Del Mar

“What’s next?”–that was the ending of my last post. Not even 24 hours after those words were written, I was trying to pick my jaw up off the ground and not even 24 hours after that I was trying to pick it up for the second time. On this busy weekend with a house full of company for Marin’s dance recital, I should not even have been birding especially after I sneaked out for those Whistling-Ducks. And truthfully I’ve been wanting to slow down my birding.  So what happened?

With every good intention, I decided to bring Marin to Robbins Island Park in Willmar on Sunday morning.  It was a beautiful day, company had just left, and she had had a very busy weekend with one performance done and another to come that afternoon.  We were going to the park to have fun.  It wasn’t really about the birds.  I even left my camera at home. Sure, I brought my binoculars along–after all, I was keeping an ear and eye out for my county Black-throated Green Warbler while at the park. Migration is still going on (sort of).  I truly did not care about any other bird at the park.

After playing on what’s left of the playground equipment there, Marin wanted to check out the swimming beach on Foot Lake.  I followed her there unenthusiastically–it’s a gross beach and not very interesting bird-wise. Unless Canada Geese are your thing. A quick flash of wings of a whitish shorebird caught my eye at the far end of the beach. Why not–might as well check it out with the binocs.  There was nothing else to do.  Now I tell you that, truly, there have only been three times where I have pulled up binoculars on a bird that is unidentifiable to the naked eye only to be gobsmacked by what the optics revealed. This was one of those times. The little shorebird was a freaking endangered PIPING PLOVER!

And then it hit me. I have no camera, I HAVE NO CAMERA! I hit the phone hard calling up all the local guys one after another.  Only Steve answered, and I told him to hustle over and bring a camera.  I also called Melissa and had her mobilize to bring me my camera. We had to document this for our county. Marin was a champ and patiently waited as I kept my eye on this bird until “reinforcements” could arrive.  It finally dawned on me that I should grab a crappy cell phone pic just for documentation.

Steve got there in minutes (which felt excruciatingly long) and was able to snap some pics of this bird that was a lifer for him and a state/county first for me. At least we had the documentation wrapped up; now I was antsy for my camera so I could photograph this bird that was not even 20 feet away. Once I placed that call to Melissa I knew my wait would be 20-30 minutes (an eternity it seemed). No worries, Steve and I visited as we enjoyed the sight of the Plover roving up and down the shoreline feeding the whole time.  It was very content. Then Steve uttered some sickening words: “There it goes!” We watched it fly across the park to another part of the lake, unsure of where it went. 30 seconds later Melissa pulled in with my camera…

Steve and I searched for awhile and then decided to hit the beach one last time just in case it returned. And wouldn’t you know, it did!  Forget regular documentation, it was crush time.

Piping PloverPiping PloverPiping PloverNotice anything unusual about this PIPL? Naked legs! Almost every Piping Plover from the Great Lakes and Northern Great Plains populations are banded. The Northern Great Plains and Atlantic Coast populations of PIPL are listed as threatened while the Great Lakes population is listed as endangered. This bird that loves undisturbed, large sandy beach areas is in trouble.  Getting to see one is a big deal.

Piping PloverPiping PloverI still cannot get over this opportunity. I got my Piping Plover lifer last summer on Wisconsin’s Long Island right near Madeline Island in the Chequamegon Bay area of Lake Superior.  I paid a hefty sum of money to charter a boat to get a brief, bobbing, distant look at this special bird. Now I had a lengthy look at one at my feet at home for free. Even better was that other birders were able to come out and enjoy this bird with some even getting their life looks at it.  So, thanks, Mar, for taking me to the beach! It just goes to show that any bird can show up anytime, anywhere. Just when you dismiss a park as being mediocre, it totally surprises you.

Speaking of more surprises, after I dropped the kids off at school on Monday morning I went out to our county’s shorebird spot. While I was scanning for shorebirds, a White-faced Ibis dropped out of the sky and landed right in front of me!  This is a rare bird for our area and one I never expected to get for the county.

White-faced Ibis

White-faced IbisI called Steve, and he was just about to ditch work when it all the sudden decided to fly away, never to be seen again. I guess I was in the right place at the right time.  Steve wasn’t interested in the only other shorebird there, a Stilt Sandpiper.

Stilt Sandpiper

It had been an epic two days of local birding on the heels of a very active vagrant season for me.  I really do want to slow the birding down, but the birds are not making it easy on me. Even when I returned home after the Ibis, I was greeted by the cheerful song of a new yard bird. And it wasn’t just any bird, it was the Chestnut-sided Warbler, the very bird that got me addicted to this hobby in the first place.

Chestnut-sided Warbler

Kip-Kip-Hooray!

Birds are a constant distraction.  Even as I was packing up the car at my parents’ house on June 28th after a weekend Up North, I saw some blackbirds that I suspected were Brewer’s, a bird I just discovered to be in the area, but I wanted to be sure.  I heard a vocalization and went to fetch my iPod from the car to listen.  Before I could even look it up, though, I heard “Kip-kip-kip-kip” coming from the small stand of Red Pines in my parents’ yard.  I knew that sound–I had been studying it in the hopes of finding a life bird some day–Red Crossbills!! I was just about to walk in that direction to find them when the nomadic flock flew in and landed in the Spruce right next to my car!

