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.

No Lyin’ – Lyon County Has Unique Birds

The other night when my wife and I were on a date she took out her phone for a moment.  I figured it was as good a time as any to do likewise.  No, I wasn’t interested to see who texted me or check on sports scores.  Instead I wanted to check for any intel from the field, bird-wise that is.  Scanning the Minnesota Birding Facebook group posts, I saw one that got me fired up – 5 White-faced Ibises in Lyon County.  Lyon County is where I just was the day before when we got the Ross’s Goose.  I told Melissa that it looked like I’d be heading back to the southwest in the morning.  I put the birding aside and continued on with the date – until I got home.  Then I checked Birding Across America for any other info out of Lyon.  I saw that my Cottonwood reporter was at it again – one Cattle Egret and 36 Smith’s Longspurs at the Cottonwood sewage ponds that evening.  Yep, I was headin’ southwest in the morning.

I brought the kids along.  I knew Evan wouldn’t want to miss a potential 3-lifer day (one of which was an ibis!).  Plus we would be in the neighborhood of Lyon County’s Garvin Park – a campground with a playground so new and enormous that none can compare. With lunch, pillows, blankets, and movies, we were off on an adventure of undetermined length.

When we arrived at Sham Lake I looked for Cattle Egrets but came up empty.  Almost as soon as I pulled in, though, a car pulled up behind me.  I see a young man get out, binoculars in hand, and come up to my window.  Could it be this young fellow whose eBird reports I salivate over?  Sure enough, it was him.  We visited for quite awhile about the unique birds in the area, and he told me the first-hand account of seeing those 16 Cattle Egrets on his way to school a couple days prior.  By the looks of him I figured him to be a college student in his early twenties. As he talked about first waves of the warbler migration and nesting Western Kingbirds, I assumed he was in some sort of biology or naturalist program.  That is, until he told me he stopped by to do a bit of birding before going to prom that afternoon.  I didn’t even know what a warbler was until I was in my thirties. Sheesh.  We didn’t get any Cattle Egrets there, but I got something almost as good – the contact information of this local birding kingpin.  Those kingbirds shall be ours this summer.

After we parted company, the kids and I went to the poop ponds looking for the egret and longspurs.  We struck out.  Now we were 0 for 2 on the morning.  On the way out of town we stopped by both Cottonwood Lake and the slough south of town.  It was good to see that our Ross’s Goose was still hanging on.


The kids were beyond anxious to get to Garvin Park.  But we had to look for our main target first – the White-faced Ibises.  Five of them had been reported at Black Rush WPA just east of Camden State Park on County Road 59.  We drove the road back and forth a half dozen times or more.  I was looking deep in the thick cattail marsh thinking that they were lurking somewhere out of easy viewing.  Nothing.  0/3 now.  It was time to go to the park – the big draw for the kids.  In their world, it must have felt like an eternity until we got there around 12:30.  Good thing we didn’t get there much sooner!

IMG_8153My goodness did those kids play hard and long in the chilly, windy weather.  I was content to let them do so.  Melissa was ill and bed-ridden all day back home, and I figured we’d have a better shot at those ibises on the return trip the closer it got to evening.


Birding at Garvin was limited.  It was way too early for that Cerulean Warbler to be back, but it was nice to see and get some photos of a couple Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers.

Yelloww-bellied Sapsuckeer

Yelloww-bellied Sapsuckeer

This bird will always be a notable one for me.  Two years ago when Evan and I knew nothing about birds – well, he knew a lot more than me – we went on a birding walk with a naturalist at Bearhead Lake State Park.  The first bird our guide pointed out to us was the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.  It was a rather odd-looking woodpecker with a funny name.  It sounds like an insult you’d hurl at somebody.

IMG_8143It was pretty neat to see him working so hard at his name-sake – sucking sap.

IMG_8152So, the blog post could very well have ended right here since we struck out on all three targets.  Thankfully, though, it doesn’t.

