So another year of birding has come and gone and it is once again time to do a year-in-review post. There were certainly goals and hopes that were met, but they were almost always overshadowed by the surprises along the way. That’s what keeps us going out, right? Many stunning and shocking birds were had, and I filled many holes on the various lists I keep, holes that I had no idea of when they’d actually be filled. But with all the great birds, my aim is to keep this post a simple Top 10. That’s right–no cheating by making up various categories and superlatives to fit all the goodies in. I had to think long and hard about this and left a lot of great stuff on the cutting room floor–not even an Ivory Gull or state-first Sharp-tailed Sandpiper made the list. This post is the best of the best.
But first, let me talk briefly on the numbers, which will probably be the last I’ll emphasize numbers on this blog. For 2016 I had the goal of reaching 300 for MN and 400 for life. With a Great-tailed Grackle for the former and an Acadian Flycatcher for the latter, both those goals were checked off and sufficiently surpassed. Additionally, my Kandiyohi County list skyrocketed this past year with 19 additions which far exceeded what I thought would happen. Some of those were some real mind-benders too, like the Western Tanager.
So, without further adieu, here are the top 10.
10. Barn Owl–This was not a lifer as I saw it in 2015. That sighting left me wanting more as the Owl flushed from its roost and didn’t allow me the chance to take a picture. I actually felt sick about the missed opportunity for a long time. It was the only Owl I had seen but not photographed. This year I went for revenge and repeated the attempt on our annual AZ trip. This time I found the bird to be a bit more mellow with one more year of age. This was a great photo redemption bird that filled the void from last year and is representative of several photo redemptive birds I had in 2016. Plus my buddies Tommy DeBardeleben and Gordon Karre were with me.
9. Black-backed Woodpecker–This was another non-lifer that was pretty sweet to me in 2016. I had two great sightings. The first was in February and was found by my parents’ house in northern MN by Tommy and Gordon on their big Minnesota trip. I had been looking for this particular BBWO for years, so it was great to finally see it in this spot. And there were two! Then I had another fun encounter with this bird, or I should say a whole family of these birds, in another location this past summer in northern MN. This has to be my all-time favorite Woodpecker.
8. Eastern Screech-Owl–Again, I had seen this bird before, but that sighting was of a snoozing bird in the opening of a Wood Duck house. I never even got to see the eyes, so in a way, I didn’t feel like I had really seen the bird. This year’s experience was much different. First off, this year’s Eastern Screech-Owl was a TOBY Owl–an Owl that I helped good friend, Tommy DeBardeleben, see as a lifer in order to complete his goal of seeing and photographing all 19 species of Owls in the country. I would be remiss if I did not include at least one TOBY Owl in my Top 10. The particular Screech that I helped Tommy see was a very popular one at Lake Harriet in Minneapolis. A scouting trip to see this bird gave me only a slight improvement on my lifer sighting of the sleeping Owl:
I actually scouted this bird twice, and it took just a slight amount of arm-twisting to convince Tommy to do what probably no other birder had ever done before–fly in to Minneapolis from Phoenix for less than 24 hours to see an Eastern Screech-Owl. But Tommy is an intrepid Owler and often does what no one else does. And because of that, Owling is always better with Tommy. The view of the Screech in the hole above is what 95% of the Owl paparazzi saw; Tommy and I were in the othe 5. As it has been said, when you think like everyone else, you aren’t really thinking. So rather than show up midday like everyone else to look for a sleeping Owl, Tommy and I were at Lake Harriet before the light of day completely by ourselves. In the emerging pre-dawn light, Tommy discovered the Screech Owl as it flew right by him, and once again I got to hear him say that adrenaline-pumping phrase, “Hey Josh!!” Tommy and I then enjoyed an extremely active Eastern Screech-Owl that wasn’t confined to a hole! The combination of helping Tommy get this life bird and getting Owl #16 for his Big Year along with the show this Owl put on made it feel like a lifer experience even though it wasn’t for me.
7. Black Scoter–Though I saw this lifer on December 8th, it was buzzer beater for 2016 as most of Minnesota’s lakes were completely iced over on December 9th. I had hoped for this bird all fall and finally gave up on it until the next year. And then news came in of one not far away, and not just any Black Scoter, but one that was an adult male! This one felt really, really good to add in the final moments of 2016.
