October 2004. Some of you will remember that this was when the Red Sox swept the Cardinals and finally ended their long World Series drought. I remember watching some of those exciting games on a crappy hotel TV in South Dakota when I dragged my wife of just a year-and-a-half along on a pheasant hunt. “It’ll be fun!” I said. Boy, was I green. Long story short, I am still married and I made South Dakota history by being the only hunter ever to get skunked in the land where the state bird outnumbers the people by 100:1. It’s true; somewhere near the Corn Palace in Mitchell there is a plaque displaying this bit of trivia.
Fast forward to 2015, and the pull to go back to South Dakota was once again strong. Only this time the bird was not the Ring-necked Pheasant, and was instead the Lower Rio Grande Valley native, Great Kiskadee. From deep south Texas, a Kiskadee made history in the five-state area (MN,WI,ND,SD,IA) by making an appearance at a rural residence in the Brookings area. Apparently the bird, which shares time between two neighboring residences, showed up SEVERAL months ago and was only recently brought to the public’s attention when one of the homeowners eBirded it two weekends ago. Interestingly, this report came out DURING the annual South Dakota Ornithologists’ Union’s annual meeting in Brookings just 20 minutes away. Needless to say, the meeting immediately adjourned for a quick field trip to verify the bird’s identification. The conclusion was that yes, this was for real. Since then, droves have been making their way to see the Great South Dakota Kiskadee.
I was one of those itching to cross the border. I made plans to go on Saturday, November 21st. Melissa was gone to a conference so the kids would be accompanying me. Since I had been talking it up all week before we left, the kids were actually really excited about going on this bird chase. I don’t know if it was the prospect of going to another state or that they’d be able to watch Star Wars movies (a recent indoctrination at our house) or if they wanted to actually see this cool bird, but they were making their own preparations for the 3-hour one-way trip, getting most everything packed and ready themselves. I wish I wouldn’t have been so engrossed in trying to track down the latest sighting information so that I could have paid more attention to their conversations as they gathered belongings, packed bags, and readied the snacks.
Evan was with me on the partially-botched Vermilion Flycatcher chase, so he added an extra checklist item just for my benefit.
When the day came, the kids and I made the long trip to SD. Seeing that the temperature was only 18º, I was nervous that the tropical bird would have wised up and got out of town. Once we got there, I was amazed that we were the only birders. Even more amazing was that despite a two-hour effort, we got skunked. History had repeated its ugly self. Two birders showed up just as we left, so I gave them my phone number in case the Kiskadee showed up just after we got down the road. No phone call. In fact, those birders put in two hours and came up empty too. Imagine the great frustration, then, when later that evening the homeowner reported that the Kiskadee showed up just after we all had given up! Yoda could feel my great pain.
I agonized over going back the next day. I decided not to, figuring some day I’d bird in the Lower Rio Grande Valley and get this bird easily. So Thanksgiving week happened along with all kinds of birding excitement of its own–stay tuned, and that Kiskadee kept up his daily appearances. Stupid Facebook. Videos and pictures and reports of that bird kept taunting me. So this weekend, Evan and I went back.
We didn’t even get out of the home county before things started to look different. Getting a FOY Merlin, a female Richardson’s “prairie” subspecies to be exact, at the very end of November got the birding juices pumping early.
Then, just outside of Brookings, a rooster pheasant alongside the road was another good sign. We did not even see a single pheasant on the last SD run. Telling. The good vibes were quickly iced, however, once we got on site and were off to an eerily-familiar start with at least a half hour of not seeing the Kiskadee. Hopes were lifted when I visited with the homeowner at the north residence who told me he saw it that morning. He asked for my number and said he’d keep watch at his place if I wanted to go wait at the south residence. As you can see, I got that phone call and redeemed my fruitless trips to South Dakota.
It turns out that Great Kiskadees are quite crushable, especially when they are chilly and don’t move for over 20 minutes. Either that or the diet of heavy suet and cat food has made this individual lethargic.
