Reader’s Choice Makes For A Choice Reader

Over the years ABWCH has enjoyed its share of popular posts and survived tougher times of fickle readership through some real ho-hummers. Through it all, though, there has been a dedicated following that has stuck through posts of plenty as well as posts left wanting. Thanks, Mom. I’m kidding. There’s one more.  If you’ve read this blog at all, you have certainly seen a comment left by AMR, a.k.a. Adam Roesch.  As an actuary in real life, Adam brings an analytical skill-set to the world of birding not often seen.  He is a dedicated patch birder who, almost to a fault, birds exclusively at Coon Rapids Dam Regional Park on the Mississippi River.  Even as potential life birds fall all around him, he opts to bird CRDRP instead of chasing those lifers, hoping to up his patch total, find a rarity, or just document the general avian goings-on there.  Should he ever dump his detailed data notebooks of years of observations on eBird, the system would likely get overloaded and crash.  More than once Adam has offered to show me his beloved spot. Given that it is at least a two hour trip for me and my desire to tone down the chasing, I told him I had to be really selective about the long-distance trips I make. It would either have to be a side trip of convenience if I was in the area or an exclusive trip for a highly compelling reason. So here’s what I told him nearly two years ago:

commentSince that comment was written, I have knocked off all those ducks but one–the Barrow’s Goldeneye, a bird considered casual in Minnesota occurring roughly every 5 years.  As I am getting to the end of my normal MN birds, BAGO was rapidly moving its way up to the top of the list of my most-wanted birds.  Last year I chased a female BAGO in Fergus Falls but failed.  This year there have been a couple other reports but nothing I considered reliable and therefore chaseable. Well, a little over two weeks ago, Adam Roesch birded at the Mississippi River in Champlin–quite aways upstream from his beloved patch–and made a stunning discovery.  Among the myriad of Common Goldeneye, Adam found and photographed a beautiful male Barrow’s Goldeneye. And with that find, Adam submitted his first ever eBird checklist.  Talk about an entrance.

Since the Barrow’s was a metro bird on a river that flows between two counties, the chasers and listers came in droves without haste. At the time, our family was an hour away at Evan’s swim meet in St. Cloud.  After the Sunday event, I dragged the family down the freeway to go to Champlin/Anoka.  At long last I got to meet Adam and his kids in real life as they tried to help me relocate the object of my desire. Of course, when a life bird is at stake, conversation and eye-contact are kept to a minimum as all such efforts are prioritized to the task at hand.  Adam and I parted ways quite quickly in a divide-and-conquer approach with the limited time I had to look.  I finally did have to pull the plug and cut my family’s losses on this unexpected 3-hour extension of their already long weekend.

In the interim, talk of the Barrow’s died down with some of the best birders not being able to relocate it in subsequent days.  But then, conveniently enough, there was a sighting that next Friday–a day before I was scheduled to go to my brother’s place in the Cities. Perfect.  The pre-planned trip was something the kids and I were going to do while Melissa was away for a fun weekend with some friends. After shuttling kids around to their respective activities that Saturday morning, we were eastbound.  Picking up a Meeker County Rough-legged Hawk (dark morph!) along the way was a good birding start to what was once a non-birding trip.

dark morph Rough-legged hawkdark morph Rough-legged hawkFor the second time in as many weekends, we arrived at Anoka’s Peninsula Point Park to scan the Mississippi for the good Goldeneye.

IMG_1622

These are NOT good Goldeneyes.

I was joined by another reader and former life bird provider, Tony Lau.  While Evan and Marin played with a whiskey bottle they found with a bit too much enthusiasm, Tony and I looked and looked for THE duck. No luck.  I decided to head across the Champlin bridge to look for the duck on the Hennepin County side.  Just as I was about to take off, Tony waved me over with both arms. Yes! I hurried over and Tony got me on the duck with his scope as it swam upstream west of the Champlin bridge. The sighting was good enough to claim the lifer, but I wanted more.  Then to our horror, an Eagle came and scared it up sending it further west.

The kids and I drove across the Champlin bridge to see if we could relocate it. No luck. I gave the kids a reprieve by going on a hot chocolate run and then decided to try scanning the river one last time. It was Tony to the rescue again.  He had also come over to the Champlin side of the bridge and relocated the bird.  The low light conditions, distance, and nearly constant diving made it tough to find and keep track of.  Finally, though, I was able to latch on to this lifer with the camera.

Barrow's GoldeneyeThere’s just something that I absolutely love about getting duck lifers in the cold months.

Barrow's Goldeneye

A huge ‘Thank You’ goes out to dedicated reader, Adam Roesch, for his incredible find. Getting lifers in Minnesota is a rare thing for me anymore, so this was a monumental addition. And if you’re reading, Adam, I’ll go ahead an put in my order for Red-throated Loon, Mew Gull, California Gull, mature drake Harlequin Duck, red-morph Eastern Screech-Owl, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Carolina Wren….

The birding for the weekend didn’t stop with the Barrow’s.  Since I was in town and a Snowy Owl had been reported, I decided to get my FOY SNOW.  Normally I wouldn’t chase a Snowy since I’ve seen them within a few minutes of my house, but my brotherr’s house was only ten minutes away from this one.  And besides, it chose the most unlikely of places to live, something I had to see for myself:

MinneapolisI’m not lying. This skyline view of Minneapolis is literally what this Snowy Owl can see from its bizarre winter territory.  I am used to looking for Snowies in urban environments, but nothing quite like this. Snowy Owls aren’t that hard to spot in places like this, yet I was having a hard time, a really hard time. I finally ran into another birder who clued me in to this sneaky Snowy’s hideout.

Minneapolis SnowySee it? Yeah, I didn’t either without help.

Minneapolis SnowyNever have I seen an Owl, Snowy or otherwise, so well fortified.  Camouflaged, yes, but not entrenched. I tried every which angle and every side of the building for a shot.

Minneapolis Snowy

I spent way too long hoping it would fly up to a higher perch. But why would it want to? This guy or gal has figured out how to live the solitary life in a bustling metro environment.

Minneapolis SnowyThe non-birding-totally-birding metro trip was a success by any standard. It was back to rural west-cental MN where more adventure awaited in the days to come. We’ll save that for the next post, but to close things out, here’s a Great Horned Owl the kids and I saw on the ride back home.

