Mopping Up in Central AZ

Seeing as how winter is very much still alive in Minnesota, I’m not that late in writing up a report from a late January trip to visit to Arizona. Over the years the Arizona trips and respective lifers have piled up. While there is no end in sight for the former, the latter is definitely petering out. The remnant that remains for me in central AZ is a geographically scattered bunch of birds that never made their way to the top of the wish list, heck, not even the top 10 on any given trip. Gone are the days of going after some cool Owl or Trogon. Instead I’ve entered the errand-birding stage for this area, finally going after some of these ‘nobodies’. Ironically, though, these passed-over birds have become some of the most coveted since they are all that remain for this junkie looking for his next lifer fix. In fact, the one I wanted most was Prairie Falcon.

We had just a couple hours of daylight after we arrived in AZ that first day. I couldn’t not take a stab at this lifer in the agricultural fields around Stanfield where some Prairie Falcons had been reported. Dad, Melissa, and Evan accompanied me on this little quest. Wintering raptors are ubiquitous in these flats with one on nearly every pole top. Time was diminishing quickly, so my identification of most of these birds was reduced to Hawk sp. Once I saw a raptor was a hawk, we got the car rolling again just trying to cover more miles and poles to get the good one. I may have been in a hurry, but there is always time for a road-side Burrowing Owl.

Burrowing OwlFinally, I found the sought-after silhouette at the eleventh hour.

Prairie FalconPrairie FalconMy clean-up operations are not haphazard–my strategy is to try to go after anything rare first and save the most common for later if need be. One of those rarities was the Rufous-backed Robin. This past winter was exceptional for this species with many records popping up in AZ. So that next day, my friend Gordon Karre took me on a mini-outing to stake out a gorgeous backyard in Paradise Valley to hopefully get one of two Robins that had been eating the berries of pyracantha bushes. The problem was that time and berries had run out for this particular Robin pair. We dipped.

So Gordon and I moved on to another target just a couple miles away before retiring the birding efforts for the day. The Bronzed Cowbird, often a forgotten possibility on all these trips, was now at the top of the queue.  Gordon and I found a known wintering flock in Paradise Valley at some horse stables.

Bronzed CowbirdWith that target achieved, the birding was put on hold until the next morning where Gordon, my Dad, and I would follow the same strategy–go after a key rarity and snag as many other lifers along the way. That rarity was the Ruddy Ground-Dove. Though we were going to originally go after one in the Phoenix area, it became a no-show just a couple days before the trip.  We were then forced to go south to the Red Rock feedlot where several had been seen.

Initially, we had trouble finding these birds as we drove the perimeter of the massive feedlot and scanned for birds. There were some interesting distractions among the droves of common birds–a Vermilion Flycatcher, Lark Sparrows, a flock of Yellow-headed Blackbirds, and this lovely female Lark Bunting.

Lark BuntingFinally we got on to the flock(!) of the rare Doves, finding five or six in all. Here are four of them with an Inca Dove that has identity issues, all huddling to keep warm on this chilly morning.

Ruddy Ground-DoveRuddy Ground-DoveIMG_2229Ruddy Ground-DoveThe plan was to cruise through the Santa Cruz Flats on the way home to try for two birds I had long been holding in reserve: Crested Caracara and Mountain Plover. The Santa Cruz Flats are fun place to bird where one can not only stumble across a Mark Ochs lifer but also see cool stuff like Harris’s Hawks.

Harris's Hawk

And a bonus Prairie Falcon.

Prairie FalconThen, thanks to our trusty guide, we finally got onto one of the two targets–a whole heap of Crested Caracaras. Crested CaracaraCrested CaracaraNot long after, Gordon had found us some Mountain Plovers.

Mountain Plover

With some of the longtime holes finally filled in on the list, there wasn’t much to do on this trip in the lifer department especially considering our time was limited. Even still, the birds around the parents’ house provide just as much entertainment and constant opportunities for photo improvement. This year it was the Verdin’s turn for a better photo.

VerdinSome birds practically throw themselves at you when you’re just out walking in the neighborhood. Vermilion Flycatchers seem to be becoming more prolific in the area of Maricopa where Mom and Dad live. I don’t mind.

Vermilion FlycatcherVermilion FlycatcherLast, but certainly not least, checking on our neighborhood buddy is an annual tradition.

Burrowing OwlSo that’s it from this trip. Pretty tame by previous standards, but that will more than be made up for on an upcoming post detailing another trip to Arizona that was focused exclusively on birding. But first, we have to cover another excursion to Duluth. There was an irruption going on this winter, after all.

