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…

Flame-grilled Hot Dogs and Scorched Woodpeckers

Like most Americans, I celebrated the 4th of July weekend with family, doing the typical things like picnicking outside all day, tossing the ball around, and cruising a lake in a boat in search of a good fishing hole.  Most people are able to focus on these activities exclusively; birders always have the incidental birding meter running. That’s how you ride in a boat and show your companions a patriotic scene, fitting for the weekend.

Bald Eagle NestIt’s also how you can point out to Grandma during that all-day gathering that the bird that flushes from the house each time someone goes in or out is actually a pretty cool bird and not some lame Robin that none of us can stand to have making a mess on our house.

Eastern Phoebe nestUnlike the Robin, the Eastern Phoebe’s nest is quite aesthetically pleasing and well-constructed.

Eastern Phoebe nestI almost passed on the opportunity to get crushing photos of the most accommodating Eastern Phoebe I’ve ever seen. That would have been a shame.

Eastern PhoebeEastern PhoebeBut don’t let me fool you, it wasn’t all incidental birding.  I was in northern Minnesota, after all, a land ripe with fascinating birds in all seasons. Local birding friend, Julie, had told me about a Connecticut Warbler she had recently found in a Black Spruce/Tamarack bog not more than 20 minutes from my parents’ house.  The Connecticut was a bird I had previously only had as heard-only in the Sax-Zim Bog, so I rose early one morning donning some knee-high rubber boots, long sleeves, long pants, and an unhealthy dousing of bug spray.  I was going all in to mosquito central.  No sane person does this.bogBut we die-hard birders do, especially when we think of the possible reward of visuals of a skulker like the Connecticut. It’s worth some welts and the loss of a little sleep.  Julie had made things easy for me by marking a tree where the Connecticut had set up a territory along this abandoned, water-logged road pictured above. However, as we are getting into July, the Warblers just don’t sing as much.  When I got to the spot after hiking a quarter mile, I didn’t hear it.  But patience eventually rewarded me with that clear, ringing sound of the Connecticut: “Bea-cher, bea-cher, bea-cherbeach!” After waiting it out a little longer, I did get some great up-close looks, but I wasn’t quick enough to get a photo.  Seeing one was a good improvement on my heard-only lifer, but I really wanted that photo.  Maybe this Warbler was busy with a nest because it never did show itself again despite me waiting for an insane amount of time in the cloud of mosquitoes. I finally decided to call it quits and head back to rejoin the family.  A heard-only Boreal Chickadee and a Lincoln’s Sparrow were a couple of good birds on the hike out.

The next day on our final morning in the northwoods, I decided to give Julie’s spot one more try.  That Connecticut photo seemed in reach; like with the Phoebe, it would be foolish to pass on the opportunity to try. Thanks to a late night fireworks show, I was a little slower getting out of bed that next morning.  In fact, I arrived at the trail a full 40 minutes later than the day before.  Considering I had heard the bird right away that day and that it was singing sporadically, I didn’t like my chances for a repeat on the visual I got. When I got there and opened the car door, though, I didn’t hear the Connecticut but instead heard something just as cool–the unmistakable drumming of a Black-backed Woodpecker! And like that my search priorities shifted. I followed the sound of the steady drumming which echoed through the bog. And there, there he was just 10 feet off the waterlogged road about 10 feet up. I was blown away.

Black-backed Woodpecker

The Black-backed was not a lifer, but I have never seen a male before with his bright yellow crown and have always wanted to.  In a sense this felt just as fresh as a lifer. So I set out to accomplish one goal (photo of the COWA) and inadvertently and delightfully accomplished another.

I spent a lot of time enjoying this Woodpecker all while keeping an ear open for the Connecticut which did not vocalize even once. Black-backed WoodpeckerHere you can see and hear that distinctive drumming.  It’s such a cool sound.

