Bird Local and Save

Save time. Save money. Save headaches. Save the fun for another day. The longer I bird, the more rewarding I find local birding. Most anyone can see what birds they want if they have the means and time to hop in a car and drive across the state or get on a plane and go someplace new. But not everyone can see what they want in a limited geographical area even if they have all the time and money in the world. Racking up the numbers in the near-perfect 24×36 mile rectangle that is Kandiyohi County is tough. While I haven’t jumped on the popular 5-Mile Radius bandwagon, I do take my birding pretty seriously in these 864 square miles.  Birding a relatively small area makes the victories all the sweeter and the misses even more anguishing.  Case in point was an Eastern Whip-poor-will found by Dan Orr on April 30 in the far NW corner of the county. Dan found the bird during the day surprisingly, and not surprisingly, I was tied up with shuttling kids around to their activities. I couldn’t make the 40-minute drive until dark, which is okay considering hearing a nightjar is much more probable than seeing one.  Joel Schmidt was on the scene before me having no luck finding it. Then, two minutes before I arrived, he heard it. I stayed on over an hour without hearing a whip or a will. Ugh.

Yet another stinging miss was a Summer Tanager in Randy Frederickson’s yard in May of 2017 while I was across the country. I literally got the news just after landing in Arizona. Talk about bad timing.  All I had to cling to was a thin hope of another one based on Randy having seen this species in his yard a few times over the last couple decades. It turns out that my hope was not that thin. History repeated itself almost exactly a year later, except I was in the right place at the right time for once to get #258. Twice I’ve made long-distance car chases for this species, and here I had one just across town.  Sadly, that story has repeated itself all too often for me with other species.

Summer Tanager

Not long after I enjoyed this Tanager with Randy and his wife in their yard, Randy and I were out birding one morning when I picked up county bird #259*.  *This bird, if accepted, would be a second state record. I’ll write more on that if we have success with it being accepted. If not, just forget this paragraph even existed.

Serendipitous rarities at the local level are always received with great joy since they are completely unexpected. You can’t get too upset about the really rare birds you don’t have on your county list.  However, it’s the birds that you know show up annually but are still missing from the list that really get under the skin. Two of those for me were Sanderling and Henslow’s Sparrow. My battle plan was to hit up shorebird habitat hard during the end of May to hopefully get a Sanderling, a late migrant. Then, during June, I would make it my daily chore to go beat the innumerable grasslands in the county for a Henslow’s. I was looking forward to this struggle, actually. A few visiting birders laid waste to my perfect plans by finding both my Henslow’s AND my Sanderling for me in the SAME day!

County listing gurus, Andy Nyhus and Dedrick Benz, answered my case-of-beer promotion for any non-county resident that finds me a new Kandiyohi bird when they dug up a Henslow’s Sparrow on territory in the far SE corner of the county. It was a bittersweet #260–good to finally get it, but now my June birding plans were in shambles.

Henslow's Sparrow I have wanted this Sparrow for a long time. The last time one was in the county was in 2013, my first summer of birding. I did try for that one, but I was so green that I didn’t really know how to try. Plus I later found out that I was in the wrong spot by like a quarter mile. Needless to say, with this year’s find I immediately raced down to that corner of the county, making me slightly late for meeting up with a friend that morning.  Getting the bird was a cinch as it could be heard from the parking lot. I spent a little time with it and then raced back to my meeting.  When that meeting ended at noon, I promptly went to the liquor store to make good on a promise. I made my purchase but was disappointed to find out that Andy and Dedrick were no longer in the county to collect payment and had vanished like the DeLorean, leaving fiery trails of good birds for others to marvel at.  Two of those birds were some Sanderlings and Ruddy Turnstones that same afternoon on a beach at Lake Minnewaska in neighboring Pope County. The find actually pushed me out the door that very same day to start checking similar beaches in this county. I checked several but did not go to the beach at Green Lake in Spicer.  Though I thought of it, I instead went to lakes to the south. It’s a good thing that county-listing expert, Herb Dingmann, had the same hunch after ticking Andy and Dedrick’s Pope finds. He did stop at Green Lake and found the same pair of species! Twenty minutes after his call, Steve and I were on site, enjoying our latest county bird. This was #261 for me.


Ruddy Turnstone is not a shabby bird either, only my second in the county.

Ruddy Turnstone

Sanderling Ruddy Turnstone

So just like that I was out of birding targets for the immediate future. I almost didn’t know what to do with myself. At my current number for the county, I am essentially waiting on vagrants to show up to get the number higher. There are a couple more regular hold-outs which I will pursue come fall and winter, but what does one do now? I have never understood the appeal of 87-county listing, but maybe this is it how it begins–the local list gets saturated with good birds and one must look across borders for new tics to keep the thrill alive.  Or maybe it happens innocently when a slew of good birds shows up at the ponds at work in neighboring Meeker County. The ponds have been drawn down this year making it tidy little hotspot during migration.

A confiding pair of Northern Pintails that hung out for a week was a fun Meeker tic.

Northern PintailFun as the Pintails were, nothing could make the Meeker slope more slippery like the 1-2-3 punch of Willet, Snowy Egret, and Caspian Tern. The latter two were seen on the same day as I was hurriedly leaving work to chase the Curlew Sandpiper.

WilletAfter work one day, coworker and birding buddy Brad Nelson had seen some smaller Egrets fly over and land at the ponds but wasn’t able to investigate. He asked if I could check it out. Though the Curlew Sandpiper was the priority, I told him I could give it a quick once-over. It’s a good thing, too, because Brad’s suspicion on the Egrets was right. This pair of Snowy Egrets became our first eBird flagged rarity for work, and it allowed Brad to tie the record for being #1 in Meeker.

Snowy EgretAs I scanned the ponds in my haste to get to the Curlew, I nearly missed this Caspian Tern trying to blend in with the Forster’s. Caspian is the better of the two Terns here, and it was the bird that officially crowned Brad Nelson the King of Meeker County.  Congrats, Brad!Caspian TernPerhaps the county listing starts innocently with “just a quick trip” 6 miles from the county line to pick up Dan Orr’s Stearns County Mockingbirds.

