Ask any serious Minnesota birder where he or she was in June of 2017, and you will get one common response: the North Ottawa Impoundment in Grant County. While not exactly new to hosting good and rare birds, North Ottawa outdid itself this year. Or more accurately, an army of skilled birders outdid themselves as they descended on the Impoundment in waves and created a bonafide, honest-to-goodness Patagonia Picnic Table Effect. That term is sometimes used pretty loosely, but this was the real deal–a cascade of Accidentals, Casuals, and Rare-Regulars so intense that it threatened to rename the very phenomenon itself. Below is the timeline of the major birding events, including my multiple trips with Steve Gardner to the site in June. Even though this info is old news to Minnesota birders, I think the end of this post will hold a nice surprise for all.
Shawn Conrad and Becca Engdahl separately report finding a Glossy Ibis, an accidental species that would be a lifer for me.
Undoubtedly following up on the Glossy Ibis reports, Minnesota Big Year birder Liz Harper helps her own cause by discovering a Little Blue Heron, a rare-regular species which would be a state bird for me.
Among the masses of birders now swarming the Impoundment, Gerry Hoekstra sends MN birders into a complete frenzy, including yours truly, when he finds a Snowy Plover, a casual species that would be a lifer for me.
Steve and I go to North Ottawa. Any one of the three aforementioned birds would have justified the trip. Three in one spot was just ridiculous. We were hoping for at least one of these goodies. Fortunately I didn’t have to wait long to get that wish. I got the Little Blue Heron as a flyover almost right away. Unfortunately Steve missed it at that time but got it later in the day.
We tried unsuccessfully for the Snowy Plover but had no luck. Considering there were over a dozen birders out looking and no one was turning it up, it was safe to say that it was gone. We did, however, see the Glossy Ibis thanks to Wayne Perala, local birding guru who knew the bird and its habits so well that he told us where to look. And almost on cue, the bird flew up out of the cattails right by Wayne as he said, “There’s your Ibis.” This bird was super cooperative giving us great looks in perfect light. It was a life bird for me but just a state bird for Steve.
Steve and I were pretty thrilled with going 2/3 on our targets. In addition to these birds, we also nabbed some nice birds that we don’t get to see too often, like this Snowy Egret.
Western Kingbird never goes unappreciated in Minnesota. We were lucky to see this one.
And who does not love seeing an Upland Sandpiper, especially one so crushable?
Steve and I felt pretty darn good about our trip and our nice haul of birds. We were completely satisfied, until….
Wayne Perala (remember nice guy, Wayne, from the Ibis story?) sent another shock wave through the Minnesota birding community by posting incredible pics of a King Rail, another accidental species that would be a lifer for me. Unfortunately timing was bad for me as I was getting ready to go on that Madeline Island trip that was highlighted by the last post. Indeed I had to suffer through pics and reports of many people adding the most recent North Ottawa mega to their lists.
Finally back from that Wisconsin vacation, Steve and I sneak up to the Impoundment in the evening. In the week since the Rail was discovered, other birders discovered there were two King Rails! Despite now having double the chance to see this lifer, our Rail search was a bust. The wind was raging and we were searching in slightly the wrong spot. We also tried searching for a lifer Nelson’s Sparrow reported by Becca Engdahl, but nothing likes to be out in the wind. Except Western Grebes, they don’t care.
Steve and I did, however, see another casual species that was also discovered during this historic period of MN birding which I have failed to disclose in the timeline. A pair of Black-necked Stilts had set up shop in one of the shallow pools of the Impoundment. Considering I already had Black-necked Stilts for Grant County from several years ago and that Steve had just gotten this state bird recently, we just weren’t too fired up about it, especially after our double dip.
With a renewed sense of optimism freshened up by continuing reports of the Rail pair, Steve and I headed back to Grant County for the third time in a month. This time we arrived at the crack of dawn on gloriously still day…in the right spot. Success.
Look at the size of these things compared to the Mallards in the background. No wonder it’s the King of the Rails.Birding is a roller coaster of emotions, and Steve and I were back on top after this sighting. Steve suggested we try for those Nelson’s Sparrows again. Despite our good fortune of the morning, I was skeptical we would find the Sparrows. But not looking certainly guarantees that outcome. So we walked the dike berm that we had a week ago. This time it definitely felt more Sparrowy–no wind, early morning, etc. We played the tape and didn’t get a response. Then a couple minutes later, I heard the recording, or what I thought was the recording, again. I asked Steve if he had left his phone app on. When he replied that he hadn’t we knew were hearing the real deal! We continued to work the area, and eventually we saw two Nelson’s Sparrows!
With some pishing we were able to get them to pop up for some great looks at these skulkers.Steve and I followed these birds around for a bit, thoroughly soaking up the experience. I don’t think either of us ever expected to lifer on this bird with such good looks. We certainly didn’t expect to get this lifer in Grant County. This nighttime singer is often a heard-only bird that people trek to middle of nowhere (McGregor) to find in the middle of the night. We were stupefied. Talking it over on the ride home, we concluded that the Nelson’s Sparrow lifer experience topped the King Rails even though the Sparrow is a summer resident in our state. More than once I have been surprised by how much of an impact a Sparrow lifer has on me. A huge thanks goes out to Becca Engdahl for her find and her tips on locating it!
