2017 Summer Trip to Northern Arizona –The Lifers

Flammulated Owl was literally and figuratively the number one lifer of the trip (see the last post if you missed it), but there were many other fun lifers that followed the Flam.  After all, one cannot go to Arizona and not come home with a few lifer souvenirs.  While I did not hit double-digits, I did snag some really exciting new ones.  One of these was a major target bird that I was just as eager to see as I was the Flam. Perhaps, though, the biggest (literally) lifer for me and the whole family was the Grand Canyon.

Grand Canyon Technically speaking it was not a lifer for me as I had been here as a small child.  Since I have no memory of it and I have a family of my own who hadn’t seen it, the time was right for a visit. Plus, the visit to Grand Canyon National Park was completely FREE thanks to the government’s Every Kid in a Park program where each 4th grade student in America can get his/her entire family and vehicle into any national park all summer long at no cost.  The lack of entry fee was definitely the icing on the cake because this place is impressive regardless.  The grandeur of the Grand Canyon and how it makes you feel when you are standing next to that vastness is nearly impossible to describe in words and capture in photographs.  Hopefully these kids will at least remember the experience.

Evan Marin

Tommy DeBardeleben joined us on the trip to the Grand Canyon.  Tommy was actually hoping to see a bird that I wanted to see, the California Condor.  The California Condor was reintroduced to the Canyon in 1996 and has done well there since.  Over 70 birds are in the Utah/Arizona population with many of them frequenting the Canyon.  Tommy had seen them here many years ago.  Unfortunately they were not a “countable” bird when he saw them because they were still in the early years of reintroduction, so Tommy technically did not have California Condor on his official life and state lists.  Neither did I, so as we enjoyed the Canyon at every possible pull-off, Tommy and I were always watching the sky above and below(!) in an effort to find this bird.  Unfortunately we never had any luck.  Later that night we learned one had been seen on the cliff face right beneath Bright Angel Lodge less than an hour after we had looked at the very same spot. Argh. The good news is that we were so impressed with the Canyon that we will be back some day.  The Condor can wait until then.

There were, of course, other potential lifers for me at the Canyon.  I did see one, the Juniper Titmouse, fly across the road in front of me.  It wasn’t until the drive back on US-180 to Flagstaff that I actually got to see one well and photograph it.

Juniper TitmouseJuniper TitmouseTommy found me this bird while we were stopped for a different lifer.  As I had been driving I knew to be vigilant for Pinyon Jays.  There were a couple times while cruising at highway speeds that I thought I saw blue-colored birds cross the highway, but with no shoulder on which to pull off, I couldn’t stop to check.  All doubt was erased at one point, though, when several blue-colored birds were flying across the highway in groups.  I found a spot to pull over and observe my lifer Pinyon Jay.  Photographing them proved impossible as the birds were between me and the sun.  They also hid remarkably well in the junipers, only giving away there presence as they flushed away.  This happened over and over as we probably saw over 50 in all, flushing in small groups.  It was frustrating but still fun to see the behavior of this bird and hear its fun, laughing call.

Pinyon JayPinyon JayThe morning after the Grand Canyon adventure, Tommy and I birded the Flagstaff area hitting up Elden Springs Road and the Schultz Pass Road. The birding was incredible, but since this is just a lifer post, we’ll stick to those. The first lifer was the Grace’s Warbler, a striking bird that loves the Pines.

Grace's WarblerGrace's WarblerWhile lifering on this bird, I simultaneously lifered on Plumbeous Vireo.  This is another bird that loves life in the Pines.  Both my new lifers could be heard and seen at the same time, sometimes even in the same tree!

Plumbeous VireoPlumbeous VireoElden Springs Road merges on to Schultz Pass Road, which was a reported location of numerous individuals of the bird I wanted to see most, the Red-faced Warbler.  Tommy had me stop at a spot that looked like good habitat for this warbler–dense stands of Douglas Fir on a slope next to a somewhat open area of Aspens.  Sure enough, Tommy picked out a singing Red-faced Warbler almost immediately.  As we were trying to get visuals on it, Tommy spotted another lifer for me and one I had been hoping for–a male Williamson’s Sapsucker! Even though the Red-faced Warbler was my most wanted bird after the Flam, we know that would be a relatively easy bird along Schultz Pass Road.  Therefore, we ditched the Red-face we had been hearing in an effort to track down the dapper and somewhat elusive Sapsucker. It sure was a tease at first and not offering up much to view.

