The AZ FEPO Search: Boots on the Ground

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

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

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

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

airplane wing

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

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

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

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

smuggle sign

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

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

Cassin's Vireo

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

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

Dusky-capped Flycatcher

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

Rufous-backed RobinRufous-backed Robin

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

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

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

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

Mopping Up in Central AZ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harris's Hawk

And a bonus Prairie Falcon.

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

Mountain Plover

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

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

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

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

Boreal Magic: A 5-Year Dream Realized

It was 2012 when this whole birding thing began for Evan and me. By year’s end, we didn’t even have 100 species to our name. Sometime in January of 2013, I discovered Minnesota’s listserv, MOU-net. My eyes were opened to the world of rare birds. At that point in time, rare birds and common birds were all still new to us, so many of the reports were not of great significance to us. While I wasn’t into chasing rare birds at that time, a bombardment of emails regarding one bird was causing me to think I should take some kind of action. The Boreal Owl was irrupting in record numbers that January and February, coming down from Canada. I had only seen a Great Horned Owl by this time, so it was just one of 18 Owl species I had yet to see. But people were describing how this species only irrupts like this every four to five years, and birders were flying in from all over the country to see this Owl. It was a rare event to say the least; I knew I had to try. Melissa was involved in directing a school musical during that same time and couldn’t break away for a weekend getaway until early March which I later found out was a little on the late side for Boreals. Some readers may recall that it was then that we made our first ever birding trip to the Sax-Zim Bog and the North Shore, hoping to see the Boreal Owl as well as the other great northern Owls. Not only did we not see a Boreal, but we saw no Owls at all.

That winter passed giving way to new seasons and new birds. Over the years our life list would quadruple, and it would include numerous Owl sightings from 17 different species. Each winter I’d hold out some hope that there would be a report of a Boreal Owl somewhere along the North Shore of Lake Superior, but there would be none. Eventually it became a mythical bird for me. I kicked myself for not getting my butt up to Duluth in February of 2013. In the years since then, I had amassed a formidable collection of rare bird sightings in Minnesota and across the country, yet I was not a member of the Boreal Owl club.  I had Owled literally from the Canadian border down to the Mexican border seeing really cool Owls.  But the Boreal was not one of them. In fact, I was down to two unseen Owl species of the 19 that are possible: the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl and the Boreal Owl. Watching my good buddy Tommy DeBardeleben accomplish his goal of seeing all 19 Owl species in 2016 only heightened my desire to get the Boreal.  I felt as if Minnesota was a lost cause.  I began to daydream of trips to Washington state, Colorado, or Ontario to look for this Owl.   The winter of 2016-2017 was supposed to be the next Boreal Owl irruption if it truly did irrupt every four years. I eagerly awaited news last year. There were a handful of scattered reports, but nothing of a large scale irruption materialized. Would I have to wait another four years? Would I have to travel far away and spend all kinds of money to finally see this Owl?

It turns out I was not alone in my longing for a Boreal. Buddy Jeff Grotte who started the popular Facebook group, Owl About Minnesota, has seen over 1,000 Owls in the last five years. He even tried for Boreal a few times back in 12-13, but he was still Boreal-less too. Jeff and I talked often of hoping to see this bird. Then in December, a friend of Jeff’s from Indiana had a brief sighting of one in the Sax-Zim Bog. It was a fluke sighting, or so I told myself. This wasn’t the irruption year–that was supposed to be last year. Jeff and I decided to try for this Owl the very next morning. It literally was our first opportunity in five years of waiting. We had to try. Rising early, we got up to the Bog just after dawn. Great Grays, Hawk Owls, and Snowies were all off to a banner start up there, but Jeff and I have both seen plenty of each. We wanted the prize bird more than anything else. By noon we were still without a Boreal sighting and decided to call it quits. The three Owls we did see were of little consolation.Northern Hawk OwlSnowy OwlSnowy OwlHeartbroken at the time, little did we realize that the Boreal we chased was just the tip of the spear. More sightings kept popping up during December of both live and dead Boreal Owls. By the time news of one would come out, though, it would either be during the work week or late in the day making a chase impossible. Jeff and I were hopeful that our day would finally happen, but we were very antsy about it. I had an upcoming trip to Arizona that I was now dreading. I did not want to miss my chance.

Jeff, myself, and several others decided we should just head up to Duluth and the North Shore the weekend of January 6th-7th whether we had sightings to go off of or not. Clearly the Boreals were irrupting, so the plan was to either look for one on our own or geographically put ourselves in position to quickly get on a bird if there was one. I decided to drag Evan along on this trip; even if he didn’t care about Boreal Owls so much, I knew it would be a fun father-son adventure. We would travel all the way to Grand Marais to stay in my brother’s vacation home, looking for Boreals along the way.

