Bird Local and Save

Save time. Save money. Save headaches. Save the fun for another day. The longer I bird, the more rewarding I find local birding. Most anyone can see what birds they want if they have the means and time to hop in a car and drive across the state or get on a plane and go someplace new. But not everyone can see what they want in a limited geographical area even if they have all the time and money in the world. Racking up the numbers in the near-perfect 24×36 mile rectangle that is Kandiyohi County is tough. While I haven’t jumped on the popular 5-Mile Radius bandwagon, I do take my birding pretty seriously in these 864 square miles.  Birding a relatively small area makes the victories all the sweeter and the misses even more anguishing.  Case in point was an Eastern Whip-poor-will found by Dan Orr on April 30 in the far NW corner of the county. Dan found the bird during the day surprisingly, and not surprisingly, I was tied up with shuttling kids around to their activities. I couldn’t make the 40-minute drive until dark, which is okay considering hearing a nightjar is much more probable than seeing one.  Joel Schmidt was on the scene before me having no luck finding it. Then, two minutes before I arrived, he heard it. I stayed on over an hour without hearing a whip or a will. Ugh.

Yet another stinging miss was a Summer Tanager in Randy Frederickson’s yard in May of 2017 while I was across the country. I literally got the news just after landing in Arizona. Talk about bad timing.  All I had to cling to was a thin hope of another one based on Randy having seen this species in his yard a few times over the last couple decades. It turns out that my hope was not that thin. History repeated itself almost exactly a year later, except I was in the right place at the right time for once to get #258. Twice I’ve made long-distance car chases for this species, and here I had one just across town.  Sadly, that story has repeated itself all too often for me with other species.

Summer Tanager

Not long after I enjoyed this Tanager with Randy and his wife in their yard, Randy and I were out birding one morning when I picked up county bird #259*.  *This bird, if accepted, would be a second state record. I’ll write more on that if we have success with it being accepted. If not, just forget this paragraph even existed.

Serendipitous rarities at the local level are always received with great joy since they are completely unexpected. You can’t get too upset about the really rare birds you don’t have on your county list.  However, it’s the birds that you know show up annually but are still missing from the list that really get under the skin. Two of those for me were Sanderling and Henslow’s Sparrow. My battle plan was to hit up shorebird habitat hard during the end of May to hopefully get a Sanderling, a late migrant. Then, during June, I would make it my daily chore to go beat the innumerable grasslands in the county for a Henslow’s. I was looking forward to this struggle, actually. A few visiting birders laid waste to my perfect plans by finding both my Henslow’s AND my Sanderling for me in the SAME day!

County listing gurus, Andy Nyhus and Dedrick Benz, answered my case-of-beer promotion for any non-county resident that finds me a new Kandiyohi bird when they dug up a Henslow’s Sparrow on territory in the far SE corner of the county. It was a bittersweet #260–good to finally get it, but now my June birding plans were in shambles.

Henslow's Sparrow I have wanted this Sparrow for a long time. The last time one was in the county was in 2013, my first summer of birding. I did try for that one, but I was so green that I didn’t really know how to try. Plus I later found out that I was in the wrong spot by like a quarter mile. Needless to say, with this year’s find I immediately raced down to that corner of the county, making me slightly late for meeting up with a friend that morning.  Getting the bird was a cinch as it could be heard from the parking lot. I spent a little time with it and then raced back to my meeting.  When that meeting ended at noon, I promptly went to the liquor store to make good on a promise. I made my purchase but was disappointed to find out that Andy and Dedrick were no longer in the county to collect payment and had vanished like the DeLorean, leaving fiery trails of good birds for others to marvel at.  Two of those birds were some Sanderlings and Ruddy Turnstones that same afternoon on a beach at Lake Minnewaska in neighboring Pope County. The find actually pushed me out the door that very same day to start checking similar beaches in this county. I checked several but did not go to the beach at Green Lake in Spicer.  Though I thought of it, I instead went to lakes to the south. It’s a good thing that county-listing expert, Herb Dingmann, had the same hunch after ticking Andy and Dedrick’s Pope finds. He did stop at Green Lake and found the same pair of species! Twenty minutes after his call, Steve and I were on site, enjoying our latest county bird. This was #261 for me.

Sanderling

Ruddy Turnstone is not a shabby bird either, only my second in the county.

Ruddy Turnstone

Sanderling Ruddy Turnstone

So just like that I was out of birding targets for the immediate future. I almost didn’t know what to do with myself. At my current number for the county, I am essentially waiting on vagrants to show up to get the number higher. There are a couple more regular hold-outs which I will pursue come fall and winter, but what does one do now? I have never understood the appeal of 87-county listing, but maybe this is it how it begins–the local list gets saturated with good birds and one must look across borders for new tics to keep the thrill alive.  Or maybe it happens innocently when a slew of good birds shows up at the ponds at work in neighboring Meeker County. The ponds have been drawn down this year making it tidy little hotspot during migration.

A confiding pair of Northern Pintails that hung out for a week was a fun Meeker tic.

Northern PintailFun as the Pintails were, nothing could make the Meeker slope more slippery like the 1-2-3 punch of Willet, Snowy Egret, and Caspian Tern. The latter two were seen on the same day as I was hurriedly leaving work to chase the Curlew Sandpiper.

WilletAfter work one day, coworker and birding buddy Brad Nelson had seen some smaller Egrets fly over and land at the ponds but wasn’t able to investigate. He asked if I could check it out. Though the Curlew Sandpiper was the priority, I told him I could give it a quick once-over. It’s a good thing, too, because Brad’s suspicion on the Egrets was right. This pair of Snowy Egrets became our first eBird flagged rarity for work, and it allowed Brad to tie the record for being #1 in Meeker.

Snowy EgretAs I scanned the ponds in my haste to get to the Curlew, I nearly missed this Caspian Tern trying to blend in with the Forster’s. Caspian is the better of the two Terns here, and it was the bird that officially crowned Brad Nelson the King of Meeker County.  Congrats, Brad!Caspian TernPerhaps the county listing starts innocently with “just a quick trip” 6 miles from the county line to pick up Dan Orr’s Stearns County Mockingbirds.

Northern MockingbirdOr maybe it happens when you are driving down the Kandi-Swift County line road and find yourself staring at the Swift side of the line.   It’s a good thing I did because it netted me my first real good looks and photos of a Sora. This felt like a lifer, honestly.

SoraThe birding action is too hot at home to be worried about other counties. I’m not and don’t anticipate to be an active 87-lister, though it is fun to add tics when I travel. This spring/summer has produced an abundance of good birds right here in Kandiyohi County, even if they were not new to me. In fact, for the first time ever, I managed to go above the 200 mark in a single year with half the year still to go!  Here are some of the more fun finds I’ve encountered along the way.

Perhaps winning the award for Biggest Surprise was this very late Snowy Owl (April 26!). I had chased some Short-eared Owls (a more expected species at this time) and instead found this guy. Every Minnesota birder will tell you they have looked at countless Wal-Mart bags in fields thinking they had a Snowy Owl.  Given the time period, I was expecting this white mass to actually be a Wal-Mart bag. Nope. This was my fifth Kandiyohi Snowy Owl of this past winter/spring.

Snowy OwlAnother, “What’s that doing here right now?” bird was a presumed nesting pair of White-winged Crossbills this spring found by Steve Gardner in the same place I found a flock last November.

White-winged Crossbill

It was good to connect with two different Red-headed Woodpeckers in the county this year already–not a bird to be taken for granted here by any means.

Red-headed WoodpeckerThough not a rare bird for Kandiyohi County, it’s always good to bump into a Scarlet Tanager too.

Scarlet TanagerThis spring/summer I have many county Seconds, meaning I’ve seen/heard a bird for the second time ever in the county. I was pretty thrilled to discover my second Loggerhead Shrike for the county. I’ve only seen a handful in the entire state, so this was pretty special.

Loggerhead Shrike

Speaking of only seeing a handful of a species in the state, another Second happened when I was looking for my county Sanderling at the Blomkest sewage ponds.  I kicked up a pair of Gray Partridge as I hiked the barbwire perimeter. The exact same scenario played out for me in this spot just two years ago.

Gray Partridge

My favorite Second occurred when I was looking for a year bird, the Orchard Oriole. The Orchard was not a Second, but still a fun bird.

Orchard OrioleI saw this Orchard Oriole along a road between two gravel pits that I have walked many times in the past looking for a county record Blue Grosbeak. Since the record was found last summer and since it’s still not Blue Grosbeak season in my mind, I was not even thinking about that species. The thing about birding is that good finds sometimes happen when you least expect them. I was pretty pumped to finally (after all these years) get a personally found second Kandiyohi County record Blue Grosbeak.