Northern MockingbirdOr maybe it happens when you are driving down the Kandi-Swift County line road and find yourself staring at the Swift side of the line.   It’s a good thing I did because it netted me my first real good looks and photos of a Sora. This felt like a lifer, honestly.

SoraThe birding action is too hot at home to be worried about other counties. I’m not and don’t anticipate to be an active 87-lister, though it is fun to add tics when I travel. This spring/summer has produced an abundance of good birds right here in Kandiyohi County, even if they were not new to me. In fact, for the first time ever, I managed to go above the 200 mark in a single year with half the year still to go!  Here are some of the more fun finds I’ve encountered along the way.

Perhaps winning the award for Biggest Surprise was this very late Snowy Owl (April 26!). I had chased some Short-eared Owls (a more expected species at this time) and instead found this guy. Every Minnesota birder will tell you they have looked at countless Wal-Mart bags in fields thinking they had a Snowy Owl.  Given the time period, I was expecting this white mass to actually be a Wal-Mart bag. Nope. This was my fifth Kandiyohi Snowy Owl of this past winter/spring.

Snowy OwlAnother, “What’s that doing here right now?” bird was a presumed nesting pair of White-winged Crossbills this spring found by Steve Gardner in the same place I found a flock last November.

White-winged Crossbill

It was good to connect with two different Red-headed Woodpeckers in the county this year already–not a bird to be taken for granted here by any means.

Red-headed WoodpeckerThough not a rare bird for Kandiyohi County, it’s always good to bump into a Scarlet Tanager too.

Scarlet TanagerThis spring/summer I have many county Seconds, meaning I’ve seen/heard a bird for the second time ever in the county. I was pretty thrilled to discover my second Loggerhead Shrike for the county. I’ve only seen a handful in the entire state, so this was pretty special.

Loggerhead Shrike

Speaking of only seeing a handful of a species in the state, another Second happened when I was looking for my county Sanderling at the Blomkest sewage ponds.  I kicked up a pair of Gray Partridge as I hiked the barbwire perimeter. The exact same scenario played out for me in this spot just two years ago.

Gray Partridge

My favorite Second occurred when I was looking for a year bird, the Orchard Oriole. The Orchard was not a Second, but still a fun bird.

Orchard OrioleI saw this Orchard Oriole along a road between two gravel pits that I have walked many times in the past looking for a county record Blue Grosbeak. Since the record was found last summer and since it’s still not Blue Grosbeak season in my mind, I was not even thinking about that species. The thing about birding is that good finds sometimes happen when you least expect them. I was pretty pumped to finally (after all these years) get a personally found second Kandiyohi County record Blue Grosbeak.

Blue GrosbeakI didn’t have to wait long to get my second county Summer Tanager. County-listing legends, John Hockema and Chris Hockema, found this first-year male at Mt. Tom at Sibley State Park.  Incredibly, other observers found a second Summer Tanager with this one.

Summer TanagerThe Hockema Bros. followed this up immediately with another incredible find at Mt. Tom–my second county Eastern Towhee.

Eastern TowheeContinuing this list of Seconds was my second county observation and first county visual of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo in Randy’s magical yard.

Yellow-billed CuckooThis Hudsonian Godwit was my fourth observation of this species in the county, but this was only my second time seeing one in breeding plumage.

Hudsonian GodwitBirding locally this spring has been absolutely incredible and proof that you really don’t have to go far to find great things. Other fun finds on the road to 200 and beyond included Least Bitterns, Eastern Meadowlarks, Lark Sparrows, a Cerulean Warbler, and more. Even the new yard has had some great action with Common Nighthawks circling over, Purple Finches stopping by the feeders, and a Wood Thrush waking me up one morning with its serenade.

Birding has definitely slowed down the last couple weeks, which is a good thing so I can work on getting caught up on this blog and on various non-birding projects.  Next post (posts?) will highlight an incredible birding trip Steve and I took to Arizona back in April.

Necedah: Refuge for the Red-headed Woodpecker

One bird that Tommy, Evan, and I kept watch for as we traveled through Necedah National Wildlife Refuge was the Red-headed Woodpecker.  Tommy got his lifer a couple days prior on his Grand Forks trip.  This was a bird I hadn’t seen since 2014.  And whether you have freshly lifered on this bird or seen dozens, it is one that you really can’t get tired of seeing.  I was pretty excited about the possibility of finally ending my streak of days passed since seeing a Red-headed Woodpecker.

Once we got closer to the Visitors Center on the south end of the refuge, we started driving through some Oak Savannah habitat–good-looking stuff for a Red-headed Woodpecker.  It didn’t take long to spot one. Or two. Or three. Or a dozen.  They were everywhere.  It was insane and wonderful all at once.

Red-headed Woodpecker

IMG_8752What’s this bird looking at? Probably a mate or a competitor for a mate. There were two that were involved in a seemingly endless chase, never once pausing for a good picture.  At one point we saw them lock feet and fall to the ground like Eagles.  It was fantastic.

Red-headed WoodpeckerMy own personal RHWO drought along with the near-threatened status of this bird made seeing this abundance of Red-headed Woodpeckers extremely thrilling.  Never mind that this Woodpecker is ridiculously striking in appearance, sporting a bold, simplistic color pattern.

Red-headed WoodpeckerRed-headed WoodpeckerEvan enjoyed looking at all these cool Woodpeckers flying around us everywhere.

EvanThen again, who wouldn’t?

Red-headed WoodpeckerIt’s unfortunate that we didn’t have more time to spend with these Woodpeckers at Necedah as other areas of Necedah required exploration before we had to break for supper, hotel check-in, and Kirtland’s scouting.  But it’s good to know there is a place where one can go and see this species with ease.

On the home front, Red-headed Woodpeckers are getting harder and harder to come by.  As I mentioned before, I saw zero RHWO anywhere last year.  So I was quite thrilled when Randy Frederickson and I spotted one just recently in the home county while conducting our annual search for Blue Grosbeaks.

