Guide Series: Gravy Day–Redemption Birds and Bonus Lifers

Since Tommy DeBardeleben and Gordon Karre did not fly out of MSP until late in the evening on February 1st, we basically had most of the day to bird in the Northland and on our way south.  And since we had knocked out their Owl targets the previous three days….

Great Gray Owl

Snowy Owl

Northern Hawk Owl

Barred Owl

…we had a great deal of flexibility and freedom for how to bird on that final day.  We had succeeded in our goals which I still find hard to believe even as I sit down to write this. There was zero pressure for that final day.  Options on the table included going back for more Great Gray action in the Sax-Zim Bog, heading up to Lake County to try for Spruce Grouse, going to a birding friend’s yard to photograph Ruffed Grouse that frequent her feeders, or trying for a number of other Owls on our way south.  Ultimately, though, we decided to bird much closer to our base camp.  While we were on the Hawk Owl hunt in the Northwest the previous day, Evan had called me with a credible report of three Spruce Grouse seen on a road right near my parents’ house.  Since I have seen Sprucies there in the past, I had no reason to doubt it.  So that’s where we started our day. Evan was along with us as Marin and Melissa headed back home separately.

I was excited about birding around my parents’ house.  First, it meant we could sleep in for once which felt great after the breakneck pace we’d been keeping.  Second, and more important, I have tried for years for some really great birds that have been found on a road through a mature Black Spruce bog near the folks’ house.  I had secured a nice male Spruce Grouse in this spot the previous year, but I have never given up searching for the Great Gray Owl and Black-backed Woodpecker that Sparky Stensaas discovered there over two years ago.  I have lost track of how many times I have tried for these birds.  These birds are pretty special anywhere, but even more so when they are in the backyard.

When we got to the Spruce bog and made one unsuccessful pass down the road for Sprucies, Great Grays, Boreal Chickadees, and Black-backs, Tommy suggested getting out of the car in order to walk and listen.  It was a mild day, so I thought that was a good idea.  Rather than joining them and having all of us have to walk back to the vehicle, I decided to stay in the car and go pick them up.  Unannounced to them, I took off in a different direction in order to complete a large loop to cover more ground.  Gordon later told me that when he saw me leave he had flashbacks of Snipe hunts from his youth.  But I knew it wouldn’t be long and that they’d be okay. 🙂

Almost instantly on my solo tour I had a large gray and black raptor fly from a perch in the Pines on the right side of the road to a large stand of Pines on the left–adult Northern Goshawk!  I wish I could have had a longer look, but such is the way NOGO sightings go. I finally did make it back to a frigid Tommy and Gordon (my loop took me longer than I thought–oops!).  I asked the guys what they had seen, and Tommy told me they detected the drumming of a Black-backed Woodpecker.  I’ve birded with Tommy enough to know that he can be a kidder and try to get one over on somebody, so I laughed and told him I knew better than to believe his story….except he didn’t break into a smile.  He was serious! So I got out and we played the tape.  Almost instantly the Black-backed Woodpecker flew out of the bog and finally gave me the sighting I’ve been waiting on for years!  Even better was that this was a lifer for both Gordon and Evan!! It was a great moment that wouldn’t have been possible without Tommy and Gordon walking–thanks guys!  This one felt really, really good.

Black-backed WoodpeckerSomething even more amazing happened while we tried to lure out this guy–a second Black-back showed up! There was a male and a female! Unfortunately I never did see that classic field mark of the yellow crown on the male, but Tommy and Gordon each got to see it.  I will continue to search for these birds until I finally see that and finally get good photos of this species.

Black-backed Woodpecker

We had a pretty tight schedule to keep for some more birding stops on the way to the Cities, so we had to leave this special bog by 9:30.  The rest of the day had various stops for various things as we ventured south.  We tried for a Northern Saw-whet Owl that would have been a lifer for me if we would have found it. We did not, however.  This was my second attempt, and I’ve since made an unsuccessful third attempt.  It is just not meant to be at this point in time.

As we traveled we did get to see a couple more Pileated Woodpeckers, including one close up on a power pole.  Getting photos of this bird was another story, but the sightings were still exciting for the guys.  Tommy was able to finally get a Blue Jay photo which was a photographic lifer for him.  We did bump into an unexpected but not surprising Red-bellied Woodpecker in a suburban neighborhood which was a lifer for Tommy!  No one was able to get photos of this striking bird.  The one pictured below is one I recently photographed in my yard.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

We had a couple of revenge stops to make right by the airport itself.  When I picked the guys up late in the afternoon on January 28th, we had about 20 minutes of daylight to search for the Ft. Snelling State Park Barred Owl which is a 5-minute drive from Terminal 1.  Not being successful there on that first night, we quickly got over to the aircraft viewing area on Cargo Road just as it was getting dark to look for a reported Snowy Owl.  No luck on that one either.  Even though Tommy and Gordon got their Snowy and Barred Owl lifers, we all wanted revenge on these particular Owls, especially the Barreds which NOBODY misses on.  Anyhow, we were all optimistic and relaxed on this second attempt.