Late in the day on January 5th, one of our group had accomplished the unthinkable: while looking for Saw-whet Owls, teenage birding brothers Ezra, Isaac, and Caleb Hosch had discovered their lifer Boreal Owl near the Twin Cities! Four days prior to that, these brothers had come out to Kandiyohi County to try to help me find a Saw-whet out here. Jeff opted to look for the Boreal these guys found that next morning. I decided to continue with my plan of heading to the North Shore. After all, Scenic 61 between Duluth and Two Harbors is where the Boreals usually pop up. Furthermore, a fellow living outside Grand Marais had one coming to his yard for a few days in a row. This Twin Cities Boreal could easily be gone the next day, and chasing it could cause me to lose valuable search time along the North Shore. Jeff planned to call me that morning if it was relocated. Sure enough, two hours into my journey north I got the call from Jeff. I was just north of Hinckley at the time, heading north on I-35. I continued to the next exit where I could get turned around to head south. It would take an hour to get there. It was a strange detour, but you know, a bird in the hand and all that…

Evan and I got to the site. Jeff was waiting for us in his car trying to get warm.  Little did we know that it was nearly a mile hike in the single-digit temps out to this Owl. Jeff did warn us that the Owl was extremely high in a pine tree, like 60 feet high, and the views were terrible. The Hosch family was also there to guide us out to where the Owl was. Visiting with the Hoschs, I learned that Jeff had called me to get me turned around on the highway before he even laid eyes on the bird himself. Nice guy. When we got out to The Tree, Isaac and Ezra were helping people get on their amazing find. I could not see the darn thing despite patient birders trying to describe where it was. Just as I was about to zero in on it, it flew! So, technically I had a Boreal Owl, but it didn’t feel like it. Evan never took his eyes off it and saw it land in another pine just as high off the ground as the first. Evan was able to see it with no optics, but again, I could not pick it out. And then it flew again. Argh! The bird had been notched, but there were no solid looks or photos. This was not just some western Empid that you could be satisfied with a brief, distant look–this was the freaking Boreal Owl!  Two hours had now passed since I got that phone call from Jeff. Evan and I could still make it Grand Marais before dark and get at least some searching in along the way if we hurried. I was hoping we could get onto a more cooperative Owl. So with temps hovering around zero, Evan and I jogged most of the mile back to the car and quickly got on the road to go back north. There were more Boreals to be found, and we wanted a better look.

We got to Duluth around 1:00. I wanted to be in Grand Marais by 4:00 in case that gentleman with the yard Boreal called me. He had said he would make sure to tell me if it made its usual appearance at dusk. Once in Duluth, Evan and I hopped on Scenic 61, a highway that hugs the shoreline of Lake Superior. Boreal Owls are often found here during irruption years because when they come south they hit the lakefront and keep moving southwest along the shore. The stretch between Duluth and Two Harbors is often the best section for them. We, though, didn’t find any by the time we hit Two Harbors. We stopped at a city park where a Boreal had been seen a few days earlier.  We planned to leave by 2:30 to get to Grand Marais in time. The park yielded nothing.  Evan and I were walking back to the car to continue northeast to GM when my phone rang. It was Jeff: “Hey, where are you at?!”

“I’m in Two Harbors.”

“Turn around right now! There’s one in Duluth!”

I was literally running while getting the location from Jeff and hollering to Evan (who had fallen a hundred yards behind) to start running back to the car. Huffing and puffing, we hopped in the car and quickly got on the expressway back to Duluth. Another jaunt south on this north-south zig-zag adventure. No Scenic 61 this time. In about 25 minutes we made it to the Hartley Nature Center where Erik Berg and Kelly Raymond had seen this Owl and notified Jeff. It took a little bit of time to figure out where Erik and Kelly were, but eventually we found them quietly looking at this!

Boreal OwlErik and Kelly made some room for us to see this brush-loving bird through a small window in the branches. It felt good. We had made it. We were looking at a real-live Boreal Owl! Now, we were just waiting to see that face. This was our first glimpse.

Boreal OwlAnd then:

Boreal Owl

Even Evan was in awe, saying how cool this was. I was genuinely surprised at this reaction from the kid who has turned down seeing Flammulated and Whiskered Screech-Owls. “This is so cool! Dad, I see its face!”

Conditions for viewing were not perfect. I was sitting in the snow in jeans to get these photos. Eventually this sluggish bird came to life and started actively hunting! The photo opportunities (and the crowd size) started to increase.

boreal Owl

Boreal OwlBoreal OwlBoreal OwlThis was, by far, the coolest Owl I had ever seen. This Owl eventually flew away from this spot. I noticed it actually flew close to a different trail. John Richardson and I walked that way and spotted it on top of a brush pile. The views were much better and gave me my best Boreal photo, which Jeff helped me enhance.

Boreal Owl

Evan was cold at this point and wanted to wait in the car while I continued to enjoy the bird.  I walked him back to the car. When I returned, the Owl (and the crowd) had moved.

IBoreal crowdThe Owl was now very close to the trails and out in the open. I felt bad that Jeff wasn’t there to experience these photo opportunities; he had not felt well after the Twin Cities Boreal expedition and decided not to come north.

Boreal OwlBooks describe Boreals as having a surprised look on their face. It is definitely true. Boreal Owl

Finally, I had been satisfied enough to pry myself away from this spectacular bird. Evan and I could continue on our trip to Grand Marais in perfect peace, even if my pants were soaking wet for the two-hour drive. The Grand Marais birder with the Boreal Owl in his yard never did call me, so things worked out perfectly. It was a dream come true. We had brought our birding full circle from that very first year; we were now members of the Boreal Owl Club.  Evan and I celebrated by eating supper in Grand Marais at a family favorite restaurant, Sven & Ole’s Pizza.