Arizona 2016: An Oasis of Non-Lifers and Fan Favorites

After the week we’ve all had, there are few safe harbors of respite remaining on the internet. Social media is a minefield; regular media of any flavor is only trusted by half the people. It’s a dark world, so let’s make it a little brighter with some pics of some rad birds from this year’s Arizona expedition. You know who doesn’t give a *#&% about elections? Burrowing Owls.  Let’s be more like them.

Burrowing OwlBurrowing OwlThere is a pair of Burrowing Owls within a mile of my parents’ place that I usually visit, but this year I didn’t find them as easily in the past.  I did eventually see one which brought me relief; I hadn’t seen them the first few times I checked this year.  Normally they are always out. To get my Burrower fix this year, I had to find some brand new ones which is always fun.  This pair was found on school property in Maricopa.  How cool would it be to have Burrowing Owls at your school?

Burrowing OwlAnother new Burrowing Owl I found this trip was only 100 yards from my parents’ backyard fence–I was pretty pumped to find this one.

Burrowing OwlBurrowing Owls aren’t the only birds I enjoy re-seeing on our annual AZ trip. Vermilion Flycatcher is another.  Every year I’m finding more and more around my parents’ neighborhood. Fun fact: Vermilion Flycatchers look just as amazing after November 8th as they did before.

Vermilion FlycatcherVermilion FlycatcherI did get to do some birding beyond my parents’ neighborhood and city.  I had the pleasure of once again meeting up with good friends, Tommy DeBardeleben and Gordon Karre for some intense birding outings in southeastern AZ.  We’ll save the really juicy lifer stuff for the next two posts, but there was plenty of non-lifer goodness as well, like a Green-tailed Towhee seen along the De Anza Trail near Tubac.  Previously I had only seen an extremely back-lit one in Colorado.

Green-tailed TowheeIn many ways, this was a photo redemption trip of many birds. This Lazuli Bunting was another nice find on the De Anza Trail.  The only other sighting I had was a fleeting glimpse at a lifer in MN.  Here I got to see the front AND back of this looker.

Lazuli BuntingLazuli BuntingBlack Phoebe is another of which I only had marginal photos before this trip.

Black PhoebeAnd Greater Roadrunners…we got skunked on this bird our very first AZ trip.  This bird below might have even let me pet it.  It actually walked toward me when I was only 10 feet away.

Greater RoadrunnerNow this next bird is one that I have better photos of, but c’mon, it’s a Black-throated Sparrow and needs to be included in this post regardless.

Black-throated SparrowAnd finally, the best photo redemption of all was of the only Owl Iifer I had never photographed.  Last year we saw a Barn Owl, but it flushed from its roost before I could get a photo.  It was a major letdown that I wanted to fix on this trip.  This time I was able to get a few shots before it flushed.

Barn OwlThen Tommy and I found it after it flushed and got some more shots of this cool bird.

Barn OwlNext post will be all lifers.  With three more posts (two AZ), there is much to look forward to!

The Great Arizona Encore: The Patagonia Picnic Table Effect Reversal

It’s a busy time of year right now with all the decorating, gift-buying, and holiday food prep–it’s a good thing my wife’s got all that covered so I can finally bring you some AZ stories.  Actually, writing the annual Christmas letter is about my only task this time of year, and much to my wife’s chagrin, this remains a grossly unfinished task.  Please don’t tell my wife I’m blogging right now.

So where were we with AZ? Oh yes, our family had departed Green Valley after a two-day stay and were about to go on a loop tour around the Santa Ritas, heading down to Nogales and back up through Patagonia and Sonoita.  There were only a couple birds on the agenda for the day.  The first (and also most exciting prospect) was checking on a Barn Owl day roost–somewhere in southern Arizona. 🙂  For some reason, Evan has latched on to this species and was one he really wanted to see.  He’ll refer to it by its scientific name, Tyto alba, and he’s been known to play its blood-curdling scream on his iPod in our house.

Once we got to the Owl’s roost, I walked up to this tower of sorts and looked up into the rafters.  Immediately I locked eyes with my Barn Owl lifer, tucked way up in the shadows! Just as I started to point it out to Evan and my dad, the Barn Owl flushed out of the opening right toward us! Of course I wasn’t ready with the camera, but our looks at this Owl were hard to beat.  Evan, bug-eyed, said in an astonished voice, “Whoa, Tyto alba just flew right by me!”