I’ve heard that Black-backed Woodpeckers are quite tame and don’t really care about a person’s presence.  This experience certainly seemed to back that theory up. And if you have doubts about whether this bird was appropriately named…

Black-backed Woodpecker Black-backed Woodpecker Black-backed WoodpeckerBlack-backed Woodpecker Black-backed WoodpeckerHere’s another video.  I was hoping to capture him drumming some more, but instead caught him itching himself. Mosquito bite?

Eventually the bird went on its way, and so did I, trying to dig up that Connecticut.  I finally called it quits on the Warbler, vowing to try again next year when it was earlier in the breeding season and the birds’ hormones are still raging causing them to be more vocal. On my way back to the car I again spotted the Black-backed Woodpecker, but I noticed something different–no yellow crown, a female!

Black-backed WoodpeckerThrilled with the bonus Woodpecker, I continued my waterlogged hike back to the car.  Then I again heard a Black-backed Woodpecker a couple hundred yards from the first two, and then I saw one of them following the other around.  I thought they must be those two that I saw earlier.  I glassed the two birds as one followed the other up a Spruce and was shocked to see that both were males–an adult being followed by this juvenile!

Black-backed Woodpecker

This meant I had for sure seen three different Black-backed Woodpeckers and maybe four if the second adult male was a different bird than the first.  It’s not everyday you see a Black-backed Woodpecker, let alone a small pile of them.  Additionally, seeing a good northern bird like this outside of a birding mecca like the Sax-Zim Bog and close to “home” is always a huge thrill for me.  This encounter did not go unappreciated by me and will likely be one of my all-time birding highlights.

Guide Series: Gravy Day–Redemption Birds and Bonus Lifers

Since Tommy DeBardeleben and Gordon Karre did not fly out of MSP until late in the evening on February 1st, we basically had most of the day to bird in the Northland and on our way south.  And since we had knocked out their Owl targets the previous three days….

Great Gray Owl

Snowy Owl

Northern Hawk Owl

Barred Owl

…we had a great deal of flexibility and freedom for how to bird on that final day.  We had succeeded in our goals which I still find hard to believe even as I sit down to write this. There was zero pressure for that final day.  Options on the table included going back for more Great Gray action in the Sax-Zim Bog, heading up to Lake County to try for Spruce Grouse, going to a birding friend’s yard to photograph Ruffed Grouse that frequent her feeders, or trying for a number of other Owls on our way south.  Ultimately, though, we decided to bird much closer to our base camp.  While we were on the Hawk Owl hunt in the Northwest the previous day, Evan had called me with a credible report of three Spruce Grouse seen on a road right near my parents’ house.  Since I have seen Sprucies there in the past, I had no reason to doubt it.  So that’s where we started our day. Evan was along with us as Marin and Melissa headed back home separately.

I was excited about birding around my parents’ house.  First, it meant we could sleep in for once which felt great after the breakneck pace we’d been keeping.  Second, and more important, I have tried for years for some really great birds that have been found on a road through a mature Black Spruce bog near the folks’ house.  I had secured a nice male Spruce Grouse in this spot the previous year, but I have never given up searching for the Great Gray Owl and Black-backed Woodpecker that Sparky Stensaas discovered there over two years ago.  I have lost track of how many times I have tried for these birds.  These birds are pretty special anywhere, but even more so when they are in the backyard.

When we got to the Spruce bog and made one unsuccessful pass down the road for Sprucies, Great Grays, Boreal Chickadees, and Black-backs, Tommy suggested getting out of the car in order to walk and listen.  It was a mild day, so I thought that was a good idea.  Rather than joining them and having all of us have to walk back to the vehicle, I decided to stay in the car and go pick them up.  Unannounced to them, I took off in a different direction in order to complete a large loop to cover more ground.  Gordon later told me that when he saw me leave he had flashbacks of Snipe hunts from his youth.  But I knew it wouldn’t be long and that they’d be okay. 🙂

