Going Cuckoo over Free Beer on a Blue Bird Day – Wild Birding at Mom and Dad’s

The parents' 80-acre spread

The parents’ 80-acre “farm”

Ahhhh, northern Minnesota.  It’s good for the soul.  I can’t believe June had nearly expired before we got up there this summer.  I blame bathroom remodels, snow make-up days, and birds.  June is probably the best month to be up there.  The weather is wonderfully cool, the scenery is a crisp blue and green everywhere, the fishing is fantastic, and the warblers are unbeatable. It’s a birdaholic’s dream with the great northern species and a maximum of 6 hours of darkness around this time of the summer solstice.

In fact, when we arrived at Mom and Dad’s around 7:30 last Sunday evening, I heard a life bird.  An American Bittern, also known as the Thunder Pumper, was just beginning his evening calling in the wetland across the road.  I battled the hordes of mosquitos trying to get a glimpse of it, but it never came into view.  Maybe tomorrow.

That next morning I was up early to go birding around my parents’ 80-acre spread.  The truth is that I’ve never really birded their land as I’ve seen most of my northern birds during migration back home. But this place is where the birding venture kicked off for me a couple years ago when I had a chance encounter with a Chestnut-sided Warbler. It was time to see what I could dig up when birding it properly.  My parents’ land is unusual in that it is mostly open prairie instead of being heavily forested like most of the region.  As such they get some fun prairie birds like Eastern Bluebirds and Bobolinks as well as a lot of the boreal species in the surrounding woods.

The dew was heavy that morning and the mosquitoes were unbelievably thicker than normal.  Admittedly I was quite miserable.  The beautiful song of another life bird, the Winter Wren, caused me to bear the misery a little longer.  But the Winter Wrens have an affinity for the thickest, shrubbiest, swampiest habitat.  Even if I got close I would probably not get a visual and the mosquitoes would increase tenfold.  I gave up on it after a time, deciding to go after it during migration back home. My morning was not a waste, though, as I was delighted to find a Northern Parula singing on territory.  My visual was quick but good even if I couldn’t get a photo.  Other than the Parula, the audio birding was wonderful – Veeries, Ovenbirds, and White-throated Sparrows were constantly at work creating a symphony in the woods.

White-throated Sparrow singing his "Oh, sweet Canada, Canada!" song with great gusto

White-throated Sparrow singing his “Oh, sweet Canada, Canada!” song with great gusto

Later that day Evan was begging for a 4-wheeler ride.  Usually I’m the one who takes him on such an excursion.  Eventually I relented.  Evan told me he wanted to go on “the longest 4-wheeler ride ever.”  The appeal of ATVs and snowmobiles has long worn off for me, but with all the birds around I had the sudden thought that I could probably give Evan “the longest 4-wheeler ride ever” and that it could be a lot of fun for both of us.  It would have several listening stops at key places.  Evan’s a birder and not enough of a motor-head to mind stopping every now and then to listen and look for birds.

Evan 4-wheeler

Our first listening stop was the location of that Northern Parula.  I played the song on my phone.  Immediately we got a response, but not from the Parula.  A Black-billed Cuckoo sounded off in the distance!  Holy Smokes!  That’s another life bird. I’m not sure if he responded to the Parula song or if it was pure coincidence.  Either way, we fired up the 4-wheeler and headed that direction.  We made a couple stops, playing the song each time.  Randy has said they are very responsive to tapes. Despite our efforts, we were not hearing it again.

Then I was about to give up at our last stop, when all of the sudden the Cuckoo flew in and landed in a dead tree right in front of us!

“There it is!”

“Where?!” Evan responded

“Right there!” I said, pointing as Evan sat on the 4-wheeler seat in front of me.

“I see it! Yes! Another life bird!” Evan said while doing a fist pump and standing simultaneously.

The visual was good.  The photos are another story.  It’s such a secretive, sneaky bird!

Black-billed Cuckoo lifer - Finally!

Black-billed Cuckoo lifer – Finally!



This bird flew out into this open meadow a few times checking us out.  We had really good looks at it as it flew by.  What a thrill it was to finally get this bird!IMG_9579  A good sighting like that made a beautiful day even more beautiful.



