Given that the recent material on this blog has covered events from over a month ago, you may begin to think that the birding has stopped. Any birder will tell you the birding never stops. Since returning from Montana, there has been a lot of local action as I’ve tried to keep up with migration while blogging, holding down a job, being a dad/husband, etc. Anyhow, here is post that will largely be pictorial with some commentary as needed. The birds pictured will follow the taxonomic order of how birds are listed with ornithologists unions, eBird, etc. This is not an exhaustive run-down of all the birds I’ve seen this spring, but rather just the more photogenic ones. Some are migrants; some are residents who have returned for the breeding season.
Blue-winged Teal and Wood Duck
Lesser Scaup and Greater Scaup
Herons, Ibis, and Allies
About a month ago, I traveled to Miller-Richter WMA in Yellow Medicine County to join forces with my birding friend, Garrett Wee, to look for my lifer Willet and Short-billed Dowitcher. Willets had been popping up left and right, but somehow I was always in the middle. This day with Garrett would prove to be the same. As we studied the shorebirds on Miller Lake, Garrett and I got talking about White-faced Ibises. He was telling me how it was probably his favorite bird. He’s seen them in southern states but never here in Minnesota. White-faced Ibis is a rare-regular bird for MN. He missed the group of five last year in his home county at Black Rush Lake because he was at prom. Fair enough I suppose.
Our next stop after Miller-Richter was Spellman and Miedd Lakes. Right away at Miedd, Garrett spotted some birds faraway on the opposite shore that looked different. I zoomed my camera to the max and snapped a crummy photo so Garrett and I could see what they were. Even though it was super blurry, we could tell by the coloration and sheen on the wings that they were Ibises! We immediately hoofed it nearly 3/4 of a mile around the shoreline to get a closer view. And there were eight birds in all! It was awesome that Garrett got his Minnesota White-faced Ibises on the very day we talked about it. As a bonus, no one has ever submitted an official MOU record of White-faced Ibises for Yellow Medicine County.
Great Horned Owl
Catbirds, Mockingbirds, and Thrashers
I’ve been on very good terms with Brown Thrashers this spring. It’s a balm of sorts for the Sage Thrasher burn.
Don’t let the lack of photos fool you; I’ve seen a great variety of Warblers this spring. They just haven’t been very photogenic. Best non-pictured species included Golden-winged, Canada, Magnolia, and Northern Parula. American Redstarts are resident this far south in the summer, and they have been especially ubiquitous during migration.
This next photo is included only because it is a photographic first and only the third time I have seen a Bay-breasted Warbler. Thanks for the call, Steve.
Sparrows and other Emberizids
Other Cool Stuff
There are two special birds I have left out of this post. Both are big birds and both are BIG birds. One was just a county bird; the other was a county/life bird. These birds will either be combined in the next post or each have their own post. Stay tuned!
When I planned the trip to Montana to see Greater Sage-Grouse with my dad, I had blinders on. I was fixated on one bird and rightly so considering its significance. Somewhere along the way, even as I was making birding plans for Arizona and a late winter trip to northern MN, curiosity got the best of me regarding central Montana. I began to wonder what other cool birds we could get. Studying eBird bar charts for the Billings area, I started to realize there was a unique chunk of birds we could add to our life lists that would be difficult to find where we normally bird in MN and AZ. The prospect of bonus lifers was indeed exciting. Not only could we pick up life birds, but we could pick up all kinds of other western goodies as well. In both regards we were successful and had a lot of fun. Here’s the run-down.
Good Non-Lifer Western Birds
1. Say’s Phoebe – still need one in MN and therefore still like seeing them everywhere else, even if that’s at a rest stop on I-94.
2. Sharp-tailed Grouse – I’ve seen and shot my fill; a quick interstate sighting filled any remaining Sharptail void for the time being.
3. American Avocet – I’ve got better photos in the archives. This is probably the only shot I’ll get at seeing them for 2015, so it’s getting posted.
