Our Very Own Cerulean Warbler at Sibley State Park

Late at night on June 12th I got a text from Randy asking if I wanted to go hunt for Cerulean Warblers in the county the next morning.  Most definitely the answer was yes. A Cerulean is not a life bird for Evan or me; in fact I had seen one just a couple days prior at Murphy-Hanrehan Park Reserve in Savage.  However, they are one of the coolest warblers out there because A) they are blue warblers that are beautiful and B) they are quite scarce and hard to find.  I was eager to tag along with someone who’s been birding the county for 25 years and check his old haunts and hiding places.

We didn’t have any luck at our first stop, and honestly I wasn’t expecting to find a Cerulean this day – that’s how tough they are. Randy mentioned stopping by Sibley State Park to check some old spots, and then I mentioned to him that I had seen an eBird report of a Cerulean Warbler at Sibley a couple weeks ago on my Birding Across America website.  But there was no specific information on its location.  It would be like looking for a needle in a haystack.  Actually that would be easier than looking for a Cerulean in Sibley.  Anyhow, Randy was encouraged by this news.

Randy first stopped at the park office to buy a vehicle pass, and he had the presence of mind to ask if they had received any reports of a Cerulean Warbler.  As a matter of fact, they had!  And they knew where to point us! A short, slow drive later with the windows down revealed the unmistakble rapid buzzy song of our target bird! And what a bird it is.

Cerulean Warbler at Sibley State Park

Cerulean Warbler at Sibley State Park

Cerulean Warbler


It was so much fun to watch this male sing on territory.  Refinding a warbler during migration is a crapshoot, but a warbler on territory in the summer is pretty much a guarantee.  I knew that we would be able to stop out and see it again and that Steve could finally get his lifer.


Cerulean Warbler

The very next day was Father’s Day and we went out for a drive in the northwestern part of the county just to do some sightseeing.  Since Sibley was in the vicinity, we stopped out at the park so Evan could see the bird.  Again, not a lifer for him, just a cool bird. It turns out Steve was there too trying to get his first look at this bird.  I’m not sure how many more Ceruleans I’ll see in my lifetime as this declining species is losing habitat in both it’s summer and winter homes, so I’ll be sure to appreciate this one and check up on it next time we’re at Sibley for swimming or camping.

COPS: Pennock Sewage Ponds

The combination of the recent insurgence of shorebirds and the beginning of my summer vacation meant one thing – I had to go on a tour-de-ponds on Wednesday, hitting up the wastewater treatment ponds of three small towns in Kandiyohi County. (Tour-de-ponds/Turdy ponds – get it?) Evan still has school, so Marin and I dropped him off and embarked on our adventure.  To keep it interesting for her, she was promised it’d be a tour-de-parks also where we’d stop at each town’s park to break up the trip.

Pennock was up first on the list. To get to the ponds, I had to drive south along a gravel trail for well over a half mile.  I stopped to check out a Horned Lark.  That was my second mistake.  The first mistake was driving a mini-van, but I’ll get to that later.  The berm surrounding the ponds was perpendicular to this road and directly in front of me.  So I had to turn east to drive along the berm until I reached the corner and had to go south again.  Why I am boring you with all this direction nonsense?  Well, the berm surrounding these sewage ponds is tall.   It’s so tall that you can’t see the ponds from your vehicle.  You either have to get on top of your vehicle or cross the barb wire fence that is posted every hundred yards with ‘No Trespassing Signs’.  Every single sewage pond I have been to has a fence around it with ominous warnings.  To a birder it’s very frustrating.  It’s kind of like this brand new slide Marin and I found that appeared functional and safe and yet was roped off until who knows when.  “Here is something really fun kids and super safe, but back off!”


But I digress. I was driving around the ponds looking for any place where I might catch an easy glimpse of the water.  Finally I stopped right by one of those pesky ‘No Trespassing’ signs. I thought to myself, ‘Come on, it’s Pennock, the middle of nowhere. No one’s gonna see me.’  I put the van in park and was about to open my door when I saw my rearview mirror was lit up with the blue and red flashing lights of a Kandiyohi County Sheriff’s squad car five feet off my rear bumper!  Whoa, I had no idea how long he’d been in “hot-pursuit” of me since we were both a mile from the highway and I was driving all of 5 MPH the whole time.