What a month it’s been with Arizona birds and Texas birds popping up in the north. I know I owe you some more AZ coverage in the next post, but first we’re going to have to take a look at my last ever triple lifer day in Minnesota. Buckle up, Larus fans.
I know, I know, I’m really kicking the AZ posts further down the road. Today is no exception. The fact is that this November has been the best Vagrant Month I’ve ever seen. The angst of wanting to take 2-3 hour car trips in every cardinal direction at the same time is a nightmare and a blessing. ‘How can I grab it all?’ is the question on which my mind has perseverated during these times that try birders’ souls.
With Surf Scoter, Vermilion Flycatcher(!), and Long-tailed Duck locked down and with an accompanying proportional decrease in birder stress, there were just two other birds I wanted bad–a surprisingly reliable White-eyed Vireo just south of Minneapolis and a shockingly late, lingering Black-throated Blue Warbler in St. Cloud. My schedule in recent weeks didn’t allow for both. The Warbler won because it was my favorite Warbler and it was close. Yeah I saw one earlier in the year, and yeah I got a good picture, and yeah I already had it on my state list. So what gives? It’s a BLACK-THROATED BLUE WARBLER, that’s what. That’s just plain fun no matter who you are. So, on Monday, November 9th, a.k.a. conference day at school, I carpe diemed by squeezing in a fast morning trip to St. Cloud before I had to report to work at 11. It didn’t take but a couple minutes to locate Tabassam Shah’s incredible find in Talahi Woods at Riverside Park. Who has ever heard of the same migrant Warbler being found and refound for weeks without a territorial song to guide birders to its presence? What a gift to all of us birders in central MN!
Getting some birding in on a beautiful 50-degree day in November on conference day–rejuvenating. Getting a Black-throated Blue Warbler on such a day–exhilarating.
The rest of this post is more or less some good junk drawer items that just didn’t have a home, like this window-strike American Woodcock I found in downtown Minneapolis while attending the National Council for Teachers of Mathematics conference last week. It’s my first photo of this species, so you better believe it’s going on my photographic life list on this blog.
Finally, my quest to find sea ducks in the home county continues after having some success last year around this time. So far, nothing of the sort has turned up. I did, however, finally get a county Red-necked Grebe on one such outing. I spent many hours last summer looking for one of these, and here I get one when I wasn’t even trying. I guess that’s birding for you.
We shall see if AZ makes the next post, but it’s looking doubtful as the vagrant party just won’t stop. ABWCH will hopefully have a tidy little write-up from South Dakota after the weekend. Keep your fingers crossed everybody.
I’ll tell you what state it is–it’s the state of chaos; it’s the state of shock and awe. Minnesota is simultaneously being invaded by both Snowy Owls and not one, not two, but three Vermilion Flycatchers this week. Incredibly there hasn’t been such a sighting in 21 years and two of this year’s birds have shown up at the same location. Moreover, other good vagrants and migrants keep popping up all over the state, sending birders’ heads spinning, not knowing which direction to travel. I was in such a predicament this weekend–frozen with indecision.
I finally opted for the two reliable Vermilion Flycatchers in Becker County. It would make a dandy addition to my state list whereas all the other good birds popping up were ones I already had locked down for that category. I asked Evan if he wanted to go along, and I was delightfully surprised when he said he wanted to go on this adventure. So this morning we left the house at 4 AM to go north of Detroit Lakes to see those Vermilions at first light. Which we did. Promptly seeing our MN VEFL upon arrival, I raised the camera, looked through the viewfinder, and read the message “No Memory Card”! Are you kidding? It finally happened that I’d go on a rarity chase and forget something so crucial. It didn’t bother me tooooo much because I have lots of photos of striking VEFL males from Arizona already. But still, it hurts a bit. Thankfully, birding friend John Richardson pinch hit for me and let me use a couple of his shots for the blog. And if you’re going to have a pinch-hitter, who better than a slugger like rarity-magnet John, a.k.a. Mr. Brambling, a.k.a. Mr. Black-headed Grosbeak, a.k.a, a.k.a.
