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.

Two Long Lost Lifers

Falling behind on this blog seems to be the new normal for me. Despite the lack of new content, the birding has continued on. There have been some pretty monumental moments, in fact. Since life continues to get busier with family, responsibilities, and other projects, my postings will now probably just be limited to new life bird experiences. New birds have come at a slow, yet steady drip. There are a few I need to catch you up on. Let’s start with two new birds I got this past fall.

In late September, I traveled home to northern Minnesota to attend the funeral of a family friend. It was, of course, Jaeger season down at Wisconsin Point on Lake Superior at the time. So one morning on this unplanned trip, I went across the border to see if I could nab at least one of three possible Jaeger species for my life list. Luck would have it that there was a Hawk Ridge field trip that very morning to find Jaegers! Field trip leader Clinton Nienhaus graciously allowed me to merge into the group, and all of us got to enjoy this dark morph Parasitic Jaeger. It was a pretty cool experience to not only get a lifer, but to also see a brand new family of birds, complete with their own look and behaviors. Watching this Jaeger chase the Gulls was fun to witness.

Parasitic JaegerParasitic Jaeger

On November 25, 2017, it was me chasing the Gulls.  A report came in of a Black-legged Kittiwake on the Mississippi River south of Cottage Grove at the far eastern edge of the Twin Cities. Since it was a life bird, I was compelled to make this chase which almost ended up being a dip. I arrived to find out the bird had been seen all morning up until 15 minutes prior to my arrival. After searching with dozens of other birders for an hour, I called it quits. I made it a third of the way home when I got the notice from buddy Pete Nichols that it had returned to loaf on the ice in the same spot it had been seen earlier. I had a decision to make: continue home or race back east. Well, I went for it. And thankfully, it was still there when I arrived. My timing couldn’t have been any better as I enjoyed it for all of 10 minutes before it flew away never to be seen again.

Black-legged Kittiwake

Unfortunately, Brad Nelson, Garrett Wee, and I did not have that same luck when we chased the state’s first record Tufted Duck this month, also on the Mississippi but down at Red Wing. Instead, here is a picture of a Tufted Titmouse from Frontenac Cemetery on that same trip. It was a lifer for Brad, a state bird for Garrett, and my second only sighting of one.

Tufted Titmouse

The next post is a lifer of epic proportions that I cannot wait to share. Second only to the Greater Sage-Grouse adventure, this was the best birding adventure I’ve ever been on with Evan.

Pounding the Lifers at North Ottawa Impoundment

Ask any serious Minnesota birder where he or she was in June of 2017, and you will get one common response: the North Ottawa Impoundment in Grant County.  While not exactly new to hosting good and rare birds, North Ottawa outdid itself this year.  Or more accurately, an army of skilled birders outdid themselves as they descended on the Impoundment in waves and created a bonafide, honest-to-goodness Patagonia Picnic Table Effect.  That term is sometimes used pretty loosely, but this was the real deal–a cascade of Accidentals, Casuals, and Rare-Regulars so intense that it threatened to rename the very phenomenon itself.  Below is the timeline of the major birding events, including my multiple trips with Steve Gardner to the site in June.  Even though this info is old news to Minnesota birders, I think the end of this post will hold a nice surprise for all.

June 5th

Shawn Conrad and Becca Engdahl separately report finding a Glossy Ibis, an accidental species that would be a lifer for me.

June 7th

Undoubtedly following up on the Glossy Ibis reports, Minnesota Big Year birder Liz Harper helps her own cause by discovering a Little Blue Heron, a rare-regular species which would be a state bird for me.

June 8th

Among the masses of birders now swarming the Impoundment, Gerry Hoekstra sends MN birders into a complete frenzy, including yours truly, when he finds a Snowy Plover, a casual species that would be a lifer for me.

June 9th

Steve and I go to North Ottawa.  Any one of the three aforementioned birds would have justified the trip.  Three in one spot was just ridiculous.  We were hoping for at least one of these goodies.  Fortunately I didn’t have to wait long to get that wish.  I got the Little Blue Heron as a flyover almost right away. Unfortunately Steve missed it at that time but got it later in the day.