Williamson's SapsuckerEventually we got the full monty as it was too busy drilling sap wells to care about a couple of gawkers.

Williamson's Sapsucker

Williamson's SapsuckerOnce the Williamson’s was fully enjoyed, we turned our attention to the Red-faced Warbler.  I was highly impatient to finally see this bird that we were hearing.  And then it finally happened, and it was glorious.

Red-faced WarblerAdding to the pleasure of finally seeing this bird is that Red-faced Warblers are curious and therefore crushable.

Red-faced Warbler

Red-faced WarblerRed-faced WarblerBy the time we were done birding Schultz Pass Road, we had seen several of these Warblers.  Each was just as exciting as the last.  Even Tommy has to stop and look at each one, they are that captivating.Red-faced Warblers are curious and quite crushable.There were no more lifers on this morning of birding around Flagstaff.  Tommy and I had found all my targets with relative ease, and there was really nothing left to go after.  I’m kicking myself for not doing more research because MacGilivray’s Warblers breed in the area by Hart Prairie which is just northwest of Flagstaff.  Oh well, something to add to my northern Arizona to-do list next time we come back to view the Grand Canyon (and the California Condors!)

My last hope for lifers on this trip would occur on our drive from Flagstaff back to Phoenix.  We were able to take a leisurely drive south since we were overnighting in Phoenix and didn’t have to catch a plane until the next day.  So instead of hopping on I-17, we drove through Oak Creek Canyon and Sedona.  Oak Creek Canyon and the red rock formations of the Sedona area are a must-see experience for anybody.  For the birders, there is even more to experience.  My list of hopefuls was short: Yellow-breasted Chat, Common Black-Hawk, and Brown-crested Flycatcher.

After scouring eBird, I had picked a spot caled the Encinoso Picnic Area as a place to look for the Chat.  It looked really small and held multiple birds–perfect for a quick search while a non-birding family waited in the car.  Evan’s 4th grader park pass got us into this National Forest Service fee site for free too (it works for all federal lands and not just national parks). Anyhow, when I stepped out of the car I heard the distinctive calls, croaks, and whistles of a Yellow-breasted Chat immediately.  And then I found a second and third equally loud Chat.  Getting visuals on any proved very difficult.  I did see one as it flew straight up out of the thicket it was calling from.  The yellow breast was as impressive as it was unmistakable.  Trying to find a perched bird was nearly impossible though. My family waited for nearly an hour in the air-conditioned car while I tromped through the picnic area picking up ridiculous amounts of painful, thorny grass seeds of some kind in my shoes.  And here is all I have to show for my toil:

Yellow-breasted ChatI’m not naive. I understand this is a typical experience with this bird species.  It was still frustrating.  At one point I could hear a Chat singing in the thicket right in front of me.  I figured it had to be perched on top somewhere.  So I climbed a rock, held the camera above my head, snapped a picture, and hoped for the best. Well, I got him. Can you see it?

Yellow-breasted ChatHere it is at a different perch.  Same effect.

Yellow-breasted ChatYellow-breasted Chat is just one more bird to add to the list of ‘Better Looks Desired’ birds.  At one point I saw a Chat fly into a tree in the distance, and I saw a fleck of yellow among the green leaves, so I just snapped photos of that yellow spot like crazy. Turns out I got a lot of photos of a yellow leaf instead. What an aggravating bird.

IMG_0794As we continued our drive to Sedona enjoying the views of the canyon walls from the bottom of Oak Creek Canyon, we decided to pull into the National Forest Service’s Grashopper Point recreation site.  This was another fee area that we got into for free–thanks Evan.  The draw of this site is that people like to cool off in Oak Creek here. More specifically, people cliff jump off a high rock face into a 15-foot wide creek below! Apparently this narrow creek is quite deep, allowing the people we saw jumping to come out unscathed.  We did not attempt it. I was not completely sold on its safety.

Evan MarinThe deep part of the water is quite narrow as you can see the wading area takes up almost half the creek width. This spot where Evan and Marin are wading is where teenagers were jumping into the water from 15-20 feet up the rock face!  As I kept an eye on my kids, I also kept an eye out for a Common Black-Hawk in the riparian corridor.  Unfortunately one never materialized.  I was also keeping an eye and an ear out for a family of Brown-crested Flycatchers that had been reported here. I had actually given up on them too, but seconds before we got in the car to leave I spied a silent flycatcher on top of a snag a long ways away.  I snapped some photos and was pleasantly surprised to see I had captured my lifer Brown-crested Flycatcher!

