Something to Grouse About on Thanksgiving

Home beckons most everyone on Thanksgiving.  And when you are a birder and that home is the northwoods of Minnesota, the call is even louder.  The quiet, Black Spruce bogs covered in a recent, two-foot dumping of snow compelled me to go exploring.  I did just that, and this year the cornucopia of good birds was overflowing.  It was a feast of feasts. There is much to be thankful for, not the least of which were three gift Spruce Grouse sitting on the highway just a couple miles from Melissa’s family’s place.

Spruce GrouseI couldn’t believe my luck. This happened once two years ago in this same spot but with just one bird. The female (lifer gender) above and the male below stood motionless on the road as I crept the vehicle closer and closer to them.

Spruce GrouseAs I watched, I spotted a second male just on the edge of the woods who wanted nothing to do with me.

Spruce GrouseI wanted to creep by the birds and get around them by driving on the shoulder so that I could view these dark, male statues from the front, their better side. As I did so, another car came down the highway and now I was worried these dumb things would get killed.  I wasn’t going to let that happen, so I planned to shoo them off the road.  But I didn’t have to because my close presence at this point and the approaching car thankfully activated them. I was able to snap another pic of the male on the road before he flew off. The birds barely flew into the edge of the woods and never re-flushed, yet try as I might, I could not pick them out of the Spruce trees.  Their camouflage and ability to sit motionless are amazing.

Spruce Grouse

Not to be outdone by their cousins this Thanksgiving, the Ruffed Grouse put on quite a good show and were seemingly ubiquitous. Even while feasting at Grandma’s house a couple even flew in to have their own feast of Aspen buds…

Ruffed Grouseand Birch catkins…

Ruffed GrouseEveryone eats well at Grandma’s house and goes home stuffed.Ruffed Grouse

The day after Thanksgiving, I had the pleasure of birding with Julie Grahn, a local birding friend who often keeps me up to date on the latest bird happenings back home.  As if the Grouse weren’t enough birding excitement for one trip, little did I know the good birding was just getting started.  Julie and I had some solid finds early on of Black-billed Magpie, Northern Shrike, and Rough-legged Hawk, but the real excitement came when we walked a stretch of road in a mature Black Spruce bog.  Our target was a Boreal Chickadee–I had heard one two days prior, which was another exciting first for this little patch of mine.  However, as we started walking we heard the rapid “chiff-chiff-chiff-chiff” of two White-winged Crossbills flying overhead!  This is a bird I have only ever seen in quick glimpses in the past. I certainly had no photo of one. That finally changed and may have made this the best sighting of the trip.

White-winged CrossbillWhite-winged CrossbillA little while later, Julie asked me to stop the car to check out a bird I had dismissed as a Raven.  This instance is proof of why two birders are better than one because Julie had spotted a juvenile Northern Goshawk!  Like the Crossbill, this was another photographic first for me.  I have had several probable NOGOs in the area but had never had one sit still before to know for sure.

Northern GoshawkTo end my birding for this trip, I later went into the town of Cook and found the Bohemian Waxwing flock Julie had told me about.

Bohemian WaxwingThis holiday’s birds were off the charts.  It ended up being some of the best birding I’ve ever had at home up north and certainly gives the birder in me much to be thankful for.  Unfortunately gratitude has a time limit before greed kicks in…how many more days until we go home for Christmas?

One Eye Open and Always Listening

Call me a curmudgeon, but I just have not been pumped up for migration this spring and often let the world of birds buzz around me without taking notice.

Eastern Screech-OwlMaybe it’s work, maybe it’s my unfinished taxes, maybe it’s the fact that the regulars have become blasé, but my obliviousness is mostly due to my OCD over ESOWs for TOBY (Tommy’s Owl Big Year).  Nights are filled with mining the data, pumping the contacts, and even prowling the woods.  There has been little time for the ordinary.  This indifference should not be mistaken for a lack of awareness of my surroundings or of the current events in the birding world.

Eastern Screech-OwlSometimes things do catch my attention requiring me to investigate matters further.

Eastern Screech-Owl

As I’ve been Screeching lately, some of the ordinary birds have stopped me cold–only because I thought I was taking machine gun fire.  Turns out it was just a Good God Bird.

Pileated Woodpecker

Screech-Owls love tree cavities.  So do Wood Ducks.  Still, I was astonished to find no fewer than six pairs of Wood Ducks in the treetops in two small city parks.

Wood Duck

Wood Duck

The Eastern Screech-Owl focus has been pretty laser-like, but I am still doing my due diligence when it comes to listing/chasing.

