Gulli-bill…or Not

How is it that a hobby that can bring so much pleasure one moment bring so much pain the next? One minute we birders are on cloud 9; the next we are singing the blues.  It’s a vicious cycle.  Why do we do this again?  IDK, but here’s the sad/happy story of me chasing a rarity 2.5 times.

The parade of vagrants this spring/summer has been most impressive. One entry in the parade garnered more attention than the others–a state first Gull-billed Tern on Salt Lake which straddles the Minnesota/South Dakota border.  News of the Tern broke out late in the day on June 1. This was practically in the backyard for birding friend, Garrett Wee, and me, so we were on the scene immediately at daybreak on Thursday, June 2.  Garrett and I were no slouches on this search, checking the lake from both the MN and SD sides and even hiking to distant jetties and shorelines on the lake. No luck after looking for nearly two hours.  A Willet and this Sanderling were weak consolation prizes.

SanderlingOn the way out of Salt Lake I ran into Herb Dingman just heading in.  He, of course, was disappointed to hear my report but decided to look anyway.  I told him to call me if it showed before I got too far away. That call didn’t come…until I was 15 minutes from home. Herb had seen it. I couldn’t turn around; I had obligations at home before my parents came to visit.

On Friday, June 3, no one saw the state record bird despite standing vigil from dawn to dusk.

On Saturday, June 4, the Patagonia Picnic Table Effect was in action as the state’s #1 eBirder Peder Svingen was in the Salt Lake area and turned up a casual Lark Bunting.  I decided to chase this state bird. My dad came with me.  On the way, news came in that the Gull-billed Tern had returned! I was elated as I was counting my chickens and Terns and Buntings before they hatched, thinking I would get two cool birds.

Dad and I had a cool find on the way near Lac qui Parle High School–a pair of Marbled Godwits.

Marbled Godwit

When we got to Salt Lake, the report was negative on the Tern. Ugh, not again! But hope was still alive for the Lark Bunting which was 8 miles away. Peder was still at the Bunting spot along with a swarm of others who were trying to relocate the Bunting.  No one was coming up with it.  However, I was informed by Jeff Stephenson that there were Henslow’s Sparrows at this WPA!  I visited with Peder a bit, and when he found out I had never seen a Henslow’s, he walked out in the grass with me to help me get visuals on this skulker that had eluded my life list so far.  It was incredibly nice of him since I caught him just as he was about to make the long trip home to Duluth after getting both the Tern and the Bunting.  Peder and I were successful.  A Henslow’s Sparrow–finally!

Henslow's SparrowHenslow's SparrowHenslow's SparrowThis felt great and made up for the double dip.  Dad and I continued to check Salt Lake for the Tern who did not keep any kind of regular schedule. We were not successful, but we did enjoy some of the native grassland birds, like Bobolink and Dad’s favorite, Western Meadowlark.

BobolinkWestern MeadowlarkWith no luck on the Tern, we decided to try one last time for the Bunting. Nothing. Grasshopper Sparrows are nice, just not LABU nice.

Grasshopper Sparrow

Just as I was pulling away from this area to head home, Randy Frederickson called me up to tell me he and Joel Schmidt had found the Tern a mile north of the Bunting spot on private land!  That was about 7 miles from Salt Lake! Elation again! As Dad and I raced up to the spot, we were about a half mile away when we saw a Tern-like bird fly across the road.  Could it be? Nah, probably just a Ring-billed Gull or Forester’s Tern. I got to the farm site where Randy and Joel had the bird; Randy was on the road waiting for me so I’d know the correct driveway.  I hurried down to Joel who had the scope set up. I excitedly hopped out of the car only to be greeted with, “It just flew.” Oh, the depths of despair in birding! Piecing the timing and the direction of flight together, Randy is convinced that I did, in fact, see the state record Gull-billed Tern fly across the road in front of me.  However, I didn’t get a solid look to confirm the ID, so I’m not counting it.  It just wouldn’t feel legit.

It was time to go home. Two dips for one bird. Ouch. I’ve double-chased before but always rebounded the second time around. Contemplating a third chase for one bird was new territory.

On Sunday, June 5, birders were fanning across the state on their way home from a successful chase for some and a heart-breaking chase for others. These birders were turning up cool things all over.  Luckily, one of those birds was found in my county thanks to Jeff Stephenson and Jerry Pruett.  The Northern Mockingbird is one I have wanted for this county for some time.  Dad also accompanied me on this fast break out of the house before church.  This one felt good even if it was too skittish for photos.