Little Blue Heron

We tried unsuccessfully for the Snowy Plover but had no luck.  Considering there were over a dozen birders out looking and no one was turning it up, it was safe to say that it was gone. We did, however, see the Glossy Ibis thanks to Wayne Perala, local birding guru who knew the bird and its habits so well that he told us where to look. And almost on cue, the bird flew up out of the cattails right by Wayne as he said, “There’s your Ibis.” This bird was super cooperative giving us great looks in perfect light.  It was a life bird for me but just a state bird for Steve.

Glossy IbisGlossy IbisSteve and I were pretty thrilled with going 2/3 on our targets. In addition to these birds, we also nabbed some nice birds that we don’t get to see too often, like this Snowy Egret.

Snowy Egret

Western Kingbird never goes unappreciated in Minnesota.  We were lucky to see this one.

Western KingbirdAnd who does not love seeing an Upland Sandpiper, especially one so crushable?

Upland SandpiperUpland SandpiperSteve and I felt pretty darn good about our trip and our nice haul of birds.  We were completely satisfied, until….

June 15th

Wayne Perala (remember nice guy, Wayne, from the Ibis story?) sent another shock wave through the Minnesota birding community by posting incredible pics of a King Rail, another accidental species that would be a lifer for me.  Unfortunately timing was bad for me as I was getting ready to go on that Madeline Island trip that was highlighted by the last post.  Indeed I had to suffer through pics and reports of many people adding the most recent North Ottawa mega to their lists.

June 23rd

Finally back from that Wisconsin vacation, Steve and I sneak up to the Impoundment in the evening.  In the week since the Rail was discovered, other birders discovered there were two King Rails!  Despite now having double the chance to see this lifer, our Rail search was a bust.  The wind was raging and we were searching in slightly the wrong spot. We also tried searching for a lifer Nelson’s Sparrow reported by Becca Engdahl, but nothing likes to be out in the wind.  Except Western Grebes, they don’t care.

Western GrebeSteve and I did, however, see another casual species that was also discovered during this historic period of MN birding which I have failed to disclose in the timeline.  A pair of Black-necked Stilts had set up shop in one of the shallow pools of the Impoundment. Considering I already had Black-necked Stilts for Grant County from several years ago and that Steve had just gotten this state bird recently, we just weren’t too fired up about it, especially after our double dip.

June 29th

With a renewed sense of optimism freshened up by continuing reports of the Rail pair, Steve and I headed back to Grant County for the third time in a month.  This time we arrived at the crack of dawn on gloriously still day…in the right spot. Success.

King RailLook at the size of these things compared to the Mallards in the background.  No wonder it’s the King of the Rails.King RailKing RailBirding is a roller coaster of emotions, and Steve and I were back on top after this sighting.  Steve suggested we try for those Nelson’s Sparrows again.  Despite our good fortune of the morning, I was skeptical we would find the Sparrows.  But not looking certainly guarantees that outcome. So we walked the dike berm that we had a week ago.  This time it definitely felt more Sparrowy–no wind, early morning, etc.  We played the tape and didn’t get a response.  Then a couple minutes later, I heard the recording, or what I thought was the recording, again.  I asked Steve if he had left his phone app on.  When he replied that he hadn’t we knew were hearing the real deal! We continued to work the area, and eventually we saw two Nelson’s Sparrows!

Nelson's SparrowWith some pishing we were able to get them to pop up for some great looks at these skulkers.Nelson's SparrowNelson's SparrowSteve and I followed these birds around for a bit, thoroughly soaking up the experience.  I don’t think either of us ever expected to lifer on this bird with such good looks.  We certainly didn’t expect to get this lifer in Grant County.  This nighttime singer is often a heard-only bird that people trek to middle of nowhere (McGregor) to find in the middle of the night.  We were stupefied.  Talking it over on the ride home, we concluded that the Nelson’s Sparrow lifer experience topped the King Rails even though the Sparrow is a summer resident in our state.  More than once I have been surprised by how much of an impact a Sparrow lifer has on me.  A huge thanks goes out to Becca Engdahl for her find and her tips on locating it!

The reports out of North Ottawa definitely dried up in July.  That was okay with me because I, along with many others, were spoiled rotten by the place.  Additionally, I was okay with not having to run up to Grant County again because I had been working hard on achieving a birding goal much closer to home, a goal that has since been achieved and will be the highlight of the next post.