Blue GrosbeakI didn’t have to wait long to get my second county Summer Tanager. County-listing legends, John Hockema and Chris Hockema, found this first-year male at Mt. Tom at Sibley State Park.  Incredibly, other observers found a second Summer Tanager with this one.

Summer TanagerThe Hockema Bros. followed this up immediately with another incredible find at Mt. Tom–my second county Eastern Towhee.

Eastern TowheeContinuing this list of Seconds was my second county observation and first county visual of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo in Randy’s magical yard.

Yellow-billed CuckooThis Hudsonian Godwit was my fourth observation of this species in the county, but this was only my second time seeing one in breeding plumage.

Hudsonian GodwitBirding locally this spring has been absolutely incredible and proof that you really don’t have to go far to find great things. Other fun finds on the road to 200 and beyond included Least Bitterns, Eastern Meadowlarks, Lark Sparrows, a Cerulean Warbler, and more. Even the new yard has had some great action with Common Nighthawks circling over, Purple Finches stopping by the feeders, and a Wood Thrush waking me up one morning with its serenade.

Birding has definitely slowed down the last couple weeks, which is a good thing so I can work on getting caught up on this blog and on various non-birding projects.  Next post (posts?) will highlight an incredible birding trip Steve and I took to Arizona back in April.

An Even Dozen

Anyone who has been keeping up with the sporadic posts of this blog lately knows that my interest in local birding has intensified.  Specifically I’ve been working hard on growing my Kandiyohi County list. My self-imposed mission for the year was to try to pass the legendary Bob Janssen. Doing so would require me to get from 244 to 251 in a single year–a daunting task for sure, but one that I accomplished by mid-summer.  The first six birds (245-250) did not come easily and were the result of a lot of effort, both as an individual and as a part of different groups. The goal bird, #251 (Common Gallinule), on the other hand, was a gift from the efforts of another birder. Little did I know at the time, but gift birds would be the theme for the second half of the year which would hold nearly as many new birds for me as the first half! The last post featured the next such gift, #252, the long sought-after Blue Grosbeak.

#253

That Blue Grosbeak was found in the midst of a major Red Crossbill irruption that was engulfing western Minnesota.  In the days leading up to the Blue Grosbeak, Randy Frederickson and I had been searching high and low for one in our county. At the time of the Blue Grosbeak discovery, I was on a camping trip to Sibley State Park with my brother and his family. Twice I had to ditch the campsite and my family to chase county birds–once to look for Red Crossbills Joel Schmidt found and the other time to nab the Blue Grosbeak. Though unsuccessful on the Red Crossbills that day, we knew from reports in the surrounding counties that our Red Crossbill moment was imminent.  It was like being at a Twins game and waiting for the wave to overtake your section. We did not have to wait long. Just as I was literally towing the camper back home, Randy texted saying he found 4 of the “red bastards” on a golf course in the southwestern part of the county. The Red Crossbill had eluded Randy for nearly three decades. I didn’t have nearly as long of a wait, but I was still in a hurry.  I didn’t even bother unhitching the camper at home as I went straight from Sibley to the Raymond golf course.  When I arrived, I called Randy to find out where he was on the course which was not in use at the time due to flooding from heavy rains.  As we were talking, Randy was approached by the groundskeeper who was questioning what he was doing. The guy turned out to be rather friendly and even drove his golf cart to the clubhouse to pick me up and bring me out to where Randy was! Not long after, he did the same thing for Ron Erpelding. And the three of us enjoyed our second new Kandiyohi bird in as many days.

Red CrossbillThe Red Crossbill irruption was/is nothing short of incredible. This was my first sighting of many just within our county alone. I had several personal finds of this species in the following months, including finding a flock while driving highway speeds and a flyover flock while walking out to my mailbox!

Here is a pair from a flock of about 20 found by Steve Gardner at MinnWest Technology Campus in Willmar.

Red CrossbillThis next picture shows a Red Crossbill that I was disappointed to find this past October. I was actually looking for the other regular Minnesota Crossbill species which was also showing signs of irrupting. Birding can be strange. Somehow I ended up with the much more difficult Crossbill species before getting the supposedly much easier White-winged variety. I was the only serious Kandi birder who still lacked this species. I desperately wanted to see wing bars on this bird.

Red Crossbill

#254

During late summer and early fall, I managed to get an Eastern Screech-Owl in two neighboring counties but not in the county where I wanted it most. Both birds were found at ordinary farm groves and had me rethinking my whole strategy for finding this species in Kandiyohi County. I always thought that I would have to search in the northern part of the county which is more heavily wooded and not as agricultural. Now, though, I reasoned that if I simply put in the reps of going to farm groves in the southern half of the county and played recordings, I’d eventually connect with a Screech.  As luck would have it, I never had to enact that plan. In early November some junior high students were wondering about the ID of a “small owl in a tree cavity with pointy ears,” a bird they had discovered while hunting squirrels in their patch of woods. Unbelievable! Leave it to the sharp eyes of some young kids to finally–finally!!–get me on one of my most-wanted birds for the county. An added bonus was that it was gorgeous red-morph. Seeing this color Screech was another major birding goal of mine for 2017. Because of circumstances surrounding this bird, I am keeping location details under wraps.

Eastern Screech-Owl

Eastern Screech-Owl Eastern Screech-Owl

#255

The Screech was an incredible high point for me, but this was not the time to rest and take it easy. As I mentioned earlier, White-winged Crossbills were irrupting in northern Minnesota, most prominently along the North Shore of Lake Superior. I have wanted to see this species in Kandiyohi County for a very long time. It turns out there was a flock in Willmar the very first winter I started birding in 2012.  Unfortunately I was not connected with local birders at the time and therefore had no idea about these Crossbills until long after the fact. I was excited to learn that some were seen on last year’s Christmas Bird Count at the MinnWest Technology Campus in Willmar, the very same place they were in 2012.  I visited the site that very day but had no luck. I continued to make visits there throughout last winter only to get the same result. This year was different, though. Based on reports, I knew I had a good chance this year. And since I was the only serious Kandi birder without the species, I knew finding it would depend on me alone. So once again, I made several trips this fall to the same small stand of Spruce trees where this species tends to show up. I was undaunted by my misses because of the positive reports out of the north. Then, finally, a mere four days after getting my Screech, I walked to the same stand of trees at MinnWest and instantly had a flock of Crossbills fly over my head and land in a nearby tree.  I thought they might be Reds, but I had to get my eyes on them to be sure. This proved difficult since the 40+ birds were buried in Spruce tops. Finally one popped out to the end of a branch. Wingbars!!!

White-winged CrossbillsGetting this DIY county lifer was incredibly efficient and felt amazing. I enjoyed these birds for about a half hour before heading home. It was one less bird for which I was on my own.White-winged Crossbill

#256

This year I organized a campaign of nearly a dozen birders to do daily patrols of our county’s most probable location for sea ducks, Lake Lillian. The county has no official record of a Black Scoter, and a few of us needed Long-tailed Duck besides. While the Lake Lillian vigil did not produce either of these, Dan Orr did manage to find a Surf Scoter which was a county first just the previous year. By late November, Lake Lillian froze over and the 2017 sea duck season was over. Or so I thought. Green Lake by Spicer was still open. Green has held sea ducks before too, but its large size often makes it difficult to search as ducks can be far from shore. One Sunday morning in early December, Joel Schmidt drove through Spicer and noticed ducks on the water. Joel stopped to scan them and found the much coveted Long-tailed Duck many of us still needed!  The action went down while I was in church, so I wasn’t aware of the flurry of activity until I looked at my phone after the service. By this point, everyone else had nabbed the bird, eBirded it, and packed their bags for home. I was on my own! Moreover, we had tickets for the community theater at 2:00 that afternoon. and our family hadn’t even had lunch besides. I was crunched for time. To add to the drama, I had ditched my family all day the day before to chase a life bird in the Twin Cities, and now I was headed out again. This was not good. Why do all the good birds come at the worst times? I had to go for this one. I knew I had time, but it would be tight.  We hopped in the car and went, hoping to snag a county lifer and some fast-food lunch all before the curtain went up at 2:00. When I got to the Spicer beach/boat launch area I could not find it. It was sickening. I called Steve who had seen it an hour earlier, and he said he last saw it swimming north. I hopped in the car and raced to the next access point that direction, the Spicer city park. Then, thankfully, after a few minutes I was able to pick it out. Whew!

Long-tailed Duck

This year has been an unbelievable ride for my county birding. I was hoping to squeeze out 7 new ones with a lot of work, and I ended up getting that and more, much more. Here is a recap of the 12 new birds I ticked in Kandiyohi County this year.

