6 Lifers in Minnesota from the School Year

The school year is its own animal that seems to envelope our whole family with busyness and, at times, chaos. Nevertheless, the birds don’t care, and last school year they REALLY didn’t care. Prior to last school year, I had started restricting my long-distance chases to just life birds, exceptions being made for state birds that are super convenient.  Even under these strict, self-imposed protocols, I found myself on the road a lot last year to go after genuine life birds that showed up in Minnesota.  So here’s a quick recap of those birds.

Roseate Spoonbill–August 26, 2018

Late last summer, Spoonbills started popping up all across the upper Midwest.  Minnesota birders were on high alert for a first state record at any moment.  The honor of that find goes to Kevin and Cindy Smith who first discovered the bird on the Washington County side of the Mississippi River the morning of the 26th. Unfortunately for other birders, it only stayed about 20 minutes before it flew across the river into Dakota County, giving Kevin and City Roseate Spoonbill in two Minnesota Counties while every other birder in the state was still at zero Spoonbills.  There was a collective sigh in the Minnesota birding world as it was not refound.  At least, not until the afternoon when Jim Pifher refound the (supposedly same) bird at the Old Cedar Avenue Bridge on the Minnesota River in Bloomington. Immediately, Minnesota birders from near and far descended on this location for the historic sighting.  Life birds, and megas especially, always seem to come at bad times for me. We had dinner plans with my parents in Hutchinson that night to drop our kids with them since teacher workshops started bright and early the next morning.  The upside was that Hutch was halfway to Bloomington. Considering everybody’s reports of the Spoonbill seeming content where it was refound, I reasoned we could still do dinner and get the Spoonbill.  That said, and with apologies to my mother, it was really a dine and dash situation.  Melissa opted to go with me on this “date.”

Thankfully the Spoonbill was still there being enjoyed by a never-ending flow of birders who braved road construction and a very long hike down to the viewing platform.  It is crazy to me that I got this lifer in Minnesota of all places.


Roseate Spoonbill

Despite everyone thinking the Spoonbill would stick, it left not long after Melissa and I saw it that evening, never to be seen again.  Unfortunately, many Minnesota birders did not see it.

 Tufted Duck–December 26, 2018

Speaking of state first records, 2018 began with one when a Tufted Duck showed up near Red Wing in January.  Brad Nelson and I chased that bird but were not successful.  When a state first record disappears, there is little optimism that there will be another chance.  Except this time, there was! The only problem was that Kim Eckert’s second state record discovery in Duluth occurred just a couple weeks before Christmas.  How in the world do you break free at that time of year? The short answer for me is that I couldn’t.  Thankfully the bird hung on, and I was able to nab it en route to visiting Melissa’s family up north.  Getting a lifer this good, this conveniently, and this quickly felt like cheating. It wasn’t the striking male that was found in Red Wing, but you can’t really complain when you get a do-over like this.

Tufted Duck

Duluth, the city that just keeps on giving......

Duluth, the city that just keeps on giving….

A funny note is that a third state record Tufted Duck, a male, showed up this past spring just an hour from my house.  However, I had no camera at the time and was stuck at work anyway.

King Eider–January 5, 2019

We had barely been back home from being up north when another incredible duck was found in Duluth, creating an intense urge to return.  Duluth power-birding couple, the Kraemers, discovered a juvenile male King Eider off Lake Superior’s Brighton Beach.  King Eider is casual in Minnesota, so this was indeed a rare event.  The last one I recall occurred back in 2013 when I was just getting into birding.  So Steve Gardner, Scott Gardner, Joel Schmidt, and I carpooled for the up-and-down chase to Duluth.  When we arrived we didn’t find it, so we headed back to Duluth to look for the Tufted Duck which was still around.  Joel had dipped on this bird on a previous chase while the rest of us had seen it.  Thankfully it was cooperative for Joel this time.  For the rest of us, it was a pretty sweet year bird for the fresh new year.  During this side trip of ours, Doug Kieser had refound the King Eider and gave directions on where to spot the very distant duck. So during our second time at Brighton, we were able to get diagnostic scope views but no photos.  Even still, it was a key lifer that pretty much has given me the rare duck-sweep for MN with the exception of Garganey.