As we were driving into Ft. Snelling State Park, Evan casually mentioned seeing some Trumpeter Swans. This immediately caught Gordon’s attention who informed us that would be a lifer for him!  Evan’s eagle-eye had come up with a lifer that wasn’t even on my radar. Tommy was also excited about this sighting as it was the first time he had seen adult birds and only his second time viewing the species.  Way to go, Evan!

We also redeemed our failure from the previous night when Tommy spotted the female Barred Owl.  The guys enjoyed getting another chance at photographing a more cooperative Barred Owl.

Barred Owl

Because we found the Barred in such short order, I told the guys I had enough time to make one quick check for the airport Snowy Owl before I had to hit the road.  When I asked them if they were interested in looking, they responded with an emphatic yes.

Driving down Cargo Road we did not spot the bird on any of the perches on which it had been seen recently, like the FedEx building.  It turns out that this bird does not play favorites, though, as I spotted it way in the distance on top of the UPS depot as we drove back out from the aircraft viewing area.

Snowy Owl MSP

Afterwards, we took the guys to the terminal, said a hasty goodbye, and vowed to go birding again together either here or in Arizona. It was a great last day of birding that added its own unique excitement to a truly epic trip.  Here is the summary of day 4’s life birds for Tommy and Gordon.

Black-backed Woodpecker – Gordon, Evan

Red-bellied Woodpecker – Tommy

Trumpeter Swan – Gordon

Trip Analysis

This trip was unforgettable, no unbelievable.  It was simply magic, even for me.  Though I have seen all of these birds many times, the fact that we saw so many good birds in such a short period of time makes this trip rival some of my out-of-state trips where I have gotten lifers.  I enjoy birding northern Minnesota more than anywhere, and I never get tired of its special birds, especially those Owls.  It was a thrill to be able to help Gordon and Tommy see them for the first time.  To end this trip series, I’d like to point out some fun factoids.

Tommy and Gordon got their three main targets in this order: Great Gray Owl, Snowy Owl, Northern Hawk Owl.  For those who are not fans of permutations, there are exactly six orders that this could have happened.  Coincidentally I saw those same lifers in that same order.

The number of individuals we saw of these three Owl species made for a nice arithmetic sequence:

Great Gray Owl – 1

Northern Hawk Owl – 2

Snowy Owl – 3

Tommy and Gordon saw the Northern Big 3 on three consecutive days.  That is substantially faster than I did it (nearly a year), even after making several northern trips.  Here are the dates that I got my lifers.

Great Gray Owl — March 13, 2013

Snowy Owl — December 3, 2013

Northern Hawk Owl — December 26, 2013

Before this trip, I had (surprisingly) seen more Owl species than Tommy.  He had 13; I had 14. Now, though, Tommy has 17.  Of the 19 regularly occurring Owl species in North America, he is only missing Boreal Owl and Eastern-Screech Owl, both of which reside in Minnesota.  I’m trying to convince him that he should get them here, especially since I need one of those as well.  After all, how cool would it be to say you got all of North America’s Owls in just two states?

Speaking of Owl lifers, Tommy and I split the work of spotting their four lifers.  Never mind how many more Owls Tommy found overall!

Great Gray Owl – Tommy

Snowy Owl  – Tommy

Northern Hawk Owl – Josh

Barred Owl – Josh

Overall, Tommy ended the trip with 15 life birds and Gordon had 18.  That is a whopping number, especially when I have only seen 60 species total in Minnesota for 2016.

Tommy and Gordon saw a LOT of GOOD birds in a SHORT amount of time. Below I’ve listed the most difficult species they saw on this four-day trip along with the dates that I got my lifer for each to give some perspective as to how good of a trip they had.  As you will see, it’s taken me a long time to get these key birds after many, many trips to the north. I’ll start with my most recent lifers.

