Bird Local and Save

Save time. Save money. Save headaches. Save the fun for another day. The longer I bird, the more rewarding I find local birding. Most anyone can see what birds they want if they have the means and time to hop in a car and drive across the state or get on a plane and go someplace new. But not everyone can see what they want in a limited geographical area even if they have all the time and money in the world. Racking up the numbers in the near-perfect 24×36 mile rectangle that is Kandiyohi County is tough. While I haven’t jumped on the popular 5-Mile Radius bandwagon, I do take my birding pretty seriously in these 864 square miles.  Birding a relatively small area makes the victories all the sweeter and the misses even more anguishing.  Case in point was an Eastern Whip-poor-will found by Dan Orr on April 30 in the far NW corner of the county. Dan found the bird during the day surprisingly, and not surprisingly, I was tied up with shuttling kids around to their activities. I couldn’t make the 40-minute drive until dark, which is okay considering hearing a nightjar is much more probable than seeing one.  Joel Schmidt was on the scene before me having no luck finding it. Then, two minutes before I arrived, he heard it. I stayed on over an hour without hearing a whip or a will. Ugh.

Yet another stinging miss was a Summer Tanager in Randy Frederickson’s yard in May of 2017 while I was across the country. I literally got the news just after landing in Arizona. Talk about bad timing.  All I had to cling to was a thin hope of another one based on Randy having seen this species in his yard a few times over the last couple decades. It turns out that my hope was not that thin. History repeated itself almost exactly a year later, except I was in the right place at the right time for once to get #258. Twice I’ve made long-distance car chases for this species, and here I had one just across town.  Sadly, that story has repeated itself all too often for me with other species.

Summer Tanager

Not long after I enjoyed this Tanager with Randy and his wife in their yard, Randy and I were out birding one morning when I picked up county bird #259*.  *This bird, if accepted, would be a second state record. I’ll write more on that if we have success with it being accepted. If not, just forget this paragraph even existed.

Serendipitous rarities at the local level are always received with great joy since they are completely unexpected. You can’t get too upset about the really rare birds you don’t have on your county list.  However, it’s the birds that you know show up annually but are still missing from the list that really get under the skin. Two of those for me were Sanderling and Henslow’s Sparrow. My battle plan was to hit up shorebird habitat hard during the end of May to hopefully get a Sanderling, a late migrant. Then, during June, I would make it my daily chore to go beat the innumerable grasslands in the county for a Henslow’s. I was looking forward to this struggle, actually. A few visiting birders laid waste to my perfect plans by finding both my Henslow’s AND my Sanderling for me in the SAME day!

County listing gurus, Andy Nyhus and Dedrick Benz, answered my case-of-beer promotion for any non-county resident that finds me a new Kandiyohi bird when they dug up a Henslow’s Sparrow on territory in the far SE corner of the county. It was a bittersweet #260–good to finally get it, but now my June birding plans were in shambles.

Henslow's Sparrow I have wanted this Sparrow for a long time. The last time one was in the county was in 2013, my first summer of birding. I did try for that one, but I was so green that I didn’t really know how to try. Plus I later found out that I was in the wrong spot by like a quarter mile. Needless to say, with this year’s find I immediately raced down to that corner of the county, making me slightly late for meeting up with a friend that morning.  Getting the bird was a cinch as it could be heard from the parking lot. I spent a little time with it and then raced back to my meeting.  When that meeting ended at noon, I promptly went to the liquor store to make good on a promise. I made my purchase but was disappointed to find out that Andy and Dedrick were no longer in the county to collect payment and had vanished like the DeLorean, leaving fiery trails of good birds for others to marvel at.  Two of those birds were some Sanderlings and Ruddy Turnstones that same afternoon on a beach at Lake Minnewaska in neighboring Pope County. The find actually pushed me out the door that very same day to start checking similar beaches in this county. I checked several but did not go to the beach at Green Lake in Spicer.  Though I thought of it, I instead went to lakes to the south. It’s a good thing that county-listing expert, Herb Dingmann, had the same hunch after ticking Andy and Dedrick’s Pope finds. He did stop at Green Lake and found the same pair of species! Twenty minutes after his call, Steve and I were on site, enjoying our latest county bird. This was #261 for me.

Sanderling

Ruddy Turnstone is not a shabby bird either, only my second in the county.

Ruddy Turnstone

Sanderling Ruddy Turnstone

So just like that I was out of birding targets for the immediate future. I almost didn’t know what to do with myself. At my current number for the county, I am essentially waiting on vagrants to show up to get the number higher. There are a couple more regular hold-outs which I will pursue come fall and winter, but what does one do now? I have never understood the appeal of 87-county listing, but maybe this is it how it begins–the local list gets saturated with good birds and one must look across borders for new tics to keep the thrill alive.  Or maybe it happens innocently when a slew of good birds shows up at the ponds at work in neighboring Meeker County. The ponds have been drawn down this year making it tidy little hotspot during migration.