Red-headed WoodpeckerRed-headed Woodpecker

We can only hope that our local population will rebound to become even a fraction of what we saw at Necedah.

2015–The Pinnacle Year

It is once again that time of year when bird bloggers the world over parade the best, and sometimes worst, of their year of birding.  I am no exception to this.  Cliche? Yes. Fun? Definitely. If you are already turned off, perhaps you can make it interesting by trying to guess any or all of the birds in my Top 10.

While you mull that over, I must mention that 2015 was very different from 2014. If 2014 could be summed up in one word, it would be ‘serendipity.’ I had so much dumb luck with  my own finds and with other birders’ finds that I was constantly turning up or chasing something cool.  2015, on the other hand could be known as ‘intentionality.’ I did a lot of focused birding for very specific targets that required a lot of planning.  With that said, there was, as there always is in birding, lucky encounters. But overall, like Mr. Noah Strycker himself, it is safe to say that this was and will be my best year of birding.

Before we get into the Top 10, here are a couple of superlatives.

Most Expensive Bird

Far and away this honor goes to the Piping Plover.  Yes, I spent more on other trips, but when you break down the cost of those trips per lifer, none can compare to the cost of adding Piping Plover to my list.  In fact, Arizona with its abundance of lifers becomes dirt cheap if you think about it from a cost per bird perspective.  But the Plover required hiring a legitimate sea captain.  Justified loosely as a Father’s Day present and a boat ride for the kids, was it worth it to see nesting, endangered Piping Plovers from a distance on a rocking boat?


Piping Plover

Evan Marin madeline island

Biggest Miss

Red-headed Woodpecker.  I couldn’t find one at all when I literally had dozens the year before.  This is a bird you simply cannot see enough of.  I look forward to redeeming my failure in 2016.

Red-headed Woodpecker

Biggest Shout-out to a Reader

This goes to Laura Segala for her incredible Yellow-crowned Night-Heron yard-bird which so many of us got to add to our life lists this year.

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron

Most Famous Birding Companion

Bob Janssen.

Evan Bob Janssen

Twice. And we even got to help him relocate Andy Nyhus’s Wood Thrush for a new Kandiyohi County bird for him.

Bob Janssen at the site of his latest county bird, a Kandiyohi County Wood Thrush

Bob Janssen at the site of his latest county bird, a Kandiyohi County Wood Thrush

Best Redemption on a Bird

Greater Roadrunner. How did we miss it in AZ in 2014? How did Evan repeatedly just miss it in 2015 before finally getting it?

EvanGreater Roadrunner

Best Photo Redemption of a Bird

Buff-breasted Sandpiper

Buff-breasted Sandpiper



Best Minnesota Warbler

Blackburnian Warbler

Blackburnian Warbler

Best Wisconsin Warbler

Black-throated Blue Warbler

Black-throated Blue Warbler

Best Arizona Warbler not in the Top 10 and Best Non-Warbler Warbler

Olive Warbler

Olive Warbler

The Top 10 Birds of 2015

So in the biggest year which included 78 life birds, how did I even begin to select a top 10? Well, the answer to that lies not in which birds were the most rare or even the most beautiful, but rather on my experiences with certain birds and the people involved.  These are the birds and experiences that are the most fun to think back upon.

10. Snowy Owl

Wilbur Snowy Owl

Two years in a row SNOW makes the list, and it wasn’t a lifer either time.  So why again? 2015 was another irruption year for this bird, and I finally discovered one on my own.  And then I found another, and another, and so on all right here just a few miles from home.  The pinnacle of this epic SNOWstorm was when I saw three different owls within just 10 minutes or so, tying Randy Frederickson for the most Snowies seen in one day in Kandiyohi County.

9. Townsend’s Solitaire

Townsend's SolitaireMy first lifer for 2015 was a Townsend’s Solitaire, but that’s not why this bird is here.  The reason this bird made the cut is that I found one on my own in the old hometown.  That’s a pretty sweet feeling on multiple levels.

8. Northern Pygmy-Owl

Northern Pygmy-OwlI had five Owl lifers in 2015.  In an ordinary year, they’d all deserve one of the top 10 slots.  Spotted Owl should probably occupy this slot because of its threatened status, but I just really enjoyed seeing this Pygmy in Hunter Canyon. This tiny Owl was cool just by itself, but the experience made it even better. This is just one of the dozens of life birds that Tommy DeBardeleben and Gordon Karre found for us.  Just as much fun as seeing these birds was becoming friends with these guys.  There is no doubt that we will have many more adventures together in 2016.

I’ll never forget those 10 minutes of positive stress that occurred while seeing this Owl when Tommy, Gordon, Evan, and I had multiple lifers pop up at once.  We went from a Hepatic Tanager to a male Scott’s Oriole to this Northern Pygmy-Owl to a Rufous-capped Warbler.  Each required that we ditch the last. How does one focus their attention and photography efforts in such a scenario? Read on and you’ll see.

7. Red Crossbill

Red Crosbill

This was a very fun lifer that I got in July, a time when lifers just aren’t to be had.  Red Crossbill is an especially challenging species to find in the state. I had been studying the calls of Red Crossbills in the hopes of tracking some down that had been reported up north when we went home to visit family. Little did I know how much that studying paid off.  As I stood in my parents’ driveway, this bird was served up on a silver platter when I heard the sound I had been studying and then had a small flock of them land in the spruce tree right next to me. It ended up being a three-generation lifer in my dad’s yard no less. Sometimes it’s the experience that makes the sighting special.

6. Western Screech-Owl

Western Screech-OwlThis is probably one of the most common Owls of all my Owl lifers.  But rarity status alone does not make for the best experiences.  What made this bird so fun was the context in which it occurred.  First, night-birding with flashlights adds a whole new level excitement to this hobby.  Chris Rohrer said it best when he said it makes you feel like a little kid again to be outside after dark past bedtime.  Second, this Owl was so cooperative for Tommy DeBardeleben and me that we got to pose for some laughter-inducing selfies.  This is probably the most fun I’ve ever had birding.