Great Black-backed Gull — November 28, 2015

Iceland Gull — November 28, 2015

Glaucous Gull — November 28, 2015

Black-backed Woodpecker — June 22, 2015

Gyrfalcon — March 8, 2015

Thayer’s Gull — November 8, 2014

Boreal Chickadee — December 28, 2013

Northern Hawk Owl — December 26, 2013

Snowy Owl — December 3, 2013

Great Gray Owl — March 13, 2013

Favorite Sighting of the Trip: Black-backed Woodpecker

Favorite Personal Find of the Trip: Barred Owl just south of the Canadian border

Best Overall Bird Experience: Hanging with the Northern Hawk Owl in the Beltrami Island State Forest

Biggest Relief of the Trip: Getting the Great Gray immediately

Biggest Stressor of the Trip: Driving in reverse for 3.6 miles on the Pitt Grade Road Snowmobile Trail in a mini-van

Biggest Miss of the Trip: American Black Duck

Thank You!

This trip’s success is only because so many great Minnesota birders and non-birders made it happen.  Therefore I’d like to acknowledge those folks.

Clinton Nienhaus – For all his Sax-Zim Bog advice on the Bog’s birds and their habits.  Additionally, Clinton spotted the guys’ Glaucous Gull lifer at Canal Park.

Jason Mandich – For his SZ Bog advice and extra set of eyes in the Bog.

Jeff Grotte – For his Owling advice that made for an incredible final day of Owling in the Twin Cities.

Peder Svingen – For his Gull identification counseling and superior Superior Snowy Owl tips.

Randy Frederickson – For giving us timely heads-up texts on the Iceland and Great Black-backed Gulls.

John Richardson – For being an extra set of eyes at Canal Park, wearing his trademark Union Jack stocking cap, and bringing his British cheer to the Canal Park Gull party.

Kim Risen – For pointing out a bonus Snowy Owl in Superior.

Sandy Aubol – For her Northern Hawk Owl advice in Roseau County.

Evan – For always having an eagle-eye that ended up getting Gordon a bonus, unexpected Trumpeter Swan lifer.

Mom and Dad – For the generous use of their home and vehicle for our epic birding odyssey.

Melissa – For her enthusiastic support of this trip that kept me away from the family for so long.

 Hungry For More?

Me too! This past weekend I worked as a guide at the annual Sax-Zim Bog Birding Festival.  Later this week look for a write-up and photos of more great northern Minnesota birds from that trip!

Guide Series: Let’s Go See Some Hawk Owls, Eh

Oh, Canada, how you grab our imagination, especially as birders.  Perhaps no other bird signifies the Far North and gets stuck on birders’ brains quite like the Northern Hawk Owl.  Though Hawk Owls occasionally breed in the boreal forests of northern Minnesota, they are most often seen in winter when birds decide to cross the border for the season.  They are a highly coveted bird for any birder.  Most birders get their Hawk Owl lifer in Minnesota.  That’s exactly what Arizona birding friends Tommy DeBardeleben and Gordon Karre were hoping to do.  One problem, though: Hawk Owl reports were virtually non-existent in Minnesota this winter.  There were only a couple of scattered reports from the under-birded, remote counties of northwestern Minnesota.  This bird failed to show up in the Arrowhead this year despite being fairly regular around the Sax-Zim Bog and Duluth in recent winters.

Of course, this reality, which was was not improving with each passing day, was weighing on me prior to Tommy and Gordon’s arrival.  It would mean that if we wanted to even TRY for this bird, we’d have to travel some 3.5 hours north and west of my parents’ place in northern Minnesota. We’d be going right to the Canadian border on the west side of that “bump” on Minnesota’s northern border.   All told, this is about 7 hours away from Minneapolis/St. Paul.  It’s up there, folks.  I’ve been up that way maybe only twice in my life, but never as a birder.  It was new turf, remote turf, that I’d be exploring in the winter.  I’d be lying if I said the thought of it didn’t make me nervous and give me pause.  Once I accepted the reality that we’d have to venture into the northwest, I began to devour any scrap of birding news out of that remote country.  The more I pored over maps and read up on Roseau and Lake of the Woods Counties in some old Minnesota birding books, the more excited I was getting.  Visions of Hawk Owls, gobs of Great Grays, two species of Crossbills, Black-backed Woodpeckers, and Spruce Grouse flooded my mind.  (Sometime if you’re bored, do an eBird query for Great Gray Owls and see the dozens upon dozens that Hawk Ridge’s Karl Bardon found around Roseau in February of 2013.)  The lack of Hawk Owls in northeast Minnesota was actually a good thing–it was getting me out of my comfort zone and getting me to explore an area that I’ve always wondered about. Birding is often as much about exploring as it is seeing birds.

