Reader’s Choice Makes For A Choice Reader

Over the years ABWCH has enjoyed its share of popular posts and survived tougher times of fickle readership through some real ho-hummers. Through it all, though, there has been a dedicated following that has stuck through posts of plenty as well as posts left wanting. Thanks, Mom. I’m kidding. There’s one more.  If you’ve read this blog at all, you have certainly seen a comment left by AMR, a.k.a. Adam Roesch.  As an actuary in real life, Adam brings an analytical skill-set to the world of birding not often seen.  He is a dedicated patch birder who, almost to a fault, birds exclusively at Coon Rapids Dam Regional Park on the Mississippi River.  Even as potential life birds fall all around him, he opts to bird CRDRP instead of chasing those lifers, hoping to up his patch total, find a rarity, or just document the general avian goings-on there.  Should he ever dump his detailed data notebooks of years of observations on eBird, the system would likely get overloaded and crash.  More than once Adam has offered to show me his beloved spot. Given that it is at least a two hour trip for me and my desire to tone down the chasing, I told him I had to be really selective about the long-distance trips I make. It would either have to be a side trip of convenience if I was in the area or an exclusive trip for a highly compelling reason. So here’s what I told him nearly two years ago:

commentSince that comment was written, I have knocked off all those ducks but one–the Barrow’s Goldeneye, a bird considered casual in Minnesota occurring roughly every 5 years.  As I am getting to the end of my normal MN birds, BAGO was rapidly moving its way up to the top of the list of my most-wanted birds.  Last year I chased a female BAGO in Fergus Falls but failed.  This year there have been a couple other reports but nothing I considered reliable and therefore chaseable. Well, a little over two weeks ago, Adam Roesch birded at the Mississippi River in Champlin–quite aways upstream from his beloved patch–and made a stunning discovery.  Among the myriad of Common Goldeneye, Adam found and photographed a beautiful male Barrow’s Goldeneye. And with that find, Adam submitted his first ever eBird checklist.  Talk about an entrance.

Since the Barrow’s was a metro bird on a river that flows between two counties, the chasers and listers came in droves without haste. At the time, our family was an hour away at Evan’s swim meet in St. Cloud.  After the Sunday event, I dragged the family down the freeway to go to Champlin/Anoka.  At long last I got to meet Adam and his kids in real life as they tried to help me relocate the object of my desire. Of course, when a life bird is at stake, conversation and eye-contact are kept to a minimum as all such efforts are prioritized to the task at hand.  Adam and I parted ways quite quickly in a divide-and-conquer approach with the limited time I had to look.  I finally did have to pull the plug and cut my family’s losses on this unexpected 3-hour extension of their already long weekend.

In the interim, talk of the Barrow’s died down with some of the best birders not being able to relocate it in subsequent days.  But then, conveniently enough, there was a sighting that next Friday–a day before I was scheduled to go to my brother’s place in the Cities. Perfect.  The pre-planned trip was something the kids and I were going to do while Melissa was away for a fun weekend with some friends. After shuttling kids around to their respective activities that Saturday morning, we were eastbound.  Picking up a Meeker County Rough-legged Hawk (dark morph!) along the way was a good birding start to what was once a non-birding trip.

dark morph Rough-legged hawkdark morph Rough-legged hawkFor the second time in as many weekends, we arrived at Anoka’s Peninsula Point Park to scan the Mississippi for the good Goldeneye.


These are NOT good Goldeneyes.

I was joined by another reader and former life bird provider, Tony Lau.  While Evan and Marin played with a whiskey bottle they found with a bit too much enthusiasm, Tony and I looked and looked for THE duck. No luck.  I decided to head across the Champlin bridge to look for the duck on the Hennepin County side.  Just as I was about to take off, Tony waved me over with both arms. Yes! I hurried over and Tony got me on the duck with his scope as it swam upstream west of the Champlin bridge. The sighting was good enough to claim the lifer, but I wanted more.  Then to our horror, an Eagle came and scared it up sending it further west.

The kids and I drove across the Champlin bridge to see if we could relocate it. No luck. I gave the kids a reprieve by going on a hot chocolate run and then decided to try scanning the river one last time. It was Tony to the rescue again.  He had also come over to the Champlin side of the bridge and relocated the bird.  The low light conditions, distance, and nearly constant diving made it tough to find and keep track of.  Finally, though, I was able to latch on to this lifer with the camera.

Barrow's GoldeneyeThere’s just something that I absolutely love about getting duck lifers in the cold months.

Barrow's Goldeneye

A huge ‘Thank You’ goes out to dedicated reader, Adam Roesch, for his incredible find. Getting lifers in Minnesota is a rare thing for me anymore, so this was a monumental addition. And if you’re reading, Adam, I’ll go ahead an put in my order for Red-throated Loon, Mew Gull, California Gull, mature drake Harlequin Duck, red-morph Eastern Screech-Owl, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Carolina Wren….

