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!

The Year of the Odd Duck

Summer bird searches still are not yet upon us–a good thing since new species seem to be added on a daily basis to this year’s impressive list of vagrants.  With a house full of company for Marin’s dance recital this weekend, I still managed to sneak away this morning (at 4 AM) with Randy Frederickson to nab the pair of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks that showed up in Le Sueur County.

Black-bellied Whistling-DuckThis was a lifer for me and a state bird for Randy.  Technically Evan and I have seen this duck before–we once spotted a pair in a monkey exhibit at the Phoenix Zoo.  However, the docent told us they had their wings clipped and of course did not “count”. That sighting was good enough for Evan but not me.  I did try for some wild ones last year in Rio Rico, AZ but came up empty.  Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks are mostly found in Texas and limited parts of Arizona and Florida but occasionally stray into the Midwest.  It was a nice treat to see them right here at home.

These birds were quite content to gorge themselves in this mucky drainage right by a cow barn and then fly to a nearby lake to loaf for the day.

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck

Black-bellied Whistling-DuckWhile many of the regular migrants have been AWOL or shown up in pathetic numbers, I don’t recall a better spring for figurative and literal odd ducks.  While I have gotten some nifty additions to my life list this spring, the misses have numerous and sometimes painful.  Nevertheless, I’ll enjoy the gifts I get.  What’s next?

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck

Time for Summer

May is always a busy month in this household with all four of us putting the wraps on another school year all while balancing a host of activities, recitals, etc.  And of course, this is coincidentally the peak of migration. It’s quite ironic that when I have the most free time come June, the birding starts to die down and settle into the rhythms of another nesting season.  Actually, though, I’m looking forward to some key searches in those slow summer months.  I have not been too uptight about migration since there are only a handful of migrants I’m looking for.  Vagrants, on the other hand, throw a monkey wrench into everything.  Let’s just say that it’s been a very birdy weekend for ABWCH and none of it has been by design.  Let’s recap it by day:

Thursday

I found myself home from work with a sick Evan.  Marin was okay, so Evan and I dropped her off at school and then took a detour on the way home.  We stopped by one of the area’s many marshes to take in the sights and sounds of the resident marsh birds that have returned: gliding Forester’s Terns, floating American White Pelicans, singing Red-winged Blackbirds, rattling Marsh Wrens, and caterwauling Yellow-headed Blackbirds.

Yellow-headed Blackbird

Moving on to the shorebird spot, I cruised by and saw…nothing. Just as well, I better get my sick kid home. The kid may not have been 100% but his eyes still worked because as I started to drive away he told me he saw an American Avocet!  Somehow I missed it, which is crazy because it was almost right by the road giving us crushing looks.

American AvocetAmerican AvocetI was hoping for lifer Short-billed Dowitchers, but an Avocet is a nice consolation.  Evan and I enjoyed watching this bird for 15 minutes while it chowed down.

It was a fun moment together as we watched and recalled our excitement over our first-ever Avocet a couple years ago.

Friday

Evan was back to normal and back to school.  He even sang at his school’s songfest which I attended and then promptly slipped away afterward.  I had a solid tip from ABWCH reader, Adam Roesch, on a Snowy Egret his friend Matt found about a half hour from me. So I chased this would-be state bird…and dipped. It was a great Egret spot, so this story may be continued…

Saturday

It seems more and more people are into birding than ever and are scouring all kinds of locales and turning up good birds.  Seeing as how it was a weekend during migration, I honestly approached the day with a “I wonder where I’ll be chasing today” mentality.  I didn’t have to wait long.  News came in of a Summer Tanager from Murray County in southwestern Minnesota.  Summer Tanager is rare regular for MN but has eluded my life list so far. Since it was a very cold day with nothing else to do, the fam decided to join me on this chase that would take about 5 hours round-trip.

We arrived at Janet Timmerman’s rural yard that was an oasis for gobs of migrating birds and one lost Tanager.  Trees were crawling with Warblers and Orioles, and the ground was covered with migrant Sparrows: White-throated, Harris’s, and White-crowned.  Thrushes were also everywhere and distracting me from the task at hand.  One of the dozen+ Swainson’s looked a little off…Gray-cheeked!