So on January 31st, our third day of the big northern Minnesota birding adventure, Tommy, Gordon, and I left base camp in Angora at 4 AM to reach MN Highway 310 north of Roseau by first light.  This would be the furthest point from home we’d be exploring, so we’d be birding our way back home from the start of daylight.  It was surprisingly foggy on our way to Roseau.  Once we made it to MN 310, the 10-mile road to Canada, we first took a run up the Sprague Creek Road as this time of day was prime for Great Grays and Spruce Grouse.  The road was not what I expected though, as we went through a lot of Aspen and open areas.  We could see Black Spruce and Tamarack bogs, but never came close to them.  However, it was good to explore this road and see where many Great Grays have been seen in the past, including one earlier this winter.  Gordon did find us a Black-billed Magpie, but otherwise it was dead up that way.

Once back at MN 310, we turned north and the countryside changed from open fields to Tamarack/Spruce bog.  This is one of the most reliable places to see Great Gray Owls in all of Minnesota, and this was the area that a Hawk Owl had been discovered by Sandy Aubol over a month prior to our trip.  Yes, we had made a 3.5 hour trek on information that was over a month old! However, Hawk Owls tend to be pretty loyal to their winter territory, so I thought we had a pretty decent chance.  Needless to say, we were all on high alert for northern Owls! But all we were seeing was the incredible hoarfrost that developed from the fog.

hoarfrost MN 310

We drove up to the checkpoint at the border and turned around there, having to pass right through the car portal at the guard shack, and nobody was home… So, so weird.  The dumpster on this property was enclosed in a chain link fence topped with concertina wire, yet nobody was there to stop wackos coming in to the United States?!? Such a different experience than when I crossed into New York a decade ago and got grilled by our own border patrol for why I was returning to the country where I…live. I guess things are just a little more laid back here in the north.  To be fair, some Minnesotans have to travel through Canada to get to where they live in Angle Inlet (the bump).  That “bump” is composed mostly of water, so the only way to get to Angle Inlet without going into Canada is by boat or snowmobile.

Back to the birding story, we still hadn’t seen Sandy’s Hawk Owl despite a couple passes on 310.  I had other Hawk Owl prospects lined up, so I asked the guys if they wanted to make another run up and down the highway for this one or if they were ready to go after a different one.  They opted for another try at this first bird.  It was another wise decision because once I turned the car around to go north one more time, I spotted their third main target of the trip. It felt good to finally beat Tommy at spotting an Owl because he’s really, really good at it!  Of course, this is the only kind of Owling I excel at–finding blobs on tops of bare trees right next to the road.

Northern Hawk OwlBrakes were deployed, and doors were flung open.  It was a happy moment indeed.  If you look, you can even see a big smile on Tommy’s face in this pic.

Tommy GordonI’ve seen plenty of Hawk Owls, so it was fun to watch these guys enjoy the moment.  For this pic below I actually laid on the cold 310.  Tommy GordonA nice bonus occurred when we were observing the Hawk Owl–Tommy spied their lifer Pileated Woodpecker fly across the road!  I had told Gordon all along that if we see a Pileated, that’s exactly how it would happen.

Tommy Gordon

As Canadian cars approached from the north, I wondered what they thought of this scene of the three of us gawkers and imagined their conversations went something like this:

“What are those hosers looking at, eh?”

“Looks like a hawkowl, eh.”

“What’s so special ‘boot a hawkowl, eh?”

“Dunno, eh, saw like 50 on the drive down this morning, eh.  It’s not polite to stare, though eh.”

“You’re right, eh, sorry, eh.”

“No problem, eh. Stop the car, eh.”

“Why, eh?”

“There’s a piece of litter we need to pick up, eh.”

The longer we lingered, the more the sun began to burn off the fog and illuminate the incredible hoarfrost. What a site it was, all the better that we were looking at a Hawk Owl in the hoarfrost.

MN 310 Hawk Owl

Many Owl photographers could only dream of this perfect set-up.  It did not go unappreciated by us.

Northern Hawk Owl Northern Hawk Owl

Check out the blood on the Hawk Owl’s bill.  Perhaps it was feasting on a mouse somewhere when we made our first pass.

Northern Hawk Owl

Northern Hawk Owl

A little while later, the Hawk Owl was on a different frosty perch, only this time the sun was even brighter and the blood was all gone.

Northern Hawk OwlNorthern Hawk Owl

This experience was a lot of fun, even for me.  I really, really like Hawk Owls too.  There’s just something fun and engaging about them.

We spent some time eating a picnic lunch in the van and started to make plans to head home and look for what would now be bonus Hawk Owls.  Our next stop was the Beltrami Island State Forest where a Hawk Owl had been reported on the Roosevelt Road a couple miles north of the Norris Fire Tower.  On the way, though, I opted to drive some gravel roads through the open farmland south of MN 11; I had a strong hunch I could get the guys their Snow Bunting lifer if we did.  Sure enough, we found a few flocks.

