Ahhhh, northern Minnesota. It’s good for the soul. I can’t believe June had nearly expired before we got up there this summer. I blame bathroom remodels, snow make-up days, and birds. June is probably the best month to be up there. The weather is wonderfully cool, the scenery is a crisp blue and green everywhere, the fishing is fantastic, and the warblers are unbeatable. It’s a birdaholic’s dream with the great northern species and a maximum of 6 hours of darkness around this time of the summer solstice.
In fact, when we arrived at Mom and Dad’s around 7:30 last Sunday evening, I heard a life bird. An American Bittern, also known as the Thunder Pumper, was just beginning his evening calling in the wetland across the road. I battled the hordes of mosquitos trying to get a glimpse of it, but it never came into view. Maybe tomorrow.
That next morning I was up early to go birding around my parents’ 80-acre spread. The truth is that I’ve never really birded their land as I’ve seen most of my northern birds during migration back home. But this place is where the birding venture kicked off for me a couple years ago when I had a chance encounter with a Chestnut-sided Warbler. It was time to see what I could dig up when birding it properly. My parents’ land is unusual in that it is mostly open prairie instead of being heavily forested like most of the region. As such they get some fun prairie birds like Eastern Bluebirds and Bobolinks as well as a lot of the boreal species in the surrounding woods.
The dew was heavy that morning and the mosquitoes were unbelievably thicker than normal. Admittedly I was quite miserable. The beautiful song of another life bird, the Winter Wren, caused me to bear the misery a little longer. But the Winter Wrens have an affinity for the thickest, shrubbiest, swampiest habitat. Even if I got close I would probably not get a visual and the mosquitoes would increase tenfold. I gave up on it after a time, deciding to go after it during migration back home. My morning was not a waste, though, as I was delighted to find a Northern Parula singing on territory. My visual was quick but good even if I couldn’t get a photo. Other than the Parula, the audio birding was wonderful – Veeries, Ovenbirds, and White-throated Sparrows were constantly at work creating a symphony in the woods.
Later that day Evan was begging for a 4-wheeler ride. Usually I’m the one who takes him on such an excursion. Eventually I relented. Evan told me he wanted to go on “the longest 4-wheeler ride ever.” The appeal of ATVs and snowmobiles has long worn off for me, but with all the birds around I had the sudden thought that I could probably give Evan “the longest 4-wheeler ride ever” and that it could be a lot of fun for both of us. It would have several listening stops at key places. Evan’s a birder and not enough of a motor-head to mind stopping every now and then to listen and look for birds.
Our first listening stop was the location of that Northern Parula. I played the song on my phone. Immediately we got a response, but not from the Parula. A Black-billed Cuckoo sounded off in the distance! Holy Smokes! That’s another life bird. I’m not sure if he responded to the Parula song or if it was pure coincidence. Either way, we fired up the 4-wheeler and headed that direction. We made a couple stops, playing the song each time. Randy has said they are very responsive to tapes. Despite our efforts, we were not hearing it again.
Then I was about to give up at our last stop, when all of the sudden the Cuckoo flew in and landed in a dead tree right in front of us!
“There it is!”
“Where?!” Evan responded
“Right there!” I said, pointing as Evan sat on the 4-wheeler seat in front of me.
“I see it! Yes! Another life bird!” Evan said while doing a fist pump and standing simultaneously.
The visual was good. The photos are another story. It’s such a secretive, sneaky bird!
This bird flew out into this open meadow a few times checking us out. We had really good looks at it as it flew by. What a thrill it was to finally get this bird! A good sighting like that made a beautiful day even more beautiful.
I took my dad out a couple hours later to see the Black-billed Cuckoo. He had never seen one either. We took the 4-wheeler, but as is the customary pecking-order of father-son relationships, I was no longer the driver. I opted for sitting on the back rack, facing the opposite direction instead of sharing the seat with him. I was able to help Dad see the Cuckoo. It was also fun to enjoy the birds that benefit from the nesting boxes Dad has put up.
