Few shorebirds can deliver on such a campaign promise, but the Marbled Godwit is doing just that–one county at a time. Today it made Kandiyohi County and my respective county list a littler greater. Thanks to Randy Frederickson, I picked up #257 today, a long-overdue and much hoped-for bird this spring. Just like my last county bird, the Long-tailed Duck, all the action went down when I was in church. Thankfully, like last time, it was still there afterward.
Most birders keep lists. This is known. Yard lists, day lists, year lists, county lists, state lists, trip lists, lists of birds seen while nude, lists of birds seen while relieving oneself, lists of birds seen relieving themselves, and on and on…these are more or less different ways of keeping the hobby exciting and fresh. Depending on the birder, some lists carry more weight than others and some lists are never even made. My Kandiyohi County list has taken on a greater importance to me in the last couple years. 2016 was full of many new and exciting additions to my list that was already in the 200+ category, creating even more of an interest in this list. Something happens when you make a list and it starts to become significantly large–you notice others who keep the same list and see how you stack up in comparison. We have a great cadre of birders in Kandiyohi County who have amassed some incredible totals, and so I had no ambition (or realistic hope) of getting into the top 3. This was just accepted. But 4th place was within reach and was held by a non-resident of the county, the legendary Bob Janssen. Bob’s a great guy who I’ve learned a lot from, who I’ve helped in Kandiyohi County, and who I’ve had the pleasure of birding with a couple times, but I had just one thing against him–he wasn’t from here. I felt that the top spots should belong to those that toil for birds in the county the most, the local birders. Therefore, at the end of 2016, I set out to pass Bob Janssen.
Though it was a reachable goal, this was no small task. I ended 2016 with 244 county birds. Bob was at 250. I needed 7 new birds to meet my goal. It seems like a small number, but any longtime Minnesota birder knows that new county birds are very hard to come by with a total like mine. Nevertheless I was determined. To accomplish such a feat would require a lot of work and a lot of time birding. I didn’t waste any time either, getting #245 on January 1st.
January 1: #245–Short-eared Owl, 6 Birds to Goal
The Kandi birding crew joined forces on New Year’s Day, and thanks to some scouting by Aaron Ludwig on New Year’s Eve, we were victorious. It was a banner year for Short-eared Owls across the state. It felt really good to finally notch this one.
February 4: #246–Townsend’s Solitaire, 5 Birds to Goal
Another Kandi birders’ group event was successful as we targeted Townsend’s Solitaire. This individual was found by the team consisting of Milt Blomberg, Dan Orr, and Herb Dingmann. This was another overdue, feel-good county bird.
February 19: #247–Long-eared Owl, 4 Birds to Goal
A second county Owl in as many months?! Steve Gardner and I went looking for Long-eared Owls on this day. Despite many, many fruitless attempts in the past, we did not come up empty this trip. Victory never felt so sweet.
May 18: #248–Black-throated Green Warbler, 3 Birds to Goal
Three months had gone by without a new addition to the county list. Serious doubt about achieving the goal was setting in hard. With that said, there was one bird that I simply had to nail down this year, a bird that had painfully eluded my county list year after year. Each year I have a very good chance of getting it too. I have chased this bird in the county many times, even literally once to the point I had to catch my breath in the process.The BTNW was a waaaaay overdue county bird. I had gone out many, many times this past spring to look for one. And it still continued to slip my grasp. Then, on May 18th, Joel Schmidt called me about an hour before sundown saying he found one at a country church and cemetery in the western part of the county. I got out there just before dark and was able to dig it up. Finally.
May 26: #249–Connecticut Warbler, 2 Birds to Goal
Spring migration is one of the best times of year to try to pick up a new county bird. However, at the end of May, migration was wrapping up quickly as birds started settling in to raise families wherever they called home. I was still checking for a couple a shorebirds I needed in this last week of May, like Marbled Godwit and Sanderling. Then somehow I started to notice that Connecticut Warblers were being reported in various places, and these birds were all singing. This is a bird that was never on my radar. I figured if I was to get this one on my county list, I would have to get lucky some spring migration and catch a quick glimpse of this skulker. So I asked the godfather of Kandiyohi birding–Randy Frederickson–about them, and he said he will have a Connecticut singing in his yard about one out of every four Memorial Day weekends. What?! I’ve come to learn that Randy is a huge deposit of birding information that has to be continually mined to get the nuggets of birding intel out of him. So even though this bird was never even a candidate for my goal of seven new county birds, it quickly became one. I found a singing Connecticut Warbler in neighboring Meeker County on May 25th, so I was even more obsessed with finding one in Kandiyohi. For awhile I was making daily trips to Robbins Island Park in Willmar just to look for this bird. Even though most migrants had moved through, there was still hope for this one. And I was less intimated to look for this bird armed with the knowledge that these birds often sing during migration.