Snow BuntingOnce we got on the Roosevelt Road, I was very excited.  This was a desolate forest we were entering, and I wondered at the possibilities it held for us.  There wasn’t a lot of bird life except for some Pine Grosbeaks.  Once we got in the vicinity of the reported Hawk Owl, the habitat looked perfect–large open areas surrounded by Tamaracks.  It practically screamed Hawk Owl.  I mean, it must have, because Tommy heard the message and spotted a super distant, tiny blob in the MIDDLE of a tree that turned out to be…another Hawk Owl!! We were on Cloud 9.

Northern Hawk Owl

The bird flew to a more classic perch, doing his duty of acting Hawk Owlish for these Arizona guests.  Tommy and I actually bushwhacked through the knee-deep snow to get some photos. Gordon stayed back on the road to watch the Hawk Owl through Tommy’s scope.

Northern Hawk OwlTurns out we needn’t have bushwhacked because this accommodating little fellow must have felt sorry for Gordon and flew practically right up to him.  Even Gordon couldn’t resist wading into the snow for this new perch. Get ‘im Gordon!

GordonGet ‘im Tommy!

TommyEven though the blue skies and the hoarfrost were gone, this was my favorite Hawk Owl experience of the day.  We were totally alone in the middle of the remote Beltrami Island State Forest with this Owl.  There was not even another bird around.  Truly, it was an idyllic setting.

Northern Hawk Owl

Northern Hawk OwlNorthern Hawk Owl

The rest of the drive through the Beltrami Island State Forest was uneventful birdwise.  However, I did spy my lifer Bobcat!

BobcatUpon closer inspection, though, it looked very sickly.  It did not move even as we pulled up alongside it. While we watched, it made feeble attempts at gnawing on this slab of meat which came from where? Clearly this cat could not eat what was in front of it, let alone kill something.  Sad.

Continuing our journey, though, we drove the road north of the Faunce Fire Tower and looked for a reported Great Gray.  The habitat was perfect, but the time of day was not, so we kept rolling.  I decided to drive down the Pitt Grade Road where Black-backed Woodpeckers and Crossbills had been reported a month earlier.  There was some snow on the road, but I thought the van could handle it.  The more I drove, though, the more I realized that I was driving on a snowmobile trail! As the soft snow on either side of the skinny road was trying to pull me in, I realized I had to get us out of this situation.  We could A) Keep driving, not knowing when or if we’d be able to get off this road, B) attempt a 99-point turn to get us turned around, or C) drive in reverse the entire 3.6 miles we had come.  After much debate, we decided on the reverse option.  I’ll never forget the look on Gordon’s face as I drove in reverse (trust me, I got a good look as I craned myself around to drive the stressful, painful, 3.6 mile, 15-minute trip all the way back).  Thankfully, the reverse attempt was successful, and we were birding once again!

We made one pass for yet a third Hawk Owl south of Baudette on MN 72 a few miles.  The habitat was again perfect, but we did not strike gold for the third time of the day.  I’m sure if we would have made more passes, we eventually would have spotted it.  Instead, it was time to finish the long drive back to Angora.

Somewhere west of International Falls as Tommy and Gordon were fading in and out of sleep, I caught sight of a large, gray Owl fly out from the Aspen stand on the north side of MN 11!  I hollered, “Great Gray!” but as we got glass on it, we saw it was something even better! It was the guys’ lifer Barred Owl, their 4th Owl lifer of the trip!!!! Woo-hoo!!

Barred OwlTalk about a way to wake up the guys up and get the birding juices flowing again! This was personally exciting for me as it was only my 2nd personally found Barred and 4th one ever.  That’s right, I’ve seen more of the “special” northern Owls than I have of this common, resident bird.  It was a real treat indeed.

This encounter must have brought a jolt of life back into Tommy because somewhere just south of Ray on U.S. Highway 53, Tommy spotted us our 5th Owl species of the trip, a Great Horned Owl! What a day! What a trip!

Great Horned OwlIt was an incredible trip to the Northwest and one I won’t forget anytime soon.  The day was capped off with a hot meal at the Wooden Table in Angora and the relaxation of knowing that we could “sleep in” the next day even though we had another exciting birding itinerary for the day of Tommy and Gordon’s departure.

Here is a recap of the day’s lifers:

Northern Hawk Owl – Tommy, Gordon

Pileated Woodpecker – Tommy, Gordon

Snow Bunting – Tommy, Gordon

Barred Owl – Tommy, Gordon

A huge shout-out and thanks to Sandy Aubol for her Hawk Owl find and for her tips on relocating it! Thanks Sandy!

