A Short(-eared) Post is a Fun Post

There is a strange and paradoxical law at work in birding: a lifer must fall often as a crummy sighting in a far-off place before that bird is seen crushingly well, with ease, in good numbers, and/or close to home. When you finally reach that crossover point, the reward is so so sweet but is almost always followed with the nasty aftertaste of regret and self-doubt. Why wasn’t I just a little more patient? Why did I even bother that first time? But if I didn’t go the first time, would I even be enjoying this bird now? But I am enjoying this bird now, so wasn’t the previous attempt a waste of time, money, and effort? It is the birder’s equivalent of the age-old chicken vs. egg first dilemma.  A birder can perseverate on this for days.

For me this played out with the Short-eared Owl this past fall and even up until today.   In hindsight it is really quite comical (or agonizing) that in December of 2015 I traveled 2+ hours away to Afton State Park to get my lifer Short-eared Owl in a blizzard in the last 5 minutes of daylight. Or perhaps not. Maybe it paved the way for my great sightings of multiple SEOWs 4 hours away in Grand Forks, North Dakota last spring. And maybe that trip was necessary for all that follows in this post.  At least that’s what I tell myself to justify the time and expense put into the aforementioned trips.  Because what follows is incredibly inexpensive in time and money.

November 2016, Lac qui Parle County

I can’t reveal my reason for why I was birding two counties away in November, but I can say that what I was after would not be a big deal to my Arizona friends but would be a bombshell to my Minnesota friends. Let’s just leave it at that. Joining me on this clandestine mission were friends Steve Gardner, Brad Nelson, and Jeff Grotte. Jeff Grotte Brad nelsonWalking out in this grassland, we were not expecting but were quite delighted to kick up two Short-eared Owls.  It’s a pretty good day when a Short-eared Owl is a consolation prize.

IMG_0805

December 2016, Swift County

I received a report from Joel Schmidt that Jeff Weitzel had bumped into two Short-eared Owls in the next county over, just 45 minutes away. December gets busy and so I never got around to checking it out until about two weeks after the fact.  Maybe they were wintering in that spot, so Steve Gardner, his son Riley, and I went to check it out.  And dang, there weren’t two Short-eared Owls after all–there were three!

Short-eared OwlSteve, Riley, and I had phenomenal close fly-bys of these Owls.  Though the birds were cooperating for photos, the clouds and dropping sun were not. Even still, I got a few shots to remember the night.

Short-eared OwlShort-eared OwlShort-eared OwlThen with no fear, one of the Owls perched up fairly close. It was exciting to see a perched Short-eared Owl–this likely would never happen again, right?

Short-eared Owl

What made the Swift sightings even more remarkable was that when I got home I looked at my map and realized I went to the wrong spot that Jeff had found.  In fact, I was a couple miles away, and still I found Short-eared Owls!

January 2017, Kandiyohi County (the home county)

Astute readers have probably already picked up on the theme that as we are moving closer to the present, the distance traveled to see Short-ears has decreased and the quality of the sightings has increased.  As more reports were filtering in of wintering Short-eared Owls all across the state, I was really getting the urge to find one here in Kandiyohi.  It would be a county bird, a really good county bird.   With the holiday festivities putting a damper on most everyone’s birding, I organized a search party with local birding friends for the afternoon of New Year’s Day when there’s nothing to do anyway.  We were going to look near Regal in the very northeast corner of the county. Aaron Ludwig out of Stearns County said that he couldn’t make the Regal Roundup but wanted to do us Kandi birders a solid by scouting the area in the evenings ahead of time since he worked near there.  I had shown Aaron where Kandiyohi birding legends Randy Frederickson, Ron Erpelding, and Joel Schmit had over a half dozen Short-ears many years ago.  While I was still trapped in northern Minnesota for the holidays, Aaron sent word that his scouting was a success–he had found a Short-eared Owl in the very spot foretold by the Kandi legends!  Impatiently I waited out the next couple days, trying to tide myself over with some boreal birds.

