Blogger’s Potluck: Leftovers, Locals, even a Lifer

The birds have not allowed any dust to collect on this blog.  It is, of course, hard to collect dust when the bird clutter is accumulating at an alarming rate.  Lest I be featured on some blogger hoarding show, it’s time to start shoveling.  This post ties up a lot of loose birding ends.  In truth I haven’t been too excited about writing it since it does not coalesce around a single bird or birding locale.  Despite that, there are a lot of good nuggets in here–hopefully something for everybody.

Tommy Trip–The Rest of Wisconsin

Let’s get started with wrapping up the Tommy trip.  Not making the cut for the Wisconsin posts was the locally common Eastern Towhee.  Before this trip, this bird was still very novel to me as I had only ever seen just one male and one female.  I got my fill after this trip. This bird, which was a lifer for Tommy, was everywhere.

Eastern Towhee

Birders like to say EATOs sound like they are saying “Drink your tea!” when they sing.  This has been true in my very limited experience in Minnesota with this bird.  But well-traveled birders know that birds in different geographical regions often have different dialects of the same song.  I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, but in Wisconsin the Eastern Towhee sounded more like it was singing “Drink your beer!” Given how commonplace this bird was, it explains so much.

Another lifer for Tommy in Wisconsin that was surprisingly hard to track down was the Ruby-throated Hummingbird.  Also surprising was that I had never before taken the time to photograph a male of our only, fairly common Hummingbird species. Luckily they had a feeder at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge with one lonely male showing up, allowing Tommy and me to rectify our respective deficits.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Another great find near the Visitors Center was a lifer Yellow-billed Cuckoo for Evan and me.  Tommy found the bird for us which started as a heard-only bird and then eventually give us a quick fly-over sighting.  It left me wanting more. Tommy always likes to “give back” something when he comes up birding.  Last winter it was the Black-backed Woodpecker near my parents’ house that I had been wanting to see; this year it was the Cuckoo. So, thanks for the cool birds, Tommy!

Tommy Trip–Night Birding in the Minnesota River Valley

One night during Tommy’s stay, he and I ventured down to the Minnesota River Valley just east of Granite Falls for some night birding.  Birding at night is always safer and more fun in good numbers, so we joined forces with Steve Gardner and Garrett Wee.  Our prime target for the night was the Eastern Whip-poor-will.  Tommy needed the lifer, and I was hoping to finally photograph one.  Chippewa County Road 40 is probably the best place in the state to reliably find this bird.  Despite Garrett already being down there before we arrived and having heard a half dozen of the Whips, the woods was completely silent when Steve, Tommy, and I got there. We birded on anyway and soon understood why the Whips weren’t whipping it good–a pair of Barred Owls vocalized right near us.  We got amazing flashlight views as one soared just over our heads.  It was eerie and awesome.

Eventually the Barred Owls disappeared, and the Whips began to sing their unending songs as they are so well known for.  We never could get a visual unfortunately, but at least Tommy got to tally the bird for his life list. I also got to tally a new bird for my Minnesota list: a calling Yellow-billed Cuckoo in the dark!  Even though Tommy had it directly above his head at one point, we never were able to get the flashlight on it.  So the bird went from being a lifer to a state bird in a matter of two days but still left me unsatisfied.

Tommy Trip–Keeping it Local

For Tommy’s last full day of birding we decided to bird close to home even though two Minnesota Megas showed up that very day, a Baird’s Sparrow and a Calliope Hummingbird. A chase would have been fun but exhausting given all our recent travels.  We started at Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center.  I had never really explored this place before, so it was fun to give it some serious attention.  One of our highlights was yet another Scarlet Tanager. This one behaved like a proper Scarlet, hanging out exclusively in the canopy.

Scarlet TanagerThe other highlight was when Tommy picked out the sound of a calling Yellow-billed Cuckoo, a county bird for me! Once again, Tommy gives back! So in three successive days, this bird went from life bird to state bird to county bird.  But it still was a no show.  Someday.

One of our other stops of the day was Sibley State Park.  Despite this gem being so close to me, I haven’t given much time to explore it which is something I really need to resolve.  Tommy and I gave it a good effort that day, though.  It was fun to look at some common-place birds through Tommy’s fresh perspective.  We took time to enjoy Ovenbirds, Field Sparrows, and Swamp Sparrows.


Field Sparrow

Swamp Sparrow

We also had a couple of good finds in the more uncommon species, like three additional Scarlet Tanagers…

Scarlet Tanager…and two Blue-winged Warblers, a very good bird for central Minnesota.

Blue-winged Warbler

Birding After Tommy

After Tommy went home with a hefty bag of 26 lifers and a plethora of good bird sightings, I have continued to poke around close to home.  The Dickcissels have invaded the state in good numbers this year.  In fact, I even added one to my yard list.

DickcisselAnother fun find I had one evening when I went out to a local wildlife management area was a completely unexpected county Least Bittern.  Though I had a killer look at one flying toward me, I wasn’t able to get any photos but did record two Least Bitterns giving their “chuckling” call.  You may have to turn up the volume.

Birders can never turn off the birding.  Even when I accompanied Evan to a Cub Scout camping weekend, I had a couple of fun finds.  Highlights included yet another Scarlet Tanager and this Pine Warbler.

Pine WarblerPine Warbler

While the Pine Warbler was a good find this far south, I found something even better at Scout camp, probably my best sighting yet…


There are two more fun posts coming out soon–a chase to see a rare bird and an exciting Woodpecker encounter while visiting family in northern Minnesota over the 4th.

Scarlet Fever

While the blog has kept a low profile of late, the birding has been raging on.  There have been life birds, year birds, owls, and even an Arizona birder currently staying in my home and beefing up his life list.  There are stories to recap of distant lands, fun people, and cool birds which will, eventually, all be told here in due time. But first I want to do a single species post as I have done from time to time.  Only the best and brightest get this honor on ABWCH, and the bird featured today has been so, so good to me this month. That bird is the Scarlet Tanager, a bird I just don’t get tired of seeing.  I have always yearned to get better and better looks and photos of this bird.

In the last two weeks I have had the pleasure of seeing/hearing not one, but four male Scarlet Tanagers.  The Scarlet is the only Minnesota Tanager that can be found reliably every year while the Summer and Western Tanagers are rare-regular, meaning only one or two of each show up in the state each year.  In a strange twist, I saw both of the rare Tanagers this year and got the most common Tanager last, thereby sealing up the Minnesota Tanager Trifecta (Do I get a special patch for that or something?).  And I have to tell you, the best was saved for last.