Evan Sven's

Josh Watson, of Kandiyohi County Blue Grosbeak fame, stopped by to join us for a celebratory beer (Evan had ice cream) and we had a nice visit about Boreal Owls and other cool birds of the North and beyond. It’s always fun to catch up with birder friends you don’t see often. It was just a great way to end a great day.

The next morning, Evan I got up and poked around Grand Marais for cool birds. We didn’t find much, but it didn’t matter–it was a completely relaxing trip now with zero anxiety. Jeff was on his way up to Duluth that morning to see if he could get onto a good look of a Boreal Owl. Evan and I continued to look for Boreals on our way southwest to Duluth.  We were hoping we could find one for Jeff. One of our stops was Sugarloaf Cove Nature Center where we were hoping to find a Boreal on a little hike. No Boreals, were had, but Evan was excited to get a lifer Snowshoe Hare. Snowshoe HareWe also took a moment to take a Lake Superior selfie.

Josh Evan

Once again, we stopped in Two Harbors to poke around. Of course we wanted to find a Boreal Owl there, but we also took a moment to get Evan a Harlequin Duck lifer, one of two continuing birds in Agate Bay along the jetty. These birds could be seen very well with the naked eye.

Harlequin DuckHarlequin DuckWe had barely been in Two Harbors when I got a message from Jeff that he had found his very own Boreal Owl down by Duluth! I was happy he had finally gotten good looks at a bird low and in the open. Knowing there were Great Gray Owls in the area, I asked Evan what we should do. Evan thinks like a true birder because he said we should go after Jeff’s Boreal since we can see Great Grays any year. So once again we were on our way back to Duluth for a Boreal Owl. This one was snoozing in a tree right along Scenic 61. That, combined with the fact that we had gotten our Boreal the day before, meant we did not have to rush this time. Sure enough, this Boreal was right where Jeff had spotted it.

Boreal OwlSome people, like myself, have trouble spotting these Owls. Thankfully, people like Evan can point them out.

Evan Owl

What a trip–three Boreal Owls! It was beyond a dream come true. This trip with Evan was second only to the Greater Sage-Grouse trip he and I took three years ago. Many thanks to all the people that helped us, especially the Hosch Bros, Kelly Raymond, Erik Berg, and most importantly, Jeff Grotte who helped me get on all three of these birds after he and I shared the Boreal-less struggle for so long together.

There is now just one Owl left for me to find in the United States. I’m hoping that happens in 2018. But first there will hopefully be some more Boreal Owl encounters this winter–we will be helping legendary Arizona birders Tommy DeBardeleben and Janet Witzeman hopefully get on a Boreal or two.  Speaking of Arizona, the next blog post will feature a few lifers and other favorites I picked up on a trip there last weekend.

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!

#17

It’s hard to be a part of Tommy DeBardeleben’s Owl Big Year (TOBY) in 2016 and not have it rub off on you in some way.  Watching my friend Tommy see all of America’s Owl species in one year was inspirational and got me thinking about completing my own “set” of Owls since I was so close.  In the fall of 2016, I made it my goal to see a Whiskered Screech-Owl on our annual trip to Arizona.  After that Owl was secured, only 3 Owls of 19 remained: Boreal Owl, Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, and Flammulated Owl–none of which would be particularly easy.  In fact, all of them are quite challenging. Nevertheless, a plan was hatched to make a rare summer trip to Arizona to attempt Owl lifer #17, Flammulated Owl.  Going in summer was necessary since this Owl is a migratory summer resident that is not around in Arizona during the fall/winter when we usually visit.  And since Flams are associated with the forests of higher elevations, we’d have to head to the mountains for this bird.

There are many places in Arizona to look for Flams, but to make it a family-friendly trip I opted for northern Arizona so that we could knock out our lifer Grand Canyon too.  Tommy had suggested that the Flagstaff area held great Flam habitat.  I liked his suggestion, so we made plans for a quick, end-of-school-year vacation at the Wyndham Flagstaff Resort.  Tommy made plans to join us for a couple days of our vacation so that he could help me get yet another new Owl.  Previously Tommy had shown me six Owl lifers on other Arizona trips.

The Owling was to commence on the first night of our vacation. May 30th was travel day and got off to an early start.  We landed at PHX around noon local time and proceeded to make the 2-hour trip north to Flagstaff.  Tommy drove up from Phoenix later in the afternoon and after some grocery shopping and enjoying a meal together, Tommy and I were off for a night of Owling while the family stayed back at the resort to relax.

