Something to Grouse About on Thanksgiving

Home beckons most everyone on Thanksgiving.  And when you are a birder and that home is the northwoods of Minnesota, the call is even louder.  The quiet, Black Spruce bogs covered in a recent, two-foot dumping of snow compelled me to go exploring.  I did just that, and this year the cornucopia of good birds was overflowing.  It was a feast of feasts. There is much to be thankful for, not the least of which were three gift Spruce Grouse sitting on the highway just a couple miles from Melissa’s family’s place.

Spruce GrouseI couldn’t believe my luck. This happened once two years ago in this same spot but with just one bird. The female (lifer gender) above and the male below stood motionless on the road as I crept the vehicle closer and closer to them.

Spruce GrouseAs I watched, I spotted a second male just on the edge of the woods who wanted nothing to do with me.

Spruce GrouseI wanted to creep by the birds and get around them by driving on the shoulder so that I could view these dark, male statues from the front, their better side. As I did so, another car came down the highway and now I was worried these dumb things would get killed.  I wasn’t going to let that happen, so I planned to shoo them off the road.  But I didn’t have to because my close presence at this point and the approaching car thankfully activated them. I was able to snap another pic of the male on the road before he flew off. The birds barely flew into the edge of the woods and never re-flushed, yet try as I might, I could not pick them out of the Spruce trees.  Their camouflage and ability to sit motionless are amazing.

Spruce Grouse

Not to be outdone by their cousins this Thanksgiving, the Ruffed Grouse put on quite a good show and were seemingly ubiquitous. Even while feasting at Grandma’s house a couple even flew in to have their own feast of Aspen buds…

Ruffed Grouseand Birch catkins…

Ruffed GrouseEveryone eats well at Grandma’s house and goes home stuffed.Ruffed Grouse

The day after Thanksgiving, I had the pleasure of birding with Julie Grahn, a local birding friend who often keeps me up to date on the latest bird happenings back home.  As if the Grouse weren’t enough birding excitement for one trip, little did I know the good birding was just getting started.  Julie and I had some solid finds early on of Black-billed Magpie, Northern Shrike, and Rough-legged Hawk, but the real excitement came when we walked a stretch of road in a mature Black Spruce bog.  Our target was a Boreal Chickadee–I had heard one two days prior, which was another exciting first for this little patch of mine.  However, as we started walking we heard the rapid “chiff-chiff-chiff-chiff” of two White-winged Crossbills flying overhead!  This is a bird I have only ever seen in quick glimpses in the past. I certainly had no photo of one. That finally changed and may have made this the best sighting of the trip.

White-winged CrossbillWhite-winged CrossbillA little while later, Julie asked me to stop the car to check out a bird I had dismissed as a Raven.  This instance is proof of why two birders are better than one because Julie had spotted a juvenile Northern Goshawk!  Like the Crossbill, this was another photographic first for me.  I have had several probable NOGOs in the area but had never had one sit still before to know for sure.

Northern GoshawkTo end my birding for this trip, I later went into the town of Cook and found the Bohemian Waxwing flock Julie had told me about.

Bohemian WaxwingThis holiday’s birds were off the charts.  It ended up being some of the best birding I’ve ever had at home up north and certainly gives the birder in me much to be thankful for.  Unfortunately gratitude has a time limit before greed kicks in…how many more days until we go home for Christmas?

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: The Quest for the Great Gray Ghost in the Sax-Zim Bog

Over the years several gracious and talented birders have taken this novice birder into habitats and lands both near and far to help me see a new bird or two or twenty.  Recently I found myself in a bit of a role reversal for the first time, and the stakes couldn’t be higher.  My good Arizona birding friends Tommy DeBardeleben and Gordon Karre decided to take me up on an offer to show them around northern Minnesota in the wintertime to go after our impressive Owls, specifically the Great Gray Owl, Northern Hawk Owl, and Snowy Owl.  Not only is it nerve-wracking to produce the winter classics because of the fickle nature of these Owls, but it is even more so when the people I was leading have produced my top Arizona targets for me over…

Elegant Trogonand over…

Painted Redstartand over.