White-winged CrossbillWhen it was finally time to leave northern MN, I got word that a Great Gray had just been seen in Cook, a mere 15 minutes from the parents’.  I didn’t have time to look for it and had to go back to west-central MN. It seems I am always at the wrong end of the state.

January 1 finally came.  The search wouldn’t start until late afternoon.  Brad Nelson and I teamed up in one vehicle, Milt Blomberg and Dan Orr were in another, and Randy Frederickson and Joel Schmidt were in a third. The plan was to each drive separate areas, call each other if we found something, and then race to the Owl location (if one was found) before dark.  It turns out it was a plan was overkill and full of redundancies as Brad and I immediately spotted a Short-eared Owl (likely Aaron’s) at 3:45 in the full sun.  We could practically feel the wind off the Owl’s wings it was so close as it zoomed by us over and over. It was astonishing to see such an acrobatic display.  I don’t think a county bird victory has ever felt this sweet.

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared OwlShort-eared OwlShort-eared OwlWhat’s not been mentioned yet is that the other members of my party were promptly notified and arrived on-scene shortly afterward.  Just as they arrived, a Rough-legged Hawk appeared and got into an aerial spat with the Owl.  The latter was decisively victorious as it drove the former to the ground to the great delight of the Kandi crew.  A little while later the Short-eared perched up on a road sign offering everybody a chance to get incredible looks as the Owl at its Vole dinner.

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared OwlThe newer Kandi birders, of which I am one, were elated. The wise old Kandi legends were pleased–their prophecy that such a moment would happen in this very place had come true.  They had preached patience all along.  Some grasshoppers don’t listen, though, and end up going to North Dakota.

Randy Joel Brad Dan MiltShort-eared OwlCertainly there was no way for the day to get any better. Or was there?

Josh Short-eared OwlShort-eared OwlNot once did I bump this Owl off its perch.  In fact, we all got incredible looks as we slowly drove by the bird while it continued to sit on the sign. Brad and I watched it from the vehicle at close range for a long time until it finished its meal and then quickly went out to grab another Vole. The talon to beak transfer we witnessed was incredibly smooth and quick.

Since the Regal Roundup was a success early in the search, we all were able to head home long before dark.  Brad and I took some more back roads on our route home and turned up a second Short-eared Owl! It was the icing on a very filling Short-cake.

Willmar, Present Day

You see where this post is going, don’t you? A week ago, Randy Frederickson found another Short-eared Owl just outside of the county seat of Willmar, 15 minutes from my house. I went to look for it this afternoon and found it.

Short-eared owlAt the rate and manner in which things are progressing, you better believe I’m watching the field by my house when I take my dog out to pee.

The Call of the West

Several weeks ago the kids and I mulled over what we should do when some of Melissa’s work duties would require her to be absent most of this past weekend.  With warm weather at the time, I promised (stupid, I know) to take the kids camping. Frigid temps of late caused me to start thinking of a much more palatable and comfortable Plan B. Easy: move the camping to indoors, a.k.a. stay at a hotel.  My kids love hotels.  It would be an easy sell. The beauty of this plan is that it does not matter to them where a hotel is.  Birders know where I am going with this–might as well get a hotel next to a cool bird or two, right?! But where?

Vagrants have been few and far between or already seen; resident birds are just returning. Honestly there weren’t a lot of options on the table. One idea was to head to the Twin Cities to try for Henslow’s Sparrow and Louisiana Waterthrush lifers. Another option was to head to the northwest to Grand Forks, North Dakota to check out the Short-eared Owl scene.  The SEOW was not a lifer, but this option just had a lot of appeal in the fun department.  Meanwhile a third option presented itself in the non-lifer department as a stunning breeding plumage male Surf Scoter and his mate showed up in Duluth.  This last option was leading; all the Scoter species are annual in small numbers in Minnesota but we hardly ever get the mature, good-looking ones.  I was wracked with indecision. I could potentially head in three very different directions on the map. Even though we were set to depart Saturday morning, I still was having trouble pulling the trigger on anything even as the kids’ bedtimes loomed on Friday.

