Reader’s Choice Makes For A Choice Reader

Over the years ABWCH has enjoyed its share of popular posts and survived tougher times of fickle readership through some real ho-hummers. Through it all, though, there has been a dedicated following that has stuck through posts of plenty as well as posts left wanting. Thanks, Mom. I’m kidding. There’s one more.  If you’ve read this blog at all, you have certainly seen a comment left by AMR, a.k.a. Adam Roesch.  As an actuary in real life, Adam brings an analytical skill-set to the world of birding not often seen.  He is a dedicated patch birder who, almost to a fault, birds exclusively at Coon Rapids Dam Regional Park on the Mississippi River.  Even as potential life birds fall all around him, he opts to bird CRDRP instead of chasing those lifers, hoping to up his patch total, find a rarity, or just document the general avian goings-on there.  Should he ever dump his detailed data notebooks of years of observations on eBird, the system would likely get overloaded and crash.  More than once Adam has offered to show me his beloved spot. Given that it is at least a two hour trip for me and my desire to tone down the chasing, I told him I had to be really selective about the long-distance trips I make. It would either have to be a side trip of convenience if I was in the area or an exclusive trip for a highly compelling reason. So here’s what I told him nearly two years ago:

commentSince that comment was written, I have knocked off all those ducks but one–the Barrow’s Goldeneye, a bird considered casual in Minnesota occurring roughly every 5 years.  As I am getting to the end of my normal MN birds, BAGO was rapidly moving its way up to the top of the list of my most-wanted birds.  Last year I chased a female BAGO in Fergus Falls but failed.  This year there have been a couple other reports but nothing I considered reliable and therefore chaseable. Well, a little over two weeks ago, Adam Roesch birded at the Mississippi River in Champlin–quite aways upstream from his beloved patch–and made a stunning discovery.  Among the myriad of Common Goldeneye, Adam found and photographed a beautiful male Barrow’s Goldeneye. And with that find, Adam submitted his first ever eBird checklist.  Talk about an entrance.

Since the Barrow’s was a metro bird on a river that flows between two counties, the chasers and listers came in droves without haste. At the time, our family was an hour away at Evan’s swim meet in St. Cloud.  After the Sunday event, I dragged the family down the freeway to go to Champlin/Anoka.  At long last I got to meet Adam and his kids in real life as they tried to help me relocate the object of my desire. Of course, when a life bird is at stake, conversation and eye-contact are kept to a minimum as all such efforts are prioritized to the task at hand.  Adam and I parted ways quite quickly in a divide-and-conquer approach with the limited time I had to look.  I finally did have to pull the plug and cut my family’s losses on this unexpected 3-hour extension of their already long weekend.

In the interim, talk of the Barrow’s died down with some of the best birders not being able to relocate it in subsequent days.  But then, conveniently enough, there was a sighting that next Friday–a day before I was scheduled to go to my brother’s place in the Cities. Perfect.  The pre-planned trip was something the kids and I were going to do while Melissa was away for a fun weekend with some friends. After shuttling kids around to their respective activities that Saturday morning, we were eastbound.  Picking up a Meeker County Rough-legged Hawk (dark morph!) along the way was a good birding start to what was once a non-birding trip.

dark morph Rough-legged hawkdark morph Rough-legged hawkFor the second time in as many weekends, we arrived at Anoka’s Peninsula Point Park to scan the Mississippi for the good Goldeneye.

IMG_1622

These are NOT good Goldeneyes.

I was joined by another reader and former life bird provider, Tony Lau.  While Evan and Marin played with a whiskey bottle they found with a bit too much enthusiasm, Tony and I looked and looked for THE duck. No luck.  I decided to head across the Champlin bridge to look for the duck on the Hennepin County side.  Just as I was about to take off, Tony waved me over with both arms. Yes! I hurried over and Tony got me on the duck with his scope as it swam upstream west of the Champlin bridge. The sighting was good enough to claim the lifer, but I wanted more.  Then to our horror, an Eagle came and scared it up sending it further west.

The kids and I drove across the Champlin bridge to see if we could relocate it. No luck. I gave the kids a reprieve by going on a hot chocolate run and then decided to try scanning the river one last time. It was Tony to the rescue again.  He had also come over to the Champlin side of the bridge and relocated the bird.  The low light conditions, distance, and nearly constant diving made it tough to find and keep track of.  Finally, though, I was able to latch on to this lifer with the camera.

Barrow's GoldeneyeThere’s just something that I absolutely love about getting duck lifers in the cold months.

Barrow's Goldeneye

A huge ‘Thank You’ goes out to dedicated reader, Adam Roesch, for his incredible find. Getting lifers in Minnesota is a rare thing for me anymore, so this was a monumental addition. And if you’re reading, Adam, I’ll go ahead an put in my order for Red-throated Loon, Mew Gull, California Gull, mature drake Harlequin Duck, red-morph Eastern Screech-Owl, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Carolina Wren….

The birding for the weekend didn’t stop with the Barrow’s.  Since I was in town and a Snowy Owl had been reported, I decided to get my FOY SNOW.  Normally I wouldn’t chase a Snowy since I’ve seen them within a few minutes of my house, but my brotherr’s house was only ten minutes away from this one.  And besides, it chose the most unlikely of places to live, something I had to see for myself:

MinneapolisI’m not lying. This skyline view of Minneapolis is literally what this Snowy Owl can see from its bizarre winter territory.  I am used to looking for Snowies in urban environments, but nothing quite like this. Snowy Owls aren’t that hard to spot in places like this, yet I was having a hard time, a really hard time. I finally ran into another birder who clued me in to this sneaky Snowy’s hideout.

Minneapolis SnowySee it? Yeah, I didn’t either without help.

Minneapolis SnowyNever have I seen an Owl, Snowy or otherwise, so well fortified.  Camouflaged, yes, but not entrenched. I tried every which angle and every side of the building for a shot.

Minneapolis Snowy

I spent way too long hoping it would fly up to a higher perch. But why would it want to? This guy or gal has figured out how to live the solitary life in a bustling metro environment.

Minneapolis SnowyThe non-birding-totally-birding metro trip was a success by any standard. It was back to rural west-cental MN where more adventure awaited in the days to come. We’ll save that for the next post, but to close things out, here’s a Great Horned Owl the kids and I saw on the ride back home.

Great Horned Owl

SNOW Day–Faculty Must Still Report

Much to the my childrens’ great annoyance, there has not been a single day of school called due to weather this year.  We are generally bereft of the white stuff this mild winter. I’m totally okay with no snow so long as we still have SNOW.

Snowy OwlLong-time readers of ABWCH may recall that two years ago, my coworkers and students were feeding me sightings nearly daily of a crazy number of Snowy Owls.  Those were the gold old days of the first of two consecutive irruption years. Fellow teacher, Bonnie, spotted this one this past weekend.  Bonnie has a way with the SNOW–she found me two of them a couple years ago.

Snowy OwlDespite this being a non-irruption year, I’ve had reports this winter of at least 5 Snowy Owls in my two-county birding area. This, however, is the first local one I’ve seen this season. Fellow teacher and birding friend Brad relocated Bonnie’s find Monday morning.  Brad did the Minnesota-nice birder thing of babysitting it until I got on scene.  Another birding/teacher friend, Theresa, also joined the mix.  Monday was a scheduled day off for all of us, yet here we were holding a staff meeting in the open countryside.  It was a pretty good meeting.

