April 22, 2016, that’s when.
Willet has been my nemesis shorebird for a couple years now. I’ve chased and searched but could never catch a break with this one until Joel Schmidt called me up after work on Friday. Joel asked me if I still needed a county Willet. I practically stuttered when I admitted my shame of telling him I needed a Willet period. My bag of shame birds got a little lighter, but I still tote a few around.
Funny thing is that I took this bird for granted in my early birding career. It’ll come, I told myself. One time I even turned down a similar call from Joel two or three years ago when he found a Willet in the county. Learning that it was over a 100 yards from the road in the disappearing light of the evening, I turned Joel down thinking that there would be better opportunities. I have not been more wrong. On Friday I didn’t hesitate. I got Joel’s call as I was pulling into the driveway after picking up kids from school. I promptly dropped them off in the care of their mother and then sped away.
To a non-birder this is pretty drab bird, but it can be quite flashy when it flies revealing a striking white and black pattern. I watched the bird for over a half hour hoping to catch a glimpse of it flying, but it never did. Eventually I had to get back to the house. Flashy wings or not, the Willet never fails to impress Minnesota birders because it is such an uncommon migrant. As such I posted Joel’s sighting on FB. I love posting birds like this because we are such an underbirded county–good birds may attract a few visitors who in turn could find something great in the home county.
Feeling the energy that a new life bird can bring, I went out birding this morning looking for nothing in particular, hoping to find a rarity. Cinnamon Teal is always high on the want list for a county bird, but I won’t snub a chance to finally get a good photo of its much more common cousin.
As I was Teal-gazing, though, someone answered the Willet ad in the classifieds. Visiting birder Brad Abendroth struck out on the Willet but instead discovered a whopping 23 American Avocets at that pond!
The birding fun doesn’t end there. Later in the day I took the kids on a short hike at my Gray Partridge spot. As we walked a fence-line in 20 mph winds we got lucky and kicked up a single Gray Partridge from just 2 feet away! It startled Marin pretty good; she wanted to walk behind me after that. Evan enjoyed seeing this lifer. Based on the deep rusty color of the outer tail feathers, it must have been a male. When I saw the two the other day, one had bright rusty outer tail feathers like this and the other had lighter-colored ones, possibly indicating a pair. If that’s the case, perhaps the female we didn’t see today was sitting tight on a nest. We can only hope.
After I dropped the kids off at school Monday, my day off could be spent however–catching up on housework, catching up on real work, or birding. Tough decision–thought no birder ever. What was a tough decision was how I was going to bird. A tantalizing list-serv report came in the middle of the night of a Great-tailed Grackle just 40 miles away. Though it may be a trash bird in the south, this potential state bird has already been the object of two failed chases but could have the honor of being Minnesota #300 if the third chase was successful. But would it be there the next day? Would I fail again and own that disgraceful statistic? I have also been hard-pressed to find a Willet for my life list and with the median migration date fast approaching, I thought it would be prudent to look for such a thing instead of going for the Grackle. The possibility of exploring and discovering was winning out over the possibility of chasing and being disappointed.
I started the day by heading down to the Bird Island sewage ponds, a known mecca for shorebirds during migration. Except this day; one Yellowlegs sp. Looks like I chose wrong. The day was young, though, so I thought I’d check one more spot for shorebirds before joining Evan for lunch at his school. On the way I got a text from Melissa who added Common Loon to our yard list as a bird flew so low and yodeled so unmistakable (to any Minnesotan) and loud that she heard it from inside the house. This was a pretty exciting addition to the list as there is not water around us for several miles!
I knew my next stop for shorebirds was a long shot for a Willet. But I had to try. As I walked a fence line on the property, the ground exploded at my feet with rushing wings. Pheasants? Small-bodies, gray birds, no long tails, rusty outer tail feathers…not pheasants–GRAY PARTRIDGES!!!