With no photo, the sighting was bittersweet for me.  But a Barn Owl seen is way better than no Barn Owl, so off to Patagonia we went.  In this city (and southern AZ in general), birders are the norm and not the nerd-freaks that people think of us in other places:

Patagonia binoculars

Patagonia is hallowed birding ground where all kinds of birding myths and legends originate.  In fact, a famous birding phenomenon known as the Patagonia Picnic Table Effect was coined from something remarkable that happened here that has also played out numerous times in many other locations.  Here’s the PPTE in a nutshell: some birders in the 1970s stopping for lunch in Patagonia discovered a rare bird which brought in more birders who discovered more rare birds in that location.  Whenever I find a rarity, I always hope it’s the beginning of the Patagonia Picnic Table Effect.  Needless to say, Patagonia is a place I have longed to visit after reading about it in books.

Despite the fact that the PPTE is based on multiple rarities and despite the fact that we were actually in Patagonia, I was after one bird at one very famous location:

Paton Center for HummingbirdsThe famous Paton House–hard to believe I was actually here.

Paton'sNo, we didn’t come for the common White-winged Doves, though they were dapper and only the second time we’d seen one.

White-winged DoveNor did we come for the WWDO’s cousin, the much less abiding Inca Dove.

Inca DoveIt was nice to see a Black-headed Grosbeak even if it was a bit scruffy looking, but that’s still not why we came.

Black-headed Grosbeak

I very much enjoyed up-close looks at my first MALE Gila Woodpecker–still not why we came though.

Gila WoodpeckerWe came for the Hummingbirds.  But not for the Broad-billed.

Broad-billed Hummingbird

Sorry, this teasing is annoying, especially since you knew from the first photo that the main attraction is the Violet-crowned Hummingbird.  Like so many birders before us, we made our pilgrimage to Patons’ just to add this key lifer.  Good thing we saw one.

Violet-crowned HummingbirdAin’t it a beaut?Violet-crowned HummingbirdIt knows it too. Like Orcas or Dolphins, it pandered to its gawking audience.

Violet-crowned HummingbirdSo that was that.  Tommy DeBardeleben and Gordon Karre had told me about a much rarer Hummer, the Plain-capped Starthroat, that had been seen regularly somewhere in Patagonia.  Not knowing exactly where to go for it and not feeling I could make yet another birding stop with the non-birding family, I didn’t even bother to check into it.

Instead, my family and I ate lunch at a park in Patagonia after a successful trip to Patons’.  It wasn’t until we were somewhere past Sonoita that it dawned on me–we ate lunch at a real life Patagonia picnic table.  And ironically, I don’t recall seeing/hearing a single bird in that park while we ate.  Back to that Plain-capped Starthroat, I also didn’t realize until we got home that we had driven within a block of that ultra-rare Mexican bird. I probably could have stopped to watch a feeder for a bit and not wrecked the family’s travel schedule. I am sure this will haunt me for years, possibly decades.

Moving on, we finally made it back to Maricopa. Before we got to my parents’ house, though, we had to check up on a couple of old friends in my parents’ neighborhood.  Love this guy (or gal–there’s one of each).

Burrowing OwlScanning a residential pond in the low light of the evening, I was excited to see the brilliant pop of color of the male Vermilion Flycatcher in my binoculars.  They never get old.

Vermilion FlycatcherWe also saw a Jackrabbit of some sort which was a cool experience.

JackrabbitThe Arizona fun isn’t over.  Next up is the final post and arguably the ugliest and cutest birds you will see.

None Greater–The Story of Our Sage-Grouse Lifer (The Epilogue – Bonus Lifers and Other Good Birds)

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.

Say's Phoebe

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.

American Avocet

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.

Mountain Bluebird

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.

Evan Burrowing Owl

Burrowing Owl

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.

Burrowing Owl

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.

Ferrugionous Hawk

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.

Ferruginous Hawk

John then spotted the male nearby.

Ferruginous HawkIt 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.

Ferruginous Hawk

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.

Western Meadowlark

Their song is beautiful and could be heard constantly from all directions.

Western Meadowlark

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.

California Gull

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.

California Gull

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.

Chestnut-collared Longspur

Chestnut-collared LongspurI 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.

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.

McCown's Longspur

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.

McCown's Longspur

McCown's Longspur

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.

Long-billed Curlew

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.Long-billed CurlewWe 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.

Northern Pintail

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.

Gadwall

Blue-winged Teal

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.

Greater Prairie Chicken EvanThis 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.

Evan Greater Prairie Chicken

Here’s one the grandmas can approve of.

Evan Greater Prairie Chicken

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.

Evan Evansville

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.