Dad and I also got to see a White-throated Sparrow and a Chestnut-sided Warbler singing within each other’s territories. While we were listening and watching, we heard the distinctive “Free beeeer!” call of the Alder Flycatcher. Sweet. Alder Flycatchers are one of the five Empidonax species we can see in Minnesota, and the only safe way to correctly identify them is through voice and habitat. Flycatchers are a drab bunch. Maybe that’s why the Alder and Acadian Flycatchers try to lure in birders and unsuspecting college students alike with their respective “Free-beeeer!” and “Piz-ZA!” calls.
Dad and I found the Alder no problem. Flycatchers love their dead snag perches above the rest of the shrubbery.
There were many other short 4-wheeler trips during our time at Mom and Dad’s. It’s always fun to see birds that are residents here but migrants back home, like the Olive-sided Flycatcher or this Hermit Thrush.
I tried several times to see that American Bittern. I may have seen it fly, but I’m not sure and won’t count it. While searching for the Bittern one evening I had the good fortune of seeing another Black-billed Cuckoo! But all that gave me photo-ops were this Common Yellowthroat.
And this rainbow. It wasn’t going anywhere.
Not bad birding around the parents’ farm. I also sneaked away one morning on a quick solo mission to hike the Vermilion Gorge trail by Crane Lake on a tip from local birder, Dee Kuder, to look for Pine Warblers. Pine Warbler is a hole in my warbler life list, and I always forget about this drab warbler during migration and when I’m up north. It’s like that quiet kid in the classroom – always there but greatly overshadowed by the more gaudy and boisterous warbler children. Today was the day to look for the Pine. Evan declined my offer to go on this hike.
The Crane Lake area has the classic northern Minnesota beauty with tall pines and pristine lakes with rocky shores. Unfortunately it was a cloudy day and I had to save my dying camera battery for a chance encounter with that Pine Warbler, so I wasn’t able to get any scenery shots. Not even of the Vermilion River Gorge itself, a deep, narrow canyon a couple hundred yards long where the river rushes through.
Dee’s information paid off though. I found the Pine in a large stand of towering Red Pines. The Pine Warbler is way at the far-end of the beauty spectrum as far as warblers go, but I was ecstatic to find this drab, little bugger. It was my 30th warbler species.
A Pine Warbler in the pines. You can’t beat that. I always prefer to see birds in their natural territories rather than in pot-luck sightings during migration. Evan was bummed that I got the Pine; I guess I forgot to tell him I was looking for that bird when I asked if he wanted to go hiking. But as bird sightings go, now that I’ve seen the Pine, I will start seeing them everywhere so Evan should get his in short order.
Our trip up north was productive both birdwise and relative-wise. And I had yet another crazy bird/birder adventure. Hopefully I can secure some guest photos from that encounter so I can share the fun story here. Stick around.
This story picks up right where the Wood Stork story leaves off. Steve, Evan, and I were scheduled to depart Willmar at 4:30 AM last Saturday morning to make the three-hour trip up to Felton Prairie just east of Fargo. Keep in mind we returned from the stork chase near the Iowa border around 9:00 PM on Friday night. That’s a short turn-around time for an adult, let alone a 7-year-old. I asked Evan if he still wanted to go. He chose sleep. Evan had been hot and cold with this trip anyway. When I first asked him if he wanted to go, he said he wasn’t interested. Then I saw a picture in my Facebook feed of a Chestnut-collared Longspur someone had seen at Felton Prairie and showed it to him. His response was, “Ok, I’m interested.” Absolutely. But sleep did win out this time, so it was just Steve and I. We have been talking about doing this trip for nearly a year. We were stoked to finally go.