#245–Short-eared Owl

#246–Townsend’s Solitaire

#247–Long-eared Owl

#248–Black-throated Green Warbler

#249–Connecticut Warbler

#250–Snowy Egret

#251–Common Gallinule

#252–Blue Grosbeak

#253–Red Crossbill

#254–Eastern Screech-Owl

#255–White-winged Crossbill

#256–Long-tailed Duck

This year has shown me the enormous potential of what can happen in one’s own backyard.  Seeing rare birds is always fun, but they are even more special the closer they are to home. Seeing so many was incredible, and the year is not even over! With some luck and some effort, I might even be able to make it a baker’s dozen. There are some very real possibilities in these last two weeks including Northern Saw-whet Owl, Pine Grosbeak, and Bohemian Waxwing. Stay tuned!

The Story of the Kandiyohi County Blue Grosbeak (Somebody Pinch Me)

Anyone who has followed this blog over the years knows that fewer birds can get me as excited as the Blue Grosbeak, specifically Minnesota Blue Grosbeaks. It is doubtful that I’d even caste a second glance at one if I were birding in some southern state.  I take that back; I mean, it is still an insanely good-looking bird.  It’s the combo of that beauty and the Blue Grosbeak’s industrious efforts to colonize North America that have captured my imagination. Ever since 2014 I have been interested in the species’ northward movement in Minnesota by digging them up in new places and imploring others to do the same.

Of course, much of my drive came from a burning desire to see one in Kandiyohi County.  Time and time again, I’d go out to likely spots in the county only to come back empty-handed. Same story year after year. Each year I’d rethink my strategy and add new locations to my checklist of probable Kandiyohi sites, but I couldn’t manufacture a sighting to save my life. Instead, I’d have to get my annual Blue Grosbeak fix by finding new locations for them in neighboring counties. This year I used satellite imagery to find a few gravel pits in Chippewa County along the Minnesota River. Visiting the sites one July  morning yielded two previously undiscovered Blue Grosbeaks. This first one was so vocal that I heard it over a quarter mile away over the incessant noise of trucks at a very busy pit.

Blue GrosbeakThis second fellow was the quiet type. In fact, I stopped at this abandoned pit and didn’t see or hear a Blue Grosbeak. Playing a tape certainly couldn’t hurt in this situation. I’m glad I did because this bird materialized out of nowhere in an instant.

Blue GrosbeakThese were hollow victories. I wanted one in Kandiyohi in the worst way, especially as county first records fell in county after county: Anoka, Hennepin, and Washington. While I was happy the Blue Grosbeak was continuing to expand its range, I also kept wondering when it would be our turn. Always the bridesmaid. The Washington find really amplified these feelings. Pete Nichols and Ben Douglas set out to find themselves a county record BLGR and succeeded…minutes into their first attempt. I was both super proud and super jealous of these friends.

As we went deeper and deeper into August, my hopes for finding that elusive Kandiyohi Blue Grosbeak in 2017 had completely died. Like any losing sports team, hope was immediately placed on next year. Besides, there was something new and shiny in the bird world to divert my attention–an insane irruption of Red Crossbills! Blue what? We Kandi birders were red-eyed trying to tally this species that had eluded the likes of Randy Frederickson and Ron Erpelding for over 25 years. Now it was a very real possibility we would all get one. Efforts had shifted suddenly and dramatically.

Joel Schmidt was the first Kandi birder to break the ice with the Red Crossbills, seeing a flyover flock at the Little Crow Golf Course in New London on the evening of August 17th. At the time, I was camping at Sibley State Park with my brother and was not far away. I had to abandon my brother and kids the next morning to go look for an hour or so. We were unsuccessful, and so I returned to camping.  While I was playing cribbage with my brother, I got a call from someone in Grand Marais. Who the heck do I know there? I declined the call figuring if it was important that they’d leave a voicemail. Nothing. I then put my phone in the camper to charge it. Sometime much later in the afternoon during a pause between cribbage games, I went to check the time on my phone. It had blown up while I was away from it and was littered with crazy numbers of text messages, missed phone calls, and voicemails. Something really big was going down, and I couldn’t process the information fast enough. As I tried to make sense of the messages, my initial thought was that someone had landed the Red Crossbills, but instead of “red” I saw “blue” and “grosbeak” was where “crossbill” should be and there was a “Hockema” and a “Watson” mixed in. Then it hit me. Oh. My. Gosh.

I quickly learned that visiting birders John Hockema, Chris Hockema, and Josh Watson had stumbled into a private gravel pit, found a Blue Grosbeak, and had secured permission for a small band of us to return. The Grand Marais caller now made sense–Josh Watson was from there. But that call was almost a couple hours ago! Thankfully the guys were still on the scene by the time we got all this info sorted out.  Another bonus was that this pit was just a few miles from my present location at Sibley. I could literally be there in 5 minutes. Once again I abandoned my brother and kids to go on another crazy bird chase.

The entrance to the pit was a long, private road leading west from U.S. Highway 71. The Blue Grosbeak victors were waiting at the gate to meet Randy Frederickson and me and lead us to glory. The greetings were joyous with much laughter and banter. These fellows were relaxed and in good spirits while Randy and I were trying to hide the tension that comes when a county bird is nearby but has not yet been notched. Finally, we hopped in our cars and followed these visiting birders as they led us in our own backyard.  It was a surreal experience, to say the least, when we traveled into this vast complex of gravel pits we had never seen before, not even from a road. It was perfect Blue Grosbeak habitat. I may as well have been looking at Mars, I was so awestruck with the terrain. I had viewed this area on satellite maps many times but had never gotten around to getting permission to enter.

Once we finally got to the spot well over a half mile from the main highway, we got out and started looking. We had other birders on the way, so we were refraining from using a recording until all arrived.  We did not want the recording to lose its effectiveness. While we looked, Chris Hockema showed me the exact spot where Josh Watson had first spotted the bird. And suddenly I saw a bird fly over that had the right GISS. Josh had seen it too from a different angle and confirmed it was the Blue Grosbeak! So it was official, but not yet satisfying. We continued to search and search. Finally Ron Erpelding and Joel Schmidt had arrived, and we could try the tape. Ron played the tune, and instantly the bird teed up on a cedar! Unbelievable! It finally happened!!

Blue GrosbeakBlue GrosbeakAfter hanging out there to our wild delight, it changed perches and hung out for a solid 10-15 minutes not moving. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a Blue Grosbeak this confiding. This was the first time I had shared a county bird with long-time Kandi veterans, Randy and Ron. Giddiness abounded.

IMG_2012

In a year that I had been pursuing new birds for my Kandi list, this one was more than just another tic. This is a bird I have pursued relentlessly for many summers.  This is a bird I simply love to find–anywhere. A wave of joy and rest washed over me. Indeed there was some self-loathing from the Kandi crew that we had not found this ourselves, but in the end it did not matter. We were still overjoyed.

A MEGA thanks goes out to John Hockema who was in a Blue Grosbeak mood that day and decided to try for one in Kandiyohi. It took guts to drag his birding companions into a county that had been searched so hard for this bird already and at a time that was the tail end of the Blue Grosbeak season. One might even say it was a fool’s mission. It’s a good thing John is no fool and that Chris Hockema and Josh Watson are top notch birders. They all are deserving of the honor of having the Kandiyohi County first record Blue Grosbeak along with the case of beer I had publicly offered on social media for anyone who could find this bird.

Randy Joel John

Hero Josh Watson points to where he first spotted the elusive Kandiyohi County first record Blue Grosbeak. L-R: Chris Hockema, John Hockema, Josh Watson, Joel Schmidt, Randy Frederickso

The Blue Grosbeak was Kandiyohi bird #252 for me. #253 was another shared county lifer with Ron and Randy, and it fell the very next day. In fact, I literally still had the camper hitched to my vehicle while in hot pursuit…

My Everest

Most birders keep lists. This is known. Yard lists, day lists, year lists, county lists, state lists, trip lists, lists of birds seen while nude, lists of birds seen while relieving oneself, lists of birds seen relieving themselves, and on and on…these are more or less different ways of keeping the hobby exciting and fresh. Depending on the birder, some lists carry more weight than others and some lists are never even made. My Kandiyohi County list has taken on a greater importance to me in the last couple years.  2016 was full of many new and exciting additions to my list that was already in the 200+ category, creating even more of an interest in this list.  Something happens when you make a list and it starts to become significantly large–you notice others who keep the same list and see how you stack up in comparison.  We have a great cadre of birders in Kandiyohi County who have amassed some incredible totals, and so I had no ambition (or realistic hope) of getting into the top 3. This was just accepted. But 4th place was within reach and was held by a non-resident of the county, the legendary Bob Janssen. Bob’s a great guy who I’ve learned a lot from, who I’ve helped in Kandiyohi County, and who I’ve had the pleasure of birding with a couple times, but I had just one thing against him–he wasn’t from here. I felt that the top spots should belong to those that toil for birds in the county the most, the local birders. Therefore, at the end of 2016, I set out to pass Bob Janssen.