The story of our Montana Greater Sage-Grouse Lifer with Rick Wallestad is made up of four parts: 1) The Prologue–The Impetus, 2) Part 1, 3) Part 2, and 4) The Epilogue–Bonus Lifers.

Arizona 2015: Connecting with Old Maricopa Friends and Making New

Coming home from vacation is always a mixed-bag.  There is the unbeatable comforts of sleeping in one’s own bed and seeing the family dog again, which is only off-set by the reality of reality–unpacked bags, piles of mail, and employment.  But, it’s still the weekend and the mail and bags can wait; it’s time to unpack the bird photos and stories from a very birdy spring-break trip to visit my snowbird parents in Arizona.

Unlike last year, I woke up that first morning in Arizona this year with zero birding anxiety.  Partly this was due to the fact that last year we had pretty much conquered all the birds that could be had in the suburbia environment of Maricopa.  It was also due to the knowledge that the next two days in SE AZ would provide plenty of birding excitement. So in this calm before the storm, there was nothing to do but relax, hang out, and do some casual birdwatching. There were also lizards.

lizard

As fun as lizard-wrangling can be, one must never pass up an opportunity to visit Burrowing Owls especially when they are less than a mile from the house.  It was great to see the same pair in the same burrow as last year.

Burrowing OwlThe reunion tour continued at a municipal park where I discovered a pair of Vermilion Flycatchers last year.  Evan and I were pleasantly surprised to find not just one pair there this year, but two. Seeing the males do their pot-bellied flight displays is a real treat.

Vermilion FlycatcherGood birds can be had in my parents’ yard and just beyond.  My dad had been seeing a Greater Roadrunner around the house recently.  Evan and I were going to set out to see if we could find it.  As I was literally walking out to get Evan in the back yard, I caught a fast glimpse of the Roadrunner himself on the fence! While I was able to finally put this lifer to rest, Evan still didn’t see it–something that would become a common theme for the trip…

The search for the Roadrunner provided many opportunities to enjoy birds we don’t normally get to see.  Western Kingbirds–anywhere–never get old.  We had several this year.  How did we miss them last year?!

Western Kingbird

The Maricopa WEKIs are quite cooperative and unashamed, allowing a couple out-of-towners to do intimate checks for the similar-looking Cassin’s Kingbirds.

Western Kingbird

Say’s Phoebe is a bird I have not yet added to my Minnesota list.  For now, these Maricopa birds will have to fill the Say’s Phoebe void.

Say's Phoebe

The same can be said of Northern Mockingbirds.  The name of this species ironically mocks us northern birders since it is a much easier bird down south.

Northern Mockingbird

Continuing in this vein of ironic names is that while the Common Grackle is not so common in Arizona, the Great-tailed Grackle is common but not so great to Arizona birders.  Needless to say, this is a fun bird for us vagrant birders both in the visual and audio sense.

Great-tailed Grackle No trip to Arizona is complete without seeing the bodacious and skittish Gambel’s Quail.

Gambel's Quail

Gambel's Quail

Not only was it fun to visit all these old friends again, but Evan also got to add a big lifer within Maricopa’s city limits.  It was definitely a surprise to bump into a Western Grebe in one of the scuzzy man-made ponds of reclaimed water.  Though I was hoping it was a Clark’s, it was nice that Evan could finally tally this bird, one that he has had lingering soreness over me seeing and not him.

Western Grebe

These nasty ponds have given us some good birds the past couple years, but it’s important to remember that no matter how hot it gets in AZ and how thirsty one gets…no beber.

no beber

Consider this post an appetizer of great things to come from our Arizona trip.  The main course(s), the filet mignon of birds, is yet to come.  There will be a whole new cast of characters, birds and otherwise, for your viewing and reading pleasure.

The 2015 Arizona series has eight chapters: 1) Maricopa Birds, 2) Mt. Lemmon, 3) Florida Canyon, 4) Madera Canyon Part 1, 5) Madera Canyon Part 2, 6) Evan’s Big Discovery, 7) Owling at Coon Bluff on the Salt River, and 8) Evan’s Nemesis.

2014 – The Biggest Year I Never Dared to Dream

What’s this, you say? A re-cap of 2014’s birds halfway through February?  Right now heads are shaking as they contemplate my foolishly late posting.  Well, to the detractors, I say the timing couldn’t be more right.  For you see, I did not rush to compile a “Top Ten” list in the waning hours of 2014 when the pressure of an artificial deadline might cause errors in judgement.  No, these ideas have been marinating and brewing for the most authentic and satisfying post possible.  Actually, the reality is that the birding has finally just flat-lined here in February and all this extra time has allowed me to steal a lot of cool ideas from those who have posted before me.