A confiding pair of Northern Pintails that hung out for a week was a fun Meeker tic.

Northern PintailFun as the Pintails were, nothing could make the Meeker slope more slippery like the 1-2-3 punch of Willet, Snowy Egret, and Caspian Tern. The latter two were seen on the same day as I was hurriedly leaving work to chase the Curlew Sandpiper.

WilletAfter work one day, coworker and birding buddy Brad Nelson had seen some smaller Egrets fly over and land at the ponds but wasn’t able to investigate. He asked if I could check it out. Though the Curlew Sandpiper was the priority, I told him I could give it a quick once-over. It’s a good thing, too, because Brad’s suspicion on the Egrets was right. This pair of Snowy Egrets became our first eBird flagged rarity for work, and it allowed Brad to tie the record for being #1 in Meeker.

Snowy EgretAs I scanned the ponds in my haste to get to the Curlew, I nearly missed this Caspian Tern trying to blend in with the Forster’s. Caspian is the better of the two Terns here, and it was the bird that officially crowned Brad Nelson the King of Meeker County.  Congrats, Brad!Caspian TernPerhaps the county listing starts innocently with “just a quick trip” 6 miles from the county line to pick up Dan Orr’s Stearns County Mockingbirds.

Northern MockingbirdOr maybe it happens when you are driving down the Kandi-Swift County line road and find yourself staring at the Swift side of the line.   It’s a good thing I did because it netted me my first real good looks and photos of a Sora. This felt like a lifer, honestly.

SoraThe birding action is too hot at home to be worried about other counties. I’m not and don’t anticipate to be an active 87-lister, though it is fun to add tics when I travel. This spring/summer has produced an abundance of good birds right here in Kandiyohi County, even if they were not new to me. In fact, for the first time ever, I managed to go above the 200 mark in a single year with half the year still to go!  Here are some of the more fun finds I’ve encountered along the way.

Perhaps winning the award for Biggest Surprise was this very late Snowy Owl (April 26!). I had chased some Short-eared Owls (a more expected species at this time) and instead found this guy. Every Minnesota birder will tell you they have looked at countless Wal-Mart bags in fields thinking they had a Snowy Owl.  Given the time period, I was expecting this white mass to actually be a Wal-Mart bag. Nope. This was my fifth Kandiyohi Snowy Owl of this past winter/spring.

Snowy OwlAnother, “What’s that doing here right now?” bird was a presumed nesting pair of White-winged Crossbills this spring found by Steve Gardner in the same place I found a flock last November.

White-winged Crossbill

It was good to connect with two different Red-headed Woodpeckers in the county this year already–not a bird to be taken for granted here by any means.

Red-headed WoodpeckerThough not a rare bird for Kandiyohi County, it’s always good to bump into a Scarlet Tanager too.

Scarlet TanagerThis spring/summer I have many county Seconds, meaning I’ve seen/heard a bird for the second time ever in the county. I was pretty thrilled to discover my second Loggerhead Shrike for the county. I’ve only seen a handful in the entire state, so this was pretty special.

Loggerhead Shrike

Speaking of only seeing a handful of a species in the state, another Second happened when I was looking for my county Sanderling at the Blomkest sewage ponds.  I kicked up a pair of Gray Partridge as I hiked the barbwire perimeter. The exact same scenario played out for me in this spot just two years ago.

Gray Partridge

My favorite Second occurred when I was looking for a year bird, the Orchard Oriole. The Orchard was not a Second, but still a fun bird.

Orchard OrioleI saw this Orchard Oriole along a road between two gravel pits that I have walked many times in the past looking for a county record Blue Grosbeak. Since the record was found last summer and since it’s still not Blue Grosbeak season in my mind, I was not even thinking about that species. The thing about birding is that good finds sometimes happen when you least expect them. I was pretty pumped to finally (after all these years) get a personally found second Kandiyohi County record Blue Grosbeak.

Blue GrosbeakI didn’t have to wait long to get my second county Summer Tanager. County-listing legends, John Hockema and Chris Hockema, found this first-year male at Mt. Tom at Sibley State Park.  Incredibly, other observers found a second Summer Tanager with this one.

Summer TanagerThe Hockema Bros. followed this up immediately with another incredible find at Mt. Tom–my second county Eastern Towhee.

Eastern TowheeContinuing this list of Seconds was my second county observation and first county visual of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo in Randy’s magical yard.

Yellow-billed CuckooThis Hudsonian Godwit was my fourth observation of this species in the county, but this was only my second time seeing one in breeding plumage.

Hudsonian GodwitBirding locally this spring has been absolutely incredible and proof that you really don’t have to go far to find great things. Other fun finds on the road to 200 and beyond included Least Bitterns, Eastern Meadowlarks, Lark Sparrows, a Cerulean Warbler, and more. Even the new yard has had some great action with Common Nighthawks circling over, Purple Finches stopping by the feeders, and a Wood Thrush waking me up one morning with its serenade.