Male Scarlet Tanager #1 — Mille Lacs County

On the way home from a Memorial Day weekend Up North, the family and I drove through Mille Lacs Kathio State Park just to check it out.  As we drove down the road, a flash of red dropped onto the pavement right in front of the car.  I was shocked to see the breathtaking and unmistakable Scarlet Tanager.  The bird hopped up to a nearby branch out my window where it just sat giving jaw-dropping views to even the naked eye. I scrambled to dig out my camera. Once the camera was out, I hurriedly took a shot before an impatient motorist behind me passed me. The Tanager was gone, and besides a sinking feeling in my stomach, all I was left with was this:


I expressed my frustration to the family, and I was gently corrected by my son when he said, “Don’t be frustrated, Dad.  You tried your best.” What a wise, sweet kid.  Evan was right.  Besides, I needed to look at the bright side–I saw this bird really, really well.  Photo redemption would have to come later…

Male Scarlet Tanager #2 — Le Sueur County

It’s true–Tommy D is back in Minnesota for the third time in 2016! We are currently working on his life list and back at work on TOBY.  Tommy and I don’t waste any time.  After picking him up at the airport at 5 AM on Thursday, we made a beeline down to Sakatah Lake State Park to look for a reported Kentucky Warbler.  This would be a huge lifer for both of us and great way to begin Tommy’s trip.  Unfortunately we dipped on the Warbler, but {spoiler alert} I did have the great pleasure of finding and pointing out Tommy’s 500th life bird:

Scarlet TanagerWhat a splashy bird for Tommy’s 500th! I wish I could say the same for {spoiler alert} my 400th. More on that later. And this photo felt good after the flop at Mille Lacs.  We also got to see a female Scarlet Tanager with this male.

Male Scarlet Tanager #3 — Washington County

Tommy and I heard a Scarlet Tanager join the chorus of some awesome life birds at Falls Creek Scientific and Natural Area.  More on those later.

Male Scarlet Tanager #4 — Kandiyohi County

This morning while keeping the birding local with Tommy, we birded the woodland habitat south of Lake Elizabeth.  The bird that stole the show was a male Scarlet Tanager that had returned to his same territory that he occupied last year.  Tommy detected him singing as we walked along the road.  I love its song which is a strep-throat rendition of a Robin’s song.  It did not take long to track him down. This was, by far, my best ever encounter with this bird.  It stole the day bird-wise.

Scarlet TanagerScarlet TanagerScarlet TanagerNothing beats a home remedy.  I think my Scarlet fever is finally cured.

Time for Summer

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


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

Yellow-headed Blackbird

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

Summer TanagerSummer Tanager

Summer Tanager

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

Marin note

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


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

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

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

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

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

Northern Mockingbird

Northern Mockingbird

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

Swainson's Hawk

Monday (today)

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

Short-billed Dowitcher

What’s next?

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

Veritas Caput

In 1832, an explorer by the name of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft and his men were guided by  Ozawindib, a Chippewa Indian, to the source of the Mississippi River in northern Minnesota,  a small, pristine lake surrounded by beautiful White and Red Pines. Not liking the Chippewa name Omushkos Sagaeigun or Elk Lake, Schoolcraft took the last four letters of the Latin word, veritas (truth) and the first two letters of the Latin word caput (head) and came up with Itasca as a new name that he felt more adequately described the significance of the lake that served as the true head of the Mississippi.

Lake ItascaThat’s it, right there–the rocks at the bottom right of the photo above mark the terminus of Lake Itasca and the beginning of the mighty Mississippi.  Here massive hordes of humanity, some more clothed than others, take their turn walking, slipping, and selfie-ing across the rocks at the Mississippi Headwaters in Itasca State Park.

Evan Marin ItascaGetting a photo of your significant people making the famous 20-foot trek without other tourists in the frame is about as easy as seeing a Black-backed Woodpecker in the park.  Of course, both become much easier in January…

This time of year is more fun for kids, though.

Evan Marin

Evan and Marin crossing the Mississippi

Evan and Marin were not the only ones in our family being baptized this day as true Minnesotans–Melissa and I were embarrassingly also making our first walk across the headwaters.  Though that, or the impressive virgin forests of towering Pines, should have been enough motivation to finally make it to Itasca, it was another Veritas Caput that served as the impetus to get us there–Mr. Bob Janssen, a.k.a. the godfather of Minnesota birding who literally wrote a book on the subject, was leading a bird walk at Itasca State Park.  Call us groupies, call us super-fans, but we were in.

Evan Bob Janssen

Evan birding with Bob Janssen–Again!

The truth is that due to a rough night in the camper for all of us, we slept in and missed meeting up with Bob’s group to begin the bird walk. Oh well, I thought, I’ve birded with Bob before and this was more or less a beginner’s bird walk. I reasoned that Evan would have the same reaction since birds aren’t that big of a deal to him anymore. I couldn’t have been more wrong. When he woke and found out we missed the walk, he was in tears.  Apparently birds aren’t that big of a deal, but birds with BOB is still a really big deal.  Ugh.

I told Evan we would try to find the group in the 32,000 acre park.  I didn’t tell him that finding an American Three-toed Woodpecker would have been easier.  But I had read the chapter on Itasca State Park in Bob’s Birds of Minnesota State Parks, and I had a pretty good guess of what trail we might find them on.  Even still, we were an hour-and-a-half late.  It was a long shot at best.  Amazingly, and as you can tell from the photo above, we did stumble upon Bob Janssen and his followers.  Whew!

We were just in time to catch the group to find out that the next stop was the Headwaters area at the far north end of the park.  Evan and I had to make a stop at the campsite on the way where we snagged a pretty sweet FOY, the Broad-winged Hawk.

Broad-winged Hawk

We finally met back up with our group at the Headwaters parking lot and began a leisurely walk looking and listening at…nothing.  It was super quiet which was strange since fall migration should have been going on all around us.  Now pay attention to this–if you want to be a better birder, go birding with people better at it than you.  The quiet woods did not daunt the 84-years-young Bob.  You don’t get to that age and that fame without acquiring a few tricks up your sleeve. Bob was listening intently for Chickadees. Wait, what?

As soon as Bob heard a couple Black-capped Chickadees, he pulled out his mp3 player and speaker and played an Eastern Screech-Owl mobbing tape.  The recording is of a Screech giving its tremulo call and being mobbed by about a thousand pissed off Chickadees.  What happened next is that the Chickadees in real life showed up with pitchforks and torches.  That brings in the onlookers, the Warblers and Vireos.  All the sudden we were swarmed with birds that didn’t even seem to exist a minute ago–Blackburnian Warblers, Northern Parulas, a Black-throated Green, Blue-headed Vireos were just a few.

Northern ParulaThough the light was bad and some birds were changing into their fall clothes, the flurry of activity kept it exciting even if it was just over binocular views.  I did manage to photograph a cooperative juvenile Chestnut-sided Warbler.  Just as some people aren’t fond of babies (the human kind), I am not found of juvenile birds. This one I found striking, however.

Chestnut-sided Warbler

We made several stops to play the tape in somewhat open areas, like where a path crossed the Not-so-Mighty Mississippi:

Mississippi River

Fun Fact: The Mississippi flows north for several miles before it turns south.