I took my dad out a couple hours later to see the Black-billed Cuckoo.  He had never seen one either.  We took the 4-wheeler, but as is the customary pecking-order of father-son relationships, I was no longer the driver.  I opted for sitting on the back rack, facing the opposite direction instead of sharing the seat with him.  I was able to help Dad see the Cuckoo.  It was also fun to enjoy the birds that benefit from the nesting boxes Dad has put up.

Tree Swallow

Tree Swallow

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

Dad and I also got to see a White-throated Sparrow and a Chestnut-sided Warbler singing within each other’s territories.  While we were listening and watching, we heard the distinctive “Free beeeer!” call of the Alder Flycatcher.  Sweet.  Alder Flycatchers are one of the five Empidonax species we can see in Minnesota, and the only safe way to correctly identify them is through voice and habitat.  Flycatchers are a drab bunch. Maybe that’s why the Alder and Acadian Flycatchers try to lure in birders and unsuspecting college students alike with their respective “Free-beeeer!” and “Piz-ZA!” calls.

Dad and I found the Alder no problem.  Flycatchers love their dead snag perches above the rest of the shrubbery.

Alder Flycatcher

Alder Flycatcher

There were many other short 4-wheeler trips during our time at Mom and Dad’s.  It’s always fun to see birds that are residents here but migrants back home, like the Olive-sided Flycatcher or this Hermit Thrush.

Hermit Thrush

Hermit Thrush

I tried several times to see that American Bittern.  I may have seen it fly, but I’m not sure and won’t count it.  While searching for the Bittern one evening I had the good fortune of seeing another Black-billed Cuckoo!  But all that gave me photo-ops were this Common Yellowthroat.

Common Yellowthroat

Common Yellowthroat

And this rainbow.  It wasn’t going anywhere.

IMG_9609Not bad birding around the parents’ farm.  I also sneaked away one morning on a quick solo mission to hike the Vermilion Gorge trail by Crane Lake on a tip from local birder, Dee Kuder, to look for Pine Warblers.  Pine Warbler is a hole in my warbler life list, and I always forget about this drab warbler during migration and when I’m up north.  It’s like that quiet kid in the classroom – always there but greatly overshadowed by the more gaudy and boisterous warbler children. Today was the day to look for the Pine.  Evan declined my offer to go on this hike.

The Crane Lake area has the classic northern Minnesota beauty with tall pines and pristine lakes with rocky shores.  Unfortunately it was a cloudy day and I had to save my dying camera battery for a chance encounter with that Pine Warbler, so I wasn’t able to get any scenery shots.  Not even of the Vermilion River Gorge itself, a deep, narrow canyon a couple hundred yards long where the river rushes through.

Dee’s information paid off though.  I found the Pine in a large stand of towering Red Pines.  The Pine Warbler is way at the far-end of the beauty spectrum as far as warblers go, but I was ecstatic to find this drab, little bugger.  It was my 30th warbler species.

Pine Warbler

Pine Warbler

Pine Warbler

Pine Warbler

Pine Warbler

A Pine Warbler in the pines.  You can’t beat that.  I always prefer to see birds in their natural territories rather than in pot-luck sightings during migration.  Evan was bummed that I got the Pine; I guess I forgot to tell him I was looking for that bird when I asked if he wanted to go hiking.  But as bird sightings go, now that I’ve seen the Pine, I will start seeing them everywhere so Evan should get his in short order.

Our trip up north was productive both birdwise and relative-wise.  And I had yet another crazy bird/birder adventure.  Hopefully I can secure some guest photos from that encounter so I can share the fun story here.  Stick around.

Meet me in St. Louis? Nah! Well, maybe.

Fair warning: you will not see a single bird photo in this post. Yet, a great bird was involved.  No, a phenomenal bird was involved.  Even still, the story is not even that riveting; it is filled with angst, confusion and regret.  However, it is a story that needs to be documented since a life bird(s) was had.  Well, sort of.  For you bird lovers, I promise to make up the lack of bird photos to you in the next post which will be very easy on the eyes as they say.

But regarding the current post, I have a love/hate relationship with county listers, those birders who strive to tally as many species as they can in all 87 Minnesota counties. Love ’em because in their quest to find some ordinary bird in some remote county, they explore the nooks, crannies, and nether regions of that county and end up finding dynamo birds that rock the larger birding community.  Hate ’em because they find those dynamo birds forcing me to make a decision to chase those birds.