Felton Prairie is designated as an Important Birding Area (IBA) by the the Minnesota DNR. It consists of some WMAs, game refuges, and other public land, and it can host many hard-to-find western species. Such birds include Marbled Godwits, Upland Sandpipers, Grasshopper Sparrows, Baird’s Sparrows, Burrowing Owls, Swainson’s Hawks, Western Kingbirds, Loggerhead Shrikes, Sprague’s Pipits, Greater Prairie Chickens, Gray Partridge, and the reliable number-one bird and reason to head to Felton – the Chestnut-collared Longspur. This is the only place where they are known to breed in the state. Interestingly they are found along a narrow strip of prairie that runs along the top of a long ridge which I’m told is the edge of glacial Lake Aggasiz. There is a road that runs this ridge. Its official name is 170th Street, but everyone calls it Longspur Road. It’s the place to go. It’s even been known to host a complete spring-time party of Smith’s, Lapland, and Chestnut-collared Longspurs.
Steve and I hit Longspur Road right away. Western Meadowlarks were singing everywhere.
A fun bird that is normally very hard to find is ubiquitous here, the Grasshopper Sparrow. We glassed dozens hoping to turn one into our target bird.
Nearly right away on our first pass down Longspur Road, Steve made a fantastic discovery – two Greater Prairie Chickens! It was a life bird for both of us, and with it I have now seen all members of the grouse family that call Minnesota home.
Not only did we see this pair, but we kept turning them up! We had three more bunches of 4,2, and 2 respectively, making a total of 10 birds! A highlight was watching one near the car when it flushed, causing three others hidden in the grass much, much closer to flush as well. Talk about great looks!
It was a satisfying life bird but not the one we were after. It alone would have made a solid trip. It was also fun to see Marbled Godwits. At first. Then they were everywhere and noisy. Very noisy. It souned like we were at a beach with a bunch of gulls.
Another fun bird was the Western Kingbird. We saw five. One makes for a good day.
As cool as these birds were and fun to see, they were way down on the priority list because we came here for one bird, the Chestnut-collared Longspur. I don’t know how many times we drove up and down the 3-mile road. We kept seeing fun stuff, like this mother Blue-winged teal and her brood appearing out of the grass and disappearing back into it with no water around for miles.
Or a pair of Brewer’s Blackbirds.
But still no longspurs. I think we expected this bird to be perched conspicuously on the barb-wire fence that ran alongside the road. Or we thought it would be on the road itself. Then we figured we better watch the prairie more and the fence less. Still nothing. We were fast approaching our cut-off time to leave. Near the very end, we finally had the idea to study its song. We were foolish for not having done so earlier. We were shocked and a little disheartened to learn the song sounds very, very close to the Western Meadowlark song. With minutes left before we had to depart, we picked out the higher version of the meadowlark song and found our target. This was the conspicuous look we were searching for.
It was quite a thrill to see this bird. I’m looking forward to my next trip to Felton to see this bird again and to show it to Evan. It’s quite the jaw-dropper.
We capped off our visit to Felton Prairie by taking a quick drive down the two-mile Co. Rd. 118, where Loggerhead Shrikes are known to hang out on the wires at the very end of the road. We were not disappointed. Like the intel on the longspurs, this is decades-old information that is still reliable today.
It was a good trip with a couple of key lifers, but it was far from the end of this birder’s marathon travel schedule. Steve and I had to get home so I could get packed up and ready for the 265-mile trip to northern Minnesota the next day where more birds and adventures would be in store for us. And relatives too. Those are fun to see. Stay tuned – more birds, pictures, and stories await. Wasn’t I remodeling a bathroom or something?
From reading the blog it may seem that I bird all the time. The truth is that I squeeze in little bursts of birding around the regular stuff of life. One of those regular things has been some home improvement, specifically a bathroom remodel. Daily birding forays have been replaced with daily trips to Menards and Home Depot. And instead of roaming the countryside freely looking for birds, I have been confined to a 7-foot basement bathroom with no window. But I had been diligently putting in my time because I was looking forward to a full-fledged birding adventure with Steve last Saturday to Felton Prairie to look for Chestnut-collared Longspurs and other prairie goodies. Even with that to look forward to, though, I was growing weary of the bathroom project. If only there was a reprieve.
