Pounding the Lifers at North Ottawa Impoundment

Ask any serious Minnesota birder where he or she was in June of 2017, and you will get one common response: the North Ottawa Impoundment in Grant County.  While not exactly new to hosting good and rare birds, North Ottawa outdid itself this year.  Or more accurately, an army of skilled birders outdid themselves as they descended on the Impoundment in waves and created a bonafide, honest-to-goodness Patagonia Picnic Table Effect.  That term is sometimes used pretty loosely, but this was the real deal–a cascade of Accidentals, Casuals, and Rare-Regulars so intense that it threatened to rename the very phenomenon itself.  Below is the timeline of the major birding events, including my multiple trips with Steve Gardner to the site in June.  Even though this info is old news to Minnesota birders, I think the end of this post will hold a nice surprise for all.

June 5th

Shawn Conrad and Becca Engdahl separately report finding a Glossy Ibis, an accidental species that would be a lifer for me.

June 7th

Undoubtedly following up on the Glossy Ibis reports, Minnesota Big Year birder Liz Harper helps her own cause by discovering a Little Blue Heron, a rare-regular species which would be a state bird for me.

June 8th

Among the masses of birders now swarming the Impoundment, Gerry Hoekstra sends MN birders into a complete frenzy, including yours truly, when he finds a Snowy Plover, a casual species that would be a lifer for me.

June 9th

Steve and I go to North Ottawa.  Any one of the three aforementioned birds would have justified the trip.  Three in one spot was just ridiculous.  We were hoping for at least one of these goodies.  Fortunately I didn’t have to wait long to get that wish.  I got the Little Blue Heron as a flyover almost right away. Unfortunately Steve missed it at that time but got it later in the day.

Little Blue Heron

We tried unsuccessfully for the Snowy Plover but had no luck.  Considering there were over a dozen birders out looking and no one was turning it up, it was safe to say that it was gone. We did, however, see the Glossy Ibis thanks to Wayne Perala, local birding guru who knew the bird and its habits so well that he told us where to look. And almost on cue, the bird flew up out of the cattails right by Wayne as he said, “There’s your Ibis.” This bird was super cooperative giving us great looks in perfect light.  It was a life bird for me but just a state bird for Steve.

Glossy IbisGlossy IbisSteve and I were pretty thrilled with going 2/3 on our targets. In addition to these birds, we also nabbed some nice birds that we don’t get to see too often, like this Snowy Egret.

Snowy Egret

Western Kingbird never goes unappreciated in Minnesota.  We were lucky to see this one.

Western KingbirdAnd who does not love seeing an Upland Sandpiper, especially one so crushable?

Upland SandpiperUpland SandpiperSteve and I felt pretty darn good about our trip and our nice haul of birds.  We were completely satisfied, until….

June 15th

Wayne Perala (remember nice guy, Wayne, from the Ibis story?) sent another shock wave through the Minnesota birding community by posting incredible pics of a King Rail, another accidental species that would be a lifer for me.  Unfortunately timing was bad for me as I was getting ready to go on that Madeline Island trip that was highlighted by the last post.  Indeed I had to suffer through pics and reports of many people adding the most recent North Ottawa mega to their lists.

June 23rd

Finally back from that Wisconsin vacation, Steve and I sneak up to the Impoundment in the evening.  In the week since the Rail was discovered, other birders discovered there were two King Rails!  Despite now having double the chance to see this lifer, our Rail search was a bust.  The wind was raging and we were searching in slightly the wrong spot. We also tried searching for a lifer Nelson’s Sparrow reported by Becca Engdahl, but nothing likes to be out in the wind.  Except Western Grebes, they don’t care.

Western GrebeSteve and I did, however, see another casual species that was also discovered during this historic period of MN birding which I have failed to disclose in the timeline.  A pair of Black-necked Stilts had set up shop in one of the shallow pools of the Impoundment. Considering I already had Black-necked Stilts for Grant County from several years ago and that Steve had just gotten this state bird recently, we just weren’t too fired up about it, especially after our double dip.

June 29th

With a renewed sense of optimism freshened up by continuing reports of the Rail pair, Steve and I headed back to Grant County for the third time in a month.  This time we arrived at the crack of dawn on gloriously still day…in the right spot. Success.

King RailLook at the size of these things compared to the Mallards in the background.  No wonder it’s the King of the Rails.King RailKing RailBirding is a roller coaster of emotions, and Steve and I were back on top after this sighting.  Steve suggested we try for those Nelson’s Sparrows again.  Despite our good fortune of the morning, I was skeptical we would find the Sparrows.  But not looking certainly guarantees that outcome. So we walked the dike berm that we had a week ago.  This time it definitely felt more Sparrowy–no wind, early morning, etc.  We played the tape and didn’t get a response.  Then a couple minutes later, I heard the recording, or what I thought was the recording, again.  I asked Steve if he had left his phone app on.  When he replied that he hadn’t we knew were hearing the real deal! We continued to work the area, and eventually we saw two Nelson’s Sparrows!

