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.

2017 Summer Trip to Northern Arizona–The Best of the Non-Lifers

An unfortunate consequence of visiting a place like Arizona multiple times is that some birds lose that ‘wow’ factor from when they were first seen.  The excitement level for a bird is inversely proportional to the number of times that bird is seen. Take the Acorn Woodpecker, for instance.  I remember drooling over the thought of seeing one. Now on this trip, after having seen them on other trips, I didn’t even raise the camera. This is just birding reality.   It cannot be helped.  Some birds still bring it, though.  Some just haven’t been enjoyed enough or savored fully.  They still feel somewhat fresh and exciting when you bump into them.  This post highlights those birds for me on this latest trip.

Many of the these were fun mountain birds that I encountered right by our condo at the Wyndham Flagstaff Resort (great place if you go, btw). First up is the Steller’s Jay, a bird not known for its shyness. Before this trip I had only seen one on Mt. Lemmon, a brief sighting on a cloudy day.  Here, they were all over the place basking in the sun. And I looked at each one.Steller's JaySteller's JayAnother montane, neighborhood bird at the resort was the Black-headed Grosbeak.  Though I’ve seen them in Colorado and South Dakota, the views have always been fleeting and unsatisfying.  This encounter went a long way toward rectifying that.

Black-headed Grosbeak

Anywhere from the Wyndham Resort to the Schultz Pass Road, a mountain-loving bird that was seemingly ubiquitous around Flagstaff was the Western Tanager.  Even though I have seen this bird and photographed it in my home county in Minnesota, I continue to find myself in a state of face-melt when I see this bird, and I photograph it way too much.  It is illogical, really. Three individuals with varying amounts of red on their faces are shown below in three different species of trees.

Western TanagerWestern TanagerWestern TanagerLiterally a neighbor bird inhabiting the Ponderosa Pines right outside our balcony was the Pygmy Nuthatch.  These guys are industrious little busy-bodies. As such, my only other time seeing them in the past resulted in a poor photo op.  Not much changed on this trip despite being merely 5 feet away.  Pygmy Nuthatch could see blog time again.

Pygmy Nuthatch

The last bird from the resort was a parking lot bird but was by no means a trash bird. In fact, this papa Western Bluebird was a photographic lifer for me.Western BluebirdWestern BluebirdAway from the resort there were some other non-lifer favorites, like this American Three-toed Woodpecker along the Schultz Pass Road. Keep in mind that I had only ever seen one before just this past spring in Minnesota.  This bird very much still has lifer freshness associated with it.  While the unique drumming sound of this Woodpecker was the same as the one back home, its back was not.  Note how white the back is on this Rocky Mountains subspecies of the ATTW; the back of the East Taiga subspecies that we have in Minnesota is nearly all black with small white flecks.

American Three-toed WoodpeckerIn Oak Creek Canyon at Grasshopper Point Recreation Area, a Bridled Titmouse was a pleasant surprise.

Bridled TitmouseAnd the Grand Canyon is never more grand than when it serves as a backdrop from a rim-perching Black-throated Gray Warbler, a bird I have wished to have better photographs of for a long time.

Black-throated Gray WarblerBlack-throated Gray WarblerThat’s it for Arizona this time.  There will be more this winter.  For the next post we’re headed to Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands for some Warble action.

2017 Summer Trip to Northern Arizona –The Lifers

Flammulated Owl was literally and figuratively the number one lifer of the trip (see the last post if you missed it), but there were many other fun lifers that followed the Flam.  After all, one cannot go to Arizona and not come home with a few lifer souvenirs.  While I did not hit double-digits, I did snag some really exciting new ones.  One of these was a major target bird that I was just as eager to see as I was the Flam. Perhaps, though, the biggest (literally) lifer for me and the whole family was the Grand Canyon.

Grand Canyon Technically speaking it was not a lifer for me as I had been here as a small child.  Since I have no memory of it and I have a family of my own who hadn’t seen it, the time was right for a visit. Plus, the visit to Grand Canyon National Park was completely FREE thanks to the government’s Every Kid in a Park program where each 4th grade student in America can get his/her entire family and vehicle into any national park all summer long at no cost.  The lack of entry fee was definitely the icing on the cake because this place is impressive regardless.  The grandeur of the Grand Canyon and how it makes you feel when you are standing next to that vastness is nearly impossible to describe in words and capture in photographs.  Hopefully these kids will at least remember the experience.

