I, Too, Was a Patch Birder Once

September 6th was World Shorebirds Day, and as any local library or video store can attest, I am not always known for my punctuality.  So, I bring forth my shorebird offerings to the blogosphere a day late (or two) and few shorebirds short. Like any birder thinking inside the box, when August rolled around I was zeroed in on shorebirds as they are making their epic, transhemispheric migrations and occasionally stop over for a meal and a rest on their way south.

One always hopes for a classic mudflat on a drawn-down lake or a flooded field when shorebirding.  Sometimes those just can’t be found.  Sometimes one must bird the bottom of the barrel…or the top of a poop pond.  I scoured many a wastewater treatment facilities at small municipalities in the area.  Occasionally I came up with some solids, like this trio of Red-necked Phalaropes.

Red-necked Phalarope

Red-necked Phalaropes at Blomkest WTP

Red-necked Phalarope

Or some Semipalmated Sandpipers, which I pleasantly discovered was a new county bird after-the-fact.

Semipalmated Sandpiper

Semipalmated Sandpipers at Lake Lillian WTP

Once I even got some good looks at a nice year bird, the Semipalmated Plover.

Semipalmated Plover at Bird Island WTP

Semipalmated Plover at Bird Island WTP

Bad dad moment confession: the kids were with me for this one but in the car, opting to watch their video instead of shorebirds; half-way home I remembered this bird is one Evan had never seen and I had killer-no-binos-needed looks.  You might say I flushed that opportunity away. Amiright?

Semipalmated Plover

I was as red-faced as this Stilt Sandpiper, which isn’t much but the appropriate amount since Evan is a take-it-or-leave-it birder these days.

Stilt Sandpiper

Stilt Sandpiper at Bird Island WTP

Growing tired of the Tour-de Ponds, I kinda gave up on birding for awhile as work responsibilities took up more of my time.  Then one day while I was sitting at home I had a recollection that instantly morphed into an epiphany.  Near the end of July I remembered driving home with the family late in the evening after having spent the weekend in Duluth, and I recalled seeing a small, flooded spot in a soybean field not far from home with some sandpipery-looking birds even.  We were too tired to stop, and so this patch was soon forgotten and never thought about for weeks. Until that moment.  Instantly I headed for the door as I realized I had left a habitat-island of prime shorebird mudflats unchecked for all that time.  When I got out there and saw how perfect the spot was in a landscape bereft of optimal habitat, I was kicking myself.

shorebird spotThe flooded drain tile intake that created this spot was only about two acres in size.  When there is no other habitat around, that is all you need.  At first, there was nothing but Killdeer and the odd Lesser Yellowlegs or two, harbingers of good things to come.

Lesser YellowlegsSo this is the story of my accidental patch.  Having it so close to home gave me the opportunity to check it multiple times a day, day after day.  Before I knew it, I was becoming a devoted patch birder whose persistence started to pay dividends in things like a pair of dapper Baird’s Sandpipers.

Baird's Sandpiper

Baird's Sandpiper

Having spent a great deal of time with these birds in good light, I think it’s fair to say that the Baird’s is near the top of my favorite shorebirds list.Baird's Sandpiper

Baird's SandpiperOne of the benefits of a having a patch is that, in addition to looking for new birds that have joined the party, you can also keep tabs on the regulars, like the two Stilt Sandpipers that were there day in and day out.

Stilt Sandpiper

Stilt Sandpiper

It was always exciting when there was someone new in the mix.  This lone Semipalmated Plover was one of my favorites.  Every day I looked for it among the myriad of Killdeer and was always relieved whenever I found it had decided to stick around for just one more day.  I also made good on my previous failing and got Evan this lifer.

Semipalmated Plover

Semipalmated Plover

Semipalmated PloverThis patch I found turned out to be a great workshop on shorebird identification for myself.  I had these birds close (30 feet or less) and in great light when I visited in the morning.  I could clearly see subtle differences in coloration, differences in movements and behaviors, and relative size comparisons to other shorebirds.  Even the ubiquitous Killdeer would sometimes do something interesting.


Often I would put my binoculars and camera down just to see if I could notice these things with the naked eye. Something happened that I never expected to happen–my confidence in identifying shorebirds went way up.  And now I can concur with Nate the Machine that shorebirds really aren’t that hard after all.  I would add that they are actually pretty fun too.  In all, I tallied 11 shorebird species as an accidental patch birder.  The numbers of each species were small and consistent, which made counting the birds a fun, manageable task.

As time and hot weather went on, the water kept receding in the ephemeral patch until there was nothing but some wet mud which was enough to sustain the persistent Killdeer and my Semipalmated Plover buddy but nothing else. Presently the ground is dry, and my patch birding days are over for now.  But not my hopes.  After all, it could still rain cats and dogs and big Plovers this fall, and I’ll be back in business. Stay tuned!

No Lyin’ – Lyon County Has Unique Birds

The other night when my wife and I were on a date she took out her phone for a moment.  I figured it was as good a time as any to do likewise.  No, I wasn’t interested to see who texted me or check on sports scores.  Instead I wanted to check for any intel from the field, bird-wise that is.  Scanning the Minnesota Birding Facebook group posts, I saw one that got me fired up – 5 White-faced Ibises in Lyon County.  Lyon County is where I just was the day before when we got the Ross’s Goose.  I told Melissa that it looked like I’d be heading back to the southwest in the morning.  I put the birding aside and continued on with the date – until I got home.  Then I checked Birding Across America for any other info out of Lyon.  I saw that my Cottonwood reporter was at it again – one Cattle Egret and 36 Smith’s Longspurs at the Cottonwood sewage ponds that evening.  Yep, I was headin’ southwest in the morning.