Snowy OwlAfter this meeting of the minds, I actually went off to a real meeting at school.  But then it was back to birding business as I traveled up to Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge that same day to look for the White-winged Crossbills that have become very reliable there.  My previous lifer-sighting was a quick glimpse at a female; I was wanting to see and photograph a male.

I did find the Crossbills when I was walking the Blue Hill Trail through the Spruce forest at Sherburne NWR.  I saw pine cone debris raining down from above.  It was a glorious sight and sound because I knew what was causing it–Crossbills feed on the seeds in pine cones, destroying the cones in the process. The problem was that I couldn’t get a view of the top of the tree. After tracking birds from below as they moved from tree top to tree top, I finally found an opening where I could see the birds at the top.  I wanted a photo, but first, I wanted to get a good look with binoculars.  Picking out a reddish/pink one (male!), I watched it until it turned and I saw those diagnostic bright, white wing bars on the black wings.  I was happy.  Now the photo hunt was on.  I took a step to get in position, but my foot snapped off a dead branch from a tree and created a loud ‘crack’ that scattered the birds. And so I chased the White-winged Crossbills around and around the small woods only to come home empty-handed. Perhaps the outcome would have been different if my coworkers were there. We seem to work well together and get things done.

Guide Series: Gravy Day–Redemption Birds and Bonus Lifers

Since Tommy DeBardeleben and Gordon Karre did not fly out of MSP until late in the evening on February 1st, we basically had most of the day to bird in the Northland and on our way south.  And since we had knocked out their Owl targets the previous three days….

Great Gray Owl

Snowy Owl

Northern Hawk Owl

Barred Owl

…we had a great deal of flexibility and freedom for how to bird on that final day.  We had succeeded in our goals which I still find hard to believe even as I sit down to write this. There was zero pressure for that final day.  Options on the table included going back for more Great Gray action in the Sax-Zim Bog, heading up to Lake County to try for Spruce Grouse, going to a birding friend’s yard to photograph Ruffed Grouse that frequent her feeders, or trying for a number of other Owls on our way south.  Ultimately, though, we decided to bird much closer to our base camp.  While we were on the Hawk Owl hunt in the Northwest the previous day, Evan had called me with a credible report of three Spruce Grouse seen on a road right near my parents’ house.  Since I have seen Sprucies there in the past, I had no reason to doubt it.  So that’s where we started our day. Evan was along with us as Marin and Melissa headed back home separately.

I was excited about birding around my parents’ house.  First, it meant we could sleep in for once which felt great after the breakneck pace we’d been keeping.  Second, and more important, I have tried for years for some really great birds that have been found on a road through a mature Black Spruce bog near the folks’ house.  I had secured a nice male Spruce Grouse in this spot the previous year, but I have never given up searching for the Great Gray Owl and Black-backed Woodpecker that Sparky Stensaas discovered there over two years ago.  I have lost track of how many times I have tried for these birds.  These birds are pretty special anywhere, but even more so when they are in the backyard.

When we got to the Spruce bog and made one unsuccessful pass down the road for Sprucies, Great Grays, Boreal Chickadees, and Black-backs, Tommy suggested getting out of the car in order to walk and listen.  It was a mild day, so I thought that was a good idea.  Rather than joining them and having all of us have to walk back to the vehicle, I decided to stay in the car and go pick them up.  Unannounced to them, I took off in a different direction in order to complete a large loop to cover more ground.  Gordon later told me that when he saw me leave he had flashbacks of Snipe hunts from his youth.  But I knew it wouldn’t be long and that they’d be okay. 🙂

Almost instantly on my solo tour I had a large gray and black raptor fly from a perch in the Pines on the right side of the road to a large stand of Pines on the left–adult Northern Goshawk!  I wish I could have had a longer look, but such is the way NOGO sightings go. I finally did make it back to a frigid Tommy and Gordon (my loop took me longer than I thought–oops!).  I asked the guys what they had seen, and Tommy told me they detected the drumming of a Black-backed Woodpecker.  I’ve birded with Tommy enough to know that he can be a kidder and try to get one over on somebody, so I laughed and told him I knew better than to believe his story….except he didn’t break into a smile.  He was serious! So I got out and we played the tape.  Almost instantly the Black-backed Woodpecker flew out of the bog and finally gave me the sighting I’ve been waiting on for years!  Even better was that this was a lifer for both Gordon and Evan!! It was a great moment that wouldn’t have been possible without Tommy and Gordon walking–thanks guys!  This one felt really, really good.

Black-backed WoodpeckerSomething even more amazing happened while we tried to lure out this guy–a second Black-back showed up! There was a male and a female! Unfortunately I never did see that classic field mark of the yellow crown on the male, but Tommy and Gordon each got to see it.  I will continue to search for these birds until I finally see that and finally get good photos of this species.

Black-backed Woodpecker

We had a pretty tight schedule to keep for some more birding stops on the way to the Cities, so we had to leave this special bog by 9:30.  The rest of the day had various stops for various things as we ventured south.  We tried for a Northern Saw-whet Owl that would have been a lifer for me if we would have found it. We did not, however.  This was my second attempt, and I’ve since made an unsuccessful third attempt.  It is just not meant to be at this point in time.

As we traveled we did get to see a couple more Pileated Woodpeckers, including one close up on a power pole.  Getting photos of this bird was another story, but the sightings were still exciting for the guys.  Tommy was able to finally get a Blue Jay photo which was a photographic lifer for him.  We did bump into an unexpected but not surprising Red-bellied Woodpecker in a suburban neighborhood which was a lifer for Tommy!  No one was able to get photos of this striking bird.  The one pictured below is one I recently photographed in my yard.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

We had a couple of revenge stops to make right by the airport itself.  When I picked the guys up late in the afternoon on January 28th, we had about 20 minutes of daylight to search for the Ft. Snelling State Park Barred Owl which is a 5-minute drive from Terminal 1.  Not being successful there on that first night, we quickly got over to the aircraft viewing area on Cargo Road just as it was getting dark to look for a reported Snowy Owl.  No luck on that one either.  Even though Tommy and Gordon got their Snowy and Barred Owl lifers, we all wanted revenge on these particular Owls, especially the Barreds which NOBODY misses on.  Anyhow, we were all optimistic and relaxed on this second attempt.

As we were driving into Ft. Snelling State Park, Evan casually mentioned seeing some Trumpeter Swans. This immediately caught Gordon’s attention who informed us that would be a lifer for him!  Evan’s eagle-eye had come up with a lifer that wasn’t even on my radar. Tommy was also excited about this sighting as it was the first time he had seen adult birds and only his second time viewing the species.  Way to go, Evan!

We also redeemed our failure from the previous night when Tommy spotted the female Barred Owl.  The guys enjoyed getting another chance at photographing a more cooperative Barred Owl.

Barred Owl

Because we found the Barred in such short order, I told the guys I had enough time to make one quick check for the airport Snowy Owl before I had to hit the road.  When I asked them if they were interested in looking, they responded with an emphatic yes.

Driving down Cargo Road we did not spot the bird on any of the perches on which it had been seen recently, like the FedEx building.  It turns out that this bird does not play favorites, though, as I spotted it way in the distance on top of the UPS depot as we drove back out from the aircraft viewing area.