Gray-cheeked ThrushMy addition of Gray-cheeked Thrush to my life list has always been tainted with doubt–mostly because I never obtained a photo to back up my sighting. While the kids admired the local Chickens and while I was Thrush sorting, I was still keeping an eye out for the main thing.  It was proving harder than I thought, especially since other birders saw it just a minute before I arrived.  Finally I spotted the tie-died wonder, a first year male.  It wasn’t the coveted bright red adult male, but a cool lifer nonetheless. My camera had difficulty focusing on its mottled plumage.

Summer TanagerSummer Tanager

Summer Tanager

After thanking Janet for sharing her bird, we were on the road for the two-hour, uneventful trip home.  We did stop in Marshall to grab a pizza and walk the dog at a park–Marin was pretty excited to see a wedding party.  I kind of figured it was a boring day for the kids.   Apparently our Kindergartner and soon-to-be 1st-Grader thought otherwise as she penned us a note in the back seat:

Marin note

It was a some nice family time and a successful chase. Life could go back to normal the next day…or could it?

Sunday

I woke up wondering if I would be bringing Marin on another adventure.  Sure enough, my phone rang that morning.  It was Ron Erpelding.  The imagination goes crazy when you see that Ron is trying to get ahold of you.  Ron informed me that he had a Pacific Loon in BREEDING PLUMAGE waaaay down in Rock County, the very southwestern corner of the state.  I had just returned from a long-distance chase that direction the day before, but the pros of another chase were winning decisively over the cons.  Pacific Loon is annual in MN, but mostly on Lake Superior in the cold months. The thought of traveling 2.5 hours to see a bird in breeding plumage on a 2-acre pond in the spring was far superior to the alternative of traveling 3.5 hours to Duluth to see a drab bird on the gargantuan Lake Superior in the winter where a) the Loon could easily disappear or b) appear as a speck on the horizon or c) I could freeze to death.  It was a no-brainer.  Chase on.

The family opted not to return to the southwest with me.  I don’t blame them.  As I headed back down the same highway as I did the day before, I wanted to cry when I passed the turn-off for the Tanager spot. If only I could have combined trips! Nevertheless I eventually reached my destination, an old gravel pit filled with water and one very sexy Loon.

Pacific LoonI was not anticipating such a great distance to the bird.  The distance coupled with heat waves emanating from the soil made photography difficult.  The temptation to trespass was real. But those tiny green specks in the soil are brand new corn plants. I did not want to tick off some farmer.  I did ask a couple of neighboring residents about who owned the land and was bummed to find out the owner didn’t even live around this spot.  So, I did the best I possibly could given the circumstances.

Pacific LoonPacific LoonDespite the distance, this was a thrilling bird to see.  It is a life bird I always imagined getting as a speck on Lake Superior and being nothing more than a check mark on my life list. I had another fun find while seeing the Loon: Janet Timmerman whose yard I was just in the day before. We shared a laugh over the double chase and enjoyed the Loon together for a bit.

After watching the Loon, I popped into neighboring Blue Mounds State Park two miles to the west to try for a reported Northern Mockingbird.  I see Mockingbirds annually in Arizona, but I still needed the rare-regular for my Minnesota list.  The bird had been hanging out by the ranger station at the campground.  It took me a half a minute to find it. Good thing too–I was already pushing it for time in order to be home for kids’ bedtimes.

Northern Mockingbird

Northern Mockingbird

Rock County redeemed itself from that awful, miserable Least Tern chase a couple years ago.  It was a sweet 2-for-1 grab this time.  The good times kept rolling, too, when I spied a rare-for-this-area Swainson’s Hawk fly over the highway halfway home.

Swainson's Hawk

Monday (today)

Before I departed for the Pacific Loon chase on Sunday, I promised Melissa I would stay home on Monday, a scheduled day off work.  This act on my part is almost certainly the reason a Little Blue Heron showed up in Duluth today. Doh! I did, however, sneak out for a bit after the kids went to bed and finally claimed Short-billed Dowitcher for my life list.  Joel had seen some Dowitchers at the shorebird spot in our county but couldn’t ID them.  I was able to see them fly away and hear the soft tu-tu-tu calls, clinching the ID.

Short-billed Dowitcher

What’s next?

With the Dowitcher locked up, I’m waiting around and hoping for one other migrant for an inconsequential add to my county list. But afterward, we’ve got some fun summer searches ahead.  In the meantime, maybe some other fun stuff will show up.

