6 Lifers in Minnesota from the School Year

The school year is its own animal that seems to envelope our whole family with busyness and, at times, chaos. Nevertheless, the birds don’t care, and last school year they REALLY didn’t care. Prior to last school year, I had started restricting my long-distance chases to just life birds, exceptions being made for state birds that are super convenient.  Even under these strict, self-imposed protocols, I found myself on the road a lot last year to go after genuine life birds that showed up in Minnesota.  So here’s a quick recap of those birds.

Roseate Spoonbill–August 26, 2018

Late last summer, Spoonbills started popping up all across the upper Midwest.  Minnesota birders were on high alert for a first state record at any moment.  The honor of that find goes to Kevin and Cindy Smith who first discovered the bird on the Washington County side of the Mississippi River the morning of the 26th. Unfortunately for other birders, it only stayed about 20 minutes before it flew across the river into Dakota County, giving Kevin and City Roseate Spoonbill in two Minnesota Counties while every other birder in the state was still at zero Spoonbills.  There was a collective sigh in the Minnesota birding world as it was not refound.  At least, not until the afternoon when Jim Pifher refound the (supposedly same) bird at the Old Cedar Avenue Bridge on the Minnesota River in Bloomington. Immediately, Minnesota birders from near and far descended on this location for the historic sighting.  Life birds, and megas especially, always seem to come at bad times for me. We had dinner plans with my parents in Hutchinson that night to drop our kids with them since teacher workshops started bright and early the next morning.  The upside was that Hutch was halfway to Bloomington. Considering everybody’s reports of the Spoonbill seeming content where it was refound, I reasoned we could still do dinner and get the Spoonbill.  That said, and with apologies to my mother, it was really a dine and dash situation.  Melissa opted to go with me on this “date.”

Thankfully the Spoonbill was still there being enjoyed by a never-ending flow of birders who braved road construction and a very long hike down to the viewing platform.  It is crazy to me that I got this lifer in Minnesota of all places.

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Roseate Spoonbill

Despite everyone thinking the Spoonbill would stick, it left not long after Melissa and I saw it that evening, never to be seen again.  Unfortunately, many Minnesota birders did not see it.

 Tufted Duck–December 26, 2018

Speaking of state first records, 2018 began with one when a Tufted Duck showed up near Red Wing in January.  Brad Nelson and I chased that bird but were not successful.  When a state first record disappears, there is little optimism that there will be another chance.  Except this time, there was! The only problem was that Kim Eckert’s second state record discovery in Duluth occurred just a couple weeks before Christmas.  How in the world do you break free at that time of year? The short answer for me is that I couldn’t.  Thankfully the bird hung on, and I was able to nab it en route to visiting Melissa’s family up north.  Getting a lifer this good, this conveniently, and this quickly felt like cheating. It wasn’t the striking male that was found in Red Wing, but you can’t really complain when you get a do-over like this.

Tufted Duck

Duluth, the city that just keeps on giving......

Duluth, the city that just keeps on giving….

A funny note is that a third state record Tufted Duck, a male, showed up this past spring just an hour from my house.  However, I had no camera at the time and was stuck at work anyway.

King Eider–January 5, 2019

We had barely been back home from being up north when another incredible duck was found in Duluth, creating an intense urge to return.  Duluth power-birding couple, the Kraemers, discovered a juvenile male King Eider off Lake Superior’s Brighton Beach.  King Eider is casual in Minnesota, so this was indeed a rare event.  The last one I recall occurred back in 2013 when I was just getting into birding.  So Steve Gardner, Scott Gardner, Joel Schmidt, and I carpooled for the up-and-down chase to Duluth.  When we arrived we didn’t find it, so we headed back to Duluth to look for the Tufted Duck which was still around.  Joel had dipped on this bird on a previous chase while the rest of us had seen it.  Thankfully it was cooperative for Joel this time.  For the rest of us, it was a pretty sweet year bird for the fresh new year.  During this side trip of ours, Doug Kieser had refound the King Eider and gave directions on where to spot the very distant duck. So during our second time at Brighton, we were able to get diagnostic scope views but no photos.  Even still, it was a key lifer that pretty much has given me the rare duck-sweep for MN with the exception of Garganey.

Brambling–January 31, 2019

Minnesota experienced one of the coldest winters I can recall, but the birding scene just kept getting hotter when Beau Shroyer announced that he had a Brambling visiting his feeders in rural Becker County.  This was about a 3-hour drive for me one way, but it may as well have been across the country because Minnesota was going through the infamous Polar Vortex at the time.  With windchills in the -50s, most schools were cancelled for multiple days due to cold. Sure, I had three unplanned days off which would be perfect for a chase, except for, you know, temps that could literally kill you if your car broke down (which is more likely in extreme cold).  So I fretted for days, monitoring Beau’s daily updates as well as updates from birders that were braver than me.  I distracted myself by working on other life list activities.

And perfecting them.

Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore, the cabin fever had set in.  On my third day off from work, I made a run for it with local birding friend Jeff Weitzel.  Thankfully we had a safe trip, even if it was just a little chilly while we waited for the bird.

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Finally, we saw it. I couldn’t believe we were looking at a Brambling.  This is honestly a bird I never thought I’d add to my life list. A Hoary Redpoll was a nice little bonus, along with the more common, but uncommon to me, Purple Finches.

Brambling

BramblingBramblingBeau was perhaps the most gracious stakeout host I’ve met. He generously shared this bird with other birders for days even though it meant his family had near constant vehicles right outside their living room. But with a yard scene this cool, it’s too good to keep to oneself.

Brambling

Yellow Rail–May 30,2019

The lowest hanging fruit on my life list in Minnesota is the Yellow Rail which breeds in the state.  The most reliable place to tic this bird is the McGregor Marsh which is 3 hours away and in the middle of nowhere.  Furthermore, this bird usually vocalizes very late at night (like close to midnight), which makes an up-and-down trip or an en route trip pretty much impossible for me.  I knew it would have to be a dedicated trip someday with a hotel stay.  Doing a night mission like this by myself far from home is less than ideal.  It’s definitely a buddy situation.  Problem is that most of my birder buddies already had this bird and wouldn’t be interested in this kind of field trip.  But then inspiration hit when I asked Ben Douglas if he had the bird. Ben is doing an epic big year trying to get 10,000 county tics in 2019.  Certainly an Aitkin County Yellow Rail would work for 0.01% of his goal. Plus, it turns out that Ben also needed the Yellow Rail as a lifer. So plans were made. We would tackle the McGregor Marsh on busy Hwy. 65 in the dark together and then grab a hotel in town.  Ben and I picked the right year to do this.  Birders who had been to McGregor Marsh earlier in the spring to look for Yellow Rails had reported incredible numbers–well over 20 birds sounding off.  And they were found at several locations.  Ben and I were definitely getting excited for our rendezvous with this lifer we have both put off.

On my last teacher day of the year, I drove up to Mora after work to meet Ben.  After a nice chat and a little lunch, we killed daylight by bumming around Kanabec County boosting our respective Kanabec lists by a few dozen tics before finally heading north to the McGregor Marsh.  I can’t imagine the work and mental strain Ben’s goal would take.  Ben has to squeeze out county tics any way he can.  For him, the grind never stops. While I followed his car and we were stopped on Hwy. 65 for some road construction, I was enjoying the AC and radio with the windows up when I get a text from Ben in front of me: an Aitkin County Pine Warbler and Golden-winged Warbler were having a duet right by the car.  Ben had his windows down and his radio off–100% committed to his goal.  I was impressed.

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We got to the marsh with a little more than an hour of daylight left. We poked around on the Soo Line trail, a wide gravel railroad bed, that borders the south end of the marsh. Ben has superhuman hearing and was calling out birds far away.  His ability to detect Ruffed Grouse drumming is uncanny, a gift really, and one I hope he will someday use in Kandiyohi County.  At 7:45, well before dark, it was Ben who excitedly called out the tick-tick-ticking of our Yellow Rail lifer.  Within minutes we had several calling around us.  We tried for visuals for awhile before going to another nearby location.  Once again, we heard the ticking of the Yellow Rails, but we just could not get a visual.  Ben may have seen one briefly but did not get a solid look.  It was okay, though, as this is what is to be expected with this species. Talking it over, we realized we got we came for and each had time to get home before midnight. No hotel was necessary for this trip. After saying our goodbyes and congratulating each other, we split ways.  It was a good box to check on our life lists, made even more fun by sharing it with someone else.  And for those of you that are curious, at the writing of this post Ben is at 86% of his goal with half the year left.

Prairie Warbler–June 3, 2019

I have wanted to see a Prairie Warbler for a very long time.  Warblers are what got me into birding, and I have seen an awful lot of them since those first days.  Because my travels haven’t yet brought me to the southeastern U.S., I still had not tallied this striking bird.  It is casual in Minnesota, which means it shows maybe once every five years or so.  There hasn’t really been a chaseable one since I’ve been a birder.  Steve Gardner and I talked of heading to the very southeastern corner of Iowa this summer where they are known to show up annually.  Before we could make plans for that 7.5 hour drive, though, Dedrick Benz made a sweet discovery. Dedrick found a Prairie Warbler on territory in the very southeastern corner of Minnesota in Houston County.  The prospect of cutting off 3 hours of drive time and getting this life bird in Minnesota were very enticing.  Even though this bird was singing on territory, I was anxious to get down there before my trip to California a week later.  Steve decided to join me and took a day of vacation for this Monday jaunt.

