Boreal Magic: A 5-Year Dream Realized

It was 2012 when this whole birding thing began for Evan and me. By year’s end, we didn’t even have 100 species to our name. Sometime in January of 2013, I discovered Minnesota’s listserv, MOU-net. My eyes were opened to the world of rare birds. At that point in time, rare birds and common birds were all still new to us, so many of the reports were not of great significance to us. While I wasn’t into chasing rare birds at that time, a bombardment of emails regarding one bird was causing me to think I should take some kind of action. The Boreal Owl was irrupting in record numbers that January and February, coming down from Canada. I had only seen a Great Horned Owl by this time, so it was just one of 18 Owl species I had yet to see. But people were describing how this species only irrupts like this every four to five years, and birders were flying in from all over the country to see this Owl. It was a rare event to say the least; I knew I had to try. Melissa was involved in directing a school musical during that same time and couldn’t break away for a weekend getaway until early March which I later found out was a little on the late side for Boreals. Some readers may recall that it was then that we made our first ever birding trip to the Sax-Zim Bog and the North Shore, hoping to see the Boreal Owl as well as the other great northern Owls. Not only did we not see a Boreal, but we saw no Owls at all.

That winter passed giving way to new seasons and new birds. Over the years our life list would quadruple, and it would include numerous Owl sightings from 17 different species. Each winter I’d hold out some hope that there would be a report of a Boreal Owl somewhere along the North Shore of Lake Superior, but there would be none. Eventually it became a mythical bird for me. I kicked myself for not getting my butt up to Duluth in February of 2013. In the years since then, I had amassed a formidable collection of rare bird sightings in Minnesota and across the country, yet I was not a member of the Boreal Owl club.  I had Owled literally from the Canadian border down to the Mexican border seeing really cool Owls.  But the Boreal was not one of them. In fact, I was down to two unseen Owl species of the 19 that are possible: the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl and the Boreal Owl. Watching my good buddy Tommy DeBardeleben accomplish his goal of seeing all 19 Owl species in 2016 only heightened my desire to get the Boreal.  I felt as if Minnesota was a lost cause.  I began to daydream of trips to Washington state, Colorado, or Ontario to look for this Owl.   The winter of 2016-2017 was supposed to be the next Boreal Owl irruption if it truly did irrupt every four years. I eagerly awaited news last year. There were a handful of scattered reports, but nothing of a large scale irruption materialized. Would I have to wait another four years? Would I have to travel far away and spend all kinds of money to finally see this Owl?

It turns out I was not alone in my longing for a Boreal. Buddy Jeff Grotte who started the popular Facebook group, Owl About Minnesota, has seen over 1,000 Owls in the last five years. He even tried for Boreal a few times back in 12-13, but he was still Boreal-less too. Jeff and I talked often of hoping to see this bird. Then in December, a friend of Jeff’s from Indiana had a brief sighting of one in the Sax-Zim Bog. It was a fluke sighting, or so I told myself. This wasn’t the irruption year–that was supposed to be last year. Jeff and I decided to try for this Owl the very next morning. It literally was our first opportunity in five years of waiting. We had to try. Rising early, we got up to the Bog just after dawn. Great Grays, Hawk Owls, and Snowies were all off to a banner start up there, but Jeff and I have both seen plenty of each. We wanted the prize bird more than anything else. By noon we were still without a Boreal sighting and decided to call it quits. The three Owls we did see were of little consolation.Northern Hawk OwlSnowy OwlSnowy OwlHeartbroken at the time, little did we realize that the Boreal we chased was just the tip of the spear. More sightings kept popping up during December of both live and dead Boreal Owls. By the time news of one would come out, though, it would either be during the work week or late in the day making a chase impossible. Jeff and I were hopeful that our day would finally happen, but we were very antsy about it. I had an upcoming trip to Arizona that I was now dreading. I did not want to miss my chance.

Jeff, myself, and several others decided we should just head up to Duluth and the North Shore the weekend of January 6th-7th whether we had sightings to go off of or not. Clearly the Boreals were irrupting, so the plan was to either look for one on our own or geographically put ourselves in position to quickly get on a bird if there was one. I decided to drag Evan along on this trip; even if he didn’t care about Boreal Owls so much, I knew it would be a fun father-son adventure. We would travel all the way to Grand Marais to stay in my brother’s vacation home, looking for Boreals along the way.