4. Swainson’s Hawk – If the big sky and rugged terrain don’t remind you that you’re out west, freeway fly-overs of this raptor will.
5. Mountain Bluebird – even when it’s a blur, this bird is a welcome flash of color on the monochrome landscape of early spring.
6. Burrowing Owl – never, ever gets old. Hunting for them among the similar-sized, shaped, and colored prairie dogs in a dog town is a fresh take on owling. The challenge is accentuated by the whack-a-mole behavior of both species.
John Carlson, the facilitator of our Sage-Grouse adventure, told us that he worries that people who shoot Prairie Dogs for sport may inadvertently shoot Burrowing Owls – a terrible, but possible scenario.
John also pointed out the vocalizations of Burrowing Owls. I’ve seen several Burowing Owls in Arizona, but I’ve never heard one before. It was pretty cool and distinctive. You can bet I’ll be listening for that sound whenever I bird in western Minnesota.
7. Ferruginous Hawk – perhaps an even a better western hawk than Swainson’s Hawk and one heckuva a mother, finding time to rear a brood and decorate. The word ‘nesting’ to describe the preparatory behavior of expectant mothers was taken from this bird’s efforts.
I never noticed the trash and Christmas lights until I got home and looked at my photos. It’s not like someone left them on this tree, either. We were in the middle of nowhere. John had spotted this nest for us and asked us if we wanted to see a Ferruginous Hawk nest. I asked him later if he had this nest scoped out from a previous trip, and he told us it was his first time seeing this particular nest–he said a nest in a lone, short tree on the prairie was typical for this species.
John then spotted the male nearby.
It was fun to see the male exhibiting the behavior described in the field guide, which is sitting out in the open on the ground and always in a perfect western setting.
8. Western Meadowlark – a regular sight back home in MN, but a crazy ubiquitous sight out West. I have never seen more Meadowlarks. Therefore, the law of large numbers in birding says that eventually even I will get a good photo of one. And considering this is Dad’s favorite bird from his childhood days on the North Dakota prairie, I had to post some photos of this bird from our special trip.
Their song is beautiful and could be heard constantly from all directions.
It is the song that my Dad enjoys most about them. Have a listen for yourself.
The only thing better than that is watching my dad’s favorite bird photo-bomb his research bird, singing the whole time.
The Bonus Lifers
1. Sage Thrasher – we saw one. Barely. John pointed out a bird that flew away. Since we were still on the hunt for Greater Sage-Grouse, we didn’t take time to poke around for it. It was positively identified by John and seen by us–those are the minimum requirements for a lifer but by no means make for a satisfying lifering experience. It was an upgrade from a similar sighting with Laurence Butler in the Sonoran Desert last year; in that situation Laurence was pretty sure a bird that flew by was a Sage Thrasher. We held off on counting it then. It’s counted now, but better looks are required in the future.
2. California Gull – a very good-looking Gull with that dark eye and red orbital ring. John found us a smattering of them at the Yellow Water Reservoir in the Yellow Water Triangle where Dad worked in the 1970s.
Seeing this Gull has given me confidence in knowing what to look for when we comb through the hundreds of Ring-billed and Herring Gulls at the county landfill back home in hopes of finally turning up a county record.
3. Chestnut-collared Longspur – a lifer for Evan. This is a tough, tough bird in Minnesota. Last year Steve Gardner and I traveled to Felton Prairie to successfully track down one of only a handful of birds in the whole state. Here in central Montana, where there are seas of prairie grass, they are way more common.
I don’t recall the name of the road we traveled where we saw this Chestnut-collared Longspur, but whatever it’s called, I’ve dubbed it Longspur Road.
Why Longspur Road?
4. McCown’s Longspur – gobs upon gobs of this hoped-for bird were seen pecking grit off the road in the 40 mph wind. We literally saw hundreds. John figures we were witnessing a large migration movement and not just birds on territory.
