From the Vault: Lifering in the Dakotas

It’s been awhile since I’ve touched this blog. It’s been even longer since I took the trip I’m detailing in this post. It seems there was always an excuse for putting it off: chasing kids around with their busy schedules or chasing birds near and far.  Well, here we are together, enduring this pandemic, with nothing but time on our hands and with no place to go.  So maybe we can escape the news, however briefly, and go back to the summer of 2018 to relive a little roadtrip the kids and I took.

In July 2018, Melissa left the state for a convention with some girlfriends. Not wanting to be stuck at home that whole time, the kids and I struck out on our own adventure–a loop tour through South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, and North Dakota.  Of course it was fueled by my desire to get some new birds (and show the kids some new states and fun scenery, I guess).

With camper in tow, the kids and I set out early one morning to get to the Black Hills by late afternoon.  Heading west on I-90 through South Dakota was pretty uneventful save for hundreds of Corvettes that passed us. They were literally everywhere, even at the obligatory stop of Wall Drug. What in the world was going on?

Evan MarinOnce we got to our destination of Spearfish, South Dakota, we figured it out.  These geri drivers were at some annual Corvette rally which was being hosted by the very town where we were camping. While they were there to ogle each other’s cars, we were there to take in the natural beauty of the area. After dropping the camper off at the Spearfish City Campground, the kids and I drove the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway, a winding road that followed the mountain stream called Spearfish Creek up through the breathtaking, steep-sloped canyon.

Spearfish CanyonTruly this canyon was magnificent. Mount Rushmore is great, but Spearfish Canyon is a must-do if visiting the Black Hills.  Unlike dozens more Corvettes on the Scenic Byway, I wasn’t just cruising looking at scenery–I was on a mission to find a bird that calls the fast, cold Spearfish Creek home: the American Dipper.  The Black Hills are the closest place to Minnesota to find this bird that is a denizen of mountain streams.  Range maps show the Black Hills as a habitat island for this bird, completely separate from the rest of its range. Seeing this shallow stream in the mountainous terrain made it clear why this place was acceptable to the Dipper.

The kids and I made periodic stops along the Byway to check locations from eBird that had fresh Dipper sightings.  We were striking out, including at Iron Creek which was a feeder stream to Spearfish Creek and held the most promise based on eBird reports.  But it was Evan who came to the rescue.  He asked me what these birds looked like and said he had just seen a small gray bird fly under the overpass where Iron Creek went underneath the highway.  So we kept looking and eventually we spotted it.  What a small, fantastic bird it was! There really is no other bird like an American Dipper.

American DipperAmerican DipperAmerican Dipper American DipperEven the kids enjoyed watching the Dipper do Dipper things, like flying all around and… dipping.

Evan American Dipper American DipperThe Dipper was the main birding goal for South Dakota.  With it securely locked down, the kids and I retired for the night at the Spearfish City Campground. This campground is the kids’ favorite camping location ever because Spearfish Creek runs right through it, a great place to cool off during the day or play in the night.

Evan MarinThe kids enjoyed the campground so much that we decided to spend a second night there instead of our original plan of camping in Montana.  Our second day of the trip was not about the birds as we went to see famous landmark in next-door Wyoming: Devils Tower.  This was a lifer experience for all of us and something I had wanted to see for some time.

Devils Tower

On the way back to Spearfish I decided to take the scenic route on the forest service roads through the Wyoming Black Hills.  Little did I know that I wouldn’t have cell reception and that my paper placemat map of the area was woefully insufficient.  As one winding road fed into another, we couldn’t tell when we would emerge from the wilderness. The kids grew more and more nervous.  They claimed I was lost.  Psshht.  But to alleviate their worries, I flagged down a kind Wyoming resident who was recreating in the forest, and he kindly let us follow him out to a main highway and made sure we had enough gas. The kids were relieved.  To this day we still argue about whether I was lost or not.

On the third day of our trip we traveled from Spearfish up into Montana.  Our time in Montana was just a few hours which was just enough to stop and smell the sagebrush of southeastern Montana, a smell I will never grow tired of.

Evan Marin MontanaAfter our quick foray into Montana, we were headed to our camping destination of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota.  When we got to the park, we were devastated to learn the campground was all filled up.  So we camped at a Motel 6 in Dickinson.

The next morning we went back west about 20 miles to a certain country road I had been studying on eBird just north of Belfield (31st Street).  I knew this road held two potential lifers and a host of other fun birds, but I wasn’t expecting such remote grassland beauty.  It was one of the coolest places I had ever birded.

Red Dirt Road

The two grassland species I was after were Baird’s Sparrow and Sprague’s Pipit–two extremely rare birds in Minnesota.  Here in North Dakota, they are annual and occur in good numbers in some areas.

Because I had been studying the vocalizations of both birds, it didn’t take me long to pick out my Baird’s Sparrow lifer and get some good looks at it.  I remember at the beginning stages of my birding thinking how boring and drab this sparrow looked, yet I found myself absolutely captivated by it here in North Dakota.  Perhaps it was its beautiful song, the incredible setting, the rarity of it, or all of the above, but this was a lifer I enjoyed immensely.

Baird's SparrowBaird's Sparrow Baird's SparrowBaird's SparrowThe Sprague’s Pipits had been reported in decent numbers too, and I was able to detect them by their spiraling series of whistles given from very high in the sky.  It took a long time, but I was finally able to pick one out against the overcast sky–a mere speck that resembled a bird.Spragues Pipit

These birds seemingly stay aloft forever.  It was remarkable how they would seem to just float in the strong winds without needing to come back to Earth.  I never could spot one come down.  I was hoping to view and photograph one on the ground.  During all this time, their beautiful song became ingrained in my memory.  In fact, long after this I heard that song repeatedly on the Canadian TV show Heartland that Marin had gotten hooked on.

This red dirt road was a treasure chest of good birds besides these two key lifers. Other highlights included seeing a couple of Burrowing Owls, a fly-by Prairie Falcon, a Golden Eagle, Western Kingbirds, Lark Buntings, and a juvenile Swainson’s Hawk. 31st Street north of Belfield was just one of those magical places to bird.

Swainsons HawkLark BuntingAs we made our way east across North Dakota on our way back home, we stopped in the central part of the state to look for a Clark’s Grebe lifer.  Despite finding many Western Grebes, we couldn’t come up with a Clark’s.  All is well since I later got that one in San Francisco this past summer.  One of my favorite memories from poking around looking for the Grebe was coming across a dozen Cattle Egrets mixed in with some cattle.  It’s funny how birds like that can be so rare in Minnesota yet so easily found in North Dakota.

This was a fun little trip that produced some great memories for me and the kids and gave me three key lifers.  I’m not sure why it took me so long to write about it.  There are more untold stories of life birds still in the vault.  As we go along in through this uncharted period of history, I may have to bring one out every so often.

Veritas Caput

In 1832, an explorer by the name of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft and his men were guided by  Ozawindib, a Chippewa Indian, to the source of the Mississippi River in northern Minnesota,  a small, pristine lake surrounded by beautiful White and Red Pines. Not liking the Chippewa name Omushkos Sagaeigun or Elk Lake, Schoolcraft took the last four letters of the Latin word, veritas (truth) and the first two letters of the Latin word caput (head) and came up with Itasca as a new name that he felt more adequately described the significance of the lake that served as the true head of the Mississippi.

Lake ItascaThat’s it, right there–the rocks at the bottom right of the photo above mark the terminus of Lake Itasca and the beginning of the mighty Mississippi.  Here massive hordes of humanity, some more clothed than others, take their turn walking, slipping, and selfie-ing across the rocks at the Mississippi Headwaters in Itasca State Park.

Evan Marin ItascaGetting a photo of your significant people making the famous 20-foot trek without other tourists in the frame is about as easy as seeing a Black-backed Woodpecker in the park.  Of course, both become much easier in January…

This time of year is more fun for kids, though.

Evan Marin

Evan and Marin crossing the Mississippi

Evan and Marin were not the only ones in our family being baptized this day as true Minnesotans–Melissa and I were embarrassingly also making our first walk across the headwaters.  Though that, or the impressive virgin forests of towering Pines, should have been enough motivation to finally make it to Itasca, it was another Veritas Caput that served as the impetus to get us there–Mr. Bob Janssen, a.k.a. the godfather of Minnesota birding who literally wrote a book on the subject, was leading a bird walk at Itasca State Park.  Call us groupies, call us super-fans, but we were in.

Evan Bob Janssen

Evan birding with Bob Janssen–Again!

The truth is that due to a rough night in the camper for all of us, we slept in and missed meeting up with Bob’s group to begin the bird walk. Oh well, I thought, I’ve birded with Bob before and this was more or less a beginner’s bird walk. I reasoned that Evan would have the same reaction since birds aren’t that big of a deal to him anymore. I couldn’t have been more wrong. When he woke and found out we missed the walk, he was in tears.  Apparently birds aren’t that big of a deal, but birds with BOB is still a really big deal.  Ugh.