Many of the birds were juveniles.  Still, this was my first time looking at a crossed beak on anything, so it was pretty cool. I grabbed my camera out of the car and started shooting immediately.

Red Crossbills

Red Crossbill

Red Crossbill

They were such a swarm and so hard to see as it was cloudy and the dozen or so birds moved in and out of Spruce boughs at the top of the tree.  I started scanning the birds with binoculars while hollering to Dad and Evan who were inside the house to come see these birds.  Finally, I found a bird I would focus my camera on, a nice brick-red male.  It was the only one in the flock I observed.Red Crossbill Check out this sequence. Looks tasty…Red CrosbillA little snip and…Red CrosbillVoilà!

Red CrosbillDad and Evan did get out to see the birds. Evan saw the flock and said, “Yep, I see them,” and then went back into the house.  As usual, I wanted good looks and good photographs.  I was planning to keep working until I got some I was happy with, but poof! The nomads took off for their next stop on their life’s journey never to be seen by us again.   Red CrosbillWhat a thrill it was to get this life bird. Each new life bird now is especially fun because they are such good birds at this point proven by the fact that we still haven’t seen some of them after several years of birding.  Red Crossbills in particular are tough birds to get in Minnesota  even though they are year-round residents here. Not only was it a treat to finally see a Red Crossbill, but a three-generation lifer in the YARD is completely unheard of at this stage in the game.  I still can’t believe the serendipity of this encounter. Absolutely awesome, absolutely hands-down the best bird of this trip North. A Red Crossbill lifer and a Black-backed Woodpecker lifer seen within the same week at this time of year–unbelievable.  I thought I was going to have to wait for next winter to take another crack at those two.

The lifer train hasn’t stopped either. Two days later we’d be seeing a bird that is scarce even in its tiny, normal ranges in Arizona and Texas. What a week!

Yard Bird #74 – Far, Far From a Cardinal in the Snow

The birds are conspiring against me.  After the trip Up North, I was all set to be a responsible, non-birding adult who takes care of all those non-birding chores, duties, etc, and who generally uses his time wisely before jet-setting for Arizona in a couple weeks for…more bird gluttony.  The birds have had other plans–they’ve been in my face.

For starters, FOYs are increasing exponentially.  My year list doubled in the last couple weeks.

Some we are catching on arrival.

Cackling Goose

Cackling Goose is a solid FOY, not to be taken-for-granted.

Some we are catching on departure.

Lapland Longspur

2015 was dangerously close to being Lapland Longspurless. Tragedy averted.

Then there is the time-consuming documentation of good birds, FOY or otherwise, that comes along with responsible birding.

Northern Shrike

March 16th! The time is approaching when a MN Shrike cannot be safely identified by the calendar alone. Despite his proclivities for our recent warmer temps, this guy’s barred breast gave him away as a Northern.

Of course, when an MOU-official county first-record shows up in the home county, you simply must go after it.

Mute Swan

The race to see a rare bird is all the more urgent when an invasive, destructive species like the Mute Swan will be shot on sight by the DNR or USFWS.

Even if it chooses an uninspiring place to land.

Big Kandiyohi Lake

Big Kandiyohi Lake from County Park #2

Even if it is an unambitious slug that hangs out ALL day in one spot and might be a sick bird.

Mute Swan

An escapee? Doubtful-no leg bands seen when standing or clipped wings seen when flapping.

Then there are birds you simply have to take time to look at, unless of course, no one read you E.B. White’s classic, The Trumpet of the Swan, when you were a kid.

Trumpeter Swan

This Trumpeter Swan descendant of Louis is purported to play the trumpet line in the opening credits of Homeland.

Finally, there are birds that you cannot ignore even if you never venture out–yard birds.  Last week I stayed home one day to take care of a sick Evan. Upon pulling in the driveway after going out to pick up soda crackers, 7-Up, and so on, Evan told me he thought he saw a Bald Eagle overhead.  Not a rare sighting at our house, as it happens 2-3 times annually, but it was definitely a noteworthy sighting that caused me to get out of the car and look up. It was no hum-drum Eagle.  I nearly felt the breath knocked out of me when I saw it cruise directly over the house under 100 feet up–a new yard bird and rare one at that, a dark morph Rough-legged Hawk! Normally I always have the camera with me in the vehicle.  Instead, I raced into the house and got back in time for one shot to document this color-morph of an uncommon bird that is exciting anywhere, but all the more exciting because it graced our yard with its shadow.

Rough-legged Hawk

This was only my fourth county RLHA and my second-ever dark morph.

Evan and I chased after this bird for better photos, but it just kept slipping away as it glided on the wind.  I kept raving about what a cool find it was for our yard to which Evan replied, “You’re welcome, Dad.”