Brambling–January 31, 2019

Minnesota experienced one of the coldest winters I can recall, but the birding scene just kept getting hotter when Beau Shroyer announced that he had a Brambling visiting his feeders in rural Becker County.  This was about a 3-hour drive for me one way, but it may as well have been across the country because Minnesota was going through the infamous Polar Vortex at the time.  With windchills in the -50s, most schools were cancelled for multiple days due to cold. Sure, I had three unplanned days off which would be perfect for a chase, except for, you know, temps that could literally kill you if your car broke down (which is more likely in extreme cold).  So I fretted for days, monitoring Beau’s daily updates as well as updates from birders that were braver than me.  I distracted myself by working on other life list activities.

And perfecting them.

Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore, the cabin fever had set in.  On my third day off from work, I made a run for it with local birding friend Jeff Weitzel.  Thankfully we had a safe trip, even if it was just a little chilly while we waited for the bird.


Finally, we saw it. I couldn’t believe we were looking at a Brambling.  This is honestly a bird I never thought I’d add to my life list. A Hoary Redpoll was a nice little bonus, along with the more common, but uncommon to me, Purple Finches.


BramblingBramblingBeau was perhaps the most gracious stakeout host I’ve met. He generously shared this bird with other birders for days even though it meant his family had near constant vehicles right outside their living room. But with a yard scene this cool, it’s too good to keep to oneself.


Yellow Rail–May 30,2019

The lowest hanging fruit on my life list in Minnesota is the Yellow Rail which breeds in the state.  The most reliable place to tic this bird is the McGregor Marsh which is 3 hours away and in the middle of nowhere.  Furthermore, this bird usually vocalizes very late at night (like close to midnight), which makes an up-and-down trip or an en route trip pretty much impossible for me.  I knew it would have to be a dedicated trip someday with a hotel stay.  Doing a night mission like this by myself far from home is less than ideal.  It’s definitely a buddy situation.  Problem is that most of my birder buddies already had this bird and wouldn’t be interested in this kind of field trip.  But then inspiration hit when I asked Ben Douglas if he had the bird. Ben is doing an epic big year trying to get 10,000 county tics in 2019.  Certainly an Aitkin County Yellow Rail would work for 0.01% of his goal. Plus, it turns out that Ben also needed the Yellow Rail as a lifer. So plans were made. We would tackle the McGregor Marsh on busy Hwy. 65 in the dark together and then grab a hotel in town.  Ben and I picked the right year to do this.  Birders who had been to McGregor Marsh earlier in the spring to look for Yellow Rails had reported incredible numbers–well over 20 birds sounding off.  And they were found at several locations.  Ben and I were definitely getting excited for our rendezvous with this lifer we have both put off.

On my last teacher day of the year, I drove up to Mora after work to meet Ben.  After a nice chat and a little lunch, we killed daylight by bumming around Kanabec County boosting our respective Kanabec lists by a few dozen tics before finally heading north to the McGregor Marsh.  I can’t imagine the work and mental strain Ben’s goal would take.  Ben has to squeeze out county tics any way he can.  For him, the grind never stops. While I followed his car and we were stopped on Hwy. 65 for some road construction, I was enjoying the AC and radio with the windows up when I get a text from Ben in front of me: an Aitkin County Pine Warbler and Golden-winged Warbler were having a duet right by the car.  Ben had his windows down and his radio off–100% committed to his goal.  I was impressed.


We got to the marsh with a little more than an hour of daylight left. We poked around on the Soo Line trail, a wide gravel railroad bed, that borders the south end of the marsh. Ben has superhuman hearing and was calling out birds far away.  His ability to detect Ruffed Grouse drumming is uncanny, a gift really, and one I hope he will someday use in Kandiyohi County.  At 7:45, well before dark, it was Ben who excitedly called out the tick-tick-ticking of our Yellow Rail lifer.  Within minutes we had several calling around us.  We tried for visuals for awhile before going to another nearby location.  Once again, we heard the ticking of the Yellow Rails, but we just could not get a visual.  Ben may have seen one briefly but did not get a solid look.  It was okay, though, as this is what is to be expected with this species. Talking it over, we realized we got we came for and each had time to get home before midnight. No hotel was necessary for this trip. After saying our goodbyes and congratulating each other, we split ways.  It was a good box to check on our life lists, made even more fun by sharing it with someone else.  And for those of you that are curious, at the writing of this post Ben is at 86% of his goal with half the year left.