I told Evan we would try to find the group in the 32,000 acre park.  I didn’t tell him that finding an American Three-toed Woodpecker would have been easier.  But I had read the chapter on Itasca State Park in Bob’s Birds of Minnesota State Parks, and I had a pretty good guess of what trail we might find them on.  Even still, we were an hour-and-a-half late.  It was a long shot at best.  Amazingly, and as you can tell from the photo above, we did stumble upon Bob Janssen and his followers.  Whew!

We were just in time to catch the group to find out that the next stop was the Headwaters area at the far north end of the park.  Evan and I had to make a stop at the campsite on the way where we snagged a pretty sweet FOY, the Broad-winged Hawk.

Broad-winged Hawk

We finally met back up with our group at the Headwaters parking lot and began a leisurely walk looking and listening at…nothing.  It was super quiet which was strange since fall migration should have been going on all around us.  Now pay attention to this–if you want to be a better birder, go birding with people better at it than you.  The quiet woods did not daunt the 84-years-young Bob.  You don’t get to that age and that fame without acquiring a few tricks up your sleeve. Bob was listening intently for Chickadees. Wait, what?

As soon as Bob heard a couple Black-capped Chickadees, he pulled out his mp3 player and speaker and played an Eastern Screech-Owl mobbing tape.  The recording is of a Screech giving its tremulo call and being mobbed by about a thousand pissed off Chickadees.  What happened next is that the Chickadees in real life showed up with pitchforks and torches.  That brings in the onlookers, the Warblers and Vireos.  All the sudden we were swarmed with birds that didn’t even seem to exist a minute ago–Blackburnian Warblers, Northern Parulas, a Black-throated Green, Blue-headed Vireos were just a few.

Northern ParulaThough the light was bad and some birds were changing into their fall clothes, the flurry of activity kept it exciting even if it was just over binocular views.  I did manage to photograph a cooperative juvenile Chestnut-sided Warbler.  Just as some people aren’t fond of babies (the human kind), I am not found of juvenile birds. This one I found striking, however.

Chestnut-sided Warbler

We made several stops to play the tape in somewhat open areas, like where a path crossed the Not-so-Mighty Mississippi:

Mississippi River

Fun Fact: The Mississippi flows north for several miles before it turns south.

Though many of us in the group called out sightings of birds, Bob himself had the best sighting even though I lack the photographic evidence to prove it–a beautiful male Golden-winged Warbler.  It’s always a treat to see this bird that, if we did not have the Common Loon, would make a fine choice for a state bird, since Minnesota is responsible for hosting 47% of its breeding population.  Fun Not-So-Fact: Once we hit 51%, MN will control GWWA conservation policies in North AND South America.

Like the Mississippi itself, all good things must come to an end, and we parted company with the group and said goodbye to Bob, vowing to meet up again over a Meeker County Snowy Owl or Kandiyohi County Blue Grosbeak, which has now become our customary goodbye. We declined to go to the book talk, though it would have been a chance for Bob to sign the book to me and not Evan this time. Letting bygones be bygones, it was time for Evan and I to go from birding mode back into just regular camping mode, exceptions being made, of course, for Northwoods chickens that cross the road.

Ruffed Grouse

Ruffed Grouse

The Grouse and the aforementioned Broad-winged Hawk were year birds for me. Normally I wouldn’t care about such a thing, but with all my out-of-state travels I figured 2015 was my best chance of ever breaking 300 in a single year.  I’m very close, but it’s still going to be a stretch. Thanks to Melissa who woke me up at 1 AM and alerted me to a calling Barred Owl, I made another stride toward my goal.

That goal, along with the mouth-watering prospect of seeing another Black-backed Woodpecker, propelled me to go on one last birding hike in the early morning on our last day of camping.  Sadly, I did not encounter any of the shadowy Woodpeckers on Schoolcraft Trail, but I did find another year bird and get my first ever photos of a Brown Creeper.

Brown Creeper

Brown Creeper

Birding with Bob, nabbing four year birds (one a photographic first), and crossing the Headwaters made for a great inaugural trip to Itasca State Park. I am quite remiss, though, that I did not show you pictures of the incredible Red and White Pines of the park.  Come for the river, stay for the Pines, the t-shirts say.  Next time, which I can guarantee you there will be a next time, there shall be pictures of the Pines, and if we are all lucky, there shall be Black-backed Woodpeckers on them!

A Tern for the Worse – One Screwed-Up Trip

More often than not you come to this blog to read about our great birding triumphs.  But we are also fully transparent and are thus required to document our most epic and comical failures.  Anyone who has birded for any length of time knows that failure to produce is all part of this game and such missteps or miserable attempts can be just as memorable as the glorious moments.  It is in that spirit that I will tell the story.

A little over a week ago an interesting report came in of a Least Tern down in Luverne in Rock County.  I generally don’t get too excited about terns, gulls, or even shorebirds – at least not to the point of going on a lengthy chase.  Luverne was nearly three hours away; it definitely was not happening.  Then I learned that the Least Tern is considered a “casual” species in Minnesota and that there are very few records of it here.  Furthermore, to see one elsewhere, I’d have to visit someplace like the Florida coast in the summer.  Now the bird was becoming more appealing.  I looked up the picture and noticed that the Least Tern is quite distinctive with its yellow bill.  Even more appealing.  But then I heard that this particular Least Tern was a juvenile – definitely an attribute for the “con” column.   A long trip for an immature bird that might not stick around?  Forget it.

The reports kept coming though.  The tern was hanging on and something very interesting happened.  One birder reported that there were now two Least Terns and that one was a breeding plumaged adult!  And the birds were hanging out all day. Now I was interested. Phone calls and texts were exchanged with local birding buddies, but ultimately three of us ended up going down separately in three vehicles.  I opted to go alone so I could turn the chase into an overnight camping trip with the kids at Blue Mounds State Park.

I was confident we’d see the tern in the morning.  The bird(s) had been around for nearly three days by this point.  Plus our chase record was strong with only one big miss on a Painted Bunting a couple years ago.  Even then, though, we managed to walk away with a consolation Purple Finch lifer.  I tend to choose chases that have a high probability of success, and this chase had the right elements for just such an outcome.  So as I rode along with two kids, a van full of camping gear, and one of my two labrador retrievers riding shotgun (she was not part of the original chase/camping plan), I was excited that in just a couple hours I’d be looking at a sparkly, brand-new bird, and a very rare bird besides.  We’d see the bird, and fifteen minutes later the kids and I would be having fun camping and swimming at the reservoir at Blue Mounds.  It was going to be perfect.

We got to the site in Luverne around 10:00 in the morning and pulled up behind Randy who had made it down there sometime within the previous hour.  Randy had mixed news for us.  He saw the bird (the juvenile) – saw it fly away not fifteen minutes earlier. My optimism was undaunted.  I was confident the bird would return.  We searched nearby wetlands with Randy to see if we could dig it up.  The kids and I returned to the original site a couple times but had no luck in locating either of the Least Terns.

One reason I thought this would be a fun trip for the kids was that I remembered the city of Luverne had a massive park down by the Rock River with multiple playgrounds.  Despite my memory, there would be no park adventure on this trip.  The entire park which was lush green in my memory was now entirely covered in black soil and roped off as crews worked feverishly to get it into park shape again.  What was going on?  Then I remembered.  This area of the state had massive flooding this spring.  Undoubtedly the grass and greenery were destroyed in the stagnating waters left behind.

So it was off to Blue Mounds to set up camp and do some swimming. We were going to have fun one way or another on this trip.  But we hit another snag when we checked in at the park office.  The park ranger asked us if we were aware of the water situation.  Uh, no. The water supply, she said, was contaminated with E. coli.  Even though that sounds utterly terrifying, it was a manageable fear since they had all the water shut off save the toilets and since they’d give us drinking water at the park office.

After we had camp set up and had checked on the Least Tern spot unsuccessfully a couple times, I decided that it was time to let the kids do some swimming at the reservoir. With kids suited up we made our way to the… mud puddle? Wait, where’s the reservoir? This place was only suitable for frogs and the few Pectoral Sandpipers poking around. The beach was hundreds of feet away from the “water.”   What was happening?  Finally I figured it out when we hiked down to the dam;  the spring flooding had overpowered the dam, knocking a gaping hole in it and depleting the reservoir.  This was turning out to be one sorry trip, and I was turning into one liar of a father.

The kids and I did do a little bit of hiking.  After all, Blue Mounds State Park is the most reliable place in the state to see Blue Grosbeaks.  Even though I had seen a gross amount of them in recent weeks, it was still fun to find six Blue Grosbeaks at Blue Mounds.  Most were near the Interpretive Center’s parking lot, but a couple were found at the north end of the prairie near the swimming area.

Blue Grosbeak

Blue Grosbeak

Blue Mounds is also famous for Common Nighthawks that swoop over the prairie and make their booming call late in the evening or early in the morning.  It is not hard to find them perched during the day. This particular nighthawk was taking a rest in the same tree as the Blue Grosbeak above.

Common Nighthawk

Common Nighthawk

Can you find the Blue Grosbeak and Common Nighthawk in this photo?

Can you find the Blue Grosbeak and Common Nighthawk in this photo?

