Pounding the Lifers at North Ottawa Impoundment

Ask any serious Minnesota birder where he or she was in June of 2017, and you will get one common response: the North Ottawa Impoundment in Grant County.  While not exactly new to hosting good and rare birds, North Ottawa outdid itself this year.  Or more accurately, an army of skilled birders outdid themselves as they descended on the Impoundment in waves and created a bonafide, honest-to-goodness Patagonia Picnic Table Effect.  That term is sometimes used pretty loosely, but this was the real deal–a cascade of Accidentals, Casuals, and Rare-Regulars so intense that it threatened to rename the very phenomenon itself.  Below is the timeline of the major birding events, including my multiple trips with Steve Gardner to the site in June.  Even though this info is old news to Minnesota birders, I think the end of this post will hold a nice surprise for all.

June 5th

Shawn Conrad and Becca Engdahl separately report finding a Glossy Ibis, an accidental species that would be a lifer for me.

June 7th

Undoubtedly following up on the Glossy Ibis reports, Minnesota Big Year birder Liz Harper helps her own cause by discovering a Little Blue Heron, a rare-regular species which would be a state bird for me.

June 8th

Among the masses of birders now swarming the Impoundment, Gerry Hoekstra sends MN birders into a complete frenzy, including yours truly, when he finds a Snowy Plover, a casual species that would be a lifer for me.

June 9th

Steve and I go to North Ottawa.  Any one of the three aforementioned birds would have justified the trip.  Three in one spot was just ridiculous.  We were hoping for at least one of these goodies.  Fortunately I didn’t have to wait long to get that wish.  I got the Little Blue Heron as a flyover almost right away. Unfortunately Steve missed it at that time but got it later in the day.

Little Blue Heron

We tried unsuccessfully for the Snowy Plover but had no luck.  Considering there were over a dozen birders out looking and no one was turning it up, it was safe to say that it was gone. We did, however, see the Glossy Ibis thanks to Wayne Perala, local birding guru who knew the bird and its habits so well that he told us where to look. And almost on cue, the bird flew up out of the cattails right by Wayne as he said, “There’s your Ibis.” This bird was super cooperative giving us great looks in perfect light.  It was a life bird for me but just a state bird for Steve.

Glossy IbisGlossy IbisSteve and I were pretty thrilled with going 2/3 on our targets. In addition to these birds, we also nabbed some nice birds that we don’t get to see too often, like this Snowy Egret.

Snowy Egret

Western Kingbird never goes unappreciated in Minnesota.  We were lucky to see this one.

Western KingbirdAnd who does not love seeing an Upland Sandpiper, especially one so crushable?

Upland SandpiperUpland SandpiperSteve and I felt pretty darn good about our trip and our nice haul of birds.  We were completely satisfied, until….

June 15th

Wayne Perala (remember nice guy, Wayne, from the Ibis story?) sent another shock wave through the Minnesota birding community by posting incredible pics of a King Rail, another accidental species that would be a lifer for me.  Unfortunately timing was bad for me as I was getting ready to go on that Madeline Island trip that was highlighted by the last post.  Indeed I had to suffer through pics and reports of many people adding the most recent North Ottawa mega to their lists.

June 23rd

Finally back from that Wisconsin vacation, Steve and I sneak up to the Impoundment in the evening.  In the week since the Rail was discovered, other birders discovered there were two King Rails!  Despite now having double the chance to see this lifer, our Rail search was a bust.  The wind was raging and we were searching in slightly the wrong spot. We also tried searching for a lifer Nelson’s Sparrow reported by Becca Engdahl, but nothing likes to be out in the wind.  Except Western Grebes, they don’t care.

Western GrebeSteve and I did, however, see another casual species that was also discovered during this historic period of MN birding which I have failed to disclose in the timeline.  A pair of Black-necked Stilts had set up shop in one of the shallow pools of the Impoundment. Considering I already had Black-necked Stilts for Grant County from several years ago and that Steve had just gotten this state bird recently, we just weren’t too fired up about it, especially after our double dip.

June 29th

With a renewed sense of optimism freshened up by continuing reports of the Rail pair, Steve and I headed back to Grant County for the third time in a month.  This time we arrived at the crack of dawn on gloriously still day…in the right spot. Success.

