An Unforgettable Field Trip to Grant County and the North Ottawa Impoundment

A lot of fascinating bird reports have been pouring out of Grant County which is just a little more than an hour to the northwest.  The biggest news that came last week was a confirmed nesting pair of Black-necked Stilts.  These stilts normally reside in the souther reaches of our country and rarely stray into Minnesota, let alone nest here.  So as people were going to check out this historic find, they were turning up other good birds like Black-crowned Night Herons, Cattle Egrets, and Loggerhead Shrikes.  And just yesterday another southwestern bird popped up within 10 miles of all this action, the White-winged Dove!

Randy invited us to go a field trip to Grant County.  The big attraction for Randy was the White-winged Dove which would have been a new state bird for him.  The dove was just one of many phenomenal birds I was interested in.  Needless to say, we accepted Randy’s offer.  Evan and I were up at 4:30 this morning so we could get up to Grant County to wait at a fellow birder’s feeders for the White-winged Dove to make an appearance.

As we drove we encountered a brutal rainstorm, but we were confident that the forecast of scattered storms would allow us at least some weather-free moments to check on these birds.  Finally we got to the site of the dove which was a farm place down a half-mile long driveway and tucked inside a densely wooded yard. It was not what I expected. I figured we’d be able to park our car and just watch a feeder, but the feeder was on the back side of the house.  The only way to view it was to walk around the house or look through the house’s windows. We decided to creep around the house.  Randy led our silent single-file procession.  Immediately he said, “On the feeder right now.” Wow, that was fast!  The bird then flew up into a tree posing nicely for spectacular views.

White-winged Dove

White-winged Dove

IMG_9015After our lightning-fast, dynamic sighting, we knocked on the door to thank Charlene, the birder and homeowner who made this amazing discovery.  Charlene was the epitomy of Minnesota-nice, offering us coffee and donuts and showing us a plat book and telling us where to find other great birds in the area.  It’s always a pleasure to meet a friendly birder in the field.

Next we were on to the North Ottawa Impoundent, which is a 2 mile by 0.5 mile rectangular pool used to provide flood relief for the Rabbit River, Bois de Sioux River, and Red River.  Before we got there, though, there were many good birds to see, like the abundant Bobolinks.



The North Ottawa Impoundment was an attraction for me because of the reported Black-crowned Night Herons and Cattle Egrets, both of which would be lifers.  When we got to the impoundment, we immediately saw numerous Great Egrets.  We kept hoping one of the white birds would be our nemesis Cattle Egret.  Eventually Randy spied the two Cattle Egrets that had been reported.  Finally!  It was quite a thrill to now gain two life birds from this field trip.

Cattle Egret

Cattle Egret

These egrets were quite shy and did not give many photo opportunities.  The following picture was fun because it clearly shows the size comparison with the Great Egret, and clearly there is no comparison.

Great Egret and Cattle Egrets

Great Egret and Cattle Egrets

Driving around the impoundment was a magical experience.  There were cool birds everywhere.  I guess while I was out of the car trying to photograph these egrets, Randy found an Upland Sandpiper.  Additionally, there were hordes of ducks with other goodies mixed in, like numerous Eared Grebes, a Red-necked Phalarope, and a Wilson’s Phalarope. Taking a short walk allowed us to get good looks at many of these birds.


Ruddy Duck

Ruddy Duck

Eared Grebes

Eared Grebes


IMG_9063As much as we tried we could not turn up a Black-crowned Night Heron.  I guess we can’t win it all, plus there was still more good birding ahead.  Our next stop was the sewage ponds at the city of Herman where two Black-necked Stilts have decided to nest. Because of the work of some dedicated birders who brought this to the city’s attention, the city has agreed to not mow around this pond until the birds are done nesting.  In fact, the townsfolk are pretty excited over the hub-bub at their local sewage ponds.

A nesting bird is easy to find.  It is about the only guarantee there is when it comes to finding a bird.  We were able to see both of the adults today.  It was not a new bird as we saw them in Arizona a couple months ago, but it is a really fun bird that was a treat to see not far down the road from us.

Nesting Black-necked Stilts  at the Herman Sewage Ponds in Grant County

Nesting Black-necked Stilts at the Herman Sewage Ponds in Grant County

You didn’t need any special optics to see these birds well, but an up-close view makes a good sighting even better.

IMG_9093It was fun to see the female sit on the nest which has one confirmed egg.