GOOD Morning Sax-Zim Bog!

After a successful hunt for a Gyrfalcon lifer and a Boreal Chickadee photo on Sunday, I was primed for a day of different birding objectives when I woke up at the in-laws’ house in the Northwoods Monday morning. I was expecting magic–I was going to the Sax-Zim Bog.  Part of that excitement was that, when given the choice between the Bog or hanging out with Grandma for the morning, Evan chose the Bog.  Based on recent knowledge I had, I knew this could be a special day of lifering and just downright fun birdwatching for him.  Doing something science-based eased the parental guilt of pulling him out of school on this day, especially since science (and other subjects) get pushed to the margins in this era of standardized testing where math and reading reign supreme.  Forget the guilt, I felt like I was doing something good.

Getting him up that morning was tough, but the promise of McDonald’s breakfast and the morning’s main objective-seeing Sharp-tailed Grouse do their courtship dance on a lek-was enough to get him going.  We left the house under an amazing starry sky (truly, there is no better place to see the night sky) to try to get to the lek around first light.  However, the breakfast errand and my negligence in not planning extra time to get all the way to Meadowlands in the southwest corner of the Bog caused a delay in my plans.  Needless to say, I was haulin’ down Co. Rd. 7.

Still, I brake for Great Gray Owls.  Coffee is a great way to start the day, but these are even better way to get the day off on the right foot.

Great Gray Owl

Note the distinct white “mustache” which is visible even in the diminished light of dawn and dusk.

I’d love to tell you how I spotted this thing, but you deserve the truth: I saw hazard lights in the dim morning light.  That usually means one thing in the Bog. Immediately I looked in the vicinity of the stopped car and saw the giant silhouette.  Brakes were slammed. A sleeping child was woken. Game on!  I was NOT expecting to see a Great Gray this trip.  They have been very sporadically seen since early January.  Many out-of-state visitors dipped on this species this winter.   Interestingly I had seen a report of a Great Gray on Co. Rd. 7 the previous evening, so I was keeping my eyes peeled.  I’d like to think I would have spotted it on my own.  But really, who cares? These things are just fun to see–well worth delaying our Sharp-tailed Grouse plans even more.

Great Gray Owl

Call me crazy, but I prefer to watch Great Gray Owls on gray overcast days and in gloomy light.  There’s just something fitting about it that adds to the mystique of this bird.

Great Gray Owl

Great Gray Owl

Despite this good fortune, I was confounded.  How much time could I devote to watching this owl?  I had to get to the lek if I wanted to see Sharp-tailed Grouse.  Why does birding always have to be so stressful and full of decisions?!  Mr. Owl, or I should say Mr. Crow helped me out.  After 15 minutes or so of owl-watching, an American Crow flew in out of nowhere right at the Great Gray.  It was awesome to watch the owl’s defense posture, spreading out his wing and ducking his head.  But he didn’t want to be bothered any more, so he departed for the deep, gray recesses of the Tamarack bog behind him.  Evan was using my camera at the time to get good looks at the owl, so I wasn’t able to capture this. I will offer up a short video for your viewing pleasure, though.

Next stop was the lek just north and east of the intersection of Co. Rd. 29 and Racek Rd. We got there around 8:15.  Birding friend Clinton Nienhaus had told me that he had observed the grouse dancing around 7:30 last week, which was 8:30 this week thanks to Daylight Savings Time.  So we were still on time.  I found the small group of eight Sharp-tailed Grouse over a quarter mile east of the white house.  They were little brown dots in a field of snow, very far from even the camera’s view. We were able to view them a little closer from Racek Rd.

Sharp-tailed GrouseAnd they were doing their courtship dances!  It was an incredible thing to watch even from a distance.

Sharp-tailed Grouse

Sharp-tailed Grouse

This was a life bird for Evan.  It wasn’t even a state bird for me; I had seen a group of 12 or so about 18 years ago pecking grit off MN Hwy. 73 near Sturgeon.  So for me it was fun to see this bird as a birder and add it to my state eBird list.  Evan and I really enjoyed watching these grouse.  We sat together, him on my lap, watching the dances on the camera’s LCD out the driver’s side window.   We were quite content to just hang out and see what they’d do.  Under the weight of a freshly minted 8-year-old I was reminded of how quickly time passes and how kids don’t stay little long.  Sharing this moment with Evan and watching these birds is one I won’t forget.