Birding has definitely slowed down the last couple weeks, which is a good thing so I can work on getting caught up on this blog and on various non-birding projects.  Next post (posts?) will highlight an incredible birding trip Steve and I took to Arizona back in April.

The Kentucky Derby is Won at the Finish Line

I know I promised a post on the local birding scene, but it’s going to have to wait on yet another lifer post.  My only failed lifer chase in the last post was a Kentucky Warbler, the second such time I’ve pursued this bird in the past couple years. Thanks to Brown County birding guru, Brian Smith, there was another opportunity. A few days ago, Brian  discovered a Kentucky Warbler seemingly on territory along the KC Road in the Minnesota River Valley just northwest of New Ulm. The Valley is the perfect place for a Kentucky to show up and set up shop.  The mature, deciduous forests create shady understory haunts, complete with quaint mountain-like streams. Additionally, being in the southern 1/4 of the state, this part of the Valley has a more southern, humid feel that might feel inviting to a barely out-of-range Warbler whose northern reaches include southern Iowa and northern Illinois.

Despite this being a good fit for the Kentucky Warbler, this bird was apparently a Brown County first record.  And in spite of that status, this particular bird did not seem to attract the same attention from the MN birding community that Gerry Hoekstra’s Rice County bird did a month ago.  There were a few souls who ventured into the scenic river valley to get this tic. I was waiting for an opportune time but was not feeling rushed since the bird seemed like it was going to be around for the summer.  Clearly I had underestimated my opponent. I arrived early this morning expecting to hear my lifer immediately (these birds are loud) and then have to work for a photo of the skulker. There were plenty of interesting bird songs to listen to on the KC Road–a calling Yellow-billed Cuckoo, a distant Wood Thrush, the scratchy song of a Scarlet Tanager, but no Kentucky. I was patient too, giving it over an hour, even double- and triple-checking that I had the right location. Nothing. This would be my third dip on the Kentucky Warbler, two in as many months. Frustrated as I was, there really was nothing more to do but go home.

There’s something about birders that they have undying hope to the very end, or, more likely, just never want to stop birding at the very end. The KC road was birdy, and the stretch lying to the west looked interesting.  I hadn’t come in that way, but I could certainly go home that direction. The thought did occur to me that I could find my own brand new Kentucky Warbler. Why not? This place was perfect.  As I rolled along the gravel road slowly with the windows down, I was imagining what it would be like to actually hear the clear, ringing song of a Kentucky that I’d only ever listened to on my app. It could happen, I told myself. Almost as soon as that thought went through my head, an actual Kentucky Warbler belted out his song right by the road as I went past! Even though I had a hunch (more like a long-shot hope), I was still somewhat in shock. After all, this was a half-mile away from the original location. I can only imagine it is the same bird considering the first location was devoid of the KEWA. And from what I could tell, he had upgraded his summer accommodations, settling in at a picturesque, babbling tributary of the Minnesota River.

It’s true what they say about Kentuckys being easier heard than seen, but I was afforded a few brief looks at this stunning Warbler as he sang over his new territory.

Kentucky Warbler

Kentucky WarblerKentucky WarblerI am still shocked I got to see this Warbler after dipping in the original spot. Getting a photo was a wonderful bonus as I never counted on getting one in the first place even when I thought the bird would be a cinch. That’s birding for you, though. It’s never over until it’s over and doesn’t always play out like you think it will.  This was a good reminder to bird hard to the end and expect the unexpected.

Five Fast and Furious Lifers

Birding has been intense this past migration. County birds and new life birds have not waited for me to write up trip reports this past April to SE AZ or even this past February to Duluth! It has been non-stop action which is great for birding and listing but not so great for blogging and documenting. Needless to say, there is a backlog of photos, tales, etc that need to be shared, and frankly, I find the task daunting. So I will chew this elephant one bite at a time by giving a relatively brief run-down of 5, yes 5!, genuine life birds I have seen in MINNESOTA over the span of four weeks. In the last couple years I have tried to scale back on my chasing by only going after true life birds. I have given up on making long distance chases for mere state birds.  Even under these new self-imposed rules, I have been super busy…

On April 29th, I chased a female/1st year male Painted Bunting that showed up at Paul Suchanek’s farm near Owatonna, an unseemly mecca for all kinds of rarities. Seeing PABU was one of my main birding goals for 2018, though I was kind of holding out for the more splashy adult male. But as they say, beggars can’t be choosers. At least I could choose a cute companion for part of my chase–Marin joined me on the trip for a 1/3 of the way so she could hang out with her grandparents in Hutch while I continued on. It was nice to have the company, however brief.

marin

I was expecting this to be a 5-hour round trip dip, honestly. The wind was ferocious that whole day, something I was sure that would move the little vagrant along. Apparently Paul’s set-up was just too bird friendly because the PABU persisted giving me a bittersweet lifer (I wish it was a male).