Brown-crested FlycatcherThe Brown-crested Flycatcher is distinguished from the similar-looking Ash-throated Flycatcher which inhabits the same area by its larger bill, completely rufous tail underneath, and a brighter yellow belly.  Thankfully, this Flycatcher turned around to make sure I could see all the appropriate field marks.

Brown-crested Flycatcher The lifering on this fifth trip to AZ was definitely a quality over quantity sort of thing. And unless I make a summer trip to SE AZ, the lifering will be significantly limited on subsequent trips to visit my parents in central AZ in the winter months. Regardless of lifers being available, good birds can ALWAYS be had in Arizona.  In the next post, I’ll highlight my favorite non-lifers from this most recent trip.

#17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flammulated Owl

Flammulated OwlFlammulated Owl

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

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

Western Screech-Owl

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

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

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

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

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

In the Spruce Bog, Three’s Company but Four’s a Party

So like your favorite show, I’ve left you with a cliffhanger in that last post that alluded to a tantalizing lifer and I made you wait for the next season (literally) to get some resolution.  Turns out that a busy career, life with kids and their activities, and a move(!) have hindered the blogging efforts even if the birding has still raged on in spite of the chaos. There have been trips to Arizona, Wisconsin, lifer trips here in Minnesota, and much more. It’s been a wild ride, but things are finally a little more conducive to getting caught up, so you can expect a mass release of posts and start binge-reading ABWCH.

We left off with a birding excursion to a Black Spruce bog back in the homeland of northern Minnesota with birding friends Julie Grahn and John Richardson in late March.  Winter still had a somewhat icy grip on the northwoods, but there was a fire of birding excitement burning inside as John, Julie, and I pursued Julie’s latest great find–an American Three-toed Woodpecker.  While this species may be easier to find out west in the mountains, this woodpecker is incredibly rare for Minnesota.  In fact, in all the years that I have been birding there has not been a chaseable one until this past spring when Julie found FOUR of them in three different locations!  Julie’s fame grew as throngs of birders trekked up north to see a pair of these elusive Woodpeckers at one particular spot.  I was somewhat late to the party, actually, and had to wait for an opportune time to sneak away.  So when the kids had their spring break, I took them on a trip to see Grandma who graciously watched them while I went hunting for this lifer.

Back to that same day that we saw the Spruce Grouse, John, Julie, and I walked back and forth along a two-mile stretch of road through a Black Spuce bog in the hopes of hearing/seeing this ghost of a Woodpecker.  After a couple hours we finally heard drumming, and we all raced ahead to track it down.  It seems like heresy to say this, but I was dejected to be looking at a Black-backed Woodpecker.

Black-backed WoodpeckerWe carried on with our walk that had us traversing the same stretch of road several times.  Then we heard drumming quite a ways from the Black-backed and knew it was a different bird.  We repeated the drill of tracking down the source.  Only this time it was different.  John was the first one to get eyes on it and announced it was the American Three-toed Woodpecker and the male at that!

American Three-toed WoodpeckerIt was a huge lifer for me–there are only a handful of regular birds in Minnesota I can still add to my life list, and the icing on the cake was that this was a hometown bird.  It really doesn’t get better than that, and I spent a lot of time soaking up the experience and taking lots of photos.

American Three-toed WoodpeckerAmerican Three-toed WoodpeckerAt one point this Woodpecker flew down and worked the bark along a downed tree.  This bird was oblivious to my presence and let me approach within 5 feet as it frantically flaked bark to look for insects.

American Three-toed WoodpeckerAmerican Three-toed WoodpeckerAmerican Three-toed WoodpeckerAmerican Three-toed WoodpeckerIt was a beautiful day to be birding back home and enjoying a long-awaited lifer.  John had gotten his fill long ago and left. Julie was quite patient as I spent an inordinate amount of time photographing this incredibly accommodating bird.American Three-toed WoodpeckerI did, finally, pry myself away and Julie and I wrapped up our birding for the day.  However, I found myself back on this road the next morning because the allure of these Woodpeckers and the Spruce Grouse was just too strong.  That second morning I decided to drive the stretch of road first with the windows down.  Unlike the day before, the action started almost immediately.  I heard the unmistakable rattle call of TWO Black-backed Woodpeckers that seemed to be chasing each other around in some sort of courtship dance. I got lucky enough to catch them on the same tree together.