Great Tales of Local Listing

After I dropped the kids off at school Monday, my day off could be spent however–catching up on housework, catching up on real work, or birding. Tough decision–thought no birder ever. What was a tough decision was how I was going to bird. A tantalizing list-serv report came in the middle of the night of a Great-tailed Grackle just 40 miles away.  Though it may be a trash bird in the south, this potential state bird has already been the object of two failed chases but could have the honor of being Minnesota #300 if the third chase was successful. But would it be there the next day?  Would I fail again and own that disgraceful statistic?  I have also been hard-pressed to find a Willet for my life list and with the median migration date fast approaching, I thought it would be prudent to look for such a thing instead of going for the Grackle.  The possibility of exploring and discovering was winning out over the possibility of chasing and being disappointed.

I started the day by heading down to the Bird Island sewage ponds, a known mecca for shorebirds during migration.  Except this day; one Yellowlegs sp.  Looks like I chose wrong. The day was young, though, so I thought I’d check one more spot for shorebirds before joining Evan for lunch at his school. On the way I got a text from Melissa who added Common Loon to our yard list as a bird flew so low and yodeled so unmistakable (to any Minnesotan) and loud that she heard it from inside the house.  This was a pretty exciting addition to the list as there is not water around us for several miles!

I knew my next stop for shorebirds was a long shot for a Willet.  But I had to try. As I walked a fence line on the property, the ground exploded at my feet with rushing wings. Pheasants? Small-bodies, gray birds, no long tails, rusty outer tail feathers…not pheasants–GRAY PARTRIDGES!!!

Gray PartridgeSure, it’s a crummy photo but this was taken on the draw as I stalked the two birds for a second flush.  The thrill of this encounter is tough to put into words. Gray Partridges are  tough, tough birds to find in anywhere in Minnesota.  They are most often seen in the dead of winter at dawn or dusk when they are feeding out in the plowed fields. Their dark bodies are easy to spot against the snow.  But even this is a rare occurrence for the luckiest of birders who happen to be traveling down the right gravel road.  Gray Partridges like short grass areas where the cover is “thin” and small in area, quite the opposite of Pheasants.  They hold tight and can hide among little/no cover. Unless a birder is getting off the beaten path and hiking old fence lines, drainage ditches, and abandoned farm sites, they likely will never see this bird.  I actually have seen this bird before and in Minnesota, but I did so as a Pheasant hunter. A few years before I was a birder, a buddy and I kicked up a covey of about 10 birds and harvested one (it was and still is a legal game bird).  But that was the last time I laid eyes on one.  Since then I have started doubting their existence and begun to think, as some bird bloggers have, that this is a mythical bird. The thought of one in my own county was even more preposterous.  Yet with a new county bird–and an exceptional one at that!–count me among the believers again.

Because I have seen Gray Partridges in Minnesota in the past but could not recall the date, this has been the one species that has caused my MN eBird list and my actual MN list to be out of balance.  This find rectified that; I am still reveling in the synchronization.

I have literally hunted (successfully) Gray Partridges, or Hungarian Partridges, in Montana two decades ago; but no worries, I won’t be chasing these two with a shotgun.  In fact, I’m not even sharing the location with birders because I think these two might be nesting at this site. I will be taking Evan out there in the coming week as he told me he would like to get this lifer.

Speaking of Evan, I dashed into town full of birdrenaline to meet him for lunch. And then I went for dessert up in Swift County:

Great-tailed Grackle

Great-tailed GrackleNew yard bird (the state bird!), new county bird(!!), eBird list harmony, new Minnesota bird, 300th MN bird–all in one day.  Good times!!

An Unadvanced Birder working on a VIB’s Advance Team

Every so often in our quirky, obsessive hobby of birding, someone gets the idea of doing a Big Year in the hopes of becoming a record holder for his or her county, state, or continent. Pursuing such a number is nothing new and most birders succumb to number seeking in one way or another. Maybe I’m a bit biased because of my personal investment, but when Tommy DeBardeleben announced his Owl Big Year, I was genuinely intrigued.  According to Tommy, he must see and photograph all 19 species of Owls that regularly occur in the United States in 2016.  Seeing all the Owls in one’s lifetime is quite the achievement, let alone seeing them all well in a single year. Tommy got off to a good start in Minnesota in January and has continued knocking out Owl species left and right since he got back to Arizona.