Sunday Brunch – Sparrow Quiche and Owl Leftovers

Sometimes when the social life gets a bit dull and we find ourselves stuck in the rut of being hunkered down like hermits, the best remedy for breaking up the funk is to have someone over for dinner-someone who’ll liven things up a bit.  Or in our case, since we remain stubbornly grounded in our ruts, it took someone inviting himself over for dinner. Except we didn’t have to cook.  Getting home from church today, Evan took one look out the window and asked, “What’s that?!”

Sharp-shinned Hawk

The better question to ask was, “What bird was that Sharp-shinned Hawk eating?”  Being a typical 7-year-old, Evan wanted to chase away the hawk so he could investigate the remains.  Shoot, I wanted to see too, but I told him to wait and at least let the hawk finish its meal.    So after a short time, the Sharpie flew away and Evan and I raced out there.  Nothing but feathers.  Not a carcass, not a wing, nothing.  Thankfully there were no red feathers.  I assume the feathers were those of a House Sparrow, which if true, this hawk is welcome to drop in unannounced for dinner anytime.

Beyond the exciting ordeal in the yard, birding has been pretty dead.  Steve and I went out for a bit today on another hopeless hunt for wintering Long-eared and Northern Saw-whet Owls.  I guess a FOY Northern Shrike (for me, not Steve) was some sort of consolation prize.

IMG_1984
We’re putting in our time, we keep telling ourselves.  But even as we do so, the peripheral birding is abysmal if not non-existent.  There is a shortage on birds of the barren field variety this winter – Horned Larks, Lapland Longspurs, and Snow Buntings are largely MIA.  Their presence at least adds a little life to the countryside. We did run into a couple small flocks of the Larks today, and we did turn up a solitary SNBU for Steve’s FOY. Still it wasn’t much, and it is otherwise a dead zone everywhere.

Even this winter’s saving grace, the influx of several accommodating, local Snowy Owls, seems to be officially over, for now anyway.  It has been over a week now since I have seen a Snowy.   At least Wilma was kind enough to make a final showing on one of our sunny days.

Willmar Snowy Owl

Oddly, though, I have been finding record numbers (for me anyway) of Great Horned Owls as I go to and fro.  So far in 2015 I have found three in the county and four in all.  Maybe some day I’ll see one close and in good light.

Great Horned OwlSo as the sun sets on each winter day with minimal birding activity, thoughts drift more and more to spring migration and planned spring trips to Arizona and Montana, when the bird life will be overwhelming in new and old birds alike.

Great Horned Owl

In the meantime, though, hopefully we’ll have more drop-in dinner company.  Sparrow anyone?

November Birds

Last Monday’s blizzard didn’t get its fill of bullying as it stayed on into Tuesday.  School was canceled for the second day in a row.  While kids rejoice with such news, we adults face the reality of the miserable work of digging out from the storm.  One upside is that a blizzard brings on a frenzy of birding activity in the yard.  Natural food sources get covered up, and many birds head to the easy pickings of a feeder.  The activity was so hot that all of us found ourselves looking out the window at one point or another to see the feathered fray outside.  Here are the highlights:

A FOF (first-of-fall) American Tree Sparrow showed up.  It is such a good-looking sparrow and a great bird to have in the yard.

American Tree Sparrow

Blue Jays continued to delight even if they were having bad hair days.

Blue Jay

Previously a shy bird for the October Birds post, the Hairy Woodpecker decided to show up along with a couple others! We had a record-high count of three in the yard.

Hairy Woodpecker

This next bird has long been a family favorite, and on this day our normal pair of Eurasian Collared-Doves doubled!  It was another record-high count for the yard.  ECDOs are quite uncommon and seldom seen in most of Minnesota, so we are quite fortunate to have them in our yard.

Eurasian Collared-Dove

This next bird isn’t exactly a highlight nor very rare, but it is rare to see a European Starling in the yard. Normally I don’t photograph this bird, but it showed up during the photo shoot, so what the heck.  And actually, it’s kind of cool-looking.

European Starling

Another bird that missed last month’s photo shoot and that never gets old to see is the Northern Cardinal.

Northern Cardinal

The male, though, was just not very photogenic, always sitting in seed trash or posing with food in its beak.  Typically overshadowed by her mate, the female stole the show on this day proudly displaying her beauty with subtle hints of red.

Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal

Northern CardinalClearly this female has had enough of being sidelined by photographers and male Cardinals alike.

Northern Cardinal

What could be better than a pair of Northern Cardinals in the yard? How about TWO pair! This was another record high-count brought on by the storm.  Woohoo!

Northern Cardinal

The males did NOT share feeder space.Northern Cardinal

Not pictured in any of my posts are the hordes of House Sparrows that we feed.  I would guess over 50.  I actually don’t mind them because I consider them bait for something bigger, better.  I was in my bedroom folding laundry and not paying attention to the incessant noise of all the sparrows and other birds at the feeders when I heard a huge WOOOOSH as all these birds flushed simultaneously and a loud, collective “CHEEP!” which I’m pretty sure is bird-speak for “Oh S#$%!” I knew a predator had finally come in to nab a meal.  I raced to the window, thinking I’d see my Northern Shrike return.  To my amazement, a huge raptor swooped in and landed in front of our living room window.  It was a Cooper’s Hawk! I hollered for Evan to come see it, but he was in the basement and didn’t hear me.  I got out to the living room and saw this guy perched just 6 feet from the window.