Late in the day on January 5th, one of our group had accomplished the unthinkable: while looking for Saw-whet Owls, teenage birding brothers Ezra, Isaac, and Caleb Hosch had discovered their lifer Boreal Owl near the Twin Cities! Four days prior to that, these brothers had come out to Kandiyohi County to try to help me find a Saw-whet out here. Jeff opted to look for the Boreal these guys found that next morning. I decided to continue with my plan of heading to the North Shore. After all, Scenic 61 between Duluth and Two Harbors is where the Boreals usually pop up. Furthermore, a fellow living outside Grand Marais had one coming to his yard for a few days in a row. This Twin Cities Boreal could easily be gone the next day, and chasing it could cause me to lose valuable search time along the North Shore. Jeff planned to call me that morning if it was relocated. Sure enough, two hours into my journey north I got the call from Jeff. I was just north of Hinckley at the time, heading north on I-35. I continued to the next exit where I could get turned around to head south. It would take an hour to get there. It was a strange detour, but you know, a bird in the hand and all that…

Evan and I got to the site. Jeff was waiting for us in his car trying to get warm.  Little did we know that it was nearly a mile hike in the single-digit temps out to this Owl. Jeff did warn us that the Owl was extremely high in a pine tree, like 60 feet high, and the views were terrible. The Hosch family was also there to guide us out to where the Owl was. Visiting with the Hoschs, I learned that Jeff had called me to get me turned around on the highway before he even laid eyes on the bird himself. Nice guy. When we got out to The Tree, Isaac and Ezra were helping people get on their amazing find. I could not see the darn thing despite patient birders trying to describe where it was. Just as I was about to zero in on it, it flew! So, technically I had a Boreal Owl, but it didn’t feel like it. Evan never took his eyes off it and saw it land in another pine just as high off the ground as the first. Evan was able to see it with no optics, but again, I could not pick it out. And then it flew again. Argh! The bird had been notched, but there were no solid looks or photos. This was not just some western Empid that you could be satisfied with a brief, distant look–this was the freaking Boreal Owl!  Two hours had now passed since I got that phone call from Jeff. Evan and I could still make it Grand Marais before dark and get at least some searching in along the way if we hurried. I was hoping we could get onto a more cooperative Owl. So with temps hovering around zero, Evan and I jogged most of the mile back to the car and quickly got on the road to go back north. There were more Boreals to be found, and we wanted a better look.

We got to Duluth around 1:00. I wanted to be in Grand Marais by 4:00 in case that gentleman with the yard Boreal called me. He had said he would make sure to tell me if it made its usual appearance at dusk. Once in Duluth, Evan and I hopped on Scenic 61, a highway that hugs the shoreline of Lake Superior. Boreal Owls are often found here during irruption years because when they come south they hit the lakefront and keep moving southwest along the shore. The stretch between Duluth and Two Harbors is often the best section for them. We, though, didn’t find any by the time we hit Two Harbors. We stopped at a city park where a Boreal had been seen a few days earlier.  We planned to leave by 2:30 to get to Grand Marais in time. The park yielded nothing.  Evan and I were walking back to the car to continue northeast to GM when my phone rang. It was Jeff: “Hey, where are you at?!”

“I’m in Two Harbors.”

“Turn around right now! There’s one in Duluth!”

I was literally running while getting the location from Jeff and hollering to Evan (who had fallen a hundred yards behind) to start running back to the car. Huffing and puffing, we hopped in the car and quickly got on the expressway back to Duluth. Another jaunt south on this north-south zig-zag adventure. No Scenic 61 this time. In about 25 minutes we made it to the Hartley Nature Center where Erik Berg and Kelly Raymond had seen this Owl and notified Jeff. It took a little bit of time to figure out where Erik and Kelly were, but eventually we found them quietly looking at this!

Boreal OwlErik and Kelly made some room for us to see this brush-loving bird through a small window in the branches. It felt good. We had made it. We were looking at a real-live Boreal Owl! Now, we were just waiting to see that face. This was our first glimpse.

Boreal OwlAnd then:

Boreal Owl

Even Evan was in awe, saying how cool this was. I was genuinely surprised at this reaction from the kid who has turned down seeing Flammulated and Whiskered Screech-Owls. “This is so cool! Dad, I see its face!”

Conditions for viewing were not perfect. I was sitting in the snow in jeans to get these photos. Eventually this sluggish bird came to life and started actively hunting! The photo opportunities (and the crowd size) started to increase.

boreal Owl

Boreal OwlBoreal OwlBoreal OwlThis was, by far, the coolest Owl I had ever seen. This Owl eventually flew away from this spot. I noticed it actually flew close to a different trail. John Richardson and I walked that way and spotted it on top of a brush pile. The views were much better and gave me my best Boreal photo, which Jeff helped me enhance.

Boreal Owl

Evan was cold at this point and wanted to wait in the car while I continued to enjoy the bird.  I walked him back to the car. When I returned, the Owl (and the crowd) had moved.

IBoreal crowdThe Owl was now very close to the trails and out in the open. I felt bad that Jeff wasn’t there to experience these photo opportunities; he had not felt well after the Twin Cities Boreal expedition and decided not to come north.

Boreal OwlBooks describe Boreals as having a surprised look on their face. It is definitely true. Boreal Owl

Finally, I had been satisfied enough to pry myself away from this spectacular bird. Evan and I could continue on our trip to Grand Marais in perfect peace, even if my pants were soaking wet for the two-hour drive. The Grand Marais birder with the Boreal Owl in his yard never did call me, so things worked out perfectly. It was a dream come true. We had brought our birding full circle from that very first year; we were now members of the Boreal Owl Club.  Evan and I celebrated by eating supper in Grand Marais at a family favorite restaurant, Sven & Ole’s Pizza.