Though it was a reachable goal, this was no small task. I ended 2016 with 244 county birds. Bob was at 250. I needed 7 new birds to meet my goal. It seems like a small number, but any longtime Minnesota birder knows that new county birds are very hard to come by with a total like mine. Nevertheless I was determined. To accomplish such a feat would require a lot of work and a lot of time birding. I didn’t waste any time either, getting #245 on January 1st.

January 1: #245–Short-eared Owl, 6 Birds to Goal

The Kandi birding crew joined forces on New Year’s Day, and thanks to some scouting by Aaron Ludwig on New Year’s Eve, we were victorious.  It was a banner year for Short-eared Owls across the state.  It felt really good to finally notch this one.

Short-eared Owl

February 4: #246–Townsend’s Solitaire, 5 Birds to Goal

Another Kandi birders’ group event was successful as we targeted Townsend’s Solitaire. This individual was found by the team consisting of Milt Blomberg, Dan Orr, and Herb Dingmann.  This was another overdue, feel-good county bird.

Townsend's Solitaire

February 19: #247–Long-eared Owl, 4 Birds to Goal

A second county Owl in as many months?! Steve Gardner and I went looking for Long-eared Owls on this day. Despite many, many fruitless attempts in the past, we did not come up empty this trip. Victory never felt so sweet.

Long-eared Owl

May 18: #248–Black-throated Green Warbler, 3 Birds to Goal

Three months had gone by without a new addition to the county list.  Serious doubt about achieving the goal was setting in hard. With that said, there was one bird that I simply had to nail down this year, a bird that had painfully eluded my county list year after year. Each year I have a very good chance of getting it too. I have chased this bird in the county many times, even literally once to the point I had to catch my breath in the process.The BTNW was a waaaaay overdue county bird. I had gone out many, many times this past spring to look for one. And it still continued to slip my grasp.  Then, on May 18th, Joel Schmidt called me about an hour before sundown saying he found one at a country church and cemetery in the western part of the county.  I got out there just before dark and was able to dig it up. Finally.

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May 26: #249–Connecticut Warbler, 2 Birds to Goal

Spring migration is one of the best times of year to try to pick up a new county bird.  However, at the end of May, migration was wrapping up quickly as birds started settling in to raise families wherever they called home.  I was still checking for a couple a shorebirds I needed in this last week of May, like Marbled Godwit and Sanderling. Then somehow I started to notice that Connecticut Warblers were being reported in various places, and these birds were all singing. This is a bird that was never on my radar. I figured if I was to get this one on my county list, I would have to get lucky some spring migration and catch a quick glimpse of this skulker. So I asked the godfather of Kandiyohi birding–Randy Frederickson–about them, and he said he will have a Connecticut singing in his yard about one out of every four Memorial Day weekends. What?!  I’ve come to learn that Randy is a huge deposit of birding information that has to be continually mined to get the nuggets of birding intel out of him. So even though this bird was never even a candidate for my goal of seven new county birds, it quickly became one.  I found a singing Connecticut Warbler in neighboring Meeker County on May 25th, so I was even more obsessed with finding one in Kandiyohi.  For awhile I was making daily trips to Robbins Island Park in Willmar just to look for this bird. Even though most migrants had moved through, there was still hope for this one. And I was less intimated to look for this bird armed with the knowledge that these birds often sing during migration.

On my trip to Robbins Island on My 26th, I was stopped dead in my tracks by this:

No, it wasn’t the Connecticut I was after, but I don’t know if getting my first personally found and second county Cerulean Warbler was any less exciting!

Cerulean Warbler

I must have spent an hour listening to this bird and following it through the trees.  It was singing constantly and staying to a confined area.  I was convinced the bird was on territory but later visits by myself and others proved otherwise. It’s a good thing I spent so much time with this Warbler because when I had to decided to give up on finding a Connecticut and was on my way out of Robbins Island, I heard this!

Connecticut Warbler!! I couldn’t believe it! Two new county Warblers within one week and two incredible Warblers in this outing! Suddenly, the dream of reaching #251 was very much alive. And to add some Warbler icing to the delicious Warbler cake was a singing and posing Black-throated Green–proving once again the birding law that says once a hard-fought bird falls, it falls hard.

Black-throated Green Warbler

May 30: The One That Got Away

In any kind of big year or any regular year with a big birding goal, there will inevitably be pain. This is a given. There is also a long-standing birding rule that says that really good things will happen back home whenever you go on a trip somewhere.  Well, on the afternoon of May 30th, my family and I had just landed in Phoenix for our Flagstaff vacation. As we were heading up I-17, my phone started blowing up with group text messages: Randy had a Summer Tanager make some appearances at his feeder.  It was reliable enough that Steve Gardner and Joel Schmidt were able to pop over and see the bird after a brief wait.  My wait was a lot longer, like several days longer.  It was as good as gone. I was really bummed, and it definitely dampened the birding mood a little bit while I was in Arizona hunting down my Flam lifer.

June 16: #250–Snowy Egret, The Penultimate Bird

One thing my buddy Tommy DeBardeleben taught me is that when a good bird slips through your fingers, you get back out there and find your own rarity. The last time I went to Arizona I missed a Brant and Red Phalarope back in Minnesota. When I came home I poured my woes into my ongoing Surf Scoter hunt and dug out a Kandiyohi County first record Surf Scoter.  Experiences like that give you something to draw on when the tank is empty.  Though I was tired from the vacation, a move(!), and chasing life birds at North Ottawa Impoundment, I was pushing myself to get that next county bird. Summer had settled in, and my options for a new county bird were very limited. One bird that I really wanted to get and one that I felt was probably in the county every year somewhere was a Snowy Egret. On the morning of June 16th, I set off to find one. I expected to come home empty-handed as I have so many times on my numerous outings this year. Regardless, I was going to check several spots around the county, mostly drainages and some wetlands where I’d seen Great Egrets congregating.  After several hours and dozens of miles, I made my last stop: a newly formed wetland just off the Willmar bypass. I spotted a lone Egret out there, and I was well over a quarter mile away.  I don’t own a scope, so I had to use my camera to take some blurry long-distance shots. As I reviewed them, I couldn’t believe it–a small Egret with a long, black bill and yellow lores. It was the Egret I wanted!

Snowy EgretAn Egret vs. Egret pic is always a nice assurance for an ID of such an important bird.

Snowy EgretI was now tied with Bob. Wow. Some people get excited over reaching round-number milestones, like this 250, but not me. I wanted a crooked number. I wanted that #251 in the worst way.  While my motivation in the beginning was to pass Bob’s number, my motivation was now about me meeting what I once thought was an unattainable goal.  More than anything I wanted to do what my mind had declared an impossibility or at least a far-fetched possibility way back in December. I wanted that 7th bird in the worst way, more than a lifer even.  And it was only June.  I had averaged one new county bird for each month in 2017, and I still had 6 months left to get just one new county bird.

My birding intensified from that point on. I was obsessed, waking well before daylight and going out every morning. But with the Snowy Egret secured, I really had very little to search for in June.  My searches were mostly after Henslow’s Sparrows and breeding Marbled Godwits in the very northeastern corner of the county, both of which were long shots. But I pressed on. Day after day I pushed myself out the door trying to make something happen.  I’m a very impatient person. Even though I had half a year to reach my goal with just one bird, I wanted it now. I was driving myself crazy.

When it came time to visit family in northern Minnesota in late July, I didn’t want to go. I was afraid to go. That’s always when something good happens at home.

July 30, 2 AM: The Gift

I had made it through the up north trip without a birding emergency happening back home. Whew. We were scheduled to head home the morning of the 30th. We went to bed on the 29th, and I was awakened by my daughter who had a bad dream. After I got her settled down, I looked at my phone to check the time.  On my homescreen I saw two emails that had come in while I was sleeping–one an eBird rare bird alert and the other an eBird needs alert for KANDIYOHI COUNTY!! What the?! I was wide awake now. Not many people bird in Kandiyohi County, let alone eBird in Kandiyohi County, let alone find rare birds and especially rare birds that I’ve never seen in Kandiyohi County.  I couldn’t open the emails fast enough. Our county had a visiting superstar birder whose incredible find had tripped both alerts. Kathleen MacAulay known for many incredible finds, including a state record Mottled Duck, had unearthed a rare bird that is incredibly hard to discover because of its choice of habitat. Kathleen had found an entire family of Common Gallinules at a wetland I had never birded.  I was in shock. Finally, finally, we got a gift bird–something that had been missing the first half of the year.  Usually every year holds one or two random bird surprises. So far we hadn’t had one.  All the rare birds I had seen in the county this year were reasonable expectations that were targeted and found.  I couldn’t sleep the rest of the night. I knew that #251 was as good as in the bank since these Gallinules had young. I just had to get 265 miles across the state. That next morning the minutes felt like hours as we got ready to leave.