Coopers Hawk

I left this next photo uncropped so you could see just how close it was – you can see the soffit of my house in the upper right of the photo.

Coopers Hawk

This was a cool sighting.  Too bad it didn’t grab a sparrow or two before it tried to fly into my living room and then leave.

Another highlight bird that showed up a week after this stormy day was a Fox Sparrow who was very late but still very much the life of the yard party.

Fox Sparrow

Storms are fun if you’re a birder.  It turns out that the day that brought us the Varied Thrush also delivered a duck gift to Minnesota on Lake Superior.  This news would start a week-long internal storm of sorts for this birder.

October Birds

October has been relatively light on birding as busy schedules and a mediocre fall migration have not provided a lot of exciting birding opportunities.  To drive this point home, the best birding moment was getting a county Snow Goose.

Snow Goose

October’s saving grace, though, is that the yard activity picks up tremendously.  With winter approaching, some of the more reclusive birds and even a couple of the northern birds are being drawn out of the woodwork. The window-birding at home has been quite entertaining lately.  Everyone in this house has been caught looking at some bird or another at least once in the last week. So here’s a photo-tour of some of our frequent visitors.

We’ve had a few Blue Jays show up regularly this past month.  The way these birds fly, show off their beauty, bully the others, and swallow sunflower seeds whole make this the bird to watch.

Blue Jay

Blue Jay

Though not as pretty as the Blue Jay, especially during the winter months, the American Goldfinch is always a fun bird to see.

American Goldfinch

American Goldfinch

I begrudgingly post this next photo of a northern visitor.  The first Dark-eyed Junco showed up in late September.  It is always symbolic of the cold winter months to follow. They spend a good half year with us, so their arrival is not always a welcome sight. Still, they are a constant part of the winter birding scene, and they come in fun, different flavors.

Dark-eyed Junco

Dark-eyed Junco

On the other hand, this friendly resident and its songs never, ever get old.  In fact, I even have it on my license plate.  Kudos to you, Maine and Massachusetts, for choosing it as your state bird.

Black-capped Chickadee

Black-capped Chickadee

Something about the colder months brings out the woodpeckers.  The Downy is a common sight, but it sure is dapper.

Downy Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker

You can’t quite fully appreciate this bird’s nape and awkward perching ability unless you view it from behind.

Downy Woodpecker

Though the Downy’s bigger cousin, the Hairy Woodpecker, wasn’t up for a photo shoot, the much-cooler, poorly named Red-bellied Woodpecker has been bellying up to the feeder quite regularly this fall.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Red-bellied Woodpecker – if you look real close you can see just a hint of red on his belly right between his two legs.

This has to be one of my favorite yard-birds.  It is a real stunning bird. Marin has even taken notice and is quite proud of herself for getting the name right.  The only reason this bird isn’t called a Red-headed Woodpecker is that a much more deserving species has already claimed that name.  Regardless, because it is so good-looking in its own right, it does deserve more than just one obligatory photo in this blog post.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Red-bellied Woodpecker

One of the more exciting yard birds – exciting because of its rarity and not because of its beauty, is the Purple Finch.  The females are not so purply, but given this was only their second appearance here ever, I was pretty thrilled to see these two girls from the north.

Purple Finch females and House Sparrow male

Purple Finch females and House Sparrow male

On par with the Purple Finch both for its geographical origins and its infrequency at our house is the Pine Siskin.

Pine Siskin

Pine Siskin

Prior to this fall we’d only ever had them here once before.  In fact, we’ve never seen a Pine Siskin anywhere outside of our yard.  This fall we’ve had 3-4 of them that have been showing up for a few days in a row now.  I hope they stick around.

Pine Siskin

Pine Siskin

We are burning through lots of seed right now, but it’s worth it.  They provide lots of entertainment.  The best part is that these birds are the birds that will be with us for the duration of the winter season.  Regular visitors that are not pictured include White-breasted Nuthatch, Eurasian-Collared Dove, Mourning Dove, Hairy Woodpecker, and our delightful pair of Northern Cardinals.  The cardinals tend to feed right at dawn and dusk which doesn’t allow for good photography.  They, too, are a family favorite.  Not only are all these birds around for the season, but we have more northern birds to look forward to! Though the Canadian winter finch forecast is a mixed bag, we are expected to get some Common Redpolls.  And if there’s enough of them, there’ll be a Hoary mixed in.  We certainly won’t have the Redpoll Mania like we had two years ago, but any day now they should show up.  I also am hoping that we will have a Northern Shrike in the yard for the third winter in a row.

Though the yard-birding has been pretty good, the itch to explore new turf and tally new birds is growing.  This weekend Evan and I will be gone on a two-night trip to check out the birds of Lake Superior’s north shore.  Double-digit life birds is a very real possibility. Stick around.