Evan Sven's

Josh Watson, of Kandiyohi County Blue Grosbeak fame, stopped by to join us for a celebratory beer (Evan had ice cream) and we had a nice visit about Boreal Owls and other cool birds of the North and beyond. It’s always fun to catch up with birder friends you don’t see often. It was just a great way to end a great day.

The next morning, Evan I got up and poked around Grand Marais for cool birds. We didn’t find much, but it didn’t matter–it was a completely relaxing trip now with zero anxiety. Jeff was on his way up to Duluth that morning to see if he could get onto a good look of a Boreal Owl. Evan and I continued to look for Boreals on our way southwest to Duluth.  We were hoping we could find one for Jeff. One of our stops was Sugarloaf Cove Nature Center where we were hoping to find a Boreal on a little hike. No Boreals, were had, but Evan was excited to get a lifer Snowshoe Hare. Snowshoe HareWe also took a moment to take a Lake Superior selfie.

Josh Evan

Once again, we stopped in Two Harbors to poke around. Of course we wanted to find a Boreal Owl there, but we also took a moment to get Evan a Harlequin Duck lifer, one of two continuing birds in Agate Bay along the jetty. These birds could be seen very well with the naked eye.

Harlequin DuckHarlequin DuckWe had barely been in Two Harbors when I got a message from Jeff that he had found his very own Boreal Owl down by Duluth! I was happy he had finally gotten good looks at a bird low and in the open. Knowing there were Great Gray Owls in the area, I asked Evan what we should do. Evan thinks like a true birder because he said we should go after Jeff’s Boreal since we can see Great Grays any year. So once again we were on our way back to Duluth for a Boreal Owl. This one was snoozing in a tree right along Scenic 61. That, combined with the fact that we had gotten our Boreal the day before, meant we did not have to rush this time. Sure enough, this Boreal was right where Jeff had spotted it.

Boreal OwlSome people, like myself, have trouble spotting these Owls. Thankfully, people like Evan can point them out.

Evan Owl

What a trip–three Boreal Owls! It was beyond a dream come true. This trip with Evan was second only to the Greater Sage-Grouse trip he and I took three years ago. Many thanks to all the people that helped us, especially the Hosch Bros, Kelly Raymond, Erik Berg, and most importantly, Jeff Grotte who helped me get on all three of these birds after he and I shared the Boreal-less struggle for so long together.

There is now just one Owl left for me to find in the United States. I’m hoping that happens in 2018. But first there will hopefully be some more Boreal Owl encounters this winter–we will be helping legendary Arizona birders Tommy DeBardeleben and Janet Witzeman hopefully get on a Boreal or two.  Speaking of Arizona, the next blog post will feature a few lifers and other favorites I picked up on a trip there last weekend.

The Minnesota Ivory Gull, A Sleigh-Assisted Bird

You already know that birders are an odd bunch, but you may not know that they are even more so on New Year’s Day.  This is the day that a brand new year list starts and with it all kinds of eccentric behaviors.  Birders often report to one another what their first bird of the new year is.  Some, like me, squint when looking out the windows in the morning so that first bird might be a bright red Cardinal and NOT the dreaded House Sparrow.  (Mine was a Crow this year–ick).  Some birders go flying out of the gate (and all across the state) to put up a massive total of species on that first day as if to tell all others who aspire to be the top birder, “Don’t even think about it.” I’m not sure where Duluth power-birding couple, Larry and Jan Kraemer, fall on the spectrum, but they were out birding on 1 January.  And they sent shock waves through the entire Midwest birding community with a jaw-dropping confirmation of Scott Wolff’s suspected Ivory Gull.

No, no, this couldn’t be…I had just finished writing a recap post of 2015 where I concluded by saying I wanted to mellow out my birding in 2016.  But on the other hand, HOLY SMOKES I’VE GO TO GET TO DULUTH!! To the uninformed, the Ivory Gull is from the high Arctic, the land of Polar Bears and Santa Claus, and has only been to Minnesota a handful of times.  It looks like Minnesota and Wisconsin Birders have been good this year because Santa dropped off quite a present in Canal Park.

Duluth Ivory GullWillmar, of course, sent its own small delegation of eager birders to the Great Birder Assembly.  Joining me in the pursuit of a shared, epic lifer were Randy Frederickson and Joel Schmidt.  The gathering also gave my yearly and life birder lists a boost.Duluth Canal ParkHere’s what all the fuss is about:

Ivory Gull

What I noticed immediately about this striking, immature bird was the black mottling on the back and wings of this immaculately white bird and how this black/white combo  resembled the plumage of a Snowy Owl or a white-phase Gyrfalcon–all birds from the far north.

