The Golden Hour

While logical people might conclude that birding for ABWCH has slowed down due to school starting back up, the truth is that we’ve still been getting out regularly.  It’s just been, well….pretty dead out there.

Dead Starling

Though not as thought-provoking as the Starling’s situation, one might also wonder why we’ve continued to go out birding despite being busy with school, despite the lack of birds.  The answer is simple and not intriguing: a number.  Considering my profession, I am, ironically, not a numbers person when it comes to birds–I don’t readily have my year totals, know what my 200th or 300th species were, or even know exactly how many birds are on my life list.  However, with all my out-of-state travel this past year I was poised to do something kind of cool, something I don’t know that I’ll get to do again–see 300 species in a single year.  When I saw mid-summer that I was in the 280s I was motivated to chip away at it.  That may not seem like a great deficit to make up, but we were heading into the slow part of the year with not many chances for new birds.  The long-story short is that, by brute force and a bit of luck, I fought my way to 299, where I sat for weeks.

I wanted #300 to be a special bird that I was aching to see again anyway, the Red-headed Woodpecker.  Despite seeing dozens last year, I have had zero luck with them this year. And it hurts.  Bad.  Anyhow, the kids were dragged along with me on yet another fruitless RHWO search last weekend out in Swift County (Mom was at a Twins game).  While we were out, though, MN birding heavy-weight Doug Kieser posted to the listserv that there was a single American Golden-Plover and a single Black-bellied Plover at the Bird Island sewage ponds.  Either would fill the 300 slot (thanks for nothing, RHWO) and finally end that saga, so the kids and I charted a new course to Renville County.  It would, of course, mean watching more movies in the car, staying out past bedtime, and eating a to-go pizza in the van sans napkins, plates, etc.  That’s just how we roll when Mom’s gone.

We got down to Bird Island with precious minutes left.


Using my better judgment and recalling my run-in with the law at the Pennock sewage ponds last year, I decided to not let my kids watch their movie in the suspicious-looking, parked mini-van while I hiked around the ponds. So they took a little hike with me.  In no time we found a couple big Plovers on the grassy dikes between the rectangular ponds. From what I could tell, both were American Golden-Plovers.  Finally, 300 birds in a year could be crossed off the bucket-list (unless I get the crazy hair my brain to do 400 sometime).

American Golden-Plover

Even though it was not a new bird for the year, it was fun to see a Buff-breasted Sandpiper (in the background) associating with the two American Golden-Plovers.  The kids had more fun checking out snake holes.

American Golden-PloverWith the rapidly diminishing light, photos were getting harder to take and kids were getting colder. So we left the Plovers and snake holes and headed back to the van, occasionally looking behind us:

IMG_5929Time moves way too fast.  But it is that quality of time that causes us to take note of the significance of certain things: 300 birds in a year, a sunset at the end of a day, or a rare, non-posed moment of affection between a brother and a sister.

Evan MarinSo what will the rest of this year hold?  Who knows, but the adventures will continue–with or without napkins, with or without birds, and with or without two kids getting along.

I, Too, Was a Patch Birder Once

September 6th was World Shorebirds Day, and as any local library or video store can attest, I am not always known for my punctuality.  So, I bring forth my shorebird offerings to the blogosphere a day late (or two) and few shorebirds short. Like any birder thinking inside the box, when August rolled around I was zeroed in on shorebirds as they are making their epic, transhemispheric migrations and occasionally stop over for a meal and a rest on their way south.

One always hopes for a classic mudflat on a drawn-down lake or a flooded field when shorebirding.  Sometimes those just can’t be found.  Sometimes one must bird the bottom of the barrel…or the top of a poop pond.  I scoured many a wastewater treatment facilities at small municipalities in the area.  Occasionally I came up with some solids, like this trio of Red-necked Phalaropes.

Red-necked Phalarope

Red-necked Phalaropes at Blomkest WTP

Red-necked Phalarope

Or some Semipalmated Sandpipers, which I pleasantly discovered was a new county bird after-the-fact.