The birding for the weekend didn’t stop with the Barrow’s.  Since I was in town and a Snowy Owl had been reported, I decided to get my FOY SNOW.  Normally I wouldn’t chase a Snowy since I’ve seen them within a few minutes of my house, but my brotherr’s house was only ten minutes away from this one.  And besides, it chose the most unlikely of places to live, something I had to see for myself:

MinneapolisI’m not lying. This skyline view of Minneapolis is literally what this Snowy Owl can see from its bizarre winter territory.  I am used to looking for Snowies in urban environments, but nothing quite like this. Snowy Owls aren’t that hard to spot in places like this, yet I was having a hard time, a really hard time. I finally ran into another birder who clued me in to this sneaky Snowy’s hideout.

Minneapolis SnowySee it? Yeah, I didn’t either without help.

Minneapolis SnowyNever have I seen an Owl, Snowy or otherwise, so well fortified.  Camouflaged, yes, but not entrenched. I tried every which angle and every side of the building for a shot.

Minneapolis Snowy

I spent way too long hoping it would fly up to a higher perch. But why would it want to? This guy or gal has figured out how to live the solitary life in a bustling metro environment.

Minneapolis SnowyThe non-birding-totally-birding metro trip was a success by any standard. It was back to rural west-cental MN where more adventure awaited in the days to come. We’ll save that for the next post, but to close things out, here’s a Great Horned Owl the kids and I saw on the ride back home.

Great Horned Owl

Yard Bird #74 – Far, Far From a Cardinal in the Snow

The birds are conspiring against me.  After the trip Up North, I was all set to be a responsible, non-birding adult who takes care of all those non-birding chores, duties, etc, and who generally uses his time wisely before jet-setting for Arizona in a couple weeks for…more bird gluttony.  The birds have had other plans–they’ve been in my face.

For starters, FOYs are increasing exponentially.  My year list doubled in the last couple weeks.

Some we are catching on arrival.

Cackling Goose

Cackling Goose is a solid FOY, not to be taken-for-granted.

Some we are catching on departure.

Lapland Longspur

2015 was dangerously close to being Lapland Longspurless. Tragedy averted.

Then there is the time-consuming documentation of good birds, FOY or otherwise, that comes along with responsible birding.

Northern Shrike

March 16th! The time is approaching when a MN Shrike cannot be safely identified by the calendar alone. Despite his proclivities for our recent warmer temps, this guy’s barred breast gave him away as a Northern.

Of course, when an MOU-official county first-record shows up in the home county, you simply must go after it.

Mute Swan

The race to see a rare bird is all the more urgent when an invasive, destructive species like the Mute Swan will be shot on sight by the DNR or USFWS.

Even if it chooses an uninspiring place to land.

Big Kandiyohi Lake

Big Kandiyohi Lake from County Park #2

Even if it is an unambitious slug that hangs out ALL day in one spot and might be a sick bird.

Mute Swan

An escapee? Doubtful-no leg bands seen when standing or clipped wings seen when flapping.

Then there are birds you simply have to take time to look at, unless of course, no one read you E.B. White’s classic, The Trumpet of the Swan, when you were a kid.

Trumpeter Swan

This Trumpeter Swan descendant of Louis is purported to play the trumpet line in the opening credits of Homeland.

Finally, there are birds that you cannot ignore even if you never venture out–yard birds.  Last week I stayed home one day to take care of a sick Evan. Upon pulling in the driveway after going out to pick up soda crackers, 7-Up, and so on, Evan told me he thought he saw a Bald Eagle overhead.  Not a rare sighting at our house, as it happens 2-3 times annually, but it was definitely a noteworthy sighting that caused me to get out of the car and look up. It was no hum-drum Eagle.  I nearly felt the breath knocked out of me when I saw it cruise directly over the house under 100 feet up–a new yard bird and rare one at that, a dark morph Rough-legged Hawk! Normally I always have the camera with me in the vehicle.  Instead, I raced into the house and got back in time for one shot to document this color-morph of an uncommon bird that is exciting anywhere, but all the more exciting because it graced our yard with its shadow.

Rough-legged Hawk

This was only my fourth county RLHA and my second-ever dark morph.

Evan and I chased after this bird for better photos, but it just kept slipping away as it glided on the wind.  I kept raving about what a cool find it was for our yard to which Evan replied, “You’re welcome, Dad.”

Every Bird Trip Ending is a New Bird Trip Beginning

At the end of our long day of North Shore birding, Evan and I opted to stay in Grand Marais at my brother’s vacation house instead of retiring with the rest of our group back to Duluth. Besides making for a more relaxed travel schedule, this extra night also guaranteed another crack at those ocean-going birds as well as all the oddball birds that can mysteriously show up in Grand Marais in the fall (Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Townsend’s Solitaire, etc).  Grand Marais is great town even if you’re not a birder.  With the vibe of a seaside village it attracts artists and nature lovers alike.  In addition to the birds, eating at the world’s only Sven & Ole’s Pizza was a must, and according to Evan, so was a Tom and Jerry marathon back at the house.  To each his own.