Evan Marin

Tommy DeBardeleben joined us on the trip to the Grand Canyon.  Tommy was actually hoping to see a bird that I wanted to see, the California Condor.  The California Condor was reintroduced to the Canyon in 1996 and has done well there since.  Over 70 birds are in the Utah/Arizona population with many of them frequenting the Canyon.  Tommy had seen them here many years ago.  Unfortunately they were not a “countable” bird when he saw them because they were still in the early years of reintroduction, so Tommy technically did not have California Condor on his official life and state lists.  Neither did I, so as we enjoyed the Canyon at every possible pull-off, Tommy and I were always watching the sky above and below(!) in an effort to find this bird.  Unfortunately we never had any luck.  Later that night we learned one had been seen on the cliff face right beneath Bright Angel Lodge less than an hour after we had looked at the very same spot. Argh. The good news is that we were so impressed with the Canyon that we will be back some day.  The Condor can wait until then.

There were, of course, other potential lifers for me at the Canyon.  I did see one, the Juniper Titmouse, fly across the road in front of me.  It wasn’t until the drive back on US-180 to Flagstaff that I actually got to see one well and photograph it.

Juniper TitmouseJuniper TitmouseTommy found me this bird while we were stopped for a different lifer.  As I had been driving I knew to be vigilant for Pinyon Jays.  There were a couple times while cruising at highway speeds that I thought I saw blue-colored birds cross the highway, but with no shoulder on which to pull off, I couldn’t stop to check.  All doubt was erased at one point, though, when several blue-colored birds were flying across the highway in groups.  I found a spot to pull over and observe my lifer Pinyon Jay.  Photographing them proved impossible as the birds were between me and the sun.  They also hid remarkably well in the junipers, only giving away there presence as they flushed away.  This happened over and over as we probably saw over 50 in all, flushing in small groups.  It was frustrating but still fun to see the behavior of this bird and hear its fun, laughing call.

Pinyon JayPinyon JayThe morning after the Grand Canyon adventure, Tommy and I birded the Flagstaff area hitting up Elden Springs Road and the Schultz Pass Road. The birding was incredible, but since this is just a lifer post, we’ll stick to those. The first lifer was the Grace’s Warbler, a striking bird that loves the Pines.

Grace's WarblerGrace's WarblerWhile lifering on this bird, I simultaneously lifered on Plumbeous Vireo.  This is another bird that loves life in the Pines.  Both my new lifers could be heard and seen at the same time, sometimes even in the same tree!

Plumbeous VireoPlumbeous VireoElden Springs Road merges on to Schultz Pass Road, which was a reported location of numerous individuals of the bird I wanted to see most, the Red-faced Warbler.  Tommy had me stop at a spot that looked like good habitat for this warbler–dense stands of Douglas Fir on a slope next to a somewhat open area of Aspens.  Sure enough, Tommy picked out a singing Red-faced Warbler almost immediately.  As we were trying to get visuals on it, Tommy spotted another lifer for me and one I had been hoping for–a male Williamson’s Sapsucker! Even though the Red-faced Warbler was my most wanted bird after the Flam, we know that would be a relatively easy bird along Schultz Pass Road.  Therefore, we ditched the Red-face we had been hearing in an effort to track down the dapper and somewhat elusive Sapsucker. It sure was a tease at first and not offering up much to view.

Williamson's SapsuckerEventually we got the full monty as it was too busy drilling sap wells to care about a couple of gawkers.

Williamson's Sapsucker

Williamson's SapsuckerOnce the Williamson’s was fully enjoyed, we turned our attention to the Red-faced Warbler.  I was highly impatient to finally see this bird that we were hearing.  And then it finally happened, and it was glorious.

Red-faced WarblerAdding to the pleasure of finally seeing this bird is that Red-faced Warblers are curious and therefore crushable.

