The County’s Tern for a Lifer

As I’ve mentioned in the previous post or two, it has not been my intention to push hard with the birding after the big trip West.  I’ve been meaning to slow down to be able to take care of responsibilities and enjoy other aspects of life.  Case in point was two weekends ago when Melissa and I decided to take the kids fishing.  I even left my camera at home so I wouldn’t be distracted with the birds.  Maybe, though, this was actually a selfish move because not having my camera pretty much guaranteed something would go down.  And that something wasn’t the bobber.  Fishing was lousy.  I could have just as well been birding or fishing–I had left my own pole at home thinking I’d be swamped with baiting three hooks, taking fish off three lines, etc (Grow up and help me out, Evan!!).

After trying Elkhorn Lake, we ventured up to the outflow at the northeast corner of Green Lake where people were fishing from shore.  While we were once again waiting for bobbers to go down, I had noticed some large, white birds flying in the distance.  Those are odd-looking Gulls, I thought.  They seemed really big, but their heads and bills were too small to be Pelicans. Hmmph, no long-range optics. Oh well.

Later on we were driving by the area where these “Gulls” had been, and I noticed some larger white birds resting in the backwaters off the Green Lake outflow.  Now I didn’t have my camera with the zoom capabilities, but I did have a pair of binoculars in the car–I always have pairs of them floating around both vehicles. I pulled the car over and took a look. I had to chuckle when I realized I was seeing a life bird when I never even intended to go birding.  Life birds are hard to come by these days in the state, let alone the county.  Getting a new one at home is a now a very rare treat.  Moreover, the bird I was looking at was one I’ve been waiting to see for quite some time.  It is one that is so exotic in name and looks that I was amazed when I first learned it could be seen in Minnesota–the Caspian Tern.  There were four of these large beauties (bigger than Mallards).  And I didn’t have my camera…

I asked Evan if he wanted to look through the binoculars to get a better look at the Caspians to which he responded, “What, are they those white things over there?  No, I’m good.”  Evan has always been fine with just a check mark for his life list.  Not me.  After I brought the family home, I made the 20 min. trip back so I could document this lifer.

Caspian Terns

The Caspian Terns are so cool that when they’re in town, everyone has to get their photo taken with them.

Caspian Terns American White Pelican

Even the COLO is not too coolo to become a bit of a xenophile around these visiting birds, posing for pictures with them and checking out the competition for best-looking water bird.

Caspian Tern

Keep on swimming, Chuck. You’re just a ‘common’, domestically-named bird; I, on the other hand, am exquisite.

Caspian Tern Common Loon

Wait, did you see it? I know my birder friends saw it.  I didn’t see it until I looked at my pictures.  Just to the right of the Caspian Tern’s head there is a second Common Loon sitting on a nest in the reeds!  How cool is that?! The northern half of Kandiyohi County is right at the southern edge of where our beloved state bird nests.  This was a sweet find on top of an already sweet find.

Caspian Tern

Shifting angles a bit shows just how easily that Common Loon’s nest can hide.

Caspian Tern

I also got to watch the Caspians take flight.  It was a good learning experience to see what they looked like in the air and hear their guttural calls.

Caspian Tern

Can you see why I thought they were Gulls from a distance?

Caspian Tern

Every birder knows the law of lifers–once you finally get it, you never have trouble seeing it again.  Terns out that I’d be putting this study of Caspians in flight to use several days later on the next adventure when I spied two flying over while I was filling up the car at a gas station.

Caspian Tern

This was a most satisfying lifer.  It was a much-wanted bird on our soil…er, water.  Believe it or not, but there’s been a lot more lifering since the Caspian Tern, even another one here at home. With some hot night-birding, a giant shorebird grab, a Colorado trip, AND Scarlet Tanagers TEN minutes from home, the stories are stacking up and quickly becoming more prolific than Stephen King novels. Much, much, much more reading ahead–so much for a quiet period in my birding and blogging.  Oh well, I’ll try to make the most of it.