Snowy Owl MSP

Afterwards, we took the guys to the terminal, said a hasty goodbye, and vowed to go birding again together either here or in Arizona. It was a great last day of birding that added its own unique excitement to a truly epic trip.  Here is the summary of day 4’s life birds for Tommy and Gordon.

Black-backed Woodpecker – Gordon, Evan

Red-bellied Woodpecker – Tommy

Trumpeter Swan – Gordon

Trip Analysis

This trip was unforgettable, no unbelievable.  It was simply magic, even for me.  Though I have seen all of these birds many times, the fact that we saw so many good birds in such a short period of time makes this trip rival some of my out-of-state trips where I have gotten lifers.  I enjoy birding northern Minnesota more than anywhere, and I never get tired of its special birds, especially those Owls.  It was a thrill to be able to help Gordon and Tommy see them for the first time.  To end this trip series, I’d like to point out some fun factoids.

Tommy and Gordon got their three main targets in this order: Great Gray Owl, Snowy Owl, Northern Hawk Owl.  For those who are not fans of permutations, there are exactly six orders that this could have happened.  Coincidentally I saw those same lifers in that same order.

The number of individuals we saw of these three Owl species made for a nice arithmetic sequence:

Great Gray Owl – 1

Northern Hawk Owl – 2

Snowy Owl – 3

Tommy and Gordon saw the Northern Big 3 on three consecutive days.  That is substantially faster than I did it (nearly a year), even after making several northern trips.  Here are the dates that I got my lifers.

Great Gray Owl — March 13, 2013

Snowy Owl — December 3, 2013

Northern Hawk Owl — December 26, 2013

Before this trip, I had (surprisingly) seen more Owl species than Tommy.  He had 13; I had 14. Now, though, Tommy has 17.  Of the 19 regularly occurring Owl species in North America, he is only missing Boreal Owl and Eastern-Screech Owl, both of which reside in Minnesota.  I’m trying to convince him that he should get them here, especially since I need one of those as well.  After all, how cool would it be to say you got all of North America’s Owls in just two states?

Speaking of Owl lifers, Tommy and I split the work of spotting their four lifers.  Never mind how many more Owls Tommy found overall!

Great Gray Owl – Tommy

Snowy Owl  – Tommy

Northern Hawk Owl – Josh

Barred Owl – Josh

Overall, Tommy ended the trip with 15 life birds and Gordon had 18.  That is a whopping number, especially when I have only seen 60 species total in Minnesota for 2016.

Tommy and Gordon saw a LOT of GOOD birds in a SHORT amount of time. Below I’ve listed the most difficult species they saw on this four-day trip along with the dates that I got my lifer for each to give some perspective as to how good of a trip they had.  As you will see, it’s taken me a long time to get these key birds after many, many trips to the north. I’ll start with my most recent lifers.

Great Black-backed Gull — November 28, 2015

Iceland Gull — November 28, 2015

Glaucous Gull — November 28, 2015

Black-backed Woodpecker — June 22, 2015

Gyrfalcon — March 8, 2015

Thayer’s Gull — November 8, 2014

Boreal Chickadee — December 28, 2013

Northern Hawk Owl — December 26, 2013

Snowy Owl — December 3, 2013

Great Gray Owl — March 13, 2013

Favorite Sighting of the Trip: Black-backed Woodpecker

Favorite Personal Find of the Trip: Barred Owl just south of the Canadian border

Best Overall Bird Experience: Hanging with the Northern Hawk Owl in the Beltrami Island State Forest

Biggest Relief of the Trip: Getting the Great Gray immediately

Biggest Stressor of the Trip: Driving in reverse for 3.6 miles on the Pitt Grade Road Snowmobile Trail in a mini-van

Biggest Miss of the Trip: American Black Duck

Thank You!

This trip’s success is only because so many great Minnesota birders and non-birders made it happen.  Therefore I’d like to acknowledge those folks.

Clinton Nienhaus – For all his Sax-Zim Bog advice on the Bog’s birds and their habits.  Additionally, Clinton spotted the guys’ Glaucous Gull lifer at Canal Park.

Jason Mandich – For his SZ Bog advice and extra set of eyes in the Bog.

Jeff Grotte – For his Owling advice that made for an incredible final day of Owling in the Twin Cities.

Peder Svingen – For his Gull identification counseling and superior Superior Snowy Owl tips.

Randy Frederickson – For giving us timely heads-up texts on the Iceland and Great Black-backed Gulls.

John Richardson – For being an extra set of eyes at Canal Park, wearing his trademark Union Jack stocking cap, and bringing his British cheer to the Canal Park Gull party.

Kim Risen – For pointing out a bonus Snowy Owl in Superior.

Sandy Aubol – For her Northern Hawk Owl advice in Roseau County.

Evan – For always having an eagle-eye that ended up getting Gordon a bonus, unexpected Trumpeter Swan lifer.

Mom and Dad – For the generous use of their home and vehicle for our epic birding odyssey.

Melissa – For her enthusiastic support of this trip that kept me away from the family for so long.

 Hungry For More?

Me too! This past weekend I worked as a guide at the annual Sax-Zim Bog Birding Festival.  Later this week look for a write-up and photos of more great northern Minnesota birds from that trip!

Guide Series: Slummin’ and Chummin’ for Snowies, Gyrs, and Gulls in the Twin Ports

No birding trip to northern Minnesota in the winter is complete without spending a significant amount of time in Duluth, MN and Superior, WI.  Not only is it the most reliable place in this part of the state to find the Snowy Owls that Gordon Karre and Tommy DeBardelben craved, but it is also a place where one can rack up a sweet suite of winter Gulls and see some oddball vagrants such as the Golden-crowned Sparrow, Townsend’s Solitaire, and the impressive Gyrfalcon–or two or three this year.  In short, Tommy, Gordon, and I had a lot of work to do in this urban birding environment, and we scheduled no less than a full day from dawn to dusk on our second day of the Tour de Nord.

Our day started with a search for the most reliable Snowy Owl in Superior, Wisconsin, the one that had been hanging out around the Richard Bong Airport and nearby parking lots of Menards and Aldi.  The truth is, I wanted to secure this main target early in the day rather than waiting until the day was almost over.  Alleviating the stress early and getting home earlier for a hot shower and a hot meal sounded dreamy.  But I really wasn’t stressed about the Snowy Owl since we had success with the Great Gray the previous day and since I knew this species of Owl would be the easiest to get for Tommy and Gordon.  Anyhow, we gave up our morning Snowy search after a couple hours to pursue some other targets.  We would just have to get that SNOW in the evening.  No biggie.

The thing about finding the really good birds in Duluth/Superior is that they are in some of the most sketchy places–industrial complexes, oil refineries, rail yards, landfills, etc.  But we birders go where the birds go.  Then a funny thing happens–we grow to like those places and even dream about them. A pristine, quiet stand of Red Pine next to an untouched, snow-covered northern lake? Forget about it. Bring on the garbage trucks, train cars, and smoke stacks!

Peavey

Tommy, Gordon, and I made a stop at the Peavey grain elevators to look for its most impressive avian residents.  After a short time, we finally spied Tommy and Gordon’s lifer Gyrfalcon fly in.  Then it perched the closest to the road I’ve ever seen this bird perch.  Normally it hangs out on the huge superstructure furthest from the road, but this time it split that distance in half and even flew across the road on which we stood.