King RailLook at the size of these things compared to the Mallards in the background.  No wonder it’s the King of the Rails.King RailKing RailBirding is a roller coaster of emotions, and Steve and I were back on top after this sighting.  Steve suggested we try for those Nelson’s Sparrows again.  Despite our good fortune of the morning, I was skeptical we would find the Sparrows.  But not looking certainly guarantees that outcome. So we walked the dike berm that we had a week ago.  This time it definitely felt more Sparrowy–no wind, early morning, etc.  We played the tape and didn’t get a response.  Then a couple minutes later, I heard the recording, or what I thought was the recording, again.  I asked Steve if he had left his phone app on.  When he replied that he hadn’t we knew were hearing the real deal! We continued to work the area, and eventually we saw two Nelson’s Sparrows!

Nelson's SparrowWith some pishing we were able to get them to pop up for some great looks at these skulkers.Nelson's SparrowNelson's SparrowSteve and I followed these birds around for a bit, thoroughly soaking up the experience.  I don’t think either of us ever expected to lifer on this bird with such good looks.  We certainly didn’t expect to get this lifer in Grant County.  This nighttime singer is often a heard-only bird that people trek to middle of nowhere (McGregor) to find in the middle of the night.  We were stupefied.  Talking it over on the ride home, we concluded that the Nelson’s Sparrow lifer experience topped the King Rails even though the Sparrow is a summer resident in our state.  More than once I have been surprised by how much of an impact a Sparrow lifer has on me.  A huge thanks goes out to Becca Engdahl for her find and her tips on locating it!

The reports out of North Ottawa definitely dried up in July.  That was okay with me because I, along with many others, were spoiled rotten by the place.  Additionally, I was okay with not having to run up to Grant County again because I had been working hard on achieving a birding goal much closer to home, a goal that has since been achieved and will be the highlight of the next post.

Reader’s Choice Makes For A Choice Reader

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_1622

These are NOT good Goldeneyes.

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

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

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

Barrow's Goldeneye

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

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

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

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

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

Minneapolis Snowy

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

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

Great Horned Owl

Carpe Duck

As I reach the end of the MN regulars for my life list, certain species have been drawing my attention with a laser-like focus. This fall my obsession was to finally end my Scoter quest and nab a Black Scoter.  This rare-regular sea duck can be found in late fall every year in MN, most often on Lake Superior but also sometimes inland.  I was  determined to chase any Black Scoter that showed up within a couple hours of home.  It was a bountiful year for sea ducks in the upper Midwest, BLSC no exception.  In fact, both of the other Scoters were even seen in the home county.  Fun as that was, my main Scoter itch wasn’t being scratched–I wanted to see a Black one bad. Black Scoters inevitably showed up within a reasonable distance, but always during the work week with none of them spending more than 24 hours in one spot. Weekends–go figure–were painfully quiet for Black Scoter news.

As December was settling in for the long cold nap with bodies of water freezing up everywhere, my Black Scoter hopes were quickly fading with each passing day. With great pain I was forced to acknowledge the truth: Black Scoter would probably not be notched until fall of 2017. But then, my hopes came roaring back when Julie Winter Zempel posted a photo of a stunning adult male Black Scoter on Lake Waconia, a drive that was an hour and change. The Scoter was detected the day before by Bill Marengo, the news of which nearly slipped completely under the radar had it not been for Julie diligently mining the MOU database to find Bill’s report. One major problem to this sighting, though: weekday.  My Scoter lust got the better of me and so when I had a meeting with my boss that next morning I asked if she’d approve me on the spot for a half personal day.  With an affirmative answer, I was on my way out the double doors.

This truly was my last chance for a Black Scoter in 2016. The only thing keeping Lake Waconia open in the teen temps was the raging west wind. It was figuratively and literally keeping the ice at bay.

