Arizona? Minnesota? What state is this anyway?

I’ll tell you what state it is–it’s the state of chaos; it’s the state of shock and awe.  Minnesota is simultaneously being invaded by both Snowy Owls and not one, not two, but three Vermilion Flycatchers this week.  Incredibly there hasn’t been such a sighting in 21 years and two of this year’s birds have shown up at the same location.  Moreover, other good vagrants and migrants keep popping up all over the state, sending birders’ heads spinning, not knowing which direction to travel.  I was in such a predicament this weekend–frozen with indecision.

I finally opted for the two reliable Vermilion Flycatchers in Becker County.  It would make a dandy addition to my state list whereas all the other good birds popping up were ones I already had locked down for that category.  I asked Evan if he wanted to go along, and I was delightfully surprised when he said he wanted to go on this adventure.  So this morning we left the house at 4 AM to go north of Detroit Lakes to see those Vermilions at first light. Which we did.  Promptly seeing our MN VEFL upon arrival, I raised the camera, looked through the viewfinder, and read the message “No Memory Card”!  Are you kidding?  It finally happened that I’d go on a rarity chase and forget something so crucial. It didn’t bother me tooooo much because I have lots of photos of striking VEFL males from Arizona already.  But still, it hurts a bit.  Thankfully, birding friend John Richardson pinch hit for me and let me use a couple of his shots for the blog.  And if you’re going to have a pinch-hitter, who better than a slugger like rarity-magnet John, a.k.a. Mr. Brambling, a.k.a. Mr. Black-headed Grosbeak, a.k.a, a.k.a.

Becker County Vermilion Flycatcher #1; Photo by John Richardson

Becker County Vermilion Flycatcher #1; I believe this is the individual we saw; Photo by John Richardson

Becker County Vermilion Flycatcher #2; Photo by John Richardson

Becker County Vermilion Flycatcher #2; Photo by John Richardson

Pretty neat stuff, right? Not only were these some great birds, but the homeowners were top-notch people, very friendly and welcoming.  Evan thoroughly enjoyed their dog, and they thoroughly enjoyed that a youngster had come out to witness a cool phenomenon in nature.  They were even kind enough to tell me where the nearest Wal-Mart was so I could pick up a memory card because…..we were off next to look for reported adult male Long-tailed Duck in winter plumage!  Though the Vermilion was a state bird for me and the LT Duck was not, I was more excited about seeing this duck in this plumage.  There was no way I was going unprepared for this one.

Once we finally made it to the slough south of Stakke Lake in Becker County after spending a ridiculous amount of time in that Wal-Mart, it took a little bit of searching before I found it.  Our views were distant, but I was able to get Evan some looks on the LCD.  His response was something along the lines of “Whoa, cool!” Indeed. It seemed so odd to see an ocean duck sitting on a slough and hugging the shoreline, or in this case, sitting on it.

Long-tailed DuckSuch a striking bird. Check out this chest!

Long-tailed DuckLong-tailed DuckEven though it was far away, it was still such a treat to watch this handsome duck.  Our lifer a couple a years ago was an immature-type bird that did not live up to its name.

Long-tailed DuckLong-tailed DuckAfter that fun, Evan and I hit the road for the 3-hour trip home.  Our second Northern Shrike of the fall was a nice bonus on our drive.  Despite the memory card snafu, it was a memorable trip with Evan where we got to see some really fantastic birds for Minnesota.

We’ll get back to the Arizona stuff, I promise, but don’t be surprised if there’s another interruption or two!

And the Award for Worst Birder goes to…

Dear Regular Readers,

I hate to disappoint both of you, but this is not the next installment of the Arizona series.  Believe it or not, but birding after Arizona does exist and the birds back home don’t wait for blog posts to be written.  This all brings us to today’s story that is a worthy interruption of   the AZ trip reports.  It decisively crushed my moping for not being in AZ anymore.  I think you’ll concur.

So here goes. On Monday, November 2nd, my wife and I each had a scheduled day off.  With the kids in school, I asked her what her plans were.  When she said she was grading papers all day, the spousal guilt was gone and the plans to chase a Surf Scoter on Orchard Lake in Lakeville were on.

Orchard LakeI drove along the west shore of the lake and pulled into a boat launch to scan the waters.  Right away I saw a binocular-clad gentleman loading a spotting scope into a shiny Prius–this birder could be spotted a mile away.  I asked him if he saw the duck.  He told me no and said he’d missed on it multiple times.  Odd, I thought, as I recalled the duck being reported every single day for the better part of a week.  After this exchange, he and I both headed to Orchard Lake Park on the south end of the lake where people had said was the best place from which to see the Scoter.  He had the lead as I followed his car into the parking lot.  Rather than parking in a stall, he faced his vehicle directly at the water.  I parked, looked at the water and instantly saw a distant, giant, black-and-white blob that had Surf Scoter GISS written all over it. Before I could get my binoculars up to verify, the other birder, who never left his car, turned around after 30 seconds and drove out of the park!  My desire to look at my Surf Scoter lifer was suddenly replaced by the fear that this guy might have, somehow, missed it.  Was it diving when he looked?  Did he not recognize this juvenile form of this species?  Did he see it, get his tic, and just peel out? Even if the guy was just a lister, who doesn’t spend at least a couple minutes enjoying looking at an ocean-going Scoter in MINNESOTA I panicked. I hesitated.  Do I race after him on foot and pound on his trunk? Do I hop in my car and chase him down? You can’t save them all, I guess. Oh, well.  Let’s have a look at that Surf Scoter…