Another fun bird that is not hard to find at this park is the Dickcissel.  Interestingly, this Dickcissel was perched in the same small, dead tree with the Blue Grosbeak and Common Nighthawk in the first two photos.  Apparently the two former birds don’t mind sharing territory with each other.  And the nighthawk couldn’t care less that these two birds were singing their heads off while he tried to close his eyes and dream sweet nighthawk dreams.



The list of uncommon birds that are not too hard to find at Blue Mounds continued with several singing Field Sparrows.  I was showing Evan this particular Field Sparrow through the LCD display on the camera and pressed the shutter button while the bird was singing. Evan thought that was pretty neat to photograph it in the act of singing, even using the phrase “epic photo.”

Field Sparrow

Field Sparrow

Another bird we had the pleasure of viewing, when binoculars and camera were not in hand of course, was a Red-headed Woodpecker in a dead tree right by a walking path. It did not care that we were 15 feet away.  Steve has told me I’m a magnet for these birds. I’m starting to believe him.  What I am certainly a magnet for is rain at Blue Mounds State Park.  As you can see in the photos above, conditions were not optimal for photography, birding, or even camping.  Rain was setting up shop for the day, and I had a sickening feeling that this trip was going to turn into the disastrous Blue Grosbeak hunt of 2013.  But a lack of good weather, terns, playgrounds, swimming beaches, and safe drinking water did not deter these two from having a good time even though I have no idea what they were doing here.

Evan Marin

We never did see the Least Terns on any one of our dozen+ trips to the tern spot that day. Hope stayed alive for a check in the morning, but it was time to put the current day to bed and get some rest.  At least that was a sure thing.  Or so I thought.  For somebody who teaches future doctors and engineers and such, sometimes I just don’t think.  I figured the three of us in a three-man tent on a full-sized air mattress would be no problem until I put the plan into action.  The mattress was not wide enough for the three of us, so I turned the mattress sideways. What I gained in shoulder room was offset by the loss of body length I could fit on the mattress. My shorter companions had no problem, but my legs hung off the end by over a foot. Uncomfortable but fine.  But then you throw in a couple of karate-chopping sleepers and a 65 lb. lab that wants on the bed and it was a red-eyed, muscle-aching disaster.  It was topped off by a close lighting storm that had me scrambling to get two sleepy kids and a dog into the van where we would attempt to sleep the last couple hours of the night.  I didn’t care about a Least Tern by that point.  Instead I was once again thinking how the desire for a bird could cause such misery.  The new day and the trip home couldn’t come fast enough.

Dawn finally came and with it was the thought that this trip had nowhere to go but up.  I was wrong again.  You see, the previous day I noticed that my two-front tires were balding really bad.  I shouldn’t have made the trip down on them, and I certainly wasn’t going to drive home on them.  So I made arrangements at the Luverne Ford dealership to get a couple of new tires that next morning.  I figured it would be fine because the kids and dog and I could take a nice walk while we waited.  The day had a different plan.  The continuing rain forced us to wait for our van in the one-car showroom of the dealership…with a big dog.  But a 6 in. by 6 in. TV playing Sponge Bob, a couple of cookies, and one firm hand on a short leash got us through the tire change.  Actually all the folks at Luverne Ford were incredibly hospitable and friendly telling me sweet lies about how well-behaved my kids were and how nice my dog was.  The truth is that the kids and dog did very well considering the circumstances.  And it truly is better to be safe as they say.  Did I mention that on the trip down to Luverne the previous day I had to call 911 to report a semi coming into my lane?

Finally we were out of there.  We checked the tern spot one last time but again came up short.  It was time to head home.  I took a longer route home in an effort to do some eBird documentation for some reported Blue Grosbeaks that other birders had found far north of their usual range.  I only managed to turn up one.  I was thrilled to be able to see and document a couple more Red-headed Woodpeckers.  I was never able to get any photos, but I did see and photograph another uncommon bird, the Upland Sandpiper, another bird I’ve been seeing more of this year than in the past.

Upland Sandpiper

Upland Sandpiper

The trip had some good birds for sure, just not the new one we were hoping for.  What we didn’t have in birds, though, we made up for in stories to tell.  I will be curious to someday hear the kids’ recollections of the disastrous Least Tern chase of the summer of 2014.  The Least Tern won this battle, but another life bird would become the hero and bring a satisfactory close to the summer the next week.

Birding Brainerd: Gull Lake Recreation Area and Northland Arboretum

Gull Lake Recreation Area

Every summer we take at least a couple camping trips with Melissa’s parents and our two nieces.  Usually we stay at state parks, but we procrastinated a little too much on making reservations and ran out of time to get a couple camping sites on a weekend. Fortunately Melissa stumbled on to a great alternative which appears to be one of the best-kept secrets in the camping world.  Until now.  It turns out the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has recreation areas at many of their various projects.  And usually those recreation areas have a full-fledged campground.  So we booked a couple sites at the Gull Lake Recreation Area near Brainerd – a halfway point between our home and Melissa’s parents’ home.

This past weekend we camped at Gull Lake, and I was thoroughly impressed with what those Army engineers have done.  Never have there been more level, well-maintained sites.  Never has there been a better public shower house in a campground.  And never has there been better engineered service. Within minutes of arriving, a small squad of park rangers shows up on their Ranger utility vehicle to check us in and deliver firewood right to the fire pit.  And after they hand you your receipt and tell you your firewood purchase is tax deductible, they ask if there’s anything else they can do.  I would bet they’d even refill your Coke, that’s how good they are.


The overkill and built-in redundancies by the Army’s engineers is both laughable and enjoyable.  See, they really just needed to build this tiny dam with a one-lane bridge to hold back the drainage of 10 lakes in the Gull Lake Chain, keeping Gull Lake 5 feet higher than normal and preventing the Mississippi River from getting out of hand downstream, but then they confiscate huge chunks of land on either side of it for who knows what reason.

Gull Lake Recreation Area

One side of the bridge is the finely engineered campground; the other side is a large point on Gull Lake named Government Point (the engineers must have named it)  with a beach and boat launch and lots of government buildings and this mysterious small structure.  Perhaps a missile silo as part of our defense against Canada, eh? The small size and limit of one would fit that theory since it is just Canada.


But this blog is about birding and not just about Canadian conspiracy theories.  I was able to get out and do some birding on Government Point.  I had to smile when I proved a law of birding true.  That law is that once a lifer is seen, they show up everywhere. It’s the law that kept me from sweating that I saw a Pine Warbler last week and Evan didn’t see it because I knew the floodgates would open up for the Pines after that first sighting.  Yep, it turns out those Army engineers even designed a perfect territory for this guy.

Pine WarblerThis particular warbler has class, choosing the nicest, tallest White Pine right by those government buildings to call his home.


After this discovery on my first morning birding walk, I was eager to get back to share this news with Evan.  The warbler was singing on territory and wasn’t going anywhere, and it was a short hike from the camper.  Evan, indeed, wanted to come see it along with Marin and cousin Hannah.  Before we got there I played the song for the kids so they could listen for it on the way there.  Once we got within 200 yards of the location, the kids were excitedly exclaiming that they heard it.  Fast learners! Then the challenge was to spot it.

Evan, Marin, Hannah

Many will deride the Pine Warbler, citing its drabness.  But I like it.  Maybe that’s because it took me so long to find it – kind of like the girl who played hard-to-get phenomenon.  Or maybe that’s because it is better at picking habitat than the other warblers.  Our majestic Red and White Pines are beautiful whether alone or in large stands.  Good choice, Mr. Pine.

Pine Warbler

Pine Warbler

Pine WarblerI spent a lot of time with this warbler observing and photographing it.  When there is no pressure to find a life bird, I really enjoy spending time watching and photographing a particular species that I enjoy.  It was fun to watch this guy as he sang his heart out constantly, shaking his whole body with each song.  I really like their trilling song which is a higher, sweeter version of a Chipping Sparrow’s song.

My birding was pretty relaxed overall.  I mostly photographed birds that presented photo ops, and I got pictures of birds I’ve never “shot” before.  Many, like this Turkey Vulture, were practically begging to have their photo taken.

Turkey Vulture

Turkey Vulture

I even relented and took my first ever American Robin picture.  Probably my last too.

American Robin

American Robin

I saw several Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers.  My best look came when I didn’t have a camera and one was on a tree just a couple feet in front of my face.  I had a similar experience with a Veery that came waltzing through the campsite while I was having coffee with my father-in-law.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

A loud drumming on a bird house at one point alerted me to this female Pileated Woodpecker.

Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

I also finally got a photo of an Eastern Phoebe.

Eastern Phoebe - purported by some to be the third-best Phoebe

Eastern Phoebe – purported by some to be the third-best Phoebe

And a relatively common bird during migration that was fun to see and hear on territory was the Yellow-rumped Warbler.

Myrtle's Yellow-rumped Warbler

Myrtle’s Yellow-rumped Warbler

While I did some casual birding on this trip, Evan was moving on to other scientific pursuits, like marine biology, studying various snail shells and the invasive Zebra Mussels.