Black-backed WoodpeckerThen all craziness broke loose (as if it hadn’t already). There were now four Woodpeckers chasing each other around. As I tried to make sense of it all, another unexpected sighting happened–Sparky Stensaas came bursting out of the woods with a large camera and tripod in hot pursuit of this action.  All of this action was just nuts. I started photographing two Woodpeckers on a dead snag and realized I had the male Black-backed and male Three-toed together on the same tree!

IMG_2030

They appeared to be in some sort of dispute over territory which was a fascinating development for us onlookers.  Meanwhile, the females of these respective species kept each other company on their own tree, though I did not photograph them.  I was too busy watching the males who were vying for superiority.

IMG_2031And in the end, one Woodpecker clearly won out.

American Three-toed WoodpeckerEventually, the Woodpeckers (and Sparky) dispersed into the woods and the excitement was over.  Later on, Julie Grahn and Dee Kuder showed up, and along with Sparky we all enjoyed the Spruce Grouse show that was highlighted in the last post. A huge thank you goes out to Julie Grahn for finding and reporting these birds and assisting me in finding them.  It was an incredible experience–I couldn’t have asked for a better way to get this lifer.

Finally, to close this post and whet your appetite for the next post (and Chinese food), this is a fortune I got while stopping to eat on this northern MN trip, a fortune that came true…

Sprucing Up the Day

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.

Spruce Grouse

Spruce GrouseSpruce GrouseThis 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.

Spruce GrouseI 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.

John Richardson spruce grouse

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.

Spruce Grouse Spruce GrouseYou want to know why so many people have trouble finding this bird?

Spruce GrouseThat 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…

Spruce GrouseSpruce GrouseSpruce GrouseWe 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.

Spruce GrouseAs 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.

Spruce Grouse

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.

Spruce GrouseThis 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.

Spruce Grouse femaleEach 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.

DIY Owling–A Longing Fulfilled

As it’s been stated here before, 2017 is mostly about taking care of business here at home, mostly in the Owl Dept. There are four regular species, either residents or migrants, that were missing from my county list prior to the start of the year: Short-eared, Long-eared, Eastern Screech, and Northern Saw-whet.  These have been my most wanted county birds as of late.  The Short-eared was knocked off in short order on the first day of the year, filling a major void and leaving only three more.  One could sit around and wait on news of a serendipitous encounter for those others, or one could get out there and try to make something happen.  Never one for patience, I often choose the latter, drawing inspiration from intrepid Owlers like Tommy DeBardeleben and Jeff Grotte.

So along with buddy Steve Gardner, I’ve been getting out there.  On one recent excursion, Steve and I stumbled into the biggest cache of whitewash and small owl pellets we’d ever seen.  Actually, I don’t think we’ve ever found Owl evidence before. Four roost sites in all in one small stand of Red Cedars got the owl juices flowing fast.  Steve and I expected to come face-to-face with a Saw-whet at any moment.  While we came up empty, we were excited nonetheless to find such evidence and be in hot pursuit.  Steve and I have been on many, many fruitless Owl hunts together in the past.  This may have been a turning point for us…

A week later I was itching to get back to this site to take another look around. In the meantime Steve and I had both received intel on some Long-eared Owls in another part of the state.  Never having seen one before, Steve wanted to pursue those and invited me along. I declined, opting instead to spend my birding time that day looking for a county Saw-whet back at that spot. Well, Steve and I both saw Owls in our respective locations that morning, but his Owls were much cooler than mine:

Great Horned OwlAny Owl sighting makes for a fun outing, even if it’s not post-worthy. But Steve’s lifer LEOWs were post-worthy, and something about his post caught my attention: he had seen his Owls in a plantation of Spruces. I had associated LEOWs mostly with Cedars. A connection was made in my brain, and I asked Steve how the site he was at compared with a plantation of Spruces in our county that we have unsuccessfully Owled a few times. Steve said they were very similar. Plans were made immediately to check it out the next day. It had been over a year since we last tried for Long-eareds at that spot.  It was time to hit it again.