Ivory Gull

Ivory Gull

Ivory GullConditions for viewing the IVGU were awful: wave action from Lake Superior had created a thick glaze of ice over every place an observer might stand.  Never have I feared a concussion or wished I owned cleats more.  It was downright dangerous. Even the Ivory walked with trepidation.Ivory GullAt one point a birder next to me didn’t really know how to proceed off the icy knoll on which we stood.  I was getting annoyed with his prolonged hesitation.  Then I felt like a complete jerk when the older fellow asked me if I would take his arm and help him down.  As I gripped his quivering arm, I realized that this could be me in 30 or so years.  It was a reminder of how quickly life moves and why events like this are so important, why we need to experience the phenomenal while we can.  Going with friends, like Randy and Joel, make it even better, especially when celebratory beers are had at a place like Bent Paddle Brewhouse.

Before that celebration, however, there were many other birds to enjoy at Canal Park.  This adult Iceland Gull (center of the pic)  was a lifer for Joel and the first adult I had seen.

Iceland GullHere was an immature bird that is Thayer’s/Iceland intergrade.  The local Larus Jedi call him Stumpy because of his missing tail.

Iceland GullWe did see a couple of adult Thayer’s but no Glaucous Gulls this time.  Since I got the full Gull smorgasbord a month ago, besides the Ivory I was most excited about all the American Black Ducks.  I counted well over a dozen among the 300 Mallards.  They really do stand out and the proximity and sunlight made them especially photogenic on this gorgeous day. This is a duck I just don’t see enough, so this was quite enjoyable.

American Black Duck
American Black DuckAmerican Black DuckWe lingered around Canal Park for a couple hours hoping to find Joel a Great Black-backed Gull lifer, but it just wasn’t in the cards.  What was in the cards was the arrival of the longest ship known to the Great Lakes, the 1014-foot long Paul R. Tregurtha:

Paul R. Tregurtha ship

I have to tell you how much my family has wanted to see a ship, any ship, pass through the canal, under the lift bridge, and into Duluth Harbor. Evan especially has wanted to see such a thing.  How I wish he was along to see this!  He may not care about the Gull now, but this would be a heart breaker for him. We have chased ship arrivals before.  Once we were at the top of the hill in Duluth, saw a ship coming in, and raced down to Canal Park only to find it had already made it through the canal.

You can see in the above photo that the birders were not impressed and still had their vision trained on the Ivory Gull sitting on the breakwall.  Despite seeing more birders than I’ve ever seen before, the birdnerds were quickly outnumbered by hundreds of shipnerds that materialized out of nowhere. It was kind of fun, actually, to trade nerd info with a couple of 60ish ladies.  They told us all about their ship; we told them all about our Gull.  I didn’t get goosebumps like my shipnerd mates when the Paul R. Tregurtha saluted the lift bridge with its loud horn, but I was impressed nonetheless.

Paul R. Tregurtha ship

Nerd worlds collide!

Paul R. Tregurtha ship

IMG_0213An accidental rare species from the Arctic and the largest ship on the Great Lakes coming in to port made for a most exciting outing.  We had one more errand that would put this day completely up and over the top–crossing the Blatnik Bridge to Superior, Wisconsin to pick up a 2016 Gyrfalcon!  In less than a year’s time I have seen three Gyrfalcons, which still is not enough because like Jello, there’s always room for Gyr.  Photos at this distance were practically impossible, but I’m okay with that.

Gyrfalcon

2016 started off with a bang.  I shouldn’t be surprised but I always am by the unexpected things that show up.  That’s what makes this hobby so horribly addicting.  While we wait for the next twist or turn in this new year of birding, a highlight reel of my 2015 will be served up next.

Since the above post was written, two noteworthy developments have happened in the Ivory Gull story.  They are each titled below and are well worth the read, especially the second (WOW).

The Perfect Chase

I had never considered just how perfect of a chase this was until my companion Randy Frederickson posted a thank you to the Duluth area birders on the listserv.  It is not often that the birding guru posts, but when he does it is humorous and eloquent.  Enjoy.

Another wonderful bird found by Duluth area birders, but so much more. Not only a “lifer” for most of us, but how often does a chase end up where you park in a public lot for free, walk 60 yards and get phenomenal looks at your target bird? Throw in a heated visitors
center with clean bathroom facilities and could it get better? Well yes; make sure the report goes out on Friday to give us all a weekend to travel and have the bird frequent the same area long enough that almost no one can miss it. Now place it on the top of a cement wall about eye level and color it in such a way that it stands out amongst its contemporaries. Next, turn up the outside temperature so it runs about 8-10 degrees above the winter average. Heck, let’s do it on the 1st of January so the new year has an avian prelude.  Lastly, have the target bird show up among some of the most generous
(of time and talent), and Laridae literate folks in the upper Midwest and there you have it, the perfect chase hosted by wonderful birding brethren. If there is reincarnation after death, I’m coming back as an Ivory Gull and heading to Duluth for unrivaled recognition and camaraderie (but could someone please tell Peder I prefer Walleye)?