Finding the Warbler was not hard.

Prairie WarblerBirds that are long-hoped for seem more enjoyable than the random surprise birds.  This one was a treat for the eyes and ears.

Prairie WarblerPrairie WarblerThis bird was definitely the prize, but we also enjoyed numerous Henslow’s Sparrows and a Black-billed Cuckoo in the same area.  We also made a stop a mile away for a White-eyed Vireo, also a casual species, found by Josh Watson in true Patagonia Picnic Table fashion. We got terrible looks at this bird before it disappeared. So it still remains as one of those birds I would like to see well since my other observation was a similar experience several years ago at Flandreau State Park in New Ulm.  For Steve it was a state bird.  Speaking of which, this trip to the southeastern part of the state allowed us to look for some overdue life birds for Steve.  In Houston County we followed up on a report of an Acadian Flycatcher which we found no problem for Steve’s life list.  A Cerulean Warbler singing nearby was a nice bonus.

Acadian FlycatcherOn the way home we stopped at Whitewater State Park and found Steve his lifer Louisiana Waterthrush thanks to some tips from John Hockema and some guiding from Malcolm Gold six years ago.

It was an incredible year for life birds right here in the home state.  With my life list past the 500 mark, getting a life bird here is becoming more rare each year.  Hopefully I can pull out another one or two in the coming school year.

Birding California: Lifers by Land

For the first half of our SF stay we were a mere three blocks from the Fisherman’s Wharf area and all that the waterfront has to offer.  Adjacent to San Francisco Aquatic Park and along the waterfront is Fort Mason, a former U.S. Army post that has now been incorporated into the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.  Consequently it provides a substantial green space in San Francisco, making it an ideal place for birds and birders to frequent.  Because it was so close to our hotel, I was able to make several visits in an effort to pick up a few lifers.  Fort Mason gave me my first of many “California”-named lifers, the California Towhee.  The California Towhee was a pretty common bird on the trip with a distinctive song that made it easy to pick out.California Towhee

One bird I was particularly looking forward to seeing on this California trip was the Chestnut-backed Chickadee. Maybe this bird’s raggedy appearance can be attributed to the excessive heat (near 100!) or San Francisco’s homeless epidemic, but this lifer at Fort Mason left me wanting more.  Thankfully I would have better encounters with both the Chickadee and the Towhee later in the trip.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee

Fort Mason gave me the snub on a couple lifers I was searching for–Allen’s Hummingbird and Nuttall’s Woodpecker.  However, I did see some Red-masked Parakeets, a bird that is not officially ABA-countable but one that is certainly thriving all over San Francisco.  I wouldn’t be surprised if, like Phoenix’s Rosy-faced Lovebird, it will someday be countable.  They seemed to be doing okay in my opinion, even making brand new Red-masked Parakeets in Lafayette Park.  Obviously this bird gets its name from its facial pattern and not any propensity for embarrassment as these birds had zero shame about what they were doing in public.

Red-masked Parakeet

My Allen’s Hummingbird lifer did fall eventually but is merely a foot note.  I saw several Hummingbirds throughout the trip, but most were either Anna’s or just left unidentified.  I did finally see one with a fair amount of rufous on its flanks at Suttro Heights Park.  It certainly wasn’t the brilliant male I was hoping for.  But that’s how it goes on trips like this–you get a lot of lifers and not all are great looks.

The last half of our stay was spent at a hotel near the San Francisco airport.  This served as base camp for venturing further into California.  After all, I couldn’t go to central California and not try for the endangered California Condor.  So one day of our trip was dedicated to driving 2 hours down to Pinnacles National Park, one of the most reliable locations for seeing this bird.  Pinnacles also held a lot of other potential lifers.  One of those, which ended up being quite common, was seen as we got close to Pinnacles.

California Scrub-JayCalifornia Scrub-Jay

The California Scrub-Jay had eluded me in San Francisco city parks, so it was good to finally nail this one down.  The California Scrub-Jay and Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay were recently split from what was the Western Scrub-Jay.  A trip to Colorado a few years back had already given me the Woodhouse’s, so it was fun to complete the “Western” duo and get another “California” bird as well.

Once we arrived at the Pinnacles visitor center from the east entrance, I had other “California” birds on the brain–the Thrasher, the Quail, and of course, the endangered Condor. I talked to the ranger about where to look for the Condor and the Quail.  She told me to hike the Bear Gulch loop trail and look for the Condors at the High Peaks, or Pinnacles.  The ranger warned me it would be hot up there and about two-mile hike.  I knew my non-birding family would not be game for this, especially because of the heat.  We had recently endured record-setting temps in San Francisco, which was supposed to be a nice, cool vacation.  For the California Quail, the ranger told me to hike the gravel road by the visitor center that follows a small riparian corridor to a historic homestead area with old buildings.  I walked along looking for the Quail and a handful of other potential lifers but was striking out on everything.  But then as I was at the homestead, a very large, dark raptor materialized in the sky soaring LOW on the other side of this valley.  Could it be?  Oh yes! The California Condor!

California CondorCalifornia CondorCalifornia CondorThis bird was quite distant from me, but with an 8-foot wingspan, it still looked huge.  The bird perched on a hillside on the opposite side of the valley, very near the campground.  Even though I couldn’t see fine detail, this behemoth stood out like a sore thumb.

California Condor

California CondorI had dipped on this bird at the Grand Canyon two years ago.  All is well, because actually getting this lifer in California seemed more fitting.  I would have liked better looks, but I wasn’t complaining.  On the contrary, I was relieved that I didn’t have to do the longer, hotter hike with the family to get this bird.

On the way back to the car at the visitor center, a different raptor wasn’t nearly as distant or shy as the Condor.  This Red-shouldered Hawk couldn’t care less about me as I walked underneath it, shooting both sides.

Red-shouldered Hawk Red-shouldered Hawk

The Condor and Hawk were pretty fun, but there were no other lifers on this walk.  I was still looking for Wrentit, California Thrasher, California Quail, and Yellow-billed Magpie. Once I met up with the family, we did drive the park road as far as we could go.  No one was up for hiking in the heat, so the birding would have to be done by car.  I did spy a couple birds that looked interesting.  I was surprised to see they were Oak Titmice! This lifer was not even on my radar for some reason.

Oak Titmouse

Oak TitmouseOn the way out of the park, I wanted to make one more pass down that gravel road by the visitor center to look for the California Quail.  Even though this bird looks extremely similar to the very common Gambel’s Quail I see in Arizona, this was still one of the species I was wanting to see the most on this trip.  Unfortunately I was looking at a bad time of day for birds–close to noon.  But as I walked along, I heard a cooing sound that I knew had to be the Quail.  Somehow I got lucky and managed to spot it as it was hunkered down in a dense tree by the small stream of this riparian corridor.

California Quail

With a little patience (and some cooing of my own), it eventually made its way to a more open perch where I was able to get soul-satisfying looks at this awesome Quail.

California Quail

California QuailSatisfied, it was time to leave Pinnacles NP even though there were still some lifers left on the table.  One of those was the Yellow-billed Magpie, but I knew to be watching for them on Highway 25 as we headed north back to San Francisco.  They had been reported all along this road.  Sure enough, as we passed by a farm I spotted two Magpies on a fence.  I was thrilled.  But with no shoulder and a car right behind me, I had to keep going down the road until I could get turned around.  I finally got back to the spot about 5 minutes later, but there was no sign of the Magpies.  Because they do not overlap with Black-billed Magpies in this area, they were certainly Yellow-billed.  Unfortunately I never did get to see those yellow bills.  It kind of took some of the air out of this being my 500th life bird.  Sightings like this are one of the reasons I don’t get too hung up on what my actual 500th, 400th, etc birds are.  Other reasons include heard-only observations of some species and splits/lumps of others.  With that said, it was still nice to finally reach this milestone and surpass it on this trip.

Once back in San Francisco, the birding would have to be more surgical. Before the family was up and about that next morning, I sneaked over to Sea Cloud Park in Burlingame which was about 15 minutes away from our hotel.  I was targeting a family of White-tailed Kites that had been reported.  The park was pretty much a large collection of athletic fields that butted up to a large marsh on one side and some mudflats on the other.  As I worked the edges, I eventually spotted the Kite family a long way off.  On my hike to get better looks at this new lifer, I couldn’t pass up the best photo-op I’ll get of a Black-crowned Night-Heron.

Black-crowned Night-HeronWhen I first spotted the White-tailed Kites, I had seen two adults, but when I arrived at the tree they were hanging out in, I found one adult and two juveniles.  They didn’t move at all, and the juveniles were constantly begging for food with an annoying screaming sound.  The worn-out parent just closed its eyes and hunkered down as if it was thinking Please just stop, somebody please just make it stop.

White-tailed Kite

Eventually my White-tailed Kite lifer opened its eyes and looked my way.

White-tailed Kite

At Sea Cloud park I was able to see some other fun birds including Hooded Orioles, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, a Bewick’s Wren, and a bevy of big shorebirds: Willets, Marbled Godwits, Black-necked Stilts, and American Avocets.  I was also able to improve on my California Towhee photos.