Northern MockingbirdAfter church, the dreaded news came: the Tern had been re-sighted at Salt Lake.  I hemmed and hawed over going back a third time.  This bird had burned me bad.  Finally I gave in.  It is only 1.5 hours away. Dad and I hopped in the car for another chase.  This time I was smart about it, though. ABWCH reader, Tod Eggenberger, had been there all day, left to go home, and turned around once he saw the news. He was 30 miles away.  I asked Tod to keep me in the loop and let me know if this unpredictable, elusive bird were to give people the slip again.  Unfortunately for Tod, he missed it by 5 minutes before the bird vanished again forever.  Fortunately for me, I got the news before I reached the halfway point to Salt Lake.  I decided I would go that far in case there was positive news. There wasn’t. So I turned around at the predetermined spot and cut my losses.  Take that, you stupid Tern!

Pokin’ Around the Northwoods

Tamarack BogNorthern Minnesota is home.  Every season offers up something special in terms of wildlife and scenery.  I was able to get out and do some birding in the forests, bogs, and open country on the same recent trip that included the Blackburnian Warbler.  Cool stuff abounds everywhere here. It was good to be home.

Pink Lady Slipper

Pink Lady Slipper (Not MN’s State Flower, the Showy Lady Slipper)

Tamarack bogs like the one pictured above get a lot of attention from birders in the winter because of the Owls and some other boreal specialties.  In the summer, though, they are not visited by birders as much.  It’s too bad because they are quite lush and beautiful and the polar opposite of the forests of the seemingly dead Tamaracks.  I say seemingly because Tamaracks drop their needles after turning a beautiful golden yellow in the fall, leaving dead-looking trunks and branches.

This particular bog was home to the Blackburnian Warbler I showcased in the last post, but there were also some other fun birds in this area.  The Blackburnian was a happy accident; I had actually gone to this spot to look for some Boreal Chickadees that local birder Julie Grahn had told me about.  I found them, and they were literally sharing turf with the Blackburnian.  They were not as cooperative though, refusing to come out of the Spruce tops.

Boreal ChickadeeJudging from my picture, it appears that this was a family group with a couple fledglings!  This Chickadee is so cool.  Most MN birders only see them in the dead of winter when they come out to the remote feeding station on Admiral Road in the Sax-Zim Bog.   I was very pleased to see BOCH in the summer and much closer to home than SZ.

Sharing space with the Boreal Chickadees and Blackburnian Warbler were numerous Nashville Warblers whose song I just learned.  I am now just starting to learn the songs of the more common Warblers that I see during migration. I tend to photograph common birds last too, so on this day I finally got some shots of the Nashville.

Nashville WarblerNashville WarblerAnother fun bird to see even if it couldn’t be seen well was the Lincoln’s Sparrow.

Lincoln's SparrowThe varied habitats in northern MN offer up some unique opportunities for viewing wildlife.  While looking for an American Bittern lifer in a marsh near my parents’ house, I found this gal looking for a place to lay her eggs.

Snapping TurtleIt was not the biggest Snapper I’ve seen.  This one’s shell was the size of a dinner plate. I’ve seen them twice as big before.

Snapping TurtleI didn’t spend a lot of time in the mature, upland woods other than just passing through.  That was enough to nab my FOY Blue-headed Vireo that I missed during migration.

Blue-headed VireoThis bird has never been good to me.  It was once a nemesis and continues to be a photographic nemesis. By the time I figured out its rhythm of jumping to a new perch each time after it sang, the bird disappeared from sight.


In the area of the Iron Range we call home, there is a substantial amount of open farm country, mostly hay fields and no crops.  Still, the grasslands and horse farms are great for some good non-forest birds, the best of which was a pair of Black-billed Magpies.  Julie Grahn had told me about these, and I’ve been seeing this species more and more every time I go up north.  It’s been stated that the Sax-Zim Bog is the furthest east this species breeds.  Well, this location was even further east yet, so it’s a pretty exciting find!

Black-billed MagpieAlso found in an open area was a bird that I have seen so many times this year and never before in the Northland, the Brown Thrasher.

Brown ThrasherOne bird that favors the open grassy fields that intersperse the Northwoods are the showy, and unique-sounding Bobolinks.  They must be having a good year because I saw so many.


They were also more cooperative than I’ve ever seen them before.  It felt good to finally photograph a BOBO properly.



BobolinkOne bird that I was absolutely surprised to find in the open fields were Brewer’s Blackbirds! I had no idea they were in the area.  Honestly, I often just dismiss most blackbirds I see as Red-winged Blackbirds or Common Grackles.  Needless to say I was pleasantly surprised when I saw the Brewer’s.  Like the Bobolink, it was nice to finally be able to get some decent photos of this bird too.

Brewer's Blackbird

This dad was busy feeding a fledgling.  I was scolded often during this photo shoot.

Brewer's Blackbird

Brewer's Blackbird

Brewer's BlackbirdBrewer's BlackbirdI had some really fun birding on this trip up north.  I was not lifer hunting as there really are so few lifers I can still get.  And none of them are easy. Or so I thought. In the next post I’ll tell you about a three-generation lifer that was delivered right to the doorstep.