In the Spruce Bog, Three’s Company but Four’s a Party

So like your favorite show, I’ve left you with a cliffhanger in that last post that alluded to a tantalizing lifer and I made you wait for the next season (literally) to get some resolution.  Turns out that a busy career, life with kids and their activities, and a move(!) have hindered the blogging efforts even if the birding has still raged on in spite of the chaos. There have been trips to Arizona, Wisconsin, lifer trips here in Minnesota, and much more. It’s been a wild ride, but things are finally a little more conducive to getting caught up, so you can expect a mass release of posts and start binge-reading ABWCH.

We left off with a birding excursion to a Black Spruce bog back in the homeland of northern Minnesota with birding friends Julie Grahn and John Richardson in late March.  Winter still had a somewhat icy grip on the northwoods, but there was a fire of birding excitement burning inside as John, Julie, and I pursued Julie’s latest great find–an American Three-toed Woodpecker.  While this species may be easier to find out west in the mountains, this woodpecker is incredibly rare for Minnesota.  In fact, in all the years that I have been birding there has not been a chaseable one until this past spring when Julie found FOUR of them in three different locations!  Julie’s fame grew as throngs of birders trekked up north to see a pair of these elusive Woodpeckers at one particular spot.  I was somewhat late to the party, actually, and had to wait for an opportune time to sneak away.  So when the kids had their spring break, I took them on a trip to see Grandma who graciously watched them while I went hunting for this lifer.

Back to that same day that we saw the Spruce Grouse, John, Julie, and I walked back and forth along a two-mile stretch of road through a Black Spuce bog in the hopes of hearing/seeing this ghost of a Woodpecker.  After a couple hours we finally heard drumming, and we all raced ahead to track it down.  It seems like heresy to say this, but I was dejected to be looking at a Black-backed Woodpecker.

Black-backed WoodpeckerWe carried on with our walk that had us traversing the same stretch of road several times.  Then we heard drumming quite a ways from the Black-backed and knew it was a different bird.  We repeated the drill of tracking down the source.  Only this time it was different.  John was the first one to get eyes on it and announced it was the American Three-toed Woodpecker and the male at that!

American Three-toed WoodpeckerIt was a huge lifer for me–there are only a handful of regular birds in Minnesota I can still add to my life list, and the icing on the cake was that this was a hometown bird.  It really doesn’t get better than that, and I spent a lot of time soaking up the experience and taking lots of photos.

American Three-toed WoodpeckerAmerican Three-toed WoodpeckerAt one point this Woodpecker flew down and worked the bark along a downed tree.  This bird was oblivious to my presence and let me approach within 5 feet as it frantically flaked bark to look for insects.

American Three-toed WoodpeckerAmerican Three-toed WoodpeckerAmerican Three-toed WoodpeckerAmerican Three-toed WoodpeckerIt was a beautiful day to be birding back home and enjoying a long-awaited lifer.  John had gotten his fill long ago and left. Julie was quite patient as I spent an inordinate amount of time photographing this incredibly accommodating bird.American Three-toed WoodpeckerI did, finally, pry myself away and Julie and I wrapped up our birding for the day.  However, I found myself back on this road the next morning because the allure of these Woodpeckers and the Spruce Grouse was just too strong.  That second morning I decided to drive the stretch of road first with the windows down.  Unlike the day before, the action started almost immediately.  I heard the unmistakable rattle call of TWO Black-backed Woodpeckers that seemed to be chasing each other around in some sort of courtship dance. I got lucky enough to catch them on the same tree together.

Black-backed WoodpeckerThen all craziness broke loose (as if it hadn’t already). There were now four Woodpeckers chasing each other around. As I tried to make sense of it all, another unexpected sighting happened–Sparky Stensaas came bursting out of the woods with a large camera and tripod in hot pursuit of this action.  All of this action was just nuts. I started photographing two Woodpeckers on a dead snag and realized I had the male Black-backed and male Three-toed together on the same tree!

IMG_2030

They appeared to be in some sort of dispute over territory which was a fascinating development for us onlookers.  Meanwhile, the females of these respective species kept each other company on their own tree, though I did not photograph them.  I was too busy watching the males who were vying for superiority.

