The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

No matter how many times I bird northern Minnesota, I don’t think I will ever tire of its landscape or its avian inhabitants.  It is home.  And it is a place birders from all over the country and even the world want to go, often repeatedly.  For me, it holds the same allure as a place like southeastern Arizona.  Despite how many times you may see the resident species, they never fail to bring the wow factor, even after years of birding bring about new birding destinations and additions to the life list.

Our annual tradition is to go home to the Iron Range the day after Christmas to visit Melissa’s family.  The timing of our visit allows me to participate in the Cook area Christmas Bird Count.  This is the CBC I look forward to the most.  Even though species counts are usually low, it’s the quality that trumps the quantity.

Cook CBC

Local birder Julie Grahn always keeps me apprised of good sightings when we go back home.  This time was no different as she had not one, but three Northern Hawk Owls hanging out in the Cook area.  I was ecstatic.  Despite all the owls I have seen over the years, I have never observed any of the northern owls anywhere close to home.  And I have always wanted to.  So the day before the CBC, I went about searching to finally enjoy one of these awesome owls in an area I enjoy the most.  Hawk Owls are usually not hard to spot, but I was only able to find one of Julie’s owls.  It was good enough.  Actually, it was perfect.

Northern Hawk OwlHanging out with a Hawk Owl by yourself is more enjoyable than being part of the owl paparazzi at the Sax-Zim Bog.  This particular owl was first sitting on top of a power pole with his back toward me.  Of course owls move their heads in all directions, but I was absolutely shocked when it took off flying in the direction it had its back to and nabbed a vole nearly a quarter mile away.  The owl then came back and worked on enjoying his meal in the privacy of various spruce trees.

For the CBC the next day, I recruited Evan to help me record bird tallies and spot birds.  Evan has not been into birds for a very long time.  That’s dad’s thing.  I’ve been cool with that. This recruitment was not about me trying to turn him into a birder again; it was about spending time together and also doing something Evan enjoys immensely–grouse hunting.  He agreed to do the CBC because there might be a chance to get a Ruffed Grouse as I regularly see them whenever I bird the Northland.  Evan was excited. I was excited.  After all, I’ve seen some pretty darn good incidental birds while taking him out hunting this fall.  In October there was an incredible encounter with a juvenile Northern Goshawk while we were grouse hunting on his Great Grandma’s property:

Northern Goshawk Northern GoshawkThis Goshawk was seen multiple times because it was carefully guarding and working on a Snowshoe Hare meal along a trail that we walked several times in search of Grouse. Northern Goshawk Northern Goshawk

And about a month ago, I took Evan pheasant hunting on a WMA near Willmar and came face-to-face with a Long-eared Owl while trying to push pheasants out of a small spruce grove.

Long-eared OwlIn these instances, birding was secondary and turned out to be phenomenal.  Now on the CBC, the hunting was secondary.  Would the birding be just as good?

Things started off fairly mundane on our CBC route: the usual American Crows and ubiquitous Common Ravens.  Of course, for me, any bird is exciting on a CBC.  Each bird counts and gives you something to tally as an observer.  The hope for a good species count or unusual count numbers (high or low) or a rare species keeps the interest high at all times. But for Evan, who was hoping for a Ruffed Grouse to shoot, it was starting off kind of boring, though he dutifully tallied whatever I dictated to him.  Things picked up a bit when I spied a Black-billed Magpie, a very good bird for the count.  Evan seemed interested that we had found a “good” bird.  And then I spotted a Red Fox bedded down in a field.  Evan enjoyed checking him out with my binoculars.

Red FoxShortly after this, we were approaching a Northern Hawk Owl territory, and I was on high alert scanning everywhere.  This would be a key bird for the count, and I really wanted to get it bad.  This resulted in me spotting a bird high in a birch tree that I first thought was our target.  But it wasn’t.  I was just as thrilled, though, because it was a Ruffed
Grouse–I knew Evan would be pumped.  Sure enough, new life came to the almost teenager as he frantically transitioned from his pencil and clipboard to getting his gun ready.  Despite Evan’s best attempt at being stealthy like the fox, the grouse flew away unscathed without a shot fired.  A letdown for sure, but now Evan at least knew his dad wasn’t crazy when he said there would probably be a chance to shoot at a grouse.