A thousand thoughts raced through my head.  Do I pull over? How do I pull over when I’m on a dirt path? Maybe I should just hop out and explain I’m just birding. Maybe I should grab my binoculars and show them so they can see that. No! Don’t hop out, are you stupid?!  Binoculars? Are you nuts? Do you want to commit suicide by cop by jumping out with binoculars? It was terrifying, confusing, and even a little exhilarating. Finally a cooler head and many years of watching COPS prevailed – I stayed in my vehicle, rolled down the window, and shut off the engine. I decided to rest my arm on the door frame of the van.  I know, he’ll see my wedding ring and know the mini-van is legit and this will all be one big misunderstanding.

After what felt like an eternity, the driver’s door of the squad car opened and the deputy began making his way to my window.  His walk was slow as he hugged the inside edge of my car keeping one hand on his holster – no joke.  I could tell he looked tense.  It had to be the suspicious mini-van, my first mistake.  No one goes to a sewage pond in a mini-van.  Had I driven a truck or my SUV and wore a seed cap, those officers wouldn’t have thought twice about me being out here.  Finally the officer made it to just behind my window as they are trained to do when approaching potentially criminal birders in suspicious mini-vans at sewage ponds.

“What are you doing here today?”

“I’m birding.”

Immediately the tension on his face broke as he burst into a smile and repeated, “Birding.” Any visions he had of a show-down at the Pennock Sewage Ponds must have vanished with my response.  I, too, felt more relaxed, thinking that he would leave me alone now.

“We’ve had some reports of people messing with things here, so when we saw you parked we came to check it out (my second mistake of looking at the lark). We’ll have you on your way shortly, but I need to see your license and insurance card.”  So apparently this constituted a traffic stop even though I was doing nothing wrong and technically wasn’t pulled over.  Back to feeling like a criminal.

So I waited and waited.  Finally I got my license back.  “There you go, Josh. Have a nice day.”  Hey, he used my name – I feel exonerated.  So I watched him go in reverse down the dirt trail.  I was waiting for him to leave so I could resume birding, but once he got to the corner of the ponds, he just stayed and watched me.  I got out with binoculars and camera and went to a low spot in the berm where I could look over.  Any thoughts of fence-hopping were completely gone. As I watched birds, he watched me and watched me and watched me.  Back to feeling like a criminal.  Finally I decided I’d had enough and got in the van.  I, too, drove in reverse down the path which finally got him to move along.  (How many traffic stops conclude with both officer and perpetrator going in reverse for a hundred yards?) When I got to the corner and could turn around to go forward, I was shocked to see a second patrol car with two more officers!  Should I feel intimidated or honored that this birder required back-up?

Once I got back home I shared my anecdote with my birding buddies.  One of them fessed up that he’d hopped that fence the night before.  Aha!  Another told me he’s been questioned by law enforcement three times in the name of birding, and then he proceeded to welcome me to the brotherhood.  It actually was on my list of birding accomplishments/expectations.  Put other birders onto a rare bird? Check. Find a county record? Check. Check. Check. Get stopped by police while birding? Check.  I guess I’m now a bona fide birder.

It’s silly, really, how a mini-van, a lark, and a fence-hopping friend can all put you in bad light.  I wasn’t speeding, making an illegal u-turn, nearly causing an accident, checking email while driving, or trespassing.  And as to whether I’ve done any of those things in an effort to see a bird, I plead the fifth.

My birding mood was killed for a little bit, but after a recovery period at home I decided to get back on with the tour.  It turns out that there would be more surpises in store for this day.  That’s what I love about birding – you just never know what’s going to happen.  And the cop stop is all part of the fabric of expecting the unexpected.

While I was letting Marin play at Atwater’s Centennial Park, I ran into a former student who’s now in college and was babysitting some kids at the park.  After catching up a bit, she asked me if I was the one that was into owls.  I told her that I enjoy them, yes.  Then she said that there’s one in the park right on the ground down near the lake.  What?!