Sure, it’s a crummy photo but this was taken on the draw as I stalked the two birds for a second flush. The thrill of this encounter is tough to put into words. Gray Partridges are tough, tough birds to find in anywhere in Minnesota. They are most often seen in the dead of winter at dawn or dusk when they are feeding out in the plowed fields. Their dark bodies are easy to spot against the snow. But even this is a rare occurrence for the luckiest of birders who happen to be traveling down the right gravel road. Gray Partridges like short grass areas where the cover is “thin” and small in area, quite the opposite of Pheasants. They hold tight and can hide among little/no cover. Unless a birder is getting off the beaten path and hiking old fence lines, drainage ditches, and abandoned farm sites, they likely will never see this bird. I actually have seen this bird before and in Minnesota, but I did so as a Pheasant hunter. A few years before I was a birder, a buddy and I kicked up a covey of about 10 birds and harvested one (it was and still is a legal game bird). But that was the last time I laid eyes on one. Since then I have started doubting their existence and begun to think, as some bird bloggers have, that this is a mythical bird. The thought of one in my own county was even more preposterous. Yet with a new county bird–and an exceptional one at that!–count me among the believers again.
Because I have seen Gray Partridges in Minnesota in the past but could not recall the date, this has been the one species that has caused my MN eBird list and my actual MN list to be out of balance. This find rectified that; I am still reveling in the synchronization.
I have literally hunted (successfully) Gray Partridges, or Hungarian Partridges, in Montana two decades ago; but no worries, I won’t be chasing these two with a shotgun. In fact, I’m not even sharing the location with birders because I think these two might be nesting at this site. I will be taking Evan out there in the coming week as he told me he would like to get this lifer.
Speaking of Evan, I dashed into town full of birdrenaline to meet him for lunch. And then I went for dessert up in Swift County:
New yard bird (the state bird!), new county bird(!!), eBird list harmony, new Minnesota bird, 300th MN bird–all in one day. Good times!!
Obsession has put down deep roots here at ABWCH over finding Eastern Screech-Owls in anticipation of finding one for TOBY (Tommy’s Owl Big Year) in June. The more I researched and chatted up the wise old birders, the more nervous I was getting about our prospects for this bird in June–sightings drop off dramatically in the summer months. Meanwhile, Tommy DeBardeleben had been blitzing toward his goal of seeing all 19 Owl species that can be found in the U.S., seeing 15 of them already by April 7th. Accomplishing this unique goal was no longer a pipe dream, but now a very realistic possibility. TOBY could not fall apart over the relatively common ESOW.
Seeing as how we had a “bird in the hand” with the Lake Harriet Screech in Minneapolis, I got the crazy idea to explore the possibility of flying Tommy in for a lightning-fast trip to knock out this Owl. To my amazement, airfare was ridiculously cheap. I proposed my idea to Tommy and like the proverbial tossed spaghetti, it stuck. After coordinating work schedules on both ends and shopping for airfare, Tommy was all set with a $127 plane ticket and a round-trip that would only take 21 hours from the time he walked into Phoenix Sky-Harbor Airport to the time he walked out. Tommy is likely the only birder to ever make a cross-country chase just to see an Eastern Screech-Owl.
Last Tuesday after I tucked the kids into bed, I drove to the Cities and crashed at my brother’s place for a few hours. Tommy’s plane got in at midnight, and I was there to pick him up by 2:45 AM. We would be Owling right away. We traveled to Chimney Rock Scientific and Natural Area near Hastings to search for Screech-Owls in the dark. Several had been reported here in the past. However, as soon as we got to the location, we knew it was likely a lost cause–wind was gusting up to 20 mph. There would be no way we could hear Screech-Owls vocalizing. We Owled on regardless, hoping to get lucky. The only bird we had any luck with was a Dark-eyed Junco that was equally stunned to see us.
After an hour or so in the wind and spitting rain we gave up and decided to make our way to Minneapolis so we’d arrive at the location of the famous Lake Harriet Screech just before dawn.