Rufous-capped Warbler

Was I feeling the pressure? You better believe it.  And with the driest year I have ever seen for the Big 3, my stress level was rising with everyday leading up to the trip.  Despite an abnormal October influx, Snowy Owls seemingly disappeared and numbers returned to pre-irruption year levels.  Great Grays were fairly abundant in the Sax-Zim Bog but very, very fickle about showing themselves.  The outlook for Northern Hawk Owls was even more depressing as there were only a couple reports out of northwest Minnesota.  I was feeling the squeeze.  But pressure aside, I really just wanted these guys to see these Owls.  These birds are simply just amazing, and I wanted to share them with my friends.  Now, I know Tommy and Gordon are classy guys who understand there are no guarantees in birding, but I had invited them to the home court and they had invested a lot of time and money to see the wonders of which I spoke.  I attempted to counteract my stress with the only antidote I knew: preparation. Sometime in late fall I began to drink from the fire hose that is the multiple streams of birding information out there: multiple FB groups, the MOU database, the MOU-net listserv, and eBird. Living far from the north, I was only able to do a tad bit of actual scouting over Christmas which is, like, ancient history and completely useless when it comes to a birding trip the end of January. So I reached out to my contacts who had much better, more recent intel than me.  Minnesota Nice is never more epitomized than it is in its birders as people like Clinton Nienhaus, Jason Mandich, and Jeff Grotte generously gave me their up-to-the-minute knowledge, and in some cases, their eyes to help this trip be a success. You take that expert info and put a crazy Owl hat on a crazy-good Owler and good things are bound to happen.

tommy

Our pursuit for the Owls would begin with the Great Gray in the Sax-Zim Bog at first light on January 29th. Clinton had advised us on the most probable bird, so that’s where we began our day. We had a plan B, C, and D if that one didn’t show, and Jason Mandich was even scoping out other sites that morning too. It turns out that when you have a pretty good plan A and a Tommy, that’s all you need. Tommy spotted his and Gordon’s Great Gray lifer from the gray woods at dawn and excitedly announced it to both of us.  It was a glorious moment; there were some very excited Arizona birders in the van–so much so that I had to remind them to keep their voices down so as not to spook it!

IMG_7136

In an instant, months of stress left my body because this bird is a trip maker.  I knew that if they dipped on everything else, including the other two Owls, that this bird would still create great memories for them.  With the ice officially broken, the real fun could begin, like going crazy with Great Gray photos.

Gordon TommyNot only was it thrill to watch these guys get this incredible lifer, but I also enjoyed seeing a Great Gray in a new (to me) part of the Bog. It doesn’t matter where these guys are, though.  They are just plain cool.

Great Gray Owl

After some great looks and photos, I gave the guys the option of continuing to enjoy this bird or going after the other Great Grays while the time was still prime. Perhaps it was the hat or all that face time with the Owl, but they made a wise choice and decided to hang with this one.  Turns out that it would be our only one of the trip.

Great Gray Owl Great Gray Owl

I was in full-on relaxation mode at this point, though I did have to run a tight schedule in the short term–our only window for Sharp-tailed Grouse of this four-day birding odyssey was coming to a close quickly since they are tough to find after 9:30 AM. Somehow I managed to pull them away from the Great Gray and get to the Sharp-tail lek in time.

Sharp-tailed GrouseThe guys even got to see the males of this new lifer doing their courtship dances! That was topped off by the Grouse coming roadside to feast at a local resident’s feeders before retiring for the day.  It really couldn’t have been a better experience for viewing this bird.

After the time and big bird pressures out of the way, we had the rest of the day to just cruise around the Bog in pursuit of whatever, like checking out the Pine Grosbeaks at the Visitors Center.Pine GrosbeakThis is a bird I previously had terrible photos of, so this felt good to see a male up close.

Pine GrosbeakAnd of course, there were Common Redpolls which is a lifer for the guys.  There are always Redpolls. This one had some potential for…oh, who cares anymore?