Though I spent some time just enjoying and photographing birds, I did make one quest to find a lifer.  The Wood Thrush has eluded me thus far.  A local birder recommended hiking the trails at the Northland Arboretum right in the city of Brainerd.  With 12 miles of trails through various types of forest it sounded promising.

Aspen Grove

Mature Stand of Aspen

The mosquitoes were incredibly fierce and abundant, though.  I was wearing long sleeves, pants, and the hood from my sweatshirt.  Even with repellant on the few square inches of exposed skin, I was getting destroyed.  I didn’t know what I’d do if I had to stop walking to look at a bird.  But then I found out what I’d do when I recognized the song of a former nemesis bird, the Blue-headed Vireo!  Once again that old birding law proved true. I endured countless bites as I tried so hard to get a photo of this bird.  It’s such a looker and one of my favorites, yet I couldn’t do it justice.  But I didn’t care too much because self-preservation was taking over.  I had a literal cloud of mosquitoes around me and had to keep moving.   My face was already swollen to twice its normal size.

Blue-headed Vireo

Blue-headed Vireo

I had one other good sighting at the Arboretum that I identified after-the-fact when looking at photos.  It turns out a high-flying raptor that went overhead was a Peregrine Falcon!

I also got to see a Brown Thrasher, but I could not turn up a Wood Thrush either by sight or sound.  As I was nearing the end of my walk and going by a wetland, I saw this pile of baby Mallards, literally and photographically crushable as they were just 6 inches off the path.

Baby Mallards

Baby Mallards

Seeing this mass of Mallard babes reminded me of one of those contests where you try to guess how many marbles are in the jar.  But if we were playing that game on the blog, you’d all lose because Momma Mallard had Momma’s Boy off to the side, throwing off the count.  Apparently she wasn’t too concerned that the bulk of her children were one stray bike tire from being obliterated.

Hen Mallard with her favorite child

Hen Mallard with her favorite child

So, there would be no Wood Thrush.  The hunt goes on.  I may have to continue the fight back home.  Overall, though, it was some good side-birding on a camping trip.  A lifer for Evan and some good looks at fun birds is nothing to sneeze at.

Avian and Animal Adventures at Afton State Park

Afton State Park patchAnyone who read our blog last summer may recall that we have a special fondness for state parks, especially those that hold new and exciting birds.  One of the bonuses of visiting a new state park is that Evan gets the park’s signature patch for his birding rucksack.  We are not indiscriminate in which parks we visit.  There has to be a compelling reason to go to a certain park.  Afton State Park had been on my radar since last year when Pete Nichols, the moderator of the Minnesota Birding Facebook Group, discovered a Hooded Warbler there.  Hooded Warblers are rare but regular in Minnesota, and they are a bird I’ve been wanting to see.  This year Pete rediscovered not one, but three of these birds at Afton!  Additionally, there were many other birds popping up at Afton that we’d never seen.  The most prominent that I would consider equals with the Hooded Warbler is the Prothonotary Warbler.  There were also Henslow’s Sparrows (many), Blue-winged Warblers, Black-billed Cuckoos, Eastern Towhees, Tufted Titmice, Summer Tanagers, and Bell’s Vireos.  The Hooded Warbler alone would have brought me to the park which is east of St. Paul and on the St. Croix River that runs between Minnesota and Wisconsin.  But this buffet of potential life birds made it a must-visit spot right now.  In fact, I even pulled Evan out of a couple days of school to make the trip.  Let’s face it, if we didn’t have all the snow days this past year, he’d be out of school by now anyway.

One complication with Afton is that you can’t pull a camper there.  That wouldn’t be a problem as we can tent it, but the tent sites are back-pack sites which means a significant hike – not a task I wanted to do with two kids. The park’s saving grace is that it has camper cabins for rent at a very reasonable rate. So that’s what the kids and I did.


They were pretty enthralled with the accomodations.  Seeing how nice the cabins were and how cheap they are to rent, I started to question why I bought a camper.  Oh well, variety is the spice of camping.

Camper Cabin at Afton State Park

Camper Cabin at Afton State Park

The cabin was nice and all, but I was itching to find one of the nearly ten potential life birds that could be had in this park.  So after we unpacked, we headed for the car to drive to our hiking destination.  But I jumped back when I discovered this 4-foot Fox Snake between me and my car!

Fox Snake

Fox Snake

What a sighting!  I’ve never seen anything like it in Minnesota.  The kids and I were within just a few feet of it checking it out.  I couldn’t resist touching it.  In my younger days I would have caught the thing, but I wasn’t up for that.  He shot off like a rocket the instant he felt my touch.  Then it disappeared in the weeds, gone for good. Or so we thought.

And how do we know it was a Fox Snake?  Marin discovered it on a poster at the Visitor’s Center (and it was confirmed by Randy).  She was quite proud that she found it.


The kids and I finally made it to the area where we needed to hike for the Hooded Warbler.  Our path would go down a large hill to the St. Croix River where we could walk the river bottoms trail and look/listen for this warbler.  The hike down was full of stops and starts as one kid or the other had some emergency or another, mostly bug or heat related.  Finally we gave up and went back to the car.  No Hooded.

As we drove through the parking lot a meadowlark with a lot of white in its tail flushed up and landed in the tree next to us.  I was confident it was our Eastern Meadowlark lifer because the Westerns are rare visitors to the park and the Easterns are classified as common.  I was waiting for it to vocalize, the surest indication of what species of meadowlark it was.

Eastern Meadowlark

Eastern Meadowlark

As we spent more time in the park, we saw and heard many Eastern Meadowlarks. Though its simple song is far inferior to our melodic Western, it was fun to hear and be able to gain confidence in distinguishing the two species.  Because it is nearly identical to the Western Meadowlark, it wasn’t an exciting life bird, just a tick on the life list.

When we got back to cabin, we had another visitor – the Wild Turkey.  This tom (he’s shy about showing his beard) didn’t really care that he was blocking our way.

Wild Turkey

Wild Turkey

After some lunch, a nap, and some bunk-bed antics, it was time to go out for another walk.  This time we were going to hit the north prairie loop to look for Henslow’s Sparrows, Black-billed Cuckoos, and Blue-winged Warblers.

North Prairie Loop - Afton State Park

North Prairie Loop – Afton State Park

We walked in the hot sun and didn’t come up with anything.  I didn’t hear a Henslow’s, and I certainly didn’t see a Cuckoo in the nearby woods.  We did end up seeing our Blue-winged Warbler lifer in flight.  It was a dull yellow with bluish wings, and it was in an area where they had been seen.  We saw it fly into a pine.  I watched for it to show itself, but then an American Goldfinch popped out.  I asked Evan if that’s what we had seen.  His answer confirmed my own thoughts when he said the one we saw wasn’t as yellow and had blue wings. Finally our bird popped out again, flying away and not landing in sight.  Bummer.  It’s not the way I’d like to get a lifer.  A good solid view is a must followed by a good photo.

At least this Eastern Bluebird posed for a photo even though they are quite common wherever there is prairie.  Though I wish a Black-billed Cuckoo were sitting in his place, I couldn’t pass up a chance to photograph a bluebird.

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

After our prairie hike it was back to the cabin for more food and rest (me) and more horseplay (the kids).  I told the kids we’d go on one last hike in the early evening and then come home to make a fire and cook supper.  This time I was determined to get us down to that river bottoms trail to adequately search for that Hooded Warbler.

We drove a little ways down the road and look who was sunning himself!  I’m not sure this is the same snake as before or even the same species.  But two mega snake sightings in one day was incredible!

IMG_9185After this experience we finally made it to the trailhead.  This time things went a lot smoother with a lot less complaining.  The hike down the large hill was the most challenging as the sign shows, though Marin was convinced the sign meant it was a snake trail.  Given our day, who could blame her?  Here you can see Evan contemplating her observation.IMG_9190The river bottoms trail was flat and easy as it took us right next to the St. Croix and right along the base of an oak-wooded hillside where the Hooded Warblers were known to be. I knew the song well as its been my phone’s ring tone for some time, but I just wasn’t hearing it.  Argh.  Later on, though, as we passed by some flooded timber along the edge of the river, I heard the distinctive call of the Prothonotary Warbler! Not the main target, but good enough!  After a little while we got to lay our eyes on it.  What a thrill it was to see it for the first time!

Prothonotary Warbler

Prothonotary Warbler



If there would be no Hooded Warbler, it didn’t matter so much anymore with this bird.  It was quite a sight.  We never did see the Hooded that day; it would have to wait until the next day.  The kids were tired, so we headed back to the cabin for supper and bed even though there was a good hour or so of daylight left.  We pulled in to find yet some more visitors in the campsite – three deer!


As I had made a trip out to the car after getting the kids in their pajamas, I heard the distinctive “Drink your teaaaaa!” song of the Eastern Towhee!  This would be a life bird, and its song was coming from across the prairie to the south of our cabin.  Quickly I had the kids throw their shoes on, and we followed this bird’s song.  I was able to locate it at the top of a dead tree belting out his tune for everyone to hear.  And he did not care that we were watching him from down below.  Nor did he care that Marin sang his song with him.  I’ve been looking forward to seeing this bird for a long time, so it felt pretty good to get this one on the trip.