IMG_2031And in the end, one Woodpecker clearly won out.

American Three-toed WoodpeckerEventually, the Woodpeckers (and Sparky) dispersed into the woods and the excitement was over.  Later on, Julie Grahn and Dee Kuder showed up, and along with Sparky we all enjoyed the Spruce Grouse show that was highlighted in the last post. A huge thank you goes out to Julie Grahn for finding and reporting these birds and assisting me in finding them.  It was an incredible experience–I couldn’t have asked for a better way to get this lifer.

Finally, to close this post and whet your appetite for the next post (and Chinese food), this is a fortune I got while stopping to eat on this northern MN trip, a fortune that came true…

Carpe Duck

As I reach the end of the MN regulars for my life list, certain species have been drawing my attention with a laser-like focus. This fall my obsession was to finally end my Scoter quest and nab a Black Scoter.  This rare-regular sea duck can be found in late fall every year in MN, most often on Lake Superior but also sometimes inland.  I was  determined to chase any Black Scoter that showed up within a couple hours of home.  It was a bountiful year for sea ducks in the upper Midwest, BLSC no exception.  In fact, both of the other Scoters were even seen in the home county.  Fun as that was, my main Scoter itch wasn’t being scratched–I wanted to see a Black one bad. Black Scoters inevitably showed up within a reasonable distance, but always during the work week with none of them spending more than 24 hours in one spot. Weekends–go figure–were painfully quiet for Black Scoter news.

As December was settling in for the long cold nap with bodies of water freezing up everywhere, my Black Scoter hopes were quickly fading with each passing day. With great pain I was forced to acknowledge the truth: Black Scoter would probably not be notched until fall of 2017. But then, my hopes came roaring back when Julie Winter Zempel posted a photo of a stunning adult male Black Scoter on Lake Waconia, a drive that was an hour and change. The Scoter was detected the day before by Bill Marengo, the news of which nearly slipped completely under the radar had it not been for Julie diligently mining the MOU database to find Bill’s report. One major problem to this sighting, though: weekday.  My Scoter lust got the better of me and so when I had a meeting with my boss that next morning I asked if she’d approve me on the spot for a half personal day.  With an affirmative answer, I was on my way out the double doors.

This truly was my last chance for a Black Scoter in 2016. The only thing keeping Lake Waconia open in the teen temps was the raging west wind. It was figuratively and literally keeping the ice at bay.

Lake WaconiaWhen I pulled up to the boat launch at Lake Waconia Regional Park, I saw a Carver County Sheriff truck trailering a patrol boat. I thought it was odd since no one would be on the lake on a day like this nor could a boat be launched in the rapidly building ice. Strange. I didn’t think about it much more and set about my business of finding my target.  Watching the sea swells and facing into the sub-zero windchills was brutal even for being dressed for the elements. Scans of the big lake were intermittent and necessitated warm-up sessions in the car.  Having no luck seeing the duck (which was there that morning), I asked Julie for any tips on where to stare into that blue abyss to find this duck. In giving me directions, Julie also reminded me of the ongoing search for a paddleboarder that went missing two week prior.  The dots started connecting in my head regarding the Sheriff’s trailered boat, trucks driving slowly along the shoreline who I had thought were also looking for the Scoter, and my own vague recollection of a news report I had seen. It was suddenly a grim realization that I should be looking for more than just my bird.

Julie gave me spot on directions.  Following them exactly finally allowed me to spot that gorgeous black blob as it appeared and disappeared in the rolling white caps.  Finally. The journey had ended with one new Scoter species per year.

Black ScoterThe incredible distance, the numb fingers, and disappearing/reappearing bird made picture-taking a nightmare.  Regardless, I was thrilled to finally add this bird and see an adult male at that, a gender/plumage combo that is rarely ever seen in the state.

Black Scoterblack scoterBlack ScoterThe excitement of this new addition was tempered by a Sheriff’s helicopter making constant circles around the lake the whole time I was there, undoubtedly desperate to find this man on this last day of open water. The man was just a couple years younger than me with two young kids and another on the way. He had gone out to pursue his passion of wildlife photography from his paddleboard. And here I was at the same body of water just a couple weeks later pursuing mine.  Life really is unfair. The whole ride back to work it was hard not to wonder if I sometimes take unnecessary risks in the pursuit of my hobby.  Then again, a life lived with no adventure is a life not fully lived.  Seize the day.