July 30, 5 PM: #251–Common Gallinule!

Not only did I have to get my family back home, but then I had another half hour trip to the location of these Gallinules. But finally I made it there. Others had seen the birds a few hours earlier. I was patient but I wasn’t patient.  I knew it would happen, but I wanted it to happen instantly.  While I watched the small corner of the cattail slough, I caught sight of my second county Least Bittern.

Least Bittern

Least BitternThe Bittern was a fun find, but I wanted to see those Gallinules bad.  I did hear one of the adults vocalize at one point, so it was officially notched. Since it was such a monumental bird, though, I really wanted to see it. Finally, patience paid off as I spotted one of the babies.

Common GallinuleAnd then I saw two of the babies with one of the parents.

Common GallinuleIt was finished. I was ecstatic. The impossible had been achieved with a whopping 5 months left on the year. I had made it.  Kathleen, if you’re reading, thank you very much for your great find!

I learned something important from this entire experience: set high goals for yourself even if they seem like a pipe dream.  Then write them down and work like crazy. This goes for birding or anything, really. Having my goals written out on paper back in December focused my birding and kept me driven. It was a huge thrill to add each new check mark and fill in those blanks on the piece of paper I keep tucked in my Sibley. Aim high and look high–the good birds are out there.

The astute reader will look at the picture below and realize the county listing story did not stop with #251. Hang on for the next post–longtime readers will get to see a long-running story line reach its wonderful conclusion.

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DIY Owling–A Longing Fulfilled

As it’s been stated here before, 2017 is mostly about taking care of business here at home, mostly in the Owl Dept. There are four regular species, either residents or migrants, that were missing from my county list prior to the start of the year: Short-eared, Long-eared, Eastern Screech, and Northern Saw-whet.  These have been my most wanted county birds as of late.  The Short-eared was knocked off in short order on the first day of the year, filling a major void and leaving only three more.  One could sit around and wait on news of a serendipitous encounter for those others, or one could get out there and try to make something happen.  Never one for patience, I often choose the latter, drawing inspiration from intrepid Owlers like Tommy DeBardeleben and Jeff Grotte.

So along with buddy Steve Gardner, I’ve been getting out there.  On one recent excursion, Steve and I stumbled into the biggest cache of whitewash and small owl pellets we’d ever seen.  Actually, I don’t think we’ve ever found Owl evidence before. Four roost sites in all in one small stand of Red Cedars got the owl juices flowing fast.  Steve and I expected to come face-to-face with a Saw-whet at any moment.  While we came up empty, we were excited nonetheless to find such evidence and be in hot pursuit.  Steve and I have been on many, many fruitless Owl hunts together in the past.  This may have been a turning point for us…

A week later I was itching to get back to this site to take another look around. In the meantime Steve and I had both received intel on some Long-eared Owls in another part of the state.  Never having seen one before, Steve wanted to pursue those and invited me along. I declined, opting instead to spend my birding time that day looking for a county Saw-whet back at that spot. Well, Steve and I both saw Owls in our respective locations that morning, but his Owls were much cooler than mine:

Great Horned OwlAny Owl sighting makes for a fun outing, even if it’s not post-worthy. But Steve’s lifer LEOWs were post-worthy, and something about his post caught my attention: he had seen his Owls in a plantation of Spruces. I had associated LEOWs mostly with Cedars. A connection was made in my brain, and I asked Steve how the site he was at compared with a plantation of Spruces in our county that we have unsuccessfully Owled a few times. Steve said they were very similar. Plans were made immediately to check it out the next day. It had been over a year since we last tried for Long-eareds at that spot.  It was time to hit it again.

That next afternoon, Steve and I met up to walk this Spruce plantation, walking abreast down the lanes between the tree rows. And I kid you not, 30 seconds into our walk, Steve hollered out that Owl flushed from a tree in front of him and was coming my direction. We both knew what it was instantly–too big for a Saw-whet, too small for a Great Horned, and wrong habitat for a Short-eared and Eastern Screech pointed to one bird only: Long-eared Owl!  We were stoked to say the least. Whenever the Owl flushed it would always land a short distance away and was unwilling to leave the stand of trees. This further proved we were dealing with a LEOW since GHOWs make fast beelines out of an area when they flush covering a half mile or more. One time this LEOW even went out of the grove, circled around looking at us, and re-landed only to disappear.  I got a good look that time.  We were too amped up and excitedly talking to put on a quiet stalk. Finally, finally, Steve and I had a successful Owl hunt!

As we continued to try to re-see the bird and hopefully get a look at it perched, we encountered piles of Owl sign–whitewashed trees everywhere and pellets scattered all over the place like popcorn on a movie theater floor. We also found the smoking gun of LEOW evidence: the remaining wings of our newest county bird’s predated partner:

Long-eared Owl wingWe did flush it a couple more times but eventually decided to move on and give up on seeing it perched.  Even still, the victory was immense. Steve said it best when he said it was cool that we did not have to rely on anyone else for this bird.  I couldn’t agree more.

The Owling didn’t stop there.  Steve and I found some Red Cedars in the area to check for Saw-whets. Once again, we found heavy evidence that Saw-whets were/are in those trees.  Then we later flushed a Great Horned Owl and wondered if the Saw-whet(s) had gone the way of LEOW #2.

The next day I was able to revisit the LEOW site with some other local birding friends who had never seen one.  Two Great Horned Owls flushed right away giving everyone a false start.  As we got near the end of our respective rows of trees, conversation picked up among the others and I got the impression they thought this would be a non-event.  From the previous day’s experience, I knew that it wasn’t over until we actually emerged from the trees.  I kept up my constant scanning of every tree I quietly and slowly walked by. Then I nearly lost my breath when I spied the tall, skinny Owl near the top of a tree looking down at me!  I quickly snapped a photo of the shadowed tangles it was buried in, not even able to see the Owl in my viewfinder.

Long-eared OwlThis was the final, definitive proof that Steve and I had seen a Long-eared Owl the day before.  And, man, did it feel good.Long-eared OwlAt this moment in the adventure I was multi-tasking, trying to get photos while snapping my fingers and whispering to get the attention of my fellow birders.  I never got them on the bird before it flushed, but everyone was able to eventually see the Owl.

Nothing beats finding Owls on your own and having a local spot to go see a cool species like this.  Now, if only the resident GHOWs will leave this bird alone…

Great Horned OwlAre the Owl adventures over? With 2 of my 4 wanted Owls knocked off in February already, I think we are just getting started.

Playing Solitaire by Yourself is No Way to Win

Like most birders I am fond of my home county list and crave those new additions which happen with less and less frequency with each passing year.  This year I am trying in particular to go after those species that we know are regulars in the county every year.  The year got off to a good start on New Year’s Day with the Kandiyohi County birders teaming up to go after Short-eared Owls.  Seeing as that event was successful and fun, why not try again?  One of my other biggest wants for the county has been a Townsend’s Solitaire.  This bird of the western montane forests moves eastward and downward in elevation in the winter months and can be found all throughout Minnesota. They pop up everywhere. Kandiyohi County has an abundance of suitable habitat in the form of large stands of Red Cedar, so I knew there had to be one or more lurking out there somewhere. So I put out a call to action to the Kandi crew on FB, and to my surprise, 10 people said they were down for it. The event was dubbed “Super Solitaire Saturday” for being held on the eve of the Super Bowl.

Ten people is much too large and way too inefficient for one search party, so for SSS we split into three groups to tackle large swaths of the county in an efficient manner.  Herb Dingmann, Dan Orr, and Milt Blomberg came down from neighboring Stearns County to the north and were going to hit Burbank WMA. Steve Gardner, his brother Scott Gardner from the Cities, and rising birding phenom Garrett Wee from Lyon County comprised team #2.  They planned to scour Sibley State Park. I joined up with local birding legends Randy Frederickson, Joel Schmidt, and Jeff Weitzel to tackle Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center.

In planning for the day I was quite optimistic that we would achieve the target, but I had no idea just how efficient this divide and conquer strategy would be. My crew decided not to start until 8:30.  Good thing, too! Just as we parked our cars at Prairie Woods and were about to step into the Red Cedar landscape to begin our search, I got a call from Herb. They had already found one at Burbank! All groups converged on team #1’s location and picked up a sweet county bird…

Townsend's SolitaireAs we enjoyed the bird and expressed jubilation over a very early success, we detected a second Solitaire as well! Townsend's SolitaireTownsend's SolitaireWith the objective met so quickly and so easily, no one really knew what to do afterward. After shooting the breeze for quite awhile, we settled on going after the only other type of new county bird we could really try for this time of year: Owls.  Now the focus was on Eastern Screech-Owls, Long-eared Owls, and Northern Saw-whet Owls.  Each of the teams put in a few hours of Owling but came up short.  No one was really bothered about that.  The group ended up having lunch together and then we each went on to our separate birding objectives for the day.