Though many of us in the group called out sightings of birds, Bob himself had the best sighting even though I lack the photographic evidence to prove it–a beautiful male Golden-winged Warbler.  It’s always a treat to see this bird that, if we did not have the Common Loon, would make a fine choice for a state bird, since Minnesota is responsible for hosting 47% of its breeding population.  Fun Not-So-Fact: Once we hit 51%, MN will control GWWA conservation policies in North AND South America.

Like the Mississippi itself, all good things must come to an end, and we parted company with the group and said goodbye to Bob, vowing to meet up again over a Meeker County Snowy Owl or Kandiyohi County Blue Grosbeak, which has now become our customary goodbye. We declined to go to the book talk, though it would have been a chance for Bob to sign the book to me and not Evan this time. Letting bygones be bygones, it was time for Evan and I to go from birding mode back into just regular camping mode, exceptions being made, of course, for Northwoods chickens that cross the road.

Ruffed Grouse

Ruffed Grouse

The Grouse and the aforementioned Broad-winged Hawk were year birds for me. Normally I wouldn’t care about such a thing, but with all my out-of-state travels I figured 2015 was my best chance of ever breaking 300 in a single year.  I’m very close, but it’s still going to be a stretch. Thanks to Melissa who woke me up at 1 AM and alerted me to a calling Barred Owl, I made another stride toward my goal.

That goal, along with the mouth-watering prospect of seeing another Black-backed Woodpecker, propelled me to go on one last birding hike in the early morning on our last day of camping.  Sadly, I did not encounter any of the shadowy Woodpeckers on Schoolcraft Trail, but I did find another year bird and get my first ever photos of a Brown Creeper.

Brown Creeper

Brown Creeper

Birding with Bob, nabbing four year birds (one a photographic first), and crossing the Headwaters made for a great inaugural trip to Itasca State Park. I am quite remiss, though, that I did not show you pictures of the incredible Red and White Pines of the park.  Come for the river, stay for the Pines, the t-shirts say.  Next time, which I can guarantee you there will be a next time, there shall be pictures of the Pines, and if we are all lucky, there shall be Black-backed Woodpeckers on them!

Beyond the Book–Birding with the Legendary Bob Janssen

I have long known that Bob Janssen, author of Birds in Minnesota, was hard at work on another birding book with the tantalizing title Birds of Minnesota State Parks.  As a birder and a huge fan of our state park system, I was stoked about this book.  I first learned about it from Bob himself when I spoke with him on the phone one time in an attempt to help him finally get his Meeker County Snowy Owl.  Every birder has his own cross to bear.  Bob’s is a Meeker County Snowy Owl.  This one has eluded the godfather of 87-county-listing in Minnesota. I believe Bob made seven such attempts on my numerous reports in the last two years but still could not see SNOW in Meeker.

Not only did I know about Bob’s book, but I recently found out that Bob was doing a book talk at a handful of state parks with the first talk at our own Sibley State Park! As luck would have it, our schedule was clear on June 8th allowing Evan and me to go.  I hadn’t yet picked up a copy of Bob’s book, so I planned to do so at the park that evening before the talk.  Evan asked if he could have the book.  I told him I was buying it, so it would be mine.  He still seemed put-off, so Melissa consoled him by telling him the book would be his after I was dead.  Gee, thanks, Melissa.

Anyhow, after purchasing the book at the contact station, we made a quick check on the Mt. Tom road to see if the Cerulean Warbler had returned this year.  I didn’t hear anything, but to be fair, I was rushing since we were nearly late for the book talk at the Interpretive Center. We did arrive a minute late and quickly assumed seats in the back row and began listening to Bob’s talk.

Bob Janssen

Bob talked about how the State called him up in the 90s and asked him if he knew anybody that would be willing to do bird surveys in all of Minnesota’s state parks.  Bob immediately jumped at the opportunity by suggesting himself.  It is because of Bob and all his work that we have those awesome bird checklists for every state park.  One of Evan’s favorite things to do whenever we go to a state park is to collect that park’s checklist.

Minnesota State Parks Bird Checklists

Eventually the state wanted Bob to do a book from the result of all his work that would provide an overview of the birding at each state park.  Genius idea.

Bob Janssen books

Part of Bob’s presentation included a slideshow with pictures of various birds that are associated with various state parks around the state.  Bob put up the first picture of a bright yellow bird with a big black eye and slender black bill.  Then he asked the audience of about 30 people if anyone knew what the bird was.  Evan’s hand shot straight into the air immediately.  Bob called on Evan who correctly and enthusiastically responded, “Prothonotary Warbler!”

I don’t remember Bob’s exact words, but he was surprised and said something to the effect of “Very good young man! That’s impressive.” That set the pattern for the next several minutes–a bird picture would go up followed immediately by Evan’s hand.  Bob would again call on Evan who would again get the correct answer.  Two things were clear: the audience wasn’t made up of serious birders besides us, and Bob was getting a kick out of the young man who knew his birds.

"Blue Grosbeak!" -Evan

“Blue Grosbeak!” -Evan

One time after a correct response, Bob looked at me and asked, “How does he know all these?”  The dad in me was proud; the teacher in me cringed that my kid was showing off and loving it.  To be fair, Evan did miss a couple of IDs of birds that aren’t the easiest to ID.  I had to chuckle to myself when Evan guessed Caspian Tern incorrectly for a picture of a Forster’s Tern–this is funny because when we got our Caspian lifer a couple weeks ago, Evan turned down my offer for better looks at them. “What, are they those white things over there? Na, I’m good.”  If only you looked Evan, you’d have gotten another question right on Bob’s quiz!

Sensing that the rest of the audience may not have been as enthused as the three of us about Evan’s responses, I whispered to Evan that he should let other people answer. He complied even when a fastball came in right over the center of the plate–a picture of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak. With Evan silenced, the others were now emboldened and started throwing out answers. “Ruby-throated Grosbeak! Ruby-throated Grosbeak!”  Sorry, Evan, I should have let you continue to lead the pack.

Here are some fun things we learned from the talk:

1) The best state park for seeing the most birds is Frontenac State Park along the Mississippi River.

2) Bob has been in every city, town, and named place in Minnesota.

3) Crane Lake was the last town he visited to complete his checklist of towns.  Crane Lake is very close to where I grew up in Orr.

4) Bob has been in every township in Minnesota except one.

5) Bob’s favorite bird is the Turkey Vulture of all birds.  Shocker.  First runner-up is Spruce Grouse. Not a shocker.

6) Bob’s wife doesn’t go birding with him.