Just at the time we were getting ready to leave the park, I got an update that someone had seen the ibises just now!  We were 15 minutes out.  We hustled on over there and flushed the 5 White-faced Ibises as we drove County Road 59! A lifer and a very cool one at that.

White-faced Ibises

White-faced Ibises

They were actually smaller than I imagined.  These birds were very skittish and would land 50 yards up the road, bobbing and weaving in the cattails and marsh grasses as they went along foraging for food.

IMG_8160IMG_8165We spent a good deal of time driving up and creeping on these birds only to have them flush a short distance and always together as a group of five.


They were very loyal to the ditches along either side of the road.IMG_8191What a life bird this was.  A small colony of them nest in South Dakota, so we do get them as scarce visitors every spring in Minnesota.  I remember thinking last year what a strange bird this was and even more strange that it can be seen in our state.


1 for 3.  Not bad considering this is the bird that pulled us southwest again just two days after our last trip.  We couldn’t go home and not check out the Cottonwood area again. Alas, there still was no Cattle Egret.  I wouldn’t classify it as a nemesis bird yet, but rather just a really annoying bird that was getting under my skin.

There were a few interesting shorebirds at the poop ponds, though.  I’m terrible at shorebird identification, but I knew they were peeps.  I was frustrated because my camera battery had just died, and I couldn’t take photos to ID later.  I did manage to have enough power to get just one image of this bird which we determined to be our Baird’s Sandpiper lifer.  I don’t get too excited about most shorebird lifers because there’s always an element of doubt as to what it is.  It’s not like a Blue-headed Vireo or Scarlet Tanager.  Those ones are easy to tell and worthy of a fist pump.

Baird's Sandpiper

Baird’s Sandpiper

Well, this guy’s pretty cool, I guess – worthy of a suppressed ‘yay’.

It was a good trip.  You can’t complain about a White-faced Ibis lifer coupled with a bonus shorebird lifer.  You can complain about a dead battery, though.  Lyon, we shall be back for more of your treasures with a fully charged camera next time.

Cottonwood Produces Again!

There’s this tiny town just an hour to the southwest called Cottonwood that is just a dynamic little spot to find some incredible birds.  Southwestern Minnesota, in general, has some phenomenal birding having more prairie and being on the eastern edge of the range for many western species.  There’s always good things happening down there.  Cottonwood isn’t as far south or west as one can go, but it still gets some pretty unique action.  Probably what draws the birds in is a collection of water holes in an otherwise dry landscape.  It’s not like west-central Minnesota where you can’t travel a half mile without seeing a puddle, a slough, or a lake.  This limited water around Cottonwood consists of their famous sewage ponds, Sham Lake, and Cottonwood Lake.  Whatever Cottonwood’s secret is, I have made a couple quick stops when passing through over the years and picked up such notables as Wilson’s Phalaropes and Blue Grosbeaks.

From using my site Birding Across America, I have been following a couple of birders who make regular eBird reports out of the Cottonwood area.  I’ve never met the guys, but based on their modern-sounding first names I’m assuming they are young men – younger than me.  Another indicator of their youth is that they never post to MOU-net while that’s pretty much all the serious birders of the old guard use.  These guys are flying under the radar with reports of California Gulls, Great-tailed Grackles, Western Kingbirds, and much more.  I’m always excited to read their eBird checklists – there’s always at least one gold nugget in there.

This past week it turned out there were 16 such gold nuggets in the form of Cattle Egrets. 16!  The birds were feeding in a small channel that flowed into the east side of Cottonwood Lake.  I had to check it out as Cattle Egrets are tough to come by, and Evan and I have never seen one.  Well, Evan claims he saw one close to home two years ago actually feeding on a cow’s back.  I’m not going to doubt him based on his own established birding reputation, which will be showcased later in the post.  Regardless, I had never seen one, and Steve had never seen one in Minnesota. So it was off to Cottonwood for us.