Josh owl selfie

5. Painted Redstart

Painted RedstartWow. Just wow. Seeing them at my feet? Unbelievable.

4. Rufous-capped Warbler

Rufous-capped WarblerThe Rufous-capped Warbler beat out the Pygmy Owl and the Oriole that day in Hunter Canyon.  This rare Mexican visitor was the main target of AZ trip #2.  I can’t believe I saw one. I can’t believe I got a photo.

3. Elegant Trogon

Elegant TrogonCan you believe a year in which Elegant Trogon doesn’t get the top slot? I mean, seriously? This was the main target for AZ trip #1.  We were successful on the last morning.  Tommy led us to victory that day.  What a thrill it was to chase this bird up the mountainside in Madera Canyon.  The Elegant Trogon Fantastic Four made for an epic team. A huge thanks goes out to these two guys for being responsible for most of the birds seen in this list, but this one especially.  Any other year guys and it would have been tops!

Josh Gordon Tommy Evan2. Gyrfalcon

GyrfalconNow here’s one that I wasn’t expecting, as in at all, as in ever. 2015 was the year of the Gyrfalcon.  I picked up my lifer in Superior, WI early in the year, but what catapulted this bird near the top of this list was when I accidentally stumbled on the bird pictured above right here in Kandiyohi County, giving me my state and county bird in one sweet shot with a good photo op to boot.  Considering one hadn’t been seen in Minnesota in nearly three years, I was just a little excited when Bob Dunlap and a host of birding experts told me my misidentified Peregrine was actually a Gyr.

1. Greater Sage-Grouse

Greater Sage-GrouseThis bird had the top spot locked down before 2015 even began.  This was a very special bird that Evan and I made a special trip to Montana to see.  We got this lifer in the company of my dad who researched this bird extensively in the 1970s for the Montana Fish&Game Department (presently called the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks).  We didn’t just see this bird.  From a blind we got to observe the males doing their elaborate courtship displays on the lek.  There was no better way to add this bird to the life list.  The Greater Sage-Grouse was hands-down the best bird of 2015.  A special thanks goes out to John Carlson for setting up the adventure, Charlie Eustace for joining us, Leo and Jo Jurica for hosting us, and to my dad for humoring my idea. It was a pleasure to meet John and Charlie and go on a very memorable outing together.

L-R: Dad, Me, Evan, John Carlson, Charlie Eustace

L-R: Dad, Me, Evan, John Carlson, Charlie Eustace

Josh Dad Evan

When 2014 ended, I didn’t have any idea that 2015 could rival it. Looking back, I think 2015 actually surpassed 2014 in its greatness.  Not only did I see some amazing things, but I got to go birding with so many incredible people.  The combination of those two things is what makes this hobby so great. So what does the future hold? I’m not sure.  I can honestly say that I have no expectations for 2016.  I have a couple minor birding goals, mostly numbers related, but little else at this point.  It is my hope to not let birding consume my year and that the experiences I do have favor quality over quantity. I’m excited to see the birds and people that cross our path this year.

A Tern for the Worse – One Screwed-Up Trip

More often than not you come to this blog to read about our great birding triumphs.  But we are also fully transparent and are thus required to document our most epic and comical failures.  Anyone who has birded for any length of time knows that failure to produce is all part of this game and such missteps or miserable attempts can be just as memorable as the glorious moments.  It is in that spirit that I will tell the story.

A little over a week ago an interesting report came in of a Least Tern down in Luverne in Rock County.  I generally don’t get too excited about terns, gulls, or even shorebirds – at least not to the point of going on a lengthy chase.  Luverne was nearly three hours away; it definitely was not happening.  Then I learned that the Least Tern is considered a “casual” species in Minnesota and that there are very few records of it here.  Furthermore, to see one elsewhere, I’d have to visit someplace like the Florida coast in the summer.  Now the bird was becoming more appealing.  I looked up the picture and noticed that the Least Tern is quite distinctive with its yellow bill.  Even more appealing.  But then I heard that this particular Least Tern was a juvenile – definitely an attribute for the “con” column.   A long trip for an immature bird that might not stick around?  Forget it.

The reports kept coming though.  The tern was hanging on and something very interesting happened.  One birder reported that there were now two Least Terns and that one was a breeding plumaged adult!  And the birds were hanging out all day. Now I was interested. Phone calls and texts were exchanged with local birding buddies, but ultimately three of us ended up going down separately in three vehicles.  I opted to go alone so I could turn the chase into an overnight camping trip with the kids at Blue Mounds State Park.

I was confident we’d see the tern in the morning.  The bird(s) had been around for nearly three days by this point.  Plus our chase record was strong with only one big miss on a Painted Bunting a couple years ago.  Even then, though, we managed to walk away with a consolation Purple Finch lifer.  I tend to choose chases that have a high probability of success, and this chase had the right elements for just such an outcome.  So as I rode along with two kids, a van full of camping gear, and one of my two labrador retrievers riding shotgun (she was not part of the original chase/camping plan), I was excited that in just a couple hours I’d be looking at a sparkly, brand-new bird, and a very rare bird besides.  We’d see the bird, and fifteen minutes later the kids and I would be having fun camping and swimming at the reservoir at Blue Mounds.  It was going to be perfect.

We got to the site in Luverne around 10:00 in the morning and pulled up behind Randy who had made it down there sometime within the previous hour.  Randy had mixed news for us.  He saw the bird (the juvenile) – saw it fly away not fifteen minutes earlier. My optimism was undaunted.  I was confident the bird would return.  We searched nearby wetlands with Randy to see if we could dig it up.  The kids and I returned to the original site a couple times but had no luck in locating either of the Least Terns.

One reason I thought this would be a fun trip for the kids was that I remembered the city of Luverne had a massive park down by the Rock River with multiple playgrounds.  Despite my memory, there would be no park adventure on this trip.  The entire park which was lush green in my memory was now entirely covered in black soil and roped off as crews worked feverishly to get it into park shape again.  What was going on?  Then I remembered.  This area of the state had massive flooding this spring.  Undoubtedly the grass and greenery were destroyed in the stagnating waters left behind.