California Towhee

After I got back to the hotel to join the family, the plan was to drive north across the Golden Gate Bridge and head into the Marin Headlands of Marin County.  This was a must stop for us as our daughter’s name is Marin, though it’s pronounced differently (the county’s name is accented on the last syllable while our daughter’s is accented on the first).  We stopped at the Headlands visitor center hoping to get some cool souvenirs with Marin’s name all over them.  My souvenir was to get a Marin County eBird checklist. I didn’t care what birds were on it.  So right away I started documenting birds in the parking lot.  Almost right away I heard a vocalization I had studied just the night before, the Wrentit!  It was pretty cool to get a bona fide life bird in Marin County.  I’m actually glad I missed on it at Pinnacles NP the day before.  This particular bird didn’t show itself which is pretty typical of the species, but later on I found another Wrentit at the Headlands that was super cooperative for a photo.

Wrentit

Later on that day we drove south down the Coastal Highway as mentioned in my previous post.  We made a stop for me in Half Moon Bay to look for my last possible “California” bird of the trip, the California Thrasher.  This bird was right where people had pinned it and was not tough to find at all.  Getting a new Thrasher is always fun.  I just have one left now, and it’s in Texas.  I also have one last “California” bird to get now, the California Gnatcatcher.

California Thrasher

When you’re in a state like California and there are still lifers to be had, the efforts to lifer often go right up to the last minute.  When we got back from this day of road-tripping, I had a little over an hour before I had to get the rental car returned.  So I hit up Coyote Point Recreation Area which was a mile from our hotel. I was trying again for the Nuttall’s Woodpecker.  While I did strike out on that again, I ended up seeing a couple Least Terns and this super mellow Chestnut-backed Chickadee that foraged for insects in the tree right in front of me.  It game me the redemptive and satisfying looks I was hoping for. This one should have been called a Chestnut-backed Nuthatch or Chestnut-backed Creeper for how it behaved.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee Chestnut-backed Chickadee Chestnut-backed Chickadee Chestnut-backed ChickadeeAnd with that, I had to close out my California birding for this time. I got a great taste of California and picked up most of the endemics and other range-limited birds.  I am definitely looking forward to going back someday.

Birding California: Lifers by Sea

Most birders in this country dream of eventually hitting the Big 4: Florida, Texas, Arizona, and California. Each of these states offers its own unique collection of birds in addition to just a general abundance of birds.  A birder can skip visiting many states but must hit these at some point if they want to fill out their collection of North American birds.  I have tapped Arizona repeatedly over the years but still hadn’t made it to the other three since I’ve become a birder.  Needless to say, I was getting antsy to get another “mega” birding state under my belt.  This summer it finally happened as we took a family vacation to San Francisco.  Even though it wasn’t an exclusive birding trip, I knew my life list would be given a nice boost.  I was excited.  Heck, I couldn’t even wait to see a Western Gull–the first official lifer and arguably most abundant bird of the trip.  Western Gulls were a constant presence around San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf.

Western GullWestern GullAs a newbie Cali birder, I eagerly scanned the Bay when we first arrived at the waterfront, looking for absolutely anything new and different.  Though not a new bird, I was pleasantly surprised to see a Red-throated Loon loafing about San Francisco Aquatic Park.

Red-throated Loon

Red-throated LoonI was equally surprised to pick up this long overdue Clark’s Grebe lifer.

Clark's GrebeThe next day of our trip was Alcatraz day–a bucket-list item for Melissa. I was excited to experience the Rock myself, but the ferry ride over to the island would be my first “pelagic” of sorts so my mind was more on the potential lifers. Taking Steve Gardner’s advice, I was sure to grab a spot at the front of the boat to be in position to see anything that might be moving out of the way of the boat. We had barely left the dock when the strategy already paid off with some handsome Pigeon Guillemot lifers.  This was an expected species that was still exciting to see nonetheless.

Pigeon Guillemot

I wondered what other goodies we might encounter in the Bay on the 1.5 mile boat trip to Alcatraz.

Golden Gate BridgeThe Rock looms large, though, and commands your attention itself regardless of what birds may be on or near it.

Alcatraz Island Alcatraz IslandAs we waited to disembark, Pigeon Guillemots served as a bookend bird for our short boat ride, giving better looks this time at least.

Pigeon GuillemotPigeon GuillemotIn addition to its fame as a federal prison and an Army post, Alcatraz is an important bird area, as there are huge colonies of nesting birds there.  Western Gulls are one of the main breeders on the island.  Their nests were absolutely everywhere on the island. Mommas and their chicks were a common sight on the steep hillsides as we hiked the switchback road up to the famed cell house for an audio tour (I highly recommend this tour BTW).Western GullWe stopped in an air-conditioned Civil War era building to get some relief from the heat and the climb and to learn something about the island from an informative Discovery Channel video shown on several large screens in the catacombs of this building.  One thing mentioned in the video was how Alcatraz is an important bird area, and the video hilariously portrays a ranger eagerly looking over a rail to show some excited tourists a Canada Goose on the steep slope below.  Life imitates art as they say, and as we continued our hike up to the top after the movie, Evan looked over a rail and said, “Hey, look! A goose!”  We all had a good laugh since he truly did spot a Canada Goose.  And since it was my California CANG, I was mildly excited.

Inherently, Alcatraz is a place of regrets, and I had my own after we toured the cell house. Since I was busy growing my fledgling California bird list, I was trying to identify everything.  I took a photo of this blackbird and just wrote it off as a probable Red-winged Blackbird.  It didn’t even dawn on me to consider the California endemic Tricolored Blackbird and try to see the wings.  What an idiot.

Blackbird

On Alcatraz, Freedom and Tricolored Blackbirds are tantalizingly close but a world a way.

One lifer that was not unexpected at all on Alcatraz was the Brandt’s Cormorant.  They are not too tough to find as they nest on the Rock by the hundreds.

Brandts Cormorant Brandts CormorantA Pelagic Cormorant or two had been reported among the Brandt’s, but trying to find one was a needle-in-the-haystack exercise, something that was tough to do in the company of non-birders.

Later on in our San Francisco trip, we found ourselves at Ocean Beach.  The Pacific Ocean was new to the kids and me on this trip, so it felt good to get beyond the Bay and experience it properly.

Ocean BeachMelissa and the kids ventured down to the beach while I hung out by the famed Cliff House, looking for a pair of reported Black Oystercatchers to no avail.  Eventually I joined the family at the beach and looked for seashells with the kids and a Common Murre lifer for myself.  I was not successful with the latter.  After spending sufficient time at the beach, we stopped for lunch at the Lands End Lookout visitor center.  The Oystercatchers were bugging me.  I knew this was probably my only chance on the trip for this species.  I had to take one more stab at it. While the fam poked around the gift shop, I descened the stairs down to the Suttro Baths to see if I could find these odd, conspicuous birds.  Going down to the Baths did allow me to see my lifer Heerman’s Gulls up close.

Heerman's GullIt’s such a good-looking Gull, both the deep sooty-colored juvenile and the adult with that white head and red bill.Heermans GullThis isn’t the greatest photo, but it captures the awesome color-scheme of this bird.

Heermans GullAs nice as the Heerman’s Gulls were, I really wanted to find the Oystercatchers.  I gave up trying to pick out a Pelagic Cormorant on these rocks that were covered in Brandt’s Cormorants and Brown Pelicans.

Suttro BathsAs I hiked down toward the ruins of the Suttro Baths, I paused to scan the rock in the foreground of the photo above.  Finally, I picked out the large black birds I was looking for–they were in the deep shadow of the large cleft on the right side of that rock.  Their orange bills stood out like beacons from the dark recesses of the shadow.

Black Oystercatcher

Black OystercatcherBlack OystercatcherBlack OystercatcherIt wasn’t until a few days after our time at Ocean Beach that we made it back to the Pacific Ocean proper.  On our last day of vacation we drove down the Coastal Highway with no real destination.  I did want to stop at a spot near Half Moon Bay to look for an inland bird that I’ll write about in the next post.  Little did I know that I would nab two pelagic lifers as a bonus when we stopped at Dunes Beach State Park and enjoyed the ocean one last time.

Evan MarinWhile the kids studied a log rolling in the surf, I studied beach chickens.  It was good practice to work on going through the key field marks of this immature California Gull, as seeing one in Minnesota is a rare but real possibility.  It was also good to see another “California”-named species in California. There will be more “California” birds in the next post.

California GullI also scanned the surf as the bird life was super abundant at sea. There, just beyond where the edge of the breaking waves, were several Common Murres, another lifer.

Common MurreI certainly wished I had my scope along to better enjoy these birds and look for other interesting pelagic species. I did note that the Cormorants I was seeing looked a little different…

Pelagic CormorantWith the steep forehead and thin bill, this one looked good for a Pelagic Cormorant.  I would have liked a cleaner look, but I’ll take the lifer.

The ocean and its birds are fascinating.  Seeing the endless amount of bird life, the vast majority of which went unidentified due to distance, gave me my first appetite for a pelagic birding trip.  Someday.  For now there is still much work to do on land.  In the next post I’ll highlight my inland lifers on our California trip.  It will feature a big moment and a big bird.

A First for AZ, A First for Me

So what does one do to celebrate the accomplishment of a major birding goal that was several years in the making…go to Disney Land? Take an Owl victory lap, visiting some favorite Owls? No, these are not the thoughts of a birder. There’s always a queue of birding priorities, and now that FEPO was knocked off, another bird demanded immediate attention. It nearly cut short the FEPO experience, though I vowed not to let it. That bird was Arizona’s first record of a White-throated Thrush, a vagrant from Mexico. Obviously such a bird had created quite a stir in the state and even national birding scene just a few weeks prior to my visit. I watched the reports with amusement and wasn’t too concerned with it.  I was undaunted in my FEPO pursuit and was not about to let another Mexican bird scrap those plans.  And besides, the Thrush had hung for weeks, entertaining several hundred birders by now. It would be there, but would I?

