A Tern for the Better

Apologies for the overused pun here, but it truly is fitting.  And apologies on further delaying reports from the Tommy D trip in order to cover an outing that happened after his departure, but there has been a tern of events. Apologies again.

I really hate &*%$ Terns.  I am, of course, still licking the wounds from the Gull-billed saga that you just read about, but newer readers may not know about that other horrible, awful, no-good, rotten Least Tern chase to Luverne two years ago.  Not only did we miss the bird by 15 minutes and see Randy get that one minutes before us just like he did with GBTE, but then there was the accompanying camping trip that put Murphy’s Law to the absolute test.  That trip was so miserable, I’m not even going to link to the post on it.  Look it up if you want to cringe.

Anyhow, this past Friday I was still recovering from the hardcore birding trip Tommy and I had last week.  The Gull-billed Tern fiasco actually seemed like a distant memory because of all Tommy and I experienced together (we’ll get to that, I promise). Then as I was contemplating chasing yet another rarity, a Yelow-breasted Chat, something bumped the Chat in the priority queue: a report of an ARCTIC TERN less than two hours from my house in Big Stone County (the bump on MN’s west side).  This was a stunning find by Bob Ekblad who had gone to look for some reported Black-necked Stilts, another casual species in Minnesota.

Despite being burned by two rare Terns in the past, I only hesitated for a moment before throwing the kids in the car and making a run out west.  It looks like things finally terned out for me. The Arctic Tern was right where it was reported, resting on the beach of a small wetland.  Even from this distant photo, you can see just how short the Arctic Tern’s legs are and how gray its breast is.

Arctic TernArctic Tern is casual in Minnesota with most records showing up in Duluth.  I never really expected to add this to my life list because A) I’d have to be in Duluth at the right time and B) I’d have to be standing next to an expert birder who could help me differentiate this species from the Common Tern while it flew in the distance.

So not only was it a thrill to add this unexpected (as in ever) lifer, but there was a driveway to a farm place that put me within 30 feet of the Tern where I could study the field marks for myself up close!  Here I could see the stubbier, all red bill compared to the Common Tern’s longer, black-tipped  bill.  Additionally, I could see the white stripe under the eye and above the gray breast/cheek.

Arctic TernI had thought the Tern was resting on its belly, but I guess its legs are just that short that it only appeared that way.  I was hoping to catch the Tern in flight to see the diagnostic dark trailing edge of the primaries.  I didn’t get to see it fly, but some other birders did see it fly and captured that field mark in photos.  The bird appeared quite lethargic to me, understandable considering the Arctic Tern is famous for its migration from the Antarctic to the Arctic breeding grounds and back each year, a minimum of 24,000 round-trip miles as the crow flies.  And we all know Terns don’t fly like Crows.  Research with tracking this species has shown that they typically put on 44,000 miles a year. This bird was probably quite wore out and chose the most random of stops to rest.

Arctic TernKeeping the Tern company was an American Avocet which is not that rare of bird this far west in Minnesota.  Avocets have almost become something of a trash bird on this blog this year. Who would’ve thought?

American AvocetSince the Black-necked Stilts are a good bird for MN and since they had been relocated while I was on my way to the Tern, I decided to check up on them too.  The Stilts would not even be a state bird, but I won’t pass up a chance to see some easy ones that are nearby.  They are still quite revered here and have not attained the trash nickname of ‘Mud Poodles’ as they have in some other states.

Black-necked StiltThree great birds, two of which were casual species and one of which was a lifer, made for a great day of birding. Terns out I made the right decision to chase when I did. Unfortunately for Randy and Steve, they were not able to relocate either the Arctic Tern or the Black-necked Stilts the next day.

I still hate Terns, just slightly less so than I did before. The urge to swear when talking about them is gone. Also, I hate Chats now too.

An Unforgettable Field Trip to Grant County and the North Ottawa Impoundment

A lot of fascinating bird reports have been pouring out of Grant County which is just a little more than an hour to the northwest.  The biggest news that came last week was a confirmed nesting pair of Black-necked Stilts.  These stilts normally reside in the souther reaches of our country and rarely stray into Minnesota, let alone nest here.  So as people were going to check out this historic find, they were turning up other good birds like Black-crowned Night Herons, Cattle Egrets, and Loggerhead Shrikes.  And just yesterday another southwestern bird popped up within 10 miles of all this action, the White-winged Dove!

