Winterfowling – A Black and White Affair; No Kids Please

Things have been pretty bleak on the prairie lately as far as birds go (or as far as anything goes, actually).  The Snowy Owls packed their bags and left long ago.  Birds of the field have been in short supply or absent altogether.  Adding insult to this injury is that it has been extremely cold these past few weeks as temps have been well below zero.  Hoth is looking like a pretty good vacation destination these days both for its scenery and temps.

So what’s a birder to do?  Look at waterfowl, of course!  Wait, what? Isn’t it a frozen wasteland here? Birders know a lot of crazy, cool stuff about local, natural phenomena that the vast majority of area residents know nothing about.  One such phenomenon is knowing where open water exists in the county during the winter months.  When I got into birding a couple years ago, I was blown away to find out that several species of waterfowl have been recorded on past Willmar Christmas Bird Counts.  Heck, I was blown away to find out we had open water. I mean, every bit of water is seemingly, or should be, in a solid state, right?

Green Lake

“Let’s drive our truck on the lake by the open water,” they said. “It’ll be fun,” they said.

The further I went down this rabbit hole of birding, the more secrets I’ve learned.  One of those secrets is that small numbers of Trumpeter Swans overwinter in the Spicer/New London area.  I was reminded of this when local birder, Coralie Jacobson, posted on Facebook that she saw a bunch of swans on the outflow of Green Lake at the northeast corner.

Green Lake

I’ve seen plenty of Trumpeters in the county, but seeing them in February is something I had never done and needed to document for eBird.  It was certainly the cure for the winter birding blues.  A couple weeks ago I drove up to Green Lake and was not disappointed. In all, I counted 19 Trumpeter Swans.  These DINCs (Double-Income No Cygnets) were enjoying quite the love fest, being all exclusive from the other swans.

Trumpeter SwansWhen not necking and acting like that adorable couple that makes people cringe, they were striking contortionist poses and looking awfully dapper in their crisp black and whites.


Meanwhile at the other end of the Trumpeter relationship spectrum and at the other end of the outflow, this harried set of parents was leading the distracted life of a zone defense against three rambunctious teen-age cygnets.  A date night might be in order.

Trumpeter Swansssss

It turns out that the outflow of Green Lake is not the only open water around these parts in the winter.  The Crow River right in downtown New London also stays open just beneath the dam at the Mill Pond and along Central Avenue.  In late November 2014, Coralie Jacobson found herself an incredible lifer on this little stretch of river in town–an American Black Duck associating with about two dozen Mallards.  This species has been something of a nemesis bird for me, and it’s a remarkable bird for our area.  Occasionally one or two will be seen by somebody during spring migration or in the late fall if there is open water around.  I have frozen my fingers and face scanning through thousands of Canada Geese and Mallards on Foot Lake trying to pick one out that Steve had found in late 2013. Another time I was minutes late for getting to a location of a sighting.  And this particular duck that Coralie found? I think I made a half dozen trips to New London looking for this bird, hoping to finally add it to my county list and record a new Kandiyohi species for eBird. Joel found it no problem.  Counters for the CBC found it no problem.  I had lots of problems finding it.  I had so many failed attempts and it was getting deeper and deeper into winter that I had completely given up on it, settling for licking my Black Duck wound along with the still open, festering wound of missing a county Long-tailed Duck by an hour last fall.

Last week after I dropped Evan off at school on Monday, I went for a drive-about in the northern part of the county-a land I haven’t explored much.  The Black Duck was far from my mind since it was last seen two months ago. This solo venture was birding desperation, plain and simple.  I didn’t even know what I was really after.  A 2015 county Northern Shrike? Pileated Woodpecker year bird maybe? Perhaps a Snowy Owl even though I’ve used up all my SNOW luck for a decade? It felt hopeless and was even less interesting than it sounded. I decided to turn it into an eBird expedition, making notes of birds numbers/species/locations.  It was something to do, something productive anyhow.

My travels brought me by New London, so I thought I’d swing by the Crow River on Central Avenue to see if there were any Mallards to document.  I noticed that there were about 30 Mallards or so.  Interesting.  The ducks were located at a bend in the river that was not easily seen from the dam or from Central Avenue.  After some maneuvering I finally got into a position with the morning sun at my back where I could see the ducks. The conclusion of my quick scan was Mallards-every one of them, but truthfully I wasn’t even thinking that the Black Duck was a remote possibility.  It had to be gone.

American Black Duck

Anyhow, I decided I would glass the Mallards and try my best to get a careful count of males/females for eBird since it was a manageable number.  Most ducks were facing upstream with their heads constantly under water foraging for food. It’s kind of hard to count ducks that look like rocks.


As I moved my binoculars from one bird to the next, one duck lifted its submerged head.  I saw a black cap and an olive green bill, and I literally laughed out loud.  There it was. Finally.  Had I not eBirded, I may have been long gone not knowing the Black Duck was right under my nose.  It felt SOOO good to finally see this bird here at home.  It was an A+ bird for a dull winter day–even better than if I’d found a Snowy Owl.  The icing on the cake was finding an overwintering Belted Kingfisher, an eBird rarity that I was unfortunately not able to photograph.

American Black Duck

In my early birding days I had anxieties about differentiating an American Black Duck from hen Mallards.  How silly.

American Black Duck and Mallards

Ever wonder why they call it a Black Duck?

American Black Duck

Wintefowling is tremendous fun but is not for the faint of heart, those with poor circulation or the beardless.  That said, it seems that winter’s last hurrah is waning and that warm temps are on the way.  Pretty soon there’ll be open water aplenty and waterfowl galore.  The truth is I’m going to miss these quiet winter waterfowling days when the few, the proud ducks are concentrated in tight spots.  Only the cool ones come in the winter.

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.