Semipalmated Sandpiper

Semipalmated Sandpipers at Lake Lillian WTP

Once I even got some good looks at a nice year bird, the Semipalmated Plover.

Semipalmated Plover at Bird Island WTP

Semipalmated Plover at Bird Island WTP

Bad dad moment confession: the kids were with me for this one but in the car, opting to watch their video instead of shorebirds; half-way home I remembered this bird is one Evan had never seen and I had killer-no-binos-needed looks.  You might say I flushed that opportunity away. Amiright?

Semipalmated Plover

I was as red-faced as this Stilt Sandpiper, which isn’t much but the appropriate amount since Evan is a take-it-or-leave-it birder these days.

Stilt Sandpiper

Stilt Sandpiper at Bird Island WTP

Growing tired of the Tour-de Ponds, I kinda gave up on birding for awhile as work responsibilities took up more of my time.  Then one day while I was sitting at home I had a recollection that instantly morphed into an epiphany.  Near the end of July I remembered driving home with the family late in the evening after having spent the weekend in Duluth, and I recalled seeing a small, flooded spot in a soybean field not far from home with some sandpipery-looking birds even.  We were too tired to stop, and so this patch was soon forgotten and never thought about for weeks. Until that moment.  Instantly I headed for the door as I realized I had left a habitat-island of prime shorebird mudflats unchecked for all that time.  When I got out there and saw how perfect the spot was in a landscape bereft of optimal habitat, I was kicking myself.

shorebird spotThe flooded drain tile intake that created this spot was only about two acres in size.  When there is no other habitat around, that is all you need.  At first, there was nothing but Killdeer and the odd Lesser Yellowlegs or two, harbingers of good things to come.

Lesser YellowlegsSo this is the story of my accidental patch.  Having it so close to home gave me the opportunity to check it multiple times a day, day after day.  Before I knew it, I was becoming a devoted patch birder whose persistence started to pay dividends in things like a pair of dapper Baird’s Sandpipers.

Baird's Sandpiper

Baird's Sandpiper

Having spent a great deal of time with these birds in good light, I think it’s fair to say that the Baird’s is near the top of my favorite shorebirds list.Baird's Sandpiper

Baird's SandpiperOne of the benefits of a having a patch is that, in addition to looking for new birds that have joined the party, you can also keep tabs on the regulars, like the two Stilt Sandpipers that were there day in and day out.

Stilt Sandpiper

Stilt Sandpiper

It was always exciting when there was someone new in the mix.  This lone Semipalmated Plover was one of my favorites.  Every day I looked for it among the myriad of Killdeer and was always relieved whenever I found it had decided to stick around for just one more day.  I also made good on my previous failing and got Evan this lifer.

Semipalmated Plover

Semipalmated Plover

Semipalmated PloverThis patch I found turned out to be a great workshop on shorebird identification for myself.  I had these birds close (30 feet or less) and in great light when I visited in the morning.  I could clearly see subtle differences in coloration, differences in movements and behaviors, and relative size comparisons to other shorebirds.  Even the ubiquitous Killdeer would sometimes do something interesting.


Often I would put my binoculars and camera down just to see if I could notice these things with the naked eye. Something happened that I never expected to happen–my confidence in identifying shorebirds went way up.  And now I can concur with Nate the Machine that shorebirds really aren’t that hard after all.  I would add that they are actually pretty fun too.  In all, I tallied 11 shorebird species as an accidental patch birder.  The numbers of each species were small and consistent, which made counting the birds a fun, manageable task.

As time and hot weather went on, the water kept receding in the ephemeral patch until there was nothing but some wet mud which was enough to sustain the persistent Killdeer and my Semipalmated Plover buddy but nothing else. Presently the ground is dry, and my patch birding days are over for now.  But not my hopes.  After all, it could still rain cats and dogs and big Plovers this fall, and I’ll be back in business. Stay tuned!