Serendipity in the Swamp

Alright, dear readers, as promised in the post before the Brainerd trip, I have a story to tell.  And it’s a good one.  I really should have learned by now to expect the unexpected.  But I haven’t, and that’s why this hobby can be so exciting and why this story is so good.  I had one of those unexpexted moments in the swamp back home.  Sadly, though, I did not get my guest photos to enhance the story.  Nevertheless a good story is a good story and needs to be told.  But because we live in an increasingly visual society (i.e. fast food menu boards), I have included some gratuitous bird photos from the archives.

The story starts when I got up at an unwholesome early time bound and determined to brave the mosquito thicket to try to see a Winter Wren at my parents’ place.  As I walked to the location, getting soaked from the dew-laden, tall grass, I was struck by the absence of the Winter Wren’s song.  It was strange since I had heard it the past couple days.  Since I wasn’t hearing it, I scrapped my plans to go bushwhacking.  But I was awake and in the land of birds, so I had to do something.

I settled on driving the roads in the area to look and listen for birds. The audio birding was fun as I heard another Black-billed Cuckoo, Sedge Wren, and a collection of warblers.  I even got to see a Red Fox soaked from dew of the morning, standing on the road for a momentary reprieve from the wetness.

I didn’t quite know what to do with myself – it’s frustrating to be up for some birding but have no focus, no plan of attack.  I finally decided I would drive the swamp road.  Maybe I’d get lucky and catch a Spruce Grouse on the road gathering grit for his crop.  After all, I saw one in that spot about a decade ago.

The road through the swamp is part of the route between my parents’ house and Melissa’s parents’ house.  Both sets of parents actually live on the same road about 10 miles apart.  No, Melissa and I did not grow up this close to each other, but my parents moved to this area when they retired. Though the parents live on the same road, you cannot get from one place to the other without taking some other roads.  Let me explain and use your mind’s eye to picture this. From Melissa’s parents’ you head east for a mile, north for two miles, east again for five miles, back south for two miles, and then east again for a mile.  It’s like you are driving the outline of a short top hat.  Though they live on the same road, the reason for this large hat-like bump of a detour is that there is a huge spruce bog separating our families where both house-building and road-building would be nearly impossible.

This five-mile stretch runs through part of the bog with tall Black Spruce trees lining the road creating a corridor through the swamp.  The bog used to depress me.  You look in the understory and just see utter darkness with occasional patches of light as the dense spruce boughs block the sun.  The “ground” is spongy as a bog actually floats on water. Mosquitoes reign supreme.  It is no place that a sane person would ever want to traverse.  Our family has bombed through the swamp road hundreds of times, often racing to get from one holiday meal to the next without properly digesting the first. I don’t think I had ever taken the gravel road at a speed of less than 50 MPH. Still, I often thought that it looked a lot like the Sax-Zim Bog and that maybe there could be a Great Gray Owl or something else that’s cool.  But I thought, ‘Nah, there couldn’t be anything like that this close to home,’ and just continued to drive warp speed.

Anyhow, I was trolling this five-mile stretch with the windows down trying to make sense of all the local variations of warbler songs when I noticed a vehicle a couple miles ahead of me that was stopped.  It’s very strange to meet other cars here, let alone at 6:00 in the morning. It couldn’t have been a hunter this time of year, and it seemed too early in the day for a forester to be out cruising timber.  Strange. I kept rolling along at 5 MPH listening to the sounds of the swamp but was distracted by this vehicle that wasn’t budging, only occasionally flickering his brake lights to indicate short bursts of movement.  What in the world was going on?  Finally I caught up with the now parked truck, and I as I passed it I saw it was Minnesota DNR truck and its driver was standing by the tailgate wearing a mosquito net-hat and binoculars.  With no coffee in my system, it took a little bit for my brain to process the image.  I got about a hundred yards past the guy when it hit me – a state employee wearing binoculars?!  You don’t need binoculars to look at trees or plants or really anything without feathers.  Holy smokes, I must talk to this guy.

So I whipped around and pulled up to the man.  And I saw his two-foot camera with a camouflage lens. Whoa, this is getting better! I asked if he’d seen anything good.  Then he dropped a bomb.  “Yeah, I just had a Great Gray Owl about a hundred yards back.” WOW! A lot of emotions were going through me.  First was a great anxiety to hurry up and see this owl and second was that my hunch of this bog being an owl abode was right! I desperately wanted to part company right away after he told me what was quite literally a stone’s throw away, but he just kept lobbing bombs – a Black-backed Woodpecker about a mile down the road, a Black-throated Blue Warbler near Orr, a Northern Hawk Owl a few miles away, and another Great Gray Owl the day before on – get this – another section of the route we travel back and forth between our parents’ houses.  Oh, this was good information but that owl…

Then the dude asked who I was.  He said recognized my name from the listserv, so I got up the gumption to ask him his name.  Sparky Stensaas was the reply.  Unbelievable. That may mean nothing to you, but Sparky’s in the big leagues when it comes to birding.  He’s a bird guide, a photographer, and the executive director of the Friends of Sax-Zim Bog.  It was fascinating to meet him on my turf far north of his normal range of the Sax-Zim Bog and the Duluth area doing official work.  We traded numbers to share any more sightings in the area, and then we split up.  Sparky was heading deep into the dark bog on foot, and I was staying on the road and going back to find that GGOW.