Great Horned Owl

A Red-Letter, Red-Feather Day

No secret has been made on this blog that Owls would play a predominant role in 2017’s goals and adventures.   Seeing as how my #1 goal of seeing an irruptive Boreal Owl lifer is not panning out (yet), I’d have to look slightly further down my list to #2 if I was to get any check mark action on the little scrap of paper I keep tucked away in my Sibley. While that second goal was not an Owl lifer, it was just as tantalizing: a red-morph Eastern Screech-Owl.  Just a different color morph of the EASO which I already had in the gray hue, I know, but so, so different from those other gray Screech-Owl species of Western and Whiskered which I’ve already tallied.  Because my list of goals contained so many Owl-related items, I shared it with my friend, Jeff Grotte, a.k.a. Owl King of Minnesota, who lords over his vast digital domain of ‘Owl About Minnesota’ on FB. Jeff’s a super nice guy who I’ve had the pleasure of owling with before, and he told me he thought we could knock #2 off my list.  He wasn’t kidding and wasted no time. Not very deep into 2017–Jan. 1 to be exact, Jeff investigated a lead on a red Screech and was successful.  Shortly afterward he had gained the necessary permission to return to show me this Owl’s abode, a quiet postage-stamp pond in the grove of a rural residence south of the Twin Cities.

Eastern Screech-OwlThe homeowner, Kathy, assured Jeff the Owl was there regularly; it would just be a matter of me finding a time to make the 2-hour trip.  Funny thing when you are a parent, your time no longer belongs to you–work and kid activities keep us hopping and out of the house most every day and now on weekends too. Birding definitely takes a back seat.  I was feeling the need to get this done though; bird in the hand and whatnot. With Melissa being gone on a trip all weekend, I was staring at some serious single-parenting.  The red Screech dream was seemingly out of reach.  So I did what any serious Owler would do: cashed in some comp time and took me an Owliday mid-week.

After dropping the kids off at school on Thursday, I did not drop myself off at school and kept rolling east to the metro where I met up with Jeff.  Jeff brought along another birding/owling friend, Steve Brown.  The three of us were waiting on word from Kathy regarding whether the red Screech was even home this day. But birders and owlers don’t sit still.  We went on the hunt for Long-eared Owls for a short time in Eden Prairie.  While unsuccessful with that target, we did kick up a Barred Owl which was a good omen for the day.

After this little foray, we headed over to Steve’s house to drop off my vehicle and consolidate into his.  As I tailed Steve and Jeff, I saw a mob of Crows in a tree and began scanning for an Owl blob.  One of the birds was noticeably bigger but not Owl-shaped. As I cruised by I could see it was a Red-shouldered Hawk!  This is a bird I’ve had terrible looks at and never photographed before.  I flashed my lights at Steve and Jeff. No response. It didn’t even dawn on me to use my cellphone.  As I put more distance between myself and the hawk, I was resigned to the fact that this bird would continue to elude me in looks and photos.

When I got out of my car in Steve’s driveway, I was just about to tell the guys about my Red-shouldered Hawk woes when Steve started talking first, “Say, I think we should go in the house before we head out again because I’ve got a real tame Red-shouldered Hawk that hangs out in my backyard all day.  You can get some nice photos.”  Jaw nearly met the ground. I hadn’t even mentioned that this would be a photographic lifer. We went into Steve’s beautiful home that overlooks the Minnesota River Valley, and Steve wasn’t lying.  Bam. Another good omen.

Red-shouldered Hawk Red-shouldered HawkThese photos were shot through glass.  Like Jeff, Steve is an accomplished photographer who ushered me into his photo blind where I could photograph the Hawk without a glass barrier.  Unfortunately, the Hawk got a bit nervous and flew into some tangles.  But have a look at that tail!

Red-shouldered HawkI very quickly learned that Steve, a retired dentist, was taking our birding mission very seriously. While the main object was to get me the red Screech, Steve did not want to send his newest guest away without getting some other good birds too.  He was off to a stellar start. In many ways I felt like I was in a parallel birding world to my experiences in Arizona.  Jeff was the MN Tommy and Steve was the MN Gordon.  Like in Arizona, there was one main mission for the day–get Josh the red Screech. That didn’t mean we couldn’t enjoy a little action while we waited, like this American Black Duck among the 500+ Mallards it was with at the Shakopee Mill Pond. Black Ducks have been really good to me this year.

American Black DuckThe open water was a good chance to pick up some FOYs as I still struggle to reach that barrier of 50 species. Belted Kingfisher, American Coot, Ring-necked Duck, and Lesser Scaup were all new for the year.  Ducks do not hold the attention for long, so we were off to do some backroads exploring while we waited for a sighting update on the red Screech.  We were told it pops out of the hole of the Wood Duck box regularly on sunny days.  This day was dreadfully cloudy, so we were hearing nothing in regards to the Owl. Just like Tommy, Jeff was really wanting to get me the target Owl bad.  We discussed an alternative option in St. Paul, but that was quite far away and no one had seen Screech- Owls in that spot for months.  As the hours ticked on, we were all wondering if the day’s objective would be a bust.  Jeff figured our best shot was still with this homeowner, so he messaged her to ask if we could poke around the property to try to turn it up.  With an affirmative answer, we were on our way to at least make an attempt.

We pulled into the driveway, and Kathy and Mike were there to greet us in a warm, Minnesota-nice way on this cold day. And what a greeting it was–with excited eyes, Kathy’s first words through the open car window were, “It’s here!” The car lit up with smiles and laughs not unlike the war room when they got Osama bin Laden. After some pleasantries, the five of us headed out on a cleared path in the snow around some outbuildings to the secluded corner where the Screech had taken up residency.  Even though they had cameras as long as my arms, Jeff and Steve urged me to go first so I could get my look and photos.  The generosity and mission focus was the Tommy/Gordon thing all over again.  Uncanny.

The pond actually had three Wood Duck boxes.  Mike told us which one the Screech was in just 15 minutes ago.  So we stared and stared at a black hole, hoping it would get filled in with a red face.

Wood Duck boxKnowing there was a red Screech in there made for some impatient waiting.  The Owl was not being cooperative at all while we watched and waited.  We were so close to meeting the big objective, but it just wasn’t happening and the impatience of all was festering.  Would we have come this far only to fail? What’s that they say? When a door closes, open a window?

Red Eastern Screech-Owlred Eastern Screech-Owlred Eastern Screech-OwlWe thought this Owl was going to let us photograph it in this position for a little while, but after a half minute or so, it had enough of this nonsense and flew straight toward us and directly into to the hole of another Wood Duck box.  We never did see it again and decided to leave it alone.  High on a successful trip, we continued to hang out by that little pond and talk Owls with Mike and Kathy.  We thanked them profusely and were finally on our way.  With a few hours of daylight left, the day was still wide open with possibility.

Steve, Jeff, and I spent some more time looking for Long-eared Owls near Steve’s place but were not successful.  Jeff is always up for more Owling (like Tommy), so after we said our goodbyes and thank yous to Steve, Jeff and I were off for Round 2 of Eastern Screech-Owls.  I told Jeff that I thought it would be cool to try to see both color morphs in the same day.  So we went to track one down in the western suburbs.  With some tenacity and brilliance (all on Jeff’s part), we got what we came for:

Eastern Screech-OwlQuality over quantity is what this birding year is all about this year.  This day definitely embodied that as a lifer* Owl was had with a couple of bonus Owls all while having fun with friends.  A huge thanks to Jeff Grotte for setting everything up and making a fun day off, to Steve Brown for the other good birds and the selfless enthusiasm, and most importantly a big thank you to Mike and Kathy for sharing their special yard bird with us.  There will be more Owling with Jeff and possibly Steve in the months to come.  But first, I have a duck to track down.