The previous weekend my friend Steve Gardner saw these same Grouse on the same day Clinton saw them dancing on the lek.  However, Steve saw them at a later time in the morning as they were running around the yard of the white house where many people have been seeing them come to the bird feeders.  Piecing these two observations together, I knew that eventually the Grouse would head for the white house after their courtship dances.  Sure enough, around 8:45, the theatrics were over and protagonist and antagonist Grouse alike hung up their theatrical costumes, slapped backs like old friends, congratulated each other on another great performance, and headed to the bar…er, bird feeders.

Evan and I hopped onto Co. Rd. 29 for better views.  The lek is to the left of the garage and behind the row of pines about a quarter mile.

Sharp-tailed Grouse

It was a gray day, but we were still able to photo crush some Sharptails. ‘Sharptails’ is a throw-back term to when I hunted them long ago in Montana.  It’s just what people called them, and I have trouble letting go of that nickname for the cumbersome official name.

Sharp-tailed Grouse

I didn’t get many shots because something spooked the Grouse back to the lek area. Looking at this last picture I took, I’m guessing a raptor of some sort was cruising overhead.

Sharp-tailed Grouse

Like the Great Gray, these Sharptails made it easy for us to move on to something new in the Bog.  Next stop was the Admiral Road feeding station; Evan needed a Boreal Chickadee lifer, and I wanted more photos as well as a lifer Black-backed Woodpecker that had been hanging out just south of the feeders.

By the time we got to Admiral Road, the overcast sky was gone, and it was a glorious blue-sky day.  There were a couple of cars of birders at the feeders.  We watched for the Boreal Chickadees for awhile but weren’t seeing them.  So I got out and walked the road looking and listening for the Black-backed.  An Ohio birder approached me asking what I was looking for, and I learned that he hadn’t seen the Chickadees after a half hour wait. Yikes. Maybe Evan won’t get that lifer today.  Just as we were going to give up, though, the Boreals stormed the feeders!  Mr. Ohio and Evan lifered at the same time.  Evan was about 10 feet away from the feeders and didn’t need me to point out his new bird.  So stunning in the now gorgeous light!

Time to move on again.  As much as I’d like a Black-backed Woodpecker, I was more anxious to get a Hawk Owl for the winter.  I can probably get the resident Black-backed Woodpecker in the summer.  On the way to Hellwig Creek (mile marker 29) on Hwy. 53, we bumped into a Northern Shrike and three Black-billed Magpies.  How is that you can walk up to these things in a parking lot in Colorado and club them if you choose, and yet I can never get one to stay still for a photo in northern Minnesota?

Black-billed Magpie

Evan and I were now racing the clock as we went south of the Bog toward Canyon on Hwy. 53 in search of the Hellwig Hawk Owl.  Grandma was bringing Marin southbound after a morning of tea parties, nail-paintings, etc to meet us so the kids and I could leave the area before noon to get back home in time for Evan’s piano lesson.  Hawk Owls are quite conspicuous when present, often perching on top of Spruce trees.  I just could not locate it.  Maybe it had gone north already.  Nuts! I really wanted to see this owl again. This was one of my main birding goals for the trip.

Evan and I headed north again to meet up with Grandma and Marin, only we were stopped in our tracks by a Timber Wolf crossing the road!  It stopped broadside just 30 feet from the car, but I couldn’t get the camera out in time.  Instead I got a running shot as it went down the snowmobile trail.

wolf

Sadly we discovered the wolf was injured as it carried one paw.  Evan was pretty distraught over it, wanting me to call somebody even.  I assured him, perhaps incorrectly, that the wolf would be okay. (Though it did look a bit skinny.)

wolf

After rendezvousing with Grandma and Marin at the Anchor Lake Rest Area, the kids and I were now headed south.  I would be going by mile marker 29 one last time.  It was my last hope for Hawk Owl.  I texted JG Bennett and Clinton Nienhaus to get more info on which side of the highway it had been seen.  JG shot back right away that it was the west side.  At least I now had somewhere to focus.  As we went by Hellwig Creek, I scanned every Spruce top. Nothing.  Then, there! A glob in an Aspen tree of all places was moving! It was Hellwig, the Hawk Owl!!  Do you see him?  And do you see all those perfect Spruce tops he’s NOT sitting on?

Hawk Owl

This was my first time photographing a Northern Hawk Owl with a blue sky background.  Now if only I could get the classic shot on top of a Spruce with a blue sky!

Northern Hawk Owl

This Hawk Owl didn’t care about anything, especially that I was underneath photographing him.  Didn’t bother him one bit.  In fact, he went about his business of becoming the cleanest Hawk Owl in the land.  These things remind me of cats.

First the feet.

Northern Hawk Owl

Then the pits.