Just as surprising as Tommy’s Owl Big Year announcement was his decision to return to Minnesota in June. The TOBY immediately makes Eastern Screech-Owl the number one target for his return to the land o’ lakes.  Not only does he need it for the TOBY, but it would also be a lifer for him.  As Tommy’s host, the pressure is on…again.  Unlike those winter Owls, though, I have only ever seen one ESOW in my life and not by any skill on my part {gulp}.   ESOW is a year-round resident that can be found throughout the state.  That does not translate into them being easy finds.  I’ve made seeing/finding the easternmost Screech species my main goal for 2016.  It is a good goal, a solid goal. It has given some direction to this new year of birding in which I was just drifting along.  It is a goal that requires a great deal of inquiry of wise old Owlers as well as searching on my own–no stone unturned as they say, or more appropriately, no cavity unchecked.

Eastern Screech-OwlThis Eastern Screech-Owl was brought to the public’s attention this past week when  skillful Twin Cities Owler Erik Berg discovered it on a regular cavity check in Minneapolis.  Since then, the bird paparazzi have been encamped underneath this tree.

Will this Owl be around for Tommy? Doubtful.  Still, it had been a long time since I had me an ESOW sighting. I had to go check it out and scope out the lay of the land for the TOBY, just in case. Also, I had never seen ESOW eyes before.

Eastern Screech-OwlSince this Owl was just 5 minutes from my brother’s house, the kids came along and got some solid cousin time.  Jason joined me on this Owl check-up and got some great looks through others’ scopes.

Eastern Screech-OwlAfter going back to Jason’s house, I came back a little later for one last check hoping the Owl would be more in the open.  It was slightly better this time.Eastern Screech-OwlRest up, little buddy, you may have quite the visitor to entertain in a few months.

Eastern Screech-Owl

Say-what? You Saw-what?!

Birding. It never stops throwing surprises at me. After going on those raging birding benders this past month in northern Minnesota, it was time to settle down. Time to get back to the real job, back to responsibility.  And that’s exactly what I set out to do this Wednesday when I woke up ready to get stuff done. My work for the day involved collaborating with some of our district’s elementary teachers. Responsibility was going well. Productivity was happening.  But just as I was packing up to leave, Jeremy (Barred Owl Jeremy) started telling me about a “baby Great Horned Owl” in his friend’s yard.  My mind was slowly processing this information–February, baby Owls…something isn’t adding up here. While I struggled to understand, he held his hands about 8 inches apart and said, “Yeah, it was this big.” Now I was awake and shock was setting in as I realized he was talking about a Northern Saw-whet Owl. And the evidence kept mounting: “It just sits in a pine tree all day right by their window.” I nearly dropped my laptop. A quick Google image search had Jeremy confirm what I suspected. Jeremy then added fuel to the fire that was raging in me when he told me the Owl was in the tree that very morning. Then, nice guy that he is, Jeremy, through a flurry of text messages, arranged for me stop by his friend’s house that very evening after work.

Birders know that Saw-whets are tough, tough birds to get.  They aren’t rare, but hardly anyone finds them because of their size and their ability to remain still in well-concealed perches.  Then, when birders do find them, they often don’t share for fear that numerous birders will come and disturb the Owls on their roosts.  If a generous or green-horned birder does post a location of a Saw-whet on FB, you better screenshot it quick before Admin takes it down.  So, to find one, you either have to put in a lot of time searching, have a serendipitous encounter, or know a guy who knows a guy that owes that guy some kind of an Owl favor.  Nearly 4 years and 400 birds into this hobby, I had yet to be successful in getting a Saw-whet through any of those means.  I had seen 14 of North America’s Owl species, and this was not one of them.  I knew it would happen eventually.  I’ve put in time searching near and far.  I even went to great lengths to track down a roost site that was public knowledge for all of 5 minutes on FB.  But not even three visits to that white-washed tree this winter netted me that bird. Then a couple weeks ago I found out I there was one on a very road I had traveled that very same day in the Sax-Zim Bog.  The Saw-whet saga dragged on. Until this day.

My moment had finally arrived.

On hardly any notice, birding buddy Steve Gardner was ready to roll with me just as soon as I got out of work, picked up kids at school, and dropped Marin off with Melissa. I just assumed Evan wanted to go.  Strangely, and this may haunt him someday, he opted to go along to his sister’s dance practice instead. What the heck? He hates going there, and this was a lifer Owl.  As Steve and I pulled out, Melissa asked Evan if he was sure he knew what he was doing to which he responded, “Mom, I’m 8. I have my whole life to look for that bird!”