That next afternoon, Steve and I met up to walk this Spruce plantation, walking abreast down the lanes between the tree rows. And I kid you not, 30 seconds into our walk, Steve hollered out that Owl flushed from a tree in front of him and was coming my direction. We both knew what it was instantly–too big for a Saw-whet, too small for a Great Horned, and wrong habitat for a Short-eared and Eastern Screech pointed to one bird only: Long-eared Owl!  We were stoked to say the least. Whenever the Owl flushed it would always land a short distance away and was unwilling to leave the stand of trees. This further proved we were dealing with a LEOW since GHOWs make fast beelines out of an area when they flush covering a half mile or more. One time this LEOW even went out of the grove, circled around looking at us, and re-landed only to disappear.  I got a good look that time.  We were too amped up and excitedly talking to put on a quiet stalk. Finally, finally, Steve and I had a successful Owl hunt!

As we continued to try to re-see the bird and hopefully get a look at it perched, we encountered piles of Owl sign–whitewashed trees everywhere and pellets scattered all over the place like popcorn on a movie theater floor. We also found the smoking gun of LEOW evidence: the remaining wings of our newest county bird’s predated partner:

Long-eared Owl wingWe did flush it a couple more times but eventually decided to move on and give up on seeing it perched.  Even still, the victory was immense. Steve said it best when he said it was cool that we did not have to rely on anyone else for this bird.  I couldn’t agree more.

The Owling didn’t stop there.  Steve and I found some Red Cedars in the area to check for Saw-whets. Once again, we found heavy evidence that Saw-whets were/are in those trees.  Then we later flushed a Great Horned Owl and wondered if the Saw-whet(s) had gone the way of LEOW #2.

The next day I was able to revisit the LEOW site with some other local birding friends who had never seen one.  Two Great Horned Owls flushed right away giving everyone a false start.  As we got near the end of our respective rows of trees, conversation picked up among the others and I got the impression they thought this would be a non-event.  From the previous day’s experience, I knew that it wasn’t over until we actually emerged from the trees.  I kept up my constant scanning of every tree I quietly and slowly walked by. Then I nearly lost my breath when I spied the tall, skinny Owl near the top of a tree looking down at me!  I quickly snapped a photo of the shadowed tangles it was buried in, not even able to see the Owl in my viewfinder.

Long-eared OwlThis was the final, definitive proof that Steve and I had seen a Long-eared Owl the day before.  And, man, did it feel good.Long-eared OwlAt this moment in the adventure I was multi-tasking, trying to get photos while snapping my fingers and whispering to get the attention of my fellow birders.  I never got them on the bird before it flushed, but everyone was able to eventually see the Owl.

Nothing beats finding Owls on your own and having a local spot to go see a cool species like this.  Now, if only the resident GHOWs will leave this bird alone…

Great Horned OwlAre the Owl adventures over? With 2 of my 4 wanted Owls knocked off in February already, I think we are just getting started.

Playing Solitaire by Yourself is No Way to Win

Like most birders I am fond of my home county list and crave those new additions which happen with less and less frequency with each passing year.  This year I am trying in particular to go after those species that we know are regulars in the county every year.  The year got off to a good start on New Year’s Day with the Kandiyohi County birders teaming up to go after Short-eared Owls.  Seeing as that event was successful and fun, why not try again?  One of my other biggest wants for the county has been a Townsend’s Solitaire.  This bird of the western montane forests moves eastward and downward in elevation in the winter months and can be found all throughout Minnesota. They pop up everywhere. Kandiyohi County has an abundance of suitable habitat in the form of large stands of Red Cedar, so I knew there had to be one or more lurking out there somewhere. So I put out a call to action to the Kandi crew on FB, and to my surprise, 10 people said they were down for it. The event was dubbed “Super Solitaire Saturday” for being held on the eve of the Super Bowl.

Ten people is much too large and way too inefficient for one search party, so for SSS we split into three groups to tackle large swaths of the county in an efficient manner.  Herb Dingmann, Dan Orr, and Milt Blomberg came down from neighboring Stearns County to the north and were going to hit Burbank WMA. Steve Gardner, his brother Scott Gardner from the Cities, and rising birding phenom Garrett Wee from Lyon County comprised team #2.  They planned to scour Sibley State Park. I joined up with local birding legends Randy Frederickson, Joel Schmidt, and Jeff Weitzel to tackle Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center.