So we all marched down there, with like a zillion kids in tow.  She told me that it was in the middle of a huge Cottonwood tree and to see it you would have to walk to the shore, turn, and it would be five feet in front of you.  So I followed her instructions and saw this guy! It was a Great Horned owlet.

Great Horned Owlet



Poor thing.  Every kid in town knew about this guy, especially with cell phone pics running rampant through social media.  Making it worse is that you have to be within a few feet of the bird to see it. I heard one kid had been throwing sticks at it.  Now where are those Kandiyohi County Sheriff’s deputies when you need them? I looked all over the massive tree above to find the owlet’s mom or dad, but I had no luck.  I checked back on it the following day, and it was gone.  I’m not sure how it left but was glad to see it out of such a public spot.

One of the last parks we went to was in the city of Lake Lillian.  Now this was a good old fashioned park with splintery wooden teeter-totters (the kind where you could roll off when your end was on the ground, dropping your buddy on the other end like a rock) and huge metal slides that must reach at least 350°.  Here’s my super cute, recent four-eyes trying to cool it down.


Not a safe park and no caution tape or razor-wire fence keeping us out.  It just didn’t fit the profile of the day.

IMG_8917As Marin enjoyed the dangerous park, my ear caught the summer sound of an Eastern Wood Pewee.  It didn’t take long to find it.

Eastern Wood Pewee

Eastern Wood Pewee

Later on I nearly had my second heart attack of the day when I was sitting on a park bench watching Marin.  A dove landed two feet away from me on the ground.  It took me a bit to take in what I was seeing – tiny dove, scaled back.  Then it hit me – it was the Inca Dove, a southwestern specialty we had seen in Arizona!  Stupidly my camera was in the van at this point.  I froze and couldn’t even get my phone out for a picture.  Finally the dove flew.  Noting where it landed, I dashed to get my camera and come back.  If it were an Inca Dove, no one would believe me without proof.  It took me a half hour to relocate it, but I finally found it in a tree.  It turns out it was a juvenile Mourning Dove, which seems oddly early.  Rats.


Juvenile Mourning Dove, NOT an Inca Dove

IMG_8938It was interesting to read in the field guide that these juveniles are commonly mistaken for Inca Doves.  It was fun, nonetheless, to have this little learning experience, but I could have done without that second adrenaline rush of the day.  Whoever said birdwatching was a lame activity for old people?

From Europe with Love

Dear Evan and Marin,

Right now this blog is not a part of your world, but someday you may find yourself reading through these posts to relive, or in some cases, learn about the adventures and memories we have shared through birding.  That’s one of the reasons why I write the blog.  If you stumble across this letter, I want you to know it’s a story for you, a story about your dad.  More important than the story are the lessons I have learned from the story and want to pass on to you.

This story began on a Friday, a normal school day. Or so I thought.  I had no idea that this day would hold a big surprise.  Now, surprises aren’t always good.  In fact, I’ve had many days with sad and terrible surprises.  But this day would hold one of the good surprises, the really good kind – the kind that deserves to be told.

Let’s start the story with my shoes.  For some reason I put on tennis shoes as I got ready for work.  I never do that.  I always wear dress shoes. I’m not sure why I put on tennis shoes exactly.  Maybe it’s because it was a Friday toward the end of the school year and I was just feeling lazy.  But in hind sight, it turned out to be the right choice.

As I was at work that day, I stole away a moment (or a couple) to check my email for any bird reports. Spring migration is a crazy time of year when anything can happen as far as birds go. It is the season of good surprises.  One of my email checks was a jaw-dropper: EURASIAN WIGEON in WINSTED.  The Eurasian Wigeon is a rare duck that visits North America and a beautiful duck at that.  Twice in the previous week this species had shown up in two different locations in Minnesota. But the distance was always just a little too great for the present circumstances, and the duck never hung on for more than a day.  Winsted, on the other hand, was only a 45 minute drive from work. That’s nothing.

My mind swirled with this news, making it hard to give my full concentration to my work. Instead I was thinking of every way possible to get to Willmar to pick you both up and get back to Winsted.  It was not something I could do after school because of our evening plans.  As the clock ticked, it was becoming more and more clear to me that I just didn’t have the extra hour it would take to pick you up.  I wrestled with this for quite awhile as the pull to go see the duck was getting stronger and the time was getting shorter.