Last Saturday, on June 7th, one of these county listers was driving on a remote minimum maintenance road in Yellow Medicine County going over a one-lane bridge when he spotted a Eurasian Tree Sparrow sitting on the railing of the bridge.  Now this may not sound exciting, but you have to understand that Eurasian Tree Sparrows are typically only found in St. Louis and its suburbs.  Their range has not expanded from there, and they rarely stray anywhere else.  It was a big deal.  This location was only an hour-and-a-half away, so we simply had to check it out.  It was better than taking a long drive to St. Louis for this bird.  And it was certainly better than taking a chance at missing a turn to see the Gateway Arch and ending up in East St. Louis like Melissa and I did a decade ago.

Steve joined Evan and I for the trip.  We had an uneventful ride down other than sighting a gorgeous Red-headed Woodpecker on a telephone pole.  It’s just one of those birds you can’t not take a photo of even if you have 500 pictures of it in your archives already.  Well, when I pulled over to get some shots, it flew into a grove never to be seen again.  It was a precursor of things to come.

We found the bridge no problem and began to make sense of the report we had: the Eurasian Tree Sparrow had been associating with two male House Sparrows, and the trio had been known to be on the bridge and fly underneath the bridge.  So we got out and we looked and waited. And looked. And paced.


And played in the dirt.IMG_9297For the better part of an hour Steve and I were both trying to turn every House Sparrow we saw into our target bird.  But we failed.  The highlight was maybe seeing an Alder Flycatcher, a life bird.  I say ‘maybe’ because it’s a bird that can only be safely identified by voice, and Steve and I were convinced it was giving the Alder’s call of, “Free beer!”  This bird, too, flew off before we could analyze it further.

As exciting as free beer and a new life bird would be, we really wanted to see that Eurasian Tree Sparrow.  Several times I went down the steep embankment to look underneath the bridge.  My hopes were buoyed by finding a couple House Sparrows hanging out and chirping in the girders. But my excitement was limited to some Cliff Swallows flying at my face.  On one of these trips down the embankment Evan decided to join me.  I think he was attracted to the little river and the mysteries associated with the undersides of bridges. After all, that’s where trolls live. Then Evan had a strange request: he asked for my huge, clunky binoculars that I bought at my own Grandma’s garage sale about 25 years ago.  You read that right.  I loved my Grandma and may she rest in peace, but she was a frugal lady who couldn’t let something go for nothing.  She was also very fair – if I got free binoculars, then all the grandkids would have to get free binoculars.  But I digress.  Evan’s request was strange considering he has trouble making small binoculars work, let alone ones the size of his head.  Still, he put the strap around his neck and was trying to look at this or that.

Then it happened. “I’ve got it,” Steve said from up on the road.  In an instant, in what could be considered justified or stupid, I grabbed the behemoth binoculars and lifted them off Evan’s head. I reasoned that he couldn’t see anything with them anyway, but the selfish move was exacerbated when in the process of removing them I bonked him in the forehead causing him to say, “Ouch!”  Right then I should have turned in my dad card.

But I didn’t and instead srambled to get up the near-vertical embankment.  Evan was right on my heels.  Steve pointed to a fallen tree leaning against the bridge.  I saw the bird and caught a glimpse of the brown-capped sparrow through the reposessed binoculars.  Evan was asking where the bird was.  I tried to redeem my previous actions by trying to point out the bird before I whipped out my camera.  Evan could not locate the bird that was hopping in the branches not that far away.  And then the bird vanished never to make a second appearance for the duration of our visit.

As much as Steve and I would have liked to wait it out for a chance to get some good, solid looks and photos of this bird, I was on a time crunch.  Evan had gotten a free ticket to the Stingers baseball game, and it was free jersey night for the first 250 kids.  This was a big deal.  Not only could we not be late, but we had to be there plenty early to ensure getting a jersey.  So, in an effort to earn back my dad status, we left this remote, country site on time in order to get back for the game.

Maybe I’ll have to go to St. Louis after all to really see this bird well and for Evan to see it for the first time if he wants to.  And with some planning and good luck, we might be able to do that AND avoid a misadventure in East St. Louis.