Prairie Warbler–June 3, 2019

I have wanted to see a Prairie Warbler for a very long time.  Warblers are what got me into birding, and I have seen an awful lot of them since those first days.  Because my travels haven’t yet brought me to the southeastern U.S., I still had not tallied this striking bird.  It is casual in Minnesota, which means it shows maybe once every five years or so.  There hasn’t really been a chaseable one since I’ve been a birder.  Steve Gardner and I talked of heading to the very southeastern corner of Iowa this summer where they are known to show up annually.  Before we could make plans for that 7.5 hour drive, though, Dedrick Benz made a sweet discovery. Dedrick found a Prairie Warbler on territory in the very southeastern corner of Minnesota in Houston County.  The prospect of cutting off 3 hours of drive time and getting this life bird in Minnesota were very enticing.  Even though this bird was singing on territory, I was anxious to get down there before my trip to California a week later.  Steve decided to join me and took a day of vacation for this Monday jaunt.

Finding the Warbler was not hard.

Prairie WarblerBirds that are long-hoped for seem more enjoyable than the random surprise birds.  This one was a treat for the eyes and ears.

Prairie WarblerPrairie WarblerThis bird was definitely the prize, but we also enjoyed numerous Henslow’s Sparrows and a Black-billed Cuckoo in the same area.  We also made a stop a mile away for a White-eyed Vireo, also a casual species, found by Josh Watson in true Patagonia Picnic Table fashion. We got terrible looks at this bird before it disappeared. So it still remains as one of those birds I would like to see well since my other observation was a similar experience several years ago at Flandreau State Park in New Ulm.  For Steve it was a state bird.  Speaking of which, this trip to the southeastern part of the state allowed us to look for some overdue life birds for Steve.  In Houston County we followed up on a report of an Acadian Flycatcher which we found no problem for Steve’s life list.  A Cerulean Warbler singing nearby was a nice bonus.

Acadian FlycatcherOn the way home we stopped at Whitewater State Park and found Steve his lifer Louisiana Waterthrush thanks to some tips from John Hockema and some guiding from Malcolm Gold six years ago.

It was an incredible year for life birds right here in the home state.  With my life list past the 500 mark, getting a life bird here is becoming more rare each year.  Hopefully I can pull out another one or two in the coming school year.

Birding California: Lifers by Land

For the first half of our SF stay we were a mere three blocks from the Fisherman’s Wharf area and all that the waterfront has to offer.  Adjacent to San Francisco Aquatic Park and along the waterfront is Fort Mason, a former U.S. Army post that has now been incorporated into the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.  Consequently it provides a substantial green space in San Francisco, making it an ideal place for birds and birders to frequent.  Because it was so close to our hotel, I was able to make several visits in an effort to pick up a few lifers.  Fort Mason gave me my first of many “California”-named lifers, the California Towhee.  The California Towhee was a pretty common bird on the trip with a distinctive song that made it easy to pick out.California Towhee

One bird I was particularly looking forward to seeing on this California trip was the Chestnut-backed Chickadee. Maybe this bird’s raggedy appearance can be attributed to the excessive heat (near 100!) or San Francisco’s homeless epidemic, but this lifer at Fort Mason left me wanting more.  Thankfully I would have better encounters with both the Chickadee and the Towhee later in the trip.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee

Fort Mason gave me the snub on a couple lifers I was searching for–Allen’s Hummingbird and Nuttall’s Woodpecker.  However, I did see some Red-masked Parakeets, a bird that is not officially ABA-countable but one that is certainly thriving all over San Francisco.  I wouldn’t be surprised if, like Phoenix’s Rosy-faced Lovebird, it will someday be countable.  They seemed to be doing okay in my opinion, even making brand new Red-masked Parakeets in Lafayette Park.  Obviously this bird gets its name from its facial pattern and not any propensity for embarrassment as these birds had zero shame about what they were doing in public.