6. Le Conte’s Sparrow–This lifer is a bird that is a regular migrant through my part of the state in September and October. I often get busy that time of year and so never pursued one. This fall I was intentional about getting out, and it only took a couple tries before I finally locked on to one. The beauty of this lifer was that it was a county bird and only two miles from home. The chances of me getting another life bird in the home county are very, very slim. This was a moment I savored.
5. Gray Partridge–You ever balance your checkbook and it’s off by just a penny and it drives you crazy until you find the error? I had seen Gray Partridge before in both Montana and Minnesota. The problem was that both sightings occurred before I was a birder. So, technically I had it on my state/life lists, but I had no record on eBird because I could not recall dates when I had seen them. Well, one day this past spring when I was walking at some sewage ponds in my county, I kicked up two Gray Partridge along a fenceline! I couldn’t believe it. I could finally get my eBird numbers to match my real life experiences, and better yet, I got a very difficult county bird! The story for Gray Partridge doesn’t end there, though. Even though I had gotten eBird squared away and even got it on my county list, I still had no photo of one. And honestly, it’s one of those birds I just wrote off as one I probably never would photograph because they are rarely seen and usually flush if seen. On a trip to Fargo this spring to see a Garth Brooks concert, I checked out a reported location of Gray Partridge in the middle of town on my way to pick up some coffee for Melissa. And wouldn’t you know, I not only found the Partridge, but I had an incredible photo session with them too. Unbelievable. Never thought I’d experience that.
4. Piping Plover–Do you remember my 2015 year-in-review post where I mentioned my most expensive bird, the Piping Plover? I chartered a boat on Lake Superior in Wisconsin for a sum of money I am too embarrassed to disclose just to add this endangered species lifer. Let that sink in for a minute. Last May, Marin had her dance recital, whose Saturday show brought an influx of company and a certain amount of stress with the increased busyness around the household. Moreover, I was a performer myself for the father-daughter portion and so I had my own anxieties going on as well. Sunday after all the company cleared out and the initial performance was under my belt, things relaxed a bit but not too much–we did have another performance that afternoon. We didn’t go to church that morning. Instead, I took Marin on a relaxed daddy-daughter date to Robbins Island Park in Willmar. I brought my binoculars because it was May. I’m not stupid. But I was stupid because I left my camera at home. I spied a light-colored shorebird on the beach, and I nearly died of shock when I saw it was a Piping Plover! I have to apologize to Marin for being a crummy date as the next half hour consisted of frantic phone calls to birder friends to get there and a frantic call for Melissa to bring my camera all while I kept a close eye on this new county and state bird. In dramatic fashion, the bird flew off just as Melissa was pulling in with my camera. Thankfully it reappeared shortly afterward and I was able to get killer photos. Another bonus of this bird was that it was a lifer for a few people, including my buddy Steve Gardner. This was serendipity at its finest.
3. Whiskered Screech-Owl–This was my number-one target for our 2016 Arizona trip. I had zero doubts I would get this lifer because I was being guided by friends Tommy DeBardeleben and Gordon Karre in Madera Canyon. I’ve put on a lot of miles with these guys and seen a lot of Owls with them. Earlier in the year, I had been the guide for the Owls on the Minnesota expeditions, and now our roles were reversed. What made this outing special was that Tommy’s Owl Big Year had long been wrapped up, and this was the first time we had Owled together since that feat was accomplished. It was fun to be Owling together once again with no Big Year pressure. And it was like a victory lap for Tommy where he got to give back to one of his pit crew in the form of an Owl lifer. Tommy loves giving back. The Whiskered Screech was my 16th Owl lifer. I am getting very near seeing all 19 myself, so each new one is precious. Not only is it awesome to get a new Owl lifer, but Owling at night in Arizona is just plain exciting, especially when Tommy is at the helm.
2. Northern Saw-whet Owl–You never know when or where you will get a bird that you’ve been dreaming about for a long time. Last winter I tried a known roosting spot for Northern Saw-whet Owl at one of our state parks on THREE separate occasions. One of those was with Tommy and Gordon. Tommy was flat out mad that we couldn’t find it because he wanted to get me this lifer after I had recently helped him get his Great Gray, Snowy, Northern Hawk, and Barred Owl lifers in the previous three days. It just wasn’t meant to be I guess. Fate had other plans. Because I work at a small school where everybody knows I am in to birds, I often get bird reports and sightings from my colleagues. At a meeting in February, one teacher excitedly told me about a “baby Great Horned Owl” at his friend’s house. It didn’t make sense because it was the middle of winter. Then when he said, “Yep, it just sits in the same spot all day in a pine tree,” I knew that his friend had one of my most coveted birds as a house guest. After a few texts were exchanged, Steve Gardner and I were on the road a couple hours later with the necessary permissions to view the cutest Owl you’ve ever seen. We had finally, FINALLY, laid eyes on this elusive Owl. I drank lifer beer that night when I got home. It tasted soooo good.