Celebrating Birth Month

Five years ago Melissa and I lost our friend, Jen, to cancer. One thing that can be said of Jen was that she knew how to live life–she loved people and loved having a good time.  Jen always brought joy, laughter, and a special flare to every gathering she was a part of. Jen introduced us to a concept we had never heard of before–birth month. Yep, she celebrated her birthday for an entire month by indulging fancies and whims with her friends and family for 30 days instead of just the one day. That’s just who she was.  It turns out that Jen and I shared the same birth month (September), yet here I had been robbing myself of 29 days of celebration for 30+ years.  It was time for me to make up for lost time, so this birth month I indulged myself by going on two special life bird chases with a couple of good friends.  So by my count, I still sold myself short by 28 days. Sigh…maybe next year I’ll get it right.

The first chase was on September 6th.  News broke that day of a juvenile Sabine’s Gull at the Albany sewage ponds.  This was less than an hour’s drive from home.  So after work, Steve Gardner and I made the chase on a beautiful early fall day to get this lifer. The bird was quite accommodating, swimming right up to us.  Unfortunately Steve and I never got to see it fly and see the distinctive wing pattern despite waiting on it for 45 minutes.

Sabine's GullSabine's GullSabine’s Gulls are a rare but expected species throughout the Minnesota during September.  What wasn’t expected was a bird that turned up two weeks later in Carver County–a first state record Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, a bird from Siberia.  They mostly show up in Alaska but are also seen occasionally in the lower 48 along the west coast.  This find by Pete Hoeger and Bob Williams was absolutely remarkable. Consequently, Randy Frederickson and I chased this bird together after work on September 21st.  The hordes were out in full force for this mega.  Initially when we arrived, we and the 20 other people there couldn’t find it even though it had been spotted 10 minutes before we showed up.  After a good 20 minutes filled with much internal panic everywhere, one of the birders got us on the bird.  The wind, distance, and similar looking juvenile Pectoral Sandpipers made spotting and re-spotting the bird a tough task.  Photography was a nightmare; I would have to settle for diagnostic photos in these conditions.  But considering I never thought I would ever, ever see this bird in my life, I’m not complaining.

Sharp-tailed Sandpiper

Sharp-tailed SandpiperBy birding standards I’ve actually been celebrating Birth Quarter instead of just Birth Month.  The great birds have continued long past September.  I’ve been to Arizona and back already, so there will be more stories of lifering and night-owling with the famous Tommy DeBardeleben of TOBY fame. There have also been good birds back home, including a new county record that I found. Lots of excitement coming at you on the blog in due time…

Not Again, Dad

I have this working idea that all Minnesota birders should band together and chip in to pay John Richardson a salary to find us good birds full time. John’s long list of great finds is extraordinary, and he seems to turn up something spectacular wherever his peregrinations take him. August 10th was no exception as he and Butch Ukura turned up a Red Knot at the North Ottawa Impoundment in Grant County on their way home from seeing the Black-headed Gull in Lyon County.

This Knot was the second one to come up so far this year, but I hadn’t been able to chase this potential lifer last spring. Since I did have a free schedule this time and since the bird was just 1.5 hours away, it meant a chase was on when the bird was relocated on August 11th by Charlene Nelson.  Much to my kids’ frustration, I was watching them while Melissa was at a meeting when the chase status had been upgraded from ‘maybe’ to ‘go-time’. This meant they had to go with me. Actually the kids are pretty good about this type of thing and are used to quickly and independently assembling a bird-chase-survival kit of electronics, books, and everything they might possibly need to endure another one of dad’s trips…except food.  A quick stop for pretzels turned into a subsequent stop down the road for drinks.  Eventually we made it to North Ottawa, just not within 1.5 hours. 🙂

North OttawaIt was fun to return to this area. Two years prior, Randy Frederickson, Evan, and I came up here for a tidy haul of good birds in one trip: White-winged Dove, Cattle Egrets, Black-necked Stilts, and Loggerhead Shrike. This time I was looking for another great gift from Grant, and luckily, I found it.