Eastern Towhee

Eastern Towhee

"Drink your teaaaaa!"

“Drink your teaaaaa!”

When we got back to the campsite this time, a fox scampered out of our campfire area. What a magnet for wildlife this little spot was.  It would be fun to see what the next day would bring.

That next day I decided we would do the river bottoms trail one last time and the prairie loop one last time.  If we didn’t get our main target or some other lifers then so be it.  All the river bottoms trail yielded was another look at the Prothonotary Warbler which never gets old.  The prairie loop trail didn’t provide the Henslow’s Sparrow we were looking for or give any better looks at that Blue-winged Warbler.  It was fun to see a Field Sparrow, which is a fairly uncommon bird.

Field Sparrow

Field Sparrow

It was also a treat to see a male Orchard Oriole, even if he was a long ways from the road.

Orchard Oriole

Orchard Oriole

It was finally time to go.  I had a couple more birding moves to make, though.  The night before someone reported a pair of Tufted Titmice at the Hidden Valley Park in Savage.  I decided we’d swing by and check it out.  There were plenty of birders there, but there were no binoculars or cameras pointing to the trees – not a good sign.  Turns out that no one had been seeing them all day.  The kids had fun at this cool, well-named park that had a small river running through it.  The big draw for them was looking for tiny shells.

Looking for shells at Hidden Valley Park in Savage, Minnesota

Looking for shells at Hidden Valley Park in Savage, Minnesota


No Titmice and a handful of shells.  At least some of us were happy with this place.  I did see two male Indigo Buntings, a much more colorful bird than the drab Tufted Titmouse. Ironically, because of its commonality, it is a lot more boring than a Titmouse.

Indigo Bunting

Indigo Bunting


We gave up on the Tufted Titmice and made one quick stop at Murphy-Hanrehan Park for another reported Hooded Warbler.  The walk was short, and so was the birding.  This Hooded Warbler wasn’t singing or showing either.  I guess I can’t complain.  Four life birds and some other cool wildlife sightings made for a memorable trip.  Plus, we still have a warbler to hunt (the list hasn’t gotten quite short!).

Scouting and Spartan-Training with a Healthy Side of Birding

There was much rejoicing in the neighborhood this weekend – I finally made it up on to the roof to take down the Christmas lights.  Though I would have rather been birding on this gorgeous day, June was fast approaching and I was getting dangerously close to leaving them up and boasting about how prepared I was for next Christmas.  It turns out, though, that birding from the roof was pretty good.  Two male American Goldfinches in the midst of a dogfight nearly crashed into my face, and later I had a stunning bird pull a “Maverick” as it buzzed the tower at eye-level.  The burnt orange and glossy black were unmistakable – no binoculars were needed to see this was an adult male Orchard Oriole!  I’ve only seen a flash of one before, and we had an immature male at the feeder once last year.  The kids were playing outside, so I hollered for Evan to get my camera out of the car while I kept an eye on the bird.  It probably would have been faster for me to go myself, but after some communication misfires, two trips to the vehicle, losing the bird, and refinding the bird, I finally got a picture of this scarce oriole.  The shot was from a long way off, and the bird was gone before I could get more.


Adult male Orchard Oriole

The Orchard Oriole wasn’t the only yard-bird excitement this weekend.  As Evan and I were getting ready to go on a Cub Scout camping outing, I was trying to grab a photo of a new yard bird, the Nashville Warbler.  This isn’t an exciting warbler, but any bird takes on a new level of importance when it visits your yard for the first time, especially a warbler.  Since we aren’t near water and don’t have many mature trees here, we rarely get warblers in the yard.

Nashville Warbler

Nashville Warbler

As I was maneuvering to photograph this warbler and holding up the camping weekend, another new yard-bird warbler popped in front of my face, the Black-and-White Warbler!

Black-and-White Warbler

Black-and-White Warbler

IMG_8563And then I noticed a third warbler, the Yellow-rumped!  Though none of these warblers were terribly exciting, it was a thrill to have them invade our very own trees.  I wondered what else was with this mini warbler wave, but we had to get to scout camp.

Scout camp was a lot of fun made even more so because Evan and I opted to spend the night back at home instead of huddling in a tent for an overnight low of 37°. We participated in the activities Friday evening, went home, and then drove back for the activities Saturday morning.  I should point out that we also never missed a meal with the scouts.  Priorities.

The location of camp was on 600 acres of beatifully wooded private land complete with two private lakes.  There were birds galore.  One of the predominant species was the Wood Duck.  I visited with one of the other scout dads who helps maintain the Wood Duck boxes on the property, and he told me there were about 100 boxes and that 85% of them were occupied this spring!

I didn’t photograph any of the Woodies, though, and instead picked out a couple species that have evaded my photography efforts, like the ground-skulking Palm Warbler.

Palm Warbler

Palm Warbler


Warblers are tough to photograph, and I’m deciding that ground-skulking warblers may pose just as much of a challenge as the ones that flit about the treetops.  It’s a good thing there are birds that pose, like this Veery.



While I practiced bird photography, Evan was working on much more manly skills.




Though I took the picture above, I had taken Evan out earlier for a canoe ride. We were both thrilled to have four species of swallows buzzing right by our heads as they fed above the surface of the water.  It got me thinking that I should dig out my canoe from behind the shed and do some birding with it.  It’s a totally new perspective.

On Saturday at scout camp we headed to Sibley State Park for some geocaching.  It was a mediocre experience considering we were in a group of about  12 people, over half of which were not scouts.  I did get my Gray-cheeked Thrush lifer, but out of hesitation that I might actually be seeing a Swainson’s Thrush and that I was the only binocular-toting bird-nerd in the crowd, I opted not to draw more attention to myself by photographing the bird or pointing it out to Evan.  I later regretted both decisions.

The “cache” that we located was quite appropriate – a bird card with the Yellow-throated Warbler.  The very first pair of nesting Yellow-throated Warblers in Minnesota occurred at our very own Sibley State Park and were discovered by our friend, Randy.


We saw some good birds at Sibley – Brown Thrasher, Yellow Warblers, Blackpoll Warbler, Golden-winged Warbler, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, and quite possibly a Red-shouldered Hawk.

After scout weekend, Evan and I did our daily check of Bergquist Wildlife Area – a spot that can be walked in ten minutes if there are no birds.  This time of year, with the birds changing daily, it takes a good hour to explore.

This particular day, Blackpoll Warblers seemed to be stealing the show.

Blackpoll Warbler

Blackpoll Warbler



While I strained my neck looking at warblers in the treetops, Evan was again working on his warrior skills.



I was smiling like that too when I found one of my favorite warblers of all time – the Blackburnian Warbler who was more than willing to show off his flashy orange throat.

Blackburnian Warbler

Blackburnian Warbler

IMG_8620I wanted to keep photographing this bird, but it gave me the slip while I was checking on Hercules.

IMG_8626Though not as much fun as playing with dead wood, I photographed a couple of the more common warblers.

Wilson's Warbler

Wilson’s Warbler

Magnolia Warbler

Magnolia Warbler

I was delighted to see that the Cape May pair is still hanging around in the same tree. It is getting very interesting that they are still here after two weeks and that there is a pair.  We are way south of their breeding range.

Cape May Warbler at Bergquist Wildlife Area

Cape May Warbler at Bergquist Wildlife Area

I’m still hoping to find a few last warblers at Bergquist before migration wraps up.  They include Black-throated Green, Bay-breasted, Mourning, and Canada.  Strangely we haven’t seen the ever-abundant Tennessee Warbler yet this year.  I was finally able to catch up with a Northern Parula the other day.  They are always a treat to see even if they aren’t very photogenic.

Northern Parula

Northern Parula

We shall continue the hunt for more migrants for the next couple weeks.  Then we will be putting Evan’s skills to the test as we go out camping this summer and hunting for warblers on territory.  Stay tuned.

The Whitewater State Park Trifecta – a Rare Bird, an Old Friend, and a Patch

IMG_4476It is really quite crazy how certain events can unfold and line up to create a birding trip that seemed as if it was destined to happen.  That was the case on this most recent one-night adventure that Evan and I took to yet another state park.  While it may appear we fly out of the driveway and head off to a distant land for any old bird, that simply isn’t true.  If it was, we would be on the road every day because there are a lot of birds in Minnesota that we haven’t yet seen. But I recognized this latest chase as being a very rare opportunity that in all probability would not happen again.

Before I go into the details of the chase, it’s important to build the background for this latest story.  It started 14 years ago at the University of Minnesota-Morris when I met Malcolm – someone who shared my enthusiasm for mathematics and a different sort of birding.  Malcolm and I were both avid waterfowl and upland game hunters who quickly found ourselves sharing a jeep or a canoe as we hunted the birds of the prairie pothole region of western Minnesota.  Though we became roommates, we eventually lost track of each other after college.  That changed this winter when I posted a bird photo to a Facebook birding page asking for identification help.  One of the people who commented was Malcolm!  We reconnected online and mutually discovered we had both gotten into birding in recent years.  It was a fun discovery.