Gyrfalcon

GyrfalconAfter this, we made a stop at Canal Park in Duluth to see what was going on Gull-wise.  The guys picked up a handsome Thayer’s Gull lifer, but that was about it.  I couldn’t even muster up a Black Duck for the guys. I did, however, do my Minnesota duty and made Tommy and Gordon skip rocks in Lake Superior.

Thayer's Gull

Now, there are still blog posts to be written, but Tommy and Gordon truly hit the jackpot with all their birds on this trip.  They also hit the jackpot with the weather as it was unseasonably warm their entire trip–it was nearly 40 degrees ABOVE zero and SUNNY in Duluth this day.  I don’t know if they can fully appreciate that. This dude gets it.

Kayak Lake Superior

After Canal Park we went up the North Shore of Lake Superior 20 miles to the town of Two Harbors to look for some nomadic Bohemian Waxwings and see what was happening seaduck-wise on the lakefront.  We struck out on those Bohemians, but once we got to Agate Bay we met Jim Lind, compiler of the Duluth RBA, who had his scope zeroed in on a handsome male Long-tailed Duck.  It was way too far for photos, but the scope views were incredible. This was definitely my bird highlight of our Duluth Day.

By this time in the afternoon it was time to head back to Superior to begin our Snowy search in earnest.  We had a little time to check out Canal Park for Gulls and Black Ducks.  On the way, I got a text from Randy Frederickson that they had an Iceland Gull; Randy is a birding friend from where I live, but I had found out he was in town to study Thayer’s Gulls intently in the hopes of finally seeing one in our Kandiyohi County.  I got a second text from Randy as we literally just parked the car at Canal Park: the Great Black-backed Gull had just come in! Score!

Great Black-backed GullTommy and Gordon quickly tallied this lifer as well as the Iceland Gull lifer.  They also got to witness the spontaneous birder parties that happen at Canal Park as the who’s who of Duluth birders show up to enjoy the Gulls, look for the really wacko stuff (Ivory Gull, Black-legged Kittiwake), toss bread out to bring the Gulls closer, take orders for what Gulls everybody is still looking for, and generally be friendly tutors to those of us still illiterate in Gull identification.  Peder Svingen, Clinton Nienhaus, and John Richardson were all on hand this particular afternoon to confirm species ID and point out the cool Gulls from the Herring herd.  Even when some of us were distracted with trying to get a THGU/Lighthouse combo pic…

Thayer's Gull lighthouse

…Clinton was still keeping an eye to the horizon. All of the sudden, Clinton made a cheerful announcement to the three of us, “Gu-uys! Glaucous coming in!” It was a lifer for Gordon and gave the AZ guys the Winter Gull Grand Slam.

Glaucous Gull

Finally, though, it was time to get back to priority one for this day: Snowy Owl searching.  Peder Svingen gave me some great last-minute tips on a couple of birds in Superior.  He was spot-on.  Tommy quickly found one of those Snowies perched up giving them one of their most-wanted lifers and giving me another huge wave of relief.  While viewing it, birding guide Kim Risen stopped to talk, and he pointed us in the direction of a second bird in the area and asked what else we were still looking for.  The generosity of MN birders continues to impress me even though I’ve seen it over and over.  Here’s the bird Kim had for us.

Snowy OwlCan you spy Tommy, Gordon, and the Snowy Owl in this photo?

Snowy Owl Superior

The good thing about Snowy Owls in the Twin Ports is that they are fairly easy to come by.  The bad thing is that most all of them have been caught, tagged with a number, and marked with shoe polish on their heads by bird bander Dave Evans who has been studying them for 40 years.

IMG_7239The wing tags help Dave monitor and identify the Owls from afar without having to stress them with recapture.  Here is the first Snowy Owl we saw just before #28 above.

Snowy Owl SuperiorI wish Tommy and Gordon could have seen unmarked Snowy Owls, but a marked Snowy seen is better than an unmarked Snowy not seen!  Ironically, these were the first marked Snowy Owls I had ever seen in real life.  Tommy and Gordon did get to gain an appreciation for the types of urban habitats these birds often winter in.

Snowy Owl SuperiorIt was another rocking day of birding in the north that met or even exceeded expectations.  Notable misses included American Black Duck and Bohemian Waxwing.  On a sad, personal note, my Kittiwake lifer did not make an appearance.  Here is a run-down of the second day’s lifers:

Gyrfalcon – Tommy, Gordon

Thayer’s Gull – Tommy, Gordon

Iceland Gull – Tommy, Gordon

Great Black-backed Gull – Tommy, Gordon

Glaucous Gull – Gordon

Snowy Owl – Tommy, Gordon

Once again, a great team of Minnesota birders helped Tommy and Gordon have a memorable day.  I’d like to thank Jim Lind for pointing out the Long-tailed Duck, Peder Svingen for his Snowy Owl tips and his Gull identification tutorials, Randy Frederickson for his heads-up texts on the Iceland and Great Black-backed Gulls, Clinton Nienhaus for alerting us to the Glaucous Gull, John Richardson for being another set of eyes at Canal Park, and Kim Risen for the bonus Snowy Owl. This birding community is the best!

Coming up is a post about the day of northern birding I was looking forward to the most.  I myself was going into new birding territory as we would have to venture way up into Northwest Minnesota in our pursuit of the guys’ Northern Hawk Owl lifer.

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?

Yes.

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?

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Best Photo Redemption of a Bird

Buff-breasted Sandpiper

Buff-breasted Sandpiper

Right?

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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.

2014 – The Biggest Year I Never Dared to Dream

What’s this, you say? A re-cap of 2014’s birds halfway through February?  Right now heads are shaking as they contemplate my foolishly late posting.  Well, to the detractors, I say the timing couldn’t be more right.  For you see, I did not rush to compile a “Top Ten” list in the waning hours of 2014 when the pressure of an artificial deadline might cause errors in judgement.  No, these ideas have been marinating and brewing for the most authentic and satisfying post possible.  Actually, the reality is that the birding has finally just flat-lined here in February and all this extra time has allowed me to steal a lot of cool ideas from those who have posted before me.

2014 was a monumental year–a year that will, in all probability, never, ever be matched again.  I do not anticipate doing future “Best of” posts, but I would be remiss if I did not commemorate the year that gave so much and so freely.  Though the word often loses its meaning in today’s vernacular, no other word is more qualified to describe 2014 than “epic.”  Evan and I began the year with a hefty-number of life birds, 200+.  So how many new birds could  a person reasonably expect to add in a new year at this stage in our birder development? 30? 40? 50?   No, we blew those figures out of the water.  I lifered 96 times and Evan 74.  Yes, we traveled out of state a couple times, but most of those life birds were found right here at home in the great state of Minnesota. The numbers don’t tell the half of it.  The actual birds included in those numbers are beyond anything I could have dreamed for us.  The stories of the finds, the chases, the hunts are dripping with adrenaline.  In fact, it was only just recently that my resting heart rate dropped below 120 BPM.

We’ll get to all that excitement in a bit, but first one must be grounded and look at the ugly side of birding.