Red KnotInitially I couldn’t find it and panicked since Joel Schmidt had just been there before me and assured me it was still there.  It took me a good ten minutes to finally spot it, and I may or may not have been crabby and short with the kids during those tense first few minutes as they loudly pestered one another in the backseat to fight off the boredom. But with the chubby red bird now officially in sight, I was much more at ease and took things in stride.

Red Knot

Red Knot

Evan opted not to see this bird and instead stayed in the car with Marin where they were play-fighting/wrestling/giggling and just generally getting along.  He did hop out once when we spied a Garter Snake cross the road as the kid has become a herper lately and has been wanting to catch a snake bad. He missed the snake as it slithered into the grass off the road. Shucks.

After spending some time photographing the Knot, we drove around the entire impoundment.  Our only other significant find were four Western Grebes which is always a nice year bird to tally.  Then we were FINALLY (as the kids would say) on the road home. But then I got a message from Dan Orr that he had found some Buff-breasted Sandpipers in Kandiyohi which were conveniently on the way home. The kids found nothing convenient about it– the resulting groan from the announcement of another birding stop was deafening. They have learned that there is no such thing as a quick stop when it comes to birds. But stop we did.  Joel Schmidt had gotten there ahead of me and hadn’t yet located the Buff-breasteds but had located a dashing Black-bellied Plover in full breeding plumage! This felt like a lifer in its own right since I had never seen one so properly dressed before.  Too bad it was so far away for decent photos.

Black-bellied PloverEventually Joel and I found the Buff-breasteds and eventually I did get those kids home.  After all, we had a lot of things to do at home, like get ready for out-of-state birding trip to grab some lifers and do some other fun things. That story is coming next.

The Tanager Trifecta

Summer TanagerOne of the most popular birds in Minnesota this summer has been the Summer Tanager discovered by Wilmer Fernandez at the University of Minnesota’s Landscape Arboretum in Chanhassen.  Summer Tanager is rare-regular in the state, but the fact that this bachelor bird was in the Twin Cities and singing endlessly on territory made it all the rage for the better part of a week.  Not even the Arboretum’s steep per person entry fee could keep birders away, including yours truly.

Summer TanagerIf you’ve been following ABWCH this past spring, you may recall that I already made a Summer Tanager chase to get my lifer.  So why did I go after another if I’m not a county lister? Two reasons: this bird was solid red, unlike that tye-died creature I saw earlier this year, and this bird was singing on territory.  I wanted the full SUTA experience.  That quick migrant sighting didn’t fill the void.  Plus this bird was relatively close to home, and I had the time off.

Summer TanagerA couple of others who had the time off were teaching colleagues Brad Nelson and Theresa Nelson. The mother-son Nelson duo joined me on this little excursion. Our semi-annual birding get-togethers are always productive and fun–the last time the three of us met up was over a Snowy Owl near one of the towns in our district. Just like we had no problem getting that Owl, seeing this Tanager was a piece of cake.  We could hear it singing immediately once we got out of the car at the nut trees section of the Arboretum where it apparently has set up shop for the season.  We spent the better part of an hour following it around as it sang endlessly from its various perches, not even stopping its song while it feasted on insects:

Summer TanagerSummer TanagerIt’s been the year of the Tanager here in MN. To close out this post, here’s a pic of each of the two rare-regular Tanagers and a brand new Scarlet Tanager all seen in state this year.  Sorry for turning the Scarlet into a trash bird on this blog. No, I’m not–they are still an exciting bird and this post celebrates all things Tanager.

Western TanagerSummer Tanager

Scarlet Tanager

A Tern for the Better

Apologies for the overused pun here, but it truly is fitting.  And apologies on further delaying reports from the Tommy D trip in order to cover an outing that happened after his departure, but there has been a tern of events. Apologies again.

I really hate &*%$ Terns.  I am, of course, still licking the wounds from the Gull-billed saga that you just read about, but newer readers may not know about that other horrible, awful, no-good, rotten Least Tern chase to Luverne two years ago.  Not only did we miss the bird by 15 minutes and see Randy get that one minutes before us just like he did with GBTE, but then there was the accompanying camping trip that put Murphy’s Law to the absolute test.  That trip was so miserable, I’m not even going to link to the post on it.  Look it up if you want to cringe.