Painted Bunting Painted Bunting

On May 5th, the kids and I chased a Kentucky Warbler in Northfield, MN. Despite a solid effort, we came up short. So here’s a picture of a Barred Owl we saw in the place of a Kentucky Warbler. Despite their cool factor, Barred Owls do little to sooth the pain of a half-day dip.

Barred Owl

On May 8th, birding phenom and fresh college grad, Garrett Wee, sent shock waves through the Minnesota birding community with the discovery of the state’s fifth ever Curlew Sandpiper. Since this bird was a mere hour away at Lone Tree Lake by Cottonwood, it was an easy chase to make. Steve Gardner and I headed down there immediately after work. Garrett was still there, like a proud papa, greeting all the guests that came to see his baby. It was a stunning find that Garrett picked out from the nearly 2,000 shorebirds feeding in the shallow lake. Wind and distance made for very difficult viewing and photography conditions. I’m not complaining, though. How can I when I got to see a shorebird I never thought I would see?

Curlew SandpiperCurlew SandpiperThis story gets a little more interesting than just a really rare bird. There is a county listing married couple in the state, Barb and Denny Martin, who travel the entire state amassing tics everywhere they go. They’ve been at this awhile and have a very impressive total of 399 and 400 MN birds. The discrepancy bird? Curlew Sandpiper. Needless to say, they came screaming in from the Twin Cities and got on site while we were there. I wasn’t paying attention when Barb was telling someone else the backstory on how the discrepancy came to be, but regardless, there can be peace in the Martin household now that everything is tied up at 400 apiece.

But wait, there’s more. The intrigue doesn’t stop with the Martins.  Back on December 1, 2017, Garrett posted about the potential of this shorebird spot, and birding legend, Bob Dunlap, prophesied this very moment:

bob's prophecy

The fulfillment of the prophecy only served to heighten the lore of Bob and Garrett in the minds of us commoner birders.   To stoke that sentiment even more, Garrett had another great find two days later with the discovery of 15 Smith’s Longspurs at the Echo sewage ponds, including several breeding plumage males. Even though this species passes through Minnesota (and likely Kandiyohi County) every year, I still have never seen one. Once again, Steve and I made an after work chase. This time we got a much later start and only had about 45 minutes of daylight to look. We turned up nothing when we walked the entirety of the small sewage ponds. Then, in a final last-ditch walk with barely any light, I detected the birds vocalizing in the corn stubble field adjacent to the ponds. Steve and I pursued them hoping to get visuals, but we were fighting low light and the bird’s good camouflage.  Steve played a tape, and we had one sing in response. I did catch sight of one bird, seeing its buffy chest, but the look was fleeting and unsatisfying. Still, it was better than nothing.

On May 22, Steve and I were again on the chase when county-listing gurus, Andy Nyhus and Dedrick Benz, found 11 Whimbrels at the famed North Ottawa Impoundment in Grant County. North Ottawa put on a strong showing in 2017, coughing up rarity after rarity. One would think it would have nothing more to offer, but obviously the Whimbrel find proved that wrong. Steve and I almost didn’t complete the chase as we were in contact with another birder on site who wasn’t seeing them at the original location. Whimbrels are notorious for disappearing in a hurry, so I was skeptical. Steve thought we should complete the 1.5 hour trip there anyway. Once we got there, we ran into big year birder, Liz Harper, who came from the Cities hoping to add one more tic to her already 300+ year. None of us were optimistic. Steve and I decided we would just spend an hour birding the impoundment, which, even on a bad day, still beats birding most anywhere else. Liz decided she wasn’t giving up on the Whimbrels. Steve and I went on to find a Sanderling and some Avocets, leaving Liz behind. Then Liz called–she found them! Liz is, indeed, persistent. I mean, would you think to look at a pile of Mallards a half mile away in windy conditions?  Because that’s where she found the Whimbrels were hiding.

North OttawaThe views through the scopes shaking in the wind were tenuous but definitive enough to know what we were looking at. Liz was, appropriately, super pumped by resurrecting these birds and saving the day for all of us. Also, appropriately, she insisted we selfie with her to commemorate this great birding memory. Thanks, Liz, for digging this one out and changing the day’s narrative!