On my trip to Robbins Island on My 26th, I was stopped dead in my tracks by this:
No, it wasn’t the Connecticut I was after, but I don’t know if getting my first personally found and second county Cerulean Warbler was any less exciting!
I must have spent an hour listening to this bird and following it through the trees. It was singing constantly and staying to a confined area. I was convinced the bird was on territory but later visits by myself and others proved otherwise. It’s a good thing I spent so much time with this Warbler because when I had to decided to give up on finding a Connecticut and was on my way out of Robbins Island, I heard this!
Connecticut Warbler!! I couldn’t believe it! Two new county Warblers within one week and two incredible Warblers in this outing! Suddenly, the dream of reaching #251 was very much alive. And to add some Warbler icing to the delicious Warbler cake was a singing and posing Black-throated Green–proving once again the birding law that says once a hard-fought bird falls, it falls hard.
May 30: The One That Got Away
In any kind of big year or any regular year with a big birding goal, there will inevitably be pain. This is a given. There is also a long-standing birding rule that says that really good things will happen back home whenever you go on a trip somewhere. Well, on the afternoon of May 30th, my family and I had just landed in Phoenix for our Flagstaff vacation. As we were heading up I-17, my phone started blowing up with group text messages: Randy had a Summer Tanager make some appearances at his feeder. It was reliable enough that Steve Gardner and Joel Schmidt were able to pop over and see the bird after a brief wait. My wait was a lot longer, like several days longer. It was as good as gone. I was really bummed, and it definitely dampened the birding mood a little bit while I was in Arizona hunting down my Flam lifer.
June 16: #250–Snowy Egret, The Penultimate Bird
One thing my buddy Tommy DeBardeleben taught me is that when a good bird slips through your fingers, you get back out there and find your own rarity. The last time I went to Arizona I missed a Brant and Red Phalarope back in Minnesota. When I came home I poured my woes into my ongoing Surf Scoter hunt and dug out a Kandiyohi County first record Surf Scoter. Experiences like that give you something to draw on when the tank is empty. Though I was tired from the vacation, a move(!), and chasing life birds at North Ottawa Impoundment, I was pushing myself to get that next county bird. Summer had settled in, and my options for a new county bird were very limited. One bird that I really wanted to get and one that I felt was probably in the county every year somewhere was a Snowy Egret. On the morning of June 16th, I set off to find one. I expected to come home empty-handed as I have so many times on my numerous outings this year. Regardless, I was going to check several spots around the county, mostly drainages and some wetlands where I’d seen Great Egrets congregating. After several hours and dozens of miles, I made my last stop: a newly formed wetland just off the Willmar bypass. I spotted a lone Egret out there, and I was well over a quarter mile away. I don’t own a scope, so I had to use my camera to take some blurry long-distance shots. As I reviewed them, I couldn’t believe it–a small Egret with a long, black bill and yellow lores. It was the Egret I wanted!
An Egret vs. Egret pic is always a nice assurance for an ID of such an important bird.
I was now tied with Bob. Wow. Some people get excited over reaching round-number milestones, like this 250, but not me. I wanted a crooked number. I wanted that #251 in the worst way. While my motivation in the beginning was to pass Bob’s number, my motivation was now about me meeting what I once thought was an unattainable goal. More than anything I wanted to do what my mind had declared an impossibility or at least a far-fetched possibility way back in December. I wanted that 7th bird in the worst way, more than a lifer even. And it was only June. I had averaged one new county bird for each month in 2017, and I still had 6 months left to get just one new county bird.
My birding intensified from that point on. I was obsessed, waking well before daylight and going out every morning. But with the Snowy Egret secured, I really had very little to search for in June. My searches were mostly after Henslow’s Sparrows and breeding Marbled Godwits in the very northeastern corner of the county, both of which were long shots. But I pressed on. Day after day I pushed myself out the door trying to make something happen. I’m a very impatient person. Even though I had half a year to reach my goal with just one bird, I wanted it now. I was driving myself crazy.
When it came time to visit family in northern Minnesota in late July, I didn’t want to go. I was afraid to go. That’s always when something good happens at home.