I never did see the owl.  Perhaps all our conversation scared it away.  How I would have loved to see this bird at “home” and in the summer no less.  We do have some resident Great Grays, but they are harder to find in the summer months.  So I don’t have a fresh picture for you and will instead have to appease you with my best non-winter looking GGOW pic.

Great Gray Owl - archive photo of life bird - March 2013

Great Gray Owl – archive photo of life bird – March 2013 – Tower, MN

I got a text later that morning from Sparky that the Black-backed Woodpecker had come out to the road!  He told me what telephone pole to stand near and listen.  This is a tough woodpecker to find.  It’s the kind that Iowa birders travel to Sax-Zim to see and strap on snowshoes to follow a guide great distances into the bog on a 20-below day.  I’m not making that up.  I have never seen one.  How cool would it be to get this lifer at home instead of Sax-Zim?  I went there about an hour later but had no luck.

Black-backed Woodpecker - Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Black-backed Woodpecker – Image courtesy of Wikipedia

I’ve been back to this stretch of road several times right at daybreak and have been unsuccessful in my attempts to find either bird.  But I have something just about as good – hope.  Each time I go home now I have a mission to find these guys.  Dad always said the Sax-Zim Bog is like a good fishing hole.  Boats attract more boats and more boats until that’s the only place people fish.  Same is true with birding the Sax-Zim Bog.  As my dad said, those good birds can be anywhere in northern Minnesota.  Very true.  It only took a Sax-Zim guy to prove it.

Scouting and Spartan-Training with a Healthy Side of Birding

There was much rejoicing in the neighborhood this weekend – I finally made it up on to the roof to take down the Christmas lights.  Though I would have rather been birding on this gorgeous day, June was fast approaching and I was getting dangerously close to leaving them up and boasting about how prepared I was for next Christmas.  It turns out, though, that birding from the roof was pretty good.  Two male American Goldfinches in the midst of a dogfight nearly crashed into my face, and later I had a stunning bird pull a “Maverick” as it buzzed the tower at eye-level.  The burnt orange and glossy black were unmistakable – no binoculars were needed to see this was an adult male Orchard Oriole!  I’ve only seen a flash of one before, and we had an immature male at the feeder once last year.  The kids were playing outside, so I hollered for Evan to get my camera out of the car while I kept an eye on the bird.  It probably would have been faster for me to go myself, but after some communication misfires, two trips to the vehicle, losing the bird, and refinding the bird, I finally got a picture of this scarce oriole.  The shot was from a long way off, and the bird was gone before I could get more.

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Adult male Orchard Oriole

The Orchard Oriole wasn’t the only yard-bird excitement this weekend.  As Evan and I were getting ready to go on a Cub Scout camping outing, I was trying to grab a photo of a new yard bird, the Nashville Warbler.  This isn’t an exciting warbler, but any bird takes on a new level of importance when it visits your yard for the first time, especially a warbler.  Since we aren’t near water and don’t have many mature trees here, we rarely get warblers in the yard.

Nashville Warbler

Nashville Warbler

As I was maneuvering to photograph this warbler and holding up the camping weekend, another new yard-bird warbler popped in front of my face, the Black-and-White Warbler!

Black-and-White Warbler

Black-and-White Warbler

IMG_8563And then I noticed a third warbler, the Yellow-rumped!  Though none of these warblers were terribly exciting, it was a thrill to have them invade our very own trees.  I wondered what else was with this mini warbler wave, but we had to get to scout camp.

Scout camp was a lot of fun made even more so because Evan and I opted to spend the night back at home instead of huddling in a tent for an overnight low of 37°. We participated in the activities Friday evening, went home, and then drove back for the activities Saturday morning.  I should point out that we also never missed a meal with the scouts.  Priorities.

The location of camp was on 600 acres of beatifully wooded private land complete with two private lakes.  There were birds galore.  One of the predominant species was the Wood Duck.  I visited with one of the other scout dads who helps maintain the Wood Duck boxes on the property, and he told me there were about 100 boxes and that 85% of them were occupied this spring!

I didn’t photograph any of the Woodies, though, and instead picked out a couple species that have evaded my photography efforts, like the ground-skulking Palm Warbler.

Palm Warbler

Palm Warbler

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Warblers are tough to photograph, and I’m deciding that ground-skulking warblers may pose just as much of a challenge as the ones that flit about the treetops.  It’s a good thing there are birds that pose, like this Veery.

Veery

Veery

While I practiced bird photography, Evan was working on much more manly skills.

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Though I took the picture above, I had taken Evan out earlier for a canoe ride. We were both thrilled to have four species of swallows buzzing right by our heads as they fed above the surface of the water.  It got me thinking that I should dig out my canoe from behind the shed and do some birding with it.  It’s a totally new perspective.