We set about working our route, and at one point, we were near one of my favorite black spruce bogs to bird.  Some of this bog is in the circle and some is out of it.  Just for fun I decided to check one of my hotpsots for rare woodpeckers just a couple hundred yards outside of the circle. I played a Black-backed Woodpecker recording and instantly heard one vocalize just off the road. I went into the bog after it and saw that gorgeous jet black back of a female Black-backed Woodpecker.

Black-backed WoodpeckerAs I watched her, I was surprised when a male Black-backed scooted down the tree, interacted with her, and buzzed off.  Where had he come from?  The male wasn’t as photogenic but still gave some great looks.

Black-backed WoodpeckerEvan had declined my offer to join me in the swamp to see these rare woodpeckers even though I knew he hadn’t seen them before.  He opted to stay in the car; non-Grouse birds were still not exciting to him.  He should have joined me because there was so much woodpecker activity (these two plus a Hairy), that I was stomping around in the bog for quite some time investigating every bit of tapping.  And then, I heard yet another woodpecker drumming in a cadence that was perfect for a woodpecker even more rare than the Black-backed. It was an American Three-toed Woodpecker!  I played a recording, and it instantly flew in, allowing me to visually confirm what I had heard. This species is rare enough in Minnesota that it is flagged in eBird and requires documentation. Thankfully I was able to get a few identifiable photos.

American Three-toed WoodpeckerOnce again I asked Evan if he now wanted to check out two rare woodpecker species, but he declined.  He’s never seen either. There was so much activity that it was hard to keep straight, and our quick stop to check for woodpeckers was now going on a half hour.  Even still, Evan preferred the car over the excitement around us. This particular spot has often held these two elusive boreal woodpecker species.  In fact, two years ago almost to the day, I had the same encounter in this same spot: two Black-backeds and a single Three-toed.

As exciting as the Woodpeckers were, I had a bored kid in the car and an unfinished CBC route.  So we got back to it. The way the CBC circle falls, we only had to go a half mile before we were back in the circle again but still in the same spruce bog.  This bog has held Boreal Chickadees in the past, so I decided to stop and try the secret weapon: playing the recording of chickadees mobbing a singing Eastern Screech-Owl.  It never fails to attract a swarm of angry Black-capped Chickadees, looking to bring war to a fake owl.  Often times this tremendous commotion can bring in other onlooker birds, ready to join the angry mob with their pitchforks.  Sometimes this even attracts rare birds.  And this time it did. Two of the chickadees sounded different than the others and proved to be the much rarer Boreal Chickadee.  This was a solid find for the count.

Boreal Chickadee Boreal ChickadeeI asked Evan if he wanted to get a good look at the coolest chickadee species there is, but he again declined.  I was pumped regardless.  It’s always fun to see these birds, even more so when they count for a CBC.  A bonus was that as I was observing them, another Black-backed Woodpecker flew into the bog nearby and vocalized!  Another great count bird!

We got back to doing our route.  Evan was hoping for grouse redemption; I was hoping for something, anything, that would be interesting.  My hope came true first.  Going down a road, we saw a half dozen Ravens scatter from the road.  They must have been on a kill.  Evan said, “Looks like six ravens and one magpie.”

“There was no magpie there,” I responded.

“Well, look in that tree right there by the road.  There’s something special in it.”  So I looked with the binos and caught sight of a Black-billed Magpie flying out of that tree!  The kid was right, and I had missed it.  I think he felt a surge of pride and was starting to get into this count thing.

A few miles later as we drove down a different road with the windows cracked, I heard some chickadees. So I decided to play the mobbing recording again.  It paid off with a pile of Black-capped Chickadees, a few Red-breasted Nuthatches, and two more Boreal Chickadees!