July 30, 2 AM: The Gift
I had made it through the up north trip without a birding emergency happening back home. Whew. We were scheduled to head home the morning of the 30th. We went to bed on the 29th, and I was awakened by my daughter who had a bad dream. After I got her settled down, I looked at my phone to check the time. On my homescreen I saw two emails that had come in while I was sleeping–one an eBird rare bird alert and the other an eBird needs alert for KANDIYOHI COUNTY!! What the?! I was wide awake now. Not many people bird in Kandiyohi County, let alone eBird in Kandiyohi County, let alone find rare birds and especially rare birds that I’ve never seen in Kandiyohi County. I couldn’t open the emails fast enough. Our county had a visiting superstar birder whose incredible find had tripped both alerts. Kathleen MacAulay known for many incredible finds, including a state record Mottled Duck, had unearthed a rare bird that is incredibly hard to discover because of its choice of habitat. Kathleen had found an entire family of Common Gallinules at a wetland I had never birded. I was in shock. Finally, finally, we got a gift bird–something that had been missing the first half of the year. Usually every year holds one or two random bird surprises. So far we hadn’t had one. All the rare birds I had seen in the county this year were reasonable expectations that were targeted and found. I couldn’t sleep the rest of the night. I knew that #251 was as good as in the bank since these Gallinules had young. I just had to get 265 miles across the state. That next morning the minutes felt like hours as we got ready to leave.
July 30, 5 PM: #251–Common Gallinule!
Not only did I have to get my family back home, but then I had another half hour trip to the location of these Gallinules. But finally I made it there. Others had seen the birds a few hours earlier. I was patient but I wasn’t patient. I knew it would happen, but I wanted it to happen instantly. While I watched the small corner of the cattail slough, I caught sight of my second county Least Bittern.
The Bittern was a fun find, but I wanted to see those Gallinules bad. I did hear one of the adults vocalize at one point, so it was officially notched. Since it was such a monumental bird, though, I really wanted to see it. Finally, patience paid off as I spotted one of the babies.
And then I saw two of the babies with one of the parents.
It was finished. I was ecstatic. The impossible had been achieved with a whopping 5 months left on the year. I had made it. Kathleen, if you’re reading, thank you very much for your great find!
I learned something important from this entire experience: set high goals for yourself even if they seem like a pipe dream. Then write them down and work like crazy. This goes for birding or anything, really. Having my goals written out on paper back in December focused my birding and kept me driven. It was a huge thrill to add each new check mark and fill in those blanks on the piece of paper I keep tucked in my Sibley. Aim high and look high–the good birds are out there.
The astute reader will look at the picture below and realize the county listing story did not stop with #251. Hang on for the next post–longtime readers will get to see a long-running story line reach its wonderful conclusion.
Every other summer my side of the family holds a small reunion of sorts on Madeline Island, the flagship island of Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands on the south shore of Lake Superior. It is a beautiful place to rest, reunite, and play–a place where boys can be boys.
Of course, no boys take this more seriously than the male Warblers of the island. With nearly twenty different species being present on the island, one cannot escape these singing sensations as they belt out their territorial songs telling rival males and the whole world that this is their house.
The Warblers are so thick on Madeline Island that one may escape a particular Warbler’s territory only to immediately land in another’s. Or sometimes, several different species all have territories in the same spot, tolerating each other’s different songs but ready to battle any male of their same species. While I enjoyed a great number of Warbler species, this was not a birding trip and so the camera was rarely raised. Besides, none were new for me. One Warbler that always feels new, that I feel compelled to photograph every time, is the Blackburnian Warbler. Such a looker! And he knows it.
Photographing Warblers in their natural habitat is the best. Here this Blackburnian is posing where he is most comfortable–atop a Black Spruce in a decent-sized (and only) bog on the island.
Though I did not photograph all the Warbers I encountered, I detected many different species:
Cape May Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Naturally I have saved the best for last. This was my big Madeline Island souvenir, a male Black-throated Blue Warbler.
Two years ago I searched for this species when I saw appropriate habitat of mature maple forests on the eastern end of the 14-mile long island. Trying that same area again this year, I stopped at a spot along North Shore Road that looked good–a deep ravine in the Maple/Hemlock woods which created a relatively open understory that BTBWs like. Immediately I was rewarded that sweet zoo-zoo-zoo-zoo-zoo-ZEE! Making this sighting even sweeter was that I had been participating in Wisconsin’s Breeding Bird Atlas project, and this bird was right in the corner of one of the priority blocks on the underbirded island. BTBW is a very good atlas bird for Wisconsin.
As fun as the Warblers were, they were merely a distraction to bide my time while I anxiously waited to get back to the mainland in Minnesota where all kinds of birds–life birds–were popping up. Stay tuned for the fully-loaded lifer post next.
Recently I had the opportunity to travel to the Northland, the homeland. In addition to visiting family while up north, I also took the opportunity to pursue a life bird. That life bird was found and immensely enjoyed, but there was another bird found during the pursuit that was so distracting and almost literally underfoot at times that it demanded its own post. This bird kept my birding companions and me from the task at hand of lifer searching, much like this post is keeping us from that lifer story. I don’t know what it is about this bird that I just can’t get enough. It is a bird whose combination of beauty (certainly not brains) and playing hard to get make it irresistible and cause even the most hardened birder to go weak in the knees. We are, of course, talking about the Spruce Grouse.