On Saturday at scout camp we headed to Sibley State Park for some geocaching.  It was a mediocre experience considering we were in a group of about  12 people, over half of which were not scouts.  I did get my Gray-cheeked Thrush lifer, but out of hesitation that I might actually be seeing a Swainson’s Thrush and that I was the only binocular-toting bird-nerd in the crowd, I opted not to draw more attention to myself by photographing the bird or pointing it out to Evan.  I later regretted both decisions.

The “cache” that we located was quite appropriate – a bird card with the Yellow-throated Warbler.  The very first pair of nesting Yellow-throated Warblers in Minnesota occurred at our very own Sibley State Park and were discovered by our friend, Randy.

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We saw some good birds at Sibley – Brown Thrasher, Yellow Warblers, Blackpoll Warbler, Golden-winged Warbler, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, and quite possibly a Red-shouldered Hawk.

After scout weekend, Evan and I did our daily check of Bergquist Wildlife Area – a spot that can be walked in ten minutes if there are no birds.  This time of year, with the birds changing daily, it takes a good hour to explore.

This particular day, Blackpoll Warblers seemed to be stealing the show.

Blackpoll Warbler

Blackpoll Warbler

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While I strained my neck looking at warblers in the treetops, Evan was again working on his warrior skills.

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I was smiling like that too when I found one of my favorite warblers of all time – the Blackburnian Warbler who was more than willing to show off his flashy orange throat.

Blackburnian Warbler

Blackburnian Warbler

IMG_8620I wanted to keep photographing this bird, but it gave me the slip while I was checking on Hercules.

IMG_8626Though not as much fun as playing with dead wood, I photographed a couple of the more common warblers.

Wilson's Warbler

Wilson’s Warbler

Magnolia Warbler

Magnolia Warbler

I was delighted to see that the Cape May pair is still hanging around in the same tree. It is getting very interesting that they are still here after two weeks and that there is a pair.  We are way south of their breeding range.

Cape May Warbler at Bergquist Wildlife Area

Cape May Warbler at Bergquist Wildlife Area

I’m still hoping to find a few last warblers at Bergquist before migration wraps up.  They include Black-throated Green, Bay-breasted, Mourning, and Canada.  Strangely we haven’t seen the ever-abundant Tennessee Warbler yet this year.  I was finally able to catch up with a Northern Parula the other day.  They are always a treat to see even if they aren’t very photogenic.

Northern Parula

Northern Parula

We shall continue the hunt for more migrants for the next couple weeks.  Then we will be putting Evan’s skills to the test as we go out camping this summer and hunting for warblers on territory.  Stay tuned.

Get the Oranges and Grape Jelly – Stat!

Not only do we tell you about our birding adventures on this blog, but we also use it from time to time as a platform for public service announcements.  So here it is – if you want to see orioles in your yard, get your oranges and grape jelly out NOW!  Don’t worry about taking down those Christmas lights – I know I didn’t.

It’s very simple to get started: cut an orange or two in half and set them out on a deck railing, tree branch, etc.  Then put out a bowl of grape jelly.  YOU DO NOT NEED FANCY FEEDERS.  Don’t wory about it. The orioles don’t.

I saw radar maps of migrating birds that showed today would be a banner day.  So before I turned in for the night last night, I followed my own advice and put out the oranges and grape jelly.  And right away this morning I was rewarded with two Baltimore Orioles.

Baltimore Oriole

Baltimore Oriole

IMG_8261I might be out chasing birds, but Melissa makes sure the ones here on the ranch are taken care of.  She bought lots of jars of cheap grape jelly and this cool, mess-free feeder.  I know, I said you don’t need a fancy feeder.  It’s true, you don’t.  Welch’s will not like the following statement either: you don’t even need name-brand jelly.

IMG_8256If you have kids I firmly think you should have a bird feeder of some sort.  They are pretty exciting for everyone to watch.  As Evan is in Cub Scouts and into birding, I’ve often thought that a great Eagle Scout project would be to erect and maintain bird feeders at a nursing home.  If he’s still into both those activites in 10 years, I’ll suggest it.

Watching feeder birds is fun for the whole family.

Watching feeder birds is fun for the whole family.

If you want a LOT more birds than just orioles, throw out some black-oiled sunflower seeds on a feeder or your lawn and watch the magic happen.  Our yard list is getting closer and closer to the century mark for number of bird species.  Right now, the sparrows are ruling the roost.  The White-throated are the most abundant, and their song always reminds us of our home in northern Minnesota.

White-throated Sparrow

White-throated Sparrow

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Today the sparrows were falling out of the sky.  Our first-of-the-year Harris’s Sparrows showed up as well.  Such an odd-looking bird.

Harris's Sparrow

Harris’s Sparrow

IMG_8247IMG_8241It was quite the sparrow-fest in the yard today.

IMG_8228We even had a brief drop-in from a Clay-colored Sparrow.

Clay-colored Sparrow

Clay-colored Sparrow

And, of course, Chipping Sparrows are all over right now trilling from treetops and just chilling out at the local watering hole.

Chipping Sparrow

Chipping Sparrow

So what are you waiting for?  Get the jelly, oranges, and seed out there to get the party started in your own yard.