Arizona 2016: THE Trip Bird–#16 Becomes #1

Since my parents have become AZ snowbirds, our family has now made four trips to Arizona.  Each trip has had its own life bird goals or priorities.  Each time the target bird(s) have been realized along with a generous complement of bonus lifers.  Here’s a quick recap of those priority birds:

2014: Burrowing Owl, Vermilion Flycatcher, Cinnamon Teal

2015 (spring): Elegant Trogon and Painted Redstart

2015 (fall): Rufous-capped Warbler

So then what was the trip bird for this most recent Arizona adventure? It was an Owl, but before I tell you which one, it is worth noting that each Arizona trip has already produced multiple Owl lifers:

2014: Burrowing Owl, Long-eared Owl

2015 (spring): Elf Owl, Western Screech-Owl

2015 (fall): Northern Pygmy-Owl, Barn Owl, Spotted Owl

So what’s left in the Owl department? A few actually, but the only one I was after on this latest trip was the Whiskered Screech-Owl. It would be this trip’s most-wanted bird.

It is no coincidence that my Owl collecting started accelerating after I first met and birded with Tommy DeBardeleben in 2015.  Tommy of Tommy’s Owl Big Year (TOBY) fame is the reason why I have a pretty sweet collection of Owls.  Just like how you can never leave Grandma’s house hungry, Tommy has made sure I’ve never left Arizona feeling an Owl void.  No, he has made sure I have always gotten a good helping of a fresh Owl or two or three.  This past year our roles were reversed as I got to help Tommy find some Owls in Minnesota for TOBY, but now it was back to Tommy taking the lead once again in the storied Madera Canyon as we pursued my 16th Owl lifer.

img_0797

On the evening of October 19th, Dad and I drove out from our hotel in Green Valley to Madera Canyon to meet Tommy who was accompanied by another good birding friend, Gordon Karre.  Gordon, Tommy, and I have owled together many times all the way from the Canadian border down to the Mexican border. We’ve driven hundreds of miles together (3.6 of those were even in reverse!). We have logged an extraordinary number of Owls together from well over a dozen different species.  And here we were doing it once again.

As we waited for darkness to settle over Madera, we hung out for a bit at the feeders at Santa Rita Lodge, watching some Magnificent Hummingbirds and chatting with a birding couple from Tennessee.  With plenty of time to kill, we also successfully pursued a Rufous-winged Sparrow lifer.  Finally, though, complete darkness had fallen and it was time to go to work.  Tommy had assured me that Whiskered Screech-Owls are easy in Madera, but there was one catch: Tommy had only ever tried for them in the spring when Owls are more vocal.  Going after these birds in October was uncharted territory for Tommy. Yet, he was confident that even if the Owls were silent, we might be able to rouse them with some playback.

It turns out that the Owls were still fairly vocal.  Almost immediately when it turned dark, we started hearing some in the distance. But as we would pursue them, they would clam up.  Then the silence would hang on, which initiated the doubt-worry cycle about whether the night would be a success.  Tommy was unfazed, though, and has a lot of experience to draw from.  He owled on and kept the flashlight moving even when it seemed bleak.  Turns out the worry in my head was for nothing because shortly after we walked in the direction of a vocalizing Whiskered Screech-Owl, one landed in a tree right near us! But it must have been hunting and wouldn’t look at us…

img_0369As we crept along the canyon hillside to get in a better position to see the Owl’s face, it suddenly flew off! We could not find it again.  The satisfaction of getting the lifer was muted by the Owl showing us his bad side and only briefly at that. Would this be my lifer sighting–the side view of a bird?  The discouragement was returning the longer we weren’t finding it.  Again, Tommy never panicked or wavered; he just kept that flashlight moving. And then I heard him say those awesome words that I have heard him say so many times before, “Hey, Josh!”

Whiskered Screech-OwlThis, this is what I had been waiting/hoping for.  Tommy did it.

Whiskered Screech-OwlThis Owl was very cooperative (finally) and just let us enjoy the show.Whiskered Screech-OwlWhiskered Screech-OwlMaybe I had it backwards. Maybe it was the Owl who was enjoying the show of four happy birders who had just succeeded on their mission.

Eventually the Owl started to tire of us, perhaps even getting downright annoyed/angry with us.

Whiskered Screech-OwlWhiskered Screech-Owl

It was time to leave this Owl alone. We had gotten our fill.  So with one last look, we were on our way.

Whiskered Screech-OwlAt this point Dad went back to the car on account of a knee that was giving him fits. Gordon, Tommy, and I decided we would try for more Whiskered Screeches.  Why not?

As the three of us walked along, we heard a strange vocalization that Tommy couldn’t identify.  Earlier my dad had heard the same thing and thought it was a Whiskered Screech, but Tommy had said he hadn’t heard them make a sound like that. Eventually Tommy tracked down the source of the sound–a young Whiskered Screech high above us!

Whiskered Screech-OwlHearing this vocalization was an exciting learning experience for Tommy.  It wasn’t as cool as the Morse-code calling we heard the adult make earlier, but it was still pretty neat regardless. Have a listen for yourself:

Finally it was time to call it a night and call it a trip (birdwise, that is). Once again, the Arizona birding was a huge success with Owl lifer #16 officially on the books all thanks to this guy.

Tommy Dad GordonTwo Owl lifers remain for me in Arizona. The question is not whether Tommy can help find them, but rather, will it happen in 2017? Time will tell.

You Gotta Play Ball to Lifer in Kansas City

If you are a birder who yearns to go on an out-of-state lifer grab but can’t because of your commitments to non-birding family members or significant others, pay attention. If you are stuck at home drooling over others’ epic blog posts of exotic birds from far-off lands, listen up. This post is for you.  Like you, when it comes to birding I don’t have the devil-may-care attitude of the retired, the single, or the extremely rare birding couple. In recent months I discovered there was a whole pocket of lifers waiting for me not too far to the south in the Kansas City area. KC is less than 8 hours away by car, which is nothing considering its potential for lifer glory.  Dragging the family there for birds was not going to fly. Neither was spending the time and money to go on a solo adventure.  So I hatched a plan to get to KC where everyone won.

Since Melissa and Evan are die-hard Minnesota Twins fans, all I had to do to sell them on the idea was an offer to take them to KC to see their beloved team take on the Royals.

KauffmanThat pretty much sealed the deal for them, but for added insurance I got seats which put Evan in a position of high probability to check off a major bucket-list item. It worked.