This male Spruce Grouse was the first bird my local birding friend Julie Grahn spied while we hunted for the life bird that Julie had found weeks earlier on this same road. I was thankful that this Grouse finally flew off so we could get back to the more important search at hand. But doggone it, an hour later I looked behind me and saw that another male had come out to the road.
I had actually been looking behind me to see if another friend, John Richardson, was coming. This was good timing because John was hoping to see this bird too.
While it looks like John is about to miss his opportunity, rest assured he saw it and saw it well with Julie and me when it flew from the road into this Black Spruce about 20 feet up.
You want to know why so many people have trouble finding this bird?
That is actually a fairly conspicuous shot. There were times that it was so well hidden, camouflaged, and motionless at the top of this small tree that we would not have known it was there had we not just been observing it. Only the slightest rustle of the boughs gave away its presence as it consumed the Black Spruce needles. We were treated to full monty looks as well and could just not pull ourselves away…
We finally managed to leave this incredibly accommodating bird and get back to our priority of lifer-searching. But one lifer and one day later, I was back on this road birding again just to see what I could see. Though I started the day alone, I bumped into fellow birders Sparky Stensaas, Dee Kuder, and Julie Grahn. At one point I was bushwhacking to join Sparky in the heart of the Spruce bog when the ground fluttered in front of me. Spruce Grouse–again! This was much later in the day than the sighting the previous day, and the bird was not gritting out on the road. I had stumbled upon it just relaxing in the dark recesses of the bog for the day. Known by locals as the Fool’s Hen, this Sprucie was not overly concerned about me and settled back down under his Spruce bough.
As I observed the Grouse, it began displaying! While I quietly watched from 15 feet away, I spied a hen Spruce Grouse near the male. She made little clucks that would cause the male to puff up and fan his tail straight up. Then a third Spruce Grouse flew in and landed 20 feet up in a Spruce Tree! This sound of the second one fluttering its wings also excited the male on the ground. The birds and I were both in obstructed quarters which didn’t allow for the best viewing, but I was eventually able to get in a position to better capture the displaying male.
I even managed to snag a quick video to better show this display:
As Sparky and I watched this bird, we realized that we were probably on the lek which was why there was so much activity. The lek was a small, open area in the Spruce bog about 10 feet in diameter with an angled dead tree positioned in the center. Sparky described how the males will walk up the angled tree and do a flutter flight down to the lek to attract the females. As we continued to watch this bird, I spied the second male Spruce Grouse that had landed 20 feet above us in a Jack Pine.
This bird did not mind that we were standing underneath him, nor did the female mind when we eventually got into a better position to check her out. We got to enjoy her taking a dust bath in the afternoon sun. I’d say she cleaned up pretty nice.
Each encounter I have with a Spruce Grouse is special and never taken for granted. I am still awestruck by this bird and may have finally gotten my fill, at least for a little while. And now, NOW, that we have dealt with the horribly distracting Spruce Grouse, we can move on to that incredible lifer in the next post.
So another year of birding has come and gone and it is once again time to do a year-in-review post. There were certainly goals and hopes that were met, but they were almost always overshadowed by the surprises along the way. That’s what keeps us going out, right? Many stunning and shocking birds were had, and I filled many holes on the various lists I keep, holes that I had no idea of when they’d actually be filled. But with all the great birds, my aim is to keep this post a simple Top 10. That’s right–no cheating by making up various categories and superlatives to fit all the goodies in. I had to think long and hard about this and left a lot of great stuff on the cutting room floor–not even an Ivory Gull or state-first Sharp-tailed Sandpiper made the list. This post is the best of the best.
But first, let me talk briefly on the numbers, which will probably be the last I’ll emphasize numbers on this blog. For 2016 I had the goal of reaching 300 for MN and 400 for life. With a Great-tailed Grackle for the former and an Acadian Flycatcher for the latter, both those goals were checked off and sufficiently surpassed. Additionally, my Kandiyohi County list skyrocketed this past year with 19 additions which far exceeded what I thought would happen. Some of those were some real mind-benders too, like the Western Tanager.
So, without further adieu, here are the top 10.
10. Barn Owl–This was not a lifer as I saw it in 2015. That sighting left me wanting more as the Owl flushed from its roost and didn’t allow me the chance to take a picture. I actually felt sick about the missed opportunity for a long time. It was the only Owl I had seen but not photographed. This year I went for revenge and repeated the attempt on our annual AZ trip. This time I found the bird to be a bit more mellow with one more year of age. This was a great photo redemption bird that filled the void from last year and is representative of several photo redemptive birds I had in 2016. Plus my buddies Tommy DeBardeleben and Gordon Karre were with me.