Ivory Gull-Double Trouble

Hundreds of birders have seen the Ivory Gull and many more had been making plans to get to Duluth, even coming from far-off places like Toronto and Tennessee.  Imagine the utter shock, then, when news came out today that the Ivory Gull was a victim of a predation found dead and ripped to shreds under the Blatnik Bridge on the Wisconsin side!  Here is the photographic evidence on Laura Erickson’s blog.  I didn’t feel too sorry for those Wisconsin birders who greatly envied us Minnesotans for such an addition to our state lists.  Still, an unknown and now dead IVGU on their soil on top of a fresh Packers loss to the Vikings? Ouch. I was, however, really bummed out for Gordon and Tommy as I hoped this incredible lifer would be here waiting for them in three weeks time.

A short time after that initial report, the even more unthinkable happened–someone was declaring that there was an Ivory Gull at Canal Park!  This meant one thing and one thing only: TWO Ivory Gulls, both immature birds, had hopped aboard Santa’s sleigh and were in the Duluth area.  Simply incredible. The Duluth News Tribune caught wind of the drama after the death of the first bird and had to change their story as events were unfolding.  In fact, it is their #1 trending story right now.

Northern Gulls Gone Wild

I have a confession: I used to really hate Gulls.  Even in my early years of birding, I saw them as trash compactors and poop factories.  They’re everywhere, especially in nasty places like landfills, dumpsters, Wal-Mart parking lots…  To think of them as birds seemed degrading to the likes of Warblers and Owls. Then once I got to a point in birding where I was willing to accept them as birds, I was faced with the ID headaches of doppelganger species, multiple molt cycles, and hybrids, so I dealt with that like any normal person facing a difficult task–avoidance.  From reading around the bird blogosphere, I’ve come to learn that this reluctance to get into Gulling is normal.  Something happens to us all, though.  It’s inevitable.  Something finally gives.  For some, the turning point may come with seeing a really cool Gull like an adult Sabine’s.  For others, it could come when one has gained more confidence in identification.  For me, it was the fact that I had ignored a large pocket of untapped life Gulls in my own state.  It turns out that Minnesota gets a phenomenal collection of winter Gulls on Lake Superior in the Duluth area.  By putting this off for so long all the while going deeper down the rabbit-hole of birding, I had reached a point where I wasn’t reluctant any longer.  In fact, I was stoked to go after those Gulls from northern Canada. Minnesota birding phenom, John Richardson, fanned those flames by finding species after species of these rarer northern Gulls and posting jaw-dropping photos on FB.

So on our way north for Thanksgiving, the fam and I stopped by Canal Park to meet up with John and hopefully some of the cool Gulls.  I was on a bit of a bad-luck streak, though, after freshly missing the Kiskadee–so there were no Iceland, Glaucous, or Great Black-backed Gulls for me on this day.  I did finally get to see some adult Thayer’s Gulls, a bird that was previously just technically only on my life list because of a long-distance sighting of a juvenile.  This was better. Much, much better.

Thayer's Gull

There were also Herring Gulls.  There are always Herring Gulls.

Herring Gull

With the dark eye and hood, the Thayer’s really do stand out from the ubiquitous Herring and Ring-billed Gulls.

Thayer's Gull

For the non-birder and the emerging Guller, here you can see a contrast between the Thayer’s on the left and the Herring on the right.  Note the difference in size, shape, and eye color (dark iris for the THGU, yellow for the HEGU).

Thayer's Gull Herring Gull Gull identification is hard, especially if one is only looking at pictures or studying field guides.  Learning them from books is even kind of boring which I proved by falling asleep one night studying Gulls in Sibley.  To study Gulls and get to know them, one must learn Gulls through immersion–get yourself up close and in person among the Gulls and go with someone who knows more about the Gulls than you do.  Though I didn’t add any lifers on this try, my confidence and excitement for Gulling increased under the tutelage of John.

After this brief visit to Canal Park, we went further north to enjoy the holiday with family.  I desperately wanted to sneak back down to Duluth during our visit home to make another go of it.  Melissa suggested instead that we just stop there again on our way back south.  Good deal, wouldn’t you say?

In a form of birding symbolism, the sun was now shining brightly on our second try.  Little did I know just how bright things would get.  I did notice a lot more Gulls right away, though.

Canal Park

Duluth Shipping Canal

As I scanned the Gulls lining the pier on the right from the pier on the left, I immediately spotted the gorgeous adult Great Black-backed Gull John had found earlier that week!  Lifer! I could not wait to get across the lift bridge and over to the other side to check it out. Once over there, Evan and I were joined again by John Richardson and Tony Lau as well as the #1 eBirder in the state, Peder Svingen.  With about 600 Gulls to look through with some of the best in the business, this was going to be awesome.

As the four of us slowly made our way down the pier, John quickly picked out the 2nd-cycle Iceland Gull he’d found earlier! Lifer #2!

Iceland GullIceland GullThe Iceland was cool, but I was really itching to make my way to that Great Black-backed for some photos.  But, you don’t rush down the pier and get out in front of a birding Jedi like Peder Svingen. Patience, young Skywalker. Many Gulls to go through have you.

Canal ParkWhile I waited, a Thayer’s was begging to be crushed.

Thayer's Gull

Another exciting find was when John spotted a 1st-cycle Great Black-backed Gull–two Great Black-backeds!

Great Black-backed GullI love how this HEGU is checking him out.