Steve and I don’t have our whole lives and much has already slipped by Saw-whetless. Needless to say, we were booking it to get to the location an hour away just before sundown. I don’t think Steve and I were prepared for how cool this Owl was in real life.

Northern Saw-whet OwlThe Saw-whet is not much bigger than a pop can. I don’t think I’ve seen an animal that’s cuter. Jeremy’s friends pinpointed it for us right away.  That was probably a good thing…

Northern Saw-whet Owl

Northern Saw-whet Owl

This tame Owl just sat and watched me and Steve, mostly Steve.

Northern Saw-whet OwlOccasionally it looked at me.

Northern Saw-whet OwlBut it was mostly captivated by Steve.

Northern Saw-whet OwlNorthern Saw-whet OwlWhat was fascinating to me was how sloth-like this Owl was in moving its head.  The movement was almost indiscernible. The fact that we were finally looking at a real Northern Saw-whet Owl combined with a close encounter with a tame bird makes this one of the best Owl experiences I’ve ever had.

Northern Saw-whet OwlAfter taking last looks at the Owl and admiring the massive pile of pellets and all the whitewash from an Owl that has sat in this same spot every day for the winter, Steve and I thanked the homeowners and headed home feeling good…or evil.  Steve called up his twin brother who is also a birder and rubbed in his new lifer.  I went to the liquor store.

This was a long-awaited day.  It felt so good. I honestly thought it was still years away from happening.  A huge thank you to Jeremy for an extraordinary addition to mine and Steve’s life lists!

The Minnesota Ivory Gull, A Sleigh-Assisted Bird

You already know that birders are an odd bunch, but you may not know that they are even more so on New Year’s Day.  This is the day that a brand new year list starts and with it all kinds of eccentric behaviors.  Birders often report to one another what their first bird of the new year is.  Some, like me, squint when looking out the windows in the morning so that first bird might be a bright red Cardinal and NOT the dreaded House Sparrow.  (Mine was a Crow this year–ick).  Some birders go flying out of the gate (and all across the state) to put up a massive total of species on that first day as if to tell all others who aspire to be the top birder, “Don’t even think about it.” I’m not sure where Duluth power-birding couple, Larry and Jan Kraemer, fall on the spectrum, but they were out birding on 1 January.  And they sent shock waves through the entire Midwest birding community with a jaw-dropping confirmation of Scott Wolff’s suspected Ivory Gull.

No, no, this couldn’t be…I had just finished writing a recap post of 2015 where I concluded by saying I wanted to mellow out my birding in 2016.  But on the other hand, HOLY SMOKES I’VE GO TO GET TO DULUTH!! To the uninformed, the Ivory Gull is from the high Arctic, the land of Polar Bears and Santa Claus, and has only been to Minnesota a handful of times.  It looks like Minnesota and Wisconsin Birders have been good this year because Santa dropped off quite a present in Canal Park.

Duluth Ivory GullWillmar, of course, sent its own small delegation of eager birders to the Great Birder Assembly.  Joining me in the pursuit of a shared, epic lifer were Randy Frederickson and Joel Schmidt.  The gathering also gave my yearly and life birder lists a boost.Duluth Canal ParkHere’s what all the fuss is about:

Ivory Gull

What I noticed immediately about this striking, immature bird was the black mottling on the back and wings of this immaculately white bird and how this black/white combo  resembled the plumage of a Snowy Owl or a white-phase Gyrfalcon–all birds from the far north.

Ivory Gull

Ivory Gull

Ivory GullConditions for viewing the IVGU were awful: wave action from Lake Superior had created a thick glaze of ice over every place an observer might stand.  Never have I feared a concussion or wished I owned cleats more.  It was downright dangerous. Even the Ivory walked with trepidation.Ivory GullAt one point a birder next to me didn’t really know how to proceed off the icy knoll on which we stood.  I was getting annoyed with his prolonged hesitation.  Then I felt like a complete jerk when the older fellow asked me if I would take his arm and help him down.  As I gripped his quivering arm, I realized that this could be me in 30 or so years.  It was a reminder of how quickly life moves and why events like this are so important, why we need to experience the phenomenal while we can.  Going with friends, like Randy and Joel, make it even better, especially when celebratory beers are had at a place like Bent Paddle Brewhouse.

Before that celebration, however, there were many other birds to enjoy at Canal Park.  This adult Iceland Gull (center of the pic)  was a lifer for Joel and the first adult I had seen.