Once the talk was done, people made their way to Bob to visit and get their book signed.  After waiting for our turn, I re-introduced myself to Bob.  I have spoken with him on the phone a couple times and run into him twice in the field before, once at Le Sueur over a Rufous Hummingbird and once near Granite Falls when we were both looking for Blue Grosbeaks.  When I handed Bob the book we just purchased, he asked if he should make it out to Evan (apparently Evan really made an impression). That wasn’t the plan as I had told Evan earlier it was MY book, but I thought I’d look like a royal heel if I said to make it to me instead of my kid, so I faltered in my response, “Umm, uhh, yeah.”  I suppose it’s appropriate, since the kid will get MY book after my DEATH. Oh, well, at least I brought my copy of Birds in Minnesota which Bob signed to ME.

Bob Janssen bookAfter the signings, we had a nice little chat about Snowy Owls and Blue Grosbeaks.  There were others waiting to see Bob, though, so we moved on shortly.  When we were upstairs in the Interpretive Center and Evan was checking out all the exhibits, I got thinking that I really should go back downstairs and pick Bob’s brain about birding at Sibley State Park and Kandiyohi County in general.  Maybe he could reveal some secrets I didn’t know about.

Back downstairs, there was now only one other man talking with Bob.  I overheard them mentioning Wood Thrushes.  I had to butt in and ask if they’d seen one at the park because that would be a good find.  It turns out that Bob was explaining to the gentleman that the Wood Thrush is a bird he still does not have for Kandiyohi County.  Talk about serendipity because **news flash** I finally laid eyes on a Wood Thrush for the first time in my life just the day before thanks to a recent report by Andrew Nyhus.  I told Bob this and he excitedly started writing down directions.  Then I got thinking–it was only 7:00 with lots of daylight left, so I suggested to Bob that he could still get the Wood Thrush tonight on his way home to the Twin Cities. I told him I’d even lead him to the exact spot.  He seemed to like this suggestion as he started packing up his things a little quicker.

So that’s how we ended up birding with a Minnesota birding legend. Bob followed our car down to Lake Elizabeth.  Things started off a bit tense once we got on site, though.  The three of us were standing on the gravel road when all the sudden a man appeared from a trail in the woods holding a rifle at the ready! I naively thought he was hunting something, but then he nervously started laughing and telling us about how his camper in the woods had been robbed recently.  Through more nervous laughter he told us we obviously weren’t the thieves.  Well, thank God he realized that! Then as quickly as he appeared, he disappeared back into his lair in the woods.  It was bizarre, unsettling, and very memorable.

Back to birding, I wasn’t hearing the Wood Thrush.  I walked the road down a ways and then I finally detected the faint sound of the WOTH deep in the woods.  Bob then heard it too, and he finally got his Kandiyohi County Wood Thrush, county bird #21,071!

Bob Janssen at the site of his latest county bird, a Kandiyohi County Wood Thrush

Bob Janssen at the site of his latest county bird, a Kandiyohi County Wood Thrush

Bob leads the state in most county tics. Bob’s numerous misses on Meeker Snowies has weighed heavily on me, so this felt like redemption to help him get a new county bird.  We tried for the longest time to get good visuals on the bird.  My life look the day before was nothing more than a bird flying over the road.  This outing would prove no different.  At least Evan did get a brief life look at the Wood Thrush now too.  As we walked and talked, Bob told us that his favorite bird song was that of the Wood Thrush.

Evan birding with Minnesota birding legend, Bob Janssen

Evan birding with Minnesota birding legend, Bob Janssen.  Also, this is the infamous path from which the “hunter” appeared.

Bob also detected a Scarlet Tanager singing, but we couldn’t get visuals on it.  However, I was able to get incredible looks at another Scarlet Tanager on the other end of this road just the day before.  Both of these Scarlet Tanagers are different than the one I blogged about previously.  That’s three SCTA in a week’s time!

Scarlet TanagerIt was an even bigger thrill than my Wood Thrush lifer.

Scarlet TanagerThis is ten minutes from home. Ten minutes!

Scarlet Tanager

Listening to Bob talk about his book was a special opportunity, but going birding with Bob and helping him achieve a long-time personal birding goal was a huge thrill.  I never saw that one coming.  It was pretty amazing to hear Bob say that the Wood Thrush made his day. I’m sure that Evan will remember this night much better than he remembers his Terns.  A huge thanks goes out to Andrew Nyhus for 1) pointing us to our Wood Thrush lifer on the home turf and 2) providing the info that made this memorable, spontaneous outing possible.

Want Some Sauerkraut With That Vireo?

I had seen the report and dismissed it quickly.  There was no way that a White-eyed Vireo would stick around long enough to chase it. Their presence in Minnesota during migration is ephemeral. Then I got a phone call a couple weeks ago that changed my thinking.  Ron Erpelding, a locally-based 87-county lister, calls me whenever something good shows up within a reasonable distance from Willmar.  Ron told me that he went to see the Vireo at Flandrau State Park in New Ulm a few days after the initial sighting and that it was singing up a storm.  Hmmm. Could it be that this misplaced Vireo was trying to set up a territory for the summer?

The singing White-eyed Vireo was intriguing on its own.  The location, though, was what pushed the decision to chase over the edge.  New Ulm was only an hour-and-a-half away, but more importantly, it was the city where Melissa and I got our first teaching jobs.  This chase would be a family affair and a chance for Melissa and I to revisit a beautiful place we called home for a few years and show the kids our first school, first house, etc.  It’s always held a special place in our hearts.

Nestled in the scenic Minnesota River Valley, New Ulm boasts the highest per capita population of German descendents, and it shows. It is a town where the industriousness of its residents is showcased in well-kept, stately brick homes and perfectly landscaped yards (there is no bad part of town), and the love of beer and all things sausage is proclaimed everywhere.  It is a town where you can (and I did) roll out the barrel.  You name a season, and I’ll name a beer festival for that season.  New Ulm is the only place in America, and this is no joke, where schools offer up vats of sauerkraut on hot dog day and the kids pile it on.  Life is a continual party in New Ulm, and partying it up just upriver from the famed Schell’s Brewery was a little bird I wanted to see.

After a quick drive-by of the old house, we went straight to Flandrau State Park right in town on the Cottonwood River.  There were other birders responding to the call and making the short hike along the river to the spot.  One guy, Bill Marengo, was in the parking lot and told us the bird was indeed present this morning. Yes!Evan MarinGetting to the scene a few hundred yards down the trail, I heard the bird immediately.  Several birders and I strained to locate it.  One lady claimed she saw it.

White-eyed Vireo Stakeout

The rest of us didn’t.  Then, we weren’t hearing it at all.  After an hour or so, I decided to call it quits.  You can only stare at the same trees for so long.  Hiking back to the parking lot I checked my email and saw an eye-bulging report from the very same Bill Marengo with whom we had just spoken.  He had made his way over the waste-water treatment ponds in nearby Sleepy Eye and found gobs of shorebirds–really good shorebirds. The trip went from being a downer to all the sudden being exciting again.

Once we were back at the car at Flandrau, there were some FOY Indigo Buntings to enjoy– a paltry, albeit lovely, consolation prize.  The promise of some shorebird lifering was making up for any disappointment over the White-eyed Vireo.