Finally I decided to go for it.  I decided you had a lot more years to see this duck than I did.  After all, Randy has never even seen one, and he has seen the likes of a Vermilion Flycatcher, a Ruff, and a male Harlequin Duck all in our county.  He’s pretty much seen it all.  Not only did I know you had more time, but I also knew there would be a good chance to see one someday in Phoenix.

Making the decision to go still wasn’t easy.  It would mean leaving work early to – see a bird.  It was irrational.  But I work with good people who know my passion for this hobby and who helped me make it happen on short notice. With my “t”s crossed and “i”s dotted, I made some hasty sub plans to take off the last two periods of the day.  It felt strange to be grabbing my coat and heading out the classroom door while kids were coming in and peppering me with questions about where I was going.  By now the kids know I’m crazy when it comes to birds, and it’s all quite normal.  Birding has been great for connecting with students – they always want to know where I go, what I saw, or share a bird sighting they had.  I think, in general, people are fascinated by the passions of others.  It’s engaging and contagious.

Being a teacher I calmly walked down the hallways.  Once I hit that outer door, though, I sprinted for the car. The shoe decision had paid off. My already elevated heart-rate was now a full-on throbbing in my chest from the excitement and exercise.  It felt crazy. It felt exhilarating.  It felt like I was fully-alive.  As I drove I started to think about you guys.  I thought about how I hope you can find something that gives you this same feeling.  Whether that’s a job, a hobby, or people, I want you to feel excited for life and live it to its fullest.  It is way too short to not experience the thrill of living and doing what you love to do.  Find your passion and pursue it.

There really isn’t much to the rest of the story.  I made it to the site of the duck a little quicker than is legal and found other birders there already – other people living their passion on a moment’s notice, people who celebrate and cheer each other on over a common interest.IMG_7943


My heart did sink a bit when I was told an eagle flew over, flushing the ducks just minutes before I got there.  But with persistence, I refound the Eurasian Wigeon for the group and got to see it for the first time.  Evan, I know you were sad when you heard I saw this duck without you, but you didn’t miss much.  It was way out there.


Eurasian Wigeon


Cousins from different continents – Eurasian Wigeon and American Wigeon

I’m hoping that when you read this you will have both seen this beautiful duck for yourselves and at a much closer view.  I can’t wait for the day I get to properly photograph this amazing bird.

My story and lessons don’t just end with the wigeon.  This particular weekend will long stand out in my mind as one of the best, if not the best birding weekend I’ve ever had. (Remember that on Sunday of this same weekend Evan and I saw the Garganey in Wisconsin).  The very next morning (Saturday) I got up early before you were both awake to do some birding at the Atwater sewage ponds.  I can’t say I was looking for anything in particular, but I’ve had such success in finding good birds lately that I am addicted to the search.  It turns out that this particular morning would provide me with yet another incredible find – the Lesser Black-backed Gull, another bird that hails from Europe.


L-R: Two Ring-billed Gulls, two Bonaparte’s Gulls, and the Lesser Black-backed Gull

Not only was this a rare visitor, but none of the birding greats had ever found it in Kandiyohi County before – it was a first record!  Not even Randy, who sits on top with 290 species, or Ron who has been birding for over 50 years and has 285 county species has seen it here.  I am the only one. Sadly, this bird did not stick around for these guys to add to their lists.   So, here’s my lesson in this second story: there is room in this big world for you to leave your mark, to make a difference, or make a contribution.  You matter, and you can do great things despite what’s been done before or what others say.   I figured the birding records were all wrapped up by the big boys, yet I managed to make a small contribution to the history of birding in our area.

Lesser Black-backed Gull

Lesser Black-backed Gull

The final thing I want to leave you with is that all the excitement I had in these stories and all the fun I have birding pales in comparison to the joy and satisfaction I get from being your dad.  Having you guys has helped me realize a little more what it means to live life to the fullest.  And you are my greatest contributions to this world.  I love you, kids.