Slippin’ on Down to the Oasis

It was back-to-back weekends in North Dakota for ABWCH, though this latter visit was not about nabbing some bird on my wishlist.  Rather, it was about Melissa crossing off an item on the much more important bucket list–seeing Garth Brooks perform in Fargo. The old guy is alright in my book too, so despite the fact that several really good state birds for me were popping up left and right, I wasn’t perturbed about leaving home and was even kind of looking forward to this non-birding trip.  But then while hanging with Fargo friends, John and Sarah, before the concert, things took a turn in the bird anxiety department… Joel Schmidt called.  I didn’t even want to pick it up. But like the cat, curiosity got the best of me: Cattle Egret. State birds always offer up new chances, but a county bird like this?

Then during the concert came the one-two from Steve: a pic of his new county bird and the discovery of some would-be lifer Short-billed Dowitchers. My concert beer was not chasing the blues away; maybe I should’ve also tried the whiskey drowning approach.

Despite my woes, the night was still highly enjoyable and optimism for the next day was winning.  Perhaps these birds would be waiting for me back home. Perhaps I’d get my state Say’s Phoebe at Felton Prairie IBA on the way home. As I was mulling this over while going on a Starbucks run this morning, I noticed a Scheels sporting goods store and recalled some eBird reports I had studied awhile back: Gray Partridge inhabiting a vacant lot nearby. Since I was in the area I thought, ‘Why not?’  But ambitious I was not–driving around the perimeter of the lot would have to suffice.  This lot was a sea of green in the concrete, retail jungle.  There was a large, brushy mound in the center of the grassy plot, a rather perfect home for this species that likes thin cover.

Scheels lot

And sure enough, I spied two bulbous bodies out in the open! I couldn’t believe I was getting an opportunity to view and photograph Gray Partridge.  I honestly thought this would never, ever happen.  Stoked doesn’t even begin to describe what I was feeling.

Gray Partridge

The pair was inseparable.  I could not believe I was witnessing this.  I’ve only ever seen this bird flushing away from me or dead in the hand.  This was simply incredible.

Gray PartridgeGray PartridgeGray Partridge

Despite its name, this is by no means a dull-looking bird. The male is simply brilliant.

Gray Partridge

Gray PartridgeEventually I had to pry myself away from these birds to complete that coffee/breakfast errand I was on.   But afterward, I swung by the lot one more time and the birds were now in crushing distance from the road!  Moreover, the male stood up on his haunches and showed off that impressive rusty belly of his.

Gray PartridgeGray PartridgeI may have only been 900 feet above sea level, but my head was in the clouds.  This is an opportunity I will likely never replicate again.  The goings-on back home were but a distant thought. Oh, I’ll be okay.

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!