On one of our first bird chases, when we went after the Painted Bunting in Aitkin, I ended up searching for the bunting right alongside some of Malcolm’s birding companions.  As we corresponded about the small world of birding and the sport of chasing, Malcolm planted a seed in my mind when he said there was a Yellow-throated Warbler taking up residence by the Nature Store at Whitewater State Park.  He said if we felt like chasing it, we were welcome to stay at his house which was only a half hour away from there.  At the time, I didn’t know a Yellow-throated Warbler from the dozens of other warblers I hadn’t yet seen.  I think I had only seen a few warblers by that point. I didn’t realize that the Yellow-throated Warbler is a special find in Minnesota; this bird’s range is in the southeastern part of the country.  They are rare strays here.  In fact, this particular bird was a first for Winona County.

As spring and summer rolled on, we had racked up the warblers.  Last time I checked, our warbler list grew from just a few species to 26.  Any regular reader knows that warblers are the birds I enjoy most.  With each new warbler found, the desire for the rare warblers increased – hence the trip to Oberg Mountain for the Black-throated Blue Warbler or the trip to Lyon County for the Cerulean Warbler.  Now I was eyeing up this Yellow-throated Warbler and trying to find a way to justify another bird trip to see it. After all, it was four hours away to Whitewater State Park.  I tempted myself to go on this trip by emailing Malcolm to find out if that bird was even still present. Malcolm responded that he hadn’t checked for over a month, but he showed me how I could query the MOU database to look up other birders’ reports of sightings to find my answer.  I also learned through our correspondence that he was moving to Kansas City in mid-August.  The window for going birding with an old friend was closing fast.  Besides the fact that we had a limited time to meet up with Malcolm, we also had to worry if the bird was still around.  Then, if it was, we had to consider that the warbler would be heading south soon as fall migration starts near the end of summer for this species. I discovered from my queries, though, that this warbler had, in fact, been consistently active all summer.  It was there as recently as July 20.  Many of the reports said it was right in the vicinity of the Nature Store and was singing loudly on territory and easy to find.

So the bird and birder were still there, but could we go?  We’ve traveled a lot this summer and were scheduled for another trip the last week of July to Madeline Island with my family.  At some point I had to start restricting myself.  But then a turn of events made the Whitewater trip more probable.  Marin’s Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease forced us to cancel our trip to Madeline Island.  Now there was a little more freedom with time and money to be able to go after the Yellow-throated Warbler.  After Marin started recovering, I became ill for a couple days.  By this time I was wondering if we were too late for the warbler.  The end of July is getting really late to find them as they typically don’t sing as much on territory since they are busy taking care of their young.  If you can’t hear a bird this time of year, chances are you won’t find it.  But then I got a welcome email from MOU-Net on July 25th in which a person reported that the bird was still there singing loudly.  It was go time.

Not only were we going after a rare warbler for Minnesota and seeing an old friend, but we were headed to another state park.  This means one thing for Evan: a new patch for his ruck sack.  On the day I decided to head off to the southeastern corner of the state, I called Whitewater to find out if they had any camp sites available.  I knew it was an extremely popular park, so I was worried.  It turns out they only had three left out of nearly 70.  Our plan to leave after lunch was moved up to 10:00 AM.  The decision to go was made so fast that I only emailed Malcolm to tell him what we were doing.  I didn’t know if he would be able to join us, but I hoped it worked in his schedule.  En route he replied to me saying he would like to go birding with us and could even help us find some of our secondary targets that were southeastern Minnesota specialties.

Once we got near Rochester, I called the park again – no vacancies! No! I anticipated this, so I went to plan B which was Carley State Park – a non-descript state park 8 miles from Whitewater.  From touring it 10 years ago with Melissa, I knew this place wasn’t somewhere I wanted to camp.  Because that’s all it is, a place to camp.  There is nothing special about the park unless you want to play Bocce Ball or Croquet on its one picnic ground area. Whether we liked it or not, we had to race to get there because Carley only had four sites open.  Thankfully there were a couple still open by the time we arrived.

IMG_4522This created a patch dilemma since our rule is that we have to spend the night at a park for Evan to earn that park’s patch.  I was hoping it would be the Whitewater patch since that’s where our target bird was.  I consulted Melissa, and we concurred.  We’d override our rule and make it a two-patch trip.  After all, Whitewater was where we were birding, and I know we will go back and camp there someday. The beauty of these bluff lands is amazing.  The park is nestled at the bottom of the Whitewater River valley surrounded by very large bluffs or mini-mountains. The Whitewater River runs right through the campground and has the feel of a mountain stream – complete with ice-cold, crystal-clear water and rainbow trout. You’ll forget you’re in Minnesota if you ever visit.


Once camp was set up, we went to Whitewater to check things out.  We listened for the Yellow-throated Warbler at the Nature Store.  Nothing.  I was secretly hoping to check it off right away to take the pressure off.  Well, morning is the best time to find any bird, so hope was not lost even if it was diminished a bit.  We went back to Carley to have supper, work on Evan’s Park Naturalist workbook (something that when completed earns him a patch from the Minnesota State Parks system), play some cards, and go to bed.

We woke up early to get over to the Nature Store parking lot before our meeting time of 7 AM with Malcolm.  I was hoping we’d hear our bird while we waited for Malcolm.  Nothing again. Were we too late?  Did the recent drop in daily temps force this southern bird to leave early?

Malcolm showed up on time, and it was a lot of fun to reconnect and visit while we looked for this target bird.  After spending some time in the parking lot, we ambled over to the adjacent picnic grounds toward the river.  There was still no sign of the bird.  It was now becoming worrisome.  After nearly an hour we decided to go after another warbler that Evan and I needed that was a reliable find at this park – the Louisiana Waterthrush.  We hiked along a trail that had us go next to and criss-cross the Whitewater River which was more like a small creek the further upstream we went.


As Malcolm and I discussed careers, life, and birds, Evan would run ahead looking for trout in the stream and occasionally throw rocks.  It was a pretty relaxed walk even though we were after a specific bird.  We never did find our secondary target, though. Now we had struck out on two birds.

It was now time to head back to the parking lot to make another check for the Yellow-throated Warbler.  Again there was no song.  Malcolm said that when it sings it can be heard from a fair distance.  In other words, if it was there we should hear it.  We continued our visit as we waited and watched.  At one point I consulted the latest MOU-posting from two days ago and picked up on a detail I missed.  It said the bird was found around the parking lot and througout the adjacent picnic grounds.  We hadn’t searched the picnic grounds much at all.  It was worth a shot.

We headed that way, but Evan needed something back at the car.  He and I went back while Malcolm searched.  After that errand, we went to rejoin Malcolm.  Evan was more interested in listening to Justin Bieber than listening for our bird.

IMG_4479I no sooner took this photo then heard Malcolm holler my name.  I could tell by the sound of his voice that he finally found it.  Evan and I began to jog his way.  Malcolm had, in fact, found the bird in a small white pine near the highway.  Though he’s seen this bird before, he got his best view of it on a low branch.  It normally hangs out in the tops of tall, tall white pines.  It was a good thing we had Malcolm to guide us; otherwise we probably would have never located the bird.

After a little bit of searching, we finally got our eyes on it too.  The flash of that brilliant yellow throat was exhilarating.  Now it was time to work on getting a good photo – something that clinches a target bird for me.  As we watched and chased the bird from tree to tree, we saw that there were other warblers with it.  Malcolm quickly got excited because it appeared they were juveniles with the parents.  Up to this point, this male Yellow-throated Warbler was the only one observed.  It alone was a record for the county, so a breeding pair would be big news.

Now we were keeping close track of these birds for different reasons.  I wanted my picture, and Malcolm wanted proof that these were juveniles.  We got many good views of the birds, and I was able to get some photos of the male.


Here is a picture of one of the juveniles we saw.

IMG_4497As we chased the Yellow-throated Warbler family around the picnic grounds, other birders started to join our ranks.  Apparently they, too, wanted to view this special visitor before it was too late. It’s kind of funny because the faces are unfamiliar, but the names are not.  Through our online birding, we frequently meet birders that we’ve heard of before.


Here is a picture of a funny moment that occurred while Malcolm sought his evidence. Malcolm excitedly claimed to hear a second male Yellow-throated Warbler and pointed in the direction of the sound.  But it was not a bird.  It turned out to be Evan playing the bird’s song on his iPod.

IMG_4490This was a monumental lifer, and now our trip had been made complete.  All the birders there that morning got to see this cool warbler. Everything afterward was a bit more relaxed.  There was more conversation among the birders, and we all just continued to watch this family of birds.  I’m not sure what kind of conversations Evan had while I was taking pictures, but one guy told me how impressed he was with Evan’s bird knowledge and another one politely ate a lone Pringle chip that Evan offered him. Here Malcolm is quizzing Evan about some other bird.

IMG_4516With a lighter mood all around, we decided to make one more try for that Louisiana Waterthrush.  We didn’t end up finding it this time either, but it was nice to have more time to hang out and visit.  Finally, though, it was time to part company with Malcolm.  It was a phenomenal trip.  Evan’s trip was made by getting two state park patches for his ruck sack.  Mine was made by getting a chance to bird with a friend I hadn’t seen in over a decade.  Seeing the target bird was the icing on the cake for both of us.