Lake WaconiaWhen I pulled up to the boat launch at Lake Waconia Regional Park, I saw a Carver County Sheriff truck trailering a patrol boat. I thought it was odd since no one would be on the lake on a day like this nor could a boat be launched in the rapidly building ice. Strange. I didn’t think about it much more and set about my business of finding my target.  Watching the sea swells and facing into the sub-zero windchills was brutal even for being dressed for the elements. Scans of the big lake were intermittent and necessitated warm-up sessions in the car.  Having no luck seeing the duck (which was there that morning), I asked Julie for any tips on where to stare into that blue abyss to find this duck. In giving me directions, Julie also reminded me of the ongoing search for a paddleboarder that went missing two week prior.  The dots started connecting in my head regarding the Sheriff’s trailered boat, trucks driving slowly along the shoreline who I had thought were also looking for the Scoter, and my own vague recollection of a news report I had seen. It was suddenly a grim realization that I should be looking for more than just my bird.

Julie gave me spot on directions.  Following them exactly finally allowed me to spot that gorgeous black blob as it appeared and disappeared in the rolling white caps.  Finally. The journey had ended with one new Scoter species per year.

Black ScoterThe incredible distance, the numb fingers, and disappearing/reappearing bird made picture-taking a nightmare.  Regardless, I was thrilled to finally add this bird and see an adult male at that, a gender/plumage combo that is rarely ever seen in the state.

Black Scoterblack scoterBlack ScoterThe excitement of this new addition was tempered by a Sheriff’s helicopter making constant circles around the lake the whole time I was there, undoubtedly desperate to find this man on this last day of open water. The man was just a couple years younger than me with two young kids and another on the way. He had gone out to pursue his passion of wildlife photography from his paddleboard. And here I was at the same body of water just a couple weeks later pursuing mine.  Life really is unfair. The whole ride back to work it was hard not to wonder if I sometimes take unnecessary risks in the pursuit of my hobby.  Then again, a life lived with no adventure is a life not fully lived.  Seize the day.

Something Better in Mind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Surf Scoter

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

Surf Scoter

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

Celebrating Birth Month

Five years ago Melissa and I lost our friend, Jen, to cancer. One thing that can be said of Jen was that she knew how to live life–she loved people and loved having a good time.  Jen always brought joy, laughter, and a special flare to every gathering she was a part of. Jen introduced us to a concept we had never heard of before–birth month. Yep, she celebrated her birthday for an entire month by indulging fancies and whims with her friends and family for 30 days instead of just the one day. That’s just who she was.  It turns out that Jen and I shared the same birth month (September), yet here I had been robbing myself of 29 days of celebration for 30+ years.  It was time for me to make up for lost time, so this birth month I indulged myself by going on two special life bird chases with a couple of good friends.  So by my count, I still sold myself short by 28 days. Sigh…maybe next year I’ll get it right.

The first chase was on September 6th.  News broke that day of a juvenile Sabine’s Gull at the Albany sewage ponds.  This was less than an hour’s drive from home.  So after work, Steve Gardner and I made the chase on a beautiful early fall day to get this lifer. The bird was quite accommodating, swimming right up to us.  Unfortunately Steve and I never got to see it fly and see the distinctive wing pattern despite waiting on it for 45 minutes.

Sabine's GullSabine's GullSabine’s Gulls are a rare but expected species throughout the Minnesota during September.  What wasn’t expected was a bird that turned up two weeks later in Carver County–a first state record Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, a bird from Siberia.  They mostly show up in Alaska but are also seen occasionally in the lower 48 along the west coast.  This find by Pete Hoeger and Bob Williams was absolutely remarkable. Consequently, Randy Frederickson and I chased this bird together after work on September 21st.  The hordes were out in full force for this mega.  Initially when we arrived, we and the 20 other people there couldn’t find it even though it had been spotted 10 minutes before we showed up.  After a good 20 minutes filled with much internal panic everywhere, one of the birders got us on the bird.  The wind, distance, and similar looking juvenile Pectoral Sandpipers made spotting and re-spotting the bird a tough task.  Photography was a nightmare; I would have to settle for diagnostic photos in these conditions.  But considering I never thought I would ever, ever see this bird in my life, I’m not complaining.

