This story picks up right where the Wood Stork story leaves off. Steve, Evan, and I were scheduled to depart Willmar at 4:30 AM last Saturday morning to make the three-hour trip up to Felton Prairie just east of Fargo. Keep in mind we returned from the stork chase near the Iowa border around 9:00 PM on Friday night. That’s a short turn-around time for an adult, let alone a 7-year-old. I asked Evan if he still wanted to go. He chose sleep. Evan had been hot and cold with this trip anyway. When I first asked him if he wanted to go, he said he wasn’t interested. Then I saw a picture in my Facebook feed of a Chestnut-collared Longspur someone had seen at Felton Prairie and showed it to him. His response was, “Ok, I’m interested.” Absolutely. But sleep did win out this time, so it was just Steve and I. We have been talking about doing this trip for nearly a year. We were stoked to finally go.
Felton Prairie is designated as an Important Birding Area (IBA) by the the Minnesota DNR. It consists of some WMAs, game refuges, and other public land, and it can host many hard-to-find western species. Such birds include Marbled Godwits, Upland Sandpipers, Grasshopper Sparrows, Baird’s Sparrows, Burrowing Owls, Swainson’s Hawks, Western Kingbirds, Loggerhead Shrikes, Sprague’s Pipits, Greater Prairie Chickens, Gray Partridge, and the reliable number-one bird and reason to head to Felton – the Chestnut-collared Longspur. This is the only place where they are known to breed in the state. Interestingly they are found along a narrow strip of prairie that runs along the top of a long ridge which I’m told is the edge of glacial Lake Aggasiz. There is a road that runs this ridge. Its official name is 170th Street, but everyone calls it Longspur Road. It’s the place to go. It’s even been known to host a complete spring-time party of Smith’s, Lapland, and Chestnut-collared Longspurs.
Steve and I hit Longspur Road right away. Western Meadowlarks were singing everywhere.
A fun bird that is normally very hard to find is ubiquitous here, the Grasshopper Sparrow. We glassed dozens hoping to turn one into our target bird.
Nearly right away on our first pass down Longspur Road, Steve made a fantastic discovery – two Greater Prairie Chickens! It was a life bird for both of us, and with it I have now seen all members of the grouse family that call Minnesota home.
Not only did we see this pair, but we kept turning them up! We had three more bunches of 4,2, and 2 respectively, making a total of 10 birds! A highlight was watching one near the car when it flushed, causing three others hidden in the grass much, much closer to flush as well. Talk about great looks!
It was a satisfying life bird but not the one we were after. It alone would have made a solid trip. It was also fun to see Marbled Godwits. At first. Then they were everywhere and noisy. Very noisy. It souned like we were at a beach with a bunch of gulls.
Another fun bird was the Western Kingbird. We saw five. One makes for a good day.
As cool as these birds were and fun to see, they were way down on the priority list because we came here for one bird, the Chestnut-collared Longspur. I don’t know how many times we drove up and down the 3-mile road. We kept seeing fun stuff, like this mother Blue-winged teal and her brood appearing out of the grass and disappearing back into it with no water around for miles.
Or a pair of Brewer’s Blackbirds.
But still no longspurs. I think we expected this bird to be perched conspicuously on the barb-wire fence that ran alongside the road. Or we thought it would be on the road itself. Then we figured we better watch the prairie more and the fence less. Still nothing. We were fast approaching our cut-off time to leave. Near the very end, we finally had the idea to study its song. We were foolish for not having done so earlier. We were shocked and a little disheartened to learn the song sounds very, very close to the Western Meadowlark song. With minutes left before we had to depart, we picked out the higher version of the meadowlark song and found our target. This was the conspicuous look we were searching for.
It was quite a thrill to see this bird. I’m looking forward to my next trip to Felton to see this bird again and to show it to Evan. It’s quite the jaw-dropper.
We capped off our visit to Felton Prairie by taking a quick drive down the two-mile Co. Rd. 118, where Loggerhead Shrikes are known to hang out on the wires at the very end of the road. We were not disappointed. Like the intel on the longspurs, this is decades-old information that is still reliable today.
It was a good trip with a couple of key lifers, but it was far from the end of this birder’s marathon travel schedule. Steve and I had to get home so I could get packed up and ready for the 265-mile trip to northern Minnesota the next day where more birds and adventures would be in store for us. And relatives too. Those are fun to see. Stay tuned – more birds, pictures, and stories await. Wasn’t I remodeling a bathroom or something?