Tiny Dancers

This past weekend was an action-packed weekend full of visiting family.  Not only was Mother’s Day part of the mix, but Marin had her first ever dance recital.  Both sets of grandparents each made the 265 mile one-way trip to see first-hand the results of “hard-work” and hundreds of dollars on dance lessons.  Surely the two-minute performance by a bunch of 3 and 4 year-olds would live up to the hype.

On Friday night we went to Marin’s recital.  I knew there would be other ages dancing, but my jaw dropped when I looked at the program and saw a whopping 47 dance numbers, including a couple numbers by a womens’ group of 30-60 year-olds.  (You read that right.)  And no, we could not bolt after Marin’s class was done.  It seems the higher-ups in recital planning have caught on to this dirty secret of parents and strategically scheduled one of Marin’s dance numbers near the beginning, one in the middle, and then included the little dancers in the finale with everyone else.

Right now the warbler migration is picking up some steam (warblers!) and we even have daylight until 9:00, and here I was settling in for not one, but two nights of dance.  I asked Melissa how long the program would take.  My sunken heart hit the floor when she said it would be 2+ hours – each night.  Now my concern was no longer birding; it was survival. Sure I was excited to see Marin in her cute outfit trying to make her limbs do something that resembled dance, but 2+ hours! Melissa told me the secret to get through this was to find the dancers that were fun to watch – the ones with the infectious smile or the ones who never smiled – the ones who could move really well or the awkward ones you rooted for just to not crash and burn.  Suddenly I had an epiphany: this was just like birding! You pick out the bird that’s fun to watch and ignore the rest.  With this newfound connection and positive outlook, I was ready to watch some dance.

I’m not here to report on the recital, but I did survive, even the adult dancers’ group. Having been held back from a strong day of warbler migration and lingering shorebirds, I was out the door at first light on Saturday morning to get in on some of the action. Chasing the rare birds is fun, but currently there’s no other place I’d rather be than right near home with nearly two dozen warbler species dropping out of the sky.  I couldn’t wait to watch these little dancers spazzing around much like a bunch of 3 and 4 year-olds on a dance stage.  But really, I was after anything that was fascinating to watch, even the awkward ones.

One of the awkward ones - the Green Heron

One of the awkward ones – the Green Heron

"Lovebird" Snapping Turtles - not birds, but most definitely awkward

“Lovebird” Snapping Turtles – not birds, but most definitely an awkward encounter

Some of the many dancing warblers that aren’t as much fun to watch include the abundant Yellow-rumped Warblers, the extremely dull Orange-crowned Warblers, and the sort-of-bland-sort-of-colorful Nashville Warblers.  I did find one dancer on which to focus my attention, the stunning Magnolia Warbler.  As my picture shows, I was reminded of just how dificult these ADHD birds are to photograph.

Magnolia Warbler

Magnolia Warbler

Another one of the birds I spent a great deal of time focusing on was a real key find for our area.  The Cape May Warbler is not a common migrant, proven all the more by 300-club member Joel who has never seen one before this past week.  But Joel did find one, and remarkably this male was with a female and they have been hanging on for nearly a week, visiting the same tree.  This was only my second experience with a Cape May, and both times I have been surprised by how mellow they are by warbler standards.  They generally don’t move a whole lot.  It was fun to watch the pair interact with each other.  That said, I focused mostly on photographing the male.

Cape May Warbler

Cape May Warbler

Classic Cape May pose - craning the neck to get some chow

Classic Cape May pose – craning the neck to get some chow

IMG_8375IMG_8374A Cape May is a darn nice bird and after getting some shots I was pleased with, I was feeling everything would be okay again even with round 2 of the recital on the horizon.

Another bird that my dad and I spent our time watching and tracking later in the day was the Red-headed Woodpecker!  This is now the third time I have found one, and it is never any less thrilling than the first time.  This species is quite stunning and on the decline.  It is always a delight to see one.

Red-headed Woodpecker

Red-headed Woodpecker

On one of my outings this weekend, one bird that grabbed and held my attention was the Golden-winged Warbler!  This is one of my favorites and only the third time I’ve seen one.  Now I was getting stellar looks at this bird  in the beautiful morning light from 6 feet away as it foraged on the ground in the weeds.  The views were spectacular but the photography proved quite challenging as it never really came in the open.

Golden-winged Warbler

Golden-winged Warbler

With a good amount of imagination, I think you can see just how good of a picture this next one might have been.  It definitely captures the essence of this bird, which is good enough and worthy of being posted.  I love this bird.  I can’t wait to go on the hunt for it when it’s on territory in northern Minnesota this summer.

According to the Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, Minnesota has only 10% of the GWWA's breeding habitat but over 40% of the breeding population!

According to the Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, Minnesota has only 10% of the GWWA’s breeding habitat but over 40% of the breeding population!

Some dancers are so well-costumed that their outfits are striking and demand your attention, like this appropriately named Black-and-White Warbler.

Black-and-White Warbler

Black-and-White Warbler

IMG_8448Sometimes the most unassuming dancers can hold your attention, like this Lincoln’s Sparrow.  It is no warbler, but it is arguably one of the best sparrows.

Lincoln's Sparrow

Lincoln’s Sparrow

But from time-to-time, one needs to watch the other things on the dance floor even if those things aren’t the most interesting things that are out there.

American Redstart

American Redstart

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler

It was a great weekend of dance and birding.  Picking out the fun ones ensured that the time was well spent.


One of the fun ones.

Cottonwood Produces Again!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ross and his entourage

Ross and his entourage

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

Green Heron

Green Heron

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

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