So what’s next for the Kandi crew? Time will tell, but this group birding has proven to be both popular and effective. The next event is likely going to have an Owl focus.  Steve and I are already hot on the trail of one of those coveted birds, so maybe, just maybe, we will have another successful story to tell.

A Short(-eared) Post is a Fun Post

There is a strange and paradoxical law at work in birding: a lifer must fall often as a crummy sighting in a far-off place before that bird is seen crushingly well, with ease, in good numbers, and/or close to home. When you finally reach that crossover point, the reward is so so sweet but is almost always followed with the nasty aftertaste of regret and self-doubt. Why wasn’t I just a little more patient? Why did I even bother that first time? But if I didn’t go the first time, would I even be enjoying this bird now? But I am enjoying this bird now, so wasn’t the previous attempt a waste of time, money, and effort? It is the birder’s equivalent of the age-old chicken vs. egg first dilemma.  A birder can perseverate on this for days.

For me this played out with the Short-eared Owl this past fall and even up until today.   In hindsight it is really quite comical (or agonizing) that in December of 2015 I traveled 2+ hours away to Afton State Park to get my lifer Short-eared Owl in a blizzard in the last 5 minutes of daylight. Or perhaps not. Maybe it paved the way for my great sightings of multiple SEOWs 4 hours away in Grand Forks, North Dakota last spring. And maybe that trip was necessary for all that follows in this post.  At least that’s what I tell myself to justify the time and expense put into the aforementioned trips.  Because what follows is incredibly inexpensive in time and money.

November 2016, Lac qui Parle County

I can’t reveal my reason for why I was birding two counties away in November, but I can say that what I was after would not be a big deal to my Arizona friends but would be a bombshell to my Minnesota friends. Let’s just leave it at that. Joining me on this clandestine mission were friends Steve Gardner, Brad Nelson, and Jeff Grotte. Jeff Grotte Brad nelsonWalking out in this grassland, we were not expecting but were quite delighted to kick up two Short-eared Owls.  It’s a pretty good day when a Short-eared Owl is a consolation prize.

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December 2016, Swift County

I received a report from Joel Schmidt that Jeff Weitzel had bumped into two Short-eared Owls in the next county over, just 45 minutes away. December gets busy and so I never got around to checking it out until about two weeks after the fact.  Maybe they were wintering in that spot, so Steve Gardner, his son Riley, and I went to check it out.  And dang, there weren’t two Short-eared Owls after all–there were three!

Short-eared OwlSteve, Riley, and I had phenomenal close fly-bys of these Owls.  Though the birds were cooperating for photos, the clouds and dropping sun were not. Even still, I got a few shots to remember the night.

Short-eared OwlShort-eared OwlShort-eared OwlThen with no fear, one of the Owls perched up fairly close. It was exciting to see a perched Short-eared Owl–this likely would never happen again, right?

Short-eared Owl

What made the Swift sightings even more remarkable was that when I got home I looked at my map and realized I went to the wrong spot that Jeff had found.  In fact, I was a couple miles away, and still I found Short-eared Owls!

January 2017, Kandiyohi County (the home county)

Astute readers have probably already picked up on the theme that as we are moving closer to the present, the distance traveled to see Short-ears has decreased and the quality of the sightings has increased.  As more reports were filtering in of wintering Short-eared Owls all across the state, I was really getting the urge to find one here in Kandiyohi.  It would be a county bird, a really good county bird.   With the holiday festivities putting a damper on most everyone’s birding, I organized a search party with local birding friends for the afternoon of New Year’s Day when there’s nothing to do anyway.  We were going to look near Regal in the very northeast corner of the county. Aaron Ludwig out of Stearns County said that he couldn’t make the Regal Roundup but wanted to do us Kandi birders a solid by scouting the area in the evenings ahead of time since he worked near there.  I had shown Aaron where Kandiyohi birding legends Randy Frederickson, Ron Erpelding, and Joel Schmit had over a half dozen Short-ears many years ago.  While I was still trapped in northern Minnesota for the holidays, Aaron sent word that his scouting was a success–he had found a Short-eared Owl in the very spot foretold by the Kandi legends!  Impatiently I waited out the next couple days, trying to tide myself over with some boreal birds.

White-winged CrossbillWhen it was finally time to leave northern MN, I got word that a Great Gray had just been seen in Cook, a mere 15 minutes from the parents’.  I didn’t have time to look for it and had to go back to west-central MN. It seems I am always at the wrong end of the state.

January 1 finally came.  The search wouldn’t start until late afternoon.  Brad Nelson and I teamed up in one vehicle, Milt Blomberg and Dan Orr were in another, and Randy Frederickson and Joel Schmidt were in a third. The plan was to each drive separate areas, call each other if we found something, and then race to the Owl location (if one was found) before dark.  It turns out it was a plan was overkill and full of redundancies as Brad and I immediately spotted a Short-eared Owl (likely Aaron’s) at 3:45 in the full sun.  We could practically feel the wind off the Owl’s wings it was so close as it zoomed by us over and over. It was astonishing to see such an acrobatic display.  I don’t think a county bird victory has ever felt this sweet.

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared OwlShort-eared OwlShort-eared OwlWhat’s not been mentioned yet is that the other members of my party were promptly notified and arrived on-scene shortly afterward.  Just as they arrived, a Rough-legged Hawk appeared and got into an aerial spat with the Owl.  The latter was decisively victorious as it drove the former to the ground to the great delight of the Kandi crew.  A little while later the Short-eared perched up on a road sign offering everybody a chance to get incredible looks as the Owl at its Vole dinner.

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared OwlThe newer Kandi birders, of which I am one, were elated. The wise old Kandi legends were pleased–their prophecy that such a moment would happen in this very place had come true.  They had preached patience all along.  Some grasshoppers don’t listen, though, and end up going to North Dakota.

Randy Joel Brad Dan MiltShort-eared OwlCertainly there was no way for the day to get any better. Or was there?

Josh Short-eared OwlShort-eared OwlNot once did I bump this Owl off its perch.  In fact, we all got incredible looks as we slowly drove by the bird while it continued to sit on the sign. Brad and I watched it from the vehicle at close range for a long time until it finished its meal and then quickly went out to grab another Vole. The talon to beak transfer we witnessed was incredibly smooth and quick.

Since the Regal Roundup was a success early in the search, we all were able to head home long before dark.  Brad and I took some more back roads on our route home and turned up a second Short-eared Owl! It was the icing on a very filling Short-cake.

Willmar, Present Day

You see where this post is going, don’t you? A week ago, Randy Frederickson found another Short-eared Owl just outside of the county seat of Willmar, 15 minutes from my house. I went to look for it this afternoon and found it.

Short-eared owlAt the rate and manner in which things are progressing, you better believe I’m watching the field by my house when I take my dog out to pee.

Something Better in Mind

Even while I was experiencing the thrill of owling in Madera Canyon, a cloud hung over my head and dampened the birding mood a tad. That cloud was coming from back home in Minnesota.  Minnesota is good at making clouds.  Not long after I arrived in Arizona, news broke of a Red Phalarope, the second in as many weeks in Minnesota.  A bit of indecision on the first caused me to miss that one, but this second one I was completely helpless to do anything about being over a thousand miles away. Red Phalaropes don’t come around too often; there’s only been like 20 ever in the state. Besides the rarity of it, though, this thing decides to show up in the Cook sewage ponds and was discovered by my birding friend, Julie Grahn.  Cook is the town I graduated high school from. In fact, my father-in-law manages those ponds and even saw this bird…as did about 50 other birders.  Unbelievable.  A mega bird party was raging in the hometown and I was MIA.

The clouds kept billowing, though. Not long after the Red Phalarope was announced, news came of a Brant–A BRANT–in Two Harbors.  This was the first Brant that has shown up in the state since I became a birder.  Two Harbors and Cook are less than two hours apart. My email and FB were bombarded with ecstatic messages of people going to get the Brant and then simply hopping over to Cook to pick up the Phalarope too. Both birds were super mellow and cooperative for photos, something which didn’t exactly part the clouds. Meanwhile in Arizona, I was like, ‘Yay, a Brewer’s Sparrow!” Don’t get me wrong, I had a great time with great friends in Arizona but the megas couldn’t have come at a worse time.

As days went by with both birds still being reported, I was holding out hope that these lifers would stick for when I got home.  We were to fly home on a Sunday, and I had Monday, October 24th off. Getting the birds would mean putting in 11 hours of just driving, not to mention time to search and hastily enjoy the birds.  Everything would have to go perfectly, and it would still be utterly exhausting.  It didn’t sound fun. I didn’t really want to chase. But I know myself.  I would have gone. Those birds were just too compelling. Even when the birds were still being seen on Saturday, I honestly prayed they would just leave. It would just make life so much easier.