In planning for the day I was quite optimistic that we would achieve the target, but I had no idea just how efficient this divide and conquer strategy would be. My crew decided not to start until 8:30.  Good thing, too! Just as we parked our cars at Prairie Woods and were about to step into the Red Cedar landscape to begin our search, I got a call from Herb. They had already found one at Burbank! All groups converged on team #1’s location and picked up a sweet county bird…

Townsend's SolitaireAs we enjoyed the bird and expressed jubilation over a very early success, we detected a second Solitaire as well! Townsend's SolitaireTownsend's SolitaireWith the objective met so quickly and so easily, no one really knew what to do afterward. After shooting the breeze for quite awhile, we settled on going after the only other type of new county bird we could really try for this time of year: Owls.  Now the focus was on Eastern Screech-Owls, Long-eared Owls, and Northern Saw-whet Owls.  Each of the teams put in a few hours of Owling but came up short.  No one was really bothered about that.  The group ended up having lunch together and then we each went on to our separate birding objectives for the day.

So what’s next for the Kandi crew? Time will tell, but this group birding has proven to be both popular and effective. The next event is likely going to have an Owl focus.  Steve and I are already hot on the trail of one of those coveted birds, so maybe, just maybe, we will have another successful story to tell.

Reader’s Choice Makes For A Choice Reader

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

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

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

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

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

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These are NOT good Goldeneyes.

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

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

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

Barrow's Goldeneye

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

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

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

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

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

Minneapolis Snowy

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

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

Great Horned Owl

A Red-Letter, Red-Feather Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Short(-eared) Post is a Fun Post

There is a strange and paradoxical law at work in birding: a lifer must fall often as a crummy sighting in a far-off place before that bird is seen crushingly well, with ease, in good numbers, and/or close to home. When you finally reach that crossover point, the reward is so so sweet but is almost always followed with the nasty aftertaste of regret and self-doubt. Why wasn’t I just a little more patient? Why did I even bother that first time? But if I didn’t go the first time, would I even be enjoying this bird now? But I am enjoying this bird now, so wasn’t the previous attempt a waste of time, money, and effort? It is the birder’s equivalent of the age-old chicken vs. egg first dilemma.  A birder can perseverate on this for days.

For me this played out with the Short-eared Owl this past fall and even up until today.   In hindsight it is really quite comical (or agonizing) that in December of 2015 I traveled 2+ hours away to Afton State Park to get my lifer Short-eared Owl in a blizzard in the last 5 minutes of daylight. Or perhaps not. Maybe it paved the way for my great sightings of multiple SEOWs 4 hours away in Grand Forks, North Dakota last spring. And maybe that trip was necessary for all that follows in this post.  At least that’s what I tell myself to justify the time and expense put into the aforementioned trips.  Because what follows is incredibly inexpensive in time and money.

November 2016, Lac qui Parle County

I can’t reveal my reason for why I was birding two counties away in November, but I can say that what I was after would not be a big deal to my Arizona friends but would be a bombshell to my Minnesota friends. Let’s just leave it at that. Joining me on this clandestine mission were friends Steve Gardner, Brad Nelson, and Jeff Grotte. Jeff Grotte Brad nelsonWalking out in this grassland, we were not expecting but were quite delighted to kick up two Short-eared Owls.  It’s a pretty good day when a Short-eared Owl is a consolation prize.

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December 2016, Swift County

I received a report from Joel Schmidt that Jeff Weitzel had bumped into two Short-eared Owls in the next county over, just 45 minutes away. December gets busy and so I never got around to checking it out until about two weeks after the fact.  Maybe they were wintering in that spot, so Steve Gardner, his son Riley, and I went to check it out.  And dang, there weren’t two Short-eared Owls after all–there were three!

Short-eared OwlSteve, Riley, and I had phenomenal close fly-bys of these Owls.  Though the birds were cooperating for photos, the clouds and dropping sun were not. Even still, I got a few shots to remember the night.

Short-eared OwlShort-eared OwlShort-eared OwlThen with no fear, one of the Owls perched up fairly close. It was exciting to see a perched Short-eared Owl–this likely would never happen again, right?

Short-eared Owl

What made the Swift sightings even more remarkable was that when I got home I looked at my map and realized I went to the wrong spot that Jeff had found.  In fact, I was a couple miles away, and still I found Short-eared Owls!