Seeing as how FEPO was found immediately and enjoyed thoroughly, we had ample time to swing over to Madera Canyon to try for THE THRUSH.  But first, we had a windy desert road to drive and a lifer Cassin’s Sparrow to nab thanks to Caleb, the sharp-eyed chauffeur.  This was a nice little bonus that I did not foresee.

Cassin's Sparrow

The mood on the way to Madera was light and easy.  We got the FEPO. I honestly didn’t care if we dipped on the Thrush.  But with that said, I still wanted to see it pretty bad too. It’s an insanely good bird, and just like the Fan-tailed Warbler, SE AZ opportunity was knocking. Once again I found myself in the intersection of right place and right time. Thrush or not, it’s always the right time to go to Madera Canyon.

madera

After we parked at the Proctor Road parking lot, we followed a paved trail where it had been seen. Like a bird dog, Caleb immediately disappeared from the trail in search of quarry.  Again, Tommy was in total relaxation mode as the Boy was whacking the bushes for the White-throated Thrush and a Black-capped Gnatcatcher for me.  Tommy and I idly strolled the trail, hoping to turn American Robins and Hermit Thrushes into the one thrush species that counted. Mexican Jays were loud and huge but not worth looking at, considering.  We talked with other birders there trying to get the latest on the Thrush. Best we heard was that it was seen a couple hours prior. That was good news.  It was around, and the Boy was on it.  Some birders we visited with told us about a snoozing Whiskered Screech-Owl further up trail.  The Owl victory lap idea was taking hold, distracting Tommy, Gordon, and me from the new major target of the day. Plus, you know, Caleb was out there, somewhere, handling things.

Whiskered Screech-OwlHow someone spotted this thing I’ll never know. I could barely find it with multiple people pointing to it.

Whiskered Screech-OwlTommy and I had barely resumed our Thrush sorting when I asked Tommy whatever happened to Caleb. I no sooner said those words, and the Boy came sprinting down the path toward us hollering (without breaking stride) that the Thrush had been spotted further up the trail.  Caleb continued running and proclaiming the good news to everyone and their cousin, birders or not, that the White-throated Thrush was present.

Tommy and I hustled up to the spot and caught a quick glimpse of it in the open on the ground before it retired to the treetops in terrible light. Pretty neat regardless.

White-throated ThrushWhite-throated ThrushWhite-throated ThrushA bit of serendipity happened at the parking lot on the way out when a birder recognized Tommy.  Turns out that birder was Linda Grant, the original finder of the famous Thrush.  Linda had come back for better photos after her first ones were harried as bird photos can be when you realize you have a Mega and need to get the word out immediately.  Tommy had written a great blog post on Linda’s discovery of the White-throated Thrush and on over two dozen birders’ reactions to the find.  Linda and her husband were able to tell Tommy how much they enjoyed the post, and Tommy clearly enjoyed meeting this hero to hundreds of birders.  A cool moment.

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The intensity of Madera Canyon never ceases to amaze me.  One would think that things would be pretty chill after my lifer FEPO and WTTH with a side helping of Whiskered-Screech. But it wasn’t.  A stunning male Elegant Trogon had been spending the winter in the lower elevations near the White House Picnic Area, and fellow Thrush seekers had said it was around this day.  Since that brief encounter with a Trogon a few years back higher up on the Super Trail, I have wanted a better experience with this bird.

This was the day. We saw the ELTR paparazzi staked out at a pyracantha tree loaded with berries along the road. The tree is a favorite buffett of the Trogon. Unfortunately we were told the Trogon had just flown off, but not to worry because it would be back.  I’m an impatient birder, especially when borrowing time against a family vacation. So I looked into the oak woods in the direction people said it flew. And that’s when I spotted it–one lady up on the hillside aiming a massive camera at a random spot in the trees. There would be only one reason for that.  I scrambled up the rocky hillside and quickly found her target.

Elegant TrogonThe Trogon was incredibly tame and would sit for long periods of time on a perch before moving a short distance, easy to find and easy to approach.  SE AZ never ceases to amaze me. This was a stunning moment. And, AZ birders will have to forgive me, but this was just as big a thrill or bigger than the Thrush.

Elegant TrogonIn 2015 my only real photo of the Elegant Trogon was from the back.  This was a refreshing and a much yearned for change. I, of course, got to see the back this time too and once again admire that coppery tail that it was once named for.

Elegant Trogon

Elegant Trogon

Elegant TrogonThis was a Trogon-crushfest, enjoyed by even the most experienced of locals…

Tommy, Gordon, Caleb

Elegant Trogon

Elegant TrogonObviously I had a hard time prying myself away from that bird, but the clock was ticking and the birding queue had a new line leader. Would I have liked to go to the Santa Rita Lodge and try to get a better look at a Blue-throated Hummingbird? Yes. Would I have liked to pick up some fresh Trogon gear at the gift shop? Also yes. But did I? Sadly, no. Time was slipping by, and the one bird I needed was in nearby Green Valley.  Lawrence’s Goldfinches have irrupted this winter all over the place, and the Canoa Ranch was a stronghold for them. I needed to grab this bird while I could since this was the year for that bird. I have never seen reports of them in other years on my visits. But first we made a quick stop down by Proctor Road to look for a Black-capped Gnatcatcher. No dice, again.

Thankfully, the LAGOs were where they were supposed to be, if only for a minute.

Lawrence's GoldfinchIt was now time to bust back to Mom and Dad’s. Mom was putting on a spread for the birders and non-birders.  By the end of the day we were all stuffed–with good food and good birds.

We scarcely had time to sleep off the food/bird coma as Dad, Gordon, Tommy, and I had a date with destiny early the next morning.  After putting it off for many years, it was finally time to reconcile my staggering AZ Thrasher deficit.  I was finally going to the Thrasher Spot, a place west of Phoenix known by every serious birder. It’s even marked on Google Maps.  Thrashers had never been my thing as I always opted for the flashier and owlier birds of AZ, so it never made it to the top of the queue. But now with five potential life birds out there with practically nothing else for me to pursue in the state, I was eager to finally go. I’m glad I saved this little cache of lifers for so long.  I don’t think I would have appreciated it nearly as much in my early birding career.

Now most people might look at this and see a wasteland with random fire pits and broken plastic chairs with the rising steam from the Palo Verde nuclear plant as a backdrop, steam from a plant not cooled by a natural body of water but by treated sewage from nearby municipalities…  But a birder sees a beautiful landscape, full of opportunity. For at the center of this photo sits the lightly colored LeConte’s Thrasher, singing his song above the scrub.Thrasher Spot

LeConte's ThrasherIt was one lifer down with four to go.  Two thoughts struck me on my first visit to the Thrasher Spot. One was that I couldn’t believe how flat the ground was.

Thrasher Spot

The other was that I had an expectation of easy lifering in short order with minimal walking. From other blogs I’ve read over the years, I had this thought that we’d just walk a short ways and crush all the Thrashers and the two Sparrows in the same bush.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.  At least the walking was easy.

Dad, Gordon, TommyThough not completely unexpected, there were sightings of a couple different old men wandering alone and somewhat aimlessly trying to tally some Thrasher lifers for themselves.  At least I wasn’t as late to the party as these guys. The sparse saltbush- studded landscape was not only good habitat for the occasional septagenerian but also for numerous Sagebrush Sparrows (lifer) that would run with tails held high from bush to bush. I was shocked to learn they didn’t respond to pishing.  What kind of Sparrows are these anyway?  Good looks at these birds and the others were tough to come by. Pressing on and going wider in our search efforts, we eventually locked up a Bendire’s Thrasher lifer.

Bendire's ThrasherBy this time, the sun was finally showing itself and warming up our frozen bodies. The birds seemed to enjoy it too as we finally started to get some good looks of perching Sagebrush Sparrows.

Sagebrush SparrowTommy was able to spy the more rare doppelganger Bell’s Sparrow to make my fourth lifer of five for the morning.  The Bell’s is told apart from the Sagebrush Sparrow by its bolder, thicker malar stripe and its unstreaked back.

Bell's Sparrow

Despite our best efforts and lots more walking, we could not rustle up a Crissal Thrasher. It was time to head out and leave the Thrasher Spot behind. It had been a satisfying experience.  On the way home there were a couple more pitstops. Gordon knew just where to go to get me a Common Ground-Dove lifer at a large stand of overgrown palm trees.

Common Ground-DoveI repaid Gordon by spotting a raptor flying over us. I casually asked the guys what it was since they were making an eBird checklist.  Turns out it was a Crested Caracara, a county bird for Gordon and only the second one Tommy has seen in Maricopa County.

Our next and final stop was a dead end road that was great for all kinds of birds, including the occasional Burrower (my Maricopa BUOW).

Burrowing OwlAt the end of the dead end road, Tomy finally heard it–a Crissal Thrasher. Unfortunately no views were had of the true curve-billed Thrasher. So it goes. It’s hard to have any misgivings or least find anyone sympathetic whining about not seeing a CRTH when the birding had been sooo good. What’s next, Arizona?  After 123 life birds in eight trips, I seriously have no idea and no plans.