This Longspur has such a limited range in the west/central part of the U.S. with most of its summer territory being in Montana. Not only were we in the right part of the country, but we were there at the right time of year to see these awesome Longspurs in their breeding plumage.
5. Long-billed Curlew – this was another hoped-for bird that is a summer resident to the grasslands of the Great Plains. I had the pleasure of spotting this lifer myself as this strange-looking creature seemed out of place as it strolled through the grassland interspersed with sagebrush.
It seemed so bizzare to see this giant shorebird out in the sea of grass and sage with no water in sight. It reminded me of seeing the resident Marbled Godwits at Felton Prairie back in Minnesota.We ended up seeing a second Curlew a little later, but neither were very photogenic.
We had a couple life bird misses, but no one is complaining here. In addition to the big lifer of the Greater Sage-Grouse, Evan picked up five additional lifers and I picked up four new ones. These birds were the icing on an already delicious cake.
The Ducks of North Dakota
On our way back home, we again spent the night in Bismarck. The next day I decided to make a quick stop east of town to look for some reported Hudsonian Godwits. There were no Godwits around, but one thing North Dakota is never short on is ducks. Certainly this state has to have the highest duck to person ratio in the nation. Try to not see a duck in North Dakota. The highlight duck for me was seeing hundreds of Northern Pintails. They are usually just a single digit bird back home and seen only during migration. Despite their numbers, I had trouble finding any that weren’t shy for photos.
With thousands of ducks you’re bound to get a good photo opportunity or two, even if they are common species like the Gadwall and Blue-winged Teal.
Shenanigans in Minnesota
On our trip, we saw three giant bird statues: Sandy, the 40-ft tall Sandhill Crane in Steele, ND; the world’s largest American Crow in Belgrade, MN; and the world’s largest Greater Prairie Chicken in Rothsay, MN. In hindsight, I should have stopped at all three for photo ops, but at least we made the stop in Rothsay. We were on a Grouse high after our big trip, so it only seemed fitting that we should stop for this one. It wasn’t long before this trip that we were birding in Arizona with Tommy DeBardeleben and learning to inject more fun in our outings.
This next photo was not completely orchestrated by me. Evan really did discover the lesser end of a Greater Prairie Chicken all on his own. The smiles are 100% natural. Oh, to be 8 again.
Here’s one the grandmas can approve of.
After seeing Greater Sage-Grouse do their mating display, Evan and I decided it would be fun to reserve one of the Minnesota DNR’s blinds this upcoming spring to watch booming Greater Prairie Chickens near Rothsay. And eventually, I’d like to see all the Grouse species do their respective, springtime mating rituals. There is no better way to see Grouse.
As our trip was drawing to a rapid close as we were racing to get back in time for a piano lesson, we squeezed in one more quick stop. We simply had to.
This was a monumental trip for Evan and me filled with good memories, great birds, and new and old friends. There will no doubt be more birding adventures, both little and grand, but none will top this. I hope you enjoyed tagging along through these posts.
This story picks up right where the Wood Stork story leaves off. Steve, Evan, and I were scheduled to depart Willmar at 4:30 AM last Saturday morning to make the three-hour trip up to Felton Prairie just east of Fargo. Keep in mind we returned from the stork chase near the Iowa border around 9:00 PM on Friday night. That’s a short turn-around time for an adult, let alone a 7-year-old. I asked Evan if he still wanted to go. He chose sleep. Evan had been hot and cold with this trip anyway. When I first asked him if he wanted to go, he said he wasn’t interested. Then I saw a picture in my Facebook feed of a Chestnut-collared Longspur someone had seen at Felton Prairie and showed it to him. His response was, “Ok, I’m interested.” Absolutely. But sleep did win out this time, so it was just Steve and I. We have been talking about doing this trip for nearly a year. We were stoked to finally go.