Josh, Steve, LizI was itching for a better look at these Whimbrels, so Steve and I headed to the road that bordered the basin on the east. Finally I got the look I was hoping for–seeing that tell-tale bill. It left me wanting more, but it was enough for now. Maybe someday I’d do better…

whimbrelsThis brings us to this Memorial Day weekend where the family and I made a quick overnight trip to Duluth. Red-throated Loon is annual in Minnesota in both the late fall and spring on Lake Superior during migration.  For whatever reason, I still haven’t made this bird a priority. Five years into my birding career, and I still hadn’t seen one. I decided to change that by going on this trip. RTLOs had been reported in good numbers off Park Point in Duluth the past few weeks.  Memorial Day is one of the best times to look for them. We didn’t waste any time in Duluth, hitting the 12th St. beach access on Park Point immediately upon arriving in town. As the family played on the sandy beach and enjoyed the brisk 55-degree weather (mid 90s back home!), I scanned for this holdout to my life list. Nothing at 12 St., so we continued a few miles east down the Point to the beach house.  There was a lot of chop and sun glare, but I eventually latched onto a trio of these constantly diving Loons. Seeing these Loons, in breeding plumage no less, felt good even if the photo leaves a lot to be desired.

Red-throated LoonSince the main target of the trip was achieved, there was nothing left to do but have a relaxing time with the family. Of course, I’d be up and at ’em the next morning well before the family was awake. I decided to try for more/better visuals of the Loons. I had no luck with that this morning. What I lacked in the Loon-finding skills, I made up for in finding Duluth birding pal, John Richardson. It’s always good to see John. Not only is he a fun guy, but he is one skilled birder. He didn’t find a Red-throated Loon either. Instead, he found something just as good or even better:

WhimbrelWhimbrelJohn and I spent the better part of an hour trying to relocate this single Whimbrel John had first found near the dune bridge at Park Point. It was time and effort well spent. Such a great-looking shorebird! Truly, not many other shorebirds excite birders as much as this one. It was as equal of a highlight as the RTLO, which I am now expecting to get crushing looks of any day at this rate.

I’m putting off the other major trip reports again. Next post will be about the local birding scene.  It’s been off the charts.

MAGO are MAGA

Few shorebirds can deliver on such a campaign promise, but the Marbled Godwit is doing just that–one county at a time. Today it made Kandiyohi County and my respective county list a littler greater. Thanks to Randy Frederickson, I picked up #257 today, a long-overdue and much hoped-for bird this spring. Just like my last county bird, the Long-tailed Duck, all the action went down when I was in church. Thankfully, like last time, it was still there afterward.

Marbled Godwit

Mopping Up in Central AZ

Seeing as how winter is very much still alive in Minnesota, I’m not that late in writing up a report from a late January trip to visit to Arizona. Over the years the Arizona trips and respective lifers have piled up. While there is no end in sight for the former, the latter is definitely petering out. The remnant that remains for me in central AZ is a geographically scattered bunch of birds that never made their way to the top of the wish list, heck, not even the top 10 on any given trip. Gone are the days of going after some cool Owl or Trogon. Instead I’ve entered the errand-birding stage for this area, finally going after some of these ‘nobodies’. Ironically, though, these passed-over birds have become some of the most coveted since they are all that remain for this junkie looking for his next lifer fix. In fact, the one I wanted most was Prairie Falcon.

We had just a couple hours of daylight after we arrived in AZ that first day. I couldn’t not take a stab at this lifer in the agricultural fields around Stanfield where some Prairie Falcons had been reported. Dad, Melissa, and Evan accompanied me on this little quest. Wintering raptors are ubiquitous in these flats with one on nearly every pole top. Time was diminishing quickly, so my identification of most of these birds was reduced to Hawk sp. Once I saw a raptor was a hawk, we got the car rolling again just trying to cover more miles and poles to get the good one. I may have been in a hurry, but there is always time for a road-side Burrowing Owl.

Burrowing OwlFinally, I found the sought-after silhouette at the eleventh hour.

Prairie FalconPrairie FalconMy clean-up operations are not haphazard–my strategy is to try to go after anything rare first and save the most common for later if need be. One of those rarities was the Rufous-backed Robin. This past winter was exceptional for this species with many records popping up in AZ. So that next day, my friend Gordon Karre took me on a mini-outing to stake out a gorgeous backyard in Paradise Valley to hopefully get one of two Robins that had been eating the berries of pyracantha bushes. The problem was that time and berries had run out for this particular Robin pair. We dipped.

So Gordon and I moved on to another target just a couple miles away before retiring the birding efforts for the day. The Bronzed Cowbird, often a forgotten possibility on all these trips, was now at the top of the queue.  Gordon and I found a known wintering flock in Paradise Valley at some horse stables.

Bronzed CowbirdWith that target achieved, the birding was put on hold until the next morning where Gordon, my Dad, and I would follow the same strategy–go after a key rarity and snag as many other lifers along the way. That rarity was the Ruddy Ground-Dove. Though we were going to originally go after one in the Phoenix area, it became a no-show just a couple days before the trip.  We were then forced to go south to the Red Rock feedlot where several had been seen.

Initially, we had trouble finding these birds as we drove the perimeter of the massive feedlot and scanned for birds. There were some interesting distractions among the droves of common birds–a Vermilion Flycatcher, Lark Sparrows, a flock of Yellow-headed Blackbirds, and this lovely female Lark Bunting.