Worst Birding Experiences of 2014

Far and away, this award goes to the Least Tern chase to Luverne.  I suckered the kids into going on an overnight camping trip with me to Blue Mounds State Park to see this bird.  My wife suckered me into taking along my dog. Now I’ve been to Blue Mounds before, so I promised the kids a great place to swim and a really cool city park in Luverne.  Long story short is that the drinking water at the park had e. Coli, the swimming reservoir was drained from a broken damn to due heavy spring flooding, and that beautiful city park was completely destroyed in that same flooding.  Not only did I have disappointed children and an overcrowded tent with two kids and a lab, but an overnight rain and lighting storm caused us to take shelter in the van at 4 AM and try to get some sleep.  The next day I was desperate to replace two balding tires before our return trip.  I found a dealership to do the job, and my plan was to take a walk around town with the kids and dog while it was being done.  Unfortunately a downpour caused the three of us and the dog to take shelter in the one-car showroom while we watched Sponge Bob on a 6 in. TV and waited for our car.  Oh, and that Least Tern we were after? Missed it by 15 minutes. Not even all the Common Nighthawks, Blue Grosbeaks, and Red-headed Woodpeckers we saw could salvage this trip.

Common Nighthawk

2014 also saw a few engagements with local law enforcement in the name of birding, mostly for the perfectly acceptable birding reason of speeding to get to a bird.  However, one low point was getting “stopped” at the Pennock sewage ponds.  I distinctly remember being shocked to see flashing red lights in my rearview while driving a dirt path around the ponds and then watching as the officer nervously approached my van from behind with his hand on his holstered gun.  Even after I explained I was just birding, he ran my license, checked my insurance, etc.  And when I thought it was all over? He stayed to watch me watch birds.  Not enjoying the company, I left…and discovered a back-up squad car with two more officers on the other side of the pond!  I guess a dirty mini-van at a rural sewage pond does seem a bit shady. But on an unrelated note, how about them nice treads on those tires?!

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Thankfully I didn’t end up tased or have my accompanying daughter placed in child-protective services so that we could go on to better days ahead.

Best Birding Experiences of 2014

2014 saw plenty of travel and with it, plenty of great birding.  Last March we made our first annual trip to Maricopa, Arizona to visit my snowbird parents.  The trip allowed us to pad the life lists with a couple dozen lifers and meet up with Phoenix birder/blogger Laurence Butler for some memorable Sonoran Desert birding.   In July we took a road-trip to Colorado to visit my Aunt Carol and Uncle Jon.  Birding the Badlands of SD and the Wet Mountains of Colorado pushed the life list even higher by about another 20 birds.  Not only did we go cross-country this year, but I went on several chases across the state with local birding friends Randy Frederickson and Steve Gardner and met many friendly MN birders at the stake-outs of the rarity after rarity.  2014 was ripe with such birds.  I think Randy added a half dozen state birds; usually he’ll get one every couple of years or so.

As fun as all the traveling was and all the great birding it brought, the best birding experience occurred in August when I had to attend a training in St. Paul for work.  This afforded me the opportunity to bring along my family for a mini-getaway. It also afforded me the opportunity to check out an extremely accommodating and wildly popular Least Bittern at Wood Lake Nature Center.  It took a little bit of effort on the part of some other birders to help us all see this cool bird just 6 feet away from the boardwalk on which we were standing.

Least BitternAnd one of the birders who helped us find this bird was none other than Stan Tekiela!

Evan watching a Least Bittern with Stan Tekiela.

It was a joy to watch Evan as he was really digging this lifer, just watching it and watching it.  The whole family was having fun watching this Bittern and the other wildlife. And Stan turned out to be an incredibly nice guy engaging Evan in a conversation about Bitterns and excitedly calling us back to look at a Raccoon. Evan had no idea who he was talking to at the moment.  His eyes got to be the size of dinner plates when I told him later on.  It was a memorable experience like none other.

Rarest Personal Finds of 2014

You can imagine how hard it was for me to make a Top-10 in a year with nearly a hundred life birds.  I struggled to whittle down the list. So here is a tribute to some really cool (I mean REALLY cool) finds I had this last year.  All these birds were previously undiscovered by others.  You might consider it cheating as I’m extending my Top 10 by including these birds, but remember that 2014 was epic. I posted to the listserv so much that people either love me or loathe me.  My luck was enough for a lifetime of birding. I’m still pinching myself. These birds are ordered from least rare to most rare and surprisingly none made the final cut for Top 10.  Any bird marked with an * means that it had the bonus distinction of also being a lifer at the moment of discovery.

7. Eastern Towhee – Kandiyohi County – an Occasional bird for the county and a solid find for a county that mostly consists of prairie and fields.

Eastern Towhee

6. Western Kingbird* – Kandiyohi County – also Occasional.  This was just a plain ol’ feel good find, an East meets West kind of bird.

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5. Swainson’s Hawk – Kandiyohi County – Occasional.  Ditto above.

Swainson's Hawk

4. White-winged Scoter – Kandiyohi County – Occasional.  I went Snowy Owling and got a Scoter hunch when I drove by Green Lake. I had the good fortune of that hunch being right. This Scoter brought in dozens of birders, some just getting a county tick, but many others getting the more important life tick. And in a Patagonia Picnic Table-Effect of sorts, one of those county listers also turned up a Long-tailed Duck when viewing this White-winged Scoter and yet another found a Snowy Owl!  I missed the former by an hour and drove right by the latter.  The agony of defeat still burns, but hey, it’s good the home county gained an even greater birding reputation.

White-winged Scoter

3. Mute Swan* – Renville County – First MOU official record for Renville County.  I dismissed it in my peripheral vision as a pelican or Trumpeter Swan.  I only gave it a look after my wife asked what it was.  Wow, I should listen to her more often.  BTW, not a bad bird for a trip to see the accountant is it?

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2. Spotted Towhee* – Kandiyohi County – Considered a Rare Regular for the state, showing up once or twice annually.  It has been seen in the county before, but this one was the first official MOU record for Kandiyohi County.  This one really got the blood pumping when I found it.

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1. Lesser Black-backed Gull* – Kandiyohi County – Also a Rare Regular for the state but this one was the first official MOU record for Kandiyohi County.  Unlike the Spotted Towhee, though, not even the Kandiyohi birding greats of Randy Frederickson, Ron Erpelding, and Joel Schmidt have seen this gull here at home.  Unfortunately, it didn’t hang on for anybody else.

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Biggest Upsets for not making the Top 10

Again, more Top 10 stretching.  Any of the aforementioned birds could have easily made Top 10, but there are even more phenomenal birds that missed the top honors that are listed below.  Seriously, you have to wonder what’s in the Top 10 if these birds didn’t make the cut.

10. Harlequin Duck – If only you’d been mature, little drake, you’d be right near the top!

Harlequin Duck

9. Eastern Screech Owl – How does an owl lifer miss the top spots?  Maybe if it had opened its eyes or been a red-phase…  Regardless, here’s a shout-out and thanks to Tony Lau for sharing his yard bird!

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8. Prothonotary Warbler – A great, great warbler for MN and quite the looker too!

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7. Hooded Warbler – This warbler nests in extremely small numbers in certain parts of the Twin Cities metro area.  I made a special trip just to look for it, and I saw three in one day.

Hooded Warbler

6. Greater Prairie Chicken – Crazy, right?  This was a bonus find when hunting for one of the top birds.

Greater Prairie Chicken

5. Vermilion Flycatcher – Gorgeous, gorgeous bird and Target #2 for the AZ trip.  Again, crazy.

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4. Varied Thrush – Any other year it’d probably be in the Top 10, but not even bonus points for showing up right here at home was enough to get it in the top tier.