So it was off to Blue Mounds to set up camp and do some swimming. We were going to have fun one way or another on this trip.  But we hit another snag when we checked in at the park office.  The park ranger asked us if we were aware of the water situation.  Uh, no. The water supply, she said, was contaminated with E. coli.  Even though that sounds utterly terrifying, it was a manageable fear since they had all the water shut off save the toilets and since they’d give us drinking water at the park office.

After we had camp set up and had checked on the Least Tern spot unsuccessfully a couple times, I decided that it was time to let the kids do some swimming at the reservoir. With kids suited up we made our way to the… mud puddle? Wait, where’s the reservoir? This place was only suitable for frogs and the few Pectoral Sandpipers poking around. The beach was hundreds of feet away from the “water.”   What was happening?  Finally I figured it out when we hiked down to the dam;  the spring flooding had overpowered the dam, knocking a gaping hole in it and depleting the reservoir.  This was turning out to be one sorry trip, and I was turning into one liar of a father.

The kids and I did do a little bit of hiking.  After all, Blue Mounds State Park is the most reliable place in the state to see Blue Grosbeaks.  Even though I had seen a gross amount of them in recent weeks, it was still fun to find six Blue Grosbeaks at Blue Mounds.  Most were near the Interpretive Center’s parking lot, but a couple were found at the north end of the prairie near the swimming area.

Blue Grosbeak

Blue Grosbeak

Blue Mounds is also famous for Common Nighthawks that swoop over the prairie and make their booming call late in the evening or early in the morning.  It is not hard to find them perched during the day. This particular nighthawk was taking a rest in the same tree as the Blue Grosbeak above.

Common Nighthawk

Common Nighthawk

Can you find the Blue Grosbeak and Common Nighthawk in this photo?

Can you find the Blue Grosbeak and Common Nighthawk in this photo?

Another fun bird that is not hard to find at this park is the Dickcissel.  Interestingly, this Dickcissel was perched in the same small, dead tree with the Blue Grosbeak and Common Nighthawk in the first two photos.  Apparently the two former birds don’t mind sharing territory with each other.  And the nighthawk couldn’t care less that these two birds were singing their heads off while he tried to close his eyes and dream sweet nighthawk dreams.



The list of uncommon birds that are not too hard to find at Blue Mounds continued with several singing Field Sparrows.  I was showing Evan this particular Field Sparrow through the LCD display on the camera and pressed the shutter button while the bird was singing. Evan thought that was pretty neat to photograph it in the act of singing, even using the phrase “epic photo.”

Field Sparrow

Field Sparrow

Another bird we had the pleasure of viewing, when binoculars and camera were not in hand of course, was a Red-headed Woodpecker in a dead tree right by a walking path. It did not care that we were 15 feet away.  Steve has told me I’m a magnet for these birds. I’m starting to believe him.  What I am certainly a magnet for is rain at Blue Mounds State Park.  As you can see in the photos above, conditions were not optimal for photography, birding, or even camping.  Rain was setting up shop for the day, and I had a sickening feeling that this trip was going to turn into the disastrous Blue Grosbeak hunt of 2013.  But a lack of good weather, terns, playgrounds, swimming beaches, and safe drinking water did not deter these two from having a good time even though I have no idea what they were doing here.

Evan Marin

We never did see the Least Terns on any one of our dozen+ trips to the tern spot that day. Hope stayed alive for a check in the morning, but it was time to put the current day to bed and get some rest.  At least that was a sure thing.  Or so I thought.  For somebody who teaches future doctors and engineers and such, sometimes I just don’t think.  I figured the three of us in a three-man tent on a full-sized air mattress would be no problem until I put the plan into action.  The mattress was not wide enough for the three of us, so I turned the mattress sideways. What I gained in shoulder room was offset by the loss of body length I could fit on the mattress. My shorter companions had no problem, but my legs hung off the end by over a foot. Uncomfortable but fine.  But then you throw in a couple of karate-chopping sleepers and a 65 lb. lab that wants on the bed and it was a red-eyed, muscle-aching disaster.  It was topped off by a close lighting storm that had me scrambling to get two sleepy kids and a dog into the van where we would attempt to sleep the last couple hours of the night.  I didn’t care about a Least Tern by that point.  Instead I was once again thinking how the desire for a bird could cause such misery.  The new day and the trip home couldn’t come fast enough.

Dawn finally came and with it was the thought that this trip had nowhere to go but up.  I was wrong again.  You see, the previous day I noticed that my two-front tires were balding really bad.  I shouldn’t have made the trip down on them, and I certainly wasn’t going to drive home on them.  So I made arrangements at the Luverne Ford dealership to get a couple of new tires that next morning.  I figured it would be fine because the kids and dog and I could take a nice walk while we waited.  The day had a different plan.  The continuing rain forced us to wait for our van in the one-car showroom of the dealership…with a big dog.  But a 6 in. by 6 in. TV playing Sponge Bob, a couple of cookies, and one firm hand on a short leash got us through the tire change.  Actually all the folks at Luverne Ford were incredibly hospitable and friendly telling me sweet lies about how well-behaved my kids were and how nice my dog was.  The truth is that the kids and dog did very well considering the circumstances.  And it truly is better to be safe as they say.  Did I mention that on the trip down to Luverne the previous day I had to call 911 to report a semi coming into my lane?

Finally we were out of there.  We checked the tern spot one last time but again came up short.  It was time to head home.  I took a longer route home in an effort to do some eBird documentation for some reported Blue Grosbeaks that other birders had found far north of their usual range.  I only managed to turn up one.  I was thrilled to be able to see and document a couple more Red-headed Woodpeckers.  I was never able to get any photos, but I did see and photograph another uncommon bird, the Upland Sandpiper, another bird I’ve been seeing more of this year than in the past.

Upland Sandpiper

Upland Sandpiper

The trip had some good birds for sure, just not the new one we were hoping for.  What we didn’t have in birds, though, we made up for in stories to tell.  I will be curious to someday hear the kids’ recollections of the disastrous Least Tern chase of the summer of 2014.  The Least Tern won this battle, but another life bird would become the hero and bring a satisfactory close to the summer the next week.