Joining the 19-Owl Club

It’s no secret to anyone who is familiar with this blog–I really enjoy Owls.  From the beginning of my birding seven years ago when I yearned to see the big northern Owls until the present when I have been striving to see my 19th and final Owl species for this country, Owls have always risen to the top of my wish-list birds and often dominated my daydreams. The pursuits of these birds have led me on some of the most dramatic and memorable adventures I have ever done, birding or otherwise.  I have Owled from the Canadian border to the Mexican border and at many points in between. These hunts have often been with others and have forged friendships and bonds that make for richer memories through the shared experiences.  Is it any wonder, then, that I was eager to see a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, and complete this collection?

The Backstory

Efforts have been underway for over a year to try to nab a FEPO which came into my crosshairs after the Boreal Owl fell in January of 2018.  Despite my strong desire to see this Owl, there have been many setbacks in the process, and I have been on a hope/despair roller coaster:

The first hope: Our family planned to take a road trip the summer of 2018 that would swing through south Texas. I would go for the easy-pickings FEPOs on the King Ranch and gladly pay the hefty fee to do so.

The first setback: The road trip was cancelled. At the time, we had not yet sold our house after an entire year. Going on a big, expensive trip was not prudent when we had two mortgages.

The second hope: The house sold, but it was too late to get the road trip plans back in place. Instead, I opted to take a weekend trip with Steve Gardner to try for FEPO in Arizona with Tommy DeBardeleben in April of 2018.

The second setback: We made one 4-hour search at Organ Pipe National Monument before succumbing to the temptation of an extremely rare Fan-tailed Warbler, among many other desirable birds in SE AZ. In one sense, it was extraordinary trip, but in the the FEPO sense, it was a major cross-country dip.

The third hope: The aforementioned road trip was back on for summer of 2019.  FEPO was going to happen this time at King Ranch.  School ends the end of May and the last date to tour the Norias Division at King Ranch was June 3rd. There was a just a sliver of time to drive down to south Texas and get this Owl.

The third setback: Melissa and I had miscommunicated about dates for the road trip, and long story short was that Hamilton tickets were purchased for June 8th.  The Texas FEPO trip was dead in the water.  This realization did not happen until this past November.

The fourth hope: Before I could even muster up a plan B to try to get down to Texas some spring weekend, a huge bright spot emerged and alleviated the crushing despair almost as soon as it began.  Around this same time and through total coincidence, Tommy mentioned that someone in Arizona had not only seen a FEPO but had also posted location information on the listserv!  This birder, Tim Helentjaris, had given a public, detailed account of not just one, but two separate locations where he had found Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls in Arizona!  Reactions seemed mixed–while this public location disclosure of this state-endangered species drew sharp fire from quite a few birders, many other birders took advantage of this rare opportunity and scrambled out to the desert to finally add this very rare Owl to their state or life lists.  In fact, the reports on eBird became so prolific and specific, that eBird hid all FEPO sightings, current and past, for the entire state!  Thankfully I had studied the locations before they went dark and also knew friends that would know the spots too.  Our annual trip to Arizona in February could not come fast enough.  I was beyond excited to not only have a very good shot at seeing this Owl, but to also be able to get it in Arizona with Tommy.  It would mean that I could potentially get all my Owl lifers in just two states, Minnesota and Arizona.  That would mean way more to me than a King Ranch bird any day.

The 2019 FEPO Search in ARIZONA!

Of course I was looking forward to seeing my parents in Arizona, but I was quite anxious to get searching for the Owl. Tommy had taken a couple days off work to help me and had enlisted Caleb Strand and birding buddy Gordon Karre for the hunt.  I’ve been on many adventures with Gordon, and I had heard the legends of Caleb, “The Boy” for quite some time and was looking forward to meeting this young man whose blog I used to read back when he was finding rarities with just a bicycle and binoculars.  This was shaping up to be the ultimate capstone on a quest that was several years in the making. I nervously watched the weather for two weeks leading up to the trip, fearful that rain would squelch our plans. Thankfully, the weather was shaping up to be a sunny day on the day of our search, even if the temps were going to be in the low 30s.

Less than 24 hours after landing in Phoenix on February 16th, I was up at 3 A.M. the next morning waiting for the guys to pick me up at 4:00. I hardly slept that night, especially because Caleb had shared that some friends of his had a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl just before sundown the night before.  And those same friends were spending the night out in the desert and planning to search again in the morning.  We needed to be to the spot just after sunrise, which was around 7:00.  Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls are crepuscular, meaning they are active just after dawn and just before dusk. So our window of time to find a FEPO was short. Thankfully, and by total coincidence, February is when these Owls set up territories and start calling for a mate.  Hearing these birds is crucial to finding them as they are not much bigger than a sparrow and can sit motionless in thick vegetation.  If we could hear one calling, we would be able to find it.

The drive down to the FEPO area was long and dark but full of good conversation of past trips and trips to come. The anticipation was building.  Tommy and Caleb both already had FEPO, but it’s so rare that any sighting is special.  Gordon also had seen the species, but not yet in Arizona or the United States.  Getting off the highway, we had about an hour-long drive on a windy, rough road in the desert. A Great Horned Owl flew across our path as one of the first birds of the day and got the Owl juices flowing.  We finally got to the camp site of Caleb’s friends and after some quick introductions and pleasantries, our group began a half-mile walk to the spot where these other birders had the bird just the night before.  In less than a half hour and without using a tape, we heard that coveted sound: a scratchy tooting that just kept going and going. Maybe this was easier than the King Ranch! Now the race was on to spot the bugger. Caleb

Caleb was taking charge of the mission and how to proceed. The Boy has extensive FEPO experience for his young age and knew what he was doing.  It was interesting for me to observe how Tommy was letting his protegé-turned-equal take the wheel.  Clearly, Tommy has a lot of respect for Caleb as a birder and was relaxed to let Caleb work. But the master and his padowan laid eyes on the bird simultaneously.  And just like that, I had seen my last Owl species that calls America home.

FEPO

Pop can-sized Owls hidden in thickets are why you need a Caleb and Tommy.  Eventually we got some unobstructed looks.  Note the rusty colored tail, a field mark indicated by its name.

FEPO

FEPOFEPONote the black, false “eyes” on the back of its head to ward off predators.

FEPOHere you can see a white throat patch that is visible when it vocalizes.FEPOThis is a short clip of the FEPO vocalizing.

Here is a wide-angle shot of the habitat of the FEPO. The Owl is in this photo in the center in a tree just above a prickly pear cactus.

IMG_4824

FEPOWe enjoyed this Owl for the better part of an hour.  For most of that time it stayed on this perch but eventually flew off.  We did track it down again, but it went into deeper, thicker vegetation with worse views.

The only thing left to do now was to take a group photo to commemorate the feat–something that should always be done for the “biggest” of birds.

FEPO group photoThe views here are spectacular, even more so after just freshly lifering on Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl to complete the 19-Owl sweep. I don’t know about the rest of the guys, but there was definitely a bonce in my step on the way out.

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As we walked to the car, plans were already taking shape for an immediate, epic mega chase in SE AZ.  That bird, along with some other great lifers will be featured in the next post. Honestly, though, they take a backseat to the Owl.  This was the bird of the trip for me.

Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due

A huge shout-out and thanks goes to Tim Helentjaris.  I know he caught a lot of grief for sharing his discovery, but he’s a definitely a hero in my book.  Tim’s intrepid exploring led to some great finds that delighted many birders, myself included.  His generous information came at the perfect time when things were looking hopeless for my FEPO attempts.  Furthermore, to be able to get this lifer in Arizona with my friends was pretty special.  I would have spent a lot of money and time going after a bird in Texas that wouldn’t have been nearly as memorable, so this was a relief as much as it was a joy.  It was a perfect ending to the Owl quest.  Thank you, Tim!

Thanks also to Caleb for leading the trip and doing all the driving(!) and thanks to Gordon for going along and sharing in yet another Owl adventure.  Finally, I have to mention my buddy Tommy’s role in all this.  Several years ago, after going after Elegant Trogon and Painted Redstart, it was Tommy who suggested we do some night-owling around Phoenix.  At the time I had probably fewer than 200 birds to my name, so I was game as I was just happy to go after anything new.  That night Tommy got me great looks at Western Screech-Owl and Elf Owl.  Little did I know that it was the beginning of the end of seeing all the western U.S. Owls.  I never imagined I would see them all until 2016 when Tommy inspired myself and many others–seeing all 19 Owls in one year (TOBY or Tommy’s Owl Big Year).  Even though six of those owls were lifers for him that year, he was undaunted in his pursuit.  Then when he achieved his goal, I started to think it was possible for someone like me to eventually see all the Owls too.  I knew it would take me longer because of my life stage, but the goal was set: one day I was going to see all 19.  And so over the years, Tommy and I have embarked on many Owl adventures together.  He has helped me get my Western Screech, Elf, Barn, Spotted, Northern Pygmy, Whiskered Screech, Flammulated, and Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls.  So, thank you, Tommy, for all the help and the great memories along the way!  The Owl saga is finally complete.  Then again, there are only two Owls Tommy and I have never seen together: Northern Saw-whet and Short-eared…

Some Factoids

It took me seven years to see all the Owl species in the U.S.  All lifers were seen in Minnesota or Arizona.

I have been to Arizona eight times as a birder. I lifered on Owls on six of those trips.