Iceland GullHere was an immature bird that is Thayer’s/Iceland intergrade.  The local Larus Jedi call him Stumpy because of his missing tail.

Iceland GullWe did see a couple of adult Thayer’s but no Glaucous Gulls this time.  Since I got the full Gull smorgasbord a month ago, besides the Ivory I was most excited about all the American Black Ducks.  I counted well over a dozen among the 300 Mallards.  They really do stand out and the proximity and sunlight made them especially photogenic on this gorgeous day. This is a duck I just don’t see enough, so this was quite enjoyable.

American Black Duck
American Black DuckAmerican Black DuckWe lingered around Canal Park for a couple hours hoping to find Joel a Great Black-backed Gull lifer, but it just wasn’t in the cards.  What was in the cards was the arrival of the longest ship known to the Great Lakes, the 1014-foot long Paul R. Tregurtha:

Paul R. Tregurtha ship

I have to tell you how much my family has wanted to see a ship, any ship, pass through the canal, under the lift bridge, and into Duluth Harbor. Evan especially has wanted to see such a thing.  How I wish he was along to see this!  He may not care about the Gull now, but this would be a heart breaker for him. We have chased ship arrivals before.  Once we were at the top of the hill in Duluth, saw a ship coming in, and raced down to Canal Park only to find it had already made it through the canal.

You can see in the above photo that the birders were not impressed and still had their vision trained on the Ivory Gull sitting on the breakwall.  Despite seeing more birders than I’ve ever seen before, the birdnerds were quickly outnumbered by hundreds of shipnerds that materialized out of nowhere. It was kind of fun, actually, to trade nerd info with a couple of 60ish ladies.  They told us all about their ship; we told them all about our Gull.  I didn’t get goosebumps like my shipnerd mates when the Paul R. Tregurtha saluted the lift bridge with its loud horn, but I was impressed nonetheless.

Paul R. Tregurtha ship

Nerd worlds collide!

Paul R. Tregurtha ship

IMG_0213An accidental rare species from the Arctic and the largest ship on the Great Lakes coming in to port made for a most exciting outing.  We had one more errand that would put this day completely up and over the top–crossing the Blatnik Bridge to Superior, Wisconsin to pick up a 2016 Gyrfalcon!  In less than a year’s time I have seen three Gyrfalcons, which still is not enough because like Jello, there’s always room for Gyr.  Photos at this distance were practically impossible, but I’m okay with that.

Gyrfalcon

2016 started off with a bang.  I shouldn’t be surprised but I always am by the unexpected things that show up.  That’s what makes this hobby so horribly addicting.  While we wait for the next twist or turn in this new year of birding, a highlight reel of my 2015 will be served up next.

Since the above post was written, two noteworthy developments have happened in the Ivory Gull story.  They are each titled below and are well worth the read, especially the second (WOW).

The Perfect Chase

I had never considered just how perfect of a chase this was until my companion Randy Frederickson posted a thank you to the Duluth area birders on the listserv.  It is not often that the birding guru posts, but when he does it is humorous and eloquent.  Enjoy.

Another wonderful bird found by Duluth area birders, but so much more. Not only a “lifer” for most of us, but how often does a chase end up where you park in a public lot for free, walk 60 yards and get phenomenal looks at your target bird? Throw in a heated visitors
center with clean bathroom facilities and could it get better? Well yes; make sure the report goes out on Friday to give us all a weekend to travel and have the bird frequent the same area long enough that almost no one can miss it. Now place it on the top of a cement wall about eye level and color it in such a way that it stands out amongst its contemporaries. Next, turn up the outside temperature so it runs about 8-10 degrees above the winter average. Heck, let’s do it on the 1st of January so the new year has an avian prelude.  Lastly, have the target bird show up among some of the most generous
(of time and talent), and Laridae literate folks in the upper Midwest and there you have it, the perfect chase hosted by wonderful birding brethren. If there is reincarnation after death, I’m coming back as an Ivory Gull and heading to Duluth for unrivaled recognition and camaraderie (but could someone please tell Peder I prefer Walleye)?