Common Redpoll

“I don’t even know who I am.”

I am a huge fan of the potential lumping of the Common/Hoary Redpolls.  My list may go down, but so will my birding stress!

At every feeding station we stopped at, Black-capped Chickadees always made their presence known…as they should, they are awesome.

Black-capped Chickadee

But there is a cooler Chickadee that lurks in the shadow of its cousin and is much more shy.  Thankfully the stunning Boreal Chickadee overcame that shyness just in time for the guys’ visit.

Boreal ChickadeeThe Boreal Chickadees had started to become a regular at the Admiral Road feeders not more than a week before the guys arrived.  Tommy and Gordon were truly spoiled with this lifer.  It appeared within a minute of us stopping at the feeders.  How many birders, myself included, have waited for an hour or more only to be skunked?  Additionally, it came out often, like every minute instead of every half hour. Like the Great Gray, this bird is not a given.  Also like the Great Gray, much face time is required with this bird.  I would estimate that we spent equal time with it as we did with the Owl.  For me this bird ranks just below a Great Gray Owl but definitely above a Snowy Owl. As such, I am on a never-ending quest to get a photo of a BOCH that I am happy with.

Boreal ChickadeeBoreal Chickadee

The first day in the Bog was as good as I could possibly hope for with the only notable miss being a Pileated Woodpecker for the guys. Otherwise, the guys cleaned house with the “good stuff” even picking up some additional lifers in the more common birds.  Here is the summary of their lifers:

Great Gray Owl – Tommy, Gordon

Sharp-tailed Grouse – Tommy, Gordon

Ruffed Grouse – Tommy, Gordon

Boreal Chickadee – Tommy, Gordon

Common Redpoll – Tommy, Gordon

Northern Shrike – Gordon

Each of the next two days would have its own Owl focus.  Could we be just as successful the next day in Duluth/Superior with the Snowy?

Once again, a huge shout-out and thank you to Clinton Nienhaus for his extensive Bog help on all kinds of birds and to Jason Mandich and Jeff Grotte for their owling advice. We couldn’t have done it without you guys.  There’s no “I” in Great Gray.

Warming Up For Sax-Zim…

Northern Minnesota is my favorite place to bird.  The unique collection of hardy birds that call this place home in the winter is truly spectacular. Getting out for a little birding while home for the holidays is always a must.

I spent a lot of my birding time in the nearby town of Cook.  Local birder, Julie, had found some White-winged Crossbills which would be a lifer for me.  So I made several trips into town to try for this bird.  I came up short that first evening, but came away with a great prize–spotting my own vagrant Townsend’s Solitaire.  Such a good bird and to find one myself here at home made it all the more special. In fact–spoiler alert–look for it in my year-end Top 10 post.

Townsend's SolitaireOne morning I decided to canvas the heck out of Cook, cruising up and down all the streets looking for those Crossbills.  Honestly, it is just as much fun driving around Cook as it is the Sax-Zim Bog, especially when there are great birds, like an overabundance of Evening Grosbeaks.

Evening Grosbeak

Or Pine Grosbeaks, a bird I finally got a chance to photograph. Despite the large flock I found, I never saw more than two or three adult males.

Pine Grosbeak

Pine GrosbeakSome were so incredibly tame.  I think I could have pet this one.

Pine GrosbeakBirding a small town like this is a lot of fun because the birds are easy to spot as there are not many of them, and they stick out like sore thumbs in leafless trees.  And nearly every bird you pull up the binoculars on in this area is a fun bird.  In addition to the Grosbeaks, I saw Redpolls, Red-breasted Nuthatches, Gray Jays, and even a quick sighting of my White-winged Crossbill lifer.  Additionally I found a very late Common Grackle, which is the only way a Grackle ever becomes exciting.

One morning while home I took Melissa on a scouting trip to the Sax-Zim Bog for Tommy DeBardeleben and Gordon Karre’s upcoming trip.  Melissa is normally the one who spots the Owls, but today was my lucky day as I spied this guy first when it flew out from the tamarack bog and landed right in front of us.