Indigo BuntingBefore we left, I thought I heard the soft bee-buzzzz call of a Blue-winged Warbler.  Nah, couldn’t be…

Even with a heard-only White-eyed Vireo and several potential lifers in Sleepy Eye, probably the best find of the day came when we stopped for a hot dog lunch at one of our old haunts, the Kwik Trip. (And yes, there was a huge tub of sauerkraut with the condiments). As we were leaving, who should we run into but our old neighbor and friend, Adam! The next half hour passed quickly as we reminisced, laughed, and caught up with Adam; I didn’t even have the usual anxiety when life birds are on the line.

Eventually we did part company and make the 15-minute drive to Sleepy Eye.  Bill wasn’t kidding about the shorebirds.  There were two main groups, each in different ponds and close to the entrance.

Sleepy Eye WTP

Sleepy Eye WTP

Birders who read this have probably already tried to sort through some of the goodies in these photos.  When I was sorting through them in real life, I was looking for one, larger bird in particular that Bill reported–the Hudsonian Godwit.

Got it.

Hudsonian Godwit

It was not the more striking male that I was hoping for, but when it comes to Hudwits, beggars can’t be choosers.

Hudsonian Godwit

Hudsonian Godwit

It was pretty sweet to pick up this unexpected life bird, but the fun didn’t stop there.  Bill Marengo was still on the scene and helped me pick out a Sanderling lifer, even letting Evan and I get some good scope views.  I was surprised by how plump they are and close in size to the Dunlin.


SanderlingIf two unplanned lifers weren’t enough, how about a third?!  Several Terns caught my eye right away when we got to the ponds.  Their bills looked excessively reddish and other clues were leading me to the conclusion that I was looking at Common Terns, which aren’t so common in Minnesota compared to the excessively common Forster’s Tern.

Common TernsI spent much time agonizing over this ID after the fact as Common and Forster’s Terns are incredibly similar looking.  Many hours were spent scouring images on Google, studying Sibley, etc.  Common Terns have reddish-orange bills while Forster’s Terns have a straight-up orange color.   The red really popped when I looked at these birds.

Another field mark of the Common Tern are the wings.  The primaries of a Common are gray and flush with the tail while the primaries of the Forster’s are whitish or frosty and shorter than the much longer tail.

Common Terns

Finally, I found evidence of a remnant dark carpal bar which Common Terns have during the winter months before the black bar fades to gray.

Common Tern

Common Tern

The birders among you have already detected some great shorebirds.  American Avocets were plentiful with a dozen birds representing their species.  This elegant bird is always a rare treat during migration in Minnesota.

American Avocet

American Avocet

American Avocet

Black Terns are summer residents here, but it was nice to see one up close and still.

Black TernDunlin were excessively plentiful and quite striking in full breeding plumage.



Stilt Sandpipers are also fun and handsome shorebirds.

Stilt Sandpiper

Another great addition to the shorebird mix were two Ruddy Turnstones, a crazily-patterned shorebird.

Ruddy TurnstonesThere was a lot going on with the shorebirds, both in numbers of birds and numbers of species.  Wilson’s Phalaropes and White-rumped Sandpipers can be seen in my photos, but I didn’t focus any of my photography efforts on them.  I probably could have spent hours photographing all these shorebirds, but I wanted to take another crack at that White-eyed Vireo and the day was already getting long for the non-birders.  It was time to head back to New Ulm and hit the trail one last time.

Evan Marin

Joining us this time were Joel and Amanda Schmidt from back home.  It didn’t take the six of us long to hear the White-eyed Vireo.  Joel and I bushwhacked and tried to get on it, but we just couldn’t get a visual despite a valiant effort. I had to give up for real and make the painful decision to go ahead and count this bird as a lifer despite it being heard-only.  I normally don’t like to do that, but exceptions sometimes need to be made for vagrant visitors of the Vireo variety. Precedence has already been set with my Bell’s Vireo lifer.

As we were about to part company with Joel and Amanda, we heard the soft bee-buzzz of a Blue-winged Warbler!  I may not have been hearing things earlier after all! In no time we got some incredible looks at a Warbler I have only seen twice before.

Blue-winged Warbler

Blue-winged WarblerThe Blue-winged Warbler was another great consolation prize in a day full of consolation goodies.  It felt good to get better photos of this species.Blue-winged Warbler So, we went to see a White-eyed Vireo and failed in that regard.  However, this day was an unimaginable lifer and FOY grab.  Getting four lifers (WEVI, HUGO, SAND, COTE) in a day instate is unheard of at this stage in our birding.  Topping it off with some incredible shorebirds like the Avocets and Turnstones as well as the Blue-winged Warbler really made for an exciting day back on our old stomping grounds.

I’ve announced it before that there’s a lot more coming up, and even after such announcements, more incredible birding keeps happening.  Now in addition to the Colorado birds and more recent lifers near home (one being nocturnal!), wait until you see WHO we went birding with and what we helped him find!  Oh, and pretty soon we will be vacationing in Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands on the south shore of Lake Superior.  We’ll see what comes of that.  All I’ll say is that kayaks may be deployed; an endangered species may be had.


Red and Black on Gray

Some days, like today, are gray and rainy.  Some birds radiate their brilliance regardless. In my seemingly never-ending quest for a Wood Thrush lifer, currently a heard-only bird, I came across a couple of dapper and melodic fellows this morning that can brighten any day.  First up is the Rose-breasted Grosbeak.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Rose-breasted GrosbeakNext is the ever-lovely Scarlet Tanager.  It’s hard for me to comprehend that I’ve seen both Western Tanager (more on that later) and now a Scarlet Tanager in the same week.  Both are incredibly beautiful birds.  Though the Scarlet Tanager is locally uncommon and the Western Tanager is rare state-wide, I’ve actually seen more Western Tanagers in my life.  Today’s sighting on Timber Lake Road north of Sibley State Park was only the third time I’ve seen a Scarlet Tanager, and I got my best ever looks.  It is such a hard bird to find.  Even if it is present, it favors the canopy and is not always conspicuous.  With Scarlet Tanager sightings you can have two but never all three of the following: a motionless bird, a conspicuous bird, good light.  With a bird as good-looking as SCTA, the first two are often good enough.

Scarlet Tanager

I’ve learned the Scarlet’s song which helped me track this one down this morning.  Identifying a tree-top loving bird by just its audio is a must this time of year with the trees fully leafed out.

Scarlet Tanager

Seeing and photographing a Scarlet Tanager was a major summer birding goal of mine.  I just got done with school on Friday.  Not a bad start.

Scarlet Tanager

More time shall be spent this summer in the deciduous woods in the northern parts of Kandiyohi County.  The quest shall continue for finally seeing a Wood Thrush and getting the trifecta of perfect SCTA viewing conditions!