By-product Birds of a Blue Grosbeak Search

As much fun as it’s been to find Blue Grosbeaks, I’ve had some other fun bird sightings while prowling the countryside looking for those blue birds.  This is a quick post (a quick post is a fun post) where I’ll display these bonus birds in ascending order of rarity.

First up is an adult male Orchard Oriole.  Prior to this summer I had never seen a mature male.  Now I seem to run into them regularly, and this one even let me take a couple pictures before it disappeared.

Adult male Orchard Oriole

Adult male Orchard Oriole

Orchard Oriole

What could be better-looking and more rare than an Orchard Oriole?  How about this fine Red-headed Woodpecker.  Seeing these guys never gets old.  I have to stop for every one.

Red-headed Woodpecker

Red-headed Woodpecker

Red-headed Woodpecker

Red-headed Woodpecker

But what could possibly top a Red-headed Woodpecker? Read on, and you’ll see. Randy and I were out driving the southern part of Kandiyohi County checking out a probable Blue Grosbeak site (at least it looked that way on the satellite photos).  It turns out the site was a bust, far from Blue Grosbeak habitat.  It was a huge marsh.  All was not lost, though.  Since Randy was driving I was checking out all the hawks we’d see. Normally I don’t check hawks too closely because we basically just have Red-taileds. I’m sure glad I took the time to look up at this hawk though because it was a Swainson’s!  I couldn’t believe it.  I just saw one for the first time ever a couple weeks prior and now I see one in Minnesota, in my own county no less!  Randy can only recall seeing a Swainson’s Hawk four or five times Kandiyohi County in his 25 years of birding.  It was a magnificent sight.

Swainson's Hawk

Swainson’s Hawk

Swainson's Hawk

The Blue Grosbeak hunt goes on.  Finding Blue Grosbeaks has been fun, but with birds like these it’s fun even if we don’t find any.  But the Blue Grosbeak hunt isn’t the only thing that’s been going on bird-wise around here.  Coming up, we’ve even managed to squeeze in a couple lifers and document a historic nesting record for Kandiyohi County.

Swainson’s Redemption and Nebraska’s New State Bird

All good things must come to end as they say, and this Colorado story is no different. Except this story needs to come to an end because more hard-hitting birding stories have been brewing back home since we got here.  It’s been intense. We’ll catch up on all that later, but for now we must finish the tale of birding Colorado.

Having taken four hours to get to Colorado Springs from Uncle Jon’s (a trip that takes non-birders two hours), we were now ready to hit the plains of eastern Colorado where the birds and landscape would be less inspiring and allow us to push the pedal down and get home. When driving through Colorado you learn that elevation is a big deal as it’s posted on every city’s population sign.  Undoubtedly this was the brain-child of the much cooler mountain cities, and it’s the scourge of those self-concious eastern towns who must display to the world just how elevationally-challenged they are.  The drop in the cool-factor of birds is directly correlated to the simultaneous decreases in elevation and town self esteem.  But what the eastern birds lacked, they made up for with great vigor. Case in point – Western Kingbirds.  They were everywhere and perched boldly on any kind of wire proudly displaying their awesomeness.

Cruising along on U.S. 24 I had a beautifully patterned Swainson’s Hawk come sailing high over the road.  Evan dipped on this bird in South Dakota and pouted about it since I saw it.  Because of this debacle, I kept my mouth shut when I saw one while driving through Denver earlier in the week.  But this time I couldn’t help myself, and I hollered that we had a Swainson’s.  Of course this jarred Evan out of his backseat activities, and he couldn’t get on the bird in time, setting off a fountain of tears.  Apparently he really wanted to see this hawk bad. I turned the car around to chase after it, but it had vanished.  Nuts.

Thankfully, though, that’s not how the Swainson’s saga ends.  As I drove east out of some non-descript town (sorry town, I only remember the names of the cool, high-elevation cities), a Swainson’s Hawk shot up out of nowhere from behind a grassland hill flashing his white wing linings and reddish brown chest as he soared across the road a mere 20 feet off the ground. I hollered. I couldn’t help it.  Evan was panicked.  I pulled over.  Thankfully this bird cooperated and gave Evan his sought-after lifer as it circled on thermals right by the road.

Swainson's Hawk

Swainson’s Hawk

Swainson's Hawk

So it took four Swainson’s Hawks before Evan finally got his lifer and I got my photo documentation.  Then a funny thing happened – or not if you are a birder: they were everywhere.  I bet we saw close to a dozen Swainson’s Hawks by the time we finished out Colorado, nicked Kansas, and then got into Nebraska.  And Nebraska? Well, when I was filling up with gas at some podunk town in the east-central part of the state, Evan was getting out of the car to go into the convenience store and he looked up and said calmly, “Hey Dad, a Swainson’s Hawk.” Sure enough another Swainson’s was cruising low over the gas station canopy!  The Swainson’s no longer had power over Evan, but it was still having an effect on me.  Gas still pumping, I reached for my camera to get try to get a shot of a Nebraska Swainson’s.

Swainson's HawkAre you sick of Swainson’s Hawk photos yet? Too bad!  It’s probably the coolest hawk I know, and there’s even more coming in a future post!

The Swainson’s Hawk alone would have made Nebraska a worthwhile state to drive through as far as birding goes, but surprisingly Nebraska put up another cool bird and lots of them.  No, it wasn’t the Western Meadowlark that holds the title of state bird in Nebraska and like a half dozen other western states (the meadowlark is a cool bird, but really the states all should have drawn bird names out of a hat).  Instead it was the Red-headed Woodpecker. Interesting side note about state birds on the trip – we didn’t see a single Ring-necked Pheasant in South Dakota and only one Lark Bunting in Colorado.