Sunday came and we hustled to the airport. As we waited to board, I checked all my reporting outlets for the latest news. Silence. Well, I figured that while my phone was off and I was cruising 35,000 feet above the birding world, something would shake loose and there would be news when I landed. Again, nothing.  Finally, toward late in the afternoon, word was slowly seeping out that people had been looking unsuccessfully all day for both birds. It appeared the fun was officially over. I missed it completely.

In a sense I was relieved.  I didn’t want to make that insane trip anyway. Tommy and Gordon both knew my angst while we were birding together in Arizona and expressed their condolences.  With a now freed up day off on that Monday, I sent Tommy a message that said something to the effect of me having to find my own rarity and create my own fun for the day.  Little did I know how prophetic my words would be.

Before we get to that, let’s rewind to pre-Arizona.  I had been pouring my birding efforts into finding a Surf Scoter in Kandiyohi County which had no record of that species before.  At first glance it might seem like a waste of time to go after something so fervently when no one had ever found such a thing (not even in Ron Erpelding’s 40+ years of birding the county), but probability was suggesting otherwise.  Let me explain. Surf Scoters pop up all the time in fall migration around the state.  Kandiyohi County has lakes galore.  So why couldn’t we have one? That was the question that pushed me out the door during the Surf Scoter migration window to check lake after lake after lake day after day after day.  It was tiring, honestly.  Show up at a lakeshore, scan, repeat.  The result never changed. I was looking for a needle in a haystack; I was trying to find Waldo. It was discouraging to say the least.

Redhead CootsBack to that Monday off, I was doing my lake scanning thing and sinking into a birding funk when I was getting the same dismal results.  Except this time it was aggravated by thoughts of those two birds I missed. Anyway, I photographed a duck on Big Kandiyohi Lake that was a long distance off.  My blurry photo revealed a shape similar to a Surf Scoter.  I passed it on to Randy, and he thought it was good enough to warrant a trip out there himself to take a look.  So Randy and I met up at Big Kandi, and we used his high powered scope and found…nothing. Randy asked what we should do next.  I suggested that Lake Lillian was close by and worth a look.  Not feeling the greatest, Randy declined and sent his scope with me.

I continued to poke around Big Kandi and had only left myself about 20 minutes to check Lake Lillian before I had to leave to go pick up my kids from school.  I was going to burn that time at the Lake Lillian sewage ponds, but I saw something there as I drove up that I had never seen before–someone else walking around the ponds with dogs! That caused me to turn around immediately.  I now had about 15 minutes to check Lake Lillian by driving along the eastern shore. Hundreds of ducks were right close to the shore which is unusual.  So I would stop, scan, drive, stop, scan, and so on.  More of the same. More sighs. I got to the very northeast corner of the lake, just before it disappeared from sight and saw a handful of ducks. By this time I literally had a minute to look.  I was pushing it.  But holy moly, two dark, bulky ducks started paddling away from shore and I could instantly see with my naked eyes that they were Scoters!! But which ones? I already had White-winged Scoter for the county.  I couldn’t get my binoculars up fast enough, fumbling them while I tried. But once they were up, the bins revealed what I had been searching for so hard, two Surf Scoters! What a moment that was. But, oh crap, kids! I snapped some quick, horrid doc shots for proof (my hands were shaking pretty good at this point) and tore out of there.

Surf ScoterSurf ScoterThe phone calls to other birders began in earnest as I was making my way to the kids’ school, officially well behind schedule.  Eyes were now trained to look for Kandiyohi County Sheriff squad cars instead of birds. Once Randy Frederickson realized I wasn’t lying to him on the phone, the expletives came easy and a coherent plan for him getting down there did not.  Remember, I had his scope, and I had to get my kids.  There wasn’t time to meet up to exchange the scope.  It was a mess, but a good mess. Steve Gardner, the 20-year Army vet, was able to act cool under the pressure and hatched a plan to pick up Randy and get down there quickly with Steve’s scope.  Once I got the kids from school and coordinated a drop-off with Melissa, I raced back to Lake Lillian with Randy’s scope.  I figured it was a moot point now, thinking the guys had the birds.  But they weren’t finding them, and Ron Erpelding was also there looking with his scope.  Finally, after nearly three hours of searching, the three of them found the Scoters and added a very long awaited county bird.  For Steve it had the bonus of being a life bird.

Many others came for the Scoters as well and were successful.  I got down there a second time a few days later and was able to enjoy the pair in a more relaxed fashion. Scoters are bulky ducks that really stand out.

Surf Scoter

Surf ScoterSurf ScoterSurf ScoterAbout a month later, Randy found a Surf Scoter on a different part of Lake Lillian.  Whether it is one of these two is anybody’s guess, but this bird was much more cooperative hanging out just 50 feet off shore.  In fact, I just saw it this morning–same exact spot.

Surf Scoter

Surf ScoterOctober 24th ended up being a day better than I could have imagined. Rare bird chases for things like the Red Phalarope or Brant are fun, but they are quickly forgotten.  It seems the most memorable chases are the most heart-wrenching misses.  While I have enjoyed and loathed many chases, nothing beats finding your own rarity. And finding a rarity when you’ve been searching for it all along beats one that is found by serendipity. But enough pontificating. Kandiyohi County has never had a Black Scoter–back to work I go.

Savoring a Lifer, the Last of its Kind

It is no coincidence that this blog has gone silent during the month of September as the entire family is in the throes of another school year beginning with all its extra-curricular chaos.  We are busy. But. There has still been some good birding squeezed, packed, even shoe-horned into the narrow margins of life.  Shockingly, there have been multiple new county birds and multiple life birds added. It’s actually been a really solid month for birding.  Instead of showing blurry pics of some new county tics or detailing some chases I’ve been on, I am going to tell the story of a lifer experience that I will likely never have again.  The bird is the Le Conte’s Sparrow.

First, though, a brief history: Le Conte’s Sparrows breed in the northern half of Minnesota but are only ever seen in my county in central Minnesota during migration.  The time to look is late September to early October.  While it is a very uncommon species, it is an expected species every fall in my county in the right habitat. Inevitably, though, I am busy with other things this time of year and can never seem to make it out to one of the numerous grasslands in my area to look.  Two years ago, Steve Gardner and Joel Schmidt invited me to look with them one day after school at Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center.  I passed. Sure enough, Steve and Joel lifered on Le Conte’s on their first attempt that afternoon.  As time passed I would forget about Le Conte’s.  As more and more birds have been crossed off the listed of wanted birds, though, Le Conte’s has started rising to the forefront of my desired birds.  Last summer I tried to relocate several Le Conte’s Sparrows on breeding territories in the Sax-Zim Bog but was unsuccessful. That was my only previous attempt to see a Le Conte’s Sparrow.

Fast forward to this fall, and I was determined to make every effort to look for this species in my home county during migration. Getting a lifer in the county is indeed a rare event and therefore quite exciting.  This species is the last “easy” lifer I can get at home.  The more I thought about it, the more excited I became to get this one at home rather than in northern Minnesota. So on Friday I made my first attempt with Steve Gardner, Randy Frederickson, and Jeff Weitzel. The after-work search was short-lived and unsuccessful as raging mosquitoes drove us all to the brink of insanity. On Saturday morning I tried a WMA close to my home.  While there were gobs of migrating Sparrows of a half dozen different species, I didn’t find the one I wanted and had to quit early to go camping with Evan and his Cub Scout pack.

That next day on the way home from the camp-out, Evan and I stopped at the same WMA which is a mix of prairie and cattail slough habitats.  It was an absolutely perfect October day: temps in the 70s with a clear blue sky, golden-brown corn fields and prairie grasses, cattails that are still bright green, all accented by the mesmerizing palette of oranges, yellows, maroons, and reds of shrubs and trees on the prairie. It was a good day to be outside, even for Salamanders.Evan salamanderEvan was quite pleased to get his lifer Tiger Salamander. The Le Conte’s was just not a big deal to him.  In fact, when I noticed a promising-looking patch of prairie that butted up to a cattail slough, he declined to walk it with me, opting instead to stand in one spot observing, whittling, etc.  It was on this solo walk-about where the magical moment finally happened: I flushed a Sparrow from the prairie hillside toward the cattail slough in front of me.  I advanced, somewhat hopeful, and stopped about 15 feet short of where it landed. I gave a little pish, and a yellowish bird popped up to investigate.  I knew what it was before I even pulled up the binoculars.  Then, with the sun at my back, I looked through the binoculars and finally saw this striking lifer.  What a thrill–and to experience it so close to home made it even better.  Not only did I finally get this lifer, but a little more pishing allowed me to get some photographs before it disappeared into the cattails forever.