A Tern for the Worse – One Screwed-Up Trip

More often than not you come to this blog to read about our great birding triumphs.  But we are also fully transparent and are thus required to document our most epic and comical failures.  Anyone who has birded for any length of time knows that failure to produce is all part of this game and such missteps or miserable attempts can be just as memorable as the glorious moments.  It is in that spirit that I will tell the story.

A little over a week ago an interesting report came in of a Least Tern down in Luverne in Rock County.  I generally don’t get too excited about terns, gulls, or even shorebirds – at least not to the point of going on a lengthy chase.  Luverne was nearly three hours away; it definitely was not happening.  Then I learned that the Least Tern is considered a “casual” species in Minnesota and that there are very few records of it here.  Furthermore, to see one elsewhere, I’d have to visit someplace like the Florida coast in the summer.  Now the bird was becoming more appealing.  I looked up the picture and noticed that the Least Tern is quite distinctive with its yellow bill.  Even more appealing.  But then I heard that this particular Least Tern was a juvenile – definitely an attribute for the “con” column.   A long trip for an immature bird that might not stick around?  Forget it.

The reports kept coming though.  The tern was hanging on and something very interesting happened.  One birder reported that there were now two Least Terns and that one was a breeding plumaged adult!  And the birds were hanging out all day. Now I was interested. Phone calls and texts were exchanged with local birding buddies, but ultimately three of us ended up going down separately in three vehicles.  I opted to go alone so I could turn the chase into an overnight camping trip with the kids at Blue Mounds State Park.

I was confident we’d see the tern in the morning.  The bird(s) had been around for nearly three days by this point.  Plus our chase record was strong with only one big miss on a Painted Bunting a couple years ago.  Even then, though, we managed to walk away with a consolation Purple Finch lifer.  I tend to choose chases that have a high probability of success, and this chase had the right elements for just such an outcome.  So as I rode along with two kids, a van full of camping gear, and one of my two labrador retrievers riding shotgun (she was not part of the original chase/camping plan), I was excited that in just a couple hours I’d be looking at a sparkly, brand-new bird, and a very rare bird besides.  We’d see the bird, and fifteen minutes later the kids and I would be having fun camping and swimming at the reservoir at Blue Mounds.  It was going to be perfect.

We got to the site in Luverne around 10:00 in the morning and pulled up behind Randy who had made it down there sometime within the previous hour.  Randy had mixed news for us.  He saw the bird (the juvenile) – saw it fly away not fifteen minutes earlier. My optimism was undaunted.  I was confident the bird would return.  We searched nearby wetlands with Randy to see if we could dig it up.  The kids and I returned to the original site a couple times but had no luck in locating either of the Least Terns.

One reason I thought this would be a fun trip for the kids was that I remembered the city of Luverne had a massive park down by the Rock River with multiple playgrounds.  Despite my memory, there would be no park adventure on this trip.  The entire park which was lush green in my memory was now entirely covered in black soil and roped off as crews worked feverishly to get it into park shape again.  What was going on?  Then I remembered.  This area of the state had massive flooding this spring.  Undoubtedly the grass and greenery were destroyed in the stagnating waters left behind.

So it was off to Blue Mounds to set up camp and do some swimming. We were going to have fun one way or another on this trip.  But we hit another snag when we checked in at the park office.  The park ranger asked us if we were aware of the water situation.  Uh, no. The water supply, she said, was contaminated with E. coli.  Even though that sounds utterly terrifying, it was a manageable fear since they had all the water shut off save the toilets and since they’d give us drinking water at the park office.

After we had camp set up and had checked on the Least Tern spot unsuccessfully a couple times, I decided that it was time to let the kids do some swimming at the reservoir. With kids suited up we made our way to the… mud puddle? Wait, where’s the reservoir? This place was only suitable for frogs and the few Pectoral Sandpipers poking around. The beach was hundreds of feet away from the “water.”   What was happening?  Finally I figured it out when we hiked down to the dam;  the spring flooding had overpowered the dam, knocking a gaping hole in it and depleting the reservoir.  This was turning out to be one sorry trip, and I was turning into one liar of a father.

The kids and I did do a little bit of hiking.  After all, Blue Mounds State Park is the most reliable place in the state to see Blue Grosbeaks.  Even though I had seen a gross amount of them in recent weeks, it was still fun to find six Blue Grosbeaks at Blue Mounds.  Most were near the Interpretive Center’s parking lot, but a couple were found at the north end of the prairie near the swimming area.

Blue Grosbeak

Blue Grosbeak

Blue Mounds is also famous for Common Nighthawks that swoop over the prairie and make their booming call late in the evening or early in the morning.  It is not hard to find them perched during the day. This particular nighthawk was taking a rest in the same tree as the Blue Grosbeak above.

Common Nighthawk

Common Nighthawk

Can you find the Blue Grosbeak and Common Nighthawk in this photo?

Can you find the Blue Grosbeak and Common Nighthawk in this photo?

Another fun bird that is not hard to find at this park is the Dickcissel.  Interestingly, this Dickcissel was perched in the same small, dead tree with the Blue Grosbeak and Common Nighthawk in the first two photos.  Apparently the two former birds don’t mind sharing territory with each other.  And the nighthawk couldn’t care less that these two birds were singing their heads off while he tried to close his eyes and dream sweet nighthawk dreams.



The list of uncommon birds that are not too hard to find at Blue Mounds continued with several singing Field Sparrows.  I was showing Evan this particular Field Sparrow through the LCD display on the camera and pressed the shutter button while the bird was singing. Evan thought that was pretty neat to photograph it in the act of singing, even using the phrase “epic photo.”

Field Sparrow

Field Sparrow

Another bird we had the pleasure of viewing, when binoculars and camera were not in hand of course, was a Red-headed Woodpecker in a dead tree right by a walking path. It did not care that we were 15 feet away.  Steve has told me I’m a magnet for these birds. I’m starting to believe him.  What I am certainly a magnet for is rain at Blue Mounds State Park.  As you can see in the photos above, conditions were not optimal for photography, birding, or even camping.  Rain was setting up shop for the day, and I had a sickening feeling that this trip was going to turn into the disastrous Blue Grosbeak hunt of 2013.  But a lack of good weather, terns, playgrounds, swimming beaches, and safe drinking water did not deter these two from having a good time even though I have no idea what they were doing here.

Evan Marin

We never did see the Least Terns on any one of our dozen+ trips to the tern spot that day. Hope stayed alive for a check in the morning, but it was time to put the current day to bed and get some rest.  At least that was a sure thing.  Or so I thought.  For somebody who teaches future doctors and engineers and such, sometimes I just don’t think.  I figured the three of us in a three-man tent on a full-sized air mattress would be no problem until I put the plan into action.  The mattress was not wide enough for the three of us, so I turned the mattress sideways. What I gained in shoulder room was offset by the loss of body length I could fit on the mattress. My shorter companions had no problem, but my legs hung off the end by over a foot. Uncomfortable but fine.  But then you throw in a couple of karate-chopping sleepers and a 65 lb. lab that wants on the bed and it was a red-eyed, muscle-aching disaster.  It was topped off by a close lighting storm that had me scrambling to get two sleepy kids and a dog into the van where we would attempt to sleep the last couple hours of the night.  I didn’t care about a Least Tern by that point.  Instead I was once again thinking how the desire for a bird could cause such misery.  The new day and the trip home couldn’t come fast enough.