Red-masked Parakeet

My Allen’s Hummingbird lifer did fall eventually but is merely a foot note.  I saw several Hummingbirds throughout the trip, but most were either Anna’s or just left unidentified.  I did finally see one with a fair amount of rufous on its flanks at Suttro Heights Park.  It certainly wasn’t the brilliant male I was hoping for.  But that’s how it goes on trips like this–you get a lot of lifers and not all are great looks.

The last half of our stay was spent at a hotel near the San Francisco airport.  This served as base camp for venturing further into California.  After all, I couldn’t go to central California and not try for the endangered California Condor.  So one day of our trip was dedicated to driving 2 hours down to Pinnacles National Park, one of the most reliable locations for seeing this bird.  Pinnacles also held a lot of other potential lifers.  One of those, which ended up being quite common, was seen as we got close to Pinnacles.

California Scrub-JayCalifornia Scrub-Jay

The California Scrub-Jay had eluded me in San Francisco city parks, so it was good to finally nail this one down.  The California Scrub-Jay and Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay were recently split from what was the Western Scrub-Jay.  A trip to Colorado a few years back had already given me the Woodhouse’s, so it was fun to complete the “Western” duo and get another “California” bird as well.

Once we arrived at the Pinnacles visitor center from the east entrance, I had other “California” birds on the brain–the Thrasher, the Quail, and of course, the endangered Condor. I talked to the ranger about where to look for the Condor and the Quail.  She told me to hike the Bear Gulch loop trail and look for the Condors at the High Peaks, or Pinnacles.  The ranger warned me it would be hot up there and about two-mile hike.  I knew my non-birding family would not be game for this, especially because of the heat.  We had recently endured record-setting temps in San Francisco, which was supposed to be a nice, cool vacation.  For the California Quail, the ranger told me to hike the gravel road by the visitor center that follows a small riparian corridor to a historic homestead area with old buildings.  I walked along looking for the Quail and a handful of other potential lifers but was striking out on everything.  But then as I was at the homestead, a very large, dark raptor materialized in the sky soaring LOW on the other side of this valley.  Could it be?  Oh yes! The California Condor!

California CondorCalifornia CondorCalifornia CondorThis bird was quite distant from me, but with an 8-foot wingspan, it still looked huge.  The bird perched on a hillside on the opposite side of the valley, very near the campground.  Even though I couldn’t see fine detail, this behemoth stood out like a sore thumb.

California Condor

California CondorI had dipped on this bird at the Grand Canyon two years ago.  All is well, because actually getting this lifer in California seemed more fitting.  I would have liked better looks, but I wasn’t complaining.  On the contrary, I was relieved that I didn’t have to do the longer, hotter hike with the family to get this bird.

On the way back to the car at the visitor center, a different raptor wasn’t nearly as distant or shy as the Condor.  This Red-shouldered Hawk couldn’t care less about me as I walked underneath it, shooting both sides.

Red-shouldered Hawk Red-shouldered Hawk

The Condor and Hawk were pretty fun, but there were no other lifers on this walk.  I was still looking for Wrentit, California Thrasher, California Quail, and Yellow-billed Magpie. Once I met up with the family, we did drive the park road as far as we could go.  No one was up for hiking in the heat, so the birding would have to be done by car.  I did spy a couple birds that looked interesting.  I was surprised to see they were Oak Titmice! This lifer was not even on my radar for some reason.

Oak Titmouse

Oak TitmouseOn the way out of the park, I wanted to make one more pass down that gravel road by the visitor center to look for the California Quail.  Even though this bird looks extremely similar to the very common Gambel’s Quail I see in Arizona, this was still one of the species I was wanting to see the most on this trip.  Unfortunately I was looking at a bad time of day for birds–close to noon.  But as I walked along, I heard a cooing sound that I knew had to be the Quail.  Somehow I got lucky and managed to spot it as it was hunkered down in a dense tree by the small stream of this riparian corridor.

California Quail

With a little patience (and some cooing of my own), it eventually made its way to a more open perch where I was able to get soul-satisfying looks at this awesome Quail.