Anyhow, this past Friday I was still recovering from the hardcore birding trip Tommy and I had last week.  The Gull-billed Tern fiasco actually seemed like a distant memory because of all Tommy and I experienced together (we’ll get to that, I promise). Then as I was contemplating chasing yet another rarity, a Yelow-breasted Chat, something bumped the Chat in the priority queue: a report of an ARCTIC TERN less than two hours from my house in Big Stone County (the bump on MN’s west side).  This was a stunning find by Bob Ekblad who had gone to look for some reported Black-necked Stilts, another casual species in Minnesota.

Despite being burned by two rare Terns in the past, I only hesitated for a moment before throwing the kids in the car and making a run out west.  It looks like things finally terned out for me. The Arctic Tern was right where it was reported, resting on the beach of a small wetland.  Even from this distant photo, you can see just how short the Arctic Tern’s legs are and how gray its breast is.

Arctic TernArctic Tern is casual in Minnesota with most records showing up in Duluth.  I never really expected to add this to my life list because A) I’d have to be in Duluth at the right time and B) I’d have to be standing next to an expert birder who could help me differentiate this species from the Common Tern while it flew in the distance.

So not only was it a thrill to add this unexpected (as in ever) lifer, but there was a driveway to a farm place that put me within 30 feet of the Tern where I could study the field marks for myself up close!  Here I could see the stubbier, all red bill compared to the Common Tern’s longer, black-tipped  bill.  Additionally, I could see the white stripe under the eye and above the gray breast/cheek.

Arctic TernI had thought the Tern was resting on its belly, but I guess its legs are just that short that it only appeared that way.  I was hoping to catch the Tern in flight to see the diagnostic dark trailing edge of the primaries.  I didn’t get to see it fly, but some other birders did see it fly and captured that field mark in photos.  The bird appeared quite lethargic to me, understandable considering the Arctic Tern is famous for its migration from the Antarctic to the Arctic breeding grounds and back each year, a minimum of 24,000 round-trip miles as the crow flies.  And we all know Terns don’t fly like Crows.  Research with tracking this species has shown that they typically put on 44,000 miles a year. This bird was probably quite wore out and chose the most random of stops to rest.

Arctic TernKeeping the Tern company was an American Avocet which is not that rare of bird this far west in Minnesota.  Avocets have almost become something of a trash bird on this blog this year. Who would’ve thought?

American AvocetSince the Black-necked Stilts are a good bird for MN and since they had been relocated while I was on my way to the Tern, I decided to check up on them too.  The Stilts would not even be a state bird, but I won’t pass up a chance to see some easy ones that are nearby.  They are still quite revered here and have not attained the trash nickname of ‘Mud Poodles’ as they have in some other states.

Black-necked StiltThree great birds, two of which were casual species and one of which was a lifer, made for a great day of birding. Terns out I made the right decision to chase when I did. Unfortunately for Randy and Steve, they were not able to relocate either the Arctic Tern or the Black-necked Stilts the next day.

I still hate Terns, just slightly less so than I did before. The urge to swear when talking about them is gone. Also, I hate Chats now too.

Gulli-bill…or Not

How is it that a hobby that can bring so much pleasure one moment bring so much pain the next? One minute we birders are on cloud 9; the next we are singing the blues.  It’s a vicious cycle.  Why do we do this again?  IDK, but here’s the sad/happy story of me chasing a rarity 2.5 times.

The parade of vagrants this spring/summer has been most impressive. One entry in the parade garnered more attention than the others–a state first Gull-billed Tern on Salt Lake which straddles the Minnesota/South Dakota border.  News of the Tern broke out late in the day on June 1. This was practically in the backyard for birding friend, Garrett Wee, and me, so we were on the scene immediately at daybreak on Thursday, June 2.  Garrett and I were no slouches on this search, checking the lake from both the MN and SD sides and even hiking to distant jetties and shorelines on the lake. No luck after looking for nearly two hours.  A Willet and this Sanderling were weak consolation prizes.

SanderlingOn the way out of Salt Lake I ran into Herb Dingman just heading in.  He, of course, was disappointed to hear my report but decided to look anyway.  I told him to call me if it showed before I got too far away. That call didn’t come…until I was 15 minutes from home. Herb had seen it. I couldn’t turn around; I had obligations at home before my parents came to visit.