This FEPO adventure ranks third place in all my birding adventures with the Greater Sage-Grouse story taking top honors followed by the Boreal Owl adventure last winter.

There are several species of Owls I have only seen once: Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Northern Pygmy-Owl, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Spotted Owl, and Flammulated Owl.

My favorite Owl is the Boreal Owl.  Second favorite is red-morph Eastern Screech-Owl.  Third is Northern Hawk Owl and fourth is the Great Gray Owl.

My most wanted Owl right now is a Northern Saw-whet Owl for Kandiyohi County.

The 19

Here is a photo collection of all the U.S. Owl species; they are in the order of when I lifered on them.  These photos are all mine, and some of the photos have never been shared on the blog before–I’ve had many birding outings that haven’t been documented here yet.

#1 Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl

#2 Great Gray Owl

Great Gray Owl

#3 Barred Owl

Barred Owl

#4 Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl

#5 Northern Hawk Owl

Northern Hawk Owl

#6 Eastern Screech-Owl

Eastern Screech-Owl

#7 Burrowing OwlBurrowing Owl#8 Long-eared Owl

Long-eared Owl

#9 Western Screech-Owl

Western Screech-Owl

#10 Elf Owl

Elf Owl

#11 Northern Pygmy-Owl

Northern Pygmy-Owl

#12 Spotted Owl

Spotted Owl

#13 Barn Owl

Barn Owl

#14 Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl#15 Northern Saw-whet Owl

Northern Saw-whet Owl

#16 in 2016  Whiskered Screech-Owl

Whiskered Screech-Owl

#17 in 2017  Flammulated Owl

Flammulated Owl

#18 in 2018  Boreal Owl

Boreal Owl

#19 in 2019  Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl

FEPO

The 2018 AZ FEPO Search: When a Trip Goes Sideways

This trip originally took place in April 2018 with the goal searching for my final American Owl species, the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl.  A first blog installment was published in June, and a draft of this final installment was started in July.  Only now, almost a year after the trip, have I concluded this story.  Whether it was the busy-ness of life or the overwhelming amount of material from this trip alone, I just never got around to writing it up. Though the blog has been quiet for a long time, many OTHER birding adventures have also been enjoyed.  Hopefully, they will also make it on to the blog soon.

We woke up Sunday morning from our discount Sierra Vista hotel, saying goodbye to the same desk clerk who checked us in just a few hours prior. There was urgency. We had to get to the Ash Canyon B&B to catch the Montezuma Quail show.  The owner, Mary Jo, had been posting regularly about the appearance of a pair of these Quail that had been coming to her yard. ‘Yard’ is hardly an accurate term.  It is more like a bird sanctuary. Mary Jo has dozens of feeders set up to accommodate nectar drinkers, seed eaters, and ground eaters along with chairs and blinds to accommodate the birders and photographers willing to pay the fee just to sit and watch.  And for reliable Montezuma Quail, I was more than willing to throw my money in the jar on the gate. This is a bird I had honestly put in the “Yeah Right, Like I’ll Ever See That” Category. But now we had a chance, and a good chance too if we could make it on time for the early morning once-and-done appearance.  We arrived and Mary Jo was going about her morning ritual of filling feeders and doing whatever else she does to create such awesomeness. In whispers, we learned that the Quail had not yet shown themselves. This was good news.  She directed us where to sit, where to watch for them along her fence, and to be quiet and don’t move! We followed her instructions to a T. There is indeed much to occupy one’s attention while you wait for a rare bird–Mexican Jays, Acorn Woodpeckers, etc. Everything is worth checking out, especially if one turns out to be an unexpected lifer.

Cassin's Finch

Cassin's FinchWe barely had any time to enjoy the Cassin’s Finch warm-up band before the real head-banging act materialized suddenly, shocking and awing a crowd too afraid to move or breathe, lest the show be over for good.

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It was stunning, a quintessential SE AZ birding moment.IMG_2719

Montezuma Quail

Montezuma QuailIt was not the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl I craved, but the Montezuma Quail was one of those birds that can make an entire trip.  Not only was it a key lifer for Steve and me, but this was Tommy’s first time photographing this species.  It was a high for the entire group.

When we left Mary Jo’s, we started talking about another resident Quail species, the Scaled Quail.  It turns out we were in close proximity to where they could be found.  Tommy took us to an open grassland area near the foothills of the Huachucas where he had the species previous years.  We ended up hearing one calling from a large, fenced in government vehicle lot.  Eventually we got eyes on it, but ominous warnings on government signs kept us from trespassing for closer looks, even though the place seemed abandoned.

Scaled QuailOn our to-do list was to hit up Miller Canyon next to try to get Steve a Spotted Owl lifer, among others.  This whole time that Fan-tailed Warbler report was still on all of our minds.  Strangely, there had been no word the previous day or this morning. It was odd considering it was such a mega rarity. I finally heard from Chris Rohrer that the Warbler had been seen Saturday by numerous people AND that it was still there this morning.  We decided to do Miller Canyon as planned since we were so close.  What hadn’t been decided yet was if we were going after the Warbler.  A chase to the Chiricahuas in far southeastern AZ would mean the FEPO plans would have to be nixed–we had originally planned to try for FEPO again Sunday night and Monday morning before we flew out.  Though the Warbler would have been a lifer for Tommy, he graciously said the decision was mine to continue with the FEPO plans or abandon them.  Steve also said it didn’t matter to him as he was enjoying a plethora of new birds wherever we went.  As we hiked up Miller Canyon, I didn’t know what to do.  It made it tough for me to enjoy some of the canyon’s residents, many of which were lifers for Steve.

Hutton's Vireo

Hutton’s Vireo

Painted Redstart

Painted Redstart

Hepatitic Tanager

Hepatic Tanager

Arizona Woodpecker

Arizona Woodpecker

Greater Pewee

Greater Pewee

Unfortunately for Steve, the reliable Spotted Owls were not so reliable this day. Despite a solid effort of scanning the trees in the narrow canyon, we could not find them.  It was time to hike down canyon and finally make a decision about what to do regarding this Fan-tailed Warbler.   A quiet, western empid struck a pose and put the dilemma on brief pause as we pondered its ID.  Hammond’s or Dusky?

IMG_2776Another ID question prolonged the decision.  Anybody know what species this lizard is?

lizard

As we started to leave Miller Canyon behind us, the trip before us became more clear in my head.  I knew FEPO would be a longshot.  We dipped the day before, and Tommy hadn’t seen any on his scouting trips leading up to my trip.  Moreover, FEPO is pretty easy to get in south Texas on the King Ranch.  I couldn’t pass up on the opportunity to chase a phenomenal Warbler lifer for all of us.  I mean, how often does Tommy get a chance to lifer in Arizona? The decision really was a no-brainer even if it was a bit tough to give up on the main goal.  That’s birding, though.  You have to take advantage of targets of opportunity, especially of this magnitude.  When I talked with Tommy and Steve and shared these thoughts, I’ll never forget how the smile grew on Tommy’s face. Yep, it was the right decision.

So we left the Huachucas and were off to the Chiricahuas, a 2+ hour trip.  Tommy was so confident that we would find the Warbler that we even stopped for a sit-down lunch along the way.  The site of the Fan-tailed Warbler was the yard of Rick Taylor, a well-known guide and field guide author, and Rick’s yard was located in a lush canyon known as Whitetail Canyon in the foothills of the Chiris.  When we arrived at Rick’s yard, we had trouble finding a place to park.  That was a moot point because we saw the large, bright star of the show in Rick’s lawn right out the car window!  We did get parked so we could enjoy this lifer up close as it walked about the lush green grass in Rick’s magical bird yard.  According to Rick, this behavior is atypical of this ABA Code-4 species.  Normally it is more skulky.

Fan-tailed WarblerFan-tailed WarblerIf the Fan-tailed Warbler weren’t enough, the regulars of Rick’s yard were worthy of their own awe.  The place was positively buzzing with bird activity.  Among the many species of birds were a couple more lifers for me, the bulky Blue-throated Hummingbird and a Calliope Hummingbird.  Both were quick sightings that didn’t allow for photos.  This gorgeous male Scott’s Oriole was cooperative, though.  It was a nice redemptive photo from my lifer butt-shot in Hunter Canyon a few years ago.

Scott's OrioleWhile we were at Rick’s yard visiting with Rick and his wife, there was another young birder there from New Mexico.  I forget his name, but it was this kid’s 14th birthday, and his parents had driven him several hundred miles for his birthday to see this mega rarity.  Cool parents, huh? The kid was no slouch birder either as he was identifying birds left and right.  In fact, as we were leaving, he spotted two raptors overhead and announced they were Zone-tailed Hawks! That was a lifer for Steve and me and one that we were hoping for.

Zone-tailed HawkWith one Mexican Warbler under our belts, it was time to go after another that had been showing in the Chiricahuas, the Slate-throated Redstart.  I had tried for this ABA Code-3 a few years ago in Hunter Canyon.  We barely had enough daylight to get all the way up and over the Chiris to Pinery Canyon where it had been seen.  The views along the way were spectacular even if the road was a bit stressful with its curves and steep drop-offs.  I’m glad Steve was driving.

Chircahuas

Eventually we got to Pinery Canyon with less than an hour to look before dark.  We could not come up with it, though.  It was time to find shelter for the night.  We decided to stay in nearby Wilcox and try again for the Redstart in the morning.  The FEPO trip had turned into a trip of collecting ABA rarities.  We were in too deep now to not try to get this Warbler too.