I paced and scratched my head. Then the phone rang. It was local birding friend Joel Schmidt (Willet guy). This is migration season–that phone call may just as well have been the President.

“Josh, I have a Western Tanager in my yard.”

😮

This was one decision that required no thinking, just reaction.  I practically hung up on Joel while simultaneously herding the kids to the car for the 25-minute trip. We got there with plenty of daylight left and enjoyed a glorious county bird with Joel and his wife Amanda.

Western Tanager

Western TanagerOnly one or two WETAs show up in MN every year; lucky us that it was our turn to host. Here my two-hour one-way chase to add this state bird last year was for nought.  What a spectacular rarity and a beauty on top of that. This was a bird I yearned to see in the montane forests of Colorado two years ago (and eventually did); now luck dropped one on the doorstep, almost literally for Joel.Western TanagerSteve Gardner also came out to enjoy the Tanager.  As we discussed my travel dilemmas for the next day, Steve advised me to go the Scoter route. Settled.  Seeing a vivid, bright male bird made me want to see another. The best part was that I could ask some Duluth friends to check on the Scoter in the morning to even see if that was still a viable option come travel time.

Birding friend Clinton Nienhaus was planning to check the duck scene on Lake Superior by 9 AM. I had made the decision that the Twin Cities option was completely out; if the Scoter didn’t show, we’d go to Grand Forks. Not hearing anything from Clinton right away,  the kids and I got in the car and started driving north anyway.  We still didn’t know if we would end up in the Northwest or the Northeast. About ten minutes into our journey, we got the report from Clinton: no duck. Our direction was now crystal clear:

Evan Marin North Dakota

I made a detour around Rothsay, the self-proclaimed “Prairie Chicken Capital of Minnesota,” to try to dig up that bird for Evan’s life list. It was the wrong time of day for Greater Prairie-Chickens, but we did manage to see our first Marbled Godwits in two years.  Prairie birds are so cool.

Marbled Godwit

Seeing as how I hastily decided a destination that morning, I didn’t have a chance to do my due diligence in hotel scouting for Grand Forks.  We’d have to do things the old fashioned way–walk into various places and check rates. Turns out Priceline’s got nothin’ on the “cute kid discount” thanks to North Dakota kindness manifested by a grandmotherly hotel manager.

Being in North Dakota felt right. I love the West and its birds.  Maybe that’s because I’m from the West. Or maybe, those western birds, like the Tanager, remind me of all the  remoteness and the beauty of big country. I know, it’s just Grand Forks, but it’s still a window into the wilds of the West.  And that’s what I was hoping to catch a glimpse of that evening.  While the kids played in the hotel pool that afternoon, I finalized arrangements for the kids and I to go Short-ear Owling with Sandy Aubol. With one foot in the North Dakota birding world and the other in Minnesota, Sandy is a well-respected birder on either side of the line who knows how to get the good birds. No one knows Short-ears better than she does; we were in good hands.

Minutes after we met Sandy and she hopped into the van with the kids, dog, and myself, we were already on the hunt for Short-ears, driving the remote grassland country around GF.  Perhaps we got too early of a start because the toast wasn’t popping up for us.  It’s always nice to see Sharp-tailed Grouse though.  This male was even putting on a bit of a late night show for the ladies.

Sharp-tailed Grouse

Sandy was frustrated that we weren’t seeing any Owls after nearly a half hour or more of searching. Truthfully I was okay with getting skunked; the kids and I were on an adventure and having fun.  However, Sandy knew I wanted to get redemptive looks at a Short-eared Owl and possibly even a photograph.  Her ceaseless scanning finally paid off when she spotted the floppy, erratic flight of a Short-eared Owl. And wouldn’t you know, it perched up on the side of the road!