Evan baseballHaving the entire family on the jumbo-tron and on TV was the icing.

Josh Evan Melissa Marin baseball

So what about Marin? She is neither a fan of birds or baseball. All it took to win her over was the promise of three nights in hotels with pools.  It helped that the kids thought these pools were awesome.

poolI mean, seriously, an indoor/outdoor pool where you can actually swim under the freaking wall of the hotel–how cool is that? This is the kind of thing that blows kids’ minds.

poolSo what about the birds? Let’s get on with it then. I had a number of targets of regular breeders in this central part of the country. The first one I targeted is one that has caused me heartache on a couple of occasions in Minnesota, the Least Tern.  Since this bird breeds in shallow rivers with sandbars, Omaha is a great place to go after them because of the nearby Platte River.  Unfortunately, though, it was getting late in the year to find any, and my chances were slim. Regardless, we were going to give it a try, checking out a couple of spots on the way to our Omaha hotel. The first stop was a place I’d been watching on eBird for months and was eager to see, a sandpit lake in Fremont, Nebraska.

sandpit lake

Upon initial inspection, I didn’t see what I came to see. I don’t know if I just overlooked it at first or if it flew in when I wasn’t looking, but after ten minutes I spotted a Least Tern bathing off a sandbar right in front of me!

Least TernI’ve been yearning to see that bright yellow-bill for awhile.  My family waiting in the car probably didn’t even notice the fist-pumping going on outside over this lifer.

Least TernGetting a lifer at the first stop for that species keeps the non-birding family happy. And even better (for them) was that this bird only stuck around for 10 minutes before flying off forever.

The plan for Day 2 of our trip was to meander our way from Omaha to Kansas City via the back roads in the hopes of turning up a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, the number-one target of the trip. STFL is a rarity in southern Nebraska even though northern Kansas is part of its normal range.  I decided to drive to a spot in southeastern Nebraska where a pair had nested in June.  There hadn’t been reports for two months, but I figured it was worth a shot anyway. When we were still five miles from the site, I was shocked when a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher lifer flew across the road in front of us. Unfortunately we could not track it down for better looks, so it was a bittersweet sighting. I wasn’t worried because I picked a southerly route that would put us by several reported STFL sightings in Kansas. But one-by-one as we drove by those sites, I was getting worried. We weren’t having any luck. Common Nighthawks are nice, but this was supposed to be a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher on this wire.

Common Nighthawk

I was frustrated, but it was time to switch gears to look for another lifer at Baker Wetlands just outside of Lawrence, Kansas.  The Little Blue Heron shows up in Minnesota every few years, but I haven’t connected with one yet.  I was hoping to fix that here. It took awhile, but eventually we found a distant bird toward the far eastern end of the Baker Wetlands. I was going to settle for some blurry distant shots until Melissa noticed a service road that would put us closer to the bird.  What a fantastic-looking Heron.

Little Blue Heron

Little Blue HeronIt was finally time to get to our hotel–Marin was getting antsy for a pool fix. The Heron lifer felt good, really good, but I was still bummed about the lack of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers. Then just 20 minutes from the hotel, I spied one on a fence and turned around for some looks. It was a STFL alright, but a nub-tailed one and not the big male I was hoping to see. Hopes for that, along with a few other birds, would have to be pinned on Day 3.

Day 3 would be an exciting one. My old friend and college roommate, Malcolm Gold, picked me up early that morning to help me find some of the birds I was looking for. Malcolm and I both got into birding long after college and have previously only birded once together back in 2013. Having lived in the KC area for a few years now, he knew where to go and was literally and figuratively in the driver’s seat for this outing.  It was good to see Malcolm again and nice to be with a local who knew what he was doing.  Malcolm thought we should try for a Painted Bunting right away along a brush-lined, somewhat abandoned road in an industrial area.  While a PABU would be sweet to land on the life list, I knew that late August was pushing it for having this bird still be around.  We never did find one, but Malcolm did point out a lifer of sorts, the Yellow-billed Cuckoo! Previously I had only ever heard one, so this was quite a treat to finally see one.

Yellow-billed CuckooYellow-billed CuckooShortly afterward we heard another hoped-for/expected lifer, the Carolina Wren.  Eventually I got to see a couple of them. Their tea-kettle song is awesome.

Carolina WrenAfter giving up on the Painted Bunting search, we headed out into the countryside south of Kansas City. Malcolm had some ideas about where to find Scissor-tailed Flycatchers. And find them, we did.

Scissor-tailed FlycatcherWe never found any with super-long tails, but at one point we had about 30 of them all together on the wires and fences around us.  It was a crazy, cool sight even if most were nubby.

Scissor-tailed FlycatcherSome had tails of decent length, enough to showcase the big forked-tail when they flew.Scissor-tailed FlycatcherScissor-tailed FlycatcherAfter enjoying the pile of Scissors for awhile, Malcolm took me to a spot to look/listen for Northern Bobwhite.  We weren’t having any luck, so for the heck of it I tried playing a recording. Almost immediately a Northern Bobwhite called back!  We never did see one, so this bird will have to enter the life list as a heard-only.  I’m okay with that.

Here’s a tip for you when going on a trip like this: set aside a limited amount of time to go birding away from the family and stick to it; don’t get greedy.  With just a little over an hour left to bird before I had to be back to the hotel at noon, Malcolm took me through some neighborhoods near our hotel to try to dig out a lifer Mississippi Kite.  MIKI just wasn’t in the cards for us that day.  Even though we were Kite-less, it was a great morning of birding with a friend. Thanks Malcolm! After he dropped me off, the agenda switched to getting some authentic KC barbecue and going to the K to see the Twins. On the way to the game I was 95% certain I saw a Mississippi Kite gliding above the freeway, but I didn’t claim it.

Day 4 was the return trip home. This time we would be taking the freeways to bust home quickly. Before we left town, though, I wanted to check along a certain street in the KC suburb of Shawnee for one last try at a Mississippi Kite. Almost right away we saw a raptor that looked odd to us lift off a pole. In fact, Evan who didn’t really know I was still looking for a Kite, piped up from the back seat, “Dad, I think I just saw a Mississippi Kite.” I thought so too, but we needed something better. After cruising up and down the street a couple times we finally had a no-doubt-about-it sighting as one flew over. After a couple more up-and-down passes on the street, we saw it again and this time it perched in someone’s backyard tree offering incredible views of our newest lifer.

Mississippi KiteMalcolm had told me that MIKIs catch dragonflies on the wing, and that’s exactly what this one had done.Mississippi KiteBut then I noticed there was a juvenile MIKI. That dragonfly was the dinner that its mom or dad brought back for it.

Mississippi KiteMississippi KiteAfter the dragonfly transfer had been made, the adult took to the skies to find another. Seeing these birds glide around gracefully like their namesake is quite the sight.