Dawn finally came and with it was the thought that this trip had nowhere to go but up.  I was wrong again.  You see, the previous day I noticed that my two-front tires were balding really bad.  I shouldn’t have made the trip down on them, and I certainly wasn’t going to drive home on them.  So I made arrangements at the Luverne Ford dealership to get a couple of new tires that next morning.  I figured it would be fine because the kids and dog and I could take a nice walk while we waited.  The day had a different plan.  The continuing rain forced us to wait for our van in the one-car showroom of the dealership…with a big dog.  But a 6 in. by 6 in. TV playing Sponge Bob, a couple of cookies, and one firm hand on a short leash got us through the tire change.  Actually all the folks at Luverne Ford were incredibly hospitable and friendly telling me sweet lies about how well-behaved my kids were and how nice my dog was.  The truth is that the kids and dog did very well considering the circumstances.  And it truly is better to be safe as they say.  Did I mention that on the trip down to Luverne the previous day I had to call 911 to report a semi coming into my lane?

Finally we were out of there.  We checked the tern spot one last time but again came up short.  It was time to head home.  I took a longer route home in an effort to do some eBird documentation for some reported Blue Grosbeaks that other birders had found far north of their usual range.  I only managed to turn up one.  I was thrilled to be able to see and document a couple more Red-headed Woodpeckers.  I was never able to get any photos, but I did see and photograph another uncommon bird, the Upland Sandpiper, another bird I’ve been seeing more of this year than in the past.

Upland Sandpiper

Upland Sandpiper

The trip had some good birds for sure, just not the new one we were hoping for.  What we didn’t have in birds, though, we made up for in stories to tell.  I will be curious to someday hear the kids’ recollections of the disastrous Least Tern chase of the summer of 2014.  The Least Tern won this battle, but another life bird would become the hero and bring a satisfactory close to the summer the next week.

Our Very Own Cerulean Warbler at Sibley State Park

Late at night on June 12th I got a text from Randy asking if I wanted to go hunt for Cerulean Warblers in the county the next morning.  Most definitely the answer was yes. A Cerulean is not a life bird for Evan or me; in fact I had seen one just a couple days prior at Murphy-Hanrehan Park Reserve in Savage.  However, they are one of the coolest warblers out there because A) they are blue warblers that are beautiful and B) they are quite scarce and hard to find.  I was eager to tag along with someone who’s been birding the county for 25 years and check his old haunts and hiding places.

We didn’t have any luck at our first stop, and honestly I wasn’t expecting to find a Cerulean this day – that’s how tough they are. Randy mentioned stopping by Sibley State Park to check some old spots, and then I mentioned to him that I had seen an eBird report of a Cerulean Warbler at Sibley a couple weeks ago on my Birding Across America website.  But there was no specific information on its location.  It would be like looking for a needle in a haystack.  Actually that would be easier than looking for a Cerulean in Sibley.  Anyhow, Randy was encouraged by this news.

Randy first stopped at the park office to buy a vehicle pass, and he had the presence of mind to ask if they had received any reports of a Cerulean Warbler.  As a matter of fact, they had!  And they knew where to point us! A short, slow drive later with the windows down revealed the unmistakble rapid buzzy song of our target bird! And what a bird it is.

Cerulean Warbler at Sibley State Park

Cerulean Warbler at Sibley State Park

Cerulean Warbler


It was so much fun to watch this male sing on territory.  Refinding a warbler during migration is a crapshoot, but a warbler on territory in the summer is pretty much a guarantee.  I knew that we would be able to stop out and see it again and that Steve could finally get his lifer.


Cerulean Warbler

The very next day was Father’s Day and we went out for a drive in the northwestern part of the county just to do some sightseeing.  Since Sibley was in the vicinity, we stopped out at the park so Evan could see the bird.  Again, not a lifer for him, just a cool bird. It turns out Steve was there too trying to get his first look at this bird.  I’m not sure how many more Ceruleans I’ll see in my lifetime as this declining species is losing habitat in both it’s summer and winter homes, so I’ll be sure to appreciate this one and check up on it next time we’re at Sibley for swimming or camping.

Avian and Animal Adventures at Afton State Park

Afton State Park patchAnyone who read our blog last summer may recall that we have a special fondness for state parks, especially those that hold new and exciting birds.  One of the bonuses of visiting a new state park is that Evan gets the park’s signature patch for his birding rucksack.  We are not indiscriminate in which parks we visit.  There has to be a compelling reason to go to a certain park.  Afton State Park had been on my radar since last year when Pete Nichols, the moderator of the Minnesota Birding Facebook Group, discovered a Hooded Warbler there.  Hooded Warblers are rare but regular in Minnesota, and they are a bird I’ve been wanting to see.  This year Pete rediscovered not one, but three of these birds at Afton!  Additionally, there were many other birds popping up at Afton that we’d never seen.  The most prominent that I would consider equals with the Hooded Warbler is the Prothonotary Warbler.  There were also Henslow’s Sparrows (many), Blue-winged Warblers, Black-billed Cuckoos, Eastern Towhees, Tufted Titmice, Summer Tanagers, and Bell’s Vireos.  The Hooded Warbler alone would have brought me to the park which is east of St. Paul and on the St. Croix River that runs between Minnesota and Wisconsin.  But this buffet of potential life birds made it a must-visit spot right now.  In fact, I even pulled Evan out of a couple days of school to make the trip.  Let’s face it, if we didn’t have all the snow days this past year, he’d be out of school by now anyway.

One complication with Afton is that you can’t pull a camper there.  That wouldn’t be a problem as we can tent it, but the tent sites are back-pack sites which means a significant hike – not a task I wanted to do with two kids. The park’s saving grace is that it has camper cabins for rent at a very reasonable rate. So that’s what the kids and I did.


They were pretty enthralled with the accomodations.  Seeing how nice the cabins were and how cheap they are to rent, I started to question why I bought a camper.  Oh well, variety is the spice of camping.

Camper Cabin at Afton State Park

Camper Cabin at Afton State Park

The cabin was nice and all, but I was itching to find one of the nearly ten potential life birds that could be had in this park.  So after we unpacked, we headed for the car to drive to our hiking destination.  But I jumped back when I discovered this 4-foot Fox Snake between me and my car!

Fox Snake

Fox Snake

What a sighting!  I’ve never seen anything like it in Minnesota.  The kids and I were within just a few feet of it checking it out.  I couldn’t resist touching it.  In my younger days I would have caught the thing, but I wasn’t up for that.  He shot off like a rocket the instant he felt my touch.  Then it disappeared in the weeds, gone for good. Or so we thought.

