Flame-grilled Hot Dogs and Scorched Woodpeckers

Like most Americans, I celebrated the 4th of July weekend with family, doing the typical things like picnicking outside all day, tossing the ball around, and cruising a lake in a boat in search of a good fishing hole.  Most people are able to focus on these activities exclusively; birders always have the incidental birding meter running. That’s how you ride in a boat and show your companions a patriotic scene, fitting for the weekend.

Bald Eagle NestIt’s also how you can point out to Grandma during that all-day gathering that the bird that flushes from the house each time someone goes in or out is actually a pretty cool bird and not some lame Robin that none of us can stand to have making a mess on our house.

Eastern Phoebe nestUnlike the Robin, the Eastern Phoebe’s nest is quite aesthetically pleasing and well-constructed.

Eastern Phoebe nestI almost passed on the opportunity to get crushing photos of the most accommodating Eastern Phoebe I’ve ever seen. That would have been a shame.

Eastern PhoebeEastern PhoebeBut don’t let me fool you, it wasn’t all incidental birding.  I was in northern Minnesota, after all, a land ripe with fascinating birds in all seasons. Local birding friend, Julie, had told me about a Connecticut Warbler she had recently found in a Black Spruce/Tamarack bog not more than 20 minutes from my parents’ house.  The Connecticut was a bird I had previously only had as heard-only in the Sax-Zim Bog, so I rose early one morning donning some knee-high rubber boots, long sleeves, long pants, and an unhealthy dousing of bug spray.  I was going all in to mosquito central.  No sane person does this.bogBut we die-hard birders do, especially when we think of the possible reward of visuals of a skulker like the Connecticut. It’s worth some welts and the loss of a little sleep.  Julie had made things easy for me by marking a tree where the Connecticut had set up a territory along this abandoned, water-logged road pictured above. However, as we are getting into July, the Warblers just don’t sing as much.  When I got to the spot after hiking a quarter mile, I didn’t hear it.  But patience eventually rewarded me with that clear, ringing sound of the Connecticut: “Bea-cher, bea-cher, bea-cherbeach!” After waiting it out a little longer, I did get some great up-close looks, but I wasn’t quick enough to get a photo.  Seeing one was a good improvement on my heard-only lifer, but I really wanted that photo.  Maybe this Warbler was busy with a nest because it never did show itself again despite me waiting for an insane amount of time in the cloud of mosquitoes. I finally decided to call it quits and head back to rejoin the family.  A heard-only Boreal Chickadee and a Lincoln’s Sparrow were a couple of good birds on the hike out.

The next day on our final morning in the northwoods, I decided to give Julie’s spot one more try.  That Connecticut photo seemed in reach; like with the Phoebe, it would be foolish to pass on the opportunity to try. Thanks to a late night fireworks show, I was a little slower getting out of bed that next morning.  In fact, I arrived at the trail a full 40 minutes later than the day before.  Considering I had heard the bird right away that day and that it was singing sporadically, I didn’t like my chances for a repeat on the visual I got. When I got there and opened the car door, though, I didn’t hear the Connecticut but instead heard something just as cool–the unmistakable drumming of a Black-backed Woodpecker! And like that my search priorities shifted. I followed the sound of the steady drumming which echoed through the bog. And there, there he was just 10 feet off the waterlogged road about 10 feet up. I was blown away.

Black-backed Woodpecker

The Black-backed was not a lifer, but I have never seen a male before with his bright yellow crown and have always wanted to.  In a sense this felt just as fresh as a lifer. So I set out to accomplish one goal (photo of the COWA) and inadvertently and delightfully accomplished another.

I spent a lot of time enjoying this Woodpecker all while keeping an ear open for the Connecticut which did not vocalize even once. Black-backed WoodpeckerHere you can see and hear that distinctive drumming.  It’s such a cool sound.

I’ve heard that Black-backed Woodpeckers are quite tame and don’t really care about a person’s presence.  This experience certainly seemed to back that theory up. And if you have doubts about whether this bird was appropriately named…

Black-backed Woodpecker Black-backed Woodpecker Black-backed WoodpeckerBlack-backed Woodpecker Black-backed WoodpeckerHere’s another video.  I was hoping to capture him drumming some more, but instead caught him itching himself. Mosquito bite?