Great Black-backed Gull

Seriously, though, look at this bruiser.

Great Black-backed GullThe Great Black-backed Gull is the largest of the Gulls; it dwarfs the Herring Gulls.

Great Black-backed Gull

As we were getting within photographing distance of the adult Great Black-backed Gull, magic happened.  The other guys spotted our third lifer of the hour, the stunning and large Glaucous Gull!

Glacous Gull

Glacous GullWith the Glacous, I now had all three hoped-for lifers and got all my northern Gulls in one tidy outing.  The only thing left to do was to photograph my favorite of the three lifers, the adult Great Black-backed Gull, a stand-out bird.

Great Black-backed Gull

Great Black-backed GullGreat Black-backed GullGreat Black-backed Gull

The icing on the cake was that all this Gullifering took place in under an hour, and Evan and I got back to the car where the girls were patiently waiting for us.  It was a dream outing.  I’m glad I’d saved these Gulls for this late in my birding.  The timing was perfect because I thoroughly enjoyed this experience and couldn’t have had it any better.  Sorting through the hoards of Gulls for the hidden treasures with some talented birders made it all the more fun.

A huge thanks goes out to John Richardson for his daily patrols of Lake Superior, his great Facebook reports, and for his help in pointing out a couple of these lifers.  Call me Gull-able, but I now think these birds are pretty cool.

Gyr!

Just as with beer, cheese, and processed meats, occasionally one must step foot in next-door Wisconsin for the finer things in life, and birds are no exception.  Last spring their state-record Garganey just over the border drove Minnesota and Wisconsin birders wild. This winter a slightly less cool bird-which by no means diminishes its status!-showed up in the twin-port city of Superior, Wisconsin.  This large bird, figuratively and literally speaking, that chose to take up winter residence on the Wisconsin side of the Blatnik Bridge also had Minnesota birders worked up into a frenzy.  Yes, we are talking about the Gyrfalcon, a falcon so superior in size and awesomeness to its lesser brethren that seasoned northern birders drop the “falcon” altogether when uttering its name.  Gyr (pronounced “jeer”-trust me, I heard it spoken by the state’s top birder) was first caught by raptor bander, Dave Evans, in Superior and word slowly got out that this arctic predator was in town. Better yet is that it had taken up residence at the Peavey grain elevators on Connors Point where it spends much time loafing and enjoying spectacular views of Lake Superior when not feeding on pigeons in the harbor.

IMG_2196

I, too, had Gyr fever.  I had many false-starts and set-backs for getting up north the past month, but I finally made it happen.  It took much planning, namely sending the kids home with Grandma and Grandpa after a double birthday celebration, sending Melissa home to a quiet house, and sending myself solo to Duluth/Superior and beyond.  It was win-win-win. Though with some atrocious dog diarhhea episodes at home while 3/4 of us were away, that conclusion may have to be settled far from now by the bird-blogging historians.

But, anyhow, I felt free as a bird as I drove north, much like this Rough-legged Hawk I saw along the way.

Rough-legged Hawk

Duluth birder, JG Bennett, knew I was coming and graciously agreed to help me locate Gyr – not necessarily an easy task as many birders have dipped on seeing it.  In exchange I’ll be helping him find his Blue Grosbeak lifer this summer–I think I’m getting the better end of this deal.  JG called me when I was about an hour from Duluth to tell me that the Gyr was present.  Nice guy that he is, he babysat the thing for over an hour until I showed up. Considering the distance from the viewing area and the massive gridiron structure, I was glad he did.

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Even in this next photo you can get a sense of the size of the Gyr (look for the bump near the top right).

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At times like this I’m thankful for the zoom capabilities of my camera.  Quality leaves a lot to be desired, but, hey, no one’s getting killer shots or even great views of this raptor.

Gyrfalcon

GyrfalconSome fun history on Gyr is that this same individual was caught and banded in 2003 in the Duluth/Superior area.  At the time it was a third-year bird.  It ended up returning every winter for four years and then did not return until this year!  Given when it was banded, the age of this male Gyrfalcon is estimated to be 14 years 8 months–the oldest Gyrfalcon on record!

I spent about a half hour or so with the bird who never, ever moved off his perch, even when pigeons flew right by his head.  By seeing the main target right away, my time was then free to fritter away as I pleased.  I had northern gulls to pick up (Glaucous, Iceland, Great Black-backed), but the Duluth shipping canal was froze over, so there went any hopes for gulls or sea ducks.  Instead I decided to try to track down one of three Northern Hawk Owls in the Duluth area as it had been over a year since I had seen this cool bird. The strong winds were keeping the owls hidden though.  I couldn’t find a single one.  Duluth birds in general were giving me the snub, including this Pine Grosbeak.

Pine Grosbeak

I had one last hope for the Hawk Owl (“Northern” is a bit superfluous and is often dropped by northern birders).  One had been hanging out just south of the Sax-Zim Bog near Canyon.  Specifically this bird could be reliably found right at mile marker 29 at Hellwig Creek.  I decided that the Duluth Hawk Owls were a lost cause, so I might as well try for Hellwig and then use up my remaining daylight hours in the Bog.  Hellwig was also a no-show, so it was on to the Bog for me.