I brought the kids along.  I knew Evan wouldn’t want to miss a potential 3-lifer day (one of which was an ibis!).  Plus we would be in the neighborhood of Lyon County’s Garvin Park – a campground with a playground so new and enormous that none can compare. With lunch, pillows, blankets, and movies, we were off on an adventure of undetermined length.

When we arrived at Sham Lake I looked for Cattle Egrets but came up empty.  Almost as soon as I pulled in, though, a car pulled up behind me.  I see a young man get out, binoculars in hand, and come up to my window.  Could it be this young fellow whose eBird reports I salivate over?  Sure enough, it was him.  We visited for quite awhile about the unique birds in the area, and he told me the first-hand account of seeing those 16 Cattle Egrets on his way to school a couple days prior.  By the looks of him I figured him to be a college student in his early twenties. As he talked about first waves of the warbler migration and nesting Western Kingbirds, I assumed he was in some sort of biology or naturalist program.  That is, until he told me he stopped by to do a bit of birding before going to prom that afternoon.  I didn’t even know what a warbler was until I was in my thirties. Sheesh.  We didn’t get any Cattle Egrets there, but I got something almost as good – the contact information of this local birding kingpin.  Those kingbirds shall be ours this summer.

After we parted company, the kids and I went to the poop ponds looking for the egret and longspurs.  We struck out.  Now we were 0 for 2 on the morning.  On the way out of town we stopped by both Cottonwood Lake and the slough south of town.  It was good to see that our Ross’s Goose was still hanging on.


The kids were beyond anxious to get to Garvin Park.  But we had to look for our main target first – the White-faced Ibises.  Five of them had been reported at Black Rush WPA just east of Camden State Park on County Road 59.  We drove the road back and forth a half dozen times or more.  I was looking deep in the thick cattail marsh thinking that they were lurking somewhere out of easy viewing.  Nothing.  0/3 now.  It was time to go to the park – the big draw for the kids.  In their world, it must have felt like an eternity until we got there around 12:30.  Good thing we didn’t get there much sooner!

IMG_8153My goodness did those kids play hard and long in the chilly, windy weather.  I was content to let them do so.  Melissa was ill and bed-ridden all day back home, and I figured we’d have a better shot at those ibises on the return trip the closer it got to evening.


Birding at Garvin was limited.  It was way too early for that Cerulean Warbler to be back, but it was nice to see and get some photos of a couple Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers.

Yelloww-bellied Sapsuckeer

Yelloww-bellied Sapsuckeer

This bird will always be a notable one for me.  Two years ago when Evan and I knew nothing about birds – well, he knew a lot more than me – we went on a birding walk with a naturalist at Bearhead Lake State Park.  The first bird our guide pointed out to us was the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.  It was a rather odd-looking woodpecker with a funny name.  It sounds like an insult you’d hurl at somebody.

IMG_8143It was pretty neat to see him working so hard at his name-sake – sucking sap.

IMG_8152So, the blog post could very well have ended right here since we struck out on all three targets.  Thankfully, though, it doesn’t.

Just at the time we were getting ready to leave the park, I got an update that someone had seen the ibises just now!  We were 15 minutes out.  We hustled on over there and flushed the 5 White-faced Ibises as we drove County Road 59! A lifer and a very cool one at that.

White-faced Ibises

White-faced Ibises

They were actually smaller than I imagined.  These birds were very skittish and would land 50 yards up the road, bobbing and weaving in the cattails and marsh grasses as they went along foraging for food.

IMG_8160IMG_8165We spent a good deal of time driving up and creeping on these birds only to have them flush a short distance and always together as a group of five.


They were very loyal to the ditches along either side of the road.IMG_8191What a life bird this was.  A small colony of them nest in South Dakota, so we do get them as scarce visitors every spring in Minnesota.  I remember thinking last year what a strange bird this was and even more strange that it can be seen in our state.


1 for 3.  Not bad considering this is the bird that pulled us southwest again just two days after our last trip.  We couldn’t go home and not check out the Cottonwood area again. Alas, there still was no Cattle Egret.  I wouldn’t classify it as a nemesis bird yet, but rather just a really annoying bird that was getting under my skin.

There were a few interesting shorebirds at the poop ponds, though.  I’m terrible at shorebird identification, but I knew they were peeps.  I was frustrated because my camera battery had just died, and I couldn’t take photos to ID later.  I did manage to have enough power to get just one image of this bird which we determined to be our Baird’s Sandpiper lifer.  I don’t get too excited about most shorebird lifers because there’s always an element of doubt as to what it is.  It’s not like a Blue-headed Vireo or Scarlet Tanager.  Those ones are easy to tell and worthy of a fist pump.

Baird's Sandpiper

Baird’s Sandpiper

Well, this guy’s pretty cool, I guess – worthy of a suppressed ‘yay’.

It was a good trip.  You can’t complain about a White-faced Ibis lifer coupled with a bonus shorebird lifer.  You can complain about a dead battery, though.  Lyon, we shall be back for more of your treasures with a fully charged camera next time.