Tommy and I had an hour’s drive to the southeast along the Lake Mary Road to make our Flam attempt at arguably the best place to try for them: Happy Jack Lodge.  The Flam fame for this location started when Caleb Strand discovered multiple reliable, accommodating birds here a couple years.  This was the site where Tommy got his TOBY Flam in 2016.  I have seen many crushing photos of Flams from Tommy and Caleb from this site and have drooled over the possibility of Owling here.  And now it was finally going to happen.  Although, daydreams of Flams perched low in Oaks were interrupted by a couple close encounters with Elk on the road.  Thankfully Tommy was driving and was skilled at spotting them.  The Elk weren’t the only distraction. We cruised right by Mormon Lake, the site of the the Arizona first state record Common Crane that showed up earlier in the month and disappeared just a week or so before our trip.  I found out later (back in Minnesota) that the Common Crane was refound on our last day of vacation! Doh!

We got to Happy Jack Lodge just as it was getting dark.  After a short walk through the campground, we started Owling in the adjacent forest which was fairly wide open.  I was expecting magic at any minute. But it was eerily…silent. We forged on, stopping every now and then to listen and play tapes. Nothing.  What was going on? In my mind I had billed Happy Jack as a sure thing, so disappointment was quickly setting in.  We weren’t hearing any nighttime sounds. The lack of activity coupled with the long day of travel was finally taking its toll on me.  I found it difficult to stay awake and focused and had to pause often to sit down and rest. Finally, enough was enough, and we ditched Happy Jack altogether.  We were now entering the unknown territory for getting me this Owl lifer.  It’s a good thing Tommy is a skilled Owler and is not at all daunted by the unknown.

On the drive back to Flagstaff, Tommy decided to stop at Wiemer Springs Road where he had seen a recent eBird report of a couple Flammulated Owls.  It was worth a shot.  Tommy had never been here before, but he got excited once he saw the habitat.  He felt really good about our chances.  We continued the ritual of hiking, pausing to listen, and playing tapes. Then, a short time after playing the tape, we heard a “Poot!” It was a Flam! And once it started, it kept going: “Poot!….poot!….poot!” Tommy said, “Let’s go get it!” and led the way into the woods as we tried to pin down the Owl for visuals and photos.  We tracked down what tree it was in, but Flams can perch high and remain out of sight as they perch close to the trunk of the tree.  We scanned and scanned with our flashlights.  Finally, Tommy shouted, “Josh, I’ve got it!” I hustled over to where Tommy was, but just then it flew and I never saw it.  This played over a few times: we’d hear the bird, track it down, Tommy would get a quick visual, and then it would fly as I approached.  It was so frustrating.  We even had a second Flam that we heard, but neither was being cooperative for us.  Eventually the Owls were quiet and we were super tired.  We had to call it a day for Flam attempt #1.  Officially, #17 was on the list as a heard-only, but it wasn’t as gratifying as it could have been if I had actually seen it.

The next day Tommy accompanied our family on a trip to the Grand Canyon.  Throughout the day we discussed what we should do for our next and final night of trying for the Flam.  Options included Owling closer to Flagstaff, returning to Happy Jack, and returning Wiemer Springs Road.  We finally decided on the latter as we knew there were actually Owls at that location.  Their reclusive habits made us nervous, though.

When we got to Wiemer Springs Road, Tommy had commented that it would be funny if we got the Flam right away.  We began the walk we had taken the night before and  played the tape in the same spot we had found one.  Immediately we got a response! I followed Tommy through the woods.  Rather than scanning with my own light apart from Tommy, I basically stayed right at his side.  This time it paid off as Tommy quickly got on the Owl with his light, and this time it stayed put!! Flammmmmmmm!!!!!

Flammulated Owl

Flammulated OwlFlammulated Owl

We literally had about one minute to view/photograph this bird before it flew off from its 30-foot high perch.  From the time we had started walking to when this encounter was over, only 12 minutes had gone by! It was quite the stroke of luck, or more likely, an answer to prayer as Tommy had said.  Wow, what a thrill it was to get this Owl with my buddy, Tommy! I was very satisfied with the experience and the photos I got, but since the night was still very young, we decided to keep trying for more visuals.

The rest of the night would play out like the night before where additional visuals and cooperative birds could just not be had.  We did hear a couple more Flammulated Owls, but none was willing to sit still.  However, the excitement for the night was not over.  As we were chasing yet another Flam vocalization, I heard something faintly in the distance that sounded like a Western Screech-Owl.  Unsure of what I was hearing, I asked Tommy if there were Screech Owls in the area.  He told me they were very unlikely at these high elevations.  We paused to listen, and I kept hearing it! The bouncy ball song was unmistakable.  Tommy wasn’t picking it up though which surprised me and caused me to doubt my senses.  But then he caught part of the distant vocalization and confirmed it was a Western Screech!  It was a Coconino County first for Tommy besides! Since this bird is somewhat rare for this part of the state, we decided to track it down for visuals and photo documentation.  Unlike Flams, Western Screech-Owls are very cooperative.  Tommy knew we would have no trouble seeing it.  Tommy was right.

Western Screech-Owl

Strangely, though, this bird stayed very high and wouldn’t come close for photos.  We actually detected at least three Western Screech-Owls, two adults and one juvenile.

