Gulli-bill…or Not

How is it that a hobby that can bring so much pleasure one moment bring so much pain the next? One minute we birders are on cloud 9; the next we are singing the blues.  It’s a vicious cycle.  Why do we do this again?  IDK, but here’s the sad/happy story of me chasing a rarity 2.5 times.

The parade of vagrants this spring/summer has been most impressive. One entry in the parade garnered more attention than the others–a state first Gull-billed Tern on Salt Lake which straddles the Minnesota/South Dakota border.  News of the Tern broke out late in the day on June 1. This was practically in the backyard for birding friend, Garrett Wee, and me, so we were on the scene immediately at daybreak on Thursday, June 2.  Garrett and I were no slouches on this search, checking the lake from both the MN and SD sides and even hiking to distant jetties and shorelines on the lake. No luck after looking for nearly two hours.  A Willet and this Sanderling were weak consolation prizes.

SanderlingOn the way out of Salt Lake I ran into Herb Dingman just heading in.  He, of course, was disappointed to hear my report but decided to look anyway.  I told him to call me if it showed before I got too far away. That call didn’t come…until I was 15 minutes from home. Herb had seen it. I couldn’t turn around; I had obligations at home before my parents came to visit.

On Friday, June 3, no one saw the state record bird despite standing vigil from dawn to dusk.

On Saturday, June 4, the Patagonia Picnic Table Effect was in action as the state’s #1 eBirder Peder Svingen was in the Salt Lake area and turned up a casual Lark Bunting.  I decided to chase this state bird. My dad came with me.  On the way, news came in that the Gull-billed Tern had returned! I was elated as I was counting my chickens and Terns and Buntings before they hatched, thinking I would get two cool birds.

Dad and I had a cool find on the way near Lac qui Parle High School–a pair of Marbled Godwits.

Marbled Godwit

When we got to Salt Lake, the report was negative on the Tern. Ugh, not again! But hope was still alive for the Lark Bunting which was 8 miles away. Peder was still at the Bunting spot along with a swarm of others who were trying to relocate the Bunting.  No one was coming up with it.  However, I was informed by Jeff Stephenson that there were Henslow’s Sparrows at this WPA!  I visited with Peder a bit, and when he found out I had never seen a Henslow’s, he walked out in the grass with me to help me get visuals on this skulker that had eluded my life list so far.  It was incredibly nice of him since I caught him just as he was about to make the long trip home to Duluth after getting both the Tern and the Bunting.  Peder and I were successful.  A Henslow’s Sparrow–finally!

Henslow's SparrowHenslow's SparrowHenslow's SparrowThis felt great and made up for the double dip.  Dad and I continued to check Salt Lake for the Tern who did not keep any kind of regular schedule. We were not successful, but we did enjoy some of the native grassland birds, like Bobolink and Dad’s favorite, Western Meadowlark.

BobolinkWestern MeadowlarkWith no luck on the Tern, we decided to try one last time for the Bunting. Nothing. Grasshopper Sparrows are nice, just not LABU nice.

Grasshopper Sparrow

Just as I was pulling away from this area to head home, Randy Frederickson called me up to tell me he and Joel Schmidt had found the Tern a mile north of the Bunting spot on private land!  That was about 7 miles from Salt Lake! Elation again! As Dad and I raced up to the spot, we were about a half mile away when we saw a Tern-like bird fly across the road.  Could it be? Nah, probably just a Ring-billed Gull or Forester’s Tern. I got to the farm site where Randy and Joel had the bird; Randy was on the road waiting for me so I’d know the correct driveway.  I hurried down to Joel who had the scope set up. I excitedly hopped out of the car only to be greeted with, “It just flew.” Oh, the depths of despair in birding! Piecing the timing and the direction of flight together, Randy is convinced that I did, in fact, see the state record Gull-billed Tern fly across the road in front of me.  However, I didn’t get a solid look to confirm the ID, so I’m not counting it.  It just wouldn’t feel legit.

It was time to go home. Two dips for one bird. Ouch. I’ve double-chased before but always rebounded the second time around. Contemplating a third chase for one bird was new territory.

On Sunday, June 5, birders were fanning across the state on their way home from a successful chase for some and a heart-breaking chase for others. These birders were turning up cool things all over.  Luckily, one of those birds was found in my county thanks to Jeff Stephenson and Jerry Pruett.  The Northern Mockingbird is one I have wanted for this county for some time.  Dad also accompanied me on this fast break out of the house before church.  This one felt good even if it was too skittish for photos.