Pretty neat stuff, right? Not only were these some great birds, but the homeowners were top-notch people, very friendly and welcoming. Evan thoroughly enjoyed their dog, and they thoroughly enjoyed that a youngster had come out to witness a cool phenomenon in nature. They were even kind enough to tell me where the nearest Wal-Mart was so I could pick up a memory card because…..we were off next to look for reported adult male Long-tailed Duck in winter plumage! Though the Vermilion was a state bird for me and the LT Duck was not, I was more excited about seeing this duck in this plumage. There was no way I was going unprepared for this one.
Once we finally made it to the slough south of Stakke Lake in Becker County after spending a ridiculous amount of time in that Wal-Mart, it took a little bit of searching before I found it. Our views were distant, but I was able to get Evan some looks on the LCD. His response was something along the lines of “Whoa, cool!” Indeed. It seemed so odd to see an ocean duck sitting on a slough and hugging the shoreline, or in this case, sitting on it.
Such a striking bird. Check out this chest!
Even though it was far away, it was still such a treat to watch this handsome duck. Our lifer a couple a years ago was an immature-type bird that did not live up to its name.
After that fun, Evan and I hit the road for the 3-hour trip home. Our second Northern Shrike of the fall was a nice bonus on our drive. Despite the memory card snafu, it was a memorable trip with Evan where we got to see some really fantastic birds for Minnesota.
We’ll get back to the Arizona stuff, I promise, but don’t be surprised if there’s another interruption or two!
Dear Regular Readers,
I hate to disappoint both of you, but this is not the next installment of the Arizona series. Believe it or not, but birding after Arizona does exist and the birds back home don’t wait for blog posts to be written. This all brings us to today’s story that is a worthy interruption of the AZ trip reports. It decisively crushed my moping for not being in AZ anymore. I think you’ll concur.
So here goes. On Monday, November 2nd, my wife and I each had a scheduled day off. With the kids in school, I asked her what her plans were. When she said she was grading papers all day, the spousal guilt was gone and the plans to chase a Surf Scoter on Orchard Lake in Lakeville were on.
I drove along the west shore of the lake and pulled into a boat launch to scan the waters. Right away I saw a binocular-clad gentleman loading a spotting scope into a shiny Prius–this birder could be spotted a mile away. I asked him if he saw the duck. He told me no and said he’d missed on it multiple times. Odd, I thought, as I recalled the duck being reported every single day for the better part of a week. After this exchange, he and I both headed to Orchard Lake Park on the south end of the lake where people had said was the best place from which to see the Scoter. He had the lead as I followed his car into the parking lot. Rather than parking in a stall, he faced his vehicle directly at the water. I parked, looked at the water and instantly saw a distant, giant, black-and-white blob that had Surf Scoter GISS written all over it. Before I could get my binoculars up to verify, the other birder, who never left his car, turned around after 30 seconds and drove out of the park! My desire to look at my Surf Scoter lifer was suddenly replaced by the fear that this guy might have, somehow, missed it. Was it diving when he looked? Did he not recognize this juvenile form of this species? Did he see it, get his tic, and just peel out? Even if the guy was just a lister, who doesn’t spend at least a couple minutes enjoying looking at an ocean-going Scoter in MINNESOTA? I panicked. I hesitated. Do I race after him on foot and pound on his trunk? Do I hop in my car and chase him down? You can’t save them all, I guess. Oh, well. Let’s have a look at that Surf Scoter…
This is now my fifth species of sea duck in Minnesota with White-winged Scoter, Harlequin Duck, Common Eider, and Long-tailed Duck making up the others. I kind of prefer my sea ducks on the turbulent, cold waters of Lake Superior on a gray day. That kind of backdrop adds to the mystique and allure of sea ducks. Seeing one on a placid metro lake reflecting lingering fall colors on a 72° day is just kind of so-so.
But even still. It’s cool. I mean, it’s a Scoter.
This Scoter was kind enough to land in a location which would cause me to literally drive right by my brother’s office in Burnsville. Having lunch with Jason made a successful chase even better, all the more so because he took me to a secret hole-in-the-wall called J’s Cafe with amazing down-home cooking. After catching up with Jason, it was time to hit the road: he had to get back to the office, and I had to make the 2-hour drive home to pick up my kids after school.