Randy invited us to go a field trip to Grant County.  The big attraction for Randy was the White-winged Dove which would have been a new state bird for him.  The dove was just one of many phenomenal birds I was interested in.  Needless to say, we accepted Randy’s offer.  Evan and I were up at 4:30 this morning so we could get up to Grant County to wait at a fellow birder’s feeders for the White-winged Dove to make an appearance.

As we drove we encountered a brutal rainstorm, but we were confident that the forecast of scattered storms would allow us at least some weather-free moments to check on these birds.  Finally we got to the site of the dove which was a farm place down a half-mile long driveway and tucked inside a densely wooded yard. It was not what I expected. I figured we’d be able to park our car and just watch a feeder, but the feeder was on the back side of the house.  The only way to view it was to walk around the house or look through the house’s windows. We decided to creep around the house.  Randy led our silent single-file procession.  Immediately he said, “On the feeder right now.” Wow, that was fast!  The bird then flew up into a tree posing nicely for spectacular views.

White-winged Dove

White-winged Dove

IMG_9015After our lightning-fast, dynamic sighting, we knocked on the door to thank Charlene, the birder and homeowner who made this amazing discovery.  Charlene was the epitomy of Minnesota-nice, offering us coffee and donuts and showing us a plat book and telling us where to find other great birds in the area.  It’s always a pleasure to meet a friendly birder in the field.

Next we were on to the North Ottawa Impoundent, which is a 2 mile by 0.5 mile rectangular pool used to provide flood relief for the Rabbit River, Bois de Sioux River, and Red River.  Before we got there, though, there were many good birds to see, like the abundant Bobolinks.



The North Ottawa Impoundment was an attraction for me because of the reported Black-crowned Night Herons and Cattle Egrets, both of which would be lifers.  When we got to the impoundment, we immediately saw numerous Great Egrets.  We kept hoping one of the white birds would be our nemesis Cattle Egret.  Eventually Randy spied the two Cattle Egrets that had been reported.  Finally!  It was quite a thrill to now gain two life birds from this field trip.

Cattle Egret

Cattle Egret

These egrets were quite shy and did not give many photo opportunities.  The following picture was fun because it clearly shows the size comparison with the Great Egret, and clearly there is no comparison.

Great Egret and Cattle Egrets

Great Egret and Cattle Egrets

Driving around the impoundment was a magical experience.  There were cool birds everywhere.  I guess while I was out of the car trying to photograph these egrets, Randy found an Upland Sandpiper.  Additionally, there were hordes of ducks with other goodies mixed in, like numerous Eared Grebes, a Red-necked Phalarope, and a Wilson’s Phalarope. Taking a short walk allowed us to get good looks at many of these birds.


Ruddy Duck

Ruddy Duck

Eared Grebes

Eared Grebes


IMG_9063As much as we tried we could not turn up a Black-crowned Night Heron.  I guess we can’t win it all, plus there was still more good birding ahead.  Our next stop was the sewage ponds at the city of Herman where two Black-necked Stilts have decided to nest. Because of the work of some dedicated birders who brought this to the city’s attention, the city has agreed to not mow around this pond until the birds are done nesting.  In fact, the townsfolk are pretty excited over the hub-bub at their local sewage ponds.

A nesting bird is easy to find.  It is about the only guarantee there is when it comes to finding a bird.  We were able to see both of the adults today.  It was not a new bird as we saw them in Arizona a couple months ago, but it is a really fun bird that was a treat to see not far down the road from us.

Nesting Black-necked Stilts  at the Herman Sewage Ponds in Grant County

Nesting Black-necked Stilts at the Herman Sewage Ponds in Grant County

You didn’t need any special optics to see these birds well, but an up-close view makes a good sighting even better.

IMG_9093It was fun to see the female sit on the nest which has one confirmed egg.




Black-necked Stilts – a most appropriate name


After the ponds we decided to see if we could find the reported Loggerhead Shrike just north of Herman.  We couldn’t find it on our way to see the Black-necked Stilts.  The second time was the charm, though, as Charlene’s parked vehicle on Hwy. 9 and pointed binoculars alerted us to its presence.  In addition to her own rare yard bird, she was keeping tabs on all these other incredible finds within 10 miles of her home.

It’s always fun to see a shrike, but Loggerheads are rare in Minnesota, so they are extra special.

Loggerhead Shrike

Loggerhead Shrike

And with that last sighting, it was time to head home.  What a phenomenal day of birding it had been. Two life birds, a host of uncommon birds, and great company are tough to beat.  It was one of those big birding days that will stand out for a long time in our memories.  After all, how often will can a birder see a White-winged Dove and a Black-necked Stilt on the same day in Minnesota?