Boreal Chickadee

Boreal ChickadeeEvan still didn’t share my same level of enthusiasm, but we both shared enthusiasm for the CBC potluck right after finishing our route.  The potluck is just as exciting for the nourishment as it is for catching up with other birders and comparing notes on how everybody did.  Additionally, it was a reunion of sorts for me as I was among a group of over a dozen people that included several parents of kids I graduated with over 20 years ago.  So after food was in our bellies and sufficient small talk was made with people from a past life, it was time to go through everybody’s results.  Julie Grahn, who is the compiler for the count, did this by calling out a species and then have everyone go around the table giving their numbers for that species.  Evan surprised me when he whispered, “Dad, I want to be the one to say the numbers.”  Maybe he was finding some interest in this CBC thing after all, even if he didn’t get a grouse from it.  Not surprisingly, Evan and I were the only ones to produce Boreal Chickadees.  Surprisingly, our Black-backed Woodpecker was one of four that day. Evan and I also produced half of the total Magpies as well as the only Northern Shrike.

After we bid goodbye to our CBC friends until next year, I decided to run Evan out to the two Hawk Owl spots.  Even before we reached the first territory, he was questioning why we were doing this when we’ve seen Hawk Owls before.  I tried to explain that they are just that cool and are always worth seeing, especially when they are close.  I don’t think he was buying it, though.  The first Hawk Owl was right where it was supposed to be.  Evan, who had never used binoculars in his early birding days, picked up my pair and looked at the owl.  Evan had never seen an owl through quality optics before, and clearly he was impressed. “Whoa! He’s creepy. He has yellow eyes! He’s staring at me!”   I chuckled as the little birdwatching kid from the past was back, for however a brief a moment.

We moved on the second Northern Hawk Owl which set up territory right at the edge of the count circle.  When we got there, it was on a high pole just outside the circle.  This time I set up my scope and zoomed all the way in on this owl for Evan to get a really good look.   “Wow! It’s like he’s looking into my soul!”


As we watched, the owl did us a huge favor and flew down into the count circle! We thought we saw it go to the ground and guessed that it had gotten a vole.  Sure enough, he popped up and landed in the trees right near us with a vole in its talons.

Northern Hawk Owl

Evan and I were in the car by this point, and the owl kept flying all around us, landing at various perches, and working on downing his meal.  “This is incredible.  This is absolutely amazing.  This is the coolest thing I have ever seen!”  Evan was in genuine awe.  I hadn’t seen him that excited since we saw the Boreal Owl two years ago.  I got just as much a kick out of watching Evan’s reaction as I did watching the Hawk Owl.  I think Evan was starting to understand that Hawk Owls are never ever not cool.  What other owl not only doesn’t care about you but also gives you the death stare from 20 feet above your car?

Northern Hawk OwlAfter we texted Julie to let her know that two Hawk Owls were securely in the circle for count day, we headed back toward Grandma and Grandpa’s.  I was sure to take a route that would run us through some habitat where I have had good luck seeing Ruffed Grouse over the years at this late hour in the day.  When there is so much snow on the ground, the grouse will eat the catkins of birch trees near dusk.  As we drove along, we were able to spot two grouse doing just that, and Evan was able to harvest them. And to cap an already great day, I heard and saw our 5th Boreal Chickadee of the day.

The next day we were supposed to head back to Willmar, but a huge snowstorm had covered almost the entire state. Traveling would have been treacherous, so we extended our stay one day.  The snow was so bad, that when I attempted to go out birding in the middle of the day, I had to turn back because of unplowed roads.  The 15-minute foray was not unproductive as it produced three Black-billed Magpies doing their best Bigfoot impressions.

