A Day for the History Books*

I know, I know…you’re wondering when this guy is going to quit with the doggone Snowy Owl posts.  Folks, I’m just out reporting what’s happening on the prairie, and just when I think the climax of the story has been reached, it keeps escalating.  Boston may be getting dumped with snow, but Kandiyohi County is getting buried in SNOW. No fluff owl postings on this site – just hard-hitting updates on the story that’s unfolding daily.  So let’s get right to it.


After Evan’s piano lesson, Melissa and the kids went out to eat.  I split from them as I was scheduled to work at my buddy Steve’s Knowledge Bowl meet. #neverfullyretired  I had about a half hour to kill, so I went owling.  Right away I found a Snowy, and it looked darkish in the diminishing light.  I didn’t stop, though, didn’t even slow down.  I would come back.  I first had to do my route to see just how many Snowies I could dig up.  I did find Wilbur which now gave me my fourth double-Snowy sighting of the month. #wilburisthebestlookingsnowyowlever

Snowy Owl Willmar

He was waaay up high on one of those metal high-line poles, so he was not bothered by me parking beneath him.  I didn’t have much time left and I wanted to get back to that first Snowy, so I left Wilbur after just a minute or two.

I turned a corner and took one look back and was blown away by Wilbur’s backdrop.

sunset Snowy Owl

Now call it karma, call it luck, call it probability for the number of times I go Snowy Owling, but something remarkable happened.  Last weekend I was bothered by a visiting photographer walking right up to Wilbur, and here while I was enjoying the sunset and Wilbur from a distance, he dropped off his power pole perch and glided…..to a lamp post right next to my car! Wilbur was 25 feet out my window! #crushyouverymuchwilbur

Wilbur Snowy Owl

Wilbur Snowy Owl

As awesome as this was, the clock was ticking as I had a responsibility to be somewhere and another owl yet to photograph.  My initial suspicion was right – it was a dark one, a young female bird and a completely new Snowy Owl for the county!

Willmar Snowy Owl

I was so pumped and so rushed that I couldn’t even get clear picture of her when she gave me “the look.” She shall be called Wilma.

Snowy Owl Willmar

Willma was now the third Snowy I have personally found.  At least.  I may have been counting different Snowies as the same continuing bird. Regardless, it might be time to buy a SNOWblower.  As cool as it was to find Willma, I had decided I was done reporting Snowies for the county (on the listserv and FB anyway).  No worries, she’ll still be eBirded, but my checklists will be hidden until after this season of owls passes.  I still want future Kandiyohi birders to be able to know about this awesome chapter in our history, and I want to help flesh out the national story of Snowy Owls this winter.

What a night! What a season!


Took a call at work from fellow birder/teacher Brad that a custodian had told him about a Snowy that had touched down in Meeker County near Cosmos that very morning.  I knew two hard-core county listers who have made a combined 8 unsuccessful trips to Meeker just for Snowy Owls.  They want one BAD. One of the men was renowned birder and field-guide author Bob Janssen.  Instead of posting, I called them up directly.  One of the men was able to come out to search.  Unfortunately after several hours of looking, it was another trip for the loss column.

I tried hard to find a Meeker Snowy on my way home from work.  I tried real hard.


I saw no Kandiyohi Snowies during my daily owl prowl.

Wednesday- A Glorious Day

I have been telling the guys I bird with in Kandiyohi County that we need to be checking daily for new Snowies because in looking back at pictures, we may, in fact, be dealing with several owls that we are calling the same owl.  My advice was to not quit looking once one Snowy was found.  Tonight as I started my owl prowl, I was delighted to see Willma again!   She hung on for a couple days and wasn’t just passing through one night. How cool is that?

Wilma Snowy Owl

Wilma Snowy Owl

She’s a sweet gal, but I had to keep my own advice and get moving to look for more.  It was a misty, overcast night – the owls would be perched up if they were around. A few minutes later I had another one!