Sharp-tailed Sandpiper

Sharp-tailed SandpiperBy birding standards I’ve actually been celebrating Birth Quarter instead of just Birth Month.  The great birds have continued long past September.  I’ve been to Arizona and back already, so there will be more stories of lifering and night-owling with the famous Tommy DeBardeleben of TOBY fame. There have also been good birds back home, including a new county record that I found. Lots of excitement coming at you on the blog in due time…

The Tanager Trifecta

Summer TanagerOne of the most popular birds in Minnesota this summer has been the Summer Tanager discovered by Wilmer Fernandez at the University of Minnesota’s Landscape Arboretum in Chanhassen.  Summer Tanager is rare-regular in the state, but the fact that this bachelor bird was in the Twin Cities and singing endlessly on territory made it all the rage for the better part of a week.  Not even the Arboretum’s steep per person entry fee could keep birders away, including yours truly.

Summer TanagerIf you’ve been following ABWCH this past spring, you may recall that I already made a Summer Tanager chase to get my lifer.  So why did I go after another if I’m not a county lister? Two reasons: this bird was solid red, unlike that tye-died creature I saw earlier this year, and this bird was singing on territory.  I wanted the full SUTA experience.  That quick migrant sighting didn’t fill the void.  Plus this bird was relatively close to home, and I had the time off.

Summer TanagerA couple of others who had the time off were teaching colleagues Brad Nelson and Theresa Nelson. The mother-son Nelson duo joined me on this little excursion. Our semi-annual birding get-togethers are always productive and fun–the last time the three of us met up was over a Snowy Owl near one of the towns in our district. Just like we had no problem getting that Owl, seeing this Tanager was a piece of cake.  We could hear it singing immediately once we got out of the car at the nut trees section of the Arboretum where it apparently has set up shop for the season.  We spent the better part of an hour following it around as it sang endlessly from its various perches, not even stopping its song while it feasted on insects:

Summer TanagerSummer TanagerIt’s been the year of the Tanager here in MN. To close out this post, here’s a pic of each of the two rare-regular Tanagers and a brand new Scarlet Tanager all seen in state this year.  Sorry for turning the Scarlet into a trash bird on this blog. No, I’m not–they are still an exciting bird and this post celebrates all things Tanager.

Western TanagerSummer Tanager

Scarlet Tanager

The Wisconsin Trip: Searching for Two Endangered Species

The more you are around different birders, the more enlightened you become about various opportunities not far from home. Thanks to a birding friend, who shall rename nameless in this post, I learned that it was possible to see both Whooping Cranes and Kirtland’s Warblers just 5 hours and change from my house in next door Wisconsin. I’ll explain more at the end of the post why I’m keeping my friend anonymous, but he or she knows who he/she is. And that he/she is pretty awesome. 🙂

So on June 12th, Evan, Tommy, and I embarked on an overnight trip to central Wisconsin to go after these two birds which would obviously be lifers for all of us. Our first destination in Wisconsin was Necedah National Wildlife Refuge to look for the Whooping Crane. Whooping Cranes can be found in several places in Wisconsin, but we were told Necedah had good numbers, therefore making it the best spot to try.  By good numbers, I’m talking about no more than a dozen birds as there are only 300+ Whoopers in the world today.

As we drove through forests upon entering Necedah, we were somewhat baffled that Cranes live here.  However, almost immediately we spied a road that seemed to go toward an open, marshy area.  So we took it. A minute later, I spotted the first Whooping Crane for our group. Cool! It was pretty far out, but even still we could see just how massive it was.

Whooping CraneThe three of us got out of the car to enjoy this easy lifer. Then I looked back toward the vehicle and spied a second bird in a waterway that had been hidden by some trees.  This one was much closer to the road and gave us some great photo ops.

Whooping Crane

Whooping CraneWhooping CraneAs we watched this Crane, something special happened.  This one threw back its head and bugled for us! It was the loudest and coolest thing I’ve ever heard come out of a bird.  It sounded kind of like a Trumpeter Swan, only much more impressive.  Speaking of impressive, this bird stands at 52″ tall before it does this.  That’s roughly the same height as Evan.

Whooping CraneWhooping CraneThe three of us really enjoyed watching these birds.

Whooping CraneHere are Evan and Tommy each observing a different Crane.  The one Tommy is looking at is visible in the photo.  Evan is looking at the first one we found.