Short-eared OwlThese birds don’t seem to perch for long (or at all). Rather shortly this one took to the air.  It was amazing how fast and how much ground it can cover and how unpredictable its flight path is. Amazingly this Owl came back for another, much closer roadside perch:

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl

For previously only seeing this bird in a snowstorm at dusk at a distance, I was beyond tickled with this chance to view and photograph a perched bird especially when perches don’t last long:

Short-eared Owl

Sandy was not completely satisfied with the photo op or just seeing one Owl.  As a host, she wanted to show just how awesome this land could be. Having been in that position myself, I understood that feeling but was still very satisfied with the night already. Needless to say, we kept on Owling.  We ended up rendezvousing with Jeff Grotte, Tony Lau, and Russ Myrman who were in the area and came to look for Short-ears too. Maybe it was luck from Sandy’s lucky Owl charm or maybe it was from having Jeff, the Owl Whisperer, around, but the toast started popping up.  We couldn’t butter it fast enough. Sandy would spot one and get me on it, then have a couple more picked out.  It was crazy.  Sandy said it best when she said it can quickly change from nothing to everything with this bird.  The frustrating thing is that activity increases as daylight rapidly decreases.  Flight shots are about all one can hope for at this time of night.  If you do see one perched, it usually goes like this:

Short-eared OwlBut enjoying the hunting behavior of this Owl in this habitat is half the fun.

Short-eared OwlIt was really tough to keep track of the numbers of Short-ears we were seeing as they cover so much ground so quickly.  I conservatively eBirded 7 of them. It was a lot of fun to witness the Short-eared phenomenon in action.  Sandy was spotting all the birds, and I was hoping to get in on the fun and pick one out myself.  Eventually it happened.

Short-eared OwlAnd then it happened again as I flushed one from the side of the road in my headlights on  our way back to Grand Forks. I’m glad I didn’t hit it!

Experiences like this only whet the appetite for more.  I will definitely be back someday to go after these cool birds again.  It may not be a new bird or boost any list, but who cares.  This was fun, plain and simple, and that’s what birding should be.  Thanks, Sandy, for a great outing!

Coming up Short?

On the day before Christmas Eve I stayed home to watch the kids who started their Christmas break one day before me.  But stay home we didn’t.  We went on an epic loop road trip to the eastern border of the state to try for some really cool birds.  For the kids, this was an opportunity to watch more Star Wars in anticipation of finally seeing the new movie over the break.  For me, it was a chance to try for three major birding targets.

The first stop was for a Northern Saw-whet Owl which would have been an epic lifer.  Well, all I saw was the white-washed roost site and a couple of cute kids posing in front of Wisconsin.

Evan MarinThe next stop was for Milt Blomberg’s Varied Thrush at Oakland Cemetery in Marine on St. Croix.  It was also a no show.  I did not spend more than a few minutes looking for this bird which would merely be a year bird; there was bigger game at stake.  We needed to get down to Afton State Park in time for the evening show of some Short-eared Owls.  This would be a much hoped-for lifer.  We made it by my target time of 4:00, but barely.  As you can see, the heavy snow in the first picture had transformed the eastern portion of the state into Hoth.  The kids were prepared.

Evan MarinThe kids and I walked around the border of this entire prairie area, hoping to spot a Short-eared Owl flying at any moment.  I should say that I was hoping to spot an Owl; they were happy to be out of the car and frolicking in the snow. Despair–for me–was sinking in as it looked like this would be strike three for the day’s agenda.  But then on the walk back toward the car, a voice boomed from the other side of the prairie, “Hey! Short-eared Owl!” God? No, it was Pete Nichols, moderator of the MN Birding Facebook Group.  This was his turf, and he had come to check up on the Owls and give us an assist. Thanks, Pete!

Binocular views were great, but the low-light conditions and falling snow made photography impossible.  I am a birder before a photographer, so finally seeing Short-eared Owls in action in a snowstorm was awesome.  At one point I had two in my binocular vision.  Some day I am sure I will see a lovely bird perched in good light, but for now this was a pretty good place holder.

Short-eared Owl

IMG_68271 for 3 isn’t bad especially when that one is an Owl lifer.  More important, though, was that I had a good day out of the house with the kids seeing a beautiful part of the state and exploring some great state parks together.  The lack of birds may have even been a good thing as it forced me to pay more attention to the kids, to photograph them.  After all, the Owls aren’t changing and will always be there.