William Snowy Owl

The more I looked at this bird the more excited I got. The GISS and markings were wrong for Wilbur and the location was far from his hunting grounds.  This wasn’t Wilbur, and Wilbur is the most reliable Snowy I’ve found.  Instantly I recalled a hallowed tale of the great Gandalf Kandiyohi Birder, Randy Frederickson, who one day, long, long ago saw three Snowy Owls in one day in Kandiyohi County.  My heart was thumping – I had a chance to tie Randy!  I raced to Wilbur’s turf, still scanning for other owls along the way.

I got to his haunts and couldn’t find him.  What the heck? We have zero snow right now, which is super weird, and I can’t find the whitest Snowy Owl on the planet.  Maybe I was wrong, maybe that last owl was Wilbur.  I gave up and was about to get on with my responsibilities.  As I looked left before making my turn, though, there he was!  I did it! Three Snowy Owls in one day in the county!!! #hattricksandturkeysarethetriosoflessersports

Wilbur Snowy Owl

Wilbur Snowy Owl

And all of them were right here at home. By the way, the  Snowy #2 in this post shall be called William.

Willmar Snowy Owl sign

I wanted to keep up the search for #4, but I had responsibilities which needed my attention, namely picking up Evan from school.  I was able to show him two of these birds on the way home. He’s Snowy-owled out, but the look on his face was shear awe and amusement when he saw Wilbur perched at eye-level in the photo above.

I ended my night by calling Randy.  Randy was genuinely excited about the news.  I think we are all in shock and awe over what is happening this year.


* #tiesarehistorytoo


Last time this birder checked in the mirror, his horns were still very green – much too green to take knowledgeable stands on birding issues, let alone to refine and redefine such stands.  For example, when I first got into birding, I didn’t understand why people were so secretive about owl locations.  I thought they were just hoarding good birds for themselves or were just jerks, plain and simple.  Over time, though, I started to understand that many withheld to protect the owls from bird paparazzi and overzealous birders who know no boundaries.  I understood, yet I still remembered how it felt to be left in the dark and have to start at ground zero.  Therefore when coworkers and students fed me a multitude of Snowy sightings the past couple years and when I discovered my own two this year, I freely shared the sightings and gave specific locations.  I saw many people get excited over seeing their first Snowy Owl or finally seeing one for a specific county. That was quite a thrill for me; it was like playing Santa Claus for a bunch of bird-nerds.  I vowed to myself I wasn’t going to be an old scrooge who keeps an owl to himself because he thinks the masses can’t be trusted with it.

In light of an event this weekend, though, I find myself in a weird state of change.  It seems the Willmar Snowy Owls I have found have garnered the attention of those from afar, bringing out-of-town visitors.  Quite possibly this is because I have been reporting them as all-white males, a coveted sex/plumage combo for birders and photographers as evidenced by all the blog hits I was getting directly off my list-serv postings.  I mean, who can blame them. Wilbur is quite stunning.

Snowy Owl

Wilbur remained on this perch after I left. My camera’s zoom allows me to get close without being close.

It was reported to me that a photographer with a large lens was traipsing (more than likely trespassing) on private land to walk right up to Wilbur for closer shots while Wilbur was resting on a pole in a field far from the road.  It was not nearly as atrocious as some birder/photographer behaviors you hear about when Snowy Owls show up closer to the Twin Cities metro area, creating mobs armed with cameras and binoculars, but still it was enough to rub me the wrong way.  A little bit of innocence was lost.

So now I find myself wondering what/how to report if I get lucky enough to be in such a position again.  I doubt I’ll go completely dark, but maybe I will.  A highly-sought all-white Snowy may not be reported with that level of description or may just not be reported at all. I might report a Snowy like this one I found 2.5 miles from Wilbur just ten minutes after the sighting pictured above (my third double-Snowy day this month).  I doubt anyone will cross a field to photograph his ugly mug.

Snowy Owl

Ugly Mug stayed on this perch after I left.