Mississippi KiteMississippi KiteHaving now seen one fly, Evan and I are certain we did see one the previous day on the way to the Twins game. This experience has also given me confidence that I would recognize this unique silhouette should I see it in the skies over Minnesota some day.

With the Mississippi Kite, I had now seen all the lifers I thought I had a chance of seeing on the KC adventure.  It was a great way to finish the trip.  There were six lifers in all, seven if you count the Cuckoo, and a lifer was seen on each of the four days we were gone. It was a great trip of baseball, pools, and birds. Everyone went home happy.

Necedah: Refuge for the Red-headed Woodpecker

One bird that Tommy, Evan, and I kept watch for as we traveled through Necedah National Wildlife Refuge was the Red-headed Woodpecker.  Tommy got his lifer a couple days prior on his Grand Forks trip.  This was a bird I hadn’t seen since 2014.  And whether you have freshly lifered on this bird or seen dozens, it is one that you really can’t get tired of seeing.  I was pretty excited about the possibility of finally ending my streak of days passed since seeing a Red-headed Woodpecker.

Once we got closer to the Visitors Center on the south end of the refuge, we started driving through some Oak Savannah habitat–good-looking stuff for a Red-headed Woodpecker.  It didn’t take long to spot one. Or two. Or three. Or a dozen.  They were everywhere.  It was insane and wonderful all at once.

Red-headed Woodpecker

IMG_8752What’s this bird looking at? Probably a mate or a competitor for a mate. There were two that were involved in a seemingly endless chase, never once pausing for a good picture.  At one point we saw them lock feet and fall to the ground like Eagles.  It was fantastic.

Red-headed WoodpeckerMy own personal RHWO drought along with the near-threatened status of this bird made seeing this abundance of Red-headed Woodpeckers extremely thrilling.  Never mind that this Woodpecker is ridiculously striking in appearance, sporting a bold, simplistic color pattern.

Red-headed WoodpeckerRed-headed WoodpeckerEvan enjoyed looking at all these cool Woodpeckers flying around us everywhere.

EvanThen again, who wouldn’t?

Red-headed WoodpeckerIt’s unfortunate that we didn’t have more time to spend with these Woodpeckers at Necedah as other areas of Necedah required exploration before we had to break for supper, hotel check-in, and Kirtland’s scouting.  But it’s good to know there is a place where one can go and see this species with ease.

On the home front, Red-headed Woodpeckers are getting harder and harder to come by.  As I mentioned before, I saw zero RHWO anywhere last year.  So I was quite thrilled when Randy Frederickson and I spotted one just recently in the home county while conducting our annual search for Blue Grosbeaks.

Red-headed WoodpeckerRed-headed Woodpecker

We can only hope that our local population will rebound to become even a fraction of what we saw at Necedah.

Necedah: Refuge for the Golden-winged Warbler

The prime target at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge was, of course, the endangered Whooping Crane.  But there were so many other good birds there, birds that have also faced steep population declines.  In reflecting on how I’d write about the rest of our birding at Necedah NWR, I decided to do two more posts, each focused on a singular, struggling species that we saw.

This post will be on the near-threatened Golden-winged Warbler.  Tommy, Evan, and I were fortunate to find a male Golden-wing on territory at the Refuge.  This was a key lifer for Tommy, and like the Cerulean, it was a bird I had only seen just a few times prior.  This observation marked the first time I had seen one on its breeding territory outside of migration. As such, it was the first time I got to see and hear one sing.

Golden-winged WarblerIf Minnesota did not already claim (appropriately) the Common Loon as its state bird, the GWWA would make a fine choice.  Minnesota plays host to roughly 50% of the world’s entire breeding population of this Warbler species.  Wisconsin and Ontario are the other major stakeholders in rearing these birds.  Maybe if most Wisconsinites knew this, they’d hold a referendum to denounce the Robin as their state bird and choose this Warbler instead.

Golden-winged WarblerThe Golden-wing’s preferred habitat is shrubby edges along wetlands and young forests. While the breeding population has remained stable in Minnesota over the last 45 years, this species has suffered a 60% population loss over that same time in the rest of its breeding range in North America.  Even though Minnesota contains only 10% of the GWWA’s breeding range, we host nearly half of all the birds of this species.  That puts an emphasis on just how much human development of wetlands and shrubby areas in other parts of the northeast has impacted this bird.

Despite Minnesota and Wisconsin being a major stronghold for this bird, the future is unclear for them here too.  GWWAs are early successional specialists that benefit from young forests that emerge after logging and/or fire.  With better fire control than ever and a decline in logging activity, prime habitat areas for the Golden-winged Warbler are growing up and not being “renewed” as often. Below is my favorite photo I took of the bird we observed because it shows the bird in a young Aspen tree, stands of which are prime habitat for this bird.

Golden-winged WarblerBesides human activity threatening this Warbler, the closely related Blue-winged Warbler is expanding its range in Minnesota.  This is problematic because the more dominant Blue-wings prefer the same type of habitat.

Blue-winged WarblerAnd when the Blue-wings aren’t kicking out the Golden-wings, they are hybridizing with them.  I have yet to see one of the two main hybrids.

I’m not sure what Wisconsin is doing regarding the conservation of this Warbler, but I’m proud of my state for taking their responsibility seriously as stewards of this bird. Something going on that’s pretty cool in Minnesota is that in 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service signed an agreement with the Red Lake Band of Chippewa to restore 1,000 acres of Golden-winged Warbler habitat each year for the next 12 years.

Golden-winged WarblerLike the Cerulean Warbler, the Golden-winged Warbler also winters in Central and South America, thriving in shade-grown coffee plantations.  Again, another reminder to drink bird-friendly coffee.  This beautiful home-grown bird is truly a treasure that needs all the help it can get.

Golden-winged WarblerKnowing how fragile a species is makes you appreciate a sighting like ours all the more. Hopefully the Golden-winged Warbler has a bright future.Golden-winged Warbler

Coming up: another stunning bird that is not just surviving but truly thriving at the beautiful Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in central Wisconsin.

The Wisconsin Trip: Searching for Two Endangered Species

The more you are around different birders, the more enlightened you become about various opportunities not far from home. Thanks to a birding friend, who shall rename nameless in this post, I learned that it was possible to see both Whooping Cranes and Kirtland’s Warblers just 5 hours and change from my house in next door Wisconsin. I’ll explain more at the end of the post why I’m keeping my friend anonymous, but he or she knows who he/she is. And that he/she is pretty awesome. 🙂

So on June 12th, Evan, Tommy, and I embarked on an overnight trip to central Wisconsin to go after these two birds which would obviously be lifers for all of us. Our first destination in Wisconsin was Necedah National Wildlife Refuge to look for the Whooping Crane. Whooping Cranes can be found in several places in Wisconsin, but we were told Necedah had good numbers, therefore making it the best spot to try.  By good numbers, I’m talking about no more than a dozen birds as there are only 300+ Whoopers in the world today.