Almost instantly on my solo tour I had a large gray and black raptor fly from a perch in the Pines on the right side of the road to a large stand of Pines on the left–adult Northern Goshawk!  I wish I could have had a longer look, but such is the way NOGO sightings go. I finally did make it back to a frigid Tommy and Gordon (my loop took me longer than I thought–oops!).  I asked the guys what they had seen, and Tommy told me they detected the drumming of a Black-backed Woodpecker.  I’ve birded with Tommy enough to know that he can be a kidder and try to get one over on somebody, so I laughed and told him I knew better than to believe his story….except he didn’t break into a smile.  He was serious! So I got out and we played the tape.  Almost instantly the Black-backed Woodpecker flew out of the bog and finally gave me the sighting I’ve been waiting on for years!  Even better was that this was a lifer for both Gordon and Evan!! It was a great moment that wouldn’t have been possible without Tommy and Gordon walking–thanks guys!  This one felt really, really good.

Black-backed WoodpeckerSomething even more amazing happened while we tried to lure out this guy–a second Black-back showed up! There was a male and a female! Unfortunately I never did see that classic field mark of the yellow crown on the male, but Tommy and Gordon each got to see it.  I will continue to search for these birds until I finally see that and finally get good photos of this species.

Black-backed Woodpecker

We had a pretty tight schedule to keep for some more birding stops on the way to the Cities, so we had to leave this special bog by 9:30.  The rest of the day had various stops for various things as we ventured south.  We tried for a Northern Saw-whet Owl that would have been a lifer for me if we would have found it. We did not, however.  This was my second attempt, and I’ve since made an unsuccessful third attempt.  It is just not meant to be at this point in time.

As we traveled we did get to see a couple more Pileated Woodpeckers, including one close up on a power pole.  Getting photos of this bird was another story, but the sightings were still exciting for the guys.  Tommy was able to finally get a Blue Jay photo which was a photographic lifer for him.  We did bump into an unexpected but not surprising Red-bellied Woodpecker in a suburban neighborhood which was a lifer for Tommy!  No one was able to get photos of this striking bird.  The one pictured below is one I recently photographed in my yard.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

We had a couple of revenge stops to make right by the airport itself.  When I picked the guys up late in the afternoon on January 28th, we had about 20 minutes of daylight to search for the Ft. Snelling State Park Barred Owl which is a 5-minute drive from Terminal 1.  Not being successful there on that first night, we quickly got over to the aircraft viewing area on Cargo Road just as it was getting dark to look for a reported Snowy Owl.  No luck on that one either.  Even though Tommy and Gordon got their Snowy and Barred Owl lifers, we all wanted revenge on these particular Owls, especially the Barreds which NOBODY misses on.  Anyhow, we were all optimistic and relaxed on this second attempt.

As we were driving into Ft. Snelling State Park, Evan casually mentioned seeing some Trumpeter Swans. This immediately caught Gordon’s attention who informed us that would be a lifer for him!  Evan’s eagle-eye had come up with a lifer that wasn’t even on my radar. Tommy was also excited about this sighting as it was the first time he had seen adult birds and only his second time viewing the species.  Way to go, Evan!

We also redeemed our failure from the previous night when Tommy spotted the female Barred Owl.  The guys enjoyed getting another chance at photographing a more cooperative Barred Owl.

Barred Owl

Because we found the Barred in such short order, I told the guys I had enough time to make one quick check for the airport Snowy Owl before I had to hit the road.  When I asked them if they were interested in looking, they responded with an emphatic yes.

Driving down Cargo Road we did not spot the bird on any of the perches on which it had been seen recently, like the FedEx building.  It turns out that this bird does not play favorites, though, as I spotted it way in the distance on top of the UPS depot as we drove back out from the aircraft viewing area.

Snowy Owl MSP

Afterwards, we took the guys to the terminal, said a hasty goodbye, and vowed to go birding again together either here or in Arizona. It was a great last day of birding that added its own unique excitement to a truly epic trip.  Here is the summary of day 4’s life birds for Tommy and Gordon.