Ivory Gull-Double Trouble

Hundreds of birders have seen the Ivory Gull and many more had been making plans to get to Duluth, even coming from far-off places like Toronto and Tennessee.  Imagine the utter shock, then, when news came out today that the Ivory Gull was a victim of a predation found dead and ripped to shreds under the Blatnik Bridge on the Wisconsin side!  Here is the photographic evidence on Laura Erickson’s blog.  I didn’t feel too sorry for those Wisconsin birders who greatly envied us Minnesotans for such an addition to our state lists.  Still, an unknown and now dead IVGU on their soil on top of a fresh Packers loss to the Vikings? Ouch. I was, however, really bummed out for Gordon and Tommy as I hoped this incredible lifer would be here waiting for them in three weeks time.

A short time after that initial report, the even more unthinkable happened–someone was declaring that there was an Ivory Gull at Canal Park!  This meant one thing and one thing only: TWO Ivory Gulls, both immature birds, had hopped aboard Santa’s sleigh and were in the Duluth area.  Simply incredible. The Duluth News Tribune caught wind of the drama after the death of the first bird and had to change their story as events were unfolding.  In fact, it is their #1 trending story right now.

Great Faces, Great Chases–South Dakota

October 2004.  Some of you will remember that this was when the Red Sox swept the Cardinals and finally ended their long World Series drought.  I remember watching some of those exciting games on a crappy hotel TV in South Dakota when I dragged my wife of just a year-and-a-half along on a pheasant hunt.  “It’ll be fun!” I said.  Boy, was I green.  Long story short, I am still married and I made South Dakota history by being the only hunter ever to get skunked in the land where the state bird outnumbers the people by 100:1.  It’s true; somewhere near the Corn Palace in Mitchell there is a plaque displaying this bit of trivia.

Fast forward to 2015, and the pull to go back to South Dakota was once again strong.  Only this time the bird was not the Ring-necked Pheasant, and was instead the Lower Rio Grande Valley native, Great Kiskadee.  From deep south Texas, a Kiskadee made history in the five-state area (MN,WI,ND,SD,IA) by making an appearance at a rural residence in the Brookings area.  Apparently the bird, which shares time between two neighboring residences, showed up SEVERAL months ago and was only recently brought to the public’s attention when one of the homeowners eBirded it two weekends ago.  Interestingly, this report came out DURING the annual South Dakota Ornithologists’ Union’s annual meeting in Brookings just 20 minutes away.  Needless to say, the meeting immediately adjourned for a quick field trip to verify the bird’s identification.  The conclusion was that yes, this was for real.  Since then, droves have been making their way to see the Great South Dakota Kiskadee.

I was one of those itching to cross the border.  I made plans to go on Saturday, November 21st.  Melissa was gone to a conference so the kids would be accompanying me.  Since I had been talking it up all week before we left, the kids were actually really excited about going on this bird chase.  I don’t know if it was the prospect of going to another state or that they’d be able to watch Star Wars movies (a recent indoctrination at our house) or if they wanted to actually see this cool bird, but they were making their own preparations for the 3-hour one-way trip, getting most everything packed and ready themselves.  I wish I wouldn’t have been so engrossed in trying to track down the latest sighting information so that I could have paid more attention to their conversations as they gathered belongings, packed bags, and readied the snacks.

checklist

Evan was with me on the partially-botched Vermilion Flycatcher chase, so he added an extra checklist item just for my benefit.

When the day came, the kids and I made the long trip to SD.  Seeing that the temperature was only 18º, I was nervous that the tropical bird would have wised up and got out of town.  Once we got there, I was amazed that we were the only birders.  Even more amazing was that despite a two-hour effort, we got skunked.  History had repeated its ugly self.  Two birders showed up just as we left, so I gave them my phone number in case the Kiskadee showed up just after we got down the road.  No phone call.  In fact, those birders put in two hours and came up empty too. Imagine the great frustration, then, when later that evening the homeowner reported that the Kiskadee showed up just after we all had given up!  Yoda could feel my great pain.

I agonized over going back the next day.  I decided not to, figuring some day I’d bird in the Lower Rio Grande Valley and get this bird easily.  So Thanksgiving week happened along with all kinds of birding excitement of its own–stay tuned, and that Kiskadee kept up his daily appearances.  Stupid Facebook.  Videos and pictures and reports of that bird kept taunting me.  So this weekend, Evan and I went back.

We didn’t even get out of the home county before things started to look different.   Getting a FOY Merlin, a female Richardson’s “prairie” subspecies to be exact, at the very end of November got the birding juices pumping early.