2014 was a monumental year–a year that will, in all probability, never, ever be matched again.  I do not anticipate doing future “Best of” posts, but I would be remiss if I did not commemorate the year that gave so much and so freely.  Though the word often loses its meaning in today’s vernacular, no other word is more qualified to describe 2014 than “epic.”  Evan and I began the year with a hefty-number of life birds, 200+.  So how many new birds could  a person reasonably expect to add in a new year at this stage in our birder development? 30? 40? 50?   No, we blew those figures out of the water.  I lifered 96 times and Evan 74.  Yes, we traveled out of state a couple times, but most of those life birds were found right here at home in the great state of Minnesota. The numbers don’t tell the half of it.  The actual birds included in those numbers are beyond anything I could have dreamed for us.  The stories of the finds, the chases, the hunts are dripping with adrenaline.  In fact, it was only just recently that my resting heart rate dropped below 120 BPM.

We’ll get to all that excitement in a bit, but first one must be grounded and look at the ugly side of birding.

Worst Birding Experiences of 2014

Far and away, this award goes to the Least Tern chase to Luverne.  I suckered the kids into going on an overnight camping trip with me to Blue Mounds State Park to see this bird.  My wife suckered me into taking along my dog. Now I’ve been to Blue Mounds before, so I promised the kids a great place to swim and a really cool city park in Luverne.  Long story short is that the drinking water at the park had e. Coli, the swimming reservoir was drained from a broken damn to due heavy spring flooding, and that beautiful city park was completely destroyed in that same flooding.  Not only did I have disappointed children and an overcrowded tent with two kids and a lab, but an overnight rain and lighting storm caused us to take shelter in the van at 4 AM and try to get some sleep.  The next day I was desperate to replace two balding tires before our return trip.  I found a dealership to do the job, and my plan was to take a walk around town with the kids and dog while it was being done.  Unfortunately a downpour caused the three of us and the dog to take shelter in the one-car showroom while we watched Sponge Bob on a 6 in. TV and waited for our car.  Oh, and that Least Tern we were after? Missed it by 15 minutes. Not even all the Common Nighthawks, Blue Grosbeaks, and Red-headed Woodpeckers we saw could salvage this trip.

Common Nighthawk

2014 also saw a few engagements with local law enforcement in the name of birding, mostly for the perfectly acceptable birding reason of speeding to get to a bird.  However, one low point was getting “stopped” at the Pennock sewage ponds.  I distinctly remember being shocked to see flashing red lights in my rearview while driving a dirt path around the ponds and then watching as the officer nervously approached my van from behind with his hand on his holstered gun.  Even after I explained I was just birding, he ran my license, checked my insurance, etc.  And when I thought it was all over? He stayed to watch me watch birds.  Not enjoying the company, I left…and discovered a back-up squad car with two more officers on the other side of the pond!  I guess a dirty mini-van at a rural sewage pond does seem a bit shady. But on an unrelated note, how about them nice treads on those tires?!

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Thankfully I didn’t end up tased or have my accompanying daughter placed in child-protective services so that we could go on to better days ahead.

Best Birding Experiences of 2014

2014 saw plenty of travel and with it, plenty of great birding.  Last March we made our first annual trip to Maricopa, Arizona to visit my snowbird parents.  The trip allowed us to pad the life lists with a couple dozen lifers and meet up with Phoenix birder/blogger Laurence Butler for some memorable Sonoran Desert birding.   In July we took a road-trip to Colorado to visit my Aunt Carol and Uncle Jon.  Birding the Badlands of SD and the Wet Mountains of Colorado pushed the life list even higher by about another 20 birds.  Not only did we go cross-country this year, but I went on several chases across the state with local birding friends Randy Frederickson and Steve Gardner and met many friendly MN birders at the stake-outs of the rarity after rarity.  2014 was ripe with such birds.  I think Randy added a half dozen state birds; usually he’ll get one every couple of years or so.

As fun as all the traveling was and all the great birding it brought, the best birding experience occurred in August when I had to attend a training in St. Paul for work.  This afforded me the opportunity to bring along my family for a mini-getaway. It also afforded me the opportunity to check out an extremely accommodating and wildly popular Least Bittern at Wood Lake Nature Center.  It took a little bit of effort on the part of some other birders to help us all see this cool bird just 6 feet away from the boardwalk on which we were standing.

Least BitternAnd one of the birders who helped us find this bird was none other than Stan Tekiela!

Evan watching a Least Bittern with Stan Tekiela.