Varied Thrush

3. Eurasian Wigeon – Casual in Minnesota. I saw one. Kinda.

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2. Common Eider – Not even making its first reappearance on MN waters since the 1960s could land this duck in the Top 10.

Common Eider

1. Wood Stork – Minnesota’s second state record.  Its rarity is the only reason it’s in this list.  Since this bird is ugly, here is a more fun picture of people enjoying that ugly.

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THE Top 10

So here is what you’ve all been waiting for–the real Top Ten. You might find yourself a bit surprised by my choices, but keep in mind that the bird itself is only half the fun–often circumstances, the birding company, or the hunt itself influenced my decisions.  The list is not indicative of the rarity status of these birds.  A surprising twist to this Top Ten is that nearly half of the birds are not even lifers (Indicated by an *)! Moreover, a great majority of these birds were found in-state.

10. Snowy Owl*

Now hold on a minute, I know you’re sick of these things on this blog and wondering how, in their great abundance, could they make the cut?  Snowy Owls added life to both the dull winter landscape and the business-as-usual halls in which I work in 2014. When I got my lifer in late 2013 and learned of the impending irruption last year, I sent out an all-staff email requesting coworkers let me know of any sightings. That opened the floodgates.  I was opening email after email of sightings, taking calls, listening to wild-eyed students and giddy staff members tell me about yet another sighting.  It was an incredibly fun time.  The owls made for instant ice-breaker conversations with all kinds of people.  Though I never found my own Snowy Owl in 2014, I was able to point many people to their first which was quite a thrill.  Additionally, driving anywhere became fun as every pole top or barn roof could hold a Snowy.  And the amount of down time for Snowy Owl hunting was a mere 7 months as they were back in early November to begin an echo flight of last year’s irruption.

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9. Black-billed Cuckoo

This is an uncommon bird and nowhere near rare for the northern half of MN during the breeding season.  Still, it is an extremely elusive bird.  Evan and I found our lifer quite by accident.  We went for a four-wheeler ride on my parents’ property and stopped to play a tape of a Northern Parula only to be answered by the exotic sound of the Black-billed Cuckoo.  We eventually were able to lure it into the open for some good views using playback.  It was haunting how that bird moved and watched us from the shadows.  And the sound of that thing is the craziest and most awesome bird noise I’ve heard.  How could I have grown up in the northwoods and never heard or seen this bird?  I know how. They hide like ninjas, watching your every move as you walk through the woods.

Black-billed Cuckoo

8. American Avocet

Ever since Evan and I got into birding, we talked about the awesomeness of the American Avocet.  It just stands apart from all the other shorebirds with that black and white plumage with the crazy orangish head and neck, not to mention the long, upturned bill. Not only did we finally see this bird in 2014, but we found our lifer ourselves right here at home–the best way.  I’ll never forget seeing it and then hustling down the sewage pond embankment to tell Evan.  His eyes got huge, and he scrambled to get out of the car.  We ended up seeing this species on three separate occasions in the county last year.  Such a bird! Such a year!

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7. Cerulean Warbler*

This was not a life bird, but it was a special treat to see one at our very own Sibley State Park right here in Kandiyohi County, and I finally got some killer photos of the bird. This was now the third Cerulean I’d ever seen, and I cherish each sighting as this bird is fighting for its future on two continents.  Evan’s seen this species a couple times now, but I hope that this beautiful, buzzy warbler will still be around for his kids and grandkids.

Cerulean Warbler6. Chestnut-collared Longspur

This striking Longspur is a state-endangered species.  Only a handful of pairs nest annually on a small tract of land known as the Felton Prairie IBA just east of Fargo.  Steve Gardner and I finally made the trip this summer just to look for this bird.  Picking up a bonus lifer Greater Prairie Chicken and seeing plenty of Western Kingbirds, Loggerhead Shrikes, and Marbled Godwits was pretty neat and all, but we nearly dipped on the main attraction at Felton Prairie.  This guy was a buzzer-beater, showing up just 15 minutes before the deadline Steve and I had set to go home.  This bird did not disappoint us in its looks.

5. Spruce Grouse*

This bird was a buzzer-beater for 2014 and slipped into this list at the eleventh hour. This was the first Spruce Grouse I had seen since circa 1999. Even Minnesota birders drool over laying eyes on this beautiful gnome of the deep spruce bogs. I happened upon this one while driving the short distance between my parents’ house and my in-laws’ house in the final days of 2014 while we were home for Christmas.  It felt so good to finally see this bird again and be able to photograph it.

Spruce Grouse

4. Long-eared Owl

I had the great pleasure of birding the Phoenix Mountain Preserve with Laurence Butler when we went to Arizona last March.  As we talked plans ahead of time to bulk up my life list with some desert species, Laurence mentioned the possibility of the rare Long-eared Owl prize. I honestly thought, ‘Pssshht. Whatever-like we’ll see ever that.’ But inwardly I was secretly excited too.  As someone who connected with birding because of the thrill of the hunt, it was a magical experience to wind our way through a tree-choked gully in the Sonoran Desert with the possibility of coming face-to-face with an owl that is coveted everywhere.  Then it happened. One exploded into the air in front of us leaving throbbing hearts and cursing mouths in its wake.  Eventually Laurence and I pinned it down and stared right into those yellow eyes.  It was a mountain-top high on the valley floor.

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3. Blue Grosbeak*

Yes, Josh, it’s a beautiful bird, but c’mon, #3?!  This is a bird I dreamed about seeing when I first saw it in the Kaufmann Field Guide and noticed that the very southwestern tip of MN was in its range.  Eventually I learned it’s a reliable find at Blue Mounds State Park which is where we got our lifer in 2013.  Getting deeper into birding, I was finding out that they are actually found much further north and east of that tiny corner of the state.  My curiosity was peaked after seeing them in Cottonwood and then when Joel had said he and Randy had seen a family of them a couple years ago just 25 miles away from Willmar in Renville County.  So I investigated the site and struck out.  However, I noticed a gravel pit in the vicinity and stopped to check it out since Blue Grosbeaks have an affinity for such desert-wash environments. I rolled down the window and was almost instantly greeted with the sweet, sweet sound of BLGR.

When I got home I looked at the gravel pit with satellite imagery and discovered that the tract of gravel pits stretched for nearly four miles being intersected neatly with a county road every mile.  I had to go back!  And so I did.  And I found a Blue Grosbeak on every county road that intersected that gravel tract for a total of four Blue Grosbeaks over a three-mile stretch.  As a bonus, another birder following up on my reports turned up a 5th one.  We were no longer dealing with a far-flung, slightly out-of-range individual bird or two.  Instead we had a thriving population of Blue Grosbeaks in Renville County which is far north and east of where they are supposed to be.  And they are only six miles south of Kandiyohi County!

Finding rare birds by chance is great fun, but investigating a theory and having that theory validated with multiple birds was a birding achievement that I prize more than any of my rarities mentioned in this post.  Contributing data to a possible range expansion is exciting stuff. I cannot wait to check on them again this summer.