Evan TommyWhooping CraneThe Whooping Crane is one massive bird:

Whooping CraneThis cooperative bird eventually flew off and joined the much more distant Whooper.  So the three of us decided to keep exploring Necedah.  Necedah ended up being a phenomenal birding spot, so much so that I will save the rest for a different post and just focus on the Cranes from there in this post.  I’ll just say that Necedah plays host to some other beautiful birds, who are also struggling in numbers.

One of our stops at Necedah was the Visitors Center which is another great place to see Whoopers, even if it is from a distance.  Here we saw two more. These birds were a long ways away.  It just goes to show how big and how white these things are. Impressive doesn’t begin to describe it.

Whooping CraneThe Visitors Center also allowed us a humorous reprieve from the serious birding with some clowning around and a photo op.

Tommy Josh EvanAs I was monkeying with the settings for the self-timer on my camera, I ended up getting this gem on accident.

Evan crane

“Where are the Whoopers?”

Now we move on to Part Two of the endangered species search which occurred the very next morning, the hunt for the Kirtland’s Warbler.  This post is bittersweet for me, sweet because we had smashing success with the Whooper, bitter because the Kirtland’s encounter was mediocre.  I suppose, though, that “bittersweet” is how you would describe any endangered species sighting–a thrill to see such a bird only to be tempered with the knowledge of how few of them there are.

Anyway, thanks to my previously mentioned birding friend, we had a good idea of where to look for the now regularly established Adams County population of Kirtland’s Warblers.  Joining us were Arizona birding friends Gordon Karre and Chris Rohrer who were also in Wisconsin for some birding. So just how good was the spot we were in?  Well, when you are standing on a public road and get interrogated by two separate KIWA nest monitors AND a WDNR conservation officer, you know you are in the hot zone.  Let me tell you that Wisconsin is all about protecting this bird, of which there are only a few dozen in the state.  The bulk of Kirtland’s Warblers (maybe 4,000 birds) reside in the Grayling, Michigan area.  That is where most birders eventually go to get their lifer. After license plate numbers were taken down and we were pre-warned (even without doing anything wrong) while standing on a public road, we dared not do anything immoral or illegal, lest some black helicopters would appear from the horizon to take us away to some secret government prison.  Those Warblers are safer than any government secret; not even Ft. Knox is so well guarded.  Humor aside, the nest monitors and conservation officer were friendly and courteous, but stern.  We could tell that the nest monitors wanted to help us out further, but they were very honorable in their actions and did not compromise whatever solemn vow they took for the WDNR not to disclose any information.  And full disclosure here: my birding friend is not one of the KIWA project volunteers; this site is well known to inner-circle birders of central Wisconsin.  I will not be disclosing this person’s name or where we were searching in Adams County so as to not get this person in any kind of trouble. We were very grateful for that person’s help.

So did we see it? No, we did not despite trying for several hours.  We did get to hear one very close to the road.  However, its vocalizations were very infrequent, and it never did pop up to the top of one of the Pines to sing.  Regardless, it was neat to be in the proximity of one and hear its loud, distinctive song.  There is a Kirtland’s Warbler somewhere in the trees in this photo.

Kirtland's Warbler

The Kirtland’s Warbler is an interesting species in that it has very specific habitat requirements, mostly large stands of Jack Pine that are about 10 feet tall and have some grassy space in between.  Once the trees get taller than that, the Kirtland’s do not use that area anymore.  Further complicating this is that Jack Pine cones only open in fire, so keeping appropriate habitat available for this bird is quite the complicated management process involving logging and/or controlled burns. What was cool about the Wisconsin Kirtland’s is that they have adapted to using stands of Red Pines with a mix of some Jack Pine.  Because Red Pines are used in the lumber industry, Red Pine forests occur in many areas and are regenerated through normal human activity thus creating stands of trees that are the right height for this bird. What’s neat is that these Warblers are on private land that is owned by a lumber company that is working cooperatively with state and federal government agencies to ensure these Warblers have suitable habitat for several decades to come.  Cool, huh?

So we ended up being 1.5 for 2 on our search for two endangered species that call Wisconsin home.  It was good to see Gordon again (we’ve now birded together in three states!) and to finally get my Chris Rohrer lifer (a vagrant sighting even!).  Those guys tried again for the Kirtland’s the next morning and had tremendous success, getting killer looks and photos.  Even though Tommy, Evan, and I didn’t win the entire lottery, it was no doubt a fun, successful trip.  Like all good trips, though, it left us wanting more.  Wisconsin, we will be back!