On Friday, June 3, no one saw the state record bird despite standing vigil from dawn to dusk.

On Saturday, June 4, the Patagonia Picnic Table Effect was in action as the state’s #1 eBirder Peder Svingen was in the Salt Lake area and turned up a casual Lark Bunting.  I decided to chase this state bird. My dad came with me.  On the way, news came in that the Gull-billed Tern had returned! I was elated as I was counting my chickens and Terns and Buntings before they hatched, thinking I would get two cool birds.

Dad and I had a cool find on the way near Lac qui Parle High School–a pair of Marbled Godwits.

Marbled Godwit

When we got to Salt Lake, the report was negative on the Tern. Ugh, not again! But hope was still alive for the Lark Bunting which was 8 miles away. Peder was still at the Bunting spot along with a swarm of others who were trying to relocate the Bunting.  No one was coming up with it.  However, I was informed by Jeff Stephenson that there were Henslow’s Sparrows at this WPA!  I visited with Peder a bit, and when he found out I had never seen a Henslow’s, he walked out in the grass with me to help me get visuals on this skulker that had eluded my life list so far.  It was incredibly nice of him since I caught him just as he was about to make the long trip home to Duluth after getting both the Tern and the Bunting.  Peder and I were successful.  A Henslow’s Sparrow–finally!

Henslow's SparrowHenslow's SparrowHenslow's SparrowThis felt great and made up for the double dip.  Dad and I continued to check Salt Lake for the Tern who did not keep any kind of regular schedule. We were not successful, but we did enjoy some of the native grassland birds, like Bobolink and Dad’s favorite, Western Meadowlark.

BobolinkWestern MeadowlarkWith no luck on the Tern, we decided to try one last time for the Bunting. Nothing. Grasshopper Sparrows are nice, just not LABU nice.

Grasshopper Sparrow

Just as I was pulling away from this area to head home, Randy Frederickson called me up to tell me he and Joel Schmidt had found the Tern a mile north of the Bunting spot on private land!  That was about 7 miles from Salt Lake! Elation again! As Dad and I raced up to the spot, we were about a half mile away when we saw a Tern-like bird fly across the road.  Could it be? Nah, probably just a Ring-billed Gull or Forester’s Tern. I got to the farm site where Randy and Joel had the bird; Randy was on the road waiting for me so I’d know the correct driveway.  I hurried down to Joel who had the scope set up. I excitedly hopped out of the car only to be greeted with, “It just flew.” Oh, the depths of despair in birding! Piecing the timing and the direction of flight together, Randy is convinced that I did, in fact, see the state record Gull-billed Tern fly across the road in front of me.  However, I didn’t get a solid look to confirm the ID, so I’m not counting it.  It just wouldn’t feel legit.

It was time to go home. Two dips for one bird. Ouch. I’ve double-chased before but always rebounded the second time around. Contemplating a third chase for one bird was new territory.

On Sunday, June 5, birders were fanning across the state on their way home from a successful chase for some and a heart-breaking chase for others. These birders were turning up cool things all over.  Luckily, one of those birds was found in my county thanks to Jeff Stephenson and Jerry Pruett.  The Northern Mockingbird is one I have wanted for this county for some time.  Dad also accompanied me on this fast break out of the house before church.  This one felt good even if it was too skittish for photos.

Northern MockingbirdAfter church, the dreaded news came: the Tern had been re-sighted at Salt Lake.  I hemmed and hawed over going back a third time.  This bird had burned me bad.  Finally I gave in.  It is only 1.5 hours away. Dad and I hopped in the car for another chase.  This time I was smart about it, though. ABWCH reader, Tod Eggenberger, had been there all day, left to go home, and turned around once he saw the news. He was 30 miles away.  I asked Tod to keep me in the loop and let me know if this unpredictable, elusive bird were to give people the slip again.  Unfortunately for Tod, he missed it by 5 minutes before the bird vanished again forever.  Fortunately for me, I got the news before I reached the halfway point to Salt Lake.  I decided I would go that far in case there was positive news. There wasn’t. So I turned around at the predetermined spot and cut my losses.  Take that, you stupid Tern!