Red-faced Warbler

Red-faced WarblerRed-faced WarblerBy the time we were done birding Schultz Pass Road, we had seen several of these Warblers.  Each was just as exciting as the last.  Even Tommy has to stop and look at each one, they are that captivating.Red-faced Warblers are curious and quite crushable.There were no more lifers on this morning of birding around Flagstaff.  Tommy and I had found all my targets with relative ease, and there was really nothing left to go after.  I’m kicking myself for not doing more research because MacGilivray’s Warblers breed in the area by Hart Prairie which is just northwest of Flagstaff.  Oh well, something to add to my northern Arizona to-do list next time we come back to view the Grand Canyon (and the California Condors!)

My last hope for lifers on this trip would occur on our drive from Flagstaff back to Phoenix.  We were able to take a leisurely drive south since we were overnighting in Phoenix and didn’t have to catch a plane until the next day.  So instead of hopping on I-17, we drove through Oak Creek Canyon and Sedona.  Oak Creek Canyon and the red rock formations of the Sedona area are a must-see experience for anybody.  For the birders, there is even more to experience.  My list of hopefuls was short: Yellow-breasted Chat, Common Black-Hawk, and Brown-crested Flycatcher.

After scouring eBird, I had picked a spot caled the Encinoso Picnic Area as a place to look for the Chat.  It looked really small and held multiple birds–perfect for a quick search while a non-birding family waited in the car.  Evan’s 4th grader park pass got us into this National Forest Service fee site for free too (it works for all federal lands and not just national parks). Anyhow, when I stepped out of the car I heard the distinctive calls, croaks, and whistles of a Yellow-breasted Chat immediately.  And then I found a second and third equally loud Chat.  Getting visuals on any proved very difficult.  I did see one as it flew straight up out of the thicket it was calling from.  The yellow breast was as impressive as it was unmistakable.  Trying to find a perched bird was nearly impossible though. My family waited for nearly an hour in the air-conditioned car while I tromped through the picnic area picking up ridiculous amounts of painful, thorny grass seeds of some kind in my shoes.  And here is all I have to show for my toil:

Yellow-breasted ChatI’m not naive. I understand this is a typical experience with this bird species.  It was still frustrating.  At one point I could hear a Chat singing in the thicket right in front of me.  I figured it had to be perched on top somewhere.  So I climbed a rock, held the camera above my head, snapped a picture, and hoped for the best. Well, I got him. Can you see it?

Yellow-breasted ChatHere it is at a different perch.  Same effect.

Yellow-breasted ChatYellow-breasted Chat is just one more bird to add to the list of ‘Better Looks Desired’ birds.  At one point I saw a Chat fly into a tree in the distance, and I saw a fleck of yellow among the green leaves, so I just snapped photos of that yellow spot like crazy. Turns out I got a lot of photos of a yellow leaf instead. What an aggravating bird.

IMG_0794As we continued our drive to Sedona enjoying the views of the canyon walls from the bottom of Oak Creek Canyon, we decided to pull into the National Forest Service’s Grashopper Point recreation site.  This was another fee area that we got into for free–thanks Evan.  The draw of this site is that people like to cool off in Oak Creek here. More specifically, people cliff jump off a high rock face into a 15-foot wide creek below! Apparently this narrow creek is quite deep, allowing the people we saw jumping to come out unscathed.  We did not attempt it. I was not completely sold on its safety.

Evan MarinThe deep part of the water is quite narrow as you can see the wading area takes up almost half the creek width. This spot where Evan and Marin are wading is where teenagers were jumping into the water from 15-20 feet up the rock face!  As I kept an eye on my kids, I also kept an eye out for a Common Black-Hawk in the riparian corridor.  Unfortunately one never materialized.  I was also keeping an eye and an ear out for a family of Brown-crested Flycatchers that had been reported here. I had actually given up on them too, but seconds before we got in the car to leave I spied a silent flycatcher on top of a snag a long ways away.  I snapped some photos and was pleasantly surprised to see I had captured my lifer Brown-crested Flycatcher!

Brown-crested FlycatcherThe Brown-crested Flycatcher is distinguished from the similar-looking Ash-throated Flycatcher which inhabits the same area by its larger bill, completely rufous tail underneath, and a brighter yellow belly.  Thankfully, this Flycatcher turned around to make sure I could see all the appropriate field marks.