Black-necked Stilts – a most appropriate name


After the ponds we decided to see if we could find the reported Loggerhead Shrike just north of Herman.  We couldn’t find it on our way to see the Black-necked Stilts.  The second time was the charm, though, as Charlene’s parked vehicle on Hwy. 9 and pointed binoculars alerted us to its presence.  In addition to her own rare yard bird, she was keeping tabs on all these other incredible finds within 10 miles of her home.

It’s always fun to see a shrike, but Loggerheads are rare in Minnesota, so they are extra special.

Loggerhead Shrike

Loggerhead Shrike

And with that last sighting, it was time to head home.  What a phenomenal day of birding it had been. Two life birds, a host of uncommon birds, and great company are tough to beat.  It was one of those big birding days that will stand out for a long time in our memories.  After all, how often will can a birder see a White-winged Dove and a Black-necked Stilt on the same day in Minnesota?

COPS: Pennock Sewage Ponds

The combination of the recent insurgence of shorebirds and the beginning of my summer vacation meant one thing – I had to go on a tour-de-ponds on Wednesday, hitting up the wastewater treatment ponds of three small towns in Kandiyohi County. (Tour-de-ponds/Turdy ponds – get it?) Evan still has school, so Marin and I dropped him off and embarked on our adventure.  To keep it interesting for her, she was promised it’d be a tour-de-parks also where we’d stop at each town’s park to break up the trip.

Pennock was up first on the list. To get to the ponds, I had to drive south along a gravel trail for well over a half mile.  I stopped to check out a Horned Lark.  That was my second mistake.  The first mistake was driving a mini-van, but I’ll get to that later.  The berm surrounding the ponds was perpendicular to this road and directly in front of me.  So I had to turn east to drive along the berm until I reached the corner and had to go south again.  Why I am boring you with all this direction nonsense?  Well, the berm surrounding these sewage ponds is tall.   It’s so tall that you can’t see the ponds from your vehicle.  You either have to get on top of your vehicle or cross the barb wire fence that is posted every hundred yards with ‘No Trespassing Signs’.  Every single sewage pond I have been to has a fence around it with ominous warnings.  To a birder it’s very frustrating.  It’s kind of like this brand new slide Marin and I found that appeared functional and safe and yet was roped off until who knows when.  “Here is something really fun kids and super safe, but back off!”


But I digress. I was driving around the ponds looking for any place where I might catch an easy glimpse of the water.  Finally I stopped right by one of those pesky ‘No Trespassing’ signs. I thought to myself, ‘Come on, it’s Pennock, the middle of nowhere. No one’s gonna see me.’  I put the van in park and was about to open my door when I saw my rearview mirror was lit up with the blue and red flashing lights of a Kandiyohi County Sheriff’s squad car five feet off my rear bumper!  Whoa, I had no idea how long he’d been in “hot-pursuit” of me since we were both a mile from the highway and I was driving all of 5 MPH the whole time.

A thousand thoughts raced through my head.  Do I pull over? How do I pull over when I’m on a dirt path? Maybe I should just hop out and explain I’m just birding. Maybe I should grab my binoculars and show them so they can see that. No! Don’t hop out, are you stupid?!  Binoculars? Are you nuts? Do you want to commit suicide by cop by jumping out with binoculars? It was terrifying, confusing, and even a little exhilarating. Finally a cooler head and many years of watching COPS prevailed – I stayed in my vehicle, rolled down the window, and shut off the engine. I decided to rest my arm on the door frame of the van.  I know, he’ll see my wedding ring and know the mini-van is legit and this will all be one big misunderstanding.

After what felt like an eternity, the driver’s door of the squad car opened and the deputy began making his way to my window.  His walk was slow as he hugged the inside edge of my car keeping one hand on his holster – no joke.  I could tell he looked tense.  It had to be the suspicious mini-van, my first mistake.  No one goes to a sewage pond in a mini-van.  Had I driven a truck or my SUV and wore a seed cap, those officers wouldn’t have thought twice about me being out here.  Finally the officer made it to just behind my window as they are trained to do when approaching potentially criminal birders in suspicious mini-vans at sewage ponds.

“What are you doing here today?”

“I’m birding.”

Immediately the tension on his face broke as he burst into a smile and repeated, “Birding.” Any visions he had of a show-down at the Pennock Sewage Ponds must have vanished with my response.  I, too, felt more relaxed, thinking that he would leave me alone now.

“We’ve had some reports of people messing with things here, so when we saw you parked we came to check it out (my second mistake of looking at the lark). We’ll have you on your way shortly, but I need to see your license and insurance card.”  So apparently this constituted a traffic stop even though I was doing nothing wrong and technically wasn’t pulled over.  Back to feeling like a criminal.