Once we were at Beards Plaisance, a park on the southwest side of Lake Harriet, I immediately checked the famous roosting cavity with my flashlight. Nothing. Then I checked a couple of White Pines where it can be found, and again did not find it. It was somewhat discouraging, but Tommy and I were still confident the famous Screech was near us…somewhere. I had given up on searching until it was daylight out when Tommy had called out that he had it! Lifer Owl #18 for Tommy, and #16 for TOBY! In the pre-dawn light Tommy caught a glimpse of it flying right by him as it was being chased by a Robin. From that point forward, we spent a great deal of time enjoying the Eastern Screech-Owl. Prior to this I had only ever seen this species in a hole of some sort. To see one out in the open and being very active felt like I was seeing this bird for the first time.
The Owl vocalized often and moved from perch to perch. It was simply awesome.
I was amazed by how hyperactive this Owl was–it pays to observe a nocturnal bird nocturnally! Here’s a short video where you can see what I mean.
Watching and photographing this Screech-Owl alongside Tommy was incredibly fun. We got to observe this Owl as few people do since most people come during the daylight hours and see a sleeping bird.
This bird called often with its monotonic trill. Hearing it was a new thing for me and just as thrilling as seeing it. Check it out.
The Screech continued to be active and vocalize even as it was getting more and more light out.
Eventually, though, it retired to one final perch and quieted down.
It was now to time to take celebratory photos.
We left the Screech to enjoy the rising sun over Lake Harriet before taking his daylong nap. It had put on quite a show for Tommy and me.
With the major trip goal of seeing an Eastern Screech-Owl all locked up by 7 AM, Tommy and I had a good 5 hours of free birding time before I had to drop him off at the airport. I was thinking as a lister and giving Tommy options for some life birds he could get. Tommy had his Owler hat on that day, though, and he instead opted to see Barred Owls again with this free time. We went to Fort Snelling State Park to see the famous pair, but unfortunately they were a no-show. Fortunately, Tommy picked up his American Tree Sparrow lifer for a nice bonus on the day.
We next went to the Minnesota River National Wildlife Refuge Long Meadow Lake Unit to look for another famous pair of Barred Owls that are nesting there. As we searched we came across many fun birds as migration is just getting underway. My personal highlight was detecting a singing Winter Wren. Their song is one of the best of the northwoods where it lives; I was surprised that it was singing in migration.
Eventually Tommy spotted what we presume to be the male of the nesting pair of Barred Owls. I was surprised when he pointed it out to me–I really wasn’t expecting a Barred Owl in this spot. It was a reminder to be vigilant always. Tommy never lets his guard down.
This Owl was not very photogenic and quite skittish. After following it through the woods a couple times, we decided to leave it alone and go look for the nest. Eventually we found it. The Mrs. was much more photogenic.
After enjoying these Owls and the other birds it was time to wrap up this flash of a visit. Tommy and I enjoyed a hot meal of Swedish meatballs at IKEA in the shadow of the Mall of America before getting him to the airport at noon. I told Tommy that perhaps there were some Arizonans who flew to MSP the same day as he did to do something just as frivolous–spend their time and money at that retail behemoth. The difference, though, is that what Tommy came to get will not end up in a landfill some day. Instead we created yet another fun memory that will always be with us.
I’ve known Tommy for just over a year now, and in that time we have gone on four major birding adventures together, each with its own major goal. And each time we have succeeded in meeting our goal. Here’s a quick recap:
April 2015 – Elegant Trogon – Madera Canyon, AZ
October 2015 – Rufous-capped Warbler – Hunter Canyon, AZ
January 2016 – Great Gray Owl, Northern Hawk Owl, Snowy Owl – Northern MN
April 2016 – Eastern Screech-Owl – Minneapolis, MN
Little did we know that the winter MN Owling trip would spark TOBY, making it a real possibility. Tommy has just three Owls left to find for his Big Year: Flammulated, Short-eared, and Boreal. Working on TOBY is not over for me yet, the focus is just shifting. Tommy is counting on another trip to Minnesota as Plan A for one of these birds. Perhaps Minnesota will even have a remote, unlikely chance of being Plan C for another. Time will tell.
It was a thrill to be able to do this compact, high-adventure with Tommy. I am looking forward to the next adventure. Congratulations, Tommy, on your new lifer Owl and getting Owl species #16 on the year!