After plenty of pizza, cat&mouse antics, and sleep, it was time to get going with the new day.  We had birds to find and a state to cross.  While I was hauling our things out to the car in the pre-dawn darkness, I heard those shooting lasers that Clinton talked about – flight calls of Common Redpolls.  The rising sun revealed a whole cluster of them feeding at the tops of the birch trees in the front yard.  They were close and in the sun, so I decided I should get a proper photo of one.  I pulled up the camera on one and realized it was pretty frosty in appearance, and the bill was so small and conical.  Right away I was thinking it was a Hoary Redpoll.

Hoary Redpoll

Many Redpolls cannot be cleanly deciphered as Hoary or Common.  There is a lot of overlap, and it is all very confusing and frustrating.  People generally only claim Hoary on the most perfect specimens that exhibit all the undeniable traits of a classic Hoary.  Hoaries are rare as there may be one bird in every flock of 150-200 Common Redpolls. I’ve stared at many, many suspicious birds in my own yard trying to make the call on Hoary or not Hoary.  The general discussion on Facebook of the bird above leans toward the Hoary side.

At any rate, we were not in Grand Marais to debate Redpoll statuses.  We had birds to find. The plan was to hit up the municipal campground to look for flocks of Bohemian Waxwings and a couple of Black-backed Woodpeckers.  Up to 75 Bohemians had been seen in town a few days prior.  Since I needed to charge my camera battery that morning, we went camera-less.  The campground held some interesting birds – four Snow Buntings and two very frigid, out-of-place Meadowlark species.  However, there was nothing we were after.

We then retrieved the camera battery and drove the streets of town looking for fruit-bearing trees for Bohemians and donut-bearing gas stations for us.  We were successful on the latter.  The gypsy-like birds are completely unreliable and never did show up for us. We made one more pass through the storied campground and could only muster up a few Rusty Blackbirds.

Rusty Blackbird

After an hour of searching for the Waxwings, we gave up and headed southwest down Highway 61.  I spied an interesting-looking raptor flying the same direction as us, but I didn’t stop because the focus was back on ducks.  Either this bird passed us or there was another one just like it because Evan was exclaiming he just saw a black raptor with a white tail sitting on the power line.  I asked him if he thought we should turn around to look.  He wanted to, so we did.  The bird was a gorgeous dark-morph Rough-legged Hawk that was now on the move again back to the southwest.  So we raced ahead of it and stopped at the same overlook where we got our White-winged Scoters.  The views were spectacular.

Rough-legged Hawk

After enjoying this new, rarer flavor of RLHA, we noticed the three White-winged Scoters were continuing from the day before.  Then it was time to pop in our book-on-tape and hit the road hard, only stopping briefly at the lookouts from our trip yesterday to scan for ducks.  The story was much the same – no sea ducks.  Interestingly the day after this trip, a couple of juvenile Common Eiders were found at one of these locations – the first time since 1966.  And we missed it by a day.

Anyhow, Duluth still held something very promising for us.  It turns out that American Black Ducks are a relatively easy find along Park Point.  We needed that bird.  We can get it at home in spring and fall migration, but it’s not an easy one.  Clinton, our guide from the sea duck trip, gave us a reliable location to try for this semi-nemesis.  He said to look bayside at 38th street.  As I drove down Park Point and could see Lake Superior to my left and the bay to my right, I was not seeing ducks anywhere, not even Mallards.  This was a bad sign.  Even at 38th where the water nearly laps onto the road, there was nothing.  I checked lakeside even though Clinton said the ducks are always bayside.  Nothing.  I couldn’t believe it.  Leave it to me to screw up a sure bet.  I was settling in for defeat and driving back toward Canal Park when I caught sight of a couple of Mallards on the grass on the bayside of the road right near 38th.  I stopped and looked.  This caused these Mallards and several others who were tucked up on shore in the cove-like corner under some brush.  As they swam out into the bay, I saw that five of them were Black Ducks! This was a very satisfying lifer, perhaps the best of the trip.  It was a nice ending to a fun weekend of birding.


American Black Duck

It’s amazing how black these ducks really look in the right light.  The male below shows some green on the top of his head which might make it a Mallard X American Black Duck hybrid.


Here’s a better shot of the green.



It was finally time to leave the Black Ducks and Duluth behind and hit I-35 for the 3.5 hour ride home.  I was quite content to have gotten this hoped-for duck.  I was now looking forward to a relaxing ride home with no more birding stops.  Evan and I stopped one last time to fill up the tank and empty ours.  As I was waiting for Evan, I compulsively checked my phone (a bad habit brought on by birding).  Birding friend Tony Lau had messaged me to alert me to an incredible bird discovered by Jeff Grotte back home just a few miles from where I work. Before I knew it, I was hurrying Evan to get back in the car.  It was 1:00. Darkness was coming in four hours and I had to go just over 3 hours to get to this bird. Moreover, the coming 12 inches of snow that night would make a next-day search impossible.  Never mind that the bird could up and leave at any moment.  I had to get there – fast. There would be no relaxing drive home.