It turns out there was. On Friday morning a very interesting email came in: the previous evening a Wood Stork had been found by a farmer in southern Minnesota very near the Iowa border when he was surveying damage to his grove from one of the recent storms that had pummeled the area. Likely this bird had been blown in by one of the big storms. I wasn’t even sure what a Wood Stork was, so I researched it and discovered this bird only lives in Florida and the Gulf Coast and that this was only the second time it had been in Minnesota! There was a catch, though. The person reporting stated that they had not yet secured permission from the homeowner for birders to come see it. All he could say was that it was along the I-90 corridor west of Blue Earth. Not only that but there was no fresh information of the bird being seen that morning. I would need more info than that to make the 3-hour one-way trip. Nevertheless I had told Evan and Melissa about it, planting the seed that we may need to take off later.
Almost immediately after the email came in I got a call from Randy. He wanted to chase it on the limited information hoping more details would trickle while in en route. I’m surprised he called me first. Maybe he figured I’d go because I was also a teacher and had the time off, or maybe he figured I’d be an easy sell based on my chase history. Anyway, I turned him down saying I needed more to go on. It was back to working on the bathroom for me. Yuck.
Early afternoon came with a new email: the bird was refound and the exact location was given! When I told Melissa, she surprised me by saying, “Well, I’m up for an adventure. Do you want to go?” Do I?! I called up Randy and made arrangements for him to join the family on this wild bird chase. Since Randy works with Melissa and gets along great with the kids, I knew he wouldn’t mind tagging along with the whole fam.
We had a pleasant drive down visiting and surveying all the flooding due to the incessant rains we’ve had. As someone on Facebook stated, our new state motto will likely be “The Land of One Lake.” Once we got to our location, though, we nearly panicked because we didn’t see a big, white stork, but even more worrisome was that we didn’t see any birders anywhere. This was a second state record; there should be birders everywhere. We figured this was bad news and that people had scattered to go refind this thing. Eventually we caught sight of another birder driving slowly. Our hopes were lifted when we saw him stop for awhile. Did he see it? Then he ended up going down a steep embankment onto what appeared to be a frontage road along I-90. What was he doing? We watched him go into this farm place. You can see an east-bound semi on I-90.
We watched. The car never came out. Interesting. Then, all of the sudden, two different cars were driving out of this long driveway, and two cars full of birders were driving in! Quickly we headed down this driveway and stopped to talk to one of the outgoing drivers. He confirmed what we suspected; the bird was there!
And so were the birders.
It was quite a party. Everyone was pretty excited. Marin picked up on the palpable excitement as she asked, “What are all these guys so excited about?”
This is what they were excited about, Marin.
You would have swore the Vikings finally won a Super Bowl with how jolly these guys were. It was pretty fun. Even the kids wanted to see for themselves what the big deal was.While I photographed the bird, Melissa and the kids went with Randy to check out some of the farmyard animals. Apparently I missed Marin nearly get attacked by this giant rooster when it was chasing her while she ran, unbeknownst to Marin. The ensuing screams would have likely scared away the stork, and I would have been banished from the birding circles of which I participate. Thankfully Melissa thwarted the attack by getting Marin to stop running which then stopped the rooster from chasing her. By doing so, she was able to keep the screams and stork at bay, keeping Minnesota birders happy and my reputation intact.
The kids love any chance they get to pet a cat since we can’t have one due to my allergies.
With enough stork and enough cat, it was time to leave. We had a fun sighting just a half mile from the farm – an Upland Sandpiper at the top of a tall utility pole. With almost zero habitat around I was surprised to see it.
It was finally time to head home on the 3-hour return trip. The visiting continued, but this time it was Marin who was talking everyone’s ear off and thoroughly thriving on the attention of a new person in the car. By the time we got home our bodies and ears were tired. It had been a whirlwind 7-hour adventure. But it was a lot of fun to do something spur of the moment and witness something unique as a family. I told Melissa that it’s probably the closest thing she’ll get to experiencing a flash mob like she’s always wanted to see.