Western Screech-OwlAfter the Screech-Owl fun, we kept up our search for Flams with no further sightings.  A pair of dueting Great Horned Owls did give us a three-Owl night, however.  With Flammulated Owl locked down and photo-documented as my 17th Owl lifer, the trip was a huge success.  A fun coincidence is that the Flam was Tommy’s 17th Owl species for TOBY. I can’t thank Tommy enough for all the Owl species he has shown me (7 in all!).  The next day we celebrated in a most appropriate way–eating at the Toasted Owl Cafe right by our resort in Flagstaff.  It’s very good, by the way.

Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, people standing and outdoor

So now only two Owls remain for me.  I got Owl lifer #16 in 2016, #17 in 2017, so I’m putting it out there as my next birding goal: #18 in ’18 and #19 in ’19.  Research and plans are already underway.  There is a chance Tommy still might be able to help me with one of those, but I may be on my own in other parts of the country for the rest of the journey.  Thanks again, Tommy!

Coming up in the next post will be the other lifers of this Arizona trip, highlighted by a real show-stopper which was the other major target bird of the trip!

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.

Reader’s Choice Makes For A Choice Reader

Over the years ABWCH has enjoyed its share of popular posts and survived tougher times of fickle readership through some real ho-hummers. Through it all, though, there has been a dedicated following that has stuck through posts of plenty as well as posts left wanting. Thanks, Mom. I’m kidding. There’s one more.  If you’ve read this blog at all, you have certainly seen a comment left by AMR, a.k.a. Adam Roesch.  As an actuary in real life, Adam brings an analytical skill-set to the world of birding not often seen.  He is a dedicated patch birder who, almost to a fault, birds exclusively at Coon Rapids Dam Regional Park on the Mississippi River.  Even as potential life birds fall all around him, he opts to bird CRDRP instead of chasing those lifers, hoping to up his patch total, find a rarity, or just document the general avian goings-on there.  Should he ever dump his detailed data notebooks of years of observations on eBird, the system would likely get overloaded and crash.  More than once Adam has offered to show me his beloved spot. Given that it is at least a two hour trip for me and my desire to tone down the chasing, I told him I had to be really selective about the long-distance trips I make. It would either have to be a side trip of convenience if I was in the area or an exclusive trip for a highly compelling reason. So here’s what I told him nearly two years ago:

commentSince that comment was written, I have knocked off all those ducks but one–the Barrow’s Goldeneye, a bird considered casual in Minnesota occurring roughly every 5 years.  As I am getting to the end of my normal MN birds, BAGO was rapidly moving its way up to the top of the list of my most-wanted birds.  Last year I chased a female BAGO in Fergus Falls but failed.  This year there have been a couple other reports but nothing I considered reliable and therefore chaseable. Well, a little over two weeks ago, Adam Roesch birded at the Mississippi River in Champlin–quite aways upstream from his beloved patch–and made a stunning discovery.  Among the myriad of Common Goldeneye, Adam found and photographed a beautiful male Barrow’s Goldeneye. And with that find, Adam submitted his first ever eBird checklist.  Talk about an entrance.

Since the Barrow’s was a metro bird on a river that flows between two counties, the chasers and listers came in droves without haste. At the time, our family was an hour away at Evan’s swim meet in St. Cloud.  After the Sunday event, I dragged the family down the freeway to go to Champlin/Anoka.  At long last I got to meet Adam and his kids in real life as they tried to help me relocate the object of my desire. Of course, when a life bird is at stake, conversation and eye-contact are kept to a minimum as all such efforts are prioritized to the task at hand.  Adam and I parted ways quite quickly in a divide-and-conquer approach with the limited time I had to look.  I finally did have to pull the plug and cut my family’s losses on this unexpected 3-hour extension of their already long weekend.

In the interim, talk of the Barrow’s died down with some of the best birders not being able to relocate it in subsequent days.  But then, conveniently enough, there was a sighting that next Friday–a day before I was scheduled to go to my brother’s place in the Cities. Perfect.  The pre-planned trip was something the kids and I were going to do while Melissa was away for a fun weekend with some friends. After shuttling kids around to their respective activities that Saturday morning, we were eastbound.  Picking up a Meeker County Rough-legged Hawk (dark morph!) along the way was a good birding start to what was once a non-birding trip.

dark morph Rough-legged hawkdark morph Rough-legged hawkFor the second time in as many weekends, we arrived at Anoka’s Peninsula Point Park to scan the Mississippi for the good Goldeneye.

IMG_1622

These are NOT good Goldeneyes.

I was joined by another reader and former life bird provider, Tony Lau.  While Evan and Marin played with a whiskey bottle they found with a bit too much enthusiasm, Tony and I looked and looked for THE duck. No luck.  I decided to head across the Champlin bridge to look for the duck on the Hennepin County side.  Just as I was about to take off, Tony waved me over with both arms. Yes! I hurried over and Tony got me on the duck with his scope as it swam upstream west of the Champlin bridge. The sighting was good enough to claim the lifer, but I wanted more.  Then to our horror, an Eagle came and scared it up sending it further west.

The kids and I drove across the Champlin bridge to see if we could relocate it. No luck. I gave the kids a reprieve by going on a hot chocolate run and then decided to try scanning the river one last time. It was Tony to the rescue again.  He had also come over to the Champlin side of the bridge and relocated the bird.  The low light conditions, distance, and nearly constant diving made it tough to find and keep track of.  Finally, though, I was able to latch on to this lifer with the camera.