I have several unfinished birding projects of sorts for the Sax-Zim Bog–a lifer or two, better photo ops of some, officially getting another on my state eBird list, and so on. Anyhow, one of my top goals was to get a good photo of a Boreal Chickadee, so I made a bee-line to the Admiral Road feeding station.  There were the usual suspects around. Gregarious Gray Jays are always up for a photo-shoot.

Gray Jay

Common Redpolls were everywhere.  A couple looked whiter and plumper than the rest.  I’m thinking this one looks good for Hoary based on the small, conical bill and faint streaking on the flanks.  It had the overall frosty appearance of a Hoary.

Hoary Redpoll

The Boreal Chickadees can be quite finicky.  Often birders will have to wait up to a half hour or more for just a flash appearance.  That was my experience last year.  This year was a different story as two of them were coming out from the Spruce bog constantly in the last hour of daylight to feed on their favorite winter food–peanut butter smeared on branches.  Visitors to Sax-Zim are encouraged to slather up some branches with the creamy stuff (and donate their fair share of PB) at the Admiral Road feeders when they visit.  It’s crazy, but it works.

This Boreal Chickadee momentarily, and perhaps regretfully, chose suet over PB.

Boreal Chickadee

Admittedly I’m a bit smitten with this bird.  I’ve never really been able to answer the question of “What’s your favorite bird?”, but this one has to be right up there.  I may be a bit biased, but this, in my opinion, is the best Chickadee.  Perhaps that’s because it leads a secretive life in the deep, mysterious Spruce bogs alongside Great Gray Owls and Spruce Grouse and is rarely seen or perhaps because it is so visually stunning.

Boreal Chickadee

I’m finally at peace with the Boreal Chickadee as I got the photo I wanted–even if it does have a little peanut butter in it.

Boreal Chickadee

After hanging out with the Boreal Chickadees, who, by the way, are just as tame as their Black-capped cousins, I headed to Grandma and Grandpa’s to spend the night with the kids and prepare for the next day of birding which is arguably the best day I’ve ever had in the Sax-Zim Bog.  Stay tuned…there will be videos!

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.

Josh

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.

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.

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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.

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Here’s a better shot of the green.

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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.

Searching for Sea Ducks on the North Shore of Lake Superior

Canal ParkThere has been a gaping hole in our Minnesota bird collection.  We have traveled extensively throughout the state and have pretty much seen all the specialty birds tucked into hidden nooks and little-known crannies.  Despite that fact, we have neglected one of the state’s most important birding areas – Lake Superior.  Here the possibilities for new birds abound with many sea duck species, northern gull species, oddball loon species and even three jaeger species.  I have never known how to approach birding the big water from the vast 150 miles of shoreline between Duluth and the Canadian border.  I had long ago figured that someday I might just have to hire a guide for a day to learn how to bird this sea-environment.  A couple weeks ago, though, I saw that Clinton Nienhaus was leading a FREE field trip through the Duluth Audubon Society along the North Shore specifically to look for sea ducks.  Free is always good, unless it’s a puppy, so I went for it.  Visions of Scoters and Harlequin Ducks danced in my head while I awaited this trip.

At long last, it was time.  This past Friday I picked Evan up from school, and we drove the 3.5 hours to Duluth.  We stayed in a hotel so we could be up and ready to go in Canal Park at 7:30 that next morning.  Evan was excited about the pool; I was excited about leaving at decent hour instead of 3 AM if we had foregone the hotel.

We met up with our guide, Clinton, and the rest of the small group for an adventurous day ahead.  First up was birding the canal and canal walls that you see above.  One never knows what interesting ducks will be in the canal or what special gulls line the walls.  Alas, it was pretty ho-hum.  We tried to make a Herring Gull into a Thayer’s, but it didn’t work. So it was off to our next stop, Brighton Beach.

Brighton Beach

No ducks could be seen, just a couple of Horned Grebes. We did observe a delightful birding phenomenon as we had Common Redpolls migrating by us and through us by the hundreds.  This was a great sign because strangely there were only two reports of Redpolls in the entire state last year.  That abysmal report contrasted greatly with the numbers we had two years ago when we had about 150 in our yard alone.  Needless to say, it was good to see these old friends again.  It was also fun to witness birds migrating down the shore;  southbound birds hit the big water of Lake Superior and opt to fly southwest down the shoreline.  Many of the Redpolls were literally flying over the rocks you see above.   I have hundreds of Redpoll photos at close range in great light of the many varied forms of this bird when they hung out in our yard two years ago.  So these photos are not the best but are provided to add a little meat to the bones of this post.

Common Redpolls

Clinton, a graduate student in environmental education, taught us that the Redpolls love to eat the seeds of birch and aspen trees. The catkins (those banana-shaped things below) contain thousands of the tiny, paper-like seeds.  When the Redpolls forage on these catkins, hundreds of seeds are then dispersed.