Blue Grosbeak

2. Burrowing Owl

Since Melissa has taught the novel Hoot for years and since Evan and I are birders, this owl has a special connection with our family. It was the one bird that we simply had to see in Arizona above all others.  Laurence had told me Zanjero Park was pretty much a lock, but my dad, the chauffeur, went rogue and opted to drive us along random roads in the countryside south of Maricopa.  As zero new birds were being seen, especially not the Burrowers, I thought the day was going to be lost. So then a quiet, non-aggressive Norwegian stand-off ensued complete with beatings around the bush and passive-aggressive attempts to commandeer the situation.

“I think Zanjero could be a sure thing.”

“It’ll be more fun to find our own.”

Folks, let me tell you, always listen to your dad and kiss your wife because as my heart was sinking in despair along with the setting sun, Melissa hollers from the backseat that she found one! And another and another and another.  Dang!  The fun didn’t stop there either. I finally found a couple, and even my mom found herself one.  We had eight Burrowers in all!  Let me tell you, these Scandinavians were rocking that van with whoops and hollers.  It was a fun, memorable experience for the whole family.

In all, we saw 12 Burrowers on our trip with a pair even within biking range of my parents’ house.

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1. Garganey

You’ve seen the kind of birds we put up in 2014.  Honestly, could this spot be held by anything other than Wisconsin’s first state record of a Garganey that Evan and I went to see?  If you look up the word “serendipity” in the dictionary, you are bound to see a picture of a Garganey.  Kaufmann writes that it can show up on any marsh in the spring.  How awesome and hope-inspiring is that?!  Plus it is a gorgeous duck that I had been yearning to see someday before my time is up. And if seeing a Garganey wasn’t a thrill enough, we went on this adventure with long-time birding great, Ron Erpelding, and got to witness someone who has amassed over 50 years of birding and over 675 life birds see this bird for the very first time just as Evan and I were seeing it.  It was life bird #678 for Ron.  Not even the cats-and-dogs rain could detract from our joy that drenched us when we watched this bird just 15 feet out the car window.  It was, by far, the best bird of 2014.

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So, 2015, it is unlikely you will live up to the high bar you’re bigger, all-American, older brother, 2014, has set.  But take heart because you will be special in your own right. Perhaps you will be known as the year of the Gyrfalcon!

Sunday Brunch – Sparrow Quiche and Owl Leftovers

Sometimes when the social life gets a bit dull and we find ourselves stuck in the rut of being hunkered down like hermits, the best remedy for breaking up the funk is to have someone over for dinner-someone who’ll liven things up a bit.  Or in our case, since we remain stubbornly grounded in our ruts, it took someone inviting himself over for dinner. Except we didn’t have to cook.  Getting home from church today, Evan took one look out the window and asked, “What’s that?!”

Sharp-shinned Hawk

The better question to ask was, “What bird was that Sharp-shinned Hawk eating?”  Being a typical 7-year-old, Evan wanted to chase away the hawk so he could investigate the remains.  Shoot, I wanted to see too, but I told him to wait and at least let the hawk finish its meal.    So after a short time, the Sharpie flew away and Evan and I raced out there.  Nothing but feathers.  Not a carcass, not a wing, nothing.  Thankfully there were no red feathers.  I assume the feathers were those of a House Sparrow, which if true, this hawk is welcome to drop in unannounced for dinner anytime.

Beyond the exciting ordeal in the yard, birding has been pretty dead.  Steve and I went out for a bit today on another hopeless hunt for wintering Long-eared and Northern Saw-whet Owls.  I guess a FOY Northern Shrike (for me, not Steve) was some sort of consolation prize.

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We’re putting in our time, we keep telling ourselves.  But even as we do so, the peripheral birding is abysmal if not non-existent.  There is a shortage on birds of the barren field variety this winter – Horned Larks, Lapland Longspurs, and Snow Buntings are largely MIA.  Their presence at least adds a little life to the countryside. We did run into a couple small flocks of the Larks today, and we did turn up a solitary SNBU for Steve’s FOY. Still it wasn’t much, and it is otherwise a dead zone everywhere.

Even this winter’s saving grace, the influx of several accommodating, local Snowy Owls, seems to be officially over, for now anyway.  It has been over a week now since I have seen a Snowy.   At least Wilma was kind enough to make a final showing on one of our sunny days.

Willmar Snowy Owl

Oddly, though, I have been finding record numbers (for me anyway) of Great Horned Owls as I go to and fro.  So far in 2015 I have found three in the county and four in all.  Maybe some day I’ll see one close and in good light.

Great Horned OwlSo as the sun sets on each winter day with minimal birding activity, thoughts drift more and more to spring migration and planned spring trips to Arizona and Montana, when the bird life will be overwhelming in new and old birds alike.

Great Horned Owl

In the meantime, though, hopefully we’ll have more drop-in dinner company.  Sparrow anyone?

Merry Christmas Bird Counting and Happy Owlidays

Having retired from advising all my extra-curricular activities at school, my schedule was finally clear for me this year to go on my first-ever Christmas Bird Count.  To be honest, I wasn’t too excited to go out counting ordinary birds.  But partnering with Steve made the Willmar CBC an enjoyable experience, and I was surprised at how fun it was to count birds as every single one was important on this day.  Steve and I didn’t have any finds that would rock the birding scene, but we did have some nice contributions to the count.  Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles are about as boring a bird you can find, but in the winter they are quite rare and by extension, quite exciting.

Common GrackleWe also had the only Sharp-shinned Hawk of the day.  He was feeder watching too.

Sharp-shinned Hawk

Steve and I also had most all of the American Tree Sparrows for the count, a dapper bird that is always a treat to see.  Other fun sightings included 20 Ring-necked pheasants in one spot, an all-white Rock Pigeon that looked like a ghost against the white sky, three Bald Eagles, and two Red-bellied Woodpeckers.   The CBC’s most notable bird was an American Black Duck which I need for my county list and have chased several times unsuccessfully.  The CBC was most notable for what didn’t show up.  There were several expected species missing completely, and the overall number of birds was roughly half of what it was last year.

Maybe there would have been more birds if Steve and I had birded until dark.  Steve had to go in the early afternoon, and I was itching to head west and out of the count circle. Andrew Halbritter, who found the Willmar Varied Thrush out his bedroom window last month, reported at the CBC morning briefing that he had seen three Snowy Owls on his drive into Willmar just the day before.  So late in the afternoon I ventured west to Chippewa County and was able to refind one of the Snowies, a nice male.

Snowy Owl

As I observed the owl, it flushed and I worried I had gotten to close and spooked it.  But then the owl flew toward my direction.  It seemed to float as it came closer and closer to the ground and the road.  Then magic happened. It touched down for a split second and lifted again with a mouse clutched firmly its large, feathered talons.  The owl took its meal  to the field to eat it.  Before I could even locate the white bird in the white field, it flew back to another pole to resume hunting. It was one of the coolest experiences I’ve had with an owl.

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl

With 120 Snowies now in the state, this year is shaping up to be another record year for SNOW, and I’m hoping this SNOW isn’t my final owl of 2014. Plus we’ll be back in Great Gray country before year’s end. Merry Christmas to you all and may your new year be full of owls and other cool birds.

Let it SNOW!