Black-billed MagpieThe weather calmed down enough later in the afternoon, and the plows had cleared the roads.  So I made another attempt at birding.  I really wanted to spend some time in the solitude of the spruce bog, tracking down woodpeckers again.  Well, it was a complete 180 from yesterday–absolutely nothing was around.  So I began to drive home but always with a watchful and hopeful eye for anything cool.  I have longed to see Great Gray Owls on this particular road and have been trying for about 6 years now.  I did not see any of the Great Grays, but three moving clumps in the top of a birch tree got the birding juices flowing again.  Ruffed Grouse! I looked at the clock and realized that I probably had enough time to go pick up Evan and bring him back to this spot.  With an hour until sunset, I figured those birds would be there for a good long while.  So I phoned ahead to the house so he would be ready for me to pick him up and make a quick return.  Then I marked the tree on Google Maps so I could get right to it again.  Within 20 minutes, I had gotten Evan and we were back at the spot except…the grouse were gone.  We were both wondering if I was off a bit in my marking, so we continued to scan treetops.  Finally I decided to turn around and go looking in the other direction.  To turn around, I had to perform a 3-point turn on the narrow gravel road, a move I have perfected over all these years of birding.  As I had the car crossways on the gravel road, Evan shouts out, “Dad! An owl!”  My mind was reeling.  Was it the Great Gray I had been after for so long? Where was it?? I couldn’t find what Evan was seeing. “Dad, it’s right there!” Finally, I caught sight of the owl just 20 feet away perched 6 feet high.  It was a beautiful Barred Owl. And it didn’t care that through serendipity we had invaded the exact spot it was hunting.

Barred OwlIt was truly magical in this winter wonderland.  Had we not turned around in that exact spot and had Evan not had watchful eyes, we easily would have missed this owl.  Can you see why?

Barred OwlThe owl allowed us to complete our 3-point turn and gawk some more.  Evan effused more words of awe at this majestic creature that just stared back at us. The little boy who used to get excited about birds was back.  It was an incredible moment to share together.  We both seemed to have forgotten about grouse completely.  It was just a spectacular display of nature–vibrant life that had materialized out of the deep, dark bog.

Barred OwlWe finally peeled ourselves away from the Barred Owl.  Like the owl, we had hunting to do.  In that respect we were quite successful.  We ended up seeing a total of six more Ruffed Grouse, and Evan was able to take two.  As we drove and scanned for grouse, I was struck by how things had come full circle. Almost 30 years ago, I was the one sitting in the passenger seat hoping there would be a grouse to shoot, while being driven around by my dad who didn’t really care if he shot a grouse or not.  And in that same vein, maybe someday Evan will return to a greater interest in watching the birds more than hunting.  Regardless, we made some great memories together in the northwoods.

Sax-Zimmin’ with Dad and Grousin’ with Evan

IMG_0920Last week we enjoyed an extra-long weekend due to fall break, so we made the 265-mile trek home to northern Minnesota to visit our families and enjoy the beautiful northwoods. Going up north is always a delight, but doing so in the fall is special treat.  The stunning colors, the perfect temps, and the sweet smell of decaying Aspen leaves all remind us of this great land in which my wife and I grew up.  Let’s not forget the birds, though.  Northern Minnesota has its own species of interest that are not found in most of the state or the country for that matter. To that end, I had been coveting some recent pictures in my Facebook feed of Great Gray Owls in Tamarack trees in the Sax-Zim Bog.  The Bog is only 45 minutes south of my parents’ place, so I usually try to hit it up each time I go home.

Since Great Grays are crepuscular, the best times to see them are in the hour of first light and the hour of last light. We arrived at Mom and Dad’s in the early afternoon, but after a couple hours of visiting, Dad and I were headed south to try to find a Great Gray before dark. I never get tired of seeing this owl and the possibility of seeing them in the golden yellow Tamaracks was very appealing.  Tamaracks are a conifer found in boggy land, and their needles are green in the summer, turn gold in the fall, and then drop like the leaves of deciduous trees.  They are as fascinating as they are beautiful, especially when their fallen needles transform gravel roads to streets of gold.

Dad and I trolled up and down McDavitt Road several times at 5 MPH, scanning every snag and every possible perch for the Great Gray Ghost. This was the road where they’d been seen within the last week, so it was where we concentrated our search.  I was hoping to see an owl, get my desired shots, and then take some scenery shots to show off the yellow landscape of the Tamaracks interspersed with the vivid green of the Black Spruce. But, every possible second of remaining daylight was given to the search, and we were coming up empty.  I did stop to take a picture of a porcupine snoozing in a Tamarack.  Whether he’s lazy or relaxed, I just couldn’t resist the photo-op.