It was a joy to watch Evan as he was really digging this lifer, just watching it and watching it.  The whole family was having fun watching this Bittern and the other wildlife. And Stan turned out to be an incredibly nice guy engaging Evan in a conversation about Bitterns and excitedly calling us back to look at a Raccoon. Evan had no idea who he was talking to at the moment.  His eyes got to be the size of dinner plates when I told him later on.  It was a memorable experience like none other.

Rarest Personal Finds of 2014

You can imagine how hard it was for me to make a Top-10 in a year with nearly a hundred life birds.  I struggled to whittle down the list. So here is a tribute to some really cool (I mean REALLY cool) finds I had this last year.  All these birds were previously undiscovered by others.  You might consider it cheating as I’m extending my Top 10 by including these birds, but remember that 2014 was epic. I posted to the listserv so much that people either love me or loathe me.  My luck was enough for a lifetime of birding. I’m still pinching myself. These birds are ordered from least rare to most rare and surprisingly none made the final cut for Top 10.  Any bird marked with an * means that it had the bonus distinction of also being a lifer at the moment of discovery.

7. Eastern Towhee – Kandiyohi County – an Occasional bird for the county and a solid find for a county that mostly consists of prairie and fields.

Eastern Towhee

6. Western Kingbird* – Kandiyohi County – also Occasional.  This was just a plain ol’ feel good find, an East meets West kind of bird.

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5. Swainson’s Hawk – Kandiyohi County – Occasional.  Ditto above.

Swainson's Hawk

4. White-winged Scoter – Kandiyohi County – Occasional.  I went Snowy Owling and got a Scoter hunch when I drove by Green Lake. I had the good fortune of that hunch being right. This Scoter brought in dozens of birders, some just getting a county tick, but many others getting the more important life tick. And in a Patagonia Picnic Table-Effect of sorts, one of those county listers also turned up a Long-tailed Duck when viewing this White-winged Scoter and yet another found a Snowy Owl!  I missed the former by an hour and drove right by the latter.  The agony of defeat still burns, but hey, it’s good the home county gained an even greater birding reputation.

White-winged Scoter

3. Mute Swan* – Renville County – First MOU official record for Renville County.  I dismissed it in my peripheral vision as a pelican or Trumpeter Swan.  I only gave it a look after my wife asked what it was.  Wow, I should listen to her more often.  BTW, not a bad bird for a trip to see the accountant is it?

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2. Spotted Towhee* – Kandiyohi County – Considered a Rare Regular for the state, showing up once or twice annually.  It has been seen in the county before, but this one was the first official MOU record for Kandiyohi County.  This one really got the blood pumping when I found it.

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1. Lesser Black-backed Gull* – Kandiyohi County – Also a Rare Regular for the state but this one was the first official MOU record for Kandiyohi County.  Unlike the Spotted Towhee, though, not even the Kandiyohi birding greats of Randy Frederickson, Ron Erpelding, and Joel Schmidt have seen this gull here at home.  Unfortunately, it didn’t hang on for anybody else.

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Biggest Upsets for not making the Top 10

Again, more Top 10 stretching.  Any of the aforementioned birds could have easily made Top 10, but there are even more phenomenal birds that missed the top honors that are listed below.  Seriously, you have to wonder what’s in the Top 10 if these birds didn’t make the cut.

10. Harlequin Duck – If only you’d been mature, little drake, you’d be right near the top!

Harlequin Duck

9. Eastern Screech Owl – How does an owl lifer miss the top spots?  Maybe if it had opened its eyes or been a red-phase…  Regardless, here’s a shout-out and thanks to Tony Lau for sharing his yard bird!

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8. Prothonotary Warbler – A great, great warbler for MN and quite the looker too!

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7. Hooded Warbler – This warbler nests in extremely small numbers in certain parts of the Twin Cities metro area.  I made a special trip just to look for it, and I saw three in one day.

Hooded Warbler

6. Greater Prairie Chicken – Crazy, right?  This was a bonus find when hunting for one of the top birds.

Greater Prairie Chicken

5. Vermilion Flycatcher – Gorgeous, gorgeous bird and Target #2 for the AZ trip.  Again, crazy.

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4. Varied Thrush – Any other year it’d probably be in the Top 10, but not even bonus points for showing up right here at home was enough to get it in the top tier.

Varied Thrush

3. Eurasian Wigeon – Casual in Minnesota. I saw one. Kinda.

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2. Common Eider – Not even making its first reappearance on MN waters since the 1960s could land this duck in the Top 10.