Black-backed Woodpecker – Gordon, Evan

Red-bellied Woodpecker – Tommy

Trumpeter Swan – Gordon

Trip Analysis

This trip was unforgettable, no unbelievable.  It was simply magic, even for me.  Though I have seen all of these birds many times, the fact that we saw so many good birds in such a short period of time makes this trip rival some of my out-of-state trips where I have gotten lifers.  I enjoy birding northern Minnesota more than anywhere, and I never get tired of its special birds, especially those Owls.  It was a thrill to be able to help Gordon and Tommy see them for the first time.  To end this trip series, I’d like to point out some fun factoids.

Tommy and Gordon got their three main targets in this order: Great Gray Owl, Snowy Owl, Northern Hawk Owl.  For those who are not fans of permutations, there are exactly six orders that this could have happened.  Coincidentally I saw those same lifers in that same order.

The number of individuals we saw of these three Owl species made for a nice arithmetic sequence:

Great Gray Owl – 1

Northern Hawk Owl – 2

Snowy Owl – 3

Tommy and Gordon saw the Northern Big 3 on three consecutive days.  That is substantially faster than I did it (nearly a year), even after making several northern trips.  Here are the dates that I got my lifers.

Great Gray Owl — March 13, 2013

Snowy Owl — December 3, 2013

Northern Hawk Owl — December 26, 2013

Before this trip, I had (surprisingly) seen more Owl species than Tommy.  He had 13; I had 14. Now, though, Tommy has 17.  Of the 19 regularly occurring Owl species in North America, he is only missing Boreal Owl and Eastern-Screech Owl, both of which reside in Minnesota.  I’m trying to convince him that he should get them here, especially since I need one of those as well.  After all, how cool would it be to say you got all of North America’s Owls in just two states?

Speaking of Owl lifers, Tommy and I split the work of spotting their four lifers.  Never mind how many more Owls Tommy found overall!

Great Gray Owl – Tommy

Snowy Owl  – Tommy

Northern Hawk Owl – Josh

Barred Owl – Josh

Overall, Tommy ended the trip with 15 life birds and Gordon had 18.  That is a whopping number, especially when I have only seen 60 species total in Minnesota for 2016.

Tommy and Gordon saw a LOT of GOOD birds in a SHORT amount of time. Below I’ve listed the most difficult species they saw on this four-day trip along with the dates that I got my lifer for each to give some perspective as to how good of a trip they had.  As you will see, it’s taken me a long time to get these key birds after many, many trips to the north. I’ll start with my most recent lifers.

Great Black-backed Gull — November 28, 2015

Iceland Gull — November 28, 2015

Glaucous Gull — November 28, 2015

Black-backed Woodpecker — June 22, 2015

Gyrfalcon — March 8, 2015

Thayer’s Gull — November 8, 2014

Boreal Chickadee — December 28, 2013

Northern Hawk Owl — December 26, 2013

Snowy Owl — December 3, 2013

Great Gray Owl — March 13, 2013

Favorite Sighting of the Trip: Black-backed Woodpecker

Favorite Personal Find of the Trip: Barred Owl just south of the Canadian border

Best Overall Bird Experience: Hanging with the Northern Hawk Owl in the Beltrami Island State Forest

Biggest Relief of the Trip: Getting the Great Gray immediately

Biggest Stressor of the Trip: Driving in reverse for 3.6 miles on the Pitt Grade Road Snowmobile Trail in a mini-van

Biggest Miss of the Trip: American Black Duck

Thank You!

This trip’s success is only because so many great Minnesota birders and non-birders made it happen.  Therefore I’d like to acknowledge those folks.

Clinton Nienhaus – For all his Sax-Zim Bog advice on the Bog’s birds and their habits.  Additionally, Clinton spotted the guys’ Glaucous Gull lifer at Canal Park.