Upper Sioux Agency State Park and the Lark Sparrow

IMG_4412I really never had any great desire to go to Upper Sioux Agency State Park near Granite Falls.  I had researched the park a while back when we started camping since it is less than an hour from our house, but I did not think it was really a compelling place to visit. I thought it might be more appropriate to go to it when the kids start to study Minnesota history and learn about Minnesota’s first inhabitants and the Sioux Uprising of 1862.

This past week I was compelled to visit this park since Joel emailed me telling me that he had seen numerous Lark Sparrows all over the park. This may not seem like a big deal, but Minnesota is not even included on range maps for this bird.  Range maps aren’t always definitive, though. I knew that Lark Sparrows occasionally visit Minnesota as sightings are usually posted on MOU-net.  As further evidence that they were unique for Minnesota, Joel also told me he just had seen his second one for our county.  This is a good bird for our state. Besides that, the Lark Sparrow is a sharp-looking bird.  It was definitely on my short list of birds to see, and Upper Sioux Agency State Park was the place to do that. After Joel’s report, I even read in Kim Eckert’s book, A Birder’s Guide to Minnesota, that the area of the Minnesota River Valley near Upper Sioux Agency was the best place in the state to find the Lark Sparrow.

Here you can see on the park’s bird check-list (Each MN state park has one of these), that the classification for a Lark Sparrow in summer is O.  The classifications go like this: C=Common (Easy to find), U=Uncommon (You may have to look for it and know what you’re doing), O=Occasional (It may or may not be present in a given year), and R=Rare  (self-explanatory).  An “O” definitely means it’s a good bid.


A good bird and lots of them all at a new state park meant one thing: Evan and I were going on another quick overnight in the tent.  I picked Evan up from daycare late in the afternoon, and we made the short drive down to the park.  It would have been even shorter had I not had to complete a Craigslist-type transaction for Melissa at Clara City. But we were still there in no time.  As we drove down the Minnesota River Valley on the way, I was reminded just how scenic this valley is. It’s definitely worth taking a drive in this part of the state.  Once at the state park, we first went to drive around the completely vacant campground to pick out a good site before registering.  Along the loop, we found our target!  That was fast.

IMG_4411It was time to register.  We pulled into the park office parking lot and walked up to the office.  I walked, but Evan was running ahead of me because he wanted to get the park’s signature patch – a tradition we have when we stay at a new state park.  We pulled on the door, but it didn’t budge!  The place was locked up without a soul in sight! What was going on?  No campers or park staff were around anywhere.  It was weird.  I had to calm Evan down who was in tears because he couldn’t get a patch.

I realized that maybe this park office has limited hours since it is not a high-use park.  I discovered I was right when I self-registered for camping that night.  It turns out the office wouldn’t be open until the weekend.  I guess we’d have to have them send us a patch.

After making camp, we drove all around the various parts of the park which is split by MN Hwy. 67.  It was too buggy and hot to bird by hiking.  We found more Lark Sparrows at the horse rider’s campground.IMG_4426

I also got a long-overdue picture of a Barn Swallow.

IMG_4421Evan was intrigued by this hay bale and wanted to see how big it was compared to him. This seemed to fascinate him more than the birds.IMG_4422

We got back to camp to make a fire and cook some hot dogs.  We didn’t last long outside with all the mosquitoes, so we headed into the tent to play Kings on the Corner and Go Fish and then read a book before bed.  With the target bird achieved, we were sleeping in the next morning.  As we laid in our tent, we enjoyed watching the fireflies and listening to the hoots of Great Horned Owls.

We didn’t wake up until well past 9:00 the next morning.  We got packed up, had a bite to eat, and pulled out.  I wanted to drive around some park roads again before we went home.  It’s a good thing I did.  I happened to meet a state park worker driving a truck.  I motioned for him to stop and asked him through our driver windows if we could buy a patch from the office.  He said he could do that.  Awesome.

With the target found and the patch in hand, we had a successful trip.  As we continued to drive around the park, we heard a bird song that we recognized from playing it on the iPod just that morning – the Field Sparrow.  This was another life bird for us.  Its classification is “uncommon” for this park in the summer, so it was a good find.  This bird belied its name – we found it at the very top of a 30 ft. tree.

IMG_4433Without recognizing that bird song, we would have had trouble identifying it.  The Field Sparrow is pretty drab, but its pink bill is diagnostic.

It was another good trip.  We got the bird.  We got the patch. We added a bonus lifer. Plus we got to spend a fun night in the tent playing games.  It was a good trip.  By the way, Evan is now at 191 species, and I am at 200.  We are giving away a Kaufman Field Guide to the Birds of North America to whomever guesses the closest date on which Evan gets his #200.  See the previous blog post for details.

Camden State Park and a Cerulean Warbler

IMG_4383I am fascinated with the warbler family of birds.  They are birds that burst with color, and there are over four dozen species in the United States.  We have well over half of those in Minnesota.  One warbler that’s been on my wish list is the Cerulean Warbler.  The Cerulean is a pretty blue-backed bird with a white belly and throat and a black necklace.  Besides being visually stunning, this bird is scarce in its known range and is said to be DECLINING.  Sadly, as I read through descriptions in the field guide, there are many species of birds that are in decline, threatened, or endangered.  Needless to say, seeing a Cerulean Warbler would be an outstanding find. Interestingly enough, as I wrote this story, KARE 11 did a feature news story on the decline of another warbler who resides in Minnesota – the Golden-winged Warbler – and how conservation of this and other species can be best be achieved through international partnerships because of the distances that these birds migrate.  To see this story which features one of my photographs, click here.  Through birding I am beginning to understand how delicate our ecosystem can be and that international activity can help or harm bird populations.

While we were on vacation in northern Minnesota, a Cerulean was found and reported on MOU-net in Lyon County which is a mere hour-and-a-half drive from home.  That’s an easy distance compared to some others we’ve traveled for birds.  My mind was made up.  Once we got back from Up North, Evan and I would make a quick trip to look for this bird.  After all, I was willing to blindly search for one at a different location of similar distance, and now there was a confirmed Cerulean in a known location on multiple days.

As my interest in birds could be modeled with an exponential growth chart, Evan’s would look more like a roller coaster.  Since he can identify well over 200 species of birds, I sometimes forget he is six and likes to do kid things too, like play with friends, ride bike, go swimming, and so on.  Lately he doesn’t have the same zeal as his dad, and his patience for going on long searches is nil.  Knowing this, I wanted to make this adventure something fun for him that wasn’t all about birds.  One thing I knew that would entice him would be a stay at Camden State Park.  Evan loves state parks, even more so now that we buy him the signature patch for each park we stay at.  These patches are then sewn on a nice canvas backpack that Melissa got him.  He loves collecting patches depicting his adventures.  Our rule is that we have to spend a night at a park to get the patch; we can’t just pull into a park office, buy a patch, and leave.  Evan knew what Camden’s patch was since we checked out this park on the way home from our Blue Mounds State Park trip.  It was the bluebird that you see above.  A bird + a patch = one happy kid.


Besides dangling a new patch in front of him, I also told him that since it was just the two of us, we’d tent it.  Evan got really excited about this.  He’s stayed in the two-man tent just once in the back yard, so it was a big deal.

The other day we left our women around 4:00 and were headed southwest to Camden State Park.  We stopped at Subway in Granite Falls to redeem a certificate for a free sub that Evan earned for completing a reading program.  That was a perk for him since he’s wanted to do it for a long time.  We also stopped by a marsh near Cottonwood to check out the birds.  This American White Pelican was begging to have his photo taken.  I was excited about this photo since I finally got to make use of reflection in a photo of a bird on water.

IMG_4362We made it to Camden State Park in short order and stopped at the park office.  I went to talk to the ranger and Evan went straight for the patch.  We then picked out a site in the nearly vacant campground and set up camp.

IMG_4363I always bring Evan’s bike to campgrounds, but this time I drove the van so I could bring mine too.  Being just the two of us, it would be a good opportunity to go for an over-due bike ride.  In fact, that was the first thing we did after setting up camp.  As we drove our bikes down the campground road, I realized how much fun it was to ride a bike and do some non-birding stuff with my son.  I remembered how much fun I had going on bike rides with my family as a kid.  Nevertheless, I still carried my camera.  Just in case. Don’t tell my wife, but I took this next photo while riding my bike.

IMG_4366Doesn’t the cruise down this hill look fun?  It was for a lonnnggg time. But every revolution of the wheels made me realize how stupid this decision was.  I kept asking Evan if he wanted to keep going down since we’d have to come back up.  He said it was fine.  So I listened.  Dumb.  When we finally got to the bottom to turn around, he made it all of twenty feet before hopping off to walk the bike up.  So we had a nice bike ride and walk.  Oh well, it gave us a chance to do some birding, like observing this Indigo Bunting pecking around the railroad tracks.