Felton Prairie is designated as an Important Birding Area (IBA) by the the Minnesota DNR. It consists of some WMAs, game refuges, and other public land, and it can host many hard-to-find western species. Such birds include Marbled Godwits, Upland Sandpipers, Grasshopper Sparrows, Baird’s Sparrows, Burrowing Owls, Swainson’s Hawks, Western Kingbirds, Loggerhead Shrikes, Sprague’s Pipits, Greater Prairie Chickens, Gray Partridge, and the reliable number-one bird and reason to head to Felton – the Chestnut-collared Longspur. This is the only place where they are known to breed in the state. Interestingly they are found along a narrow strip of prairie that runs along the top of a long ridge which I’m told is the edge of glacial Lake Aggasiz. There is a road that runs this ridge. Its official name is 170th Street, but everyone calls it Longspur Road. It’s the place to go. It’s even been known to host a complete spring-time party of Smith’s, Lapland, and Chestnut-collared Longspurs.
Steve and I hit Longspur Road right away. Western Meadowlarks were singing everywhere.
A fun bird that is normally very hard to find is ubiquitous here, the Grasshopper Sparrow. We glassed dozens hoping to turn one into our target bird.
Nearly right away on our first pass down Longspur Road, Steve made a fantastic discovery – two Greater Prairie Chickens! It was a life bird for both of us, and with it I have now seen all members of the grouse family that call Minnesota home.
Greater Prairie Chicken
Not only did we see this pair, but we kept turning them up! We had three more bunches of 4,2, and 2 respectively, making a total of 10 birds! A highlight was watching one near the car when it flushed, causing three others hidden in the grass much, much closer to flush as well. Talk about great looks!
It was a satisfying life bird but not the one we were after. It alone would have made a solid trip. It was also fun to see Marbled Godwits. At first. Then they were everywhere and noisy. Very noisy. It souned like we were at a beach with a bunch of gulls.
Another fun bird was the Western Kingbird. We saw five. One makes for a good day.
As cool as these birds were and fun to see, they were way down on the priority list because we came here for one bird, the Chestnut-collared Longspur. I don’t know how many times we drove up and down the 3-mile road. We kept seeing fun stuff, like this mother Blue-winged teal and her brood appearing out of the grass and disappearing back into it with no water around for miles.
Momma Blue-winged Teal and Brood
Or a pair of Brewer’s Blackbirds.
But still no longspurs. I think we expected this bird to be perched conspicuously on the barb-wire fence that ran alongside the road. Or we thought it would be on the road itself. Then we figured we better watch the prairie more and the fence less. Still nothing. We were fast approaching our cut-off time to leave. Near the very end, we finally had the idea to study its song. We were foolish for not having done so earlier. We were shocked and a little disheartened to learn the song sounds very, very close to the Western Meadowlark song. With minutes left before we had to depart, we picked out the higher version of the meadowlark song and found our target. This was the conspicuous look we were searching for.
On 170th Street, start looking/listening for the Chestnut-collared Longspurs in the mile section past the cattle guard. Watch the fence, the road, and the prairie to the east.
Chestnut-collared Longspur – The Best Longspur
It was quite a thrill to see this bird. I’m looking forward to my next trip to Felton to see this bird again and to show it to Evan. It’s quite the jaw-dropper.
We capped off our visit to Felton Prairie by taking a quick drive down the two-mile Co. Rd. 118, where Loggerhead Shrikes are known to hang out on the wires at the very end of the road. We were not disappointed. Like the intel on the longspurs, this is decades-old information that is still reliable today.
Loggerhead Shrike along Co. Rd. 118 about 2 miles east of MN Hwy 9
It was a good trip with a couple of key lifers, but it was far from the end of this birder’s marathon travel schedule. Steve and I had to get home so I could get packed up and ready for the 265-mile trip to northern Minnesota the next day where more birds and adventures would be in store for us. And relatives too. Those are fun to see. Stay tuned – more birds, pictures, and stories await. Wasn’t I remodeling a bathroom or something?