Eventually the bird went on its way, and so did I, trying to dig up that Connecticut.  I finally called it quits on the Warbler, vowing to try again next year when it was earlier in the breeding season and the birds’ hormones are still raging causing them to be more vocal. On my way back to the car I again spotted the Black-backed Woodpecker, but I noticed something different–no yellow crown, a female!

Black-backed WoodpeckerThrilled with the bonus Woodpecker, I continued my waterlogged hike back to the car.  Then I again heard a Black-backed Woodpecker a couple hundred yards from the first two, and then I saw one of them following the other around.  I thought they must be those two that I saw earlier.  I glassed the two birds as one followed the other up a Spruce and was shocked to see that both were males–an adult being followed by this juvenile!

Black-backed Woodpecker

This meant I had for sure seen three different Black-backed Woodpeckers and maybe four if the second adult male was a different bird than the first.  It’s not everyday you see a Black-backed Woodpecker, let alone a small pile of them.  Additionally, seeing a good northern bird like this outside of a birding mecca like the Sax-Zim Bog and close to “home” is always a huge thrill for me.  This encounter did not go unappreciated by me and will likely be one of my all-time birding highlights.

My Kandiyohi Twohee

Last weekend I did some lifering on my own.  Normally I don’t write about such outings, but one of my finds was just too good to not share with the bird nerds at large.  And this bird wasn’t even a lifer.  My target for the day was the Winter Wren, a little brown bird that is quite unremarkable except for the fact that it has evaded my life list. Checking eBird, I had seen reports at our latitude of this stub-tailed gnome of the northern coniferous forests.  So I decided it was time to head to Robbins Island Park in Willmar and follow Ron Erpelding’s advice of walking around the edge of the small slough in the woods there to find this skulker.

It was a horribly windy day, but the slough was tucked in a depression in the woods making it a calm, sunny place.  The birds loved it.  I immediately saw all kinds of activity.  Most of the birds were White-throated Sparrows, but I also saw Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Yellow-rumped Warblers.  And there was this curious Eastern Phoebe.

Eastern Phoebe

Eastern Phoebe

I followed Ron’s advice and made one complete lap around the slough, walking through tangled brush and grass at the edge of the cattails.  My hopes were lifted at the end of my first loop when a wren flushed up.  I could see it was a House Wren because of its lighter coloration and longer tail.  Then almost immediately another wren popped up.  This one was dark and small…but a much bigger, more active bird stole my attention away from what I am claiming as my Winter Wren lifer.  There, ahead of me, in a brush pile was an obvious Eastern Towhee thrashing about in the branches!  I could not believe my eyes.

Eastern TowheeThe brownish coloration on the head and back indicated it was a female.  The male is jet-black instead of brown.  Male or female, it didn’t matter.  This was a good-looking bird and a very rare bird for our county.  How rare? I looked back through the database of bird sightings at the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union’s website and determined this was only the sixth unique Eastern Towhee to ever be documented in Kandiyohi County. Personally, this was only the second Eastern Towhee I’ve ever seen.  They just aren’t common in Minnesota as a whole.  This was also my second towhee species for Kandiyohi County – in a weird-twist of birding fate last spring, I found the even more rare vagrant Spotted Towhee before I ever saw an Eastern Towhee.  Both of these finds were the first of their respective species to be documented in eBird for Kandiyohi.  It’s always fun to make a solid contribution to the birding history of the region.

Eastern Towhee

Eastern Towhee

Below is a map from Robert Janssen’s Birds in Minnesota that shows the range of the Eastern Towhee, or Rufous-sided Towhee as it was formerly called.