Surf ScoterThis is now my fifth species of sea duck in Minnesota with White-winged Scoter, Harlequin Duck, Common Eider, and Long-tailed Duck making up the others.  I kind of prefer my sea ducks on the turbulent, cold waters of Lake Superior on a gray day.  That kind of backdrop adds to the mystique and allure of sea ducks. Seeing one on a placid metro lake reflecting lingering fall colors on a 72° day is just kind of so-so.

Surf ScoterBut even still. It’s cool. I mean, it’s a Scoter.

Surf Scoter

This Scoter was kind enough to land in a location which would cause me to literally drive right by my brother’s office in Burnsville.  Having lunch with Jason made a successful chase even better, all the more so because he took me to a secret hole-in-the-wall called J’s Cafe with amazing down-home cooking.  After catching up with Jason, it was time to hit the road: he had to get back to the office, and I had to make the 2-hour drive home to pick up my kids after school.

Despite being crunched for time, there’s always time for one more bird.  I took a route home through Glencoe, hoping to see Pumpkins, the reliable, super-early Snowy Owl that got its name from landing on a cart of pumpkins for sale. Pumpkins wasn’t selling any pumpkins to me, though.

Moving on, I was racing the clock to get back in time for the kids.  When I was traveling down a county road just a few miles away from the school, I saw a large raptor perched on a pole.  I always look even though practically every raptor is a Red-tailed Hawk in these parts.  As I streaked by, I saw the GISS for a Red-tail was off, way off.  I stopped to look.


I saw heavy streaking on the breast on this large bird and a white eyebrow, and thought I just might be looking at a juvenile Northern Goshawk! Instantly I started taking pictures like mad to document such a rarity.  But honestly, as I looked at the bird, I wondered, ‘What in the world is this thing?’  Comparing my photos to Goshawk photos on my phone, I saw that was wrong.  I realized then that the face looked like that of a Falcon. The best I could figure on my limited knowledge was that it was a juvenile Peregrine Falcon–the most probable of all the larger Falcons for our area.  A Peregrine is one of those feel-good birds.  It’s not listserv-worthy, but it’s just rare enough that when you lay your head on your pillow at night you think, ‘That was pretty neat.’  It’s the kind where you giddily submit your eBird checklist and post a picture to the regional birding FB group…even if it didn’t quite look like juvenile Peregrines in Sibley or online…

That’s when my naivete was laid bare to all. I hadn’t studied for the test. I winged it. When I saw there was a lengthy comment from Bob Dunlap, one of the lords of bird identification in Minnesota, I couldn’t read his words fast enough.  Bob was asking for more photos and asked me about my impression of the size.  The all-gray cheek and faint mustache wasn’t exactly giving him a Peregrine vibe on this Falcon… To remove all doubt about his line of thinking, he followed up with another comment, “And by the way, Merlin is not the direction I’m leaning…”

No. Nooooo way.  A Gyr–? I couldn’t even type the name; I was afraid to even think it might be true.  It couldn’t be true. Could it?  I mean, a bird that’s never been in Minnesota since I started birding? Here? In the home county? Unh-uh.  Can’t be. But under Bob’s advisement I sent out a cautionary report of a possible G….Gy…Gyr…Gyrfalcon on both the listserv and the Minnesota Birding FB group.  Beforehand, I set up a new page on this blog, called “Falcon Photos,” where I dumped all my photos so people could analyze them.

The responses were as overwhelming as they were fast:

“Wow!!! Gray type juvenile Gyrfalcon for sure! Awesome find, and great photo!” -Alex Lamoreaux, Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory Counter

No question gyr!” -Kathleen MacAulay, Veterinary Intern at the Raptor Center

“That looks like a gyr to me.” -Jean Matheny, Falconer

“Great bird. Looks like a gyr to me. I chase sightings in S.D. where they are annual visitors on the grasslands near Pierre.” -Jim Williams, Bird Blogger/Columnist for the Star Tribune

And here was the one that put a big fat bow on it all:

“Josh – My first impression was a juvenile gray-morph Gyrfalcon, so I asked Frank Nicoletti (Hawk Ridge bander & former counter, and one of MN’s foremost raptor experts) his opinion. Without hesitation, he confirmed the ID as a juv Gyr. Hope this helps, and nice find!” -Kim Eckert, one of MN’s most experienced and highly regarded birders


GyrfalconGyrfalconGyrfalconGyrfalconI still can’t believe I saw this bird; the adrenaline is still pumping.  I thought it would be another 10 years at least before I’d get this arctic visitor on my Minnesota list (I got my lifer in WI last winter).  Then I see a Gyrfalcon in my own county…and I never even knew it.  I was caught off guard and completely unprepared for encountering such a rarity.  It just goes to show that one can never study enough in this hobby and that even the most boring, familiar back roads can hold the monumental.  So thanks, Bob, for chasing me down and pounding on my trunk.