9. Black-backed Woodpecker–This was another non-lifer that was pretty sweet to me in 2016. I had two great sightings. The first was in February and was found by my parents’ house in northern MN by Tommy and Gordon on their big Minnesota trip. I had been looking for this particular BBWO for years, so it was great to finally see it in this spot. And there were two! Then I had another fun encounter with this bird, or I should say a whole family of these birds, in another location this past summer in northern MN. This has to be my all-time favorite Woodpecker.
8. Eastern Screech-Owl–Again, I had seen this bird before, but that sighting was of a snoozing bird in the opening of a Wood Duck house. I never even got to see the eyes, so in a way, I didn’t feel like I had really seen the bird. This year’s experience was much different. First off, this year’s Eastern Screech-Owl was a TOBY Owl–an Owl that I helped good friend, Tommy DeBardeleben, see as a lifer in order to complete his goal of seeing and photographing all 19 species of Owls in the country. I would be remiss if I did not include at least one TOBY Owl in my Top 10. The particular Screech that I helped Tommy see was a very popular one at Lake Harriet in Minneapolis. A scouting trip to see this bird gave me only a slight improvement on my lifer sighting of the sleeping Owl:
I actually scouted this bird twice, and it took just a slight amount of arm-twisting to convince Tommy to do what probably no other birder had ever done before–fly in to Minneapolis from Phoenix for less than 24 hours to see an Eastern Screech-Owl. But Tommy is an intrepid Owler and often does what no one else does. And because of that, Owling is always better with Tommy. The view of the Screech in the hole above is what 95% of the Owl paparazzi saw; Tommy and I were in the othe 5. As it has been said, when you think like everyone else, you aren’t really thinking. So rather than show up midday like everyone else to look for a sleeping Owl, Tommy and I were at Lake Harriet before the light of day completely by ourselves. In the emerging pre-dawn light, Tommy discovered the Screech Owl as it flew right by him, and once again I got to hear him say that adrenaline-pumping phrase, “Hey Josh!!” Tommy and I then enjoyed an extremely active Eastern Screech-Owl that wasn’t confined to a hole! The combination of helping Tommy get this life bird and getting Owl #16 for his Big Year along with the show this Owl put on made it feel like a lifer experience even though it wasn’t for me.
7. Black Scoter–Though I saw this lifer on December 8th, it was buzzer beater for 2016 as most of Minnesota’s lakes were completely iced over on December 9th. I had hoped for this bird all fall and finally gave up on it until the next year. And then news came in of one not far away, and not just any Black Scoter, but one that was an adult male! This one felt really, really good to add in the final moments of 2016.
6. Le Conte’s Sparrow–This lifer is a bird that is a regular migrant through my part of the state in September and October. I often get busy that time of year and so never pursued one. This fall I was intentional about getting out, and it only took a couple tries before I finally locked on to one. The beauty of this lifer was that it was a county bird and only two miles from home. The chances of me getting another life bird in the home county are very, very slim. This was a moment I savored.
5. Gray Partridge–You ever balance your checkbook and it’s off by just a penny and it drives you crazy until you find the error? I had seen Gray Partridge before in both Montana and Minnesota. The problem was that both sightings occurred before I was a birder. So, technically I had it on my state/life lists, but I had no record on eBird because I could not recall dates when I had seen them. Well, one day this past spring when I was walking at some sewage ponds in my county, I kicked up two Gray Partridge along a fenceline! I couldn’t believe it. I could finally get my eBird numbers to match my real life experiences, and better yet, I got a very difficult county bird! The story for Gray Partridge doesn’t end there, though. Even though I had gotten eBird squared away and even got it on my county list, I still had no photo of one. And honestly, it’s one of those birds I just wrote off as one I probably never would photograph because they are rarely seen and usually flush if seen. On a trip to Fargo this spring to see a Garth Brooks concert, I checked out a reported location of Gray Partridge in the middle of town on my way to pick up some coffee for Melissa. And wouldn’t you know, I not only found the Partridge, but I had an incredible photo session with them too. Unbelievable. Never thought I’d experience that.