It’s kind of funny how things play out.  After spending a night in Kearney, Nebraska, I missed my road that angled to the northeast.  This forced me to have to go north and east but not northeast – something that aggravated me as a traveler and as someone well-versed in the Pythagorean Theorem.  Compounding the issue was that we hit road construction where we were stopped with a whole long line of cars waiting for the flag lady to let us have our turn to proceed.  Except there was no visible road construction for miles.  We had been waiting for quite awhile with no end in sight.  When the guy in front of me got out of his car, lit up a smoke, and leaned across his hood while jawing with the flag lady, I couldn’t take it any more.  I peeled out of the line and headed back west to go south just to be able to go east and north again.  It was awful and made worse because we were now traveling on gravel roads.  In the flat land of Nebraska, the gravel roads are laid out perfectly on a grid with an intersection every mile.  And they can really grow corn tall in Nebraska, so I was forced to stop at every intersection to avoid a collision.  The agony!

But there is a silver lining to this miserable cloud that seemed to follow us on our journey home.  We spotted a couple Red-headed Woodpeckers.  It is such a pretty bird that is declining in numbers.  It’s a good day any time you see one.  As we kept driving, though, we kept seeing them! Ten in all! It was crazy and fantastic and made the miserable travel worth it.  Melissa said it best when she said this was truly the way to experience Nebraska if you have to experience Nebraska – tall corn, dusty roads, and Red-headed Woodpeckers. Good save, Nebraska.

Red-headed Woodpecker

Red-headed Woodpecker

Red-headed WoodpeckerWe also saw a couple of Brown Thrashers, and I even spied a Loggerhead Shrike in a bush as we flew past.  I was too frustrated with the stop-and-go travel to make many voluntary stops for pictures, though.

So, there you have it.  We got home to Minnesota without incident, and the birding has not slowed down a bit since we got here.  Who knew that late July and August could hold such bird wonders back home of all places?  Stay tuned.

Meet me in St. Louis? Nah! Well, maybe.

Fair warning: you will not see a single bird photo in this post. Yet, a great bird was involved.  No, a phenomenal bird was involved.  Even still, the story is not even that riveting; it is filled with angst, confusion and regret.  However, it is a story that needs to be documented since a life bird(s) was had.  Well, sort of.  For you bird lovers, I promise to make up the lack of bird photos to you in the next post which will be very easy on the eyes as they say.

But regarding the current post, I have a love/hate relationship with county listers, those birders who strive to tally as many species as they can in all 87 Minnesota counties. Love ’em because in their quest to find some ordinary bird in some remote county, they explore the nooks, crannies, and nether regions of that county and end up finding dynamo birds that rock the larger birding community.  Hate ’em because they find those dynamo birds forcing me to make a decision to chase those birds.

Last Saturday, on June 7th, one of these county listers was driving on a remote minimum maintenance road in Yellow Medicine County going over a one-lane bridge when he spotted a Eurasian Tree Sparrow sitting on the railing of the bridge.  Now this may not sound exciting, but you have to understand that Eurasian Tree Sparrows are typically only found in St. Louis and its suburbs.  Their range has not expanded from there, and they rarely stray anywhere else.  It was a big deal.  This location was only an hour-and-a-half away, so we simply had to check it out.  It was better than taking a long drive to St. Louis for this bird.  And it was certainly better than taking a chance at missing a turn to see the Gateway Arch and ending up in East St. Louis like Melissa and I did a decade ago.

Steve joined Evan and I for the trip.  We had an uneventful ride down other than sighting a gorgeous Red-headed Woodpecker on a telephone pole.  It’s just one of those birds you can’t not take a photo of even if you have 500 pictures of it in your archives already.  Well, when I pulled over to get some shots, it flew into a grove never to be seen again.  It was a precursor of things to come.

We found the bridge no problem and began to make sense of the report we had: the Eurasian Tree Sparrow had been associating with two male House Sparrows, and the trio had been known to be on the bridge and fly underneath the bridge.  So we got out and we looked and waited. And looked. And paced.


And played in the dirt.IMG_9297For the better part of an hour Steve and I were both trying to turn every House Sparrow we saw into our target bird.  But we failed.  The highlight was maybe seeing an Alder Flycatcher, a life bird.  I say ‘maybe’ because it’s a bird that can only be safely identified by voice, and Steve and I were convinced it was giving the Alder’s call of, “Free beer!”  This bird, too, flew off before we could analyze it further.

As exciting as free beer and a new life bird would be, we really wanted to see that Eurasian Tree Sparrow.  Several times I went down the steep embankment to look underneath the bridge.  My hopes were buoyed by finding a couple House Sparrows hanging out and chirping in the girders. But my excitement was limited to some Cliff Swallows flying at my face.  On one of these trips down the embankment Evan decided to join me.  I think he was attracted to the little river and the mysteries associated with the undersides of bridges. After all, that’s where trolls live. Then Evan had a strange request: he asked for my huge, clunky binoculars that I bought at my own Grandma’s garage sale about 25 years ago.  You read that right.  I loved my Grandma and may she rest in peace, but she was a frugal lady who couldn’t let something go for nothing.  She was also very fair – if I got free binoculars, then all the grandkids would have to get free binoculars.  But I digress.  Evan’s request was strange considering he has trouble making small binoculars work, let alone ones the size of his head.  Still, he put the strap around his neck and was trying to look at this or that.

Then it happened. “I’ve got it,” Steve said from up on the road.  In an instant, in what could be considered justified or stupid, I grabbed the behemoth binoculars and lifted them off Evan’s head. I reasoned that he couldn’t see anything with them anyway, but the selfish move was exacerbated when in the process of removing them I bonked him in the forehead causing him to say, “Ouch!”  Right then I should have turned in my dad card.

But I didn’t and instead srambled to get up the near-vertical embankment.  Evan was right on my heels.  Steve pointed to a fallen tree leaning against the bridge.  I saw the bird and caught a glimpse of the brown-capped sparrow through the reposessed binoculars.  Evan was asking where the bird was.  I tried to redeem my previous actions by trying to point out the bird before I whipped out my camera.  Evan could not locate the bird that was hopping in the branches not that far away.  And then the bird vanished never to make a second appearance for the duration of our visit.