Despite being crunched for time, there’s always time for one more bird. I took a route home through Glencoe, hoping to see Pumpkins, the reliable, super-early Snowy Owl that got its name from landing on a cart of pumpkins for sale. Pumpkins wasn’t selling any pumpkins to me, though.
Moving on, I was racing the clock to get back in time for the kids. When I was traveling down a county road just a few miles away from the school, I saw a large raptor perched on a pole. I always look even though practically every raptor is a Red-tailed Hawk in these parts. As I streaked by, I saw the GISS for a Red-tail was off, way off. I stopped to look.
I saw heavy streaking on the breast on this large bird and a white eyebrow, and thought I just might be looking at a juvenile Northern Goshawk! Instantly I started taking pictures like mad to document such a rarity. But honestly, as I looked at the bird, I wondered, ‘What in the world is this thing?’ Comparing my photos to Goshawk photos on my phone, I saw that was wrong. I realized then that the face looked like that of a Falcon. The best I could figure on my limited knowledge was that it was a juvenile Peregrine Falcon–the most probable of all the larger Falcons for our area. A Peregrine is one of those feel-good birds. It’s not listserv-worthy, but it’s just rare enough that when you lay your head on your pillow at night you think, ‘That was pretty neat.’ It’s the kind where you giddily submit your eBird checklist and post a picture to the regional birding FB group…even if it didn’t quite look like juvenile Peregrines in Sibley or online…
That’s when my naivete was laid bare to all. I hadn’t studied for the test. I winged it. When I saw there was a lengthy comment from Bob Dunlap, one of the lords of bird identification in Minnesota, I couldn’t read his words fast enough. Bob was asking for more photos and asked me about my impression of the size. The all-gray cheek and faint mustache wasn’t exactly giving him a Peregrine vibe on this Falcon… To remove all doubt about his line of thinking, he followed up with another comment, “And by the way, Merlin is not the direction I’m leaning…”
No. Nooooo way. A Gyr–? I couldn’t even type the name; I was afraid to even think it might be true. It couldn’t be true. Could it? I mean, a bird that’s never been in Minnesota since I started birding? Here? In the home county? Unh-uh. Can’t be. But under Bob’s advisement I sent out a cautionary report of a possible G….Gy…Gyr…Gyrfalcon on both the listserv and the Minnesota Birding FB group. Beforehand, I set up a new page on this blog, called “Falcon Photos,” where I dumped all my photos so people could analyze them.
The responses were as overwhelming as they were fast:
“Wow!!! Gray type juvenile Gyrfalcon for sure! Awesome find, and great photo!” -Alex Lamoreaux, Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory Counter
“No question gyr!” -Kathleen MacAulay, Veterinary Intern at the Raptor Center
“That looks like a gyr to me.” -Jean Matheny, Falconer
“Great bird. Looks like a gyr to me. I chase sightings in S.D. where they are annual visitors on the grasslands near Pierre.” -Jim Williams, Bird Blogger/Columnist for the Star Tribune
And here was the one that put a big fat bow on it all:
“Josh – My first impression was a juvenile gray-morph Gyrfalcon, so I asked Frank Nicoletti (Hawk Ridge bander & former counter, and one of MN’s foremost raptor experts) his opinion. Without hesitation, he confirmed the ID as a juv Gyr. Hope this helps, and nice find!” -Kim Eckert, one of MN’s most experienced and highly regarded birders
I still can’t believe I saw this bird; the adrenaline is still pumping. I thought it would be another 10 years at least before I’d get this arctic visitor on my Minnesota list (I got my lifer in WI last winter). Then I see a Gyrfalcon in my own county…and I never even knew it. I was caught off guard and completely unprepared for encountering such a rarity. It just goes to show that one can never study enough in this hobby and that even the most boring, familiar back roads can hold the monumental. So thanks, Bob, for chasing me down and pounding on my trunk.