4. Piping Plover–Do you remember my 2015 year-in-review post where I mentioned my most expensive bird, the Piping Plover? I chartered a boat on Lake Superior in Wisconsin for a sum of money I am too embarrassed to disclose just to add this endangered species lifer. Let that sink in for a minute. Last May, Marin had her dance recital, whose Saturday show brought an influx of company and a certain amount of stress with the increased busyness around the household. Moreover, I was a performer myself for the father-daughter portion and so I had my own anxieties going on as well. Sunday after all the company cleared out and the initial performance was under my belt, things relaxed a bit but not too much–we did have another performance that afternoon. We didn’t go to church that morning. Instead, I took Marin on a relaxed daddy-daughter date to Robbins Island Park in Willmar. I brought my binoculars because it was May. I’m not stupid. But I was stupid because I left my camera at home. I spied a light-colored shorebird on the beach, and I nearly died of shock when I saw it was a Piping Plover! I have to apologize to Marin for being a crummy date as the next half hour consisted of frantic phone calls to birder friends to get there and a frantic call for Melissa to bring my camera all while I kept a close eye on this new county and state bird. In dramatic fashion, the bird flew off just as Melissa was pulling in with my camera. Thankfully it reappeared shortly afterward and I was able to get killer photos. Another bonus of this bird was that it was a lifer for a few people, including my buddy Steve Gardner. This was serendipity at its finest.
3. Whiskered Screech-Owl–This was my number-one target for our 2016 Arizona trip. I had zero doubts I would get this lifer because I was being guided by friends Tommy DeBardeleben and Gordon Karre in Madera Canyon. I’ve put on a lot of miles with these guys and seen a lot of Owls with them. Earlier in the year, I had been the guide for the Owls on the Minnesota expeditions, and now our roles were reversed. What made this outing special was that Tommy’s Owl Big Year had long been wrapped up, and this was the first time we had Owled together since that feat was accomplished. It was fun to be Owling together once again with no Big Year pressure. And it was like a victory lap for Tommy where he got to give back to one of his pit crew in the form of an Owl lifer. Tommy loves giving back. The Whiskered Screech was my 16th Owl lifer. I am getting very near seeing all 19 myself, so each new one is precious. Not only is it awesome to get a new Owl lifer, but Owling at night in Arizona is just plain exciting, especially when Tommy is at the helm.
2. Northern Saw-whet Owl–You never know when or where you will get a bird that you’ve been dreaming about for a long time. Last winter I tried a known roosting spot for Northern Saw-whet Owl at one of our state parks on THREE separate occasions. One of those was with Tommy and Gordon. Tommy was flat out mad that we couldn’t find it because he wanted to get me this lifer after I had recently helped him get his Great Gray, Snowy, Northern Hawk, and Barred Owl lifers in the previous three days. It just wasn’t meant to be I guess. Fate had other plans. Because I work at a small school where everybody knows I am in to birds, I often get bird reports and sightings from my colleagues. At a meeting in February, one teacher excitedly told me about a “baby Great Horned Owl” at his friend’s house. It didn’t make sense because it was the middle of winter. Then when he said, “Yep, it just sits in the same spot all day in a pine tree,” I knew that his friend had one of my most coveted birds as a house guest. After a few texts were exchanged, Steve Gardner and I were on the road a couple hours later with the necessary permissions to view the cutest Owl you’ve ever seen. We had finally, FINALLY, laid eyes on this elusive Owl. I drank lifer beer that night when I got home. It tasted soooo good.
1. So here we are at #1. What is it you might ask? A lifer? A state bird? A vagrant? A colorful bird? None of the above! In my never ending studies of Kandiyohi County birding, I had learned that Kandiyohi County had no record of a Surf Scoter. It didn’t make sense to me since our county is full of lakes, and this species shows up regularly throughout the state during their migration window. So I made it my personal mission to get out there and find one. Besides, I just really love sea ducks. For weeks this fall I checked soooo many lakes and always got the same result–until one day when I got a different result:
It was a brand new bird for our county which is not an easy task these days. In a county with 311 recorded species, of which Randy Frederickson has seen 292 of them, there are very few birding frontiers on the home turf. One of the great things about this sighting was that my Kandiyohi County birding friends Randy Frederickson, Ron Erpelding, Joel Schmidt, and Steve Gardner all got to add this bird to their county lists too. For Joel it was even a state bird, and for Steve it was life bird.
This sighting was an affirmation that hunches, hard work, and persistence all pays. Quite often during my searching I would get frustrated with myself for wasting time on something that would probably never happen. Then it did. And from that I gained something better than even a county record bird: experience, experience that will fuel me through the low points in future searches and push me to go just one more mile, check just one more spot.