Carver Park Reserve–Reserved for the Warbler Elite

The day after our Falls Creek SNA adventure, visiting Arizona friend Tommy DeBardeleben went on an overnight solo trip to Grand Forks, North Dakota where he successfully got his target bird, the Short-eared Owl with Sandy Aubol’s help.  Tommy is doing an Owl Big Year where he must see and photograph all 19 Owl species that can be found in the U.S. Short-eared Owl was Tommy’s 18th Owl species on the year, leaving him with just the Boreal Owl not yet seen with the better part of the year remaining. Even at one shy, Tommy’s quiet pursuit is quite remarkable and unique even in a year when everyone’s attention is on the historic Big Year race going on right now in which Olaf Danielson and John Weigel will both likely smash Neil Hayward’s record of 749.  Number chasing is nothing new and has lost some of its luster. On the other hand, Tommy’s pursuit of quality sightings and focus on completion of a singular group of birds–difficult birds–is a refreshing take on an otherwise banal goal.  You can follow Tommy’s Owl Big Year (TOBY) and his Minnesota trip reports on his blog.

Once Tommy got back, there was no rest for him as we geared up for another high octane adventure to Wisconsin.  Two endangered species were on the menu (figuratively speaking of course), but those will have to wait for another post because on our way east we made a stop in the Twin Cities to try to add a very rare Warbler to Tommy’s life list.

Our destination was Carver Park Reserve, a sprawling park complex of prairie, woodland, and lake habitats enjoyed by hikers, bikers, campers, and birders alike.  Our target was not the Blue-winged Warbler, though that is a very good bird for the state and one that can be enjoyed in good numbers and with ease from paved biking trails at Carver Park Reserve.

Blue-winged Warbler

We were serenaded by the bee-buzzzzz of three different males. Nice birds, but still not what we were after.

Blue-winged WarblerWe were after one of the most coveted and beautiful Warblers there is–the Cerulean Warbler.  This is one of my all-time favorite birds.  This individual was only the fourth one I’ve ever seen; it’s one of those birds that makes you feel like you are lifering all over again when you see it, it’s that cool.  This bird is so rare, beautiful, and cooperative–no apologies on this photo dump.

Cerulean WarblerCerulean WarblerCerulean WarblerCerulean Warbler

Cerulean WarblerThe Cerulean Warbler is in trouble because of habitat loss in its summer home in North America and its winter home in South America.  It prefers mature deciduous woods that offer a relatively open understory.  Much of their historical breeding grounds in the U.S. have been lost to farms, cities, and suburbs.  On their wintering grounds, much of the tropical forest has been converted to farms.  While Ceruleans will use shade-grown coffee plantations, they will not use the more popular and efficient sun-grown coffee plantations.  Seeing one of these birds is always a reminder of how fragile a species can be and how easily we can wipe a species off the map.  It’s also a personal reminder that I really should be drinking bird-friendly, shade-grown coffee–it’s the least I can do.  Seeing or even hearing a Cerulean is always a special treat.  Seeing one well like this and watching a friend lifer on it is even better.  And observing a Cerulean Warbler perched against a cerulean sky? Priceless.

Cerulean Warbler

Cerulean WarblerComing up: a hefty, quick trip to Wisconsin for some unrivaled birds, CEWA notwithstanding.

A Tern for the Better

Apologies for the overused pun here, but it truly is fitting.  And apologies on further delaying reports from the Tommy D trip in order to cover an outing that happened after his departure, but there has been a tern of events. Apologies again.

I really hate &*%$ Terns.  I am, of course, still licking the wounds from the Gull-billed saga that you just read about, but newer readers may not know about that other horrible, awful, no-good, rotten Least Tern chase to Luverne two years ago.  Not only did we miss the bird by 15 minutes and see Randy get that one minutes before us just like he did with GBTE, but then there was the accompanying camping trip that put Murphy’s Law to the absolute test.  That trip was so miserable, I’m not even going to link to the post on it.  Look it up if you want to cringe.