Then again, he’s not that bad-looking.

Snowy Owl

This pole was in the middle of a field. No boots were muddied in the taking of this photo, and it was taken from within my car. Yeah, the picture quality is terrible, but sometimes that’s just the way it is.

So maybe I will keep ones like this quiet – tell a few friends, delay my eBird reports until long after the fact, etc.  I really don’t know as I am still in a state of transition.  One thing I do know is that I still want to be able to help anyone looking for a lifer Snowy.

More than likely I will still report cool non-owl species.  It’s unlikely that a bird like this overwintering Western Meadowlark I found will create a circus, and serious birders would be interested in knowing about it even if they didn’t want to go see it.  Owls are different though; people (birders and non-birders) get whipped up into a frenzy over them owls.

Western Meadowlark

Western Meadowlark – a delightful dose of unexpected variety during this SNOWy winter. Plus it’s Dad’s favorite bird.

So it’s a new year and a new outlook.  And my next post will highlight how I’d be put to the test right away.

Time To Get A Bigger Shovel

It’s getting crazy around here.  We seem to be in the midst of an epic winter SNOWstorm that is dumping excessive amounts of SNOW right here in Kandiyohi County.  In addition to the two Snowies I found last week, I saw a recent eBird report of one near Raymond and two days ago I had a student report that he saw a Snowy Owl by Bushmills ethanol plant just west of Atwater.  So this morning I went exploring to see if I could find the Atwater Snowy; I was unsuccessful looking for the Raymond bird yesterday.  Not having any luck at Atwater, I decided to go check up on Wilbur in Willmar.  Goold ol’ Wilbur was found in his usual area just south of Willmar.  This morning he was catching the last rays of sunshine before the day turned gloomy.

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl

Not long after seeing this owl I was pleased to finally see some Horned Larks as they’ve been noticeably absent all winter.  Additionally I had the good luck of seeing a Rough-legged Hawk, a rare treat for Kandiyohi County.

After this short birding foray, it was time to head home for getting back to the business of Saturday, which was cooking breakfast and then doing absolutely nothing at all.  We did, however, have a dinner scheduled with friends for the evening, but as we were getting set to walk out the door, Marin’s preschool teacher texted Melissa that she just saw a Snowy Owl at Bushmills in Atwater!  It was only a ten-minute drive, so we zipped over there and saw the glowing white form from afar as it contrasted dramatically with the darkening clouds in the twilight. To my amazement, it was yet another adult male Snowy Owl.  That makes for three distinct male Snowies in the Willmar/Atwater area this past week.


Snowy Owl

This was by far the whitest Snowy I had ever seen.

Snowy Owl

I’m a sucker for a Snowy Owl photo with a barn in the background.

Snowy Owl barn

It’s unclear just how much SNOW has been dumped by this storm.  All these recent owls begs the question of just how many are out there right in our very own county?  It might be time to get the search party organized…


Snowy Owl

I caved. I named my Snowy Owl like so many photogs have done, like “Cellie” the famous SNOW last year that perched on a cell tower, or “Ramsey” the owl who came to the town of his namesake. So why Wilbur?

  • It sounds like Willmar (pronounced will-mer) where he’s living for the winter.
  • E.B. White, duh.  Plus the guy had to be a birder for writing The Trumpet of the Swan.
  • And because, well, he’s…

Some Owl

And Then This Happened: Drama on the High Lines

Buoyed by low gas prices and spurred on by Caleb Strand (this post is dedicated to you, buddy!), I have yet to take a direct drive anywhere this winter as hordes of Snowy Owls are on the loose, causing me to have dust-caked vehicles from all that backroads travelin’.  On January 2nd, I found a Snowy Owl right outside Willmar.  Since then I have driven around that general area numerous times while running errands in the hopes of relocating it. Tiring of that routine, I changed things up a bit this weekend and began hiking some unbirded wildlife management areas in an effort to get some exercise and contribute some data to eBird.  On one outing at Kandi WMA, I saw a raptor land in a tree over 200 yards away.  I used my camera to zoom in so I could make the ID.  I was pleasantly surprised to look at my picture and see a Great Horned Owl, which is always a fun find.