Rufous-sided Towhee range map in Minnesota - Credit Robert Janssen in Birds in Minnesota

Rufous-sided Towhee range map in Minnesota.  Credit: Robert Janssen’s Birds in Minnesota

The Eastern Towhee dwells in deciduous forests, and this range map coincides very nicely with the hardwoods or deciduous forest biome of Minnesota, shown in the blue section of the map below.  The Arrowhead region is the pinelands or coniferous forest biome, and the large green section is the prairie biome.  Kandiyohi County is primarily in the prairie biome, but the northern part of the county clips that blue hardwoods section.  So it is possible to find the Eastern Towhee in parts of the county, but it is extremely uncommon.

The biomes of Minnesota. Credit - Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

The biomes of Minnesota. Credit – Minnesota Department of Natural Resources


The bottom line is that the Eastern Towhee is a very good bird here.  And it made for a very fun birding outing.

Eastern Towhee

Eastern Towhee

Other than the towhee, I’m pretty sure I saw a couple more Winter Wrens skulking into grasses.  I definitely did not get solid looks or pictures but they had the right GISS (General Impression of Size and Shape).  It was not a solid lifer by any means, but one I feel confident in counting. Regardless, it was not the best bird of the day.

I called Steve right away when I found the Eastern Towhee because I knew he would need this bird for the county.  We never could refind it for him, but he was able to see it the next day in the exact same spot.  A rare bird is fun in itself, but it’s always nice when a good find can be shared with someone else.

Birding Brainerd: Gull Lake Recreation Area and Northland Arboretum

Gull Lake Recreation Area

Every summer we take at least a couple camping trips with Melissa’s parents and our two nieces.  Usually we stay at state parks, but we procrastinated a little too much on making reservations and ran out of time to get a couple camping sites on a weekend. Fortunately Melissa stumbled on to a great alternative which appears to be one of the best-kept secrets in the camping world.  Until now.  It turns out the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has recreation areas at many of their various projects.  And usually those recreation areas have a full-fledged campground.  So we booked a couple sites at the Gull Lake Recreation Area near Brainerd – a halfway point between our home and Melissa’s parents’ home.

This past weekend we camped at Gull Lake, and I was thoroughly impressed with what those Army engineers have done.  Never have there been more level, well-maintained sites.  Never has there been a better public shower house in a campground.  And never has there been better engineered service. Within minutes of arriving, a small squad of park rangers shows up on their Ranger utility vehicle to check us in and deliver firewood right to the fire pit.  And after they hand you your receipt and tell you your firewood purchase is tax deductible, they ask if there’s anything else they can do.  I would bet they’d even refill your Coke, that’s how good they are.


The overkill and built-in redundancies by the Army’s engineers is both laughable and enjoyable.  See, they really just needed to build this tiny dam with a one-lane bridge to hold back the drainage of 10 lakes in the Gull Lake Chain, keeping Gull Lake 5 feet higher than normal and preventing the Mississippi River from getting out of hand downstream, but then they confiscate huge chunks of land on either side of it for who knows what reason.

Gull Lake Recreation Area

One side of the bridge is the finely engineered campground; the other side is a large point on Gull Lake named Government Point (the engineers must have named it)  with a beach and boat launch and lots of government buildings and this mysterious small structure.  Perhaps a missile silo as part of our defense against Canada, eh? The small size and limit of one would fit that theory since it is just Canada.


But this blog is about birding and not just about Canadian conspiracy theories.  I was able to get out and do some birding on Government Point.  I had to smile when I proved a law of birding true.  That law is that once a lifer is seen, they show up everywhere. It’s the law that kept me from sweating that I saw a Pine Warbler last week and Evan didn’t see it because I knew the floodgates would open up for the Pines after that first sighting.  Yep, it turns out those Army engineers even designed a perfect territory for this guy.

Pine WarblerThis particular warbler has class, choosing the nicest, tallest White Pine right by those government buildings to call his home.


After this discovery on my first morning birding walk, I was eager to get back to share this news with Evan.  The warbler was singing on territory and wasn’t going anywhere, and it was a short hike from the camper.  Evan, indeed, wanted to come see it along with Marin and cousin Hannah.  Before we got there I played the song for the kids so they could listen for it on the way there.  Once we got within 200 yards of the location, the kids were excitedly exclaiming that they heard it.  Fast learners! Then the challenge was to spot it.