Lark BuntingFinally we got on to the flock(!) of the rare Doves, finding five or six in all. Here are four of them with an Inca Dove that has identity issues, all huddling to keep warm on this chilly morning.

Ruddy Ground-DoveRuddy Ground-DoveIMG_2229Ruddy Ground-DoveThe plan was to cruise through the Santa Cruz Flats on the way home to try for two birds I had long been holding in reserve: Crested Caracara and Mountain Plover. The Santa Cruz Flats are fun place to bird where one can not only stumble across a Mark Ochs lifer but also see cool stuff like Harris’s Hawks.

Harris's Hawk

And a bonus Prairie Falcon.

Prairie FalconThen, thanks to our trusty guide, we finally got onto one of the two targets–a whole heap of Crested Caracaras. Crested CaracaraCrested CaracaraNot long after, Gordon had found us some Mountain Plovers.

Mountain Plover

With some of the longtime holes finally filled in on the list, there wasn’t much to do on this trip in the lifer department especially considering our time was limited. Even still, the birds around the parents’ house provide just as much entertainment and constant opportunities for photo improvement. This year it was the Verdin’s turn for a better photo.

VerdinSome birds practically throw themselves at you when you’re just out walking in the neighborhood. Vermilion Flycatchers seem to be becoming more prolific in the area of Maricopa where Mom and Dad live. I don’t mind.

Vermilion FlycatcherVermilion FlycatcherLast, but certainly not least, checking on our neighborhood buddy is an annual tradition.

Burrowing OwlSo that’s it from this trip. Pretty tame by previous standards, but that will more than be made up for on an upcoming post detailing another trip to Arizona that was focused exclusively on birding. But first, we have to cover another excursion to Duluth. There was an irruption going on this winter, after all.

Boreal Magic: A 5-Year Dream Realized

It was 2012 when this whole birding thing began for Evan and me. By year’s end, we didn’t even have 100 species to our name. Sometime in January of 2013, I discovered Minnesota’s listserv, MOU-net. My eyes were opened to the world of rare birds. At that point in time, rare birds and common birds were all still new to us, so many of the reports were not of great significance to us. While I wasn’t into chasing rare birds at that time, a bombardment of emails regarding one bird was causing me to think I should take some kind of action. The Boreal Owl was irrupting in record numbers that January and February, coming down from Canada. I had only seen a Great Horned Owl by this time, so it was just one of 18 Owl species I had yet to see. But people were describing how this species only irrupts like this every four to five years, and birders were flying in from all over the country to see this Owl. It was a rare event to say the least; I knew I had to try. Melissa was involved in directing a school musical during that same time and couldn’t break away for a weekend getaway until early March which I later found out was a little on the late side for Boreals. Some readers may recall that it was then that we made our first ever birding trip to the Sax-Zim Bog and the North Shore, hoping to see the Boreal Owl as well as the other great northern Owls. Not only did we not see a Boreal, but we saw no Owls at all.

That winter passed giving way to new seasons and new birds. Over the years our life list would quadruple, and it would include numerous Owl sightings from 17 different species. Each winter I’d hold out some hope that there would be a report of a Boreal Owl somewhere along the North Shore of Lake Superior, but there would be none. Eventually it became a mythical bird for me. I kicked myself for not getting my butt up to Duluth in February of 2013. In the years since then, I had amassed a formidable collection of rare bird sightings in Minnesota and across the country, yet I was not a member of the Boreal Owl club.  I had Owled literally from the Canadian border down to the Mexican border seeing really cool Owls.  But the Boreal was not one of them. In fact, I was down to two unseen Owl species of the 19 that are possible: the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl and the Boreal Owl. Watching my good buddy Tommy DeBardeleben accomplish his goal of seeing all 19 Owl species in 2016 only heightened my desire to get the Boreal.  I felt as if Minnesota was a lost cause.  I began to daydream of trips to Washington state, Colorado, or Ontario to look for this Owl.   The winter of 2016-2017 was supposed to be the next Boreal Owl irruption if it truly did irrupt every four years. I eagerly awaited news last year. There were a handful of scattered reports, but nothing of a large scale irruption materialized. Would I have to wait another four years? Would I have to travel far away and spend all kinds of money to finally see this Owl?