I recently went after a lifer Red-throated Loon in Brainerd which had a decidedly not-red throat and even more decidedly un-Loonlike appearance, as in it didn’t appear at all.  The consolation was a small flock of Bohemian Waxwings under a blue sky.

Bohemian Waxwing

Bohemian Waxwing

Bohemian Waxwing

Also in recent birding adventures, I picked up MN #299, Mountain Bluebird, after two attempts. I even have a crappy photo to prove it.

Mountain Bluebird

A nearby American Tree Sparrow was slightly more accommodating.

American Tree Sparrow

At the county level, progress on the list has been steady, albeit unexciting. Ross’s Goose was a solid add and bonus points were earned for a three-Goose photo.

Ross's GooseAnother overdue addition was American Woodcock, peenting style. (Turn the volume way up)

Though not a new county bird, I continue to document the rare ones, like the Mute Swan, for eBird.

Mute Swan

One only knows what more will show up this migration.  One bird that migration won’t drop in my lap is the Eastern Screech-Owl.  For that I must fight the good fight and play the numbers game.  I’ve got two months to figure it out.  The truth is I love the focus of a singular goal, even more so when it’s a challenging one. Bring it on, Screech.

Eastern Screech-Owl

#FloridaMan Slays Birds at Sax-Zim Bog Birding Festival

Fresh off my birding binge with Tommy and Gordon, the Northland was once again calling me back.  No rest for the weary as they say, or more accurately, no good birds for the well-rested.  This time I was headed back to work as a field trip leader at the annual Sax-
Zim Bog Birding Festival.  It would be my second time guiding in as many weeks, only this time would be so much different.  Instead of taking out a couple of hardcore listers, I’d be with a huge group of all ability levels.  To compensate for such disproportion, there was a great number of fellow guides, most of whom were more skilled at the art of bird and people wrangling than I.  Some I knew, many I did not. The camaraderie of this team was instant, though, and brought a bit of warmth to the air that flirted with 30 below. Of course, this is bound to happen when the guides are quartered in the wood-heated Ringhofer farm house where you are instantly welcomed by the hosts with smiles, handshakes, and multiple glasses of wine. Meadowlands truly does welcome birders.  We were, in many respects, in the heart of the Bog. Stories and laughs abounded. Little sleep was had. Anticipation was high.

Sax Zim Bog Sign

A key difference between this trip and my last was the food. Birding like madmen the last go-around did not lead to the best diet which was a strange mix of fast-food and hastily thrown-together, sometimes sketchy meals by us crazed birders who were always on the run. On the other hand, the good people of Meadowlands see to it that you eat like kings, giving us three squares a day that tasted like it was cooked with a grandma’s love.

Despite enjoying my hot breakfast that first morning, I was apprehensive about this new form of guiding. Where I once I had heated seats, defrosted glass, and vehicular independence, I now had the cold, hard bench seat of a school-bus that was slow to warm and a trademark SZ Festival ice scraper for keeping my pane clear of frozen condensation. What was the same between this trip and the last, though, were the birds and the high Great Gray hopes of those I was showing around.  Because of that I was grateful to be with experienced Festival guides, Alex Watson and Ben Harste.  Meeting Alex was a highlight for me–he was previously a mystery birder that has shown up occasionally in my home county and filed some reports that led me to my county Cerulean and Blue-winged Warblers.  Alex is not only good at finding good birds, but he was also at ease being the main tour guide on our bus.  So as Alex talked over the constant window-scraping, I was able to concentrate on trying to keep my feet warm while looking for birds and visiting with those around me.

Our first stop was the Sharp-tailed Grouse lek which did not pan out. From that point we were puttering along at 5 MPH, scraping windows and trying to spot one of several Grays known to inhabit the Bog.  Our route and plans were quickly abandoned when John Richardson on Bus #2 texted me that Frank Nicoletti had a Great Gray over ten miles to the north.  This bird is the main attraction, the kind that attracts birders to our frozen state in the winter.  Needless to say, we informed our group and told Amy, our bus driver, to kick it into high gear.  The nerves of the group were palpable.

As we were nearing the location, though still a bit out, fellow guide Ben Harste hollered “Stop!” from the back of the bus. I don’t know how he did it, but through the frosted, fogged up windows from the BACK of the bus, he spotted a Great Gray Owl DEEP (100 yds) in the Aspen stand of all forests and became a hero to a busload of overly excited birders, myself included.  The bus was nearly on two wheels as everyone piled on one side to get a peek.  Once they got their life look, I slipped out to get a scope set up so people could get a real good look.

Sax Zim Bog FestivalFumbling with the scope barehanded in 30 below caused me to climb back on the bus immediately after setting up the apparatus, but eventually I did get back out for a couple quick photos myself.