Snowy Owl10 and 2.  Eyes straight. I couldn’t be distracted by birds and such on the drive; my focus was on the road and those who patrol it as we hurtled down the highway.  With a slightly elevated heart rate for over three hours, I was racing to get home from Duluth and the North Shore to get on the scene of a great bird before sundown. The bird that had been upgraded to the top of the priority list that we were now straining to reach was none other than the Snowy Owl. And with a blizzard that was forecast to dump a lot of snow on us late that night, this was the last easy day to find a white bird.

The day before our sea duck trip a strange set of circumstances occurred.  The lesser was that I forgot my phone at home all day.  The greater was that my colleague, Mike, nearly sliced his finger off while cutting a squash before baking it.  Getting home that night I finally reconnected with my phone and saw a stunning text from Mike: “Snowy Owl just north of my place – 9:30”  I couldn’t believe it.  The next day I caught up with Mike and asked him about it.  He told me that he was driving himself to the doctor after the aforementioned accident when he saw an all-white Snowy Owl 10 yards from the road sitting in a plowed field.  I was floored.  This is early for Snowies, and this was only the second sighting in the state.  Something similar happened last year when Mike found me my lifer.  That was late November and the 5th one in the state.  Then our region (Kandiyohi and Meeker Counties) became one of the hottest hot beds for Snowy Owl activity in an historic irruption of SNOW.  (Check it out on eBird or look in my “Owls” category). Word quickly spread throughout our school, and I was fielding reports from all kinds of staff and students on new sightings of Snowy Owls.  It was a fun season to watch so many people, birders and non-birders, get excited about seeing their first Snowy Owl.

So I was slightly disappointed to not be able to investigate Mike’s sighting as I was going on the sea duck trip.  Regardless, I put the word out to other birders on the listserv.  Jeff Grotte answered the call and came owl hunting.  Amazingly he turned one up 5 miles from Mike’s.  Surely it was the same bird.

As I drove, I put in a call to birding coworker, Bonnie, who lives just a few miles from this owl.  Bonnie went out and got eyes on it.  It was perched nicely for her on a telephone pole. I was still two hours out. Meanwhile, other birding coworkers, Brad and Theresa, went to have a look.  No owl.  Brad would call me when they found it.  One hour out.

I arrived at the scene with no positive updates from Brad or Bonnie.  But finally getting here I was now calm and confident.  There was no snow.  A Snowy Owl would stick out anywhere and likely wouldn’t have traveled far.  I started from ground-zero and surveyed the landscape.

Evan

I’ve had the good fortune of getting a lot of practice looking for these things.  Eyes started scanning every pole top, every rooftop, basically any low perch out in the open.  I’ve learned to look for slight anomalies on distant irrigators, fences, or transmission line support structures. Go back and look at the first photo – did you see the slight bump on the upper right of the tower?  It was even more imperceptible from where I saw it and took the picture of Evan above, but that bump was not replicated on any of the other towers. Thankfully the zoom on the camera could confirm my suspicion.

Snowy Owl

The Snowy Owl! It never gets old to see SNOW.  I was shocked to see how HIGH this bird was perched.  I estimate this tower to be 60-70 feet high.  Normally Snowy Owls perch very low off the ground or even on the ground itself if they can find a suitable knob of land that sticks up.

Snowy OwlJust as shocking as the owl’s height was its coloration.  Mike saw an all-white Snowy at 10 yards just 5 miles away a few days ago.  This was definitely a second Snowy Owl.  Are we in for an echo year of another big irruption? As of this writing, according to the sources Jeff Grotte has pulled together, there have now been 10 Snowies in Minnesota already!  Jeff has put together a great Facebook group called “Owl About Minnesota” with lots of great photos and intel.

I would have to be satisfied with my distant looks and add more distant, grainy pics to my Snowy Owl photo collection.  Maybe soon I’ll be able to get some phenomenal photo crushes like Jeff did in the coming days.  Meanwhile, check out those heavy clouds on the horizon in the photo below. They were carrying a raging snowstorm and one lost, little bird from the Pacific Northwest. Check out the stunning vagrant in the next post.

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Google Drive: A New, Easy Way to Embed Photos in an eBird Checklist

It is once again that time of year when the birding has slowed waaaay down.  Virtual tumbleweeds are rolling through cyberspace that was once occupied with fast and furious listserv postings and backlogged blog posts.  Once again, I find myself trying to fill that virtual void by doing some tech project to help my fellow birders.  Last year it was the creation of birdingacrossamerica.com.  This year it is something far less ambitious – this post is a simple tutorial on a new way to add bird photos to eBird checklists. Photos add to the richness of the reports we birders submit.  They make them just a tad juicier than the others.  We can’t resist clicking the lists with that glorious little icon.

boreal

Which eBird checklist would you click on first?

There’s nothing better than opening that icon and BAM! you’re staring at a good, large photo of a great bird like the Northern Hawk Owl.

NHOW eBird list

And when you report birds, it’s always nice to provide photo proof of a good bird or birds you saw.  Additionally, photos can make it a lot easier for the local eBird moderator to approve your rarity.

aitkin

Embedding photos in eBird checklists has never been a user-friendly task, but hopefully this tutorial will take away the mystery and complication of the process for you.  Though minimal html coding is still involved (don’t let that freak you out — you can copy off my paper 🙂 ), I’m offering an alternative solution to eBird’s prescribed use of photo-sharing sites like Flickr and Picasa!  I had used neither of those before I got into eBird, and personaly I didn’t want another #$%#&! account with another ^%$#@ password where I have a few @ and a couple % sprinkled in that password.  Enough is enough, so I found my own path using something I, and probably you, already have – Google Drive. Many of us have been using Drive for some time now to collaborate with colleagues or store files of all types for easy retrieval.  Never use it? Well, the probability is high that you have a Google account of some kind already, so therefore you can sign in to Google Drive with your same Google account and password.  However, this tutorial is geared toward those with a rudimentary understanding of uploading files to Drive.

Let’s get started.

After you upload your image, you should see a window like the one below.  Click ‘Share’.

new upload

You should then see this window.  Click ‘Get shareable link.’

get shareable link

After you do that, you will see the link has been activated (notice it is green below).  You will also see a URL for the image highlighted below.

share link on

Copy and paste that URL in a new browser window. Notice how I highlighted the photo’s ID number in the URL.  You will need this soon.

new window

Now open up your already-completed eBird checklist in a new browser window. Click ‘Edit Species List’ and put your cursor in the comments section of the bird for which you want to display a photo.

Next, copy the line of code below and paste it into your comments for that species. Pay attention to the blue text below as you will be replacing it.

<a href=”https://docs.google.com”><img src=”https://docs.google.com/uc?id&#61;0B9Tq0WV1ARL2bTg4ZG11WTFkRXM” /></a>

owl checklist

Now, unless you want this picture of that sweet Snowy in your checklist where a crushing photo of a Ruff should be, you need to do this final step.  Locate your photo’s ID number in the URL that I referenced earlier.

snowy corner

Then paste that ID in the place of the blue text in the line of code you pasted in your eBird checklist.  Make sure the old ID number is gone.

That’s it! So go and make eBird a more beautiful place to visit with all your fabulous photos.  After all, winter gets long for some of us, and we need some cool bird photos to check out when we’re not prowling for owls.

cellie

In memory of Jim Halvorson, district technology coordinator and fellow math teacher, who passed away unexpectedly this past week.  Jim worked tirelessly and patiently to enhance our craft through technology and its advances.  More important than that, he was an all-around great, friendly guy who will be sorely missed.