Anyhow, this past Friday I was still recovering from the hardcore birding trip Tommy and I had last week.  The Gull-billed Tern fiasco actually seemed like a distant memory because of all Tommy and I experienced together (we’ll get to that, I promise). Then as I was contemplating chasing yet another rarity, a Yelow-breasted Chat, something bumped the Chat in the priority queue: a report of an ARCTIC TERN less than two hours from my house in Big Stone County (the bump on MN’s west side).  This was a stunning find by Bob Ekblad who had gone to look for some reported Black-necked Stilts, another casual species in Minnesota.

Despite being burned by two rare Terns in the past, I only hesitated for a moment before throwing the kids in the car and making a run out west.  It looks like things finally terned out for me. The Arctic Tern was right where it was reported, resting on the beach of a small wetland.  Even from this distant photo, you can see just how short the Arctic Tern’s legs are and how gray its breast is.

Arctic TernArctic Tern is casual in Minnesota with most records showing up in Duluth.  I never really expected to add this to my life list because A) I’d have to be in Duluth at the right time and B) I’d have to be standing next to an expert birder who could help me differentiate this species from the Common Tern while it flew in the distance.

So not only was it a thrill to add this unexpected (as in ever) lifer, but there was a driveway to a farm place that put me within 30 feet of the Tern where I could study the field marks for myself up close!  Here I could see the stubbier, all red bill compared to the Common Tern’s longer, black-tipped  bill.  Additionally, I could see the white stripe under the eye and above the gray breast/cheek.

Arctic TernI had thought the Tern was resting on its belly, but I guess its legs are just that short that it only appeared that way.  I was hoping to catch the Tern in flight to see the diagnostic dark trailing edge of the primaries.  I didn’t get to see it fly, but some other birders did see it fly and captured that field mark in photos.  The bird appeared quite lethargic to me, understandable considering the Arctic Tern is famous for its migration from the Antarctic to the Arctic breeding grounds and back each year, a minimum of 24,000 round-trip miles as the crow flies.  And we all know Terns don’t fly like Crows.  Research with tracking this species has shown that they typically put on 44,000 miles a year. This bird was probably quite wore out and chose the most random of stops to rest.

Arctic TernKeeping the Tern company was an American Avocet which is not that rare of bird this far west in Minnesota.  Avocets have almost become something of a trash bird on this blog this year. Who would’ve thought?

American AvocetSince the Black-necked Stilts are a good bird for MN and since they had been relocated while I was on my way to the Tern, I decided to check up on them too.  The Stilts would not even be a state bird, but I won’t pass up a chance to see some easy ones that are nearby.  They are still quite revered here and have not attained the trash nickname of ‘Mud Poodles’ as they have in some other states.

Black-necked StiltThree great birds, two of which were casual species and one of which was a lifer, made for a great day of birding. Terns out I made the right decision to chase when I did. Unfortunately for Randy and Steve, they were not able to relocate either the Arctic Tern or the Black-necked Stilts the next day.

I still hate Terns, just slightly less so than I did before. The urge to swear when talking about them is gone. Also, I hate Chats now too.

Gulli-bill…or Not

How is it that a hobby that can bring so much pleasure one moment bring so much pain the next? One minute we birders are on cloud 9; the next we are singing the blues.  It’s a vicious cycle.  Why do we do this again?  IDK, but here’s the sad/happy story of me chasing a rarity 2.5 times.

The parade of vagrants this spring/summer has been most impressive. One entry in the parade garnered more attention than the others–a state first Gull-billed Tern on Salt Lake which straddles the Minnesota/South Dakota border.  News of the Tern broke out late in the day on June 1. This was practically in the backyard for birding friend, Garrett Wee, and me, so we were on the scene immediately at daybreak on Thursday, June 2.  Garrett and I were no slouches on this search, checking the lake from both the MN and SD sides and even hiking to distant jetties and shorelines on the lake. No luck after looking for nearly two hours.  A Willet and this Sanderling were weak consolation prizes.

SanderlingOn the way out of Salt Lake I ran into Herb Dingman just heading in.  He, of course, was disappointed to hear my report but decided to look anyway.  I told him to call me if it showed before I got too far away. That call didn’t come…until I was 15 minutes from home. Herb had seen it. I couldn’t turn around; I had obligations at home before my parents came to visit.