That next morning as we left the hotel, we saw some Ravens in the parking lot and rolled down the windows to listen.  The call confirmed that they were our lifer Chihuahuan Ravens, a nice bonus bird.  We finally made the climb back up to Pinery Canyon and were joined by a few other birders along with a fresh helping of optimism.

Pinery Canyon

We hiked up the canyon and looked and listened.  A cooperative Yellow-eyed Junco occupied my attention while I waited for the main attraction.

Yellow-eyed Junco

After about a half hour or so of searching, Tommy was further up the canyon when he shouted, “Josh!”  Tommy had found the Slate-throated Redstart, and Steve and I scrambled up the canyon to get to where Tommy was.  The bird was staying to the treetops but did give us a couple quick looks.

Slate-throated Redstart

Slate-throated Redstart

So what does one do to celebrate two Mexican Warblers when you are in the Chiricahuas and you still have a healthy cushion of time before your flight?  Obviously, you go get the Mexican Chickadees at the highest elevations of this mountain range!  This is a bird I never, ever thought I’d get because of how far one has to travel and how high one has to go to get it.  This was our moment.

We went to Barfoot Park to try for the Chickadee.  This place was incredible.  The pine cathedral and its solitude were peaceful and inspiring.  Plus, there were bearded Chickadees somewhere in our midst.  After about ten minutes or so, we stumbled onto a quartet of them.  Unfortunately, the looks weren’t the best and they weren’t too cooperative for photos. But I shouldn’t complain about such triviality when we had all the experiences we did.

Mexican ChickadeeWhen you are literally on top of the world and have seen the Mexican Chickadee (and all kinds of other crazy good birds), a celebratory selfie is in order.

chickadee selfie

When we finally left the Chiricahuas, we still had some time to spare, so we stopped at Willcox Lake to look for another lifer, the Western Sandpiper.  Tommy spied a small group of them, and these birds were extremely cooperative.  I was excited to see these birds in breeding plumage.

Western SandpiperCinnamon Teal never get old to this birder, and they were quite cooperative in Willcox as well.

Cinnamon TealThe trip was really over at this point.  Steve and I had a flight to catch.  That didn’t mean there wasn’t time to make one quick stop when we got close to my parents’ house in Maricopa.  Tommy spotted this Burrowing Owl.

Burrowing Owl

Now Burrowing Owls are not rare around Maricopa, and we have all seen them several times. So why stop? It turns out that in all of our owling together, Tommy and I had seen 15 of the 19 Owl species together, but the Burrowing Owl was not one of them.  Now all that’s left for us to complete the 19-Owl collection jointly are Short-eared Owl, Northern Saw-whet Owl, and, of course, the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl.

While this trip did not go as planned, it was an incredible and memory-filled trip and I have zero complaints  I ended up with 18 lifers, Steve had 34, and Tommy had 1.  Not only that, but we ended up with three species that were ABA Code-3 and above.  I’m glad Steve joined me on this quest and am thankful for Tommy’s assistance in helping us find so many of these birds.  Great birds with great friends are what make trips special.  And now that I’ve finally finished this trip account nearly one year later, I’m very excited to tell you about another trip with friends. 😉

The AZ FEPO Search: Boots on the Ground

For some time it has been a goal of mine to see all 19 regular species of Owls that reside in the U.S.  Getting the Boreal Owl this past January was a dream come true in itself and put me within one Owl of reaching my goal, with the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl being the holdout. FEPO can be notched relatively easily if you’re willing to pay a hefty fee and travel to the King Ranch in south Texas. And I was. Our family had planned to take a very large cross-country road trip this summer, and my plan was to hit up King Ranch on the journey. Plans changed though. It’s funny how owning two houses for nearly a year with no end in sight will do that.

Eventually sweet relief came in the housing situation in March, but it was too late to resurrect any mega road trip plans. I did start talking to my buddy Tommy DeBardeleben, though, about trying to recreate his AZ FEPO magic from 2016. FEPOs are resident in small numbers at Organ Pipe National Monument along the U.S./Mexican border. They are very tough to come by there, but Tommy and others have proved it is indeed possible.  Success would be even sweeter in AZ considering I’d be with Tommy who’s helped me get so many other Owl lifers.  After discussing the decision with “Screw Texas” Tommy and cajoling my buddy Steve Gardner into making the trip with me, plans were set for a fast weekend trip in mid-April.

April unleashed some of the worst winter weather we’d seen with blizzard after blizzard pummeling us. The MN forecast for our AZ weekend was grim. Steve and I planned to leave Friday after work, and all day long we wondered if we’d make it out of the state. Getting to the airport was sketchy. The temp was hovering right at freezing, causing the road to quickly become ice-covered from the snow/rain which slowed us down. The main thrust of the storm would start that night after we were scheduled to take off. And it was forecast to be a doozy–lots of snow, lots of wind, lots of closures.  We finally made it to the airport and as we waited for the flight, Steve and I distracted ourselves from the possibility of a canceled flight by keeping up with the latest bird happenings on FB. One really caught our eye–a Fan-tailed Warbler was just reported in the Chiricahuas in SE AZ. Steve and I had never even heard of this Mexican Warbler before the posting. It was interesting, but we were focused on the Owl prize. Besides, a Warbler could quickly disappear…

Steve and I were relieved to actually get on the plane (the airport was predicted to be shut down sometime in the night and all the next day).  Getting the plane off the ground was another story. We sat on the tarmac for a long time.

airplane wing

Shortly after we de-iced, we got word that we couldn’t take off until the rain turned to snow, which was frustrating since the rain had been snow when we got on the plane. The possibility of this trip getting nixed was growing. There would be no flight out on Saturday.  Finally, though, the Captain gave the good word and we were in the sky only one hour behind schedule.

The Parents extended their snowbirding long enough (smartly) to not only avoid the lingering MN winter but to also be there to pick us up from the airport, be home base for the excursion, and lend us a vehicle. Thanks Mom and Dad!  Late that night we rendezvoused with Tommy at their house.  There was time for a 3-hour “nap” before our morning alarms would wake us for our 2-hour drive south.

Exhausted as we were, we made it to Organ Pipe. It was FEPO time. Alamo Canyon, Organ Pipe National MonumentOwls aside, I think Steve and I were just enjoying not being in a blizzard. Our sympathies for our families back home were quickly eclipsed by the beautiful weather we were enjoying. We picked a great weekend to be in southern Arizona.

Expectations for FEPO or any new lifers were low as we began the hike up Alamo Canyon. I mistakenly thought I might get one new non-FEPO lifer in Organ Pipe.  Shortly into the hike Tommy announced the presence of a Pacific-slope Flycatcher. Thankfully he did not announce the presence of a smuggler, though anyone smuggling in a load of Mexican FEPOs would have been met with open arms.

smuggle sign

As we continued our FEPOless, smugglerless hike up Alamo Canyon, we notched a heard only MacGillivray’s Warbler lifer. I totally forgot about the fact that we’d be in Arizona during migration. What else might we find? Well, a Gray Vireo was certainly not on my radar but was now on my life list. It was great to see one, but I was kinda saving that one for Janet Witzeman to show me–eventually I’ll blog about that backstory.

Gray VireoNot long after the Gray Vireo fun it was time to head back down canyon sans FEPO. A petty consolation came in the form of another Vireo lifer we missed on the way up, one of the Cassin’s variety.

Cassin's Vireo

Back at the trailhead for Alamo Canyon, we paused to figure out what was next. FEPO searching in the heat of the day is pretty useless, and the Organ Pipe area really held nothing for us (especially after the bonus lifers).  We’d have to travel a significant distance if we wanted to get in some more good birding. We landed on going to Madera Canyon to Owl at night. This was not a deviation from the original FEPO plans; one of the carrots to make the trip appealing to Steve was to do some other Owling as well. He could potentially rack up several Owl lifers in one night.  FEPO searching would resume Sunday night and Monday morning since we would spend Saturday night somewhere near Madera.

By the time we left Organ Pipe, the morning was still quite young, so we had plenty of time to do some daylight birding before the night Owling.  With mindset properly switched, I was ready for some great SE AZ action during the FEPO break. A couple notables on the drive, such as Prairie Falcons and a Crested Caracara, only amped up the excitement.  Our first stop was the famed Santa Gertrudis Lane. Several high-profile birds had been there of late, such as Sinaloa Wren and some Rufous-backed Robins.  As we walked to the Wren spot marked by a weird plastic tricycle from last century, we picked up another couple lifers, flyover Gray Hawks and a confiding pair of Dusky-capped Flycatchers. I was struck by its petite size compared to other Myiarchus species and surprised at how much I enjoyed this lifer.

Dusky-capped Flycatcher

We missed the Wren despite a solid effort, and we nearly missed the Robins too. As we were hiking out, we met a group of birders and traded intel. We had bad news for them; they had good news for us. They had seen three Robins where we had walked by! The nice guy even guided us right to them. I don’t think we ever would have found these Thrush statues without his help. This was a good moment, vindication for a failed attempt in January.

Rufous-backed RobinRufous-backed Robin

After Santa Gertrudis it was on to the De Anza Trail at Tubac to look for some Rose-throated Becards. We were all going in blind. We didn’t really know where to look in the towering Cottonwoods. Like the Wren, it was a bust. We did walk away with more Gray Hawk sightings, however brief due to the limited sky windows in the canopy. A juvenile did provide one quick photo op.