It turns out I was not alone in my longing for a Boreal. Buddy Jeff Grotte who started the popular Facebook group, Owl About Minnesota, has seen over 1,000 Owls in the last five years. He even tried for Boreal a few times back in 12-13, but he was still Boreal-less too. Jeff and I talked often of hoping to see this bird. Then in December, a friend of Jeff’s from Indiana had a brief sighting of one in the Sax-Zim Bog. It was a fluke sighting, or so I told myself. This wasn’t the irruption year–that was supposed to be last year. Jeff and I decided to try for this Owl the very next morning. It literally was our first opportunity in five years of waiting. We had to try. Rising early, we got up to the Bog just after dawn. Great Grays, Hawk Owls, and Snowies were all off to a banner start up there, but Jeff and I have both seen plenty of each. We wanted the prize bird more than anything else. By noon we were still without a Boreal sighting and decided to call it quits. The three Owls we did see were of little consolation.Northern Hawk OwlSnowy OwlSnowy OwlHeartbroken at the time, little did we realize that the Boreal we chased was just the tip of the spear. More sightings kept popping up during December of both live and dead Boreal Owls. By the time news of one would come out, though, it would either be during the work week or late in the day making a chase impossible. Jeff and I were hopeful that our day would finally happen, but we were very antsy about it. I had an upcoming trip to Arizona that I was now dreading. I did not want to miss my chance.

Jeff, myself, and several others decided we should just head up to Duluth and the North Shore the weekend of January 6th-7th whether we had sightings to go off of or not. Clearly the Boreals were irrupting, so the plan was to either look for one on our own or geographically put ourselves in position to quickly get on a bird if there was one. I decided to drag Evan along on this trip; even if he didn’t care about Boreal Owls so much, I knew it would be a fun father-son adventure. We would travel all the way to Grand Marais to stay in my brother’s vacation home, looking for Boreals along the way.

Late in the day on January 5th, one of our group had accomplished the unthinkable: while looking for Saw-whet Owls, teenage birding brothers Ezra, Isaac, and Caleb Hosch had discovered their lifer Boreal Owl near the Twin Cities! Four days prior to that, these brothers had come out to Kandiyohi County to try to help me find a Saw-whet out here. Jeff opted to look for the Boreal these guys found that next morning. I decided to continue with my plan of heading to the North Shore. After all, Scenic 61 between Duluth and Two Harbors is where the Boreals usually pop up. Furthermore, a fellow living outside Grand Marais had one coming to his yard for a few days in a row. This Twin Cities Boreal could easily be gone the next day, and chasing it could cause me to lose valuable search time along the North Shore. Jeff planned to call me that morning if it was relocated. Sure enough, two hours into my journey north I got the call from Jeff. I was just north of Hinckley at the time, heading north on I-35. I continued to the next exit where I could get turned around to head south. It would take an hour to get there. It was a strange detour, but you know, a bird in the hand and all that…

Evan and I got to the site. Jeff was waiting for us in his car trying to get warm.  Little did we know that it was nearly a mile hike in the single-digit temps out to this Owl. Jeff did warn us that the Owl was extremely high in a pine tree, like 60 feet high, and the views were terrible. The Hosch family was also there to guide us out to where the Owl was. Visiting with the Hoschs, I learned that Jeff had called me to get me turned around on the highway before he even laid eyes on the bird himself. Nice guy. When we got out to The Tree, Isaac and Ezra were helping people get on their amazing find. I could not see the darn thing despite patient birders trying to describe where it was. Just as I was about to zero in on it, it flew! So, technically I had a Boreal Owl, but it didn’t feel like it. Evan never took his eyes off it and saw it land in another pine just as high off the ground as the first. Evan was able to see it with no optics, but again, I could not pick it out. And then it flew again. Argh! The bird had been notched, but there were no solid looks or photos. This was not just some western Empid that you could be satisfied with a brief, distant look–this was the freaking Boreal Owl!  Two hours had now passed since I got that phone call from Jeff. Evan and I could still make it Grand Marais before dark and get at least some searching in along the way if we hurried. I was hoping we could get onto a more cooperative Owl. So with temps hovering around zero, Evan and I jogged most of the mile back to the car and quickly got on the road to go back north. There were more Boreals to be found, and we wanted a better look.

We got to Duluth around 1:00. I wanted to be in Grand Marais by 4:00 in case that gentleman with the yard Boreal called me. He had said he would make sure to tell me if it made its usual appearance at dusk. Once in Duluth, Evan and I hopped on Scenic 61, a highway that hugs the shoreline of Lake Superior. Boreal Owls are often found here during irruption years because when they come south they hit the lakefront and keep moving southwest along the shore. The stretch between Duluth and Two Harbors is often the best section for them. We, though, didn’t find any by the time we hit Two Harbors. We stopped at a city park where a Boreal had been seen a few days earlier.  We planned to leave by 2:30 to get to Grand Marais in time. The park yielded nothing.  Evan and I were walking back to the car to continue northeast to GM when my phone rang. It was Jeff: “Hey, where are you at?!”

“I’m in Two Harbors.”

“Turn around right now! There’s one in Duluth!”

I was literally running while getting the location from Jeff and hollering to Evan (who had fallen a hundred yards behind) to start running back to the car. Huffing and puffing, we hopped in the car and quickly got on the expressway back to Duluth. Another jaunt south on this north-south zig-zag adventure. No Scenic 61 this time. In about 25 minutes we made it to the Hartley Nature Center where Erik Berg and Kelly Raymond had seen this Owl and notified Jeff. It took a little bit of time to figure out where Erik and Kelly were, but eventually we found them quietly looking at this!