I’m afraid the porcupine was the only interesting thing we’d see in the Bog.  There were hardly any birds around, let alone any interesting species.  The next morning I continued my owl hunt closer to home as they have been found within 5 miles of my folks’.  I have yet to see one so close, but I’m determined! That determination will have to carry me forward because my luck was no different on this outing.  The birding was better than in the Sax-Zim Bog, though, as I found some Gray Jays and a couple of Ruffed Grouse.  The skittish grouse bolted when I popped up through the sunroof for a picture.

Speaking of grouse, my previous fall breaks in the northwoods used to be consumed with me pursuing Ruffed Grouse with a shotgun.  On the surface it may seem a bit of a contradiction that I’m a birder who hunts.  However, it is that interest in nature and wildlife that comes with hunting that helped propel me into this obsessive birding habit. Though I still hunt on a limited basis (just Ruffed Grouse and Ring-necked Pheasants), it is is not as interesting to me as birding, where I can experience the thrill of the hunt and the beauty of nature without the restrictions of seasons, state lines, and bag limits.  The thrill of locking eyes with a Great Gray is much more appealing. Maybe I’m just growing up.  When I saw the two grouse I wasn’t even interested in grabbing my gun out of the back of the car.

Despite my shift into birding, I still have a young boy and old dog who very much would like to chase some game.  So one morning I took Evan and my Yellow-Lab, Faith, on a short walk on my parents’ 80 acres.  Faith led the way with a vigor that belied her age (she lives for this), and Evan was several paces behind me.  We were hunting on trails in an area with young Aspens (about 10-15 years old).  It is perfect habitat that produces grouse every year.  This year was no exception as all of us, dog included, were startled by the pounding wings of our first grouse.  Though it was close, none of us saw it because of how thick the woods were.  That’s how it often goes.  We soldiered on and hiked on a trail carpeted in clover, a favorite food of the Ruffed Grouse.  The surrounding woods here were young Aspen trees 4-5 feet high growing up and around the stumps and logs of the mature Aspen stand the was here just a couple years ago.  Going off trail would be an impossible task.  Anyhow, when I paused at a bend along the trail, there was an explosion of wings to my left from the thick young trees and tangle of downed logs. Two grouse rocketed out.  I could only see one and only for a split second because of the surrounding trees and brush.  I fired a couple of times but missed.  It didn’t bug me.  As Faith was now investigating the scent of these birds (she was a little late) and I was contemplating the miss, a third grouse got up from the same spot!  Again, I only saw it briefly and fired the last shell I had in my gun.  No luck.  Ruffed Grouse are probably the most difficult game bird to hit on the fly because they live in the woods where your chances of hitting them are not as good as hitting the branches and trees they fly through.  To emphasize this point, a couple of colleagues recently returned from a grouse-hunting trip, and they had 55 flushes but only 3 kills.  I was not sad over the misses.  Evan got to see some grouse flush and watch me shoot.  He was happy.  Faith was doing what she was made for.  She was happy.  I didn’t have any birds to clean and eat.  I was happy.  Plus it was really special to see three grouse together; they are normally found as singles.

My birding pursuits continued Up North.  Dad and I made a dawn raid on the Sax-Zim Bog one of the mornings, arriving there just as you could make out the silhouettes of the trees. The best we could muster were some Gray Jays in low light.  All was well – birding the Bog with Dad is a great excuse to visit and drink some coffee.  Seeing owls is just a bonus.

Gray Jay

Gray Jays and Ruffed Grouse are some nice northern Minnesota birds, but I had a great find while I was out driving on my own one afternoon.  I had seen a couple of birds fly and thought they were ducks.  The habitat wasn’t right though since there wasn’t any water around.  I drove that way and was startled to see Black-billed Magpies!! I found four in all, and one even came out to the road to pick at something.