A Scoter Kind of Day

All of last week I had been reading reports of a stunning find for Minnesota – three Common Eiders had shown up on Lake Superior, the first time since 1966. So last Friday night when Melissa came home from chaperoning a dance I told her I was thinking about getting up in a few hours to head back to Duluth after going there just a week ago.  I agreed with her response that I was crazy.  So I dashed my Eider dreams and settled for a Snowy Owl search, a more local, reasonable way to get in a good birding fix on a Saturday morning.

So it was an owling I went on this snowy morning.  I was finding fun birds like my first-of-fall flock of 100+ Lapland Longspurs and Snow Buntings, a group of 8 Wild Turkeys (all jakes and toms), and over a dozen of these guys which I haven’t been seeing much of all year.

Ring-necked Pheasant

I wasn’t seeing what I was seeking.  It was disappointing because I thought my chances were good.  As my Snowy Owl route eventually brought me closer to Spicer, I thought about heading into Willmar to try for some better Varied Thrush photos or even to check up on a older report of a Northern Mockingbird in town.  However, as I drove around the very large Green Lake, I noticed that it hadn’t iced over yet unlike the smaller lakes and ponds.  Gears shifted completely – suddenly I had the urge to look for Scoters.

I stopped at the public beach at Spicer and walked up to the calm water.  There was some debris in the water right by shore that I hadn’t looked at twice.  That is, until that debris started moving.  I was startled to see this family of Trumpeter Swans.  Not an Eider, not a Snowy Owl, but still another fun bird to add to the morning’s outing.

Trumpeter Swan

As neat as swans are, I didn’t come here to see them.  So I scanned the lake to the east past Zorbaz Restaurant where I saw a large group of waterfowl at a distance.  The naked eye showed that most were Canada Geese.  The zoom on my camera revealed a couple of ducks I would have liked a better look at, but I just couldn’t make any IDs.  Then an interesting bird right near the pylons at Zorbaz caught my eye.  It dove and then wouldn’t come up.  I was hoping it was a Scoter. After a long wait I never did see it resurface.  Finally, I gave up and went to the public boat landing to check out the lake from there.  That unknown bird was bugging me, so I decided to go back to see it.

Well, I saw it and was greatly disappointed.  Pied-billed Grebe.  It doesn’t get more boring than that.  I took one last scan to that group of geese and waterfowl to the east.  What’s this trucking my way through the blustering snow?  I see a very dark duck, low to the water, with a wide bill.  It’s V-shaped wake was getting bigger as the duck was cruising toward me.  Could it be? It turned its head revealing two big white spots on its head.  Holy smokes, it is! A White-winged Scoter!!

White-winged ScoterEvan and I just got this lifer exactly one week earlier on Lake Superior where it is not a rare duck.  Here, though, in the middle of the state, this was a spectacular find.  There previously had only been three instances of this bird in Kandiyohi County.  And the cooperative duck just kept coming my way!

White-winged Scoter

White-winged Scoter

I immediately called Steve, who was just hanging out at home.  He scrambled to get to Spicer. I kept an eye on the duck until he and his son, Riley, got there.


Steve and I were elated – a Varied Thrush and a White-winged Scoter in the county in the same week.  It was a dream.  What was I looking for again? Snowy-something-or-others?

Amazingly this White-winged Scoter has hung on and is still present at the writing of this post.  Many county-listers came out to see the duck after my posting to the listserv.  More importantly, though, several birders finally added this duck to their life lists.  Helping others get a lifer like this is one of the things I enjoy most about a good find.

I have been out to Green Lake several times since my initial discovery.  Only one of those times, though, was to check on this duck.  No, there was another big draw that kept bringing me back – more on that later.  Anyhow, each time I’m at the beach in Spicer, I see my duck and can’t help but take a photo or two or five. Some days were cold and windy.

White-winged Scoter

White-winged Scoter

Other days were colder and placid.  Much of Green Lake was covered in ice in these next shots, and I suspect that the open water and the Scoter will be gone in the next day or two.


White-winged Scoter

White-winged Scoter

Even though I’ve had more than my share of good finds, this is one of my all-time favorite discoveries.  The rarity of it, the fact that I set out to find a Scoter and succeeded, and that so many people got to enjoy it makes this a very memorable find. And it came in a crazy week of birding.  Indeed, there was another rare bird that kept drawing me back here.  But even beyond that, Steve and I managed to add TWO more sea duck lifers after we saw this Scoter!  More on all that later.