Northern MockingbirdAfter church, the dreaded news came: the Tern had been re-sighted at Salt Lake.  I hemmed and hawed over going back a third time.  This bird had burned me bad.  Finally I gave in.  It is only 1.5 hours away. Dad and I hopped in the car for another chase.  This time I was smart about it, though. ABWCH reader, Tod Eggenberger, had been there all day, left to go home, and turned around once he saw the news. He was 30 miles away.  I asked Tod to keep me in the loop and let me know if this unpredictable, elusive bird were to give people the slip again.  Unfortunately for Tod, he missed it by 5 minutes before the bird vanished again forever.  Fortunately for me, I got the news before I reached the halfway point to Salt Lake.  I decided I would go that far in case there was positive news. There wasn’t. So I turned around at the predetermined spot and cut my losses.  Take that, you stupid Tern!

The Call of the West

Several weeks ago the kids and I mulled over what we should do when some of Melissa’s work duties would require her to be absent most of this past weekend.  With warm weather at the time, I promised (stupid, I know) to take the kids camping. Frigid temps of late caused me to start thinking of a much more palatable and comfortable Plan B. Easy: move the camping to indoors, a.k.a. stay at a hotel.  My kids love hotels.  It would be an easy sell. The beauty of this plan is that it does not matter to them where a hotel is.  Birders know where I am going with this–might as well get a hotel next to a cool bird or two, right?! But where?

Vagrants have been few and far between or already seen; resident birds are just returning. Honestly there weren’t a lot of options on the table. One idea was to head to the Twin Cities to try for Henslow’s Sparrow and Louisiana Waterthrush lifers. Another option was to head to the northwest to Grand Forks, North Dakota to check out the Short-eared Owl scene.  The SEOW was not a lifer, but this option just had a lot of appeal in the fun department.  Meanwhile a third option presented itself in the non-lifer department as a stunning breeding plumage male Surf Scoter and his mate showed up in Duluth.  This last option was leading; all the Scoter species are annual in small numbers in Minnesota but we hardly ever get the mature, good-looking ones.  I was wracked with indecision. I could potentially head in three very different directions on the map. Even though we were set to depart Saturday morning, I still was having trouble pulling the trigger on anything even as the kids’ bedtimes loomed on Friday.

I paced and scratched my head. Then the phone rang. It was local birding friend Joel Schmidt (Willet guy). This is migration season–that phone call may just as well have been the President.

“Josh, I have a Western Tanager in my yard.”


This was one decision that required no thinking, just reaction.  I practically hung up on Joel while simultaneously herding the kids to the car for the 25-minute trip. We got there with plenty of daylight left and enjoyed a glorious county bird with Joel and his wife Amanda.

Western Tanager

Western TanagerOnly one or two WETAs show up in MN every year; lucky us that it was our turn to host. Here my two-hour one-way chase to add this state bird last year was for nought.  What a spectacular rarity and a beauty on top of that. This was a bird I yearned to see in the montane forests of Colorado two years ago (and eventually did); now luck dropped one on the doorstep, almost literally for Joel.Western TanagerSteve Gardner also came out to enjoy the Tanager.  As we discussed my travel dilemmas for the next day, Steve advised me to go the Scoter route. Settled.  Seeing a vivid, bright male bird made me want to see another. The best part was that I could ask some Duluth friends to check on the Scoter in the morning to even see if that was still a viable option come travel time.

Birding friend Clinton Nienhaus was planning to check the duck scene on Lake Superior by 9 AM. I had made the decision that the Twin Cities option was completely out; if the Scoter didn’t show, we’d go to Grand Forks. Not hearing anything from Clinton right away,  the kids and I got in the car and started driving north anyway.  We still didn’t know if we would end up in the Northwest or the Northeast. About ten minutes into our journey, we got the report from Clinton: no duck. Our direction was now crystal clear:

Evan Marin North Dakota

I made a detour around Rothsay, the self-proclaimed “Prairie Chicken Capital of Minnesota,” to try to dig up that bird for Evan’s life list. It was the wrong time of day for Greater Prairie-Chickens, but we did manage to see our first Marbled Godwits in two years.  Prairie birds are so cool.

Marbled Godwit

Seeing as how I hastily decided a destination that morning, I didn’t have a chance to do my due diligence in hotel scouting for Grand Forks.  We’d have to do things the old fashioned way–walk into various places and check rates. Turns out Priceline’s got nothin’ on the “cute kid discount” thanks to North Dakota kindness manifested by a grandmotherly hotel manager.