Great Gray OwlSince I was in the pole position for this Great Gray in the traffic jam that had developed on Admiral Road, I planned to stay put until there was enough light to properly photograph the Owl.  This one had other plans as it hopped from perch to perch and went out of sight almost as soon as it had appeared.  Many other birders/photographers stayed in the area for a reappearance (which many got over and over), but this was a scouting trip and I had more places and birds to check on.

Admiral RoadI tried hard to turn up another Great Gray or two but just couldn’t do it.  I was happy to find a small group of Sharp-tailed Grouse near Meadowlands.  I know this sounds strange, but from a scouting perspective, this was the most exciting find of the morning.  The Great Gray is obviously the better bird, but one only needs to look for the parked cars to spot one of those in the Sax-Zim Bog.

Sharp-tailed GrouseSharp-tailed GrouseIn just three weeks time, Tommy, Gordon, and myself will be hitting the Sax-Zim Bog and NE MN harder than I’ve ever hit these areas before.  I am looking forward to this trip just as much as any of my out-of-state trips.

Pokin’ Around the Northwoods

Tamarack BogNorthern Minnesota is home.  Every season offers up something special in terms of wildlife and scenery.  I was able to get out and do some birding in the forests, bogs, and open country on the same recent trip that included the Blackburnian Warbler.  Cool stuff abounds everywhere here. It was good to be home.

Pink Lady Slipper

Pink Lady Slipper (Not MN’s State Flower, the Showy Lady Slipper)

Tamarack bogs like the one pictured above get a lot of attention from birders in the winter because of the Owls and some other boreal specialties.  In the summer, though, they are not visited by birders as much.  It’s too bad because they are quite lush and beautiful and the polar opposite of the forests of the seemingly dead Tamaracks.  I say seemingly because Tamaracks drop their needles after turning a beautiful golden yellow in the fall, leaving dead-looking trunks and branches.

This particular bog was home to the Blackburnian Warbler I showcased in the last post, but there were also some other fun birds in this area.  The Blackburnian was a happy accident; I had actually gone to this spot to look for some Boreal Chickadees that local birder Julie Grahn had told me about.  I found them, and they were literally sharing turf with the Blackburnian.  They were not as cooperative though, refusing to come out of the Spruce tops.

Boreal ChickadeeJudging from my picture, it appears that this was a family group with a couple fledglings!  This Chickadee is so cool.  Most MN birders only see them in the dead of winter when they come out to the remote feeding station on Admiral Road in the Sax-Zim Bog.   I was very pleased to see BOCH in the summer and much closer to home than SZ.

Sharing space with the Boreal Chickadees and Blackburnian Warbler were numerous Nashville Warblers whose song I just learned.  I am now just starting to learn the songs of the more common Warblers that I see during migration. I tend to photograph common birds last too, so on this day I finally got some shots of the Nashville.

Nashville WarblerNashville WarblerAnother fun bird to see even if it couldn’t be seen well was the Lincoln’s Sparrow.

Lincoln's SparrowThe varied habitats in northern MN offer up some unique opportunities for viewing wildlife.  While looking for an American Bittern lifer in a marsh near my parents’ house, I found this gal looking for a place to lay her eggs.

Snapping TurtleIt was not the biggest Snapper I’ve seen.  This one’s shell was the size of a dinner plate. I’ve seen them twice as big before.

Snapping TurtleI didn’t spend a lot of time in the mature, upland woods other than just passing through.  That was enough to nab my FOY Blue-headed Vireo that I missed during migration.

Blue-headed VireoThis bird has never been good to me.  It was once a nemesis and continues to be a photographic nemesis. By the time I figured out its rhythm of jumping to a new perch each time after it sang, the bird disappeared from sight.

IMG_4728

In the area of the Iron Range we call home, there is a substantial amount of open farm country, mostly hay fields and no crops.  Still, the grasslands and horse farms are great for some good non-forest birds, the best of which was a pair of Black-billed Magpies.  Julie Grahn had told me about these, and I’ve been seeing this species more and more every time I go up north.  It’s been stated that the Sax-Zim Bog is the furthest east this species breeds.  Well, this location was even further east yet, so it’s a pretty exciting find!