Barrow's GoldeneyeThere’s just something that I absolutely love about getting duck lifers in the cold months.

Barrow's Goldeneye

A huge ‘Thank You’ goes out to dedicated reader, Adam Roesch, for his incredible find. Getting lifers in Minnesota is a rare thing for me anymore, so this was a monumental addition. And if you’re reading, Adam, I’ll go ahead an put in my order for Red-throated Loon, Mew Gull, California Gull, mature drake Harlequin Duck, red-morph Eastern Screech-Owl, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Carolina Wren….

The birding for the weekend didn’t stop with the Barrow’s.  Since I was in town and a Snowy Owl had been reported, I decided to get my FOY SNOW.  Normally I wouldn’t chase a Snowy since I’ve seen them within a few minutes of my house, but my brotherr’s house was only ten minutes away from this one.  And besides, it chose the most unlikely of places to live, something I had to see for myself:

MinneapolisI’m not lying. This skyline view of Minneapolis is literally what this Snowy Owl can see from its bizarre winter territory.  I am used to looking for Snowies in urban environments, but nothing quite like this. Snowy Owls aren’t that hard to spot in places like this, yet I was having a hard time, a really hard time. I finally ran into another birder who clued me in to this sneaky Snowy’s hideout.

Minneapolis SnowySee it? Yeah, I didn’t either without help.

Minneapolis SnowyNever have I seen an Owl, Snowy or otherwise, so well fortified.  Camouflaged, yes, but not entrenched. I tried every which angle and every side of the building for a shot.

Minneapolis Snowy

I spent way too long hoping it would fly up to a higher perch. But why would it want to? This guy or gal has figured out how to live the solitary life in a bustling metro environment.

Minneapolis SnowyThe non-birding-totally-birding metro trip was a success by any standard. It was back to rural west-cental MN where more adventure awaited in the days to come. We’ll save that for the next post, but to close things out, here’s a Great Horned Owl the kids and I saw on the ride back home.

Great Horned Owl

A Red-Letter, Red-Feather Day

No secret has been made on this blog that Owls would play a predominant role in 2017’s goals and adventures.   Seeing as how my #1 goal of seeing an irruptive Boreal Owl lifer is not panning out (yet), I’d have to look slightly further down my list to #2 if I was to get any check mark action on the little scrap of paper I keep tucked away in my Sibley. While that second goal was not an Owl lifer, it was just as tantalizing: a red-morph Eastern Screech-Owl.  Just a different color morph of the EASO which I already had in the gray hue, I know, but so, so different from those other gray Screech-Owl species of Western and Whiskered which I’ve already tallied.  Because my list of goals contained so many Owl-related items, I shared it with my friend, Jeff Grotte, a.k.a. Owl King of Minnesota, who lords over his vast digital domain of ‘Owl About Minnesota’ on FB. Jeff’s a super nice guy who I’ve had the pleasure of owling with before, and he told me he thought we could knock #2 off my list.  He wasn’t kidding and wasted no time. Not very deep into 2017–Jan. 1 to be exact, Jeff investigated a lead on a red Screech and was successful.  Shortly afterward he had gained the necessary permission to return to show me this Owl’s abode, a quiet postage-stamp pond in the grove of a rural residence south of the Twin Cities.

Eastern Screech-OwlThe homeowner, Kathy, assured Jeff the Owl was there regularly; it would just be a matter of me finding a time to make the 2-hour trip.  Funny thing when you are a parent, your time no longer belongs to you–work and kid activities keep us hopping and out of the house most every day and now on weekends too. Birding definitely takes a back seat.  I was feeling the need to get this done though; bird in the hand and whatnot. With Melissa being gone on a trip all weekend, I was staring at some serious single-parenting.  The red Screech dream was seemingly out of reach.  So I did what any serious Owler would do: cashed in some comp time and took me an Owliday mid-week.

After dropping the kids off at school on Thursday, I did not drop myself off at school and kept rolling east to the metro where I met up with Jeff.  Jeff brought along another birding/owling friend, Steve Brown.  The three of us were waiting on word from Kathy regarding whether the red Screech was even home this day. But birders and owlers don’t sit still.  We went on the hunt for Long-eared Owls for a short time in Eden Prairie.  While unsuccessful with that target, we did kick up a Barred Owl which was a good omen for the day.

After this little foray, we headed over to Steve’s house to drop off my vehicle and consolidate into his.  As I tailed Steve and Jeff, I saw a mob of Crows in a tree and began scanning for an Owl blob.  One of the birds was noticeably bigger but not Owl-shaped. As I cruised by I could see it was a Red-shouldered Hawk!  This is a bird I’ve had terrible looks at and never photographed before.  I flashed my lights at Steve and Jeff. No response. It didn’t even dawn on me to use my cellphone.  As I put more distance between myself and the hawk, I was resigned to the fact that this bird would continue to elude me in looks and photos.