And how do we know it was a Fox Snake?  Marin discovered it on a poster at the Visitor’s Center (and it was confirmed by Randy).  She was quite proud that she found it.


The kids and I finally made it to the area where we needed to hike for the Hooded Warbler.  Our path would go down a large hill to the St. Croix River where we could walk the river bottoms trail and look/listen for this warbler.  The hike down was full of stops and starts as one kid or the other had some emergency or another, mostly bug or heat related.  Finally we gave up and went back to the car.  No Hooded.

As we drove through the parking lot a meadowlark with a lot of white in its tail flushed up and landed in the tree next to us.  I was confident it was our Eastern Meadowlark lifer because the Westerns are rare visitors to the park and the Easterns are classified as common.  I was waiting for it to vocalize, the surest indication of what species of meadowlark it was.

Eastern Meadowlark

Eastern Meadowlark

As we spent more time in the park, we saw and heard many Eastern Meadowlarks. Though its simple song is far inferior to our melodic Western, it was fun to hear and be able to gain confidence in distinguishing the two species.  Because it is nearly identical to the Western Meadowlark, it wasn’t an exciting life bird, just a tick on the life list.

When we got back to cabin, we had another visitor – the Wild Turkey.  This tom (he’s shy about showing his beard) didn’t really care that he was blocking our way.

Wild Turkey

Wild Turkey

After some lunch, a nap, and some bunk-bed antics, it was time to go out for another walk.  This time we were going to hit the north prairie loop to look for Henslow’s Sparrows, Black-billed Cuckoos, and Blue-winged Warblers.

North Prairie Loop - Afton State Park

North Prairie Loop – Afton State Park

We walked in the hot sun and didn’t come up with anything.  I didn’t hear a Henslow’s, and I certainly didn’t see a Cuckoo in the nearby woods.  We did end up seeing our Blue-winged Warbler lifer in flight.  It was a dull yellow with bluish wings, and it was in an area where they had been seen.  We saw it fly into a pine.  I watched for it to show itself, but then an American Goldfinch popped out.  I asked Evan if that’s what we had seen.  His answer confirmed my own thoughts when he said the one we saw wasn’t as yellow and had blue wings. Finally our bird popped out again, flying away and not landing in sight.  Bummer.  It’s not the way I’d like to get a lifer.  A good solid view is a must followed by a good photo.

At least this Eastern Bluebird posed for a photo even though they are quite common wherever there is prairie.  Though I wish a Black-billed Cuckoo were sitting in his place, I couldn’t pass up a chance to photograph a bluebird.

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

After our prairie hike it was back to the cabin for more food and rest (me) and more horseplay (the kids).  I told the kids we’d go on one last hike in the early evening and then come home to make a fire and cook supper.  This time I was determined to get us down to that river bottoms trail to adequately search for that Hooded Warbler.

We drove a little ways down the road and look who was sunning himself!  I’m not sure this is the same snake as before or even the same species.  But two mega snake sightings in one day was incredible!

IMG_9185After this experience we finally made it to the trailhead.  This time things went a lot smoother with a lot less complaining.  The hike down the large hill was the most challenging as the sign shows, though Marin was convinced the sign meant it was a snake trail.  Given our day, who could blame her?  Here you can see Evan contemplating her observation.IMG_9190The river bottoms trail was flat and easy as it took us right next to the St. Croix and right along the base of an oak-wooded hillside where the Hooded Warblers were known to be. I knew the song well as its been my phone’s ring tone for some time, but I just wasn’t hearing it.  Argh.  Later on, though, as we passed by some flooded timber along the edge of the river, I heard the distinctive call of the Prothonotary Warbler! Not the main target, but good enough!  After a little while we got to lay our eyes on it.  What a thrill it was to see it for the first time!

Prothonotary Warbler

Prothonotary Warbler



If there would be no Hooded Warbler, it didn’t matter so much anymore with this bird.  It was quite a sight.  We never did see the Hooded that day; it would have to wait until the next day.  The kids were tired, so we headed back to the cabin for supper and bed even though there was a good hour or so of daylight left.  We pulled in to find yet some more visitors in the campsite – three deer!


As I had made a trip out to the car after getting the kids in their pajamas, I heard the distinctive “Drink your teaaaaa!” song of the Eastern Towhee!  This would be a life bird, and its song was coming from across the prairie to the south of our cabin.  Quickly I had the kids throw their shoes on, and we followed this bird’s song.  I was able to locate it at the top of a dead tree belting out his tune for everyone to hear.  And he did not care that we were watching him from down below.  Nor did he care that Marin sang his song with him.  I’ve been looking forward to seeing this bird for a long time, so it felt pretty good to get this one on the trip.

Eastern Towhee

Eastern Towhee

"Drink your teaaaaa!"

“Drink your teaaaaa!”

When we got back to the campsite this time, a fox scampered out of our campfire area. What a magnet for wildlife this little spot was.  It would be fun to see what the next day would bring.

That next day I decided we would do the river bottoms trail one last time and the prairie loop one last time.  If we didn’t get our main target or some other lifers then so be it.  All the river bottoms trail yielded was another look at the Prothonotary Warbler which never gets old.  The prairie loop trail didn’t provide the Henslow’s Sparrow we were looking for or give any better looks at that Blue-winged Warbler.  It was fun to see a Field Sparrow, which is a fairly uncommon bird.

Field Sparrow

Field Sparrow

It was also a treat to see a male Orchard Oriole, even if he was a long ways from the road.

Orchard Oriole

Orchard Oriole

It was finally time to go.  I had a couple more birding moves to make, though.  The night before someone reported a pair of Tufted Titmice at the Hidden Valley Park in Savage.  I decided we’d swing by and check it out.  There were plenty of birders there, but there were no binoculars or cameras pointing to the trees – not a good sign.  Turns out that no one had been seeing them all day.  The kids had fun at this cool, well-named park that had a small river running through it.  The big draw for them was looking for tiny shells.

Looking for shells at Hidden Valley Park in Savage, Minnesota

Looking for shells at Hidden Valley Park in Savage, Minnesota


No Titmice and a handful of shells.  At least some of us were happy with this place.  I did see two male Indigo Buntings, a much more colorful bird than the drab Tufted Titmouse. Ironically, because of its commonality, it is a lot more boring than a Titmouse.

Indigo Bunting

Indigo Bunting


We gave up on the Tufted Titmice and made one quick stop at Murphy-Hanrehan Park for another reported Hooded Warbler.  The walk was short, and so was the birding.  This Hooded Warbler wasn’t singing or showing either.  I guess I can’t complain.  Four life birds and some other cool wildlife sightings made for a memorable trip.  Plus, we still have a warbler to hunt (the list hasn’t gotten quite short!).