As I contemplated my top 10 and wrote this piece, some self-revelations started to emerge from my selections. First, a majority of the birds I selected were not lifers, indicating that a quality experience with a choice bird can be way more exciting than simply seeing a brand new species. Second, noticeably absent from the above list were mega rarities that I chased. Such chases are often not my most favorite birds. Examples that come to mind in 2016 include such greats as Arctic Tern, Red Knot, Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, and several more. They were great birds and fun additions to the respective lists, but hopping in a car, driving for hours to see a bird, and then heading for home again gives short-term satisfaction but little else. Does this mean I won’t chase anymore? Probably not, but maybe I’m growing up and will think twice before I say it’s go-time. I’ll remember that those chase birds don’t have the memory-making potential of a special bird found at home or an elusive bird that I’ve been after for years. Case in point is a Curve-billed Thrasher that is currently overwintering three hours from my house. It’s only been in the state a handful of times, but I see it annually in Arizona. I’m not sure that’s worth the trip. Will I go? Maybe yes. Maybe no. Time will tell. Finally, a third thing that jumped out at me from this list was that Owls disproportionately dominated the list for all the birds I saw in 2016. Of course, this is only to be expected when I was so heavily involved in Tommy’s Owl Big Year and was saturated with Owls–I saw 12 species myself, 9 of which were in Minnesota! Tommy’s love for Owls is contagious, which leads me to my parting thought on 2016:
TOBY–The Best Part of Birding in 2016
I described 2015 as my pinnacle year of birding because I took a trip to Montana to get my lifer Greater Sage-Grouse with my dad and my son. While that won’t be topped, helping Tommy work on his Owl Big Year in 2016 was the next best thing. I helped Tommy get 5 Owl lifers which were obviously TOBY Owls (Great Gray, Snowy, Northern Hawk, Barred, and Eastern Screech) and connected him with a birding friend to get a 6th TOBY Owl (Short-eared) on his three trips to Minnesota last year. While none was a life bird for me and while I’ve seen some of the species several times, I felt like I was lifering all over again along with Tommy as we went to the ends of civilization north of Roseau to the center of civilization in Minneapolis to chase Owls. We traveled great distances, raced clocks, and even had some harrowing moments, but through all that we saw some amazing things and we shared the thrill of living. I’m very proud of my friend, Tommy DeBardeleben, for dreaming big and accomplishing his dream of seeing all 19 species of Owls in less than a year. And thankfully, I was along for about 1/3 of the ride. These experiences are some that I am very proud of and will remember very fondly for the rest of my life.
So what’s in store for 2017? If I could pick, I would choose the types of birding experiences I wrote about in my top 10. Who knows what will actually happen. I think there will definitely be a focus on Owls in the new Year–what can I say, Tommy has rubbed off on me. My birding/owling goals have been written on paper. Speaking of which, that list got off to a rocking start on New Year’s Day. Don’t miss the next post.
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.
When 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.
The 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.
The 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.
Home beckons most everyone on Thanksgiving. And when you are a birder and that home is the northwoods of Minnesota, the call is even louder. The quiet, Black Spruce bogs covered in a recent, two-foot dumping of snow compelled me to go exploring. I did just that, and this year the cornucopia of good birds was overflowing. It was a feast of feasts. There is much to be thankful for, not the least of which were three gift Spruce Grouse sitting on the highway just a couple miles from Melissa’s family’s place.
I couldn’t believe my luck. This happened once two years ago in this same spot but with just one bird. The female (lifer gender) above and the male below stood motionless on the road as I crept the vehicle closer and closer to them.
As I watched, I spotted a second male just on the edge of the woods who wanted nothing to do with me.
I wanted to creep by the birds and get around them by driving on the shoulder so that I could view these dark, male statues from the front, their better side. As I did so, another car came down the highway and now I was worried these dumb things would get killed. I wasn’t going to let that happen, so I planned to shoo them off the road. But I didn’t have to because my close presence at this point and the approaching car thankfully activated them. I was able to snap another pic of the male on the road before he flew off. The birds barely flew into the edge of the woods and never re-flushed, yet try as I might, I could not pick them out of the Spruce trees. Their camouflage and ability to sit motionless are amazing.
Not to be outdone by their cousins this Thanksgiving, the Ruffed Grouse put on quite a good show and were seemingly ubiquitous. Even while feasting at Grandma’s house a couple even flew in to have their own feast of Aspen buds…
and Birch catkins…
Everyone eats well at Grandma’s house and goes home stuffed.
The day after Thanksgiving, I had the pleasure of birding with Julie Grahn, a local birding friend who often keeps me up to date on the latest bird happenings back home. As if the Grouse weren’t enough birding excitement for one trip, little did I know the good birding was just getting started. Julie and I had some solid finds early on of Black-billed Magpie, Northern Shrike, and Rough-legged Hawk, but the real excitement came when we walked a stretch of road in a mature Black Spruce bog. Our target was a Boreal Chickadee–I had heard one two days prior, which was another exciting first for this little patch of mine. However, as we started walking we heard the rapid “chiff-chiff-chiff-chiff” of two White-winged Crossbills flying overhead! This is a bird I have only ever seen in quick glimpses in the past. I certainly had no photo of one. That finally changed and may have made this the best sighting of the trip.
A little while later, Julie asked me to stop the car to check out a bird I had dismissed as a Raven. This instance is proof of why two birders are better than one because Julie had spotted a juvenile Northern Goshawk! Like the Crossbill, this was another photographic first for me. I have had several probable NOGOs in the area but had never had one sit still before to know for sure.