Common Eider

1. Wood Stork – Minnesota’s second state record.  Its rarity is the only reason it’s in this list.  Since this bird is ugly, here is a more fun picture of people enjoying that ugly.

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THE Top 10

So here is what you’ve all been waiting for–the real Top Ten. You might find yourself a bit surprised by my choices, but keep in mind that the bird itself is only half the fun–often circumstances, the birding company, or the hunt itself influenced my decisions.  The list is not indicative of the rarity status of these birds.  A surprising twist to this Top Ten is that nearly half of the birds are not even lifers (Indicated by an *)! Moreover, a great majority of these birds were found in-state.

10. Snowy Owl*

Now hold on a minute, I know you’re sick of these things on this blog and wondering how, in their great abundance, could they make the cut?  Snowy Owls added life to both the dull winter landscape and the business-as-usual halls in which I work in 2014. When I got my lifer in late 2013 and learned of the impending irruption last year, I sent out an all-staff email requesting coworkers let me know of any sightings. That opened the floodgates.  I was opening email after email of sightings, taking calls, listening to wild-eyed students and giddy staff members tell me about yet another sighting.  It was an incredibly fun time.  The owls made for instant ice-breaker conversations with all kinds of people.  Though I never found my own Snowy Owl in 2014, I was able to point many people to their first which was quite a thrill.  Additionally, driving anywhere became fun as every pole top or barn roof could hold a Snowy.  And the amount of down time for Snowy Owl hunting was a mere 7 months as they were back in early November to begin an echo flight of last year’s irruption.

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9. Black-billed Cuckoo

This is an uncommon bird and nowhere near rare for the northern half of MN during the breeding season.  Still, it is an extremely elusive bird.  Evan and I found our lifer quite by accident.  We went for a four-wheeler ride on my parents’ property and stopped to play a tape of a Northern Parula only to be answered by the exotic sound of the Black-billed Cuckoo.  We eventually were able to lure it into the open for some good views using playback.  It was haunting how that bird moved and watched us from the shadows.  And the sound of that thing is the craziest and most awesome bird noise I’ve heard.  How could I have grown up in the northwoods and never heard or seen this bird?  I know how. They hide like ninjas, watching your every move as you walk through the woods.

Black-billed Cuckoo

8. American Avocet

Ever since Evan and I got into birding, we talked about the awesomeness of the American Avocet.  It just stands apart from all the other shorebirds with that black and white plumage with the crazy orangish head and neck, not to mention the long, upturned bill. Not only did we finally see this bird in 2014, but we found our lifer ourselves right here at home–the best way.  I’ll never forget seeing it and then hustling down the sewage pond embankment to tell Evan.  His eyes got huge, and he scrambled to get out of the car.  We ended up seeing this species on three separate occasions in the county last year.  Such a bird! Such a year!

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7. Cerulean Warbler*

This was not a life bird, but it was a special treat to see one at our very own Sibley State Park right here in Kandiyohi County, and I finally got some killer photos of the bird. This was now the third Cerulean I’d ever seen, and I cherish each sighting as this bird is fighting for its future on two continents.  Evan’s seen this species a couple times now, but I hope that this beautiful, buzzy warbler will still be around for his kids and grandkids.

Cerulean Warbler6. Chestnut-collared Longspur

This striking Longspur is a state-endangered species.  Only a handful of pairs nest annually on a small tract of land known as the Felton Prairie IBA just east of Fargo.  Steve Gardner and I finally made the trip this summer just to look for this bird.  Picking up a bonus lifer Greater Prairie Chicken and seeing plenty of Western Kingbirds, Loggerhead Shrikes, and Marbled Godwits was pretty neat and all, but we nearly dipped on the main attraction at Felton Prairie.  This guy was a buzzer-beater, showing up just 15 minutes before the deadline Steve and I had set to go home.  This bird did not disappoint us in its looks.

5. Spruce Grouse*

This bird was a buzzer-beater for 2014 and slipped into this list at the eleventh hour. This was the first Spruce Grouse I had seen since circa 1999. Even Minnesota birders drool over laying eyes on this beautiful gnome of the deep spruce bogs. I happened upon this one while driving the short distance between my parents’ house and my in-laws’ house in the final days of 2014 while we were home for Christmas.  It felt so good to finally see this bird again and be able to photograph it.