Great Horned OwlBut this morning after I dropped Evan off at school, I was again tempted to take the long way home in the hopes of refinding that Willmar Snowy. So I did take the long way, and this time I finally refound the all-white, male Snowy again since I last saw it over a week ago.  With no camera on me at the time, I vowed to return later in the day to get some photos. After all, it was a beautiful sunny day with clear blue skies – a great day to photograph a white bird.

So Marin and I went back this afternoon and found the Snowy in short order.  I got out and took a couple photos.

Snowy Owl Willmar

Despite the fact that I was on the ground, he didn’t mind me and appeared a bit distracted as he gazed west, even alarmed…

Snowy Owl -Willmar

The owl flushed just after I took this photo.  I was cursing myself because I assumed I had flushed it.  The owl was flying east right along MN Hwy 23, going far, far away.  I had to go that direction anyway, so I hopped back in the car and began driving, following it to see where it would finally land.

And then this happened – a second Snowy Owl flew over my vehicle from behind!  All of the sudden I was tracking two flying Snowy Owls!  I decided to focus my attention on this new bird which was much closer.  It perched on a pole on the minimum maintenance road, 30th St. SW, so I pulled up close to it so I could take some pictures.  As I did so, I spotted the first Snowy Owl about a half mile further east on another pole.  Amazing.  Two Snowy Owls in Willmar, together, and both all-white males.  Since I was currently by Snowy #2,  I began snapping away.  These two birds could have been identical twins; the only difference I found in my pictures is that Snowy #1 had very light barring on his belly, indicating a younger bird.  Snowy #2 had a pure white belly.

Willmar Snowy OwlWillmar Snowy Owl

But this guy appeared distracted too, looking in the direction of the other Snowy Owl a half mile to the east.

Snowy Owl Willmar

Then he took off.  Again I cursed myself, thinking my presence caused him to scram.  As I watched, though, he was flying right toward Snowy #1.  I started driving again so I could get closer to the action.  As I was watching through the windshield, it looked like he was going to pull up on the next pole to Snowy #1! Then some SNOW drama unfolded before my very eyes.  No, Snowy #2 was not, in fact, going to the next pole; he was instead going straight for Snowy #1’s pole!  Sensing a potential butt-whooping, Snowy #1 hopped off the pole and landed briefly on the wire.  Not good enough for Snowy #2.  Talons out, Snowy #2 came screeching in and made contact in the air with an alarmed Snowy #1, sending him packing to the east in a hurry.  Snowy #2 promptly then landed on the pole that Snowy #1 had just warmed up for him and began surveying his turf.

"Who you calling #2?"

“Who you callin’ #2?”

I never did see Snowy #1 set down – he was over a mile away before I lost sight of him.  I could not believe what I had just witnessed. Birding continually surprises me.  Looking at photos, it appears that Snowy #2 is the same owl I had found on January 2nd. Here’s a photo from that day.

Snowy Owl

If that’s the case, his behavior today made sense in that he has probably staked out a winter territory and was having nothing to do with a younger male owl encroaching on his territory.  Whatever the case, these are exciting times which may call for a Kandiyohi County Snowy Owl roundup to see just how many birds are wintering here.  Stay tuned!

Winning Solitaire is OK Too

When the winter season started, Steve and I started tossing around a couple of names of “must-have” winter birds.  Two regular winter vagrant species were at the top of the list of birds we were determined to chase.  One of those, the Varied Thrush, was delivered to us on a silver platter when it showed up in the backyard of another fellow birder in Willmar at the beginning of November.  The other bird, the Townsend’s Solitaire, is a much more frequent visitor to the state but wasn’t being nearly as accommodating as the Varied Thrush.  With patience and some hard searching, I suppose we could have even turned one up in Kandiyohi County.  But Steve and I were anxious to put this bird to rest on the life list, so we went after one that had already been found.  The Long Prairie CBC turned one up in southern Todd County a few days ago.  So on Sunday Steve and I made the one-hour drive. After a little bit of searching we found the Solitaire.