Black-billed MagpieI remember when I first got into birding and being shocked that this cool bird could be found in Minnesota since I had never seen one in my life up to that point.  They are known to frequent the Sax-Zim Bog. In fact, the Bog is the furthest location to the east where this species breeds.  I have seen them in the Bog and in northwestern Minnesota, but I was astounded to find them so close to where I grew up.  It was hands-down the best find of the trip.

I had better bog-birding outside of Sax-Zim on this trip.  Perhaps the only thing the Bog has on the birding scene around my parents’ place is the number of birders scouring it. Given the recent finds though, I might have to keep up the lone-rangering.  When I finally find a Great Gray on my parents’ road, it will be all the more sweeter because it’s close to home far from where birders trod.  The hunt will resume at Thanksgiving, and I can’t wait.

Turkey? Turkey!

After getting skunked on turkeys on both Monday and Thursday, Friday was the final day of my season and my last shot at getting my first turkey.  I was excited.  I had heard gobbling the day before, and the promised temperature of 70° would probably mean the turkeys would be getting into their spring routine of cruising around looking for ladies.  On this day I was hunting out of a deer stand.  It was a comfortable, enclosed stand that had 8 in. high rectangular windows on each of its four walls.  I could see all around me and got to watch all kinds of neat things: a crowing rooster pheasant beating his chest with his wings, two curious raccoons, three deer all within 10 yards, and even some hen turkeys leave their roost and land on the woodland floor beneath me.

One thing I loved about this location was to watch the Mallards and Wood Ducks flying back and forth between the ponds on my friend’s property.  I almost wished I were duck hunting instead of turkey hunting.  I watched one particular pair of Wood Ducks flying toward my general area.  Then I was astonished to watch them land on a tree branch about 20 feet away!  I forgot all about turkey hunting.  I grabbed the camera and jockeyed around that deer stand to try to get good shots through the branches out those small windows.  Here are some of the images I captured.  The hen gave me much more clear shots, so there are more of her than the drake.






This hen kept calling with this low call which is pictured below.  I finally figured out what they were up to – they were checking out possible nesting sites in the trees.  I watched the hen peek into cavities in trees looking for just the right spot. It was so cool to watch them look for an old-school nesting sight.  Many Wood Ducks use the nesting boxes that people put out for them, which have been largely responsible for the resurgence of the Wood Duck in the last century.

IMG_3004I wish I would have got the picture of the hen peering into the hole below.  It was clear that she was in charge of the decision and that he was just along to say, “Yes, dear.”  She decided the hole below wasn’t suitable because they quickly moved to a new branch.

IMG_3010That next branch was merely 6 ft away from me.  I was excited because of the proximity and unobstructed views of these handsome ducks.

IMG_3005I was setting up to take more pictures when I heard the hen make her call that said, “Come on, hubby, it’s time to go.”  Well, she was looking straight at me when she was making the call.  I pressed down the shutter button just as she launched off the branch straight at my head!  I – pardon the pun – ducked (and maybe swore).  At just the last second she saw me and pulled up, landing on the roof of the deer stand.


Whoa!  I think both our hearts were beating a little quicker.  Hubby was still on the branch, so I snapped a couple more of him before the two flew off.

IMG_3008 IMG_3007

It was the coolest duck experience I’ve ever had.  The Wood Duck is one of my favorite birds of all time, so this was a special occurrence for me.  My hunt was made.  I didn’t even need to get a turkey to be satisfied.

I did continue to wait for a turkey, but nothing was happening today.  My friend whose land I was on told me to try another deer stand on another property of his.  So I did, but I didn’t have any luck.  I wasn’t too worried because my day had already been made but also because I had a back-up plan.  It turns out that Melissa’s co-worker has several turkeys invading his yard almost daily.  He and his neighbor gave me permission to hunt in their somewhat suburban setting in the countryside.  So I went out to this new location around noon.