As we drove through forests upon entering Necedah, we were somewhat baffled that Cranes live here.  However, almost immediately we spied a road that seemed to go toward an open, marshy area.  So we took it. A minute later, I spotted the first Whooping Crane for our group. Cool! It was pretty far out, but even still we could see just how massive it was.

Whooping CraneThe three of us got out of the car to enjoy this easy lifer. Then I looked back toward the vehicle and spied a second bird in a waterway that had been hidden by some trees.  This one was much closer to the road and gave us some great photo ops.

Whooping Crane

Whooping CraneWhooping CraneAs we watched this Crane, something special happened.  This one threw back its head and bugled for us! It was the loudest and coolest thing I’ve ever heard come out of a bird.  It sounded kind of like a Trumpeter Swan, only much more impressive.  Speaking of impressive, this bird stands at 52″ tall before it does this.  That’s roughly the same height as Evan.

Whooping CraneWhooping CraneThe three of us really enjoyed watching these birds.

Whooping CraneHere are Evan and Tommy each observing a different Crane.  The one Tommy is looking at is visible in the photo.  Evan is looking at the first one we found.

Evan TommyWhooping CraneThe Whooping Crane is one massive bird:

Whooping CraneThis cooperative bird eventually flew off and joined the much more distant Whooper.  So the three of us decided to keep exploring Necedah.  Necedah ended up being a phenomenal birding spot, so much so that I will save the rest for a different post and just focus on the Cranes from there in this post.  I’ll just say that Necedah plays host to some other beautiful birds, who are also struggling in numbers.

One of our stops at Necedah was the Visitors Center which is another great place to see Whoopers, even if it is from a distance.  Here we saw two more. These birds were a long ways away.  It just goes to show how big and how white these things are. Impressive doesn’t begin to describe it.

Whooping CraneThe Visitors Center also allowed us a humorous reprieve from the serious birding with some clowning around and a photo op.

Tommy Josh EvanAs I was monkeying with the settings for the self-timer on my camera, I ended up getting this gem on accident.

Evan crane

“Where are the Whoopers?”

Now we move on to Part Two of the endangered species search which occurred the very next morning, the hunt for the Kirtland’s Warbler.  This post is bittersweet for me, sweet because we had smashing success with the Whooper, bitter because the Kirtland’s encounter was mediocre.  I suppose, though, that “bittersweet” is how you would describe any endangered species sighting–a thrill to see such a bird only to be tempered with the knowledge of how few of them there are.

Anyway, thanks to my previously mentioned birding friend, we had a good idea of where to look for the now regularly established Adams County population of Kirtland’s Warblers.  Joining us were Arizona birding friends Gordon Karre and Chris Rohrer who were also in Wisconsin for some birding. So just how good was the spot we were in?  Well, when you are standing on a public road and get interrogated by two separate KIWA nest monitors AND a WDNR conservation officer, you know you are in the hot zone.  Let me tell you that Wisconsin is all about protecting this bird, of which there are only a few dozen in the state.  The bulk of Kirtland’s Warblers (maybe 4,000 birds) reside in the Grayling, Michigan area.  That is where most birders eventually go to get their lifer. After license plate numbers were taken down and we were pre-warned (even without doing anything wrong) while standing on a public road, we dared not do anything immoral or illegal, lest some black helicopters would appear from the horizon to take us away to some secret government prison.  Those Warblers are safer than any government secret; not even Ft. Knox is so well guarded.  Humor aside, the nest monitors and conservation officer were friendly and courteous, but stern.  We could tell that the nest monitors wanted to help us out further, but they were very honorable in their actions and did not compromise whatever solemn vow they took for the WDNR not to disclose any information.  And full disclosure here: my birding friend is not one of the KIWA project volunteers; this site is well known to inner-circle birders of central Wisconsin.  I will not be disclosing this person’s name or where we were searching in Adams County so as to not get this person in any kind of trouble. We were very grateful for that person’s help.

So did we see it? No, we did not despite trying for several hours.  We did get to hear one very close to the road.  However, its vocalizations were very infrequent, and it never did pop up to the top of one of the Pines to sing.  Regardless, it was neat to be in the proximity of one and hear its loud, distinctive song.  There is a Kirtland’s Warbler somewhere in the trees in this photo.

Kirtland's Warbler

The Kirtland’s Warbler is an interesting species in that it has very specific habitat requirements, mostly large stands of Jack Pine that are about 10 feet tall and have some grassy space in between.  Once the trees get taller than that, the Kirtland’s do not use that area anymore.  Further complicating this is that Jack Pine cones only open in fire, so keeping appropriate habitat available for this bird is quite the complicated management process involving logging and/or controlled burns. What was cool about the Wisconsin Kirtland’s is that they have adapted to using stands of Red Pines with a mix of some Jack Pine.  Because Red Pines are used in the lumber industry, Red Pine forests occur in many areas and are regenerated through normal human activity thus creating stands of trees that are the right height for this bird. What’s neat is that these Warblers are on private land that is owned by a lumber company that is working cooperatively with state and federal government agencies to ensure these Warblers have suitable habitat for several decades to come.  Cool, huh?

So we ended up being 1.5 for 2 on our search for two endangered species that call Wisconsin home.  It was good to see Gordon again (we’ve now birded together in three states!) and to finally get my Chris Rohrer lifer (a vagrant sighting even!).  Those guys tried again for the Kirtland’s the next morning and had tremendous success, getting killer looks and photos.  Even though Tommy, Evan, and I didn’t win the entire lottery, it was no doubt a fun, successful trip.  Like all good trips, though, it left us wanting more.  Wisconsin, we will be back!

Carver Park Reserve–Reserved for the Warbler Elite

The day after our Falls Creek SNA adventure, visiting Arizona friend Tommy DeBardeleben went on an overnight solo trip to Grand Forks, North Dakota where he successfully got his target bird, the Short-eared Owl with Sandy Aubol’s help.  Tommy is doing an Owl Big Year where he must see and photograph all 19 Owl species that can be found in the U.S. Short-eared Owl was Tommy’s 18th Owl species on the year, leaving him with just the Boreal Owl not yet seen with the better part of the year remaining. Even at one shy, Tommy’s quiet pursuit is quite remarkable and unique even in a year when everyone’s attention is on the historic Big Year race going on right now in which Olaf Danielson and John Weigel will both likely smash Neil Hayward’s record of 749.  Number chasing is nothing new and has lost some of its luster. On the other hand, Tommy’s pursuit of quality sightings and focus on completion of a singular group of birds–difficult birds–is a refreshing take on an otherwise banal goal.  You can follow Tommy’s Owl Big Year (TOBY) and his Minnesota trip reports on his blog.