Common Redpoll

Throughout the day we kept seeing more and more Common Redpolls.  A conservative estimate would be 1,000 birds. Clinton pointed out that their flight calls sound like little lasers shooting.  That tip really helped this birder who is challenged in the auditory department.

After Brighton Beach our convoy of cars snaked its way up the shore to Stoney Point.  All I found here were dismal memories of missing Boreal and Great Gray Owls a couple years ago.  There still were no ducks either.  It was tough to get discouraged, though, because we had a long ways to go and many more stops to make, like at Agate Bay and Burlington Bay for which the town of Two Harbors is named.

Right away at Agate Bay an interesting raptor hovering in the stiff wind caught our attention.  It was a Rough-legged Hawk which ended up being one of several for the day.  Right now they are migrating through.  I always enjoy seeing this hawk.

Rough-legged Hawk

It was amazing how it stayed in one place in the air, seemingly hovering like a helicopter.  Finally it swooped down to the grassy bank below where it caught a mouse and proceeded to eat it on a rock.  Clinton taught us that mice are their primary food of choice and that though they are the same size as a Red-tailed Hawk, their talons are half the size.

Rough-legged Hawk

This hawk continued to dazzle us as it flew low over the parking lot.

Rough-legged Hawk

Here’s my favorite view of a Rough-legged Hawk when it shows off those black, carpal patches.

Rough-legged Hawk

But as cool as the hawk was, we still had no luck finding ducks on the water.  We took in migrating Bald Eagles, though.

Bald Eagle

And even some that might just be sticking around.

Bald Eagle

We took a little walk around the Two Harbors Lighthouse hoping to relocate the Western Kingbird or Northern Saw-whet Owl that had been seen there last weekend by the Minnesota Birding Weekend group.  No luck on those.

After awhile it was time to keep heading northeast up the shore.  Stops at the Silver Bay Marina and Taconite Harbor kept up the trend of the day – no sea ducks.  It was frustrating because in the past week all three Scoter species, Long-tailed Ducks, a Harlequin Duck, and a King Eider had all been seen.  We were running out of shoreline in a hurry. However, Taconite Harbor did have one goody for us –  a flock of fly-over lifer Bohemian Waxwings!  We never could get them to stick around to get good looks, but it was fun to finally get a life bid.

The next stop finally produced what the trip was offering.  As we exited our vehicles at the Cut-Face Creek Wayside at Good Harbor Bay, we could see a few dark blobs on the water.  One of those blobs was a Red-necked Grebe, but those three were our first lifer of the day, the White-winged Scoter!  This was a hoped for bird.

White-winged ScoterI was hoping for closer looks, but distance was a factor…

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White-winged Scoter

White-winged Scoter

I think we all had a sense of satisfaction of finally seeing a trip target.  We got to observe the Scoters dive which they do differently that divers.  Clinton told us to pay attention to how the ducks open up their wings just before they duck under.  It was pretty cool to watch the trio do this in unison.

With spirits buoyed we made the short jaunt into Grand Marais to see what the harbor was harboring. It turns out there wasn’t much in the way of ducks, and there were zero sea ducks.  One of the highlights, though, was getting to observe two Snow Buntings at arm’s length as they foraged in the parking lot.  I have seen many, many Snow Buntings but never this close as they are a skittish bird and never with a backdrop that is anything other than white.  This was a real treat.

Snow Bunting

Snow Bunting

And here is perhaps the best SNBU photo I will take my whole life:

Snow Bunting

We continued to bird around Artist’s Point.  Interestingly the group found an out-of-season, out-of-range Western Meadowlark right on the Coast Guard station lawn.  Then it was off to the lighthouse to get some better looks at the gulls across the harbor channel.  The appropriately named Sawtooth Mountains are in the background.

Grand Marais

Birds or no birds, it was an epic adventure for a 7-year-old to hike out to the lighthouse.  I had brought along his deer-hunting snowsuit to keep him safe on this opening day of deer season.  Perhaps I should have also brought a life jacket and a wetsuit??

Evan

King of the world, this very cold world.

Evan

Out by the lighthouse we scanned the gulls across the way.  I really don’t know gulls, so in this department I am not the least bit embarrassed to let someone tell me what some gull is or what cycle it is.  Clinton tells us this tawny-colored bird in the center of this shot is a first-cycle Thayer’s Gull.  We tallied it for the life list and moved on.  Personally I find these lichens to be more fascinating.

Thayers Gull

From Grand Marais we had a couple stops left.  We did them out of sequence going to Hovland first, the furthest point we were going to, and Paradise Beach second on the way back to Grand Marais.

There were no ducks at Hovland.  Paradise Beach held a few more White-winged Scoters that I never saw but the group did see and one Bufflehead that we tried to turn into Harlequin Duck.  Finally darkness was upon us and the great day of North Shore birding was over. Our hopes for more sea ducks the next day would not be further up the North Shore as we had no passports with us.  Instead, our hope for the next day was still alive because Evan and I would be able to continue the duck hunt back down the shore on our way to Duluth.  And it would prove to be a very bright day.

Hovland