As much as Steve and I would have liked to wait it out for a chance to get some good, solid looks and photos of this bird, I was on a time crunch.  Evan had gotten a free ticket to the Stingers baseball game, and it was free jersey night for the first 250 kids.  This was a big deal.  Not only could we not be late, but we had to be there plenty early to ensure getting a jersey.  So, in an effort to earn back my dad status, we left this remote, country site on time in order to get back for the game.

Maybe I’ll have to go to St. Louis after all to really see this bird well and for Evan to see it for the first time if he wants to.  And with some planning and good luck, we might be able to do that AND avoid a misadventure in East St. Louis.



Tiny Dancers

This past weekend was an action-packed weekend full of visiting family.  Not only was Mother’s Day part of the mix, but Marin had her first ever dance recital.  Both sets of grandparents each made the 265 mile one-way trip to see first-hand the results of “hard-work” and hundreds of dollars on dance lessons.  Surely the two-minute performance by a bunch of 3 and 4 year-olds would live up to the hype.

On Friday night we went to Marin’s recital.  I knew there would be other ages dancing, but my jaw dropped when I looked at the program and saw a whopping 47 dance numbers, including a couple numbers by a womens’ group of 30-60 year-olds.  (You read that right.)  And no, we could not bolt after Marin’s class was done.  It seems the higher-ups in recital planning have caught on to this dirty secret of parents and strategically scheduled one of Marin’s dance numbers near the beginning, one in the middle, and then included the little dancers in the finale with everyone else.

Right now the warbler migration is picking up some steam (warblers!) and we even have daylight until 9:00, and here I was settling in for not one, but two nights of dance.  I asked Melissa how long the program would take.  My sunken heart hit the floor when she said it would be 2+ hours – each night.  Now my concern was no longer birding; it was survival. Sure I was excited to see Marin in her cute outfit trying to make her limbs do something that resembled dance, but 2+ hours! Melissa told me the secret to get through this was to find the dancers that were fun to watch – the ones with the infectious smile or the ones who never smiled – the ones who could move really well or the awkward ones you rooted for just to not crash and burn.  Suddenly I had an epiphany: this was just like birding! You pick out the bird that’s fun to watch and ignore the rest.  With this newfound connection and positive outlook, I was ready to watch some dance.

I’m not here to report on the recital, but I did survive, even the adult dancers’ group. Having been held back from a strong day of warbler migration and lingering shorebirds, I was out the door at first light on Saturday morning to get in on some of the action. Chasing the rare birds is fun, but currently there’s no other place I’d rather be than right near home with nearly two dozen warbler species dropping out of the sky.  I couldn’t wait to watch these little dancers spazzing around much like a bunch of 3 and 4 year-olds on a dance stage.  But really, I was after anything that was fascinating to watch, even the awkward ones.

One of the awkward ones - the Green Heron

One of the awkward ones – the Green Heron

"Lovebird" Snapping Turtles - not birds, but most definitely awkward

“Lovebird” Snapping Turtles – not birds, but most definitely an awkward encounter

Some of the many dancing warblers that aren’t as much fun to watch include the abundant Yellow-rumped Warblers, the extremely dull Orange-crowned Warblers, and the sort-of-bland-sort-of-colorful Nashville Warblers.  I did find one dancer on which to focus my attention, the stunning Magnolia Warbler.  As my picture shows, I was reminded of just how dificult these ADHD birds are to photograph.

Magnolia Warbler

Magnolia Warbler

Another one of the birds I spent a great deal of time focusing on was a real key find for our area.  The Cape May Warbler is not a common migrant, proven all the more by 300-club member Joel who has never seen one before this past week.  But Joel did find one, and remarkably this male was with a female and they have been hanging on for nearly a week, visiting the same tree.  This was only my second experience with a Cape May, and both times I have been surprised by how mellow they are by warbler standards.  They generally don’t move a whole lot.  It was fun to watch the pair interact with each other.  That said, I focused mostly on photographing the male.

Cape May Warbler

Cape May Warbler

Classic Cape May pose - craning the neck to get some chow

Classic Cape May pose – craning the neck to get some chow

IMG_8375IMG_8374A Cape May is a darn nice bird and after getting some shots I was pleased with, I was feeling everything would be okay again even with round 2 of the recital on the horizon.

Another bird that my dad and I spent our time watching and tracking later in the day was the Red-headed Woodpecker!  This is now the third time I have found one, and it is never any less thrilling than the first time.  This species is quite stunning and on the decline.  It is always a delight to see one.

Red-headed Woodpecker

Red-headed Woodpecker

On one of my outings this weekend, one bird that grabbed and held my attention was the Golden-winged Warbler!  This is one of my favorites and only the third time I’ve seen one.  Now I was getting stellar looks at this bird  in the beautiful morning light from 6 feet away as it foraged on the ground in the weeds.  The views were spectacular but the photography proved quite challenging as it never really came in the open.

Golden-winged Warbler

Golden-winged Warbler

With a good amount of imagination, I think you can see just how good of a picture this next one might have been.  It definitely captures the essence of this bird, which is good enough and worthy of being posted.  I love this bird.  I can’t wait to go on the hunt for it when it’s on territory in northern Minnesota this summer.

According to the Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, Minnesota has only 10% of the GWWA's breeding habitat but over 40% of the breeding population!

According to the Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, Minnesota has only 10% of the GWWA’s breeding habitat but over 40% of the breeding population!

Some dancers are so well-costumed that their outfits are striking and demand your attention, like this appropriately named Black-and-White Warbler.

Black-and-White Warbler

Black-and-White Warbler

IMG_8448Sometimes the most unassuming dancers can hold your attention, like this Lincoln’s Sparrow.  It is no warbler, but it is arguably one of the best sparrows.

Lincoln's Sparrow

Lincoln’s Sparrow

But from time-to-time, one needs to watch the other things on the dance floor even if those things aren’t the most interesting things that are out there.

American Redstart

American Redstart

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler

It was a great weekend of dance and birding.  Picking out the fun ones ensured that the time was well spent.


One of the fun ones.