California Quail

California QuailSatisfied, it was time to leave Pinnacles NP even though there were still some lifers left on the table.  One of those was the Yellow-billed Magpie, but I knew to be watching for them on Highway 25 as we headed north back to San Francisco.  They had been reported all along this road.  Sure enough, as we passed by a farm I spotted two Magpies on a fence.  I was thrilled.  But with no shoulder and a car right behind me, I had to keep going down the road until I could get turned around.  I finally got back to the spot about 5 minutes later, but there was no sign of the Magpies.  Because they do not overlap with Black-billed Magpies in this area, they were certainly Yellow-billed.  Unfortunately I never did get to see those yellow bills.  It kind of took some of the air out of this being my 500th life bird.  Sightings like this are one of the reasons I don’t get too hung up on what my actual 500th, 400th, etc birds are.  Other reasons include heard-only observations of some species and splits/lumps of others.  With that said, it was still nice to finally reach this milestone and surpass it on this trip.

Once back in San Francisco, the birding would have to be more surgical. Before the family was up and about that next morning, I sneaked over to Sea Cloud Park in Burlingame which was about 15 minutes away from our hotel.  I was targeting a family of White-tailed Kites that had been reported.  The park was pretty much a large collection of athletic fields that butted up to a large marsh on one side and some mudflats on the other.  As I worked the edges, I eventually spotted the Kite family a long way off.  On my hike to get better looks at this new lifer, I couldn’t pass up the best photo-op I’ll get of a Black-crowned Night-Heron.

Black-crowned Night-HeronWhen I first spotted the White-tailed Kites, I had seen two adults, but when I arrived at the tree they were hanging out in, I found one adult and two juveniles.  They didn’t move at all, and the juveniles were constantly begging for food with an annoying screaming sound.  The worn-out parent just closed its eyes and hunkered down as if it was thinking Please just stop, somebody please just make it stop.

White-tailed Kite

Eventually my White-tailed Kite lifer opened its eyes and looked my way.

White-tailed Kite

At Sea Cloud park I was able to see some other fun birds including Hooded Orioles, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, a Bewick’s Wren, and a bevy of big shorebirds: Willets, Marbled Godwits, Black-necked Stilts, and American Avocets.  I was also able to improve on my California Towhee photos.

California Towhee

After I got back to the hotel to join the family, the plan was to drive north across the Golden Gate Bridge and head into the Marin Headlands of Marin County.  This was a must stop for us as our daughter’s name is Marin, though it’s pronounced differently (the county’s name is accented on the last syllable while our daughter’s is accented on the first).  We stopped at the Headlands visitor center hoping to get some cool souvenirs with Marin’s name all over them.  My souvenir was to get a Marin County eBird checklist. I didn’t care what birds were on it.  So right away I started documenting birds in the parking lot.  Almost right away I heard a vocalization I had studied just the night before, the Wrentit!  It was pretty cool to get a bona fide life bird in Marin County.  I’m actually glad I missed on it at Pinnacles NP the day before.  This particular bird didn’t show itself which is pretty typical of the species, but later on I found another Wrentit at the Headlands that was super cooperative for a photo.


Later on that day we drove south down the Coastal Highway as mentioned in my previous post.  We made a stop for me in Half Moon Bay to look for my last possible “California” bird of the trip, the California Thrasher.  This bird was right where people had pinned it and was not tough to find at all.  Getting a new Thrasher is always fun.  I just have one left now, and it’s in Texas.  I also have one last “California” bird to get now, the California Gnatcatcher.

California Thrasher

When you’re in a state like California and there are still lifers to be had, the efforts to lifer often go right up to the last minute.  When we got back from this day of road-tripping, I had a little over an hour before I had to get the rental car returned.  So I hit up Coyote Point Recreation Area which was a mile from our hotel. I was trying again for the Nuttall’s Woodpecker.  While I did strike out on that again, I ended up seeing a couple Least Terns and this super mellow Chestnut-backed Chickadee that foraged for insects in the tree right in front of me.  It game me the redemptive and satisfying looks I was hoping for. This one should have been called a Chestnut-backed Nuthatch or Chestnut-backed Creeper for how it behaved.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee Chestnut-backed Chickadee Chestnut-backed Chickadee Chestnut-backed ChickadeeAnd with that, I had to close out my California birding for this time. I got a great taste of California and picked up most of the endemics and other range-limited birds.  I am definitely looking forward to going back someday.