Evan, Marin, Hannah

Many will deride the Pine Warbler, citing its drabness.  But I like it.  Maybe that’s because it took me so long to find it – kind of like the girl who played hard-to-get phenomenon.  Or maybe that’s because it is better at picking habitat than the other warblers.  Our majestic Red and White Pines are beautiful whether alone or in large stands.  Good choice, Mr. Pine.

Pine Warbler

Pine Warbler

Pine WarblerI spent a lot of time with this warbler observing and photographing it.  When there is no pressure to find a life bird, I really enjoy spending time watching and photographing a particular species that I enjoy.  It was fun to watch this guy as he sang his heart out constantly, shaking his whole body with each song.  I really like their trilling song which is a higher, sweeter version of a Chipping Sparrow’s song.

My birding was pretty relaxed overall.  I mostly photographed birds that presented photo ops, and I got pictures of birds I’ve never “shot” before.  Many, like this Turkey Vulture, were practically begging to have their photo taken.

Turkey Vulture

Turkey Vulture

I even relented and took my first ever American Robin picture.  Probably my last too.

American Robin

American Robin

I saw several Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers.  My best look came when I didn’t have a camera and one was on a tree just a couple feet in front of my face.  I had a similar experience with a Veery that came waltzing through the campsite while I was having coffee with my father-in-law.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

A loud drumming on a bird house at one point alerted me to this female Pileated Woodpecker.

Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

I also finally got a photo of an Eastern Phoebe.

Eastern Phoebe - purported by some to be the third-best Phoebe

Eastern Phoebe – purported by some to be the third-best Phoebe

And a relatively common bird during migration that was fun to see and hear on territory was the Yellow-rumped Warbler.

Myrtle's Yellow-rumped Warbler

Myrtle’s Yellow-rumped Warbler

While I did some casual birding on this trip, Evan was moving on to other scientific pursuits, like marine biology, studying various snail shells and the invasive Zebra Mussels.


Though I spent some time just enjoying and photographing birds, I did make one quest to find a lifer.  The Wood Thrush has eluded me thus far.  A local birder recommended hiking the trails at the Northland Arboretum right in the city of Brainerd.  With 12 miles of trails through various types of forest it sounded promising.

Aspen Grove

Mature Stand of Aspen

The mosquitoes were incredibly fierce and abundant, though.  I was wearing long sleeves, pants, and the hood from my sweatshirt.  Even with repellant on the few square inches of exposed skin, I was getting destroyed.  I didn’t know what I’d do if I had to stop walking to look at a bird.  But then I found out what I’d do when I recognized the song of a former nemesis bird, the Blue-headed Vireo!  Once again that old birding law proved true. I endured countless bites as I tried so hard to get a photo of this bird.  It’s such a looker and one of my favorites, yet I couldn’t do it justice.  But I didn’t care too much because self-preservation was taking over.  I had a literal cloud of mosquitoes around me and had to keep moving.   My face was already swollen to twice its normal size.

Blue-headed Vireo

Blue-headed Vireo

I had one other good sighting at the Arboretum that I identified after-the-fact when looking at photos.  It turns out a high-flying raptor that went overhead was a Peregrine Falcon!

I also got to see a Brown Thrasher, but I could not turn up a Wood Thrush either by sight or sound.  As I was nearing the end of my walk and going by a wetland, I saw this pile of baby Mallards, literally and photographically crushable as they were just 6 inches off the path.

Baby Mallards

Baby Mallards

Seeing this mass of Mallard babes reminded me of one of those contests where you try to guess how many marbles are in the jar.  But if we were playing that game on the blog, you’d all lose because Momma Mallard had Momma’s Boy off to the side, throwing off the count.  Apparently she wasn’t too concerned that the bulk of her children were one stray bike tire from being obliterated.

Hen Mallard with her favorite child

Hen Mallard with her favorite child

So, there would be no Wood Thrush.  The hunt goes on.  I may have to continue the fight back home.  Overall, though, it was some good side-birding on a camping trip.  A lifer for Evan and some good looks at fun birds is nothing to sneeze at.