When I got out of my car in Steve’s driveway, I was just about to tell the guys about my Red-shouldered Hawk woes when Steve started talking first, “Say, I think we should go in the house before we head out again because I’ve got a real tame Red-shouldered Hawk that hangs out in my backyard all day.  You can get some nice photos.”  Jaw nearly met the ground. I hadn’t even mentioned that this would be a photographic lifer. We went into Steve’s beautiful home that overlooks the Minnesota River Valley, and Steve wasn’t lying.  Bam. Another good omen.

Red-shouldered Hawk Red-shouldered HawkThese photos were shot through glass.  Like Jeff, Steve is an accomplished photographer who ushered me into his photo blind where I could photograph the Hawk without a glass barrier.  Unfortunately, the Hawk got a bit nervous and flew into some tangles.  But have a look at that tail!

Red-shouldered HawkI very quickly learned that Steve, a retired dentist, was taking our birding mission very seriously. While the main object was to get me the red Screech, Steve did not want to send his newest guest away without getting some other good birds too.  He was off to a stellar start. In many ways I felt like I was in a parallel birding world to my experiences in Arizona.  Jeff was the MN Tommy and Steve was the MN Gordon.  Like in Arizona, there was one main mission for the day–get Josh the red Screech. That didn’t mean we couldn’t enjoy a little action while we waited, like this American Black Duck among the 500+ Mallards it was with at the Shakopee Mill Pond. Black Ducks have been really good to me this year.

American Black DuckThe open water was a good chance to pick up some FOYs as I still struggle to reach that barrier of 50 species. Belted Kingfisher, American Coot, Ring-necked Duck, and Lesser Scaup were all new for the year.  Ducks do not hold the attention for long, so we were off to do some backroads exploring while we waited for a sighting update on the red Screech.  We were told it pops out of the hole of the Wood Duck box regularly on sunny days.  This day was dreadfully cloudy, so we were hearing nothing in regards to the Owl. Just like Tommy, Jeff was really wanting to get me the target Owl bad.  We discussed an alternative option in St. Paul, but that was quite far away and no one had seen Screech- Owls in that spot for months.  As the hours ticked on, we were all wondering if the day’s objective would be a bust.  Jeff figured our best shot was still with this homeowner, so he messaged her to ask if we could poke around the property to try to turn it up.  With an affirmative answer, we were on our way to at least make an attempt.

We pulled into the driveway, and Kathy and Mike were there to greet us in a warm, Minnesota-nice way on this cold day. And what a greeting it was–with excited eyes, Kathy’s first words through the open car window were, “It’s here!” The car lit up with smiles and laughs not unlike the war room when they got Osama bin Laden. After some pleasantries, the five of us headed out on a cleared path in the snow around some outbuildings to the secluded corner where the Screech had taken up residency.  Even though they had cameras as long as my arms, Jeff and Steve urged me to go first so I could get my look and photos.  The generosity and mission focus was the Tommy/Gordon thing all over again.  Uncanny.

The pond actually had three Wood Duck boxes.  Mike told us which one the Screech was in just 15 minutes ago.  So we stared and stared at a black hole, hoping it would get filled in with a red face.

Wood Duck boxKnowing there was a red Screech in there made for some impatient waiting.  The Owl was not being cooperative at all while we watched and waited.  We were so close to meeting the big objective, but it just wasn’t happening and the impatience of all was festering.  Would we have come this far only to fail? What’s that they say? When a door closes, open a window?

Red Eastern Screech-Owlred Eastern Screech-Owlred Eastern Screech-OwlWe thought this Owl was going to let us photograph it in this position for a little while, but after a half minute or so, it had enough of this nonsense and flew straight toward us and directly into to the hole of another Wood Duck box.  We never did see it again and decided to leave it alone.  High on a successful trip, we continued to hang out by that little pond and talk Owls with Mike and Kathy.  We thanked them profusely and were finally on our way.  With a few hours of daylight left, the day was still wide open with possibility.

Steve, Jeff, and I spent some more time looking for Long-eared Owls near Steve’s place but were not successful.  Jeff is always up for more Owling (like Tommy), so after we said our goodbyes and thank yous to Steve, Jeff and I were off for Round 2 of Eastern Screech-Owls.  I told Jeff that I thought it would be cool to try to see both color morphs in the same day.  So we went to track one down in the western suburbs.  With some tenacity and brilliance (all on Jeff’s part), we got what we came for:

Eastern Screech-OwlQuality over quantity is what this birding year is all about this year.  This day definitely embodied that as a lifer* Owl was had with a couple of bonus Owls all while having fun with friends.  A huge thanks to Jeff Grotte for setting everything up and making a fun day off, to Steve Brown for the other good birds and the selfless enthusiasm, and most importantly a big thank you to Mike and Kathy for sharing their special yard bird with us.  There will be more Owling with Jeff and possibly Steve in the months to come.  But first, I have a duck to track down.

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.