Gray HawkBy this point in the afternoon, it was time we made our way to Madera Canyon. Not wanting to waste any burning daylight, we squeezed out every minute stopping briefly at Florida Canyon for Rufous-capped Warbler for Steve and Black-capped Gnatcatcher for both of us. Nada on those, but the effort was minimal.  At least a Black-throated Gray Warbler was an nice lifer bonus for Steve. Next up was a stop at Proctor Road to try one more time for the Gnatcatcher. We did find a Gnatcatcher that was more Black-capped-like that Black-tailed, but the waning daylight and the bird’s fidgety behavior did not allow us to clinch the key field marks for an ID beyond a reasonable doubt. The regularity of this species makes it highly likely that it will eventually land on my list, just not this day.

With darkness settling in, it was time for the night show in Madera Canyon proper. Almost immediately we heard the barking of Elf Owls. It was a lifer for Steve and a sought-after Owl do-over for me. My lifer sighting a few years ago was brief and poor. I had wanted a better photo (that showed eyeballs) of this Owl for some time. Finally.

Elf OwlElf OwlElf OwlAfter enjoying the Elf show for some time, we Owled on for Steve. Lofty plans of looking for Whiskered Screech, Flam, and Spotted Owls collided with the reality of our extreme fatigue. We mustered enough energy to look for the easiest of those, the Whiskered Screech. Only one uncooperative bird was enough for us to be successful, but the brevity of the observation left a lot to be desired. But at this point, all we really desired was sleep. We drove on to Sierra Vista to spend the night so we could look for some reported Montezuma Quail at Ash Canyon B&B early the next morning.  Then it would be back to Organ Pipe to resume FEPO searching, or so we thought…

The Kentucky Derby is Won at the Finish Line

I know I promised a post on the local birding scene, but it’s going to have to wait on yet another lifer post.  My only failed lifer chase in the last post was a Kentucky Warbler, the second such time I’ve pursued this bird in the past couple years. Thanks to Brown County birding guru, Brian Smith, there was another opportunity. A few days ago, Brian  discovered a Kentucky Warbler seemingly on territory along the KC Road in the Minnesota River Valley just northwest of New Ulm. The Valley is the perfect place for a Kentucky to show up and set up shop.  The mature, deciduous forests create shady understory haunts, complete with quaint mountain-like streams. Additionally, being in the southern 1/4 of the state, this part of the Valley has a more southern, humid feel that might feel inviting to a barely out-of-range Warbler whose northern reaches include southern Iowa and northern Illinois.

Despite this being a good fit for the Kentucky Warbler, this bird was apparently a Brown County first record.  And in spite of that status, this particular bird did not seem to attract the same attention from the MN birding community that Gerry Hoekstra’s Rice County bird did a month ago.  There were a few souls who ventured into the scenic river valley to get this tic. I was waiting for an opportune time but was not feeling rushed since the bird seemed like it was going to be around for the summer.  Clearly I had underestimated my opponent. I arrived early this morning expecting to hear my lifer immediately (these birds are loud) and then have to work for a photo of the skulker. There were plenty of interesting bird songs to listen to on the KC Road–a calling Yellow-billed Cuckoo, a distant Wood Thrush, the scratchy song of a Scarlet Tanager, but no Kentucky. I was patient too, giving it over an hour, even double- and triple-checking that I had the right location. Nothing. This would be my third dip on the Kentucky Warbler, two in as many months. Frustrated as I was, there really was nothing more to do but go home.

There’s something about birders that they have undying hope to the very end, or, more likely, just never want to stop birding at the very end. The KC road was birdy, and the stretch lying to the west looked interesting.  I hadn’t come in that way, but I could certainly go home that direction. The thought did occur to me that I could find my own brand new Kentucky Warbler. Why not? This place was perfect.  As I rolled along the gravel road slowly with the windows down, I was imagining what it would be like to actually hear the clear, ringing song of a Kentucky that I’d only ever listened to on my app. It could happen, I told myself. Almost as soon as that thought went through my head, an actual Kentucky Warbler belted out his song right by the road as I went past! Even though I had a hunch (more like a long-shot hope), I was still somewhat in shock. After all, this was a half-mile away from the original location. I can only imagine it is the same bird considering the first location was devoid of the KEWA. And from what I could tell, he had upgraded his summer accommodations, settling in at a picturesque, babbling tributary of the Minnesota River.

It’s true what they say about Kentuckys being easier heard than seen, but I was afforded a few brief looks at this stunning Warbler as he sang over his new territory.

Kentucky Warbler

Kentucky WarblerKentucky WarblerI am still shocked I got to see this Warbler after dipping in the original spot. Getting a photo was a wonderful bonus as I never counted on getting one in the first place even when I thought the bird would be a cinch. That’s birding for you, though. It’s never over until it’s over and doesn’t always play out like you think it will.  This was a good reminder to bird hard to the end and expect the unexpected.

Mopping Up in Central AZ

Seeing as how winter is very much still alive in Minnesota, I’m not that late in writing up a report from a late January trip to visit to Arizona. Over the years the Arizona trips and respective lifers have piled up. While there is no end in sight for the former, the latter is definitely petering out. The remnant that remains for me in central AZ is a geographically scattered bunch of birds that never made their way to the top of the wish list, heck, not even the top 10 on any given trip. Gone are the days of going after some cool Owl or Trogon. Instead I’ve entered the errand-birding stage for this area, finally going after some of these ‘nobodies’. Ironically, though, these passed-over birds have become some of the most coveted since they are all that remain for this junkie looking for his next lifer fix. In fact, the one I wanted most was Prairie Falcon.

We had just a couple hours of daylight after we arrived in AZ that first day. I couldn’t not take a stab at this lifer in the agricultural fields around Stanfield where some Prairie Falcons had been reported. Dad, Melissa, and Evan accompanied me on this little quest. Wintering raptors are ubiquitous in these flats with one on nearly every pole top. Time was diminishing quickly, so my identification of most of these birds was reduced to Hawk sp. Once I saw a raptor was a hawk, we got the car rolling again just trying to cover more miles and poles to get the good one. I may have been in a hurry, but there is always time for a road-side Burrowing Owl.

Burrowing OwlFinally, I found the sought-after silhouette at the eleventh hour.

Prairie FalconPrairie FalconMy clean-up operations are not haphazard–my strategy is to try to go after anything rare first and save the most common for later if need be. One of those rarities was the Rufous-backed Robin. This past winter was exceptional for this species with many records popping up in AZ. So that next day, my friend Gordon Karre took me on a mini-outing to stake out a gorgeous backyard in Paradise Valley to hopefully get one of two Robins that had been eating the berries of pyracantha bushes. The problem was that time and berries had run out for this particular Robin pair. We dipped.

So Gordon and I moved on to another target just a couple miles away before retiring the birding efforts for the day. The Bronzed Cowbird, often a forgotten possibility on all these trips, was now at the top of the queue.  Gordon and I found a known wintering flock in Paradise Valley at some horse stables.

Bronzed CowbirdWith that target achieved, the birding was put on hold until the next morning where Gordon, my Dad, and I would follow the same strategy–go after a key rarity and snag as many other lifers along the way. That rarity was the Ruddy Ground-Dove. Though we were going to originally go after one in the Phoenix area, it became a no-show just a couple days before the trip.  We were then forced to go south to the Red Rock feedlot where several had been seen.

Initially, we had trouble finding these birds as we drove the perimeter of the massive feedlot and scanned for birds. There were some interesting distractions among the droves of common birds–a Vermilion Flycatcher, Lark Sparrows, a flock of Yellow-headed Blackbirds, and this lovely female Lark Bunting.

Lark BuntingFinally we got on to the flock(!) of the rare Doves, finding five or six in all. Here are four of them with an Inca Dove that has identity issues, all huddling to keep warm on this chilly morning.

Ruddy Ground-DoveRuddy Ground-DoveIMG_2229Ruddy Ground-DoveThe plan was to cruise through the Santa Cruz Flats on the way home to try for two birds I had long been holding in reserve: Crested Caracara and Mountain Plover. The Santa Cruz Flats are fun place to bird where one can not only stumble across a Mark Ochs lifer but also see cool stuff like Harris’s Hawks.

Harris's Hawk

And a bonus Prairie Falcon.

Prairie FalconThen, thanks to our trusty guide, we finally got onto one of the two targets–a whole heap of Crested Caracaras. Crested CaracaraCrested CaracaraNot long after, Gordon had found us some Mountain Plovers.

Mountain Plover

With some of the longtime holes finally filled in on the list, there wasn’t much to do on this trip in the lifer department especially considering our time was limited. Even still, the birds around the parents’ house provide just as much entertainment and constant opportunities for photo improvement. This year it was the Verdin’s turn for a better photo.

VerdinSome birds practically throw themselves at you when you’re just out walking in the neighborhood. Vermilion Flycatchers seem to be becoming more prolific in the area of Maricopa where Mom and Dad live. I don’t mind.

Vermilion FlycatcherVermilion FlycatcherLast, but certainly not least, checking on our neighborhood buddy is an annual tradition.

Burrowing OwlSo that’s it from this trip. Pretty tame by previous standards, but that will more than be made up for on an upcoming post detailing another trip to Arizona that was focused exclusively on birding. But first, we have to cover another excursion to Duluth. There was an irruption going on this winter, after all.

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.