To end my birding for this trip, I later went into the town of Cook and found the Bohemian Waxwing flock Julie had told me about.
This holiday’s birds were off the charts. It ended up being some of the best birding I’ve ever had at home up north and certainly gives the birder in me much to be thankful for. Unfortunately gratitude has a time limit before greed kicks in…how many more days until we go home for Christmas?
Since my last post in which I explored the possible range expansion of the Blue Grosbeak and how it might be occurring via waterways, there have been a couple of exciting developments. Two new county records for Blue Grosbeak have been found! Those two red markers in the upper left of the photo are new since my last post.
On August 13th, a new county record Blue Grosbeak was found in Big Stone County by Milt Blomberg, John Hockema, and Lance Vrieze. Not only is this significant for being a county first, but these guys found a family of this species the furthest north they’ve been found in Minnesota, vagrants excluded. Moreover, their find fits the pattern of the bird being found all along the Minnesota River Valley. These guys stopped at a gravel pit, thought the habitat looked right for BLGR, and played a recording. Instantly they had Blue Grosbeaks come in without ever having seen or heard any before playing the recording.
I don’t know whether or not my article influenced their decision to try for Blue Grosbeaks in Big Stone County, but Dan Orr had told me that my last blog post got him curious about Swift County as the very southwestern corner of that county is along the Minnesota River. Swift previously had no BLGR record. I was excited about Dan’s search and started to scout satellite imagery in southwestern Swift for appropriate habitat. I shared with him a gravel pit area just north of Appleton. However, Dan told me he had already birded that spot in early summer. Since Blue Grosbeaks seem to be actively singing in August, I encouraged him to try again and told him how Milt Blomberg et al. “cold-called” their Blue Grosbeaks. So Dan tried it on August 15th. He went to that area, played a tape, and bam–a pair of Swift County record Blue Grosbeaks showed up!
As exciting as the Big Stone and Swift Blue Grosbeak finds are, I am concerned. Now that two county records have fallen, birders have been going to these stake-outs to get their tics. And once they have their tic for a county, many birders are less likely to explore new areas to look for more Blue Grosbeaks in those counties. With the Swift and Big Stone records, now very few counties along the Minnesota River still do not have a record. In fact, I believe Sibley, Carver, and Hennepin are all that remain. Hopefully the county-listing bug will help turn up new records in these counties. But I continue to think that there are many, many more Blue Grosbeaks to be found in Minnesota where county records already exist, namely along the Minnesota River Valley and anywhere in southern Minnesota. So call up a birding friend, go exploring, and find some Blue Grosbeak habitat. There is probably a two-week window left to find these birds before they head south again. And if you find appropriate habitat and don’t hear or see one, play the recording and see what happens. You might be surprised.
One 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.
If 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.
A 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:
It’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.
One bird that Tommy, Evan, and I kept watch for as we traveled through Necedah National Wildlife Refuge was the Red-headed Woodpecker. Tommy got his lifer a couple days prior on his Grand Forks trip. This was a bird I hadn’t seen since 2014. And whether you have freshly lifered on this bird or seen dozens, it is one that you really can’t get tired of seeing. I was pretty excited about the possibility of finally ending my streak of days passed since seeing a Red-headed Woodpecker.
Once we got closer to the Visitors Center on the south end of the refuge, we started driving through some Oak Savannah habitat–good-looking stuff for a Red-headed Woodpecker. It didn’t take long to spot one. Or two. Or three. Or a dozen. They were everywhere. It was insane and wonderful all at once.
What’s this bird looking at? Probably a mate or a competitor for a mate. There were two that were involved in a seemingly endless chase, never once pausing for a good picture. At one point we saw them lock feet and fall to the ground like Eagles. It was fantastic.
My own personal RHWO drought along with the near-threatened status of this bird made seeing this abundance of Red-headed Woodpeckers extremely thrilling. Never mind that this Woodpecker is ridiculously striking in appearance, sporting a bold, simplistic color pattern.
Evan enjoyed looking at all these cool Woodpeckers flying around us everywhere.
Then again, who wouldn’t?
It’s unfortunate that we didn’t have more time to spend with these Woodpeckers at Necedah as other areas of Necedah required exploration before we had to break for supper, hotel check-in, and Kirtland’s scouting. But it’s good to know there is a place where one can go and see this species with ease.
On the home front, Red-headed Woodpeckers are getting harder and harder to come by. As I mentioned before, I saw zero RHWO anywhere last year. So I was quite thrilled when Randy Frederickson and I spotted one just recently in the home county while conducting our annual search for Blue Grosbeaks.
We can only hope that our local population will rebound to become even a fraction of what we saw at Necedah.