Local Longings FINALLY Fulfilled

Local birding seems to be what’s in vogue these days. From patch birding to the increasingly popular 5-mile radius birding, birders are discovering the joy of finding new birds for a small geographical (and carbon) footprint.  While I haven’t been sucked into either of those (yet), many of you know that I have been an avid lister for the 864 square miles of Kandiyohi County.  As has been highlighted here, there have been many victories in this regard, and the list has grown substantially.  Even still, some birds have proven to be annoyingly elusive.  Annoying because these birds are regular species that pass through the county (and my hands) every year.  One of these has actually eluded everyone and not just me.  There has been no Kandiyohi County record of Nelson’s Sparrow despite the fact that these birds breed to our north and despite the fact that we have abundant stopover habitat for migration.  Nelson’s Sparrows are recorded on the regular during September migration in all kinds of southern Minnesota counties and in Iowa counties as well.  It didn’t make sense that we didn’t  have one yet. But in visiting with other local birders, no one had really ever looked for them during the prime migration window.

In September of 2017 I started looking in appropriate habitat of wet cattail marshes that butted up to grasslands. There is no shortage of such habitat around here.  The migration window is fairly short, about 2-3 weeks, and in that time I wasn’t able to find one in 2017.  So this past fall in September, I began looking once again.  One Friday after work, I decided to try the best Sparrow spot in the county–Kandi WMA.  I saw lots of Sparrows as I expected, and when I got to one wet spot, which NESP are particularly fond of, I played the NESP song and a bird teed up.  With the naked eye it looked right–I could see orange on the face, but I had to eliminate the more common LeConte’s Sparrow migrant. I hurriedly snapped some pics of the skulker.  All the field marks were there: orange face, sharp bill, median gray crown stripe, and that beautiful clean gray nape.

Nelson's SparrowNelson's SparrowNelson's SparrowThese were the only photos I was able to get which were enough to sufficiently document this first county record.  Thankfully the bird hung on for a few days for lots of people to enjoy and add to their county list, including longtime Kandiyohi listers/leaders Randy Frederickson and Ron Erpelding. It felt good to finally add this bird to the county’s rich birding history.  Everyone agreed it was a long overdue addition.

Not all birds that I need for my Kandi list are needed by the whole crew. In fact, I am alone in my quest for some of them. One such bird is the Ruffed Grouse, a bird once fairly common in the northern part of the county two decades ago.  Today, though, it is akin to Bigfoot.  But that adds to the intrigue of tracking one down.  One day in early December, Randy accompanied me on a fool’s errand of trying to find one.  And we saw as many Grouse as expected, but we did not expect to bump into a Short-eared Owl, a hero bird for the outing even if it wasn’t a new county tic. The experience was made even sweeter by how incredibly cooperative it was.IMG_4669 IMG_4670 IMG_4671 IMG_4672 IMG_4675 IMG_4676 IMG_4678Randy’s been on a hot streak this last year finding several good birds–even when he’s not birding.  At the end of December when he was at Ridgewater Community College releasing a rabbit he trapped, he saw a Robin flock eating crabapples and noticed–without binos–one that didn’t quite match the others.   This Varied Thrush wasn’t a new bird for either Randy or me (my third county record), but it is always fun to see.

Varied Thrush

Maybe it was his hot streak or maybe he just wanted me to be out there helping him find new county records, but a week ago Randy started pushing me to get out looking for my nemesis county bird.  He knew I needed to clear this distraction from my birding brain and was therefore keeping an eye on the calendar all while I was getting swallowed up in work and life.  The Northern Saw-whet Owl is very common but incredibly hard to find.  Seeing a Kandi Saw-whet was my number one most wanted Owl after having recently completed the set of 19 American Owls.  I have been searching for one in the county for a very long time. Several times Steve Gardner and I have found evidence of Saw-whet roost sites but never the Owls themselves.  Despite the fact that they migrate through every spring and fall and sometimes winter here, we have never been able to find one.  It was aggravating.

At Randy’s urging, we went out owling after dark one night recently. I was not optimistic because of all the previous attempts and the fact that fall banding reports indicated it was a down year for Saw-whets.  I figured we’d put in yet another attempt to say we tried, and it would be a boring night just like all the other Saw-whet attempts.  I could not have been more wrong.  Randy decided we should try a forested road in the northern part of the county.  This road is famous. To us birders, it is a dynamite spot for forest birds in the spring and summer months. To other locals (and even people nationally), this road is known as one to completely avoid or daringly go down, depending on your view of things that are allegedly haunted.  We birders often go to sketchy and/or disgusting places, so this was no big deal to us.  Apparently it wasn’t to some others as well.  Randy and I were puzzled at another slow-moving car, spotlights shining out the windows, that crept down the road behind us.  Turns out they were four adult ghost hunters from a couple hours away trying to find a different quarry than we were.