Townsend's Solitaire

Townsends Solitaire

Townsend Solitaire

This Solitaire chase was the last planned birding adventure for the winter, and now it’s already on the books.  Posting this is kind of bittersweet.  So now what?  Snowy Owl searches and other owl searches may keep the birding and blogging alive for the next couple months until migration and some out-of-state trips can be bring some renewed excitement again.  And of course, we could always shuffle the deck and play another game of Solitaire in the hopes of turning up a Kandiyohi TOSO.

The Best Game of Solitaire I Ever Lost

Steve and I have a number one target bird for this winter: Townsend’s Solitaire.  Neither of us has seen one, and this species is a regular, albeit sporadic, visitor in the state during the winter months.  Plenty of them seem to be showing up all over the place.  Ideally we do not want to have to go far to see this bird.  A couple of them have shown up within an hour’s drive lately, so yesterday I packed the kids in the car to take them on a little adventure and give Melissa some peace and quiet to do some grading.  Of course, the promise of a Solitaire was not enough to get the kids to go with – on-board movies, the family dog, and the promise of a pop may have influenced their decision.

As the kids watched their movie while we sped by Willmar on MN 23, I watched pole tops. We are experiencing an echo irruption of Snowy Owls, so my eyes are constantly scanning pole tops, shed roofs, irrigators, and other available perches whenever I drive.

Snowy Owl

For once, that obsessive habit paid off when I spotted a Snowy Owl! And right by Willmar no less!  For as many Snowies as I have seen, reported, or helped others see, each one of those has been someone else’s discovery that I have refound, reused, or recycled.  This was the first one I’ve found on my own – a pristine, undiscovered Snowy.  And boy was he a nice looking all-white male too!  Not bad for my first one, eh?

Snowy Owl

Finding a Snowy Owl on my own has been a goal of mine since last year’s historic irruption.  To find one right in our own community made it extra special.  It also felt pretty good to lock up a 2015 county Snowy on just the second day of the year.  Of all the Snowy Owl eBird markers I have dropped in Meeker and Kandiyohi Counties the past two years, this Willmar marker will forever be the one I am most proud of.

After reporting the owl through all necessary channels, the kids and I continued to Redwood County to hunt for the Solitaire.  Going through all that flat country I half expected to find more Snowies.  But we didn’t, and we struck out on the Solitaire too.  No big deal, it was already a great day.

Having a Snowy close-at-hand means you can check up on it when you run errands, like I did later that same afternoon.  This Snowy picks some far-out perches; I’m okay with that so it can’t get mobbed by birders and photographers.  I enjoy this photo because you can read the Willmar water tower in the background.  The SNOW would make a much better school mascot than the Cardinal.

Snowy Owl Willmar

Hopefully this Snowy has set up a winter territory here.  The terrain sure looks right – very flat, wide-open land with many quiet perches.  Randy refound it this morning, so I went out hoping for more photo ops but the bird was way too far away.  Here’s an authentic scenario that will give you somewhat of a feel for a SNOW search – can you find it below?

Willmar Snowy

Were you right?

Willmar Snowy

This may not be the last you see of this Snowy Owl as it is just a few miles away.  Are you sick of Snowy Owl postings yet?  Well, too darn bad!  This year is getting to be as historic as last year, and I aim to soak it up and celebrate it as much as possible. Farmers’ Almanacs don’t predict SNOW storms after all – we just don’t know when SNOW levels will fall back to normal.