January 2017, Kandiyohi County (the home county)

Astute readers have probably already picked up on the theme that as we are moving closer to the present, the distance traveled to see Short-ears has decreased and the quality of the sightings has increased.  As more reports were filtering in of wintering Short-eared Owls all across the state, I was really getting the urge to find one here in Kandiyohi.  It would be a county bird, a really good county bird.   With the holiday festivities putting a damper on most everyone’s birding, I organized a search party with local birding friends for the afternoon of New Year’s Day when there’s nothing to do anyway.  We were going to look near Regal in the very northeast corner of the county. Aaron Ludwig out of Stearns County said that he couldn’t make the Regal Roundup but wanted to do us Kandi birders a solid by scouting the area in the evenings ahead of time since he worked near there.  I had shown Aaron where Kandiyohi birding legends Randy Frederickson, Ron Erpelding, and Joel Schmit had over a half dozen Short-ears many years ago.  While I was still trapped in northern Minnesota for the holidays, Aaron sent word that his scouting was a success–he had found a Short-eared Owl in the very spot foretold by the Kandi legends!  Impatiently I waited out the next couple days, trying to tide myself over with some boreal birds.

White-winged CrossbillWhen it was finally time to leave northern MN, I got word that a Great Gray had just been seen in Cook, a mere 15 minutes from the parents’.  I didn’t have time to look for it and had to go back to west-central MN. It seems I am always at the wrong end of the state.

January 1 finally came.  The search wouldn’t start until late afternoon.  Brad Nelson and I teamed up in one vehicle, Milt Blomberg and Dan Orr were in another, and Randy Frederickson and Joel Schmidt were in a third. The plan was to each drive separate areas, call each other if we found something, and then race to the Owl location (if one was found) before dark.  It turns out it was a plan was overkill and full of redundancies as Brad and I immediately spotted a Short-eared Owl (likely Aaron’s) at 3:45 in the full sun.  We could practically feel the wind off the Owl’s wings it was so close as it zoomed by us over and over. It was astonishing to see such an acrobatic display.  I don’t think a county bird victory has ever felt this sweet.

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared OwlShort-eared OwlShort-eared OwlWhat’s not been mentioned yet is that the other members of my party were promptly notified and arrived on-scene shortly afterward.  Just as they arrived, a Rough-legged Hawk appeared and got into an aerial spat with the Owl.  The latter was decisively victorious as it drove the former to the ground to the great delight of the Kandi crew.  A little while later the Short-eared perched up on a road sign offering everybody a chance to get incredible looks as the Owl at its Vole dinner.

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared OwlThe newer Kandi birders, of which I am one, were elated. The wise old Kandi legends were pleased–their prophecy that such a moment would happen in this very place had come true.  They had preached patience all along.  Some grasshoppers don’t listen, though, and end up going to North Dakota.

Randy Joel Brad Dan MiltShort-eared OwlCertainly there was no way for the day to get any better. Or was there?

Josh Short-eared OwlShort-eared OwlNot once did I bump this Owl off its perch.  In fact, we all got incredible looks as we slowly drove by the bird while it continued to sit on the sign. Brad and I watched it from the vehicle at close range for a long time until it finished its meal and then quickly went out to grab another Vole. The talon to beak transfer we witnessed was incredibly smooth and quick.

Since the Regal Roundup was a success early in the search, we all were able to head home long before dark.  Brad and I took some more back roads on our route home and turned up a second Short-eared Owl! It was the icing on a very filling Short-cake.

Willmar, Present Day

You see where this post is going, don’t you? A week ago, Randy Frederickson found another Short-eared Owl just outside of the county seat of Willmar, 15 minutes from my house. I went to look for it this afternoon and found it.

Short-eared owlAt the rate and manner in which things are progressing, you better believe I’m watching the field by my house when I take my dog out to pee.

2016–The Year of the Owls and So Much More

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.

Barn Owl

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.

Black-backed Woodpecker8. 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:

Eastern Screech-OwlI 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.

Eastern Screech-Owl7. 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.

black scoter6. 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.

Le Conte's Sparrow5. 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.

Gray Partridge4. 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.

Piping Plover3. 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.

Whiskered Screech-Owl2. 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.

Northern Saw-whet Owl1. 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:

Surf ScoterIt 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.

Surf Scoter

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

Great Gray Owl

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.

Ten Arizonan Fingers for 10 Arizona TOBY Owls; 6 Minnesotan Fingers for 6 Minnesota TOBY Owls, sub-divided into two hands--a hand of 5 fingers for 5 Tommy Owl Lifers and 1 Thumb for a big thumbs up on Tommy's progress

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.