Once Tommy got back, there was no rest for him as we geared up for another high octane adventure to Wisconsin.  Two endangered species were on the menu (figuratively speaking of course), but those will have to wait for another post because on our way east we made a stop in the Twin Cities to try to add a very rare Warbler to Tommy’s life list.

Our destination was Carver Park Reserve, a sprawling park complex of prairie, woodland, and lake habitats enjoyed by hikers, bikers, campers, and birders alike.  Our target was not the Blue-winged Warbler, though that is a very good bird for the state and one that can be enjoyed in good numbers and with ease from paved biking trails at Carver Park Reserve.

Blue-winged Warbler

We were serenaded by the bee-buzzzzz of three different males. Nice birds, but still not what we were after.

Blue-winged WarblerWe were after one of the most coveted and beautiful Warblers there is–the Cerulean Warbler.  This is one of my all-time favorite birds.  This individual was only the fourth one I’ve ever seen; it’s one of those birds that makes you feel like you are lifering all over again when you see it, it’s that cool.  This bird is so rare, beautiful, and cooperative–no apologies on this photo dump.

Cerulean WarblerCerulean WarblerCerulean WarblerCerulean Warbler

Cerulean WarblerThe Cerulean Warbler is in trouble because of habitat loss in its summer home in North America and its winter home in South America.  It prefers mature deciduous woods that offer a relatively open understory.  Much of their historical breeding grounds in the U.S. have been lost to farms, cities, and suburbs.  On their wintering grounds, much of the tropical forest has been converted to farms.  While Ceruleans will use shade-grown coffee plantations, they will not use the more popular and efficient sun-grown coffee plantations.  Seeing one of these birds is always a reminder of how fragile a species can be and how easily we can wipe a species off the map.  It’s also a personal reminder that I really should be drinking bird-friendly, shade-grown coffee–it’s the least I can do.  Seeing or even hearing a Cerulean is always a special treat.  Seeing one well like this and watching a friend lifer on it is even better.  And observing a Cerulean Warbler perched against a cerulean sky? Priceless.

Cerulean Warbler

Cerulean WarblerComing up: a hefty, quick trip to Wisconsin for some unrivaled birds, CEWA notwithstanding.

Mopping Up at Falls Creek SNA

There comes a point in one’s birding where the lifers in one’s own state slow down to a trickle and then just the occasional drip. I’ve seen it play out on blogs and with friends.  It is inevitable. Luckily for me, Washington County’s Falls Creek Scientific and Natural Area still held the juicy potential for perhaps my last multi-lifer day in Minnesota. Two southeastern specialties that have an extremely limited range along just the eastern border of the state have been known to breed here, the Acadian Flycatcher and the Louisiana Waterthrush.  In fact, this is about as far north as these two breed.  Like a scene out of the Pacific Northwest, Falls Creek offers steep ravines with towering Pines and mature deciduous forests with an open understory.  It is the perfect habitat for the Acadian Flycatcher, and the Louisiana Waterthrush thrives along the small, yet swift stream at the bottom of a ravine. There is nothing flashy about these two birds which is probably why this errand has been reserved for that point in my birding when there is little else to go after.

I saved the Falls Creek trip for when Arizona friend Tommy DeBardeleben came for his third Minnesota trip of 2016.  He also needed the Acadian along with several of our eastern woodland species, many of which are also present at Falls Creek. We could both do well here.  It was a logical stop on our first full day of birding for Tommy’s week-long vacation.

Near the parking area was an open prairie area.  One of the inhabitants of the brushy edge was a lifer for Tommy, the Blue-winged Warbler.  This Warbler species also has a limited range in southeastern Minnesota, though we seem to be turning them up in lots of areas further north and west of where they are supposed to be according to range maps in field guides.

Blue-winged WarblerOnce we hiked through the prairie habitat and into the woods, we walked along a trail on glacial ridge where the slopes quickly became quite steep on each side of the trail.  Thanks to some great insights from Washington County birding guru, Pete Nichols, we cut down one of these slopes on a goat path of sorts to reach the creek in the ravine below. This was the promised land for BOTH the Louisiana Waterthrush and the Acadian Flycatcher. It did not take long for us to hear the sharp “Pit-se!” call of our shared Acadian lifer. Arriving at the creek bottom, Tommy instantly pointed out the chip note of the Louisiana Waterthrush, which had the honor of being my 400th life bird. The bird showed well for us but would not sit still. Its song was beautiful as it rang through the ravine.

Tommy and I had some shared objectives on this trip and some separate.  We eventually split up to do what we needed to do–Tommy spent a good amount of time trying to get visuals on his Wood Thrush lifer (good luck!) while I really wanted visuals and photos of my two new life birds.  Not only were the birds difficult to find and difficult to pin down, but the low light conditions made photography a challenge.

Acadian FlycatcherConfession: I’m starting to really like the Empids, at least the eastern ones.  Though the five are difficult to differentiate visually, their unique habitat choices and equally unique songs make identification a lot easier than I once thought.  Hearing this Acadian Flycatcher was much more fun than just seeing it.

Acadian FlycatcherAn equal auditory delight was the Louisiana Waterthrush. It was loud. We had at least two different birds.  This one below put on an impressive spinning and tail-bobbing display on this log right in front of us.

Louisiana Waterthrush

Louisiana WaterthrushTommy and I became absorbed in our separate pursuits spending more time than we anticipated in our searches. Is that a Scarlet Tanager? Nope, just a super content Evan who kept busy the entire time playing in the creek.  Good thing he wore his water boots.

IMG_8620

EvanAnother lifer for Tommy that we both enjoyed up close was the Veery.

VeeryThe Veery’s song is the best.  It’s unmistakable song can often be heard throughout the deciduous woods of Minnesota. Never before I had I actually seen one sing.

Tommy and I thoroughly enjoyed this stop at Falls Creek SNA. It is truly one of Minnesota’s birding gems that deserves its rightful place alongside places like Felton Prairie, Blue Mounds State Park, Sax-Zim Bog, etc.  There were so many good species to be had.  At one point I could hear Louisiana Waterthrush, Acadian Flycatcher, and Pine Warblers all at once, not to mention the sounds of Veery, Wood Thrush, and Scarlet Tanager not too far away. This place is a must stop for any serious Minnesota birder. Or herper. This 4-foot Fox Snake was in the parking lot on the way out and put on its best rattlesnake impression, frantically wiggling its rattle-less tail.

Fox SnakeComing up is one more Minnesota post with Tommy about a rare Warbler we went after for Tommy’s life list.  And then we will cover our side trip to Wisconsin to search for two endangered species.  Stay tuned.

The Call of the West

Several weeks ago the kids and I mulled over what we should do when some of Melissa’s work duties would require her to be absent most of this past weekend.  With warm weather at the time, I promised (stupid, I know) to take the kids camping. Frigid temps of late caused me to start thinking of a much more palatable and comfortable Plan B. Easy: move the camping to indoors, a.k.a. stay at a hotel.  My kids love hotels.  It would be an easy sell. The beauty of this plan is that it does not matter to them where a hotel is.  Birders know where I am going with this–might as well get a hotel next to a cool bird or two, right?! But where?