Being in North Dakota felt right. I love the West and its birds.  Maybe that’s because I’m from the West. Or maybe, those western birds, like the Tanager, remind me of all the  remoteness and the beauty of big country. I know, it’s just Grand Forks, but it’s still a window into the wilds of the West.  And that’s what I was hoping to catch a glimpse of that evening.  While the kids played in the hotel pool that afternoon, I finalized arrangements for the kids and I to go Short-ear Owling with Sandy Aubol. With one foot in the North Dakota birding world and the other in Minnesota, Sandy is a well-respected birder on either side of the line who knows how to get the good birds. No one knows Short-ears better than she does; we were in good hands.

Minutes after we met Sandy and she hopped into the van with the kids, dog, and myself, we were already on the hunt for Short-ears, driving the remote grassland country around GF.  Perhaps we got too early of a start because the toast wasn’t popping up for us.  It’s always nice to see Sharp-tailed Grouse though.  This male was even putting on a bit of a late night show for the ladies.

Sharp-tailed Grouse

Sandy was frustrated that we weren’t seeing any Owls after nearly a half hour or more of searching. Truthfully I was okay with getting skunked; the kids and I were on an adventure and having fun.  However, Sandy knew I wanted to get redemptive looks at a Short-eared Owl and possibly even a photograph.  Her ceaseless scanning finally paid off when she spotted the floppy, erratic flight of a Short-eared Owl. And wouldn’t you know, it perched up on the side of the road!

Short-eared OwlThese birds don’t seem to perch for long (or at all). Rather shortly this one took to the air.  It was amazing how fast and how much ground it can cover and how unpredictable its flight path is. Amazingly this Owl came back for another, much closer roadside perch:

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl

For previously only seeing this bird in a snowstorm at dusk at a distance, I was beyond tickled with this chance to view and photograph a perched bird especially when perches don’t last long:

Short-eared Owl

Sandy was not completely satisfied with the photo op or just seeing one Owl.  As a host, she wanted to show just how awesome this land could be. Having been in that position myself, I understood that feeling but was still very satisfied with the night already. Needless to say, we kept on Owling.  We ended up rendezvousing with Jeff Grotte, Tony Lau, and Russ Myrman who were in the area and came to look for Short-ears too. Maybe it was luck from Sandy’s lucky Owl charm or maybe it was from having Jeff, the Owl Whisperer, around, but the toast started popping up.  We couldn’t butter it fast enough. Sandy would spot one and get me on it, then have a couple more picked out.  It was crazy.  Sandy said it best when she said it can quickly change from nothing to everything with this bird.  The frustrating thing is that activity increases as daylight rapidly decreases.  Flight shots are about all one can hope for at this time of night.  If you do see one perched, it usually goes like this:

Short-eared OwlBut enjoying the hunting behavior of this Owl in this habitat is half the fun.

Short-eared OwlIt was really tough to keep track of the numbers of Short-ears we were seeing as they cover so much ground so quickly.  I conservatively eBirded 7 of them. It was a lot of fun to witness the Short-eared phenomenon in action.  Sandy was spotting all the birds, and I was hoping to get in on the fun and pick one out myself.  Eventually it happened.

Short-eared OwlAnd then it happened again as I flushed one from the side of the road in my headlights on  our way back to Grand Forks. I’m glad I didn’t hit it!

Experiences like this only whet the appetite for more.  I will definitely be back someday to go after these cool birds again.  It may not be a new bird or boost any list, but who cares.  This was fun, plain and simple, and that’s what birding should be.  Thanks, Sandy, for a great outing!

Hunting for Chestnut-collared Longspurs at Felton Prairie IBA

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.

Western Meadowlark

Western Meadowlark

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.

Grasshopper Sparrow

Grasshopper Sparrow

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.

Greater Prairie Chicken

Greater Prairie Chicken

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!

Greater Prairie ChickenGreater Prairie ChickenGreater Prairie ChickenIt 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.

Marbled Godwit

Marbled Godwit

Another fun bird was the Western Kingbird.  We saw five.  One makes for a good day.

Western Kingbird

Western Kingbird

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.

Momma Blue-winged Teal and Brood

Momma Blue-winged Teal and Brood

Or a pair of Brewer’s Blackbirds.

Brewer's Blackbird

Brewer’s Blackbird

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.

Chestnut-Collared Longspur

Chestnut-Collared Longspur

Chestnut-collared Longspur

On 170th Street, start looking/listening for the Chestnut-collared Longspurs in the mile section past the cattle guard. Watch the fence, the road, and the prairie to the east.

Chestnut-collared Longspur

Chestnut-collared Longspur - The Best Longspur

Chestnut-collared Longspur – The Best Longspur

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.

Loggerhead Shrike along Co. Rd. 118 about 2 miles east of MN Hwy 9

Loggerhead Shrike along Co. Rd. 118 about 2 miles east of MN Hwy 9

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?