2014’s Last Big Gift

By all rights I should have written a post commemorating the incredible birding year of 2014 by doing a Top Ten birds post or something similar. It sounds corny, but this year has been unimaginable and would be deserving of such cliche.  Evan and I ended with 72 and 96 life birds respectively.  Highlights included tallying eight new species of ducks and seeing 30 individual owls of 8 different species.  Additionally I found three official county records and a host of other rare birds for the county, not to mention the many rare birds we’ve seen found by others.  2014 was a year of gifts, and in a fitting fashion, there was one last gift that would usurp any year-end reflective post.

We recently made our usual Christmastime trek to the northwoods to spend some time with Melissa’s family.  My family is already in Arizona for the season.  As is the custom, we pass through the Sax-Zim Bog on the way home. After our Great Gray Owl success over Thanksgiving and after having my Facebook feed littered with GGOW pictures all December, I figured seeing the owls again was a lock. Nope. We were there the wrong time of day (mid-morning), and the sun was out. With the gloomy weather the past month the owls could be found actively hunting all day long.  Apparently they are now less photogenic and are being found late in the afternoon and early in the morning.

My hopes for the trip were not over though as I decided to take the next morning to head down to Duluth to look for a Townsend’s Solitaire and a Northern Hawk Owl.  I struck out on both but still held up hopes for good stuff when coming back north through the Bog. Again, the GGOWs were playing hide-and-seek, where they were doing a lot more hiding than seeking.  I had some other goals for the Bog, which included seeing/photographing the resident Boreal Chickadees as well as getting a lifer Black-backed Woodpecker that had been pretty regular.  Well, the chickadees were a no-show, and I missed the woodpecker by 5 min. This was turning out to be a bleak trip up north as far as birds go.

Gray Jay

The next day, though, I received a birding gift that surpassed anything I was searching for. It was perfect – so much so that I hadn’t even thought to put it on my Christmas list.  That morning while returning from taking care of my dogs who were staying at my parents’ house, I stumbled upon a lone, male Spruce Grouse pecking grit off the side of the road along a black spruce bog.  I was ecstatic.  The last time I saw one was about 15 years ago, long before I was a birder, and it was only the third one I’d ever seen.

Spruce Grouse

Spruce Grouse

Surprisingly the SPGR was somewhat wary of me despite their nickname of “Fool Hen.” It flew from spruce bough to spruce bough allowing me some good looks and photographs before disappearing into the dense spruce bog.  I was hoping to have it stick around for Evan’s sake since he was just a few miles away.

Spruce Grouse

They are incredibly beautiful birds and quite the prize bird in Minnesota.  It was quite a thrill to see the intricate and bold patterns of this grouse species.  It very well may be one of my favorite sightings of 2014 even though it was not a life bird.

Later that day we headed to Melissa’s Grandma’s house for some coffee and a game of Farkle and some birds.  The drive over was eventful as a half dozen escaped horses were all over the road.  We stopped at the farm house to let the owner know and were delighted to see he was home and that he had an Ermine running around his yard, all decked out in it’s sporting white winter coat.  We didn’t just stop for horses and weasels, though. There were, of course, Pine Grosbeaks.

Pine Grosbeak

Though this PIGR appears legless and taxidermied with a stick poking into its mannequin body, I can assure you it is real and my best photo yet of this species.

The birds and treats at Grandma’s did not disappoint as Grandma puts out a spread nary a grandkid or Evening Grosbeak can resist.  Though this species was once very common in the northland, its population has declined dramatically and has become quite  the prize bird, visiting only select feeders.  Grandma Evelyn’s is just such a place.  Many breaks were taken from the intense Farkle game to look at these beauties.

Evening Grosbeak

Evening Grosbeak

I love the color variation of all sides of this bird.  It was a special treat to be able to photograph them on a perfectly sunny day.

Evening Grosbeak

Evening GrosbeakWith cravings for goodies and grosbeaks satisfied, it was hard to complain about getting whooped by Grandma in Farkle.  We left with full bellies and content hearts, satisfied yet already yearning for the next visit.  It was a great day in the northwoods with its birds and people!