Merlin

Then, just outside of Brookings, a rooster pheasant alongside the road was another good sign.  We did not even see a single pheasant on the last SD run.  Telling.  The good vibes were quickly iced, however, once we got on site and were off to an eerily-familiar start with at least a half hour of not seeing the Kiskadee.  Hopes were lifted when I visited with the homeowner at the north residence who told me he saw it that morning.  He asked for my number and said he’d keep watch at his place if I wanted to go wait at the south residence. As you can see, I got that phone call and redeemed my fruitless trips to South Dakota.

Great KiskadeeGreat KiskadeeIt turns out that Great Kiskadees are quite crushable, especially when they are chilly and don’t move for over 20 minutes.  Either that or the diet of heavy suet and cat food has made this individual lethargic.

Great KiskadeeGreat KiskadeeWhat a month it’s been with Arizona birds and Texas birds popping up in the north.  I know I owe you some more AZ coverage in the next post, but first we’re going to have to take a look at my last ever triple lifer day in Minnesota.  Buckle up, Larus fans.

Arizona? Minnesota? What state is this anyway?

I’ll tell you what state it is–it’s the state of chaos; it’s the state of shock and awe.  Minnesota is simultaneously being invaded by both Snowy Owls and not one, not two, but three Vermilion Flycatchers this week.  Incredibly there hasn’t been such a sighting in 21 years and two of this year’s birds have shown up at the same location.  Moreover, other good vagrants and migrants keep popping up all over the state, sending birders’ heads spinning, not knowing which direction to travel.  I was in such a predicament this weekend–frozen with indecision.

I finally opted for the two reliable Vermilion Flycatchers in Becker County.  It would make a dandy addition to my state list whereas all the other good birds popping up were ones I already had locked down for that category.  I asked Evan if he wanted to go along, and I was delightfully surprised when he said he wanted to go on this adventure.  So this morning we left the house at 4 AM to go north of Detroit Lakes to see those Vermilions at first light. Which we did.  Promptly seeing our MN VEFL upon arrival, I raised the camera, looked through the viewfinder, and read the message “No Memory Card”!  Are you kidding?  It finally happened that I’d go on a rarity chase and forget something so crucial. It didn’t bother me tooooo much because I have lots of photos of striking VEFL males from Arizona already.  But still, it hurts a bit.  Thankfully, birding friend John Richardson pinch hit for me and let me use a couple of his shots for the blog.  And if you’re going to have a pinch-hitter, who better than a slugger like rarity-magnet John, a.k.a. Mr. Brambling, a.k.a. Mr. Black-headed Grosbeak, a.k.a, a.k.a.

Becker County Vermilion Flycatcher #1; Photo by John Richardson

Becker County Vermilion Flycatcher #1; I believe this is the individual we saw; Photo by John Richardson

Becker County Vermilion Flycatcher #2; Photo by John Richardson

Becker County Vermilion Flycatcher #2; Photo by John Richardson

Pretty neat stuff, right? Not only were these some great birds, but the homeowners were top-notch people, very friendly and welcoming.  Evan thoroughly enjoyed their dog, and they thoroughly enjoyed that a youngster had come out to witness a cool phenomenon in nature.  They were even kind enough to tell me where the nearest Wal-Mart was so I could pick up a memory card because…..we were off next to look for reported adult male Long-tailed Duck in winter plumage!  Though the Vermilion was a state bird for me and the LT Duck was not, I was more excited about seeing this duck in this plumage.  There was no way I was going unprepared for this one.

Once we finally made it to the slough south of Stakke Lake in Becker County after spending a ridiculous amount of time in that Wal-Mart, it took a little bit of searching before I found it.  Our views were distant, but I was able to get Evan some looks on the LCD.  His response was something along the lines of “Whoa, cool!” Indeed. It seemed so odd to see an ocean duck sitting on a slough and hugging the shoreline, or in this case, sitting on it.

Long-tailed DuckSuch a striking bird. Check out this chest!

Long-tailed DuckLong-tailed DuckEven though it was far away, it was still such a treat to watch this handsome duck.  Our lifer a couple a years ago was an immature-type bird that did not live up to its name.

Long-tailed DuckLong-tailed DuckAfter that fun, Evan and I hit the road for the 3-hour trip home.  Our second Northern Shrike of the fall was a nice bonus on our drive.  Despite the memory card snafu, it was a memorable trip with Evan where we got to see some really fantastic birds for Minnesota.

We’ll get back to the Arizona stuff, I promise, but don’t be surprised if there’s another interruption or two!