Arizona 2016: THE Trip Bird–#16 Becomes #1

Since my parents have become AZ snowbirds, our family has now made four trips to Arizona.  Each trip has had its own life bird goals or priorities.  Each time the target bird(s) have been realized along with a generous complement of bonus lifers.  Here’s a quick recap of those priority birds:

2014: Burrowing Owl, Vermilion Flycatcher, Cinnamon Teal

2015 (spring): Elegant Trogon and Painted Redstart

2015 (fall): Rufous-capped Warbler

So then what was the trip bird for this most recent Arizona adventure? It was an Owl, but before I tell you which one, it is worth noting that each Arizona trip has already produced multiple Owl lifers:

2014: Burrowing Owl, Long-eared Owl

2015 (spring): Elf Owl, Western Screech-Owl

2015 (fall): Northern Pygmy-Owl, Barn Owl, Spotted Owl

So what’s left in the Owl department? A few actually, but the only one I was after on this latest trip was the Whiskered Screech-Owl. It would be this trip’s most-wanted bird.

It is no coincidence that my Owl collecting started accelerating after I first met and birded with Tommy DeBardeleben in 2015.  Tommy of Tommy’s Owl Big Year (TOBY) fame is the reason why I have a pretty sweet collection of Owls.  Just like how you can never leave Grandma’s house hungry, Tommy has made sure I’ve never left Arizona feeling an Owl void.  No, he has made sure I have always gotten a good helping of a fresh Owl or two or three.  This past year our roles were reversed as I got to help Tommy find some Owls in Minnesota for TOBY, but now it was back to Tommy taking the lead once again in the storied Madera Canyon as we pursued my 16th Owl lifer.

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On the evening of October 19th, Dad and I drove out from our hotel in Green Valley to Madera Canyon to meet Tommy who was accompanied by another good birding friend, Gordon Karre.  Gordon, Tommy, and I have owled together many times all the way from the Canadian border down to the Mexican border. We’ve driven hundreds of miles together (3.6 of those were even in reverse!). We have logged an extraordinary number of Owls together from well over a dozen different species.  And here we were doing it once again.

As we waited for darkness to settle over Madera, we hung out for a bit at the feeders at Santa Rita Lodge, watching some Magnificent Hummingbirds and chatting with a birding couple from Tennessee.  With plenty of time to kill, we also successfully pursued a Rufous-winged Sparrow lifer.  Finally, though, complete darkness had fallen and it was time to go to work.  Tommy had assured me that Whiskered Screech-Owls are easy in Madera, but there was one catch: Tommy had only ever tried for them in the spring when Owls are more vocal.  Going after these birds in October was uncharted territory for Tommy. Yet, he was confident that even if the Owls were silent, we might be able to rouse them with some playback.

It turns out that the Owls were still fairly vocal.  Almost immediately when it turned dark, we started hearing some in the distance. But as we would pursue them, they would clam up.  Then the silence would hang on, which initiated the doubt-worry cycle about whether the night would be a success.  Tommy was unfazed, though, and has a lot of experience to draw from.  He owled on and kept the flashlight moving even when it seemed bleak.  Turns out the worry in my head was for nothing because shortly after we walked in the direction of a vocalizing Whiskered Screech-Owl, one landed in a tree right near us! But it must have been hunting and wouldn’t look at us…

img_0369As we crept along the canyon hillside to get in a better position to see the Owl’s face, it suddenly flew off! We could not find it again.  The satisfaction of getting the lifer was muted by the Owl showing us his bad side and only briefly at that. Would this be my lifer sighting–the side view of a bird?  The discouragement was returning the longer we weren’t finding it.  Again, Tommy never panicked or wavered; he just kept that flashlight moving. And then I heard him say those awesome words that I have heard him say so many times before, “Hey, Josh!”

Whiskered Screech-OwlThis, this is what I had been waiting/hoping for.  Tommy did it.

Whiskered Screech-OwlThis Owl was very cooperative (finally) and just let us enjoy the show.Whiskered Screech-OwlWhiskered Screech-OwlMaybe I had it backwards. Maybe it was the Owl who was enjoying the show of four happy birders who had just succeeded on their mission.

Eventually the Owl started to tire of us, perhaps even getting downright annoyed/angry with us.

Whiskered Screech-OwlWhiskered Screech-Owl

It was time to leave this Owl alone. We had gotten our fill.  So with one last look, we were on our way.

Whiskered Screech-OwlAt this point Dad went back to the car on account of a knee that was giving him fits. Gordon, Tommy, and I decided we would try for more Whiskered Screeches.  Why not?

As the three of us walked along, we heard a strange vocalization that Tommy couldn’t identify.  Earlier my dad had heard the same thing and thought it was a Whiskered Screech, but Tommy had said he hadn’t heard them make a sound like that. Eventually Tommy tracked down the source of the sound–a young Whiskered Screech high above us!

Whiskered Screech-OwlHearing this vocalization was an exciting learning experience for Tommy.  It wasn’t as cool as the Morse-code calling we heard the adult make earlier, but it was still pretty neat regardless. Have a listen for yourself:

Finally it was time to call it a night and call it a trip (birdwise, that is). Once again, the Arizona birding was a huge success with Owl lifer #16 officially on the books all thanks to this guy.

Tommy Dad GordonTwo Owl lifers remain for me in Arizona. The question is not whether Tommy can help find them, but rather, will it happen in 2017? Time will tell.