Brown-crested Flycatcher The lifering on this fifth trip to AZ was definitely a quality over quantity sort of thing. And unless I make a summer trip to SE AZ, the lifering will be significantly limited on subsequent trips to visit my parents in central AZ in the winter months. Regardless of lifers being available, good birds can ALWAYS be had in Arizona.  In the next post, I’ll highlight my favorite non-lifers from this most recent trip.

#17

It’s hard to be a part of Tommy DeBardeleben’s Owl Big Year (TOBY) in 2016 and not have it rub off on you in some way.  Watching my friend Tommy see all of America’s Owl species in one year was inspirational and got me thinking about completing my own “set” of Owls since I was so close.  In the fall of 2016, I made it my goal to see a Whiskered Screech-Owl on our annual trip to Arizona.  After that Owl was secured, only 3 Owls of 19 remained: Boreal Owl, Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, and Flammulated Owl–none of which would be particularly easy.  In fact, all of them are quite challenging. Nevertheless, a plan was hatched to make a rare summer trip to Arizona to attempt Owl lifer #17, Flammulated Owl.  Going in summer was necessary since this Owl is a migratory summer resident that is not around in Arizona during the fall/winter when we usually visit.  And since Flams are associated with the forests of higher elevations, we’d have to head to the mountains for this bird.

There are many places in Arizona to look for Flams, but to make it a family-friendly trip I opted for northern Arizona so that we could knock out our lifer Grand Canyon too.  Tommy had suggested that the Flagstaff area held great Flam habitat.  I liked his suggestion, so we made plans for a quick, end-of-school-year vacation at the Wyndham Flagstaff Resort.  Tommy made plans to join us for a couple days of our vacation so that he could help me get yet another new Owl.  Previously Tommy had shown me six Owl lifers on other Arizona trips.

The Owling was to commence on the first night of our vacation. May 30th was travel day and got off to an early start.  We landed at PHX around noon local time and proceeded to make the 2-hour trip north to Flagstaff.  Tommy drove up from Phoenix later in the afternoon and after some grocery shopping and enjoying a meal together, Tommy and I were off for a night of Owling while the family stayed back at the resort to relax.

Tommy and I had an hour’s drive to the southeast along the Lake Mary Road to make our Flam attempt at arguably the best place to try for them: Happy Jack Lodge.  The Flam fame for this location started when Caleb Strand discovered multiple reliable, accommodating birds here a couple years.  This was the site where Tommy got his TOBY Flam in 2016.  I have seen many crushing photos of Flams from Tommy and Caleb from this site and have drooled over the possibility of Owling here.  And now it was finally going to happen.  Although, daydreams of Flams perched low in Oaks were interrupted by a couple close encounters with Elk on the road.  Thankfully Tommy was driving and was skilled at spotting them.  The Elk weren’t the only distraction. We cruised right by Mormon Lake, the site of the the Arizona first state record Common Crane that showed up earlier in the month and disappeared just a week or so before our trip.  I found out later (back in Minnesota) that the Common Crane was refound on our last day of vacation! Doh!

We got to Happy Jack Lodge just as it was getting dark.  After a short walk through the campground, we started Owling in the adjacent forest which was fairly wide open.  I was expecting magic at any minute. But it was eerily…silent. We forged on, stopping every now and then to listen and play tapes. Nothing.  What was going on? In my mind I had billed Happy Jack as a sure thing, so disappointment was quickly setting in.  We weren’t hearing any nighttime sounds. The lack of activity coupled with the long day of travel was finally taking its toll on me.  I found it difficult to stay awake and focused and had to pause often to sit down and rest. Finally, enough was enough, and we ditched Happy Jack altogether.  We were now entering the unknown territory for getting me this Owl lifer.  It’s a good thing Tommy is a skilled Owler and is not at all daunted by the unknown.