I set up a turkey blind on the wooded edge of their property that borders a field.  Do you see it above? I put out a hen decoy and a tom decoy.  Normally you just need a hen decoy because the call you make resembles that of a lonely hen and will draw in a tom.  Since the toms weren’t responding to calls or decoys, my friend suggested putting out a tom decoy as well to try to arouse the jealousy of a tom.

After I put out the decoys and got back into the blind, I used the turkey call and waited.  Fifteen minutes later, I stuck my hands out of the blind with the turkey call and did it again.  Immediately I was answered with the other-worldly sound of a gobbling turkey that was close.  He was off to my right along the wooded edge.  I hadn’t looked there before I stuck my hands out of the blind.  Did I blow it by exposing myself?  I kept calling, and he kept answering.  It started to walk closer and closer.  I could tell it was a jake – a one-year-old male turkey.  He probably thought this was his opportunity to get an easy lady friend.  Toms will push jakes away.  He wasn’t fanned out or puffed up.  He was very leery.  I wanted him to come just a little bit closer, but he eventually turned around and left.

Maybe that was my chance.  I regretted putting the tom decoy out.  I bet that intimidated him from coming to the hen decoy.  I decided to go out and grab it so that wouldn’t happen again.  I stepped out of the blind and saw the jake still on the wooded edge!  I dove back in.  After quite awhile he eventually came back, but he still wasn’t coming close enough.  He disappeared again for a long time.  This time I went out and removed the tom decoy.

I was frustrated that I hadn’t taken the shot when I had it.  Over an hour went by.  Repairmen at the house behind me were coming and going, visiting with the homeowner.  This jake was gone for sure.  There was no way he was sticking around with all that racket.  I’d have to hope for a different, unsuspecting turkey.  After another hour or so, this turkey again decided to come check out that irresistible hen decoy.  And this time he came close.  I took the shot.





From the Vault: Ruffed Grouse and the Team – 2009

After last week’s blog interview with my dad and his official work with several species of grouse, I remembered having shot some footage in 2009 of Ruffed Grouse males on display. Melissa did a great job editing this footage many years ago into the 3-minute clip below. I think you’ll find the bird behavior fascinating.

I think you might also find the human aspect of this fascinating too, especially if you’ve been reading the blog. The setting of this video is my wife’s parents’ house in northern Minnesota in late April or early May. We, along with my parents, were there to celebrate our niece Mya’s 2nd birthday. I want you to watch/listen for two things: 1) About halfway through you will hear Evan’s tiny 2-year-old voice ask, “Is dat Mourning Dove?” and 2) You will see a shot of Grandpa Rick holding Evan on his lap as we are watching Ruffed Grouse out the window – a wonderful shot that foretells our adventures today as the Team.

Can anyone identify the bird that makes a loud chirping sound in the beginning of the video?  You can even see the bird, but it is too far away to ID.  I have identified one of the other bird sounds on the video as the Red-Breasted Nuthatch.

April Will Be Epic!

Look what I got in the mail today!  Shooting a Wild Turkey is a bucket-list item for me, and now I have the opportunity to make that a reality.  It just so happens that my friend, Terry, has nearly a hundred turkeys running around on his land, and he has given me permission to hunt .  More than that, Terry has ground-blinds set up all over his property with turkey decoys.  He told me to bring a good book and a gun.  He also said Evan, who will be 6, will be the perfect age to sit in the blind and listen and look for turkeys.

Minnesota has eight consecutive turkey seasons in the spring that are each 5 days long. The first season starts April 17th.  To hunt in the first four seasons, you need to have your name drawn in the turkey license lottery.  You can hunt the last four seasons by buying a tag over-the-counter as long as there are still permits available. As you can see, my name was drawn for season B, the second season, which is a Monday through Friday.  I don’t work on Monday, and I may have to take an extra day off to get my bird.  I might be pulling Evan out of school for a day so he can share in this adventure.  I’m excited for this opportunity.  If I see a big, strutting tom, though, I will have a huge dilemma as to whether I should reach for my Canon or my Benelli (12 gauge).