Back to Cottonwood for some Blue Grosbeak Action

This story pre-dates the Afton State Park post.  Because Evan’s teacher likes to show the class the blog on the SmartBoard, especially after one of Evan’s birding trips, I was under pressure to get that Afton story written the night we got home so Evan could have it ready for his class to see the next day.  Furthernmore, there has been a lot of birding action lately and the posts are getting backlogged. So this post was delayed and occurred back on June 3rd.

Since Evan and Melissa were still in school and I’d been hanging out with Marin, I thought it would be a good opportunity to go to the Cottonwood sewage ponds to try to photograph some of the Blue Grosbeaks that my young birder friend, Garrett, had found down there.  Since it was not a life bird, I knew Evan wouldn’t care if I did this kind of trip without him. Blue Grosbeaks are a significant bird in Minnesota.  They breed in the very, very southwestern corner of the state.  Blue Mounds State Park near Luverne is the most reliable place to see them, which is where we got our lifer last year.  Occasionally Blue Grosbeaks are found further north and east like these Cottonwood birds.  They are almost always found in gravel pits or other equivalent brushy areas.  Their rarity and their beauty make this bird a fun find.

As I become familiar with all kinds of birding haunts, Marin is becoming familiar with a plethora of city parks.  If it’s just me and her, I try to make sure there’s something fun for her to do.  So on the way to Cottonwood we stopped in Maynard, and I couldn’t find a city park!  Since MACCRAY school was already done for the year, we stopped at the elementary school where she was able to get a playground fix before Cottonwood.

Cottonwood was pretty straightforward; the Blue Grosbeaks were isolated on a lone, brushy hill next to the path into the ponds.  This hill is maybe one hundred yards long and a hundred feet wide.  Garrett told me the Grosbeaks like to hang out in the small trees on the back side of the hill.  It was pretty muddy, so I was going to let her stay in the van while I hopped out to check out the hill.  Then Marin remembered that her mud boots were in the van, part of the cache of random things we brought home from daycare at the end of the year.  So she was eager to put them on and join me for a little walk.  That is, until she spotted a bug.  Marin has an uncontrollable, irrational fear of bugs that causes her to scream even if they are not bothering her.  It makes any outdoor activity very challenging.  So she went to the car while I continued my search. But then I heard screams from inside the car.  There was a lone fly that she just could not tolerate.  Despite all the insect drama, I was able to find one male Blue Grosbeak and get some photos.  Garrett had seen two males and a female the week prior.

Blue Grosbeak

Blue Grosbeak

Blue GrosbeakBlue GrosbeakSuch a fun bird to see!  As I photographed the bird on the sewage pond fence, the city worker who was mowing drove right up to where the bird was and scared it away.  Nuts. Then he shut off his mower, and I thought ‘Oh, great. Here we go again.  I wonder what he’s going to accuse me of.’  Instead of a suspicious inquiry, though, he asked if we were birdwatchers and then told me I should go ahead and drive on the dikes around the sewage ponds to show my daughter the baby Canada Geese.  You gotta love the Cottonwood sewage ponds where not only are there no gates keeping you out, but the city worker encourages you to come check see all that their ponds have to offer.  The geese are another story; I actually have a very strong dislike for the species.  Undoubtedly it originates from my younger years of shoveling loads of goose poop off our beach, lawn, and docks whenever they would visit the resort.  It’s kind of funny how when people see us out birding they ask us if we are looking at geese or want to know where geese are.  I always appreciate the friendliness and offer to help, but there is no way I can quash their enthusiasm and tell them how I feel about this ubiquitous bird. So I thank them and tell them I’m just checking out all the birds.

As far as the stunning Blue Grosbeak was concerned, though, I would have loved to spend more time looking for it and photographing it, but we had another date with a park in Cottonwood.  The date was shortlived, however, because of a screaming fit that resulted from a fly on the slide.

After the short park visit we were off to check out Lone Tree Lake just a couple miles northwest of Cottonwood.  Garrett suggested it as a spot for seeing nesting Upland Sandpipers. For a young man, Garrett sure knows his birds and more importantly, he knows what birds are good.  I’m glad I discovered him on eBird as he isn’t really connected and known in the other big birding circles – a problem that I’m helping to rectify, especially since he seems to be a lone birder reporting from this dynamic outpost where all kinds of amazing birds show up.

As we drove along looking for Upland Sandpipers, we saw a couple Bobolinks and other prairie birds.



Eventually I found one of the Upland Sandpipers acting uplandy way up in a hayfield and far from the lake and the road for that matter.

Upland Sandpiper

Upland Sandpiper

Not a bad morning of prairie birding and park hopping.  It was time to meander home and make it to Evan’s school on time to pick him up.  Marin fell dead asleep on the way, so I had a quiet drive through the scenic Minnesota River Valley in Renville County. After her two hour nap was over we stopped at the DQ in Olivia for a late lunch and then got to Evan’s school just in time to get him.  It was a fun, successful day.