On the drive back to Flagstaff, Tommy decided to stop at Wiemer Springs Road where he had seen a recent eBird report of a couple Flammulated Owls.  It was worth a shot.  Tommy had never been here before, but he got excited once he saw the habitat.  He felt really good about our chances.  We continued the ritual of hiking, pausing to listen, and playing tapes. Then, a short time after playing the tape, we heard a “Poot!” It was a Flam! And once it started, it kept going: “Poot!….poot!….poot!” Tommy said, “Let’s go get it!” and led the way into the woods as we tried to pin down the Owl for visuals and photos.  We tracked down what tree it was in, but Flams can perch high and remain out of sight as they perch close to the trunk of the tree.  We scanned and scanned with our flashlights.  Finally, Tommy shouted, “Josh, I’ve got it!” I hustled over to where Tommy was, but just then it flew and I never saw it.  This played over a few times: we’d hear the bird, track it down, Tommy would get a quick visual, and then it would fly as I approached.  It was so frustrating.  We even had a second Flam that we heard, but neither was being cooperative for us.  Eventually the Owls were quiet and we were super tired.  We had to call it a day for Flam attempt #1.  Officially, #17 was on the list as a heard-only, but it wasn’t as gratifying as it could have been if I had actually seen it.

The next day Tommy accompanied our family on a trip to the Grand Canyon.  Throughout the day we discussed what we should do for our next and final night of trying for the Flam.  Options included Owling closer to Flagstaff, returning to Happy Jack, and returning Wiemer Springs Road.  We finally decided on the latter as we knew there were actually Owls at that location.  Their reclusive habits made us nervous, though.

When we got to Wiemer Springs Road, Tommy had commented that it would be funny if we got the Flam right away.  We began the walk we had taken the night before and  played the tape in the same spot we had found one.  Immediately we got a response! I followed Tommy through the woods.  Rather than scanning with my own light apart from Tommy, I basically stayed right at his side.  This time it paid off as Tommy quickly got on the Owl with his light, and this time it stayed put!! Flammmmmmmm!!!!!

Flammulated Owl

Flammulated OwlFlammulated Owl

We literally had about one minute to view/photograph this bird before it flew off from its 30-foot high perch.  From the time we had started walking to when this encounter was over, only 12 minutes had gone by! It was quite the stroke of luck, or more likely, an answer to prayer as Tommy had said.  Wow, what a thrill it was to get this Owl with my buddy, Tommy! I was very satisfied with the experience and the photos I got, but since the night was still very young, we decided to keep trying for more visuals.

The rest of the night would play out like the night before where additional visuals and cooperative birds could just not be had.  We did hear a couple more Flammulated Owls, but none was willing to sit still.  However, the excitement for the night was not over.  As we were chasing yet another Flam vocalization, I heard something faintly in the distance that sounded like a Western Screech-Owl.  Unsure of what I was hearing, I asked Tommy if there were Screech Owls in the area.  He told me they were very unlikely at these high elevations.  We paused to listen, and I kept hearing it! The bouncy ball song was unmistakable.  Tommy wasn’t picking it up though which surprised me and caused me to doubt my senses.  But then he caught part of the distant vocalization and confirmed it was a Western Screech!  It was a Coconino County first for Tommy besides! Since this bird is somewhat rare for this part of the state, we decided to track it down for visuals and photo documentation.  Unlike Flams, Western Screech-Owls are very cooperative.  Tommy knew we would have no trouble seeing it.  Tommy was right.

Western Screech-Owl

Strangely, though, this bird stayed very high and wouldn’t come close for photos.  We actually detected at least three Western Screech-Owls, two adults and one juvenile.

Western Screech-OwlAfter the Screech-Owl fun, we kept up our search for Flams with no further sightings.  A pair of dueting Great Horned Owls did give us a three-Owl night, however.  With Flammulated Owl locked down and photo-documented as my 17th Owl lifer, the trip was a huge success.  A fun coincidence is that the Flam was Tommy’s 17th Owl species for TOBY. I can’t thank Tommy enough for all the Owl species he has shown me (7 in all!).  The next day we celebrated in a most appropriate way–eating at the Toasted Owl Cafe right by our resort in Flagstaff.  It’s very good, by the way.

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So now only two Owls remain for me.  I got Owl lifer #16 in 2016, #17 in 2017, so I’m putting it out there as my next birding goal: #18 in ’18 and #19 in ’19.  Research and plans are already underway.  There is a chance Tommy still might be able to help me with one of those, but I may be on my own in other parts of the country for the rest of the journey.  Thanks again, Tommy!

Coming up in the next post will be the other lifers of this Arizona trip, highlighted by a real show-stopper which was the other major target bird of the trip!

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.

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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.

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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.