Black-billed MagpieAlso found in an open area was a bird that I have seen so many times this year and never before in the Northland, the Brown Thrasher.

Brown ThrasherOne bird that favors the open grassy fields that intersperse the Northwoods are the showy, and unique-sounding Bobolinks.  They must be having a good year because I saw so many.

Bobolink

They were also more cooperative than I’ve ever seen them before.  It felt good to finally photograph a BOBO properly.

Bobolink

Bobolink

BobolinkOne bird that I was absolutely surprised to find in the open fields were Brewer’s Blackbirds! I had no idea they were in the area.  Honestly, I often just dismiss most blackbirds I see as Red-winged Blackbirds or Common Grackles.  Needless to say I was pleasantly surprised when I saw the Brewer’s.  Like the Bobolink, it was nice to finally be able to get some decent photos of this bird too.

Brewer's Blackbird

This dad was busy feeding a fledgling.  I was scolded often during this photo shoot.

Brewer's Blackbird

Brewer's Blackbird

Brewer's BlackbirdBrewer's BlackbirdI had some really fun birding on this trip up north.  I was not lifer hunting as there really are so few lifers I can still get.  And none of them are easy. Or so I thought. In the next post I’ll tell you about a three-generation lifer that was delivered right to the doorstep.

Caution: Highly Flammable

Blackburnian Warbler

I have been Up North a lot this summer.  This is a good thing. On my most recent trip which occurred just a few days after the Black-backed Woodpecker chase, I got in some really good birding–some of the best I’ve had in northern MN in the summer.  One of several highlights was finding a Blackburnian Warbler on territory and then spending some serious time with just that one bird. It was a great FOY as I missed it during migration, but more importantly, this was my best encounter yet with this bird. Typically when I find them in migration, I have been lucky to get just a couple photos before they vanish forever as flighty, migrant Warblers are exceptionally good at doing. You just can’t beat a cooperative Blackburnian on a sunny day where it belongs–in the Spruces.

Blackburnian Warbler

Blackburnian Warbler

Obviously this bird is stunningly good-looking which puts it near the top of most birders’ favorite Warblers.  It is also one of the first Warblers I saw when my eyes were first opened to the amazing world of this family of birds. Before I ever dreamed up the blog and before I had even seen 100 species, Evan and I took our first ever bird walk with an experienced birder at Bear Head Lake State Park.  This lady spotted a Blackburnian and made quite a fuss over its orange throat, but Evan and I could not see the bird despite her best efforts to describe where it was.  It was excruciating; we’d already gotten a field guide at this point and knew what a face-melter the Blackburnian was. The next day Evan and I went out to look for it on its territory.  I was able to hear it, but it took the Eagle-eyes of a then 5-year-old to pick out the glowing flame from the treetops.  It was a major birding victory early on in our hobby. Finally doing this bird photographic justice on this recent trip was a major victory today and therefore worthy of an exclusive post.

Blackburnian Warbler

Blackburnian Warbler

Blackburnian Warbler

Blackburnian Warbler

The best thing about seeing a Warbler on territory is that you get to see and hear it do what Warblers do best–warbling. Blackburnian WarblerBlackburnian Warbler

Blackburnian Warbler

Blackburnian Warbler

The Blackburnian is a treetop bird. It was nice of him to oblige me by posing low in a young Aspen for a bit.  Another benefit of Warblers on territory not yet mentioned is that they will sit still long enough to get a decent photo.Blackburnian WarblerBlackburnian WarblerBlackburnian WarblerBlackburnian WarblerBlackburnian WarblerBlackburnian WarblerOverkill? Maybe, but my burning desire to photograph one of my top birds has finally been extinguished….until I find another one.

I did see other birds on this trip north–really good birds.  I’ll put those up in the next post.