The reports out of North Ottawa definitely dried up in July. That was okay with me because I, along with many others, were spoiled rotten by the place. Additionally, I was okay with not having to run up to Grant County again because I had been working hard on achieving a birding goal much closer to home, a goal that has since been achieved and will be the highlight of the next post.
Every other summer my side of the family holds a small reunion of sorts on Madeline Island, the flagship island of Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands on the south shore of Lake Superior. It is a beautiful place to rest, reunite, and play–a place where boys can be boys.
Of course, no boys take this more seriously than the male Warblers of the island. With nearly twenty different species being present on the island, one cannot escape these singing sensations as they belt out their territorial songs telling rival males and the whole world that this is their house.
The Warblers are so thick on Madeline Island that one may escape a particular Warbler’s territory only to immediately land in another’s. Or sometimes, several different species all have territories in the same spot, tolerating each other’s different songs but ready to battle any male of their same species. While I enjoyed a great number of Warbler species, this was not a birding trip and so the camera was rarely raised. Besides, none were new for me. One Warbler that always feels new, that I feel compelled to photograph every time, is the Blackburnian Warbler. Such a looker! And he knows it.
Photographing Warblers in their natural habitat is the best. Here this Blackburnian is posing where he is most comfortable–atop a Black Spruce in a decent-sized (and only) bog on the island.
Though I did not photograph all the Warbers I encountered, I detected many different species:
- Yellow-rumped Warbler
- Black-and-white Warbler
- Northern Parula
- Blackburnian Warbler
- Pine Warbler
- Yellow Warbler
- Common Warbler
- Cape May Warbler
- Black-throated Green Warbler
- Common Yellowthroat
- American Redstart
- Mourning Warbler
- Chestnut-sided Warbler
- Nashville Warbler
Naturally I have saved the best for last. This was my big Madeline Island souvenir, a male Black-throated Blue Warbler.
Two years ago I searched for this species when I saw appropriate habitat of mature maple forests on the eastern end of the 14-mile long island. Trying that same area again this year, I stopped at a spot along North Shore Road that looked good–a deep ravine in the Maple/Hemlock woods which created a relatively open understory that BTBWs like. Immediately I was rewarded that sweet zoo-zoo-zoo-zoo-zoo-ZEE! Making this sighting even sweeter was that I had been participating in Wisconsin’s Breeding Bird Atlas project, and this bird was right in the corner of one of the priority blocks on the underbirded island. BTBW is a very good atlas bird for Wisconsin.
As fun as the Warblers were, they were merely a distraction to bide my time while I anxiously waited to get back to the mainland in Minnesota where all kinds of birds–life birds–were popping up. Stay tuned for the fully-loaded lifer post next.
An unfortunate consequence of visiting a place like Arizona multiple times is that some birds lose that ‘wow’ factor from when they were first seen. The excitement level for a bird is inversely proportional to the number of times that bird is seen. Take the Acorn Woodpecker, for instance. I remember drooling over the thought of seeing one. Now on this trip, after having seen them on other trips, I didn’t even raise the camera. This is just birding reality. It cannot be helped. Some birds still bring it, though. Some just haven’t been enjoyed enough or savored fully. They still feel somewhat fresh and exciting when you bump into them. This post highlights those birds for me on this latest trip.
Many of the these were fun mountain birds that I encountered right by our condo at the Wyndham Flagstaff Resort (great place if you go, btw). First up is the Steller’s Jay, a bird not known for its shyness. Before this trip I had only seen one on Mt. Lemmon, a brief sighting on a cloudy day. Here, they were all over the place basking in the sun. And I looked at each one.Another montane, neighborhood bird at the resort was the Black-headed Grosbeak. Though I’ve seen them in Colorado and South Dakota, the views have always been fleeting and unsatisfying. This encounter went a long way toward rectifying that.
Anywhere from the Wyndham Resort to the Schultz Pass Road, a mountain-loving bird that was seemingly ubiquitous around Flagstaff was the Western Tanager. Even though I have seen this bird and photographed it in my home county in Minnesota, I continue to find myself in a state of face-melt when I see this bird, and I photograph it way too much. It is illogical, really. Three individuals with varying amounts of red on their faces are shown below in three different species of trees.
Literally a neighbor bird inhabiting the Ponderosa Pines right outside our balcony was the Pygmy Nuthatch. These guys are industrious little busy-bodies. As such, my only other time seeing them in the past resulted in a poor photo op. Not much changed on this trip despite being merely 5 feet away. Pygmy Nuthatch could see blog time again.
The last bird from the resort was a parking lot bird but was by no means a trash bird. In fact, this papa Western Bluebird was a photographic lifer for me.Away from the resort there were some other non-lifer favorites, like this American Three-toed Woodpecker along the Schultz Pass Road. Keep in mind that I had only ever seen one before just this past spring in Minnesota. This bird very much still has lifer freshness associated with it. While the unique drumming sound of this Woodpecker was the same as the one back home, its back was not. Note how white the back is on this Rocky Mountains subspecies of the ATTW; the back of the East Taiga subspecies that we have in Minnesota is nearly all black with small white flecks.
In Oak Creek Canyon at Grasshopper Point Recreation Area, a Bridled Titmouse was a pleasant surprise.
And the Grand Canyon is never more grand than when it serves as a backdrop from a rim-perching Black-throated Gray Warbler, a bird I have wished to have better photographs of for a long time.
That’s it for Arizona this time. There will be more this winter. For the next post we’re headed to Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands for some Warble action.