Jason Mandich – For his SZ Bog advice and extra set of eyes in the Bog.

Jeff Grotte – For his Owling advice that made for an incredible final day of Owling in the Twin Cities.

Peder Svingen – For his Gull identification counseling and superior Superior Snowy Owl tips.

Randy Frederickson – For giving us timely heads-up texts on the Iceland and Great Black-backed Gulls.

John Richardson – For being an extra set of eyes at Canal Park, wearing his trademark Union Jack stocking cap, and bringing his British cheer to the Canal Park Gull party.

Kim Risen – For pointing out a bonus Snowy Owl in Superior.

Sandy Aubol – For her Northern Hawk Owl advice in Roseau County.

Evan – For always having an eagle-eye that ended up getting Gordon a bonus, unexpected Trumpeter Swan lifer.

Mom and Dad – For the generous use of their home and vehicle for our epic birding odyssey.

Melissa – For her enthusiastic support of this trip that kept me away from the family for so long.

 Hungry For More?

Me too! This past weekend I worked as a guide at the annual Sax-Zim Bog Birding Festival.  Later this week look for a write-up and photos of more great northern Minnesota birds from that trip!

(Blacked) Backs Against the Wall

The report was stunning. No–compelling. Sparky Stensaas had passed along a phenomenal sighting in a recent posting on MOU-net: nesting Black-backed Woodpeckers in a hole at eye-level in a tree actually touching a bog boardwalk in Orr. First, I’ve never seen Black-backed Woodpeckers, and birds with young in the nest are birds that are pinned down and easy to see. Second, the photos and videos coming out of Orr of two adult Black-backeds feeding young were phenomenal (eye-level, up-close views!). Third, Orr was where I grew up for the latter half of my childhood.  Fourth, this bogwalk was the Mickey Elverum Bog Walk, so named after the highly-regarded science teacher and well-loved father of a classmate.  Mr. Elverum passed away in the very year his daughter, Mariya, and the rest of our class were to have him as our 7th-grade science teacher. For all these reasons I had to go.

If these weren’t reason enough to make a fast trip, Sparky’s urgency was–the young would be fledging any day.  Though I had a scheduled trip to the Northland the following weekend, the consensus was that the birds would not wait until then.  Getting there fast was not so easy, though. Believe it or not, but I am trying my best to be a good adult and make sure I am taking care of all my various responsibilities. I just couldn’t get away. The report came in early on Friday, June 19th, but the soonest I could make my get-away was at the very end of the day on Father’s Day that Sunday. Area birder Dee Kuder had checked on the Woodpeckers that morning and reported that there was still a baby bird in the nest.  It was somewhat reassuring, but a lot could happen during the day. I tried to push that thought aside as I spent the day with my kids fishing and grilling out before going to my Dad’s on Father’s Day…never mind that the old man was already in bed when I rolled in the driveway.

For better or worse, the amount of daylight this far north this close to the Solstice won’t hold back the hardest of hard-core birders.  Darkness was just settling in at 10:30 when I arrived and was completely gone by the time I rose at 5:00. It was a nice surprise that the old birder himself to decided to get up and join me on my crazy quest to the old stomping grounds.

Orr Pelican Lake signThe weather forecast for the day was not good with thunderstorms all day long starting at 6 AM.  As we made the half-hour trip up to Orr, the rain paid no attention to the forecast and came a little earlier. Ugh. So much for good photography conditions IF the birds were even still there. Regardless, I had come 300 miles for this.  There was no turning back now.

Mickey Elverum Bog WalkMy memory’s a blur, but I think I left my dad in the dust as I raced down the Bog Walk to find the nest. Everyone said you can’t miss it; it’s right by the boardwalk and the young are making a holy racket.  It turns out you can miss it…by a day.