We got down to this channel and found nothing but American Coots.  I was certain that at least one of those Cattle Egrets would be lingering around a weedy edge somewhere. Nada. So Plan A was gone. We moved on to Sham Lake to look for the egrets there and maybe possibly turn up a scoter of some sort. Sham was a sham.  Just pelicans, the usual waterfowl, and some terns.  By now we were on Plan C which was to bird the sewage ponds.  We weren’t expecting a Cattle Egret here, but shorebirds are on the move so we were hopeful for some exciting bird in the rocks.  Nothing there either.  At one point we got pretty excited about an unusual-looking gull.  Turns out it was just a juvenile Bonaparte’s.  Steve and I both appreciated having seen it and added to our birding knowledge.

Plan D was to move on to the large slough south of Cottonwood.  We picked up some Western Grebes there last year, and its marshy edges felt very egrety.  There was, of course, the usual waterfowl and token yellowlegs on the shore, but nothing stood out as unusual.  Steve set up up his spotting scope to start scanning the far stuff and hopefully pull up something really good.  Being scopeless, I just looked around a bit, occasionally pulling up the bins.  At one point I noticed the dirt clumps in the corn stubble field right next to us were moving.  Looking closer I saw a large, late flock of Greater White-fronted Geese feeding right on the edge of the field.  Somehow Steve had managed to miss this species for this year.  I knew this, so I smugly asked, “Hey Steve, you still need a Greater White-fronted Goose for the year?”  But Steve silenced my smirk when he looked over at the flock and said, “Hey, what’s that white thing?”

Somehow I missed a white bird nestled in with some brown birds in a black field.  I got on it with my camera and told Steve I think we had a Ross’s Goose!  I sneaked up and got some pictures and went back to show Steve.  We knew it was either a Ross’s or Snow Goose.  Looking at the picture we could see the obvious size difference between the smaller white goose and the Greater White-fronted Goose.  That sealed it as a Ross’s Goose since the Snow Goose is the same exact size as th GWFG.  Yes!  It was a life bird for Evan and me.

Ross's Goose in foreground; Greater White-fronted Geese in background

Ross’s Goose in foreground; Greater White-fronted Geese in background

IMG_8090This is one of those life birds that is expected in our area.  We just hadn’t turned one up yet.  They are quite scarce in relation to the other goose species.  I always thought this one would be easy to get since Randy, the wise Yoda birder of Kandiyohi County, had said all you have to do is stand in your yard during migration, find a flock of Snow Geese going over your house, and look for the goose that’s 25% smaller than the rest. Seemed easy enough.  Except we don’t get nearly the fly-over flocks that Randy does even though he’s just 5 miles to the west.  And I’ve learned that Randy downplays how rare or scarce a bird is.  I mean, he’s had a Lazuli Bunting and Yellow-crowned Night Heron in his yard, so why would a Ross’s Goose be so hard to him?  I started to get clued in when I’d see people report Ross’s Geese on the listserv and get all excited about them on Facebook.

A Sore Thumb - Notice how the Ross's is 3/4 the size of his companions

A Sore Thumb – Notice how the Ross’s is 3/4 the size of his companions

Ross and his entourage

Ross and his entourage

Our trip to Cottonwood was short as it was getting late and time to head back.  We stopped by that channel where the egrets were one last time.  Again, nothing.  But from the back seat Evan says, “Hey guys, I see a Green Heron down there.”  Sure enough, there one stood.  This was the first time I’ve ever got to get a really good look at one in breeding plumage.  The colors were fantastic.  And of course I am referring to the green grass showing up.  The bird was also nice.

Green Heron

Green Heron

IMG_8135Nice eye, Evan.  We ended up seeing two more of these guys after this.  It’s always a fun bird to see.

It was a good, short trip to Cottonwood.  We didn’t get our target, but we swapped it for another lifer instead.  We’ll take that anyday.  We shall return to find more of Cottonwood’s treasures.