Le Conte's SparrowLe Conte's SparrowAnd with that I met back up with Evan and went home. It was perfect.  Finding the last regular lifer I can possibly get in the county on such a beautiful day was bittersweet.  I don’t know how many more lifers, if any, I will get in the county, but it doesn’t matter.  This was a day to remember.

Hey, Minnesota Birders, Go Find a Blue Grosbeak

Just like the birds themselves, birders have certain habits and habitat preferences at certain times of the year, almost reliably so. When August rolls around, most birders will seek out a good mudflat for some shorebird action. For me, though, my preferred birder habitat for August looks something like this:

Gravel Pit

I explore gravel pits like this and other scrub lands in the hopes of finding one bird:

Blue Grosbeak

The Blue Grosbeak and its apparent range expansion fascinate me, especially since this bird has now been documented within just three miles of my home county, Kandiyohi.  I became interested in this range expansion back in 2014 when it seemed there were more and more reports of these birds outside of their stronghold at Blue Mounds State Park in Rock County, the very southwestern corner of the state.  Here is what the Blue Grosbeak eBird map looked like back in 2000.

IMG_0771Fast forward to 2012, and it looked like this:

IMG_0773This uptick in Blue Grosbeak observations on eBird can partly be attributed to the beginning of eBird’s popularity in Minnesota and the tenacious efforts of people like Garrett Wee and Doug Kieser.  Many of Minnesota’s experienced birders do not use eBird and have also been turning up Blue Grosbeaks outside of the “normal” Minnesota range of Rock County for years. But even some of these birders have told me that the Blue Grosbeak has definitely expanded its range and its numbers in Minnesota.

In 2014 when I became interested in this expansion, I used satellite imagery on Google Maps and eBird to find probable sites in northern Renville County.  I was interested in Renville County because it bordered my home county of Kandiyohi, it was at the northeastern fringes of the Minnesota range for this bird, and because Joel Schmidt and Randy Frederickson saw a family group of Blue Grosbeaks in this area in 2012. So in using the satellite photos, I looked for new sites that showed gravel pits or any kind of disturbed earth. The success of that endeavor surpassed my expectations as I turned up four Blue Grosbeaks in four separate locations spanning a total of three miles.  Other birders who followed up on my reports added even more Blue Grosbeaks.  Not only did it appear the Blue Grosbeak had extended its range to northern Renville County, but it was thriving there. If you want to read my account of that Blue Grosbeak investigation, click here.

2015 was a bit of a disappointing year because I could not find Blue Grosbeaks at any of the sites I found them in 2014.  Even still, I added one brand new Blue Grosbeak site in Renville County in 2015, and even more exciting was that Ron Erpelding and others found more Blue Grosbeaks north and west of the pocket of birds I found.  This put Blue Grosbeaks within about three miles of the southwestern corner of Kandiyohi County. Here is the map to this day:IMG_0770

As you can see by the red markers, 2016 has been a good year too. Here’s a close-up of the area I’m interested in.

IMG_0772

Even though this year’s recheck of the 2015 sites turned up negative, there has been a lot happening this past week in the hunt for Blue Grosbeak.  A week ago I guided Pete Nichols and Ben Douglas around Chippewa and Renville Counties in the hopes of getting their BLGR state bird and life bird respectively, and we found two males at one of the 2014 sites!  I was thrilled; they were thrilled. There was much high-fiving, especially since we got the bird at the last possible second before Pete and Ben had to leave.

Blue Grosbeak IMG_9315So that explains one of the red markers. Here’s the story (and photos) of the others. A couple days after the Renville sighting with Pete and Ben, I went to Gneiss Outcrops SNA in the very southeastern corner of Chippewa County to follow up on Bill Marengo’s earlier report of a Blue Grosbeak.  Ron Erpelding and Herb Dingmann had found one here in 2014 that I was unsuccessful at relocating that same summer.  However, I was able to find Bill’s bird this year.

Blue GrosbeakIMG_9350And just yesterday I checked some new-to-me sites in southern Renville County where birds had been reported by others in 2012 and 2013.  It was a very successful recheck.  At the gravel pit on 200th St (pictured at the beginning), I found this Blue Grosbeak and heard a second male.

Blue GrosbeakBlue Grosbeak

Not long after that and over a half mile from these two birds, I spied a suspicious-looking silhouette on a wire. It turned out to be yet another Blue Grosbeak!

Blue GrosbeakFinding five Blue Grosbeaks in Renville County and one in Chippewa County this past week has re-energized my interest in this bird’s range and population expansion.  Lately I’ve started to think that gravel waste sites are not necessarily the only factor in finding this bird.  I think proximity to water is a key element. Thinking back on all the Blue Grosbeaks I’ve found, there has either been a pond, a drainage ditch, or stream/river in very close proximity to the birds. This bird is often found in riparian areas in the south.  I’m even wondering if water has actually been the cause of its range expansion.  Could the river valleys and streams actually serve as conduits for its range expansion? Consider the stronghold of Rock County where the first MN Blue Grosbeaks were found–the Rock River runs right through it and the Big Sioux River that runs through Sioux Falls (a stronghold for BLGR sightings) is not far from there either. Then consider the Minnesota River Valley.  Many Blue Grosbeak sightings have happened along the valley from Granite Falls all the way down to Mankato.  Even the far northern sightings in Lac qui Parle County are within 30 miles of the Minnesota River.  The pocket of birds I found in 2014 is about 12 miles from the MRV, so now when I look at satellite photos of the landscape, I get curious. Did the northern Renville County birds come up from the MRV along the creeks and drainage ditches?

IMG_0777

IMG_0779

Could the Minnesota River playing a key role in the expansion of the Blue Grosbeak’s range across the entire state? Or is something more random going on? Right now this is just an idea that gets me out looking for Blue Grosbeaks and other birds in new locations. I get excited when I look at satellite imagery of Minnesota River tributaries and see stuff like this:

IMG_0774This spot turned out to be negative, by the way, at least from what I could hear/see from the roads during my brief check.  However, there are a LOT of places where the roads transect these creeks and ditches in Renville County, so there are a lot of places to check.  While I have found Blue Grosbeaks in gravel pits, I do not think that is the exclusive habitat preference for this bird.  They are described in some literature to be habitat generalists that will occupy a variety of habitats in the southern U.S. where they are much more common.  I would think any brushy or waste area in this bird’s Minnesota range could be good, especially the more numerous they become. One of the 2015 sites I was most excited about was just an ordinary farm yard.

What does all this mean for Minnesota birders?

If you are birding anywhere south and just barely north of the Minnesota River that cuts through Minnesota like a giant V, Blue Grosbeaks should be on your radar as a possibility even if the habitat doesn’t have the classic “feel” of being an exposed gravel/waste area.  Doug Kieser wrote in one of his eBird reports this summer that he was surprised to find a PAIR of Blue Grosbeaks while scanning a mowed hay field of all places. Most of us would be surprised because, through our Minnesota experiences with this bird, we tend to associate Blue Grosbeaks with their more typical habitat.  Those more typical habitats south and barely north of the Minnesota River should ESPECIALLY be looked over carefully.  Anywhere there are municipal brush sites, sewage lagoons, rock outcroppings, landfills, brush-filled drainage ditches and creeks, and yes, gravel pits, you may just find a brand new Blue Grosbeak.

Besides habitat/location, what else could help a Blue Grosbeak search be successful?

  1. Learn the song well.  It’s pretty distinctive.  Most of the Blue Grosbeaks I have found have been by hearing these loud singers first.
  2. If you are lucky enough to hear one, scan the tops of shrubs, trees, and other perches. They are conspicuous birds that often sing from high, open perches.
  3. Know the profile. This is something I have just keyed into lately that has helped me spot three non-singing Blue Grosbeaks from a distance, sometimes in bad light. Blue Grosbeaks have a near vertical posture when sitting on a wire, and they appear very top-heavy with that short tail.  Their big, blocky head also helps set them apart from other wire-perching birds. Then there’s that massive, conical bill…IMG_93754. Don’t think of them as a rare bird in the previously described areas of Minnesota.  If you expect to see them, you are more likely to stop the car to investigate a bird on a wire or drive slowly by a shrubby pasture with the windows down to listen for one. True story: I have seen/heard 11 Blue Grosbeaks in Renville County compared to just 2 Eastern Towhees there, yet the Blue Grosbeak is still considered rare in that county by eBird while the Towhee is an expected species.

Final Thought

Most of the Blue Grosbeaks sightings on eBird are fairly well pinpointed and therefore chaseable.  And, if you’ve never seen one before, by all means, go look for one of those. But if you have seen one already, strike out on your own and turn up a brand new Blue Grosbeak. I guarantee you’ll have a lot more fun exploring and discovering something new than chasing something old. Who knows, you may have one a lot closer to home than you thought!