Boreal OwlErik and Kelly made some room for us to see this brush-loving bird through a small window in the branches. It felt good. We had made it. We were looking at a real-live Boreal Owl! Now, we were just waiting to see that face. This was our first glimpse.

Boreal OwlAnd then:

Boreal Owl

Even Evan was in awe, saying how cool this was. I was genuinely surprised at this reaction from the kid who has turned down seeing Flammulated and Whiskered Screech-Owls. “This is so cool! Dad, I see its face!”

Conditions for viewing were not perfect. I was sitting in the snow in jeans to get these photos. Eventually this sluggish bird came to life and started actively hunting! The photo opportunities (and the crowd size) started to increase.

boreal Owl

Boreal OwlBoreal OwlBoreal OwlThis was, by far, the coolest Owl I had ever seen. This Owl eventually flew away from this spot. I noticed it actually flew close to a different trail. John Richardson and I walked that way and spotted it on top of a brush pile. The views were much better and gave me my best Boreal photo, which Jeff helped me enhance.

Boreal Owl

Evan was cold at this point and wanted to wait in the car while I continued to enjoy the bird.  I walked him back to the car. When I returned, the Owl (and the crowd) had moved.

IBoreal crowdThe Owl was now very close to the trails and out in the open. I felt bad that Jeff wasn’t there to experience these photo opportunities; he had not felt well after the Twin Cities Boreal expedition and decided not to come north.

Boreal OwlBooks describe Boreals as having a surprised look on their face. It is definitely true. Boreal Owl

Finally, I had been satisfied enough to pry myself away from this spectacular bird. Evan and I could continue on our trip to Grand Marais in perfect peace, even if my pants were soaking wet for the two-hour drive. The Grand Marais birder with the Boreal Owl in his yard never did call me, so things worked out perfectly. It was a dream come true. We had brought our birding full circle from that very first year; we were now members of the Boreal Owl Club.  Evan and I celebrated by eating supper in Grand Marais at a family favorite restaurant, Sven & Ole’s Pizza.

Evan Sven's

Josh Watson, of Kandiyohi County Blue Grosbeak fame, stopped by to join us for a celebratory beer (Evan had ice cream) and we had a nice visit about Boreal Owls and other cool birds of the North and beyond. It’s always fun to catch up with birder friends you don’t see often. It was just a great way to end a great day.

The next morning, Evan I got up and poked around Grand Marais for cool birds. We didn’t find much, but it didn’t matter–it was a completely relaxing trip now with zero anxiety. Jeff was on his way up to Duluth that morning to see if he could get onto a good look of a Boreal Owl. Evan and I continued to look for Boreals on our way southwest to Duluth.  We were hoping we could find one for Jeff. One of our stops was Sugarloaf Cove Nature Center where we were hoping to find a Boreal on a little hike. No Boreals, were had, but Evan was excited to get a lifer Snowshoe Hare. Snowshoe HareWe also took a moment to take a Lake Superior selfie.

Josh Evan

Once again, we stopped in Two Harbors to poke around. Of course we wanted to find a Boreal Owl there, but we also took a moment to get Evan a Harlequin Duck lifer, one of two continuing birds in Agate Bay along the jetty. These birds could be seen very well with the naked eye.

Harlequin DuckHarlequin DuckWe had barely been in Two Harbors when I got a message from Jeff that he had found his very own Boreal Owl down by Duluth! I was happy he had finally gotten good looks at a bird low and in the open. Knowing there were Great Gray Owls in the area, I asked Evan what we should do. Evan thinks like a true birder because he said we should go after Jeff’s Boreal since we can see Great Grays any year. So once again we were on our way back to Duluth for a Boreal Owl. This one was snoozing in a tree right along Scenic 61. That, combined with the fact that we had gotten our Boreal the day before, meant we did not have to rush this time. Sure enough, this Boreal was right where Jeff had spotted it.

Boreal OwlSome people, like myself, have trouble spotting these Owls. Thankfully, people like Evan can point them out.

Evan Owl

What a trip–three Boreal Owls! It was beyond a dream come true. This trip with Evan was second only to the Greater Sage-Grouse trip he and I took three years ago. Many thanks to all the people that helped us, especially the Hosch Bros, Kelly Raymond, Erik Berg, and most importantly, Jeff Grotte who helped me get on all three of these birds after he and I shared the Boreal-less struggle for so long together.

There is now just one Owl left for me to find in the United States. I’m hoping that happens in 2018. But first there will hopefully be some more Boreal Owl encounters this winter–we will be helping legendary Arizona birders Tommy DeBardeleben and Janet Witzeman hopefully get on a Boreal or two.  Speaking of Arizona, the next blog post will feature a few lifers and other favorites I picked up on a trip there last weekend.