IMG_4369The reported location of the Cerulean Warbler was not at Camden State Park.  Rather, it was at Garvin Park, a county park and campground about 15 miles away.  It would have been cheaper and more convenient to stay there, but they don’t have a patch.  It is a cool place regardless.

IMG_4380Our plan was to get up at 6:00 AM, head over to Garvin, and then come back later to pack up.  Birds are active early.  That is why I wanted to spend the night so we could be out there right away.

The alarm went off.  I got up.  Evan didn’t.  I figured we probably didn’t have to go that early, so I let him sleep while I went about getting packed up.  I tried Evan again later. Nothing. Then a little later after that.  Nothing.  Finally it was 6:45, and I was practically dragging him from bed.  We got completely packed and loaded and were to Garvin by 7:45.

Once on site, we were looking for the campground host’s campsite because that is where our target had been hanging out.  But we couldn’t find it, so I parked the van and we were just going to walk the campground loop.  I knew I couldn’t expect much birding stamina out of Evan, but the van door literally had just closed when he said he wanted to go.  You’ve got to be kidding.  But after all, he was tired, and we had just driven by this:

IMG_4372I was frustrated that he couldn’t even put in a little bit of time.  Just then a campground worker came by who pointed out where the host’s site was, which had no host.  We walked straight there.  I stared at trees, and Evan wandered to the much smaller playground nearby.  Within minutes I heard the Cerulean Warbler, but I couldn’t locate it.  This didn’t even hold Evan’s attention.  Before long we walked back to the van to get his bike so he could ride around the loop.  Okay, good, he is occupied having fun.  That didn’t last more than one loop, though.  I realized he was tired, so I drove the van to where we were searching, parked it in the shade, reclined the seat, and had him rest.  I continued to stare at treetops in vain since that’s where Ceruleans hang out.  Evan became restless again and wanted to go to the big park pictured above.  I knew it was important to do this, so I agreed to take him there at 9:00.  It was currently 8:40.

So there I was, crunched for time, making my search all the more desperate.  I occupied my time by looking at every moving bird.  I was treated to a Great-crested Flycatcher, numerous Cedar Waxwings, and an Indigo Bunting.  One time I pulled up the binoculars on a bird that looked black-and-white and was hanging out halfway up to the tops of the trees.  A woodpecker? A Black-and-White Warbler perhaps?  Then I saw a faint hint of blue on this bird as it moved about the leaves in the shadows! It was the Cerulean Warbler! I hollered at Evan, who quickly ran out of the van to stand next to me. The best I could do was point out the clump of leaves where I saw it.  He wasn’t able to see it. After that I had to try to get my camera on it which was tough to do.  I spied the bird again for just a flash, which was enough for this quick shot.  The quality isn’t good, but considering the distance and this bird’s rarity and propensity for disappearing, I was very thankful for this one and only photo.IMG_4371We watched for a little longer and listened to its distinctive buzzy song.  Though I could tell where he was, I never saw it again after the photo above.  Evan agreed to let me look until our previously agreed time of 9:00.  Whether we found it again or not, I was thrilled. I thought it would take me years to find this bird.  It seems we’ve already found most of the birds we’ve dreamed about in just our first year of birding.  Maybe my friend Patrick is right – it won’t be long until we’ll have to head to someplace exotic like Costa Rica to find a new, interesting bird.

9:00 came – time to be six again.

IMG_4374IMG_4377I played on the playground too (it was super cool, after all), but a birder is always birding…


I could have gone back to keep searching for hours for the Cerulean to help Evan see it and to try to get that ever-elusive perfect photograph.  But when your birding partner is six, you have to fit the birding into his attention span.  Today it was more than good enough to see this incredible target and get a photo that is very recognizable but not remarkable.  So we left the home of this cool bird to get back to our home where there were more important things for Evan to do, like swimming in the back yard with the neighborhood children.

Up North – Part 3: Inland

Click this link to read Up North – Part 2: Oberg Mountain and the Black-throated Blue Warbler.

Click this link to read Up North – Part 1: Temperance River State Park.

After enjoying the beauty and temps of the shore for a few days, it was time to head inland to the Iron Range to visit our families.  Our trip to the North Shore had been a birding success as we hit two of our three targets and picked up a total of four life birds.  Even though the weather was nearly 25° hotter inland and we’d seen some cool birds, there was still a lot of fun to be had.  The kids could finally do some lake swimming (an impossibility in Lake Superior), go fishing, and see their grandparents and cousins.

We continued our camping trip by staying at a local campground while we visited home.  Almost immediately I had one kid begging to swim and another begging to fish.  That first night we went swimming because it was so hot.

IMG_4295The adults weren’t the only ones watching what was happening in the water.  These two sentries kept a close eye on things too. (Bald Eagle and Osprey)

IMG_4293 IMG_4292 Birding was definitely not the main focus of this trip as we were here to see family, but we squeezed in a little birding here and there and sometimes had birds appear incidentally.  We tried to go birding on my dad’s property, but the heat and bugs forced us to call it off.  This property is unique in northern Minnesota because it is largely prairie habitat surrounded by woods.  This diversity in habitat creates a wider variety of bird species. In our limited time of birding, we tried to find a singing Le Conte’s Sparrow but could not locate it.  It was fun to see quite a few Savannah Sparrows, though.

IMG_4319Our campsite also proved to be a really good birding location.  When we first set up camp, I heard a song that was reminiscent of the Black-throated Blue Warbler.  But it was just a little different.  I couldn’t tell what it was, and I couldn’t get my eyes on the bird. Then a posting came in to MOU-Net where a birder finally identified a bird making an unfamiliar song.  He finally determined it was the Cerulean Warbler – a bird that is rare and in decline and can only be found in a small range.  Since this bird is a bird on our priority list and was found close to our home, I began studying the song.  It seemed to match what I was hearing at the campground!  If this were true, it would be big birding news since it would be well out of its established range.

I really wanted to make a great find and get this life bird, so I would go birding right by the campsite in the early morning while my family slept in.  I never did get a good look at my mystery bird, but I was thrilled with the birds I did see while I searched.

Here is a male Blackburnian Warbler with either food or nesting material in his beak.  I also found the female, so I’m guessing there was a nest nearby.

IMG_4321This next warbler is quite common Up North.  If you’ve ever been to the woods, I’m sure you’ve heard the Ovenbird with its very loud, very stacato “Teacher! Teacher! Teacher!” song.  It booms in the understory.  These birds aren’t often seen, so I was pleased to capture this one with my camera.IMG_4326

IMG_4331I was really excited to locate this next warbler that hangs out in the tops of leafy trees – the Northern Parula.  This photo is taken into the morning sun.  I tried to get on the other side of the tree so the sun was at my back, but the leaves blocked my view of the bird on that side.  So this photo is bad, but had I captured him in all his splendor, you’d be amazed at this baby-blue beauty.

IMG_4334All of these warblers were found when I was standing in one spot hunting for my mystery bird.  One morning I returned to the camper to see if people were awake yet.  Since they were all still sleeping, I decided to sit in a camp chair outside of the camper so I wouldn’t disturb them.  While I was enjoying the quiet campground whose only sounds were those of singing birds, I heard a squawking in the nearby trees.  It sounded like Blue Jays.  Even though it is a common bird, I pulled out my camera in case one presented itself for a good photo op.  All of the sudden, one burst out of the evergreen tree.  But it wasn’t a Blue Jay. Instead it was a Gray Jay!  This was a life bird.  And it wasn’t just one bird.  There were several Gray Jays coming out of the woodwork making all kinds of racket and raiding the campsite.  They were encroaching on my space from all over while I sat in my chair.





In a voice louder than a whisper I tried to alert Evan without waking the rest of the campground.  He wasn’t waking up at all.  Melissa woke up and asked what was going on.  I told her there was a life bird in our campsite, and then she tried to wake Evan.  No luck.

IMG_4341Seeing that the birds were hanging around, I got up off my chair and poked Evan through the screen.  He sleepily opened his eyes and listened to me tell him what was happening. He quickly sat up and tried to look out his window to see a bird.  However, they were in the woods now but still making a terrible racket.  Evan could have got a good look if he came out of the camper, but instead he flopped back down sleeping hard. He’s claiming this life bird anyway since he said he dreamed about it and saw the trees move.

It seems that Gray Jays wouldn’t be the only incidental lifers of the trip.  As we headed down Grandma and Grandpa’s dusty road, I spotted this Wilson’s Snipe sitting on a fence post.  I had seen one a year ago in my overgrown lot next to my property, but Evan still needed it.  So I backed the car up for him to get a good look.  There was no worry about this guy fleeing.  It was as motionless as a statue.

IMG_4350IMG_4349I really wanted to call up my friend Jeff, who is an up-and-coming birder.  He does not believe that a snipe is a real bird.  I guess I might be a little skeptical too if I had been taken on a snipe “hunt” only to be abandoned by prankster friends miles from the nearest town in the dark of night.  So, they are real, Jeff.  But next time, come snipe hunting with me in the daylight.

It was a great Up North trip.  Evan tallied six life birds, and I got five.  More important than that, it was good to be in the woods again enjoying the sights and the company of family.