2014’s Last Big Gift

By all rights I should have written a post commemorating the incredible birding year of 2014 by doing a Top Ten birds post or something similar. It sounds corny, but this year has been unimaginable and would be deserving of such cliche.  Evan and I ended with 72 and 96 life birds respectively.  Highlights included tallying eight new species of ducks and seeing 30 individual owls of 8 different species.  Additionally I found three official county records and a host of other rare birds for the county, not to mention the many rare birds we’ve seen found by others.  2014 was a year of gifts, and in a fitting fashion, there was one last gift that would usurp any year-end reflective post.

We recently made our usual Christmastime trek to the northwoods to spend some time with Melissa’s family.  My family is already in Arizona for the season.  As is the custom, we pass through the Sax-Zim Bog on the way home. After our Great Gray Owl success over Thanksgiving and after having my Facebook feed littered with GGOW pictures all December, I figured seeing the owls again was a lock. Nope. We were there the wrong time of day (mid-morning), and the sun was out. With the gloomy weather the past month the owls could be found actively hunting all day long.  Apparently they are now less photogenic and are being found late in the afternoon and early in the morning.

My hopes for the trip were not over though as I decided to take the next morning to head down to Duluth to look for a Townsend’s Solitaire and a Northern Hawk Owl.  I struck out on both but still held up hopes for good stuff when coming back north through the Bog. Again, the GGOWs were playing hide-and-seek, where they were doing a lot more hiding than seeking.  I had some other goals for the Bog, which included seeing/photographing the resident Boreal Chickadees as well as getting a lifer Black-backed Woodpecker that had been pretty regular.  Well, the chickadees were a no-show, and I missed the woodpecker by 5 min. This was turning out to be a bleak trip up north as far as birds go.

Gray Jay

The next day, though, I received a birding gift that surpassed anything I was searching for. It was perfect – so much so that I hadn’t even thought to put it on my Christmas list.  That morning while returning from taking care of my dogs who were staying at my parents’ house, I stumbled upon a lone, male Spruce Grouse pecking grit off the side of the road along a black spruce bog.  I was ecstatic.  The last time I saw one was about 15 years ago, long before I was a birder, and it was only the third one I’d ever seen.

Spruce Grouse

Spruce Grouse

Surprisingly the SPGR was somewhat wary of me despite their nickname of “Fool Hen.” It flew from spruce bough to spruce bough allowing me some good looks and photographs before disappearing into the dense spruce bog.  I was hoping to have it stick around for Evan’s sake since he was just a few miles away.

Spruce Grouse

They are incredibly beautiful birds and quite the prize bird in Minnesota.  It was quite a thrill to see the intricate and bold patterns of this grouse species.  It very well may be one of my favorite sightings of 2014 even though it was not a life bird.

Later that day we headed to Melissa’s Grandma’s house for some coffee and a game of Farkle and some birds.  The drive over was eventful as a half dozen escaped horses were all over the road.  We stopped at the farm house to let the owner know and were delighted to see he was home and that he had an Ermine running around his yard, all decked out in it’s sporting white winter coat.  We didn’t just stop for horses and weasels, though. There were, of course, Pine Grosbeaks.

Pine Grosbeak

Though this PIGR appears legless and taxidermied with a stick poking into its mannequin body, I can assure you it is real and my best photo yet of this species.

The birds and treats at Grandma’s did not disappoint as Grandma puts out a spread nary a grandkid or Evening Grosbeak can resist.  Though this species was once very common in the northland, its population has declined dramatically and has become quite  the prize bird, visiting only select feeders.  Grandma Evelyn’s is just such a place.  Many breaks were taken from the intense Farkle game to look at these beauties.

Evening Grosbeak

Evening Grosbeak

I love the color variation of all sides of this bird.  It was a special treat to be able to photograph them on a perfectly sunny day.

Evening Grosbeak

Evening GrosbeakWith cravings for goodies and grosbeaks satisfied, it was hard to complain about getting whooped by Grandma in Farkle.  We left with full bellies and content hearts, satisfied yet already yearning for the next visit.  It was a great day in the northwoods with its birds and people!