Black-backed Woodpecker nestIt was sickening.   I knew this outcome was a very real possibility, but knowledge and feelings are very different.  Adding injury to insult were hordes of mosquitoes and a steady rain.  In vain I looked and listened, but those Woodpeckers weren’t speaking to me.  It was a ghost town. I thought about giving up to get ahead start on licking my wounds on my 300 MILE DRIVE HOME. But then I remembered I’ve been in this spot before and have come out thriving.  Coming to mind were clutch birding moments from my past like getting the Chestnut-collared Longspur last minute at Felton Prairie last year with Steve Gardner or getting a lifer Blue Grosbeak at Blue Mounds State Park two years ago with Evan in a break in a rainstorm the last morning of our trip.  I sent Dad back to the car to get a reprieve from the rain and mosquitoes; I had work to do.

After walking the entire Bog Walk loop, I had circled back to the nest site and thought I heard the pik-pik-pik sound of a Woodpecker along with a muffled rattle call. It sounded kind of like the Black-backed recordings I’d listened to, but it was different.  It was subdued and was not an auditory match. The sounds were coming from the interior of the loop over 100 feet from the nest. I hiked to the other side of the relatively small loop and again heard the same sounds.  They were coming from the middle of this loop.  I had to find out if that was my bird.  I needed to do some real bog walking.  I knew the loop was relatively small, but even still, I thought it would be pretty stupid to go into the swamp on a cloudy morning without telling anyone.  I went back to get Dad.  He came out with his umbrella and stood on the boardwalk to be a voice that could call me out of the abyss if I got turned around.

In I went, feet soaked from pockets of water in the boggy floor and clothes drenched from rubbing on the flora. No turning back.  After a short walk I finally located the tree that held the bird.  But I couldn’t see it in a dead tree even though it was close!  Finally, I laid eyes on my lifer–a baby Black-backed Woodpecker, who was in the nest less than 24 hours ago.  I hollered to Dad that I got it.

Baby Black-backed WoodpeckerThe suppressed calls I was hearing now made sense as this was a young male just learning his voice.  Though not that evident in this photo, you can see the yellow spot on the forehead.  Watching it long enough, I eventually saw momma come in.

Black-backed Woodpecker

It was pretty adorable to watch this motionless youngster take his first hops up the tree while watching mom.  She would bring him food and then disappear. His constant calling would start up immediately.  She would leave him for long stretches which drew him out of his comfort zone and caused him to literally stretch his wings as he’d make short flights to nearby trees.  It was incredible to witness this bird’s first flights.

Black-backed WoodpeckerBlack-backed WoodpeckerI really wanted pictures of mom and dad, though, especially dad with that golden yellow crown.  Eventually momma and baby made their way to the trees by the boardwalk with me shortly and soggily behind them.  Dad was able to get his life looks at this bird now too and then proceeded to be my spotter for photographing them.Dad Bog WalkWith the low light conditions that exist in a bog at dawn on a rainy day, I needed all the chances I could get in order to get any kind of decent photo.  We positioned ourselves within earshot of the calling baby and sure enough, we’d get frequent looks at the mother as she would forage for food to bring back to baby.

Black-backed WoodpeckerBlack-backed WoodpeckerThe jet-black back of these birds really stands out.  You can see how it would be effective camouflage in their preferred habitat of recently burned forests.

Black-backed Woodpecker

Black-backed Woodpecker

Black-backed Woodpecker

Black-backed Woodpecker

Black-backed WoodpeckerDespite the poor conditions for photography, getting this much-wanted lifer in this way in this place with this company was pretty special.  After all, we’d all be stuck on some metaphorical tree without the guidance of a parent.  Mine even called me out of the literal trees and gave me dry socks for the ride home.

Black-backed Woodpecker

This post is dedicated to the memory of Mickey Elverum and science teachers everywhere that continue to inspire curiosity in our natural world.

Serendipity in the Swamp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black-backed Woodpecker - Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Black-backed Woodpecker – Image courtesy of Wikipedia

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