On Friday, June 3, no one saw the state record bird despite standing vigil from dawn to dusk.

On Saturday, June 4, the Patagonia Picnic Table Effect was in action as the state’s #1 eBirder Peder Svingen was in the Salt Lake area and turned up a casual Lark Bunting.  I decided to chase this state bird. My dad came with me.  On the way, news came in that the Gull-billed Tern had returned! I was elated as I was counting my chickens and Terns and Buntings before they hatched, thinking I would get two cool birds.

Dad and I had a cool find on the way near Lac qui Parle High School–a pair of Marbled Godwits.

Marbled Godwit

When we got to Salt Lake, the report was negative on the Tern. Ugh, not again! But hope was still alive for the Lark Bunting which was 8 miles away. Peder was still at the Bunting spot along with a swarm of others who were trying to relocate the Bunting.  No one was coming up with it.  However, I was informed by Jeff Stephenson that there were Henslow’s Sparrows at this WPA!  I visited with Peder a bit, and when he found out I had never seen a Henslow’s, he walked out in the grass with me to help me get visuals on this skulker that had eluded my life list so far.  It was incredibly nice of him since I caught him just as he was about to make the long trip home to Duluth after getting both the Tern and the Bunting.  Peder and I were successful.  A Henslow’s Sparrow–finally!

Henslow's SparrowHenslow's SparrowHenslow's SparrowThis felt great and made up for the double dip.  Dad and I continued to check Salt Lake for the Tern who did not keep any kind of regular schedule. We were not successful, but we did enjoy some of the native grassland birds, like Bobolink and Dad’s favorite, Western Meadowlark.

BobolinkWestern MeadowlarkWith no luck on the Tern, we decided to try one last time for the Bunting. Nothing. Grasshopper Sparrows are nice, just not LABU nice.

Grasshopper Sparrow

Just as I was pulling away from this area to head home, Randy Frederickson called me up to tell me he and Joel Schmidt had found the Tern a mile north of the Bunting spot on private land!  That was about 7 miles from Salt Lake! Elation again! As Dad and I raced up to the spot, we were about a half mile away when we saw a Tern-like bird fly across the road.  Could it be? Nah, probably just a Ring-billed Gull or Forester’s Tern. I got to the farm site where Randy and Joel had the bird; Randy was on the road waiting for me so I’d know the correct driveway.  I hurried down to Joel who had the scope set up. I excitedly hopped out of the car only to be greeted with, “It just flew.” Oh, the depths of despair in birding! Piecing the timing and the direction of flight together, Randy is convinced that I did, in fact, see the state record Gull-billed Tern fly across the road in front of me.  However, I didn’t get a solid look to confirm the ID, so I’m not counting it.  It just wouldn’t feel legit.

It was time to go home. Two dips for one bird. Ouch. I’ve double-chased before but always rebounded the second time around. Contemplating a third chase for one bird was new territory.

On Sunday, June 5, birders were fanning across the state on their way home from a successful chase for some and a heart-breaking chase for others. These birders were turning up cool things all over.  Luckily, one of those birds was found in my county thanks to Jeff Stephenson and Jerry Pruett.  The Northern Mockingbird is one I have wanted for this county for some time.  Dad also accompanied me on this fast break out of the house before church.  This one felt good even if it was too skittish for photos.

Northern MockingbirdAfter church, the dreaded news came: the Tern had been re-sighted at Salt Lake.  I hemmed and hawed over going back a third time.  This bird had burned me bad.  Finally I gave in.  It is only 1.5 hours away. Dad and I hopped in the car for another chase.  This time I was smart about it, though. ABWCH reader, Tod Eggenberger, had been there all day, left to go home, and turned around once he saw the news. He was 30 miles away.  I asked Tod to keep me in the loop and let me know if this unpredictable, elusive bird were to give people the slip again.  Unfortunately for Tod, he missed it by 5 minutes before the bird vanished again forever.  Fortunately for me, I got the news before I reached the halfway point to Salt Lake.  I decided I would go that far in case there was positive news. There wasn’t. So I turned around at the predetermined spot and cut my losses.  Take that, you stupid Tern!