Marsh Madness

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In an effort to keep my kids from turning into zombies as they watch and play their devices, I decided that we should get some fresh air while mom was at the grocery store.  So we went hiking for a little bit on a local Wildlife Management Area.  The kids enjoyed walking through puddles and little rivers everywhere; I enjoyed the Northern Harriers, Northern Flickers, and the sound of numerous Song Sparrows.  But the wind cut our enjoyment short, so we headed back to the vehicle to go home.

Just as we were within mere steps of the car, I got a text from Randy that a friend of his found some American Black Ducks today just a few miles to the north of us!  After consulting Google maps to know where to go, the kids and I were off.

We got to the area, but there must have been at least a dozen sloughs and ponds lining this one mile section of road.  And there were ducks everywhere – Mallards, American Wigeon, Blue-winged Teal, Northern Shovelers, Ruddy Ducks, Buffleheads, Redheads, Canvasbacks, Gadwalls, Wood Ducks, Hooded Mergansers, Common Goldeneye, Ring-necked Ducks, and Lesser Scaup.  We did our best to find the needle in the haystack, but we came up short.  Instead, I opted to take a picture of a few ducks I don’t normally get to photograph.

Canvasback

Canvasback

Buffleheads

Buffleheads

We gave up the search and headed toward home on some roads we’d never traveled.  That’s always highly recommended.  We encountered some more fun recent arrivals, like a Greater Yellowlegs, Great Egrets, Belted Kingfisher, and an Eastern Phoebe.  One of our staples was in a puddle just off the road and was quite photogenic today – the Wood Duck and his mate.  Wood Ducks have been my favorite duck since I was a kid and long before I was a birder.   They never fail to bring the wow factor.

Wood Duck pair

Wood Duck pair

IMG_7692As we drove on, Evan spied his own pair of Wood Ducks in a marshy little puddle on his side of the road.  The kids and I watched them for quite a while as they tried to evade us in the thin cover.  These two were more in sync with each other than the previous pair as they were at least heading the same direction in life.

IMG_7701Once we got home, the kids hopped out of the car to go play with the neighbor girl.  As I was unloading my things I heard an awful noise, like a cat being murdered. It had been nearly a year, but I knew the sound and I can assure you that, indeed, a cat was not losing its life.  It was the disturbingly cool croaking sound of a Yellow-headed Blackbird! In the yard no less.  It didn’t take me long to locate it at the top of one of the trees.

I snapped a couple unremarkable photos and then went about my business. Later on as Melissa was looking out the kitchen window, she saw two Yellow-headed Blackbirds on the backyard feeder.  The bird is so well-named that she knew what it was without asking and was quite impressed with their beauty.  I went outside to try for some better photos and ended up catching a Yellow-headed Blackbird and one of our many Brown-headed Cowbirds sitting together on a branch.  The cowbird was slightly less photogenic.

Yellow-headed Blackbird and Brown-headed Cowbird

Yellow-headed Blackbird and Brown-headed Cowbird

Our yard has the sounds of a marsh lately with all the Red-winged Blackbirds, Brown-headed Cowbirds, and now Yellow-headed Blackbirds all joining the chorus.  It was just a banner day for blackbirds in the yard.  We, of course, had our Common Grackles but also a European Starling and quite possibly a Rusty Blackbird.

As you can see in the photo above, the gloomy, overcast day started to brighten up.  I was walking through our house later on when the glorious late afternoon sunlight caught the breast of one of these Yellow-headed Blackbirds on our front feeder.  More than once I have been caught dead in my tracks by the likes of an Indigo Bunting, Baltimore Oriole, or Rose-breasted Grosbeak bathing in this perfect light.  Today it was the Yellow-head’s turn.  Our house makes for the perfect photography blind on such an occasion.

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We ended up with four of these beauties in the yard tonight.  Migration is a fascinating thing.  Just a couple hours prior to this mini-invasion I had seen a report from about 60 miles south of us that huge flocks of these birds were coming through.  It was phenomenal that these birds just appear all the sudden and seemingly out of nowhere.

The arrival of this special yard bird caused Evan to reminisce/gloat about how he got his Yellow-headed lifer before me last year when five of these guys invaded the yard while Melissa and I were away for the weekend and Grandma and Grandpa were holding down the fort.  It took me a good couple weeks before I eventually found my own.

Yellow-headed Blackbirds and the rare Yellow-vented Blackbird

Yellow-headed Blackbirds and the rare Yellow-vented Blackbird

The celebration of blackbirds continued as the different species found their way into the spotlight, or sunlight rather.

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Brown-headed Cowbird

Common Grackle

Common Grackle

Migration certainly is an exciting time.  With the uptick in yard activity, this grackle nearly exploded because he couldn’t contain his excitement.

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But migration is also a time of good-byes.  We seem to be having the classic long Minnesota good-bye with our American Tree Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos.

American Tree Sparrow

American Tree Sparrow

Today our yard had the sound and feel of a prairie marsh.  Pretty soon there will be warblers spazzing in the treetops and tough sparrows lurking under the shrubs.  One birder I follow once equated birding to one big Easter egg hunt.  And I can’t wait to see what the Easter Bunny brings tomorrow.