Great Gray Owl

Great Gray Owl

As we were watching this bird, it dawned on me that we hadn’t yet reached the bird Frank reported, which meant there was a second one! We loaded everybody on our bus back up and continued on down the road.  Minutes later one of our group members spotted the second Great Gray, only it was far more skittish and dove for the cover of the bog even before the bus could stop. Oh well, we got a good fix with the first one and it was bathroom break time at the McDavitt Fire Hall anyway.  Breaking gave us a chance to mingle more with the festival-goers.  I visited with a man who looked like he was dressed for a chilly October day in Minnesota, much less for sub-zero.  Sadly this made sense when I saw on his name tag that he was from Florida. But if he was cold, he wasn’t letting on.  I think the birding adrenaline was pumping hard in this one. Whenever we asked the group about wanting to see this bird or that bird, Mr. Florida would instantly pipe up to let us know those birds would be lifers.

So after the break, it was time to hit the Bog hard looking for lifers for Mr. Florida et al. One of those was the Admiral Road staple, Boreal Chickadee.

Boreal Chickadee

I know I’ve posted photos of this bird already this year, but just like the Chickadee himself cursed with his own addictions, I just can’t stop…

Boreal ChickadeeAnother crowd favorite were both species of Grosbeaks, though on this day I only photographed the “yellow ones” as locals sometimes call them.

Evening GrosbeakI checked in with Mr. Florida a couple times throughout the day to see what his lifer tally was. Besides the Great Gray, both Grosbeaks, and the Chickadee, he also picked up Northern Shrike, Common Redpoll, and a surprisingly hard-to-find Gray Jay.  Despite missing on Ruffed and Sharp-tailed Grouse, Mr. Florida had the highest lifer total for our group. He was happy, especially because he told me he was not expecting the Great Gray.

In addition to the bird lifers, we got the folks their porcupine lifer.  People go crazy over porcupines when they visit, an infatuation I don’t understand.

porcupineAfter birding for some time, our day was truncated late afternoon and did not allow for more Owl searching during prime evening hours as we had to get back to Meadowlands for the dinner and program by Canadian Great Gray Owl researcher, Dr. James Duncan. Listening to an authority on Great Gray Owls give a captivating presentation in a Canadian accent is like a giant exclamation point on a day in which many got their coveted lifer.

Day 2–Lake County Field Trip

The second day of the Festival I was scheduled to be a guide on a far-flung field trip to Lake County.  The birds would be few even if we found them, but mighty birds they would be.  We were targeting Spruce Grouse, Black-backed Woodpeckers, and Bohemian Waxwings.  There was, of course, the potential for more Great Grays and Boreal Chickadees.  More impressive, though, was the fact that the Lake County team the previous day found the very-rare-for-Minnesota American Three-toed Woodpecker!  I was beyond stoked to go along on this trip with that news.

Even better than a Three-toed was that we were riding a cushy, warm coach bus for the long haul east and north. That was, unfortunately, about the most exciting the day would get as we failed to turn up any of those boreal greats. We would be going through several towns on the way home in the hopes of finding nomadic Bohemians feasting on decorative fruit trees in residential neighborhoods. When we were in Ely we stopped to look at some Pine Grosbeaks in a crabapple tree.

Pine Grosbeak

Then, as I watched the birds point-blank out those coach windows, I noticed one of them wasn’t very Grosbeak-like and was in fact the sought-after Bohemian! A bizarre, lone Bohemian! I alerted the group and finally felt like I earned some of my pay. It was an overdue sighting on a very slow field trip.  Georgia woman was very happy and by extension so was Georgia man.  We did later see a fly-by flock of about 30 Bohemians, but this was the only individual our group could photograph.

Bohemian WaxwingThese were photo upgrades for me, though much work still needs to be done with this species.  Considering I was sandwiched between a bus and a snowbank, I’ll take them though.Bohemian Waxwing

One of our other stops for this field trip was the Blue Heron B&B near Ely where we would eat our sack lunch and have coffee and cookies while watching their bird feeders. I was not excited to watch Redpolls, Chickadees, etc.  I was excited about my sandwich–so much so that I could have choked on it when someone shouted, “Boreal Chickadee!” This brought feeder-watching to a whole new level. I was not expecting this.

Boreal ChickadeeThen again, maybe I should have considering the address.

Borealis LaneOur group continued on from the B&B searching towns on the way back for the ever elusive Bohemians. A Snowshoe Hare, thought he was elusive and brought some excitement to the group when the birds were lacking.