Vagrants have been few and far between or already seen; resident birds are just returning. Honestly there weren’t a lot of options on the table. One idea was to head to the Twin Cities to try for Henslow’s Sparrow and Louisiana Waterthrush lifers. Another option was to head to the northwest to Grand Forks, North Dakota to check out the Short-eared Owl scene.  The SEOW was not a lifer, but this option just had a lot of appeal in the fun department.  Meanwhile a third option presented itself in the non-lifer department as a stunning breeding plumage male Surf Scoter and his mate showed up in Duluth.  This last option was leading; all the Scoter species are annual in small numbers in Minnesota but we hardly ever get the mature, good-looking ones.  I was wracked with indecision. I could potentially head in three very different directions on the map. Even though we were set to depart Saturday morning, I still was having trouble pulling the trigger on anything even as the kids’ bedtimes loomed on Friday.

I paced and scratched my head. Then the phone rang. It was local birding friend Joel Schmidt (Willet guy). This is migration season–that phone call may just as well have been the President.

“Josh, I have a Western Tanager in my yard.”

😮

This was one decision that required no thinking, just reaction.  I practically hung up on Joel while simultaneously herding the kids to the car for the 25-minute trip. We got there with plenty of daylight left and enjoyed a glorious county bird with Joel and his wife Amanda.

Western Tanager

Western TanagerOnly one or two WETAs show up in MN every year; lucky us that it was our turn to host. Here my two-hour one-way chase to add this state bird last year was for nought.  What a spectacular rarity and a beauty on top of that. This was a bird I yearned to see in the montane forests of Colorado two years ago (and eventually did); now luck dropped one on the doorstep, almost literally for Joel.Western TanagerSteve Gardner also came out to enjoy the Tanager.  As we discussed my travel dilemmas for the next day, Steve advised me to go the Scoter route. Settled.  Seeing a vivid, bright male bird made me want to see another. The best part was that I could ask some Duluth friends to check on the Scoter in the morning to even see if that was still a viable option come travel time.

Birding friend Clinton Nienhaus was planning to check the duck scene on Lake Superior by 9 AM. I had made the decision that the Twin Cities option was completely out; if the Scoter didn’t show, we’d go to Grand Forks. Not hearing anything from Clinton right away,  the kids and I got in the car and started driving north anyway.  We still didn’t know if we would end up in the Northwest or the Northeast. About ten minutes into our journey, we got the report from Clinton: no duck. Our direction was now crystal clear:

Evan Marin North Dakota

I made a detour around Rothsay, the self-proclaimed “Prairie Chicken Capital of Minnesota,” to try to dig up that bird for Evan’s life list. It was the wrong time of day for Greater Prairie-Chickens, but we did manage to see our first Marbled Godwits in two years.  Prairie birds are so cool.

Marbled Godwit

Seeing as how I hastily decided a destination that morning, I didn’t have a chance to do my due diligence in hotel scouting for Grand Forks.  We’d have to do things the old fashioned way–walk into various places and check rates. Turns out Priceline’s got nothin’ on the “cute kid discount” thanks to North Dakota kindness manifested by a grandmotherly hotel manager.

Being in North Dakota felt right. I love the West and its birds.  Maybe that’s because I’m from the West. Or maybe, those western birds, like the Tanager, remind me of all the  remoteness and the beauty of big country. I know, it’s just Grand Forks, but it’s still a window into the wilds of the West.  And that’s what I was hoping to catch a glimpse of that evening.  While the kids played in the hotel pool that afternoon, I finalized arrangements for the kids and I to go Short-ear Owling with Sandy Aubol. With one foot in the North Dakota birding world and the other in Minnesota, Sandy is a well-respected birder on either side of the line who knows how to get the good birds. No one knows Short-ears better than she does; we were in good hands.

Minutes after we met Sandy and she hopped into the van with the kids, dog, and myself, we were already on the hunt for Short-ears, driving the remote grassland country around GF.  Perhaps we got too early of a start because the toast wasn’t popping up for us.  It’s always nice to see Sharp-tailed Grouse though.  This male was even putting on a bit of a late night show for the ladies.

Sharp-tailed Grouse

Sandy was frustrated that we weren’t seeing any Owls after nearly a half hour or more of searching. Truthfully I was okay with getting skunked; the kids and I were on an adventure and having fun.  However, Sandy knew I wanted to get redemptive looks at a Short-eared Owl and possibly even a photograph.  Her ceaseless scanning finally paid off when she spotted the floppy, erratic flight of a Short-eared Owl. And wouldn’t you know, it perched up on the side of the road!

Short-eared OwlThese birds don’t seem to perch for long (or at all). Rather shortly this one took to the air.  It was amazing how fast and how much ground it can cover and how unpredictable its flight path is. Amazingly this Owl came back for another, much closer roadside perch:

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl

For previously only seeing this bird in a snowstorm at dusk at a distance, I was beyond tickled with this chance to view and photograph a perched bird especially when perches don’t last long:

Short-eared Owl

Sandy was not completely satisfied with the photo op or just seeing one Owl.  As a host, she wanted to show just how awesome this land could be. Having been in that position myself, I understood that feeling but was still very satisfied with the night already. Needless to say, we kept on Owling.  We ended up rendezvousing with Jeff Grotte, Tony Lau, and Russ Myrman who were in the area and came to look for Short-ears too. Maybe it was luck from Sandy’s lucky Owl charm or maybe it was from having Jeff, the Owl Whisperer, around, but the toast started popping up.  We couldn’t butter it fast enough. Sandy would spot one and get me on it, then have a couple more picked out.  It was crazy.  Sandy said it best when she said it can quickly change from nothing to everything with this bird.  The frustrating thing is that activity increases as daylight rapidly decreases.  Flight shots are about all one can hope for at this time of night.  If you do see one perched, it usually goes like this:

Short-eared OwlBut enjoying the hunting behavior of this Owl in this habitat is half the fun.

Short-eared OwlIt was really tough to keep track of the numbers of Short-ears we were seeing as they cover so much ground so quickly.  I conservatively eBirded 7 of them. It was a lot of fun to witness the Short-eared phenomenon in action.  Sandy was spotting all the birds, and I was hoping to get in on the fun and pick one out myself.  Eventually it happened.

Short-eared OwlAnd then it happened again as I flushed one from the side of the road in my headlights on  our way back to Grand Forks. I’m glad I didn’t hit it!

Experiences like this only whet the appetite for more.  I will definitely be back someday to go after these cool birds again.  It may not be a new bird or boost any list, but who cares.  This was fun, plain and simple, and that’s what birding should be.  Thanks, Sandy, for a great outing!