So I waited and waited.  Finally I got my license back.  “There you go, Josh. Have a nice day.”  Hey, he used my name – I feel exonerated.  So I watched him go in reverse down the dirt trail.  I was waiting for him to leave so I could resume birding, but once he got to the corner of the ponds, he just stayed and watched me.  I got out with binoculars and camera and went to a low spot in the berm where I could look over.  Any thoughts of fence-hopping were completely gone. As I watched birds, he watched me and watched me and watched me.  Back to feeling like a criminal.  Finally I decided I’d had enough and got in the van.  I, too, drove in reverse down the path which finally got him to move along.  (How many traffic stops conclude with both officer and perpetrator going in reverse for a hundred yards?) When I got to the corner and could turn around to go forward, I was shocked to see a second patrol car with two more officers!  Should I feel intimidated or honored that this birder required back-up?

Once I got back home I shared my anecdote with my birding buddies.  One of them fessed up that he’d hopped that fence the night before.  Aha!  Another told me he’s been questioned by law enforcement three times in the name of birding, and then he proceeded to welcome me to the brotherhood.  It actually was on my list of birding accomplishments/expectations.  Put other birders onto a rare bird? Check. Find a county record? Check. Check. Check. Get stopped by police while birding? Check.  I guess I’m now a bona fide birder.

It’s silly, really, how a mini-van, a lark, and a fence-hopping friend can all put you in bad light.  I wasn’t speeding, making an illegal u-turn, nearly causing an accident, checking email while driving, or trespassing.  And as to whether I’ve done any of those things in an effort to see a bird, I plead the fifth.

My birding mood was killed for a little bit, but after a recovery period at home I decided to get back on with the tour.  It turns out that there would be more surpises in store for this day.  That’s what I love about birding – you just never know what’s going to happen.  And the cop stop is all part of the fabric of expecting the unexpected.

While I was letting Marin play at Atwater’s Centennial Park, I ran into a former student who’s now in college and was babysitting some kids at the park.  After catching up a bit, she asked me if I was the one that was into owls.  I told her that I enjoy them, yes.  Then she said that there’s one in the park right on the ground down near the lake.  What?!

So we all marched down there, with like a zillion kids in tow.  She told me that it was in the middle of a huge Cottonwood tree and to see it you would have to walk to the shore, turn, and it would be five feet in front of you.  So I followed her instructions and saw this guy! It was a Great Horned owlet.

Great Horned Owlet



Poor thing.  Every kid in town knew about this guy, especially with cell phone pics running rampant through social media.  Making it worse is that you have to be within a few feet of the bird to see it. I heard one kid had been throwing sticks at it.  Now where are those Kandiyohi County Sheriff’s deputies when you need them? I looked all over the massive tree above to find the owlet’s mom or dad, but I had no luck.  I checked back on it the following day, and it was gone.  I’m not sure how it left but was glad to see it out of such a public spot.

One of the last parks we went to was in the city of Lake Lillian.  Now this was a good old fashioned park with splintery wooden teeter-totters (the kind where you could roll off when your end was on the ground, dropping your buddy on the other end like a rock) and huge metal slides that must reach at least 350°.  Here’s my super cute, recent four-eyes trying to cool it down.


Not a safe park and no caution tape or razor-wire fence keeping us out.  It just didn’t fit the profile of the day.

IMG_8917As Marin enjoyed the dangerous park, my ear caught the summer sound of an Eastern Wood Pewee.  It didn’t take long to find it.

Eastern Wood Pewee

Eastern Wood Pewee

Later on I nearly had my second heart attack of the day when I was sitting on a park bench watching Marin.  A dove landed two feet away from me on the ground.  It took me a bit to take in what I was seeing – tiny dove, scaled back.  Then it hit me – it was the Inca Dove, a southwestern specialty we had seen in Arizona!  Stupidly my camera was in the van at this point.  I froze and couldn’t even get my phone out for a picture.  Finally the dove flew.  Noting where it landed, I dashed to get my camera and come back.  If it were an Inca Dove, no one would believe me without proof.  It took me a half hour to relocate it, but I finally found it in a tree.  It turns out it was a juvenile Mourning Dove, which seems oddly early.  Rats.


Juvenile Mourning Dove, NOT an Inca Dove

IMG_8938It was interesting to read in the field guide that these juveniles are commonly mistaken for Inca Doves.  It was fun, nonetheless, to have this little learning experience, but I could have done without that second adrenaline rush of the day.  Whoever said birdwatching was a lame activity for old people?