task. With Laurence leading the way when we went off the path, I followed close behind, and Evan and Dad picked up the rear.  Our movements probably resembled those of an inch-worm, where the head quickly goes out, waits, and lets the tail catch up.  On such occasions I got a chance to enjoy the scenery.


Going off-roading as we did, we Minnesotans were probably watching the ground more than the birds.  Our scout alerted us whenever something cool was around, like a running Greater Roadrunner with a lizard dangling from its beak.  But we were too slow and too dull eyed to see what Laurence saw.  Bummer.  But we did see this male Phainopepla that Laurence pointed out.  It probably helped that it was black and didn’t move.

Male Phainopepla

Male Phainopepla

Laurence taught us that Phainopepla is a Greek word meaning “silky robe.”  I’m pretty sure Evan wrote that down too. Like many of the other birds, this one was a great ambassador for this desert state as it posed nicely in front of a Saguaro.


Our next life bird that we stumbled onto was the Black-tailed Gnatcatcher.

Black-tailed Gnatcatcher

Black-tailed Gnatcatcher

After viewing the gnatcatcher, we rested for a bit in the shade.  The heat was taking its toll on Evan. I took the opportunity to snap some photos of our surroundings.

IMG_7165 IMG_7166

IMG_7171Our fearless guide kept watch for the next lifer.
IMG_7163The next bird wasn’t a lifer nor a good photo op, but it’s a nice bird in my book, so it deserves a photo post – the Loggerhead Shrike.

Loggerhead Shrike

Loggerhead Shrike

We did get another lifer but no decent photo when we found the Gilded Flicker.  We did, however, get some good looks at the Gila Woodpecker, which was a lifer for me the other day and a lifer for Evan on this day.

Gila Woodpecker

Gila Woodpecker

Laurence’s plan was to hike to the top of this mountain wash and then loop back by coming down a narrow gully that would take us most of the way back to the car. It was in this tree-choked gully where Laurence hoped we would see a roosting Long-eared Owl that only stops by this area during a two-week window during migration. Before we got to the gully, though, Evan and Dad had enough hiking and decided they would head back to the car and let the two of us carry on.  According to my dad, once they headed back to the van, Evan had a lot more pep in his step.  Where he was once dragging and complaining, he was now chipper and bounding through the desert toward the car.

It’s too bad they split off from us because we got to the gully not long afterward and embarked on a most memorable bird hunt. Laurence led our single-file procession down the rocky stream bed through the tangle of trees in the gully that was roughly 8-10 feet deep. When walking down the gully and looking ahead, it appeared that there was so much vegetation that we would not be able to proceed.  However, the rocky stream-bed was a perfectly cleared path the whole way down.

Laurence had said a birder he knows has come face-to-face with the Long-eareds in this very gully without flushing them.  The idea of coming upon this bird in such a manner was an exciting prospect, and one we took seriously by walking quietly.  But the more we walked, the more we dropped our vigilance. Hushed whispers of conversation morphed into decibel-levels that would rival bar-room talk.  Maybe we both thought the chance of seeing a Long-eared was a long shot, maybe we were relaxed after some already successful birding, or maybe we just wanted to yak about birds.  A covey of Gambel’s quail brought us to our senses if only for awhile.  But a short time later an explosion of wings barreled out of one of the trees.  I’ve flushed many a game bird in my hunting days, but none of them could compare to thrill of what we both instantly recognized as the very bird we were after, the Long-eared Owl!

The owl only went a short distance down the gully.  We knew exactly what tree it was in, but we could not see the doggone thing.  We carefully tiptoed and snuck our way to a better vantage point.  We strained to discern this owl from the tangled tree it was in.  No luck.  Eventually we made the owl nervous, and it flushed back upstream a short ways.  Not only were we fighting the owl’s uncanny ability to blend into anything, but it was also getting dark fast.  I used my camera to look into the general area it flew, and I could see his face and yellow eyes!  The next ten minutes or so, Laurence and I were crawling along the gully walls for a better vantage point to take photos.  The owl was found in the small, dark spot in the center of the picture below, right along the streambed just past the rocky outcropping on the left.  Laurence and I used the outcropping to crawl closer to the owl.IMG_7193

Of the many photos I took through the tangles in the low-light conditions, I managed to pull out one usable shot of this super-cool lifer.

Long-eared Owl!

Long-eared Owl!

The owl tolerated us for a time but eventually got tired of us and flushed upstream again.  We decided it was time to let it be, so we made our way back to the parking lot.  It was a successful operation that went exactly according to Laurence’s plan.  I absolutely love when a plan like that comes together and an objective like that is achieved.  I think the feeling was mutual as we found ourselves celebrating the moment with a much-deserved high five.  The only thing better would have been if Evan and Dad could have seen it too.

The only thing left to do after leaving the owl was to enjoy the desert in the setting sun and freely talk about birds, birders, and birding at bar-room decibel levels again.  I got to enjoy my last looks at desert birds and picked up final lifer for the day – the Abert’s Towhee.


This birding outing with Butler could not have gone any better.  We enjoyed some outstanding views of some real desert beauties.  It was a pleasure to meet Laurence in person and go on an adventure with him.  I’m sure, over time, that we will join forces again whether that be in the Sax-Zim Bog or on subsequent trips to the Phoenix area.

There is one final post about our birding in Arizona.  Check back again to see what more we found before we went home to Minnesota.