Kingbird Highway or umm, County Road

If you think this post is a review of Kenn Kaufman’s book Kingbird Highway:The Biggest Year in the Life of an Extreme Birder, then you will be disappointed.  Well, not really disappointed because this post still has some darn good birding it.  Maybe some day I’ll find the time to read Kaufman’s book and do that review, but for now this little kingbird anecdote will have to do.

Tonight I went out on a solo birding mission.  It was a gorgeous evening as we hit a daytime high of 79° with no wind and clear skies.  That rarely happens here.  Just last week Evan has his track and field day at school and the kiddos were wearing hats, gloves, and winter coats.  Anyway, I had to get out tonight.  Both kids declined my offer to go for a ride to scout out a new place to look for warblers.

About ten minutes from the house I turned east onto a gravel road to head to my destination on the south end of Lake Elizabeth.  I have this terrible habit of focusing on my destination that I don’t take the time to adequately check out the birds on the way other than while traveling 60 MPH. It’s a good thing, though, that I was traveling slow on the gravel and heading east because the setting sun caught the brilliant yellow belly of a large bird as it lifted off the nearby telephone wire.  I instantly knew it was the Western Kingbird! I tried for this bird unsuccessfully a couple different times last year and couldn’t turn one up at Blue Mounds State Park, Felton Prairie, or even Arizona.  I had even been making plans to go to Cottonwood this summer to look for it again, and here it was in my own backyard!

I made the ID as I went past it.  Looking back I was staring at its sillhouette in the setting sun.  I also had a truck come behind me and scare it up.  Thankfully it landed back on the wire.  I wasn’t taking any chances on scaring it without seeing it in the good light and getting a recognizable photo, so I continued east and drove around the square mile section so I could pull up on it with good light at my back.

Western Kingbird

Western Kingbird

IMG_8686I raced home to get Evan.  It was only 7:20, so I still had time to get him, get the bird, and get him back for bed at 8.  I whipped into the neighborhood and saw all the neighbors and neighbor kids were outside hanging out enjoying this gorgeous night.  When they saw me pull up curb-side and not bother to pull in the driveway, they all knew I had seen something good and was there to pick up Evan.  No time for small talk. I told Evan to hop in because I found us the Western Kingbird.  In seconds, we tore off going back to the wire.

When we got there, I saw a bird on the wire and was hopeful.  Then my hopes sank for Evan when I saw it was a Mourning Dove.  But I glassed the wire a little further down and refound the kingbird between the next two poles.  Whew.  Evan has trouble operating binoculars, so I crept the car right up to this bird giving us some incredible looks.




Even being so close, it was tough to fully see how cool this bird was.  I flipped open my LCD display for Evan to get a real good look. His response was, “Cool!”  Yes, it was. Sadly this bird finally left us going long out of sight.  I was hoping it would stick around for other area birders.  After all, Western Kingbirds are quite scarce here.  Joel told me he’s only seen them twice in the county before.

The funny thing about this Western Kingbird is that he was sitting on a wire on the west end of this gravel road.  On the east end were five Eastern Kingbirds!  How appropriate. It reminded me of a blog post by the Two-Fisted Birdwatcher. Strangely, I’ve never spent much time photographing this locally common bird, and they were quite skittish tonight when I tried.

Eastern Kingbird

Eastern Kingbird

It was a very cool burst of birding on this school night.  We did a little wandering on the way home and stopped to look at birds here and there.  Evan didn’t let me dawdle too long as he had a date with a root beer float back home. Our wandering back brought us down a gravel road that winds between two lakes – water on the left, water on the right. We’ve traveled it many times.  Where the water flows through a culvert under the road there are always American White Pelicans feeding on the fish that move between the lakes.  Before we got there Evan said he would bet me $10 that there would be pelicans. I told him there was no way I was taking his bet.



Evan would have to settle for his root-beer float instead.  I didn’t care about a root-beer float anymore as I was already content with a great sighting of a life bird that was near the top of the summer wish list.  But I still enjoyed that float.