Snowshoe HareWith one major bird lifer and one mammal lifer for the group, it was a long, sleepy day.  We did have a slight pick-me-up when we were coming back into the Sax-Zim Bog and spotted a very out-of-season Common Grackle.   But still, it’s a Grackle and doesn’t come close to filling the Sprucie void.  There’s always next year.  After all, it gives the festival-goers and guides a reason to return. As if they need another reason…

Great Gray Owl

Minnesota’s Not-So Common Eiders and some Big Bonus Birds

1966.  That was the last time a Common Eider had been reported in Minnesota.  Now two juveniles show up on Lake Superior in Duluth, and a third one shows up an hour up the shore at Silver Bay.  Birders of all stripes were flocking up north and churning out continual updates on the ducks.  Yet all week neither Steve nor I hadn’t even brought up the idea of a chase.  The White-winged Scoter on Green Lake changed that.  Now face-to-face and excitedly bantering about sea-ducks, we decided that we, too, would make a fast trip to Duluth – going up and coming back on the same day.  It is a life list after all and neither Steve nor I had another 50 years to wait for another return of the Common Eider. So a week ago last Sunday Steve picked me up from church and we made the 3.5 hour haul up north.  A week before this I was returning from Duluth.  Crazy.

There was an eerie lack of reports on the Eiders this Sunday, either positive or negative. We brushed it off, but when we got to Duluth and reached the 21st Ave exit, we were nervous that this would be a bust.  Steve nervously tapped the steering wheel as he looked for a place to park.  In a matter of minutes we parked, piled on the cold-weather gear and optics, and walked to the shore.  The icy, gusting wind was coming straight off the lake and biting any exposed skin and drilling the cold into our bones.  What was stinging worse, though, was that we were not seeing the Eiders.  Now what? With no throngs of birders looking today, do we keep searching the vast shoreline in Duluth alone or do we go another hour further north to hopefully see the Silver Bay Eider?  It was a horrible dilemma and a decision had to be made fast.  Finally Steve and I settled on walking the lake walk.   With the wind coming in as strong as it was, we were looking for a cove or anything that would provide a calm area for a duck to be.   The wind was blowing into our faces the whole time and body parts were going numb.  Then, it was like somebody hit a defrost button when Steve said, “Hey, what’s that?”  There on the water was a duck bobbing up and down in the surf that crashed against the ice-covered rocks.  Too small for an Eider, but the perfect size and coloration of a juvenile Harlequin Duck!  Wow, neither of us expected this lifer on this trip.

Harlequin Duck

Harlequin Duck

It wasn’t the mature Harlequin drake I hope to see someday on the North Shore, but this was a tough-to-get addition for the life list.  The Harlequin was hanging out almost right next to the ice-covered rock on the point below.

Steve Lake Superior

Satisfied with one heck of a consolation prize – if it came to that – we continued walking down the lake walk.  As we got to a larger cove across from the Essentia Health building, I spotted the biggest duck I’ve ever seen in my life.  I didn’t even need binoculars to know that we had found what we came for – the Common Eider.  I looked for the second Eider that had been accompanying this one, but all I could see was this loner.  It was absolutely huge.  According to Sibley, it is the largest duck in North America

Common EiderAgain, not a mature drake, but when a duck waits nearly 50 years to make an appearance, you try not to complain.  And actually, it is so intriguing that some fools risk hypothermia and broken bones trying to get better looks.


It was worth it.

Common Eider

Common Eider

Common Eider

We were ecstatic – we got what we came for and had seen our third sea duck in two days. Literally and figuratively, the wind and sun were now at our backs as we walked back to the car.  We again got to enjoy the Harlequin as it motored with the waves further up shore.  Can you find it?

Lake SuperiorHarlequin Duck

Harlequin Duck

As if we hadn’t had enough excitement for the day, we got to the car and read an email from the listserv that a flock of Bohemian Waxwings had just been found in Floodwood, which was a half-hour away.  Steve had an interest in looking for Bohemians up in Beaver Bay, but we decided that was too far up shore.  Floodwood, though, was not too far out of the way on our way home.  So we went to Floodwood, and we found the Bohemian flock. Steve got his third lifer of the day, and I finally got to get more than just a fly-by look at this bird.  It would have been nice if they came closer to the ground for some better photos, but these will have to do for now.

Bohemian Waxwing

Bohemian Waxwing

Bohemian Waxwing

It was finally time to head home.  We had a couple other nice northern Minnesota bird sightings including Common Raven and Ruffed Grouse.  We were hopeful that we would bump into an owl or two as we cruised south through the boglands along Highway 73 just before dark. We never did see an owl, but it didn’t matter because we were on our way home from a monumental day of birding.