Our first listening stop went as I expected. Nothing. I figured a few more times of this: getting out of the vehicle, listening/freezing, getting back in, and repeating and we would call it a night. Well, at the second stop, Randy immediately heard something and asked if that was a Saw-whet or a Canada Goose in the distance. We held our breath and strained to listen, and sure enough, in the distance we heard the faint but rhythmic and recognizable toot-toot-toot-toot-toot… We had done it! The Saw-whet Owl was finally on the list! After some celebratory fist bumps and attempts to call it closer to the road, we owled on.  And at every stop, we kept hearing the flute-like tooting of more Saw-whets! It was absolutely insane. The sound of them seemed like it was coming from everywhere, a perplexing phenomenon in itself, but even more so considering we heard multiple predator Owls (Barred and Great Horned) at every stop as well.  Randy and I were in awe. Not only was it a long-hoped for bird for me, but it was just a stunning display of nature and yet another reminder of how you can still find surprises right in your backyard.

At one of our stops we found a very cooperative Saw-whet Owl that allowed us some good looks. This was also a major goal of mine.  I didn’t just want to tic Saw-whet for the county; I wanted to see it in the county.

Northern Saw-whet OwlThis was an unforgettable night of owling that was made even better by sharing it with a great friend. A huge thanks goes out to Randy for suggesting the outing and for his guiding skills in picking the right week and the right road.  The long-awaited and much-anticipated Owl was officially on my county list, completing my collection of 7 regularly-occurring Owls in the county. Without Randy’s invitation, it is likely that I might not have even tried for Saw-whet Owls this spring because of how busy life has been.

Unfortunately Steve Gardner was out of state when this all went down. When he got back from his trip, he and and I went out there, and we were able to get him a Saw-whet Owl for his county list too.  Steve and I have logged many fruitless trips and lots of hours looking for these Owls as well as other Owl species.  Prior to two years ago, our Owl luck was nonexistent.  Now we had them all, and it felt great.  Steve and I were lucky enough to find a Saw-whet that was cooperative for Steve to get some visuals.

Northern Saw-whet OwlNorthern Saw-whet OwlNorthern Saw-whet OwlWith this chapter closed in the most satisfying way possible, the question of what’s next really is an open one. I honestly don’t know–no other birds on a local, national, or world level have replaced the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl and Kandi Northern Saw-whet Owl.  There is a strange new void where a nemesis should be.   But maybe that’s the way Randy wanted it–a clear head so I can start focusing on another bird that should be on the county record, like the Black Scoter.

A First for AZ, A First for Me

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

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

Cassin's Sparrow

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

madera

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elegant Trogon

Elegant Trogon

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

Tommy, Gordon, Caleb

Elegant Trogon

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thrasher Spot

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

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

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

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

Bell's Sparrow

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

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

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

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

Joining the 19-Owl Club

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

The Backstory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 2019 FEPO Search in ARIZONA!

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

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

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

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

FEPO

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

FEPO

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

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

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

IMG_4824

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

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

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

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

Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due

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

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

Some Factoids

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 19

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

#1 Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl

#2 Great Gray Owl

Great Gray Owl

#3 Barred Owl

Barred Owl

#4 Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl

#5 Northern Hawk Owl

Northern Hawk Owl

#6 Eastern Screech-Owl

Eastern Screech-Owl

#7 Burrowing OwlBurrowing Owl#8 Long-eared Owl

Long-eared Owl

#9 Western Screech-Owl

Western Screech-Owl

#10 Elf Owl

Elf Owl

#11 Northern Pygmy-Owl

Northern Pygmy-Owl

#12 Spotted Owl

Spotted Owl

#13 Barn Owl

Barn Owl

#14 Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl#15 Northern Saw-whet Owl

Northern Saw-whet Owl

#16 in 2016  Whiskered Screech-Owl

Whiskered Screech-Owl

#17 in 2017  Flammulated Owl

Flammulated Owl

#18 in 2018  Boreal Owl

Boreal Owl

#19 in 2019  Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl

FEPO

The 2018 AZ FEPO Search: When a Trip Goes Sideways

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

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

Cassin's Finch

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

IMG_2714 IMG_2715

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

Montezuma Quail

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

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

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

Hutton's Vireo

Hutton’s Vireo

Painted Redstart

Painted Redstart

Hepatitic Tanager

Hepatic Tanager

Arizona Woodpecker

Arizona Woodpecker

Greater Pewee

Greater Pewee

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

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

lizard

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

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

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

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

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

Chircahuas

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

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

Pinery Canyon

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

Yellow-eyed Junco

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

Slate-throated Redstart

Slate-throated Redstart

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

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

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

chickadee selfie

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

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

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

Burrowing Owl

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

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

The AZ FEPO Search: Boots on the Ground

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

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

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

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

airplane wing

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

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

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

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

smuggle sign

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

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

Cassin's Vireo

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

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

Dusky-capped Flycatcher

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

Rufous-backed RobinRufous-backed Robin

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

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

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

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

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.