Northern Hawk Owl

And then the uh, you know.

Northern Hawk Owl

Hawk Owls, like many owls, are birds of many faces and poses.

Here’s Mr. Bean.

Northern Hawk Owl

Here’s Oscar the Grouch

Northern Hawk Owl

And finally the classic look is its namesake, a bird that looks like an owl but perches like a hawk.

Northern Hawk Owl

Here’s another short video that captures some of the essence of this awesome owl.

So there you have it. Two lifers for Evan (Boreal Chickadee and Sharp-tailed Grouse), four birding objectives of mine met (lifer Gyrfalcon, photograph of Boreal Chickadee, eBird record of Sharp-tailed Grouse, and year bird Northern Hawk Owl), and sprinkle in a bonus Great Gray Owl and other cool northern birds for taste–I’d say it was a successful end-of-winter field trip up north.  And we were home around the time that Evan would have gotten done with school for the day.The northern gulls, sea ducks, and Black-backed Woodpecker will have to wait for another winter trip.  For now, though I must tie up some loose ends and prepare for a lifer-fest in Arizona in a couple weeks.

Google Drive: A New, Easy Way to Embed Photos in an eBird Checklist

It is once again that time of year when the birding has slowed waaaay down.  Virtual tumbleweeds are rolling through cyberspace that was once occupied with fast and furious listserv postings and backlogged blog posts.  Once again, I find myself trying to fill that virtual void by doing some tech project to help my fellow birders.  Last year it was the creation of birdingacrossamerica.com.  This year it is something far less ambitious – this post is a simple tutorial on a new way to add bird photos to eBird checklists. Photos add to the richness of the reports we birders submit.  They make them just a tad juicier than the others.  We can’t resist clicking the lists with that glorious little icon.

boreal

Which eBird checklist would you click on first?

There’s nothing better than opening that icon and BAM! you’re staring at a good, large photo of a great bird like the Northern Hawk Owl.

NHOW eBird list

And when you report birds, it’s always nice to provide photo proof of a good bird or birds you saw.  Additionally, photos can make it a lot easier for the local eBird moderator to approve your rarity.

aitkin

Embedding photos in eBird checklists has never been a user-friendly task, but hopefully this tutorial will take away the mystery and complication of the process for you.  Though minimal html coding is still involved (don’t let that freak you out — you can copy off my paper 🙂 ), I’m offering an alternative solution to eBird’s prescribed use of photo-sharing sites like Flickr and Picasa!  I had used neither of those before I got into eBird, and personaly I didn’t want another #$%#&! account with another ^%$#@ password where I have a few @ and a couple % sprinkled in that password.  Enough is enough, so I found my own path using something I, and probably you, already have – Google Drive. Many of us have been using Drive for some time now to collaborate with colleagues or store files of all types for easy retrieval.  Never use it? Well, the probability is high that you have a Google account of some kind already, so therefore you can sign in to Google Drive with your same Google account and password.  However, this tutorial is geared toward those with a rudimentary understanding of uploading files to Drive.

Let’s get started.

After you upload your image, you should see a window like the one below.  Click ‘Share’.

new upload

You should then see this window.  Click ‘Get shareable link.’

get shareable link

After you do that, you will see the link has been activated (notice it is green below).  You will also see a URL for the image highlighted below.

share link on

Copy and paste that URL in a new browser window. Notice how I highlighted the photo’s ID number in the URL.  You will need this soon.

new window

Now open up your already-completed eBird checklist in a new browser window. Click ‘Edit Species List’ and put your cursor in the comments section of the bird for which you want to display a photo.

Next, copy the line of code below and paste it into your comments for that species. Pay attention to the blue text below as you will be replacing it.

<a href=”https://docs.google.com”><img src=”https://docs.google.com/uc?id&#61;0B9Tq0WV1ARL2bTg4ZG11WTFkRXM” /></a>

owl checklist

Now, unless you want this picture of that sweet Snowy in your checklist where a crushing photo of a Ruff should be, you need to do this final step.  Locate your photo’s ID number in the URL that I referenced earlier.

snowy corner

Then paste that ID in the place of the blue text in the line of code you pasted in your eBird checklist.  Make sure the old ID number is gone.

That’s it! So go and make eBird a more beautiful place to visit with all your fabulous photos.  After all, winter gets long for some of us, and we need some cool bird photos to check out when we’re not prowling for owls.

cellie

In memory of Jim Halvorson, district technology coordinator and fellow math teacher, who passed away unexpectedly this past week.  Jim worked tirelessly and patiently to enhance our craft through technology and its advances.  More important than that, he was an all-around great, friendly guy who will be sorely missed.