April is also going to be a memorable month because the Team has a huge birding adventure planned.  It’s such a top-secret affair that only a handful of people know about it right now.  In fact, even Evan has no clue it’s going to happen.  For now I’ll just tell you that state lines will be crossed and that Evan and I will be missing some school. So be prepared for some great stories in just two months.  I can’t wait to write them, and I really can’t wait to live them with Evan!


While Evan and I are beginning birders (those who find excitement in seeing birds ALIVE), I have long been a wing-shooter whose primary pursuits have been the ring-necked pheasant and the ruffed grouse.  The fact that I have chased game birds for two decades played a significant role in my interest in birding.  I will go into that more some other day, but in this post I’d like to share a fun hunting story that Evan and I experienced.

Every time I head out pheasant hunting Evan asks if he can go along.  I have let him accompany me on short grouse hunts at Dad’s property where he can walk on trails, and he has sat with my Dad and me in the deer stand.  However, pheasant hunting is much more difficult.  Either I am walking in waist-high prairie grass or slogging my way through a cattail slough.  Needless to say, it is hard work, and I don’t let him come with me.

This Thanksgiving we did not make the 265 mile trek Up North.  Instead, we decided to stay home, and we were invited over by friends for Thanksgiving dinner.  That meant we woke up Thursday morning with no stress of traveling or making a feast.  That fact combined with beautiful weather of sunny skies and 45 degree temps meant I was going to go out for a quick pheasant hunt before feasting on that most delicious of all birds.  Basically I just wanted to get the dogs a little exercise.  I decided this would be the perfect day to take Evan along on an easy hunt.

I took Evan to a Wildlife Management Area that had a road winding through it.  It would be easy walking for him – we could take the road and let my two yellow labs, Faith and Chance, work the cover on the sides of the road. We parked the SUV at the farthest point that motorized vehicles were permitted and stepped outside to an immediate birding experience.  A hundred yards from us was a large slough (20 acres) that hadn’t froze over yet.  Right away about 50 mallards took flight, and gracefully gliding across the water were four swans!  I am not sure of the species at this point, but I think they were trumpeters.  Three were the brilliant white color, while one was a gray juvenile.  This was a big deal – Evan has been enthralled with Trumpeter Swans ever since we read E.B. White’s The Trumpet of the Swan last spring.  They are definitely cool birds.

Less than five minutes into our walk on the road that ran around this slough, Faith’s tail started wagging ferociously – she was on a bird.  Not long after, Chance’s tail was moving faster than a helicopter rotor.  Both dogs were hot on scent and sprinting ahead.  This meant one thing – it was a pheasant, and it was a rooster at that.  Hens do not run and will sit extremely tight whereas roosters will run loooong ahead of you and may never jump up.  In fact, a couple weeks ago, I felt a hen’s wings beat against my leg as she flushed right next to my foot.  A couple days later, I got into a mess of about 15 hens that all flushed within 10 feet of me.  Because the dogs were on the move, I literally ran to catch up so I could be within gun range of a flushing pheasant.  I didn’t have to run long, thank goodness.  As I was watching my young, inexperienced Chance working I heard the unmistakable cackle and saw the flash of brilliant color burst into the sky right in front of his nose.  It was a left-to-right shot, and I pulled the gun up and shot.  I was surprised to see it drop; I usually miss at least the first shot.  Chance pinned the still lively rooster until I could reach it.

I couldn’t believe it.  I never thought we’d see anything.  Not only did we see a pheasant, but it was a shoot-able one that was flushed by my inexperienced (dumb) dog, shot by me (on the first shot), witnessed by Evan – all in the span of a five minute hunt.  We continued walking to try to find a second rooster to fill out my limit, but it just wasn’t to be.  At one point the dogs got birdy again.  Apparently Evan is a quick learner in his dad’s hunting abilities, or he has learned the art of smack talk.  As I followed the dogs this time, Evan hollered at me, “Be sure to shoot it in one shot!”  So if you’re a fellow
birder, don’t be offended by my hunting hobby – I have a pretty minimal effect on the pheasant population!