Nelson's SparrowWith some pishing we were able to get them to pop up for some great looks at these skulkers.Nelson's SparrowNelson's SparrowSteve and I followed these birds around for a bit, thoroughly soaking up the experience.  I don’t think either of us ever expected to lifer on this bird with such good looks.  We certainly didn’t expect to get this lifer in Grant County.  This nighttime singer is often a heard-only bird that people trek to middle of nowhere (McGregor) to find in the middle of the night.  We were stupefied.  Talking it over on the ride home, we concluded that the Nelson’s Sparrow lifer experience topped the King Rails even though the Sparrow is a summer resident in our state.  More than once I have been surprised by how much of an impact a Sparrow lifer has on me.  A huge thanks goes out to Becca Engdahl for her find and her tips on locating it!

The reports out of North Ottawa definitely dried up in July.  That was okay with me because I, along with many others, were spoiled rotten by the place.  Additionally, I was okay with not having to run up to Grant County again because I had been working hard on achieving a birding goal much closer to home, a goal that has since been achieved and will be the highlight of the next post.

The Great Arizona Encore: The Final Lifer Dance–Tempe Two-Step Style

This has been, by far, the most dragged-out birding series.  My apologies.  It’s time to finally put this AZ trip in the bag so we can talk about a couple recent MN adventures.  So here goes…

Since this was now my third trip to AZ as a birder and it being October, there really wasn’t a lot of new stuff left for me in central AZ.  Despite the odds, I managed to make a short list of potential lifers for the Phoenix area, Brown Pelican and Rosy-faced Lovebird.  Not only were they lifers, but they would be easy lifers.  I even crafted a tidy little plan where I would swoop them up in record time on the way from the airport to my parents’ house in Maricopa.  Getting a lifer on the board right away is like scoring the first run/goal/etc in a game–momentum is everything.  Well, as any experienced birder can tell you, there’s no such thing as a gimme, especially if an airline interferes with your game plan.

The flight was supposed to arrive around 12:30 PM.  Due to mechanical problems, our flight was delayed FIVE HOURS so they could fly an empty plane up from PHX to pick up us mopey, crabby passengers.  I did the math over and over in my head, somehow hoping against the odds that we would beat the setting sun to salvage at least the Brown Pelican at Tempe Town Lake.  A faster than expected flight offered a glimmer of hope–the sun was still above the horizon when we touched down.  Despite that, everything seemed to move in slow motion, except the sun.  We tried, though, and met up with Gordon Karre at Tempe Town Lake in the twilight.  No Pelican silhouette. Nothing. Just pain.

As you know, we went on and had great success with other AZ birds, but these two species gnawed at me because they were supposed to be easy.  So on our last day of vacation, the fam and I took a quick trip to Tempe to right a wrong. The first stop was Kiwanis Park for the Rosy-faced Lovebird.  The Lovebird is native to Africa and was/is a pet bird in the U.S.  Starting in the 1980s, people started noticing feral flocks of released birds in the Phoenix area.  Now 25 years later, they are thriving with a population of 5,000+ and are an ABA countable bird.  To help us–finally–count this bird, Gordon met up with us once again.  He got us on the birds right away.  Not only did he find us the typical specimen like the one on the left, but he also managed to find us this cool, rare blue-morph on the right.

Rosy-faced LovebirdThe Lovebirds have adapted well to the oases of the water-filled landscaping in the greater Phoenix area.  They especially like palms which have proven useful for nesting.Rosy-faced LovebirdThese birds are truly cute.  Melissa agrees.

Melissa palm tree

Rosy-faced LovebirdRosy-faced LovebirdHere’s an important public service announcement for those of you not acquainted with the Lovebird. It is safe to say that despite this being an “easy” bird, I don’t think I would have found them without Gordon’s help.  Here’s why: my sense of this bird’s scale was way off.  Since all you ever see on blogs are impressive close-ups of this crushable bird, I was looking for something that I thought was Pigeon-sized.  I guess I was wrong. Rosy-faced LovebirdRosy-faced LovebirdIt’s hard to stop taking pictures of such a cute bird, but that’s mostly because Kiwanis didn’t offer up much more than Neotropic Cormorants and Pigeons.  A pair of Gilded Flickers at our feet was a nice bonus.

Gilded FlickerWith the Lovebird lifer out of the way, we made the short trek up to Tempe Town Lake. The Brown Pelican was a bird I’d like to think I could have found on my own.  Gordon wasn’t taking any chances.  He led the way and spotted it out in marsh section of Tempe Town Lake.

Brown Pelican

Dad Mom Evan

It’s pretty cool, I think, to have nabbed this lifer in the middle of a land-locked state.  Even though this is a bird more befitting of a coastal state, a pair of them had been seen on the lake for several weeks. A much more common bird for central AZ, but still a year bird for me was the Snowy Egret.

Snowy Egret

Once everyone got good looks at the Pelican, Gordon and I headed across the McClintock Bridge to see what we could see on the big water of Tempe Town Lake.  Almost immediately we spotted Brown Pelican #2 gliding in from the west.

Brown PelicanBrown PelicanFinally the Pelican/Lovebird anxiety was no more.  After saying our goodbyes to Gordon, we had much of the day to do whatever, like check out the impressive collections of potted cacti and caged Macaws at Leaf&Feather in Maricopa.  I had no idea so many species of Macaws existed.  Might have to put Brazil on the bucket list.

MacawsWe also spent time playing in one of the most impressive rain storms I have seen, in Arizona no less.

Evan MarinMarinSome children were not as enthused about the deluge and were downright grumpy.

Burrowing OwlBurrowing OwlAnother AZ trip is on record, full of many new birds and great memories.  It’s time get back to MN though with some good winter owling.  Stick around, these posts will be coming out fast.