1. So here we are at #1. What is it you might ask? A lifer? A state bird? A vagrant? A colorful bird? None of the above! In my never ending studies of Kandiyohi County birding, I had learned that Kandiyohi County had no record of a Surf Scoter. It didn’t make sense to me since our county is full of lakes, and this species shows up regularly throughout the state during their migration window. So I made it my personal mission to get out there and find one. Besides, I just really love sea ducks. For weeks this fall I checked soooo many lakes and always got the same result–until one day when I got a different result:
It was a brand new bird for our county which is not an easy task these days. In a county with 311 recorded species, of which Randy Frederickson has seen 292 of them, there are very few birding frontiers on the home turf. One of the great things about this sighting was that my Kandiyohi County birding friends Randy Frederickson, Ron Erpelding, Joel Schmidt, and Steve Gardner all got to add this bird to their county lists too. For Joel it was even a state bird, and for Steve it was life bird.
This sighting was an affirmation that hunches, hard work, and persistence all pays. Quite often during my searching I would get frustrated with myself for wasting time on something that would probably never happen. Then it did. And from that I gained something better than even a county record bird: experience, experience that will fuel me through the low points in future searches and push me to go just one more mile, check just one more spot.
As I contemplated my top 10 and wrote this piece, some self-revelations started to emerge from my selections. First, a majority of the birds I selected were not lifers, indicating that a quality experience with a choice bird can be way more exciting than simply seeing a brand new species. Second, noticeably absent from the above list were mega rarities that I chased. Such chases are often not my most favorite birds. Examples that come to mind in 2016 include such greats as Arctic Tern, Red Knot, Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, and several more. They were great birds and fun additions to the respective lists, but hopping in a car, driving for hours to see a bird, and then heading for home again gives short-term satisfaction but little else. Does this mean I won’t chase anymore? Probably not, but maybe I’m growing up and will think twice before I say it’s go-time. I’ll remember that those chase birds don’t have the memory-making potential of a special bird found at home or an elusive bird that I’ve been after for years. Case in point is a Curve-billed Thrasher that is currently overwintering three hours from my house. It’s only been in the state a handful of times, but I see it annually in Arizona. I’m not sure that’s worth the trip. Will I go? Maybe yes. Maybe no. Time will tell. Finally, a third thing that jumped out at me from this list was that Owls disproportionately dominated the list for all the birds I saw in 2016. Of course, this is only to be expected when I was so heavily involved in Tommy’s Owl Big Year and was saturated with Owls–I saw 12 species myself, 9 of which were in Minnesota! Tommy’s love for Owls is contagious, which leads me to my parting thought on 2016:
TOBY–The Best Part of Birding in 2016
I described 2015 as my pinnacle year of birding because I took a trip to Montana to get my lifer Greater Sage-Grouse with my dad and my son. While that won’t be topped, helping Tommy work on his Owl Big Year in 2016 was the next best thing. I helped Tommy get 5 Owl lifers which were obviously TOBY Owls (Great Gray, Snowy, Northern Hawk, Barred, and Eastern Screech) and connected him with a birding friend to get a 6th TOBY Owl (Short-eared) on his three trips to Minnesota last year. While none was a life bird for me and while I’ve seen some of the species several times, I felt like I was lifering all over again along with Tommy as we went to the ends of civilization north of Roseau to the center of civilization in Minneapolis to chase Owls. We traveled great distances, raced clocks, and even had some harrowing moments, but through all that we saw some amazing things and we shared the thrill of living. I’m very proud of my friend, Tommy DeBardeleben, for dreaming big and accomplishing his dream of seeing all 19 species of Owls in less than a year. And thankfully, I was along for about 1/3 of the ride. These experiences are some that I am very proud of and will remember very fondly for the rest of my life.
So what’s in store for 2017? If I could pick, I would choose the types of birding experiences I wrote about in my top 10. Who knows what will actually happen. I think there will definitely be a focus on Owls in the new Year–what can I say, Tommy has rubbed off on me. My birding/owling goals have been written on paper. Speaking of which, that list got off to a rocking start on New Year’s Day. Don’t miss the next post.