Spruce Grouse

4. Long-eared Owl

I had the great pleasure of birding the Phoenix Mountain Preserve with Laurence Butler when we went to Arizona last March.  As we talked plans ahead of time to bulk up my life list with some desert species, Laurence mentioned the possibility of the rare Long-eared Owl prize. I honestly thought, ‘Pssshht. Whatever-like we’ll see ever that.’ But inwardly I was secretly excited too.  As someone who connected with birding because of the thrill of the hunt, it was a magical experience to wind our way through a tree-choked gully in the Sonoran Desert with the possibility of coming face-to-face with an owl that is coveted everywhere.  Then it happened. One exploded into the air in front of us leaving throbbing hearts and cursing mouths in its wake.  Eventually Laurence and I pinned it down and stared right into those yellow eyes.  It was a mountain-top high on the valley floor.

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3. Blue Grosbeak*

Yes, Josh, it’s a beautiful bird, but c’mon, #3?!  This is a bird I dreamed about seeing when I first saw it in the Kaufmann Field Guide and noticed that the very southwestern tip of MN was in its range.  Eventually I learned it’s a reliable find at Blue Mounds State Park which is where we got our lifer in 2013.  Getting deeper into birding, I was finding out that they are actually found much further north and east of that tiny corner of the state.  My curiosity was peaked after seeing them in Cottonwood and then when Joel had said he and Randy had seen a family of them a couple years ago just 25 miles away from Willmar in Renville County.  So I investigated the site and struck out.  However, I noticed a gravel pit in the vicinity and stopped to check it out since Blue Grosbeaks have an affinity for such desert-wash environments. I rolled down the window and was almost instantly greeted with the sweet, sweet sound of BLGR.

When I got home I looked at the gravel pit with satellite imagery and discovered that the tract of gravel pits stretched for nearly four miles being intersected neatly with a county road every mile.  I had to go back!  And so I did.  And I found a Blue Grosbeak on every county road that intersected that gravel tract for a total of four Blue Grosbeaks over a three-mile stretch.  As a bonus, another birder following up on my reports turned up a 5th one.  We were no longer dealing with a far-flung, slightly out-of-range individual bird or two.  Instead we had a thriving population of Blue Grosbeaks in Renville County which is far north and east of where they are supposed to be.  And they are only six miles south of Kandiyohi County!

Finding rare birds by chance is great fun, but investigating a theory and having that theory validated with multiple birds was a birding achievement that I prize more than any of my rarities mentioned in this post.  Contributing data to a possible range expansion is exciting stuff. I cannot wait to check on them again this summer.

Blue Grosbeak

2. Burrowing Owl

Since Melissa has taught the novel Hoot for years and since Evan and I are birders, this owl has a special connection with our family. It was the one bird that we simply had to see in Arizona above all others.  Laurence had told me Zanjero Park was pretty much a lock, but my dad, the chauffeur, went rogue and opted to drive us along random roads in the countryside south of Maricopa.  As zero new birds were being seen, especially not the Burrowers, I thought the day was going to be lost. So then a quiet, non-aggressive Norwegian stand-off ensued complete with beatings around the bush and passive-aggressive attempts to commandeer the situation.

“I think Zanjero could be a sure thing.”

“It’ll be more fun to find our own.”

Folks, let me tell you, always listen to your dad and kiss your wife because as my heart was sinking in despair along with the setting sun, Melissa hollers from the backseat that she found one! And another and another and another.  Dang!  The fun didn’t stop there either. I finally found a couple, and even my mom found herself one.  We had eight Burrowers in all!  Let me tell you, these Scandinavians were rocking that van with whoops and hollers.  It was a fun, memorable experience for the whole family.

In all, we saw 12 Burrowers on our trip with a pair even within biking range of my parents’ house.

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1. Garganey

You’ve seen the kind of birds we put up in 2014.  Honestly, could this spot be held by anything other than Wisconsin’s first state record of a Garganey that Evan and I went to see?  If you look up the word “serendipity” in the dictionary, you are bound to see a picture of a Garganey.  Kaufmann writes that it can show up on any marsh in the spring.  How awesome and hope-inspiring is that?!  Plus it is a gorgeous duck that I had been yearning to see someday before my time is up. And if seeing a Garganey wasn’t a thrill enough, we went on this adventure with long-time birding great, Ron Erpelding, and got to witness someone who has amassed over 50 years of birding and over 675 life birds see this bird for the very first time just as Evan and I were seeing it.  It was life bird #678 for Ron.  Not even the cats-and-dogs rain could detract from our joy that drenched us when we watched this bird just 15 feet out the car window.  It was, by far, the best bird of 2014.

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So, 2015, it is unlikely you will live up to the high bar you’re bigger, all-American, older brother, 2014, has set.  But take heart because you will be special in your own right. Perhaps you will be known as the year of the Gyrfalcon!