Something Better in Mind

Even while I was experiencing the thrill of owling in Madera Canyon, a cloud hung over my head and dampened the birding mood a tad. That cloud was coming from back home in Minnesota.  Minnesota is good at making clouds.  Not long after I arrived in Arizona, news broke of a Red Phalarope, the second in as many weeks in Minnesota.  A bit of indecision on the first caused me to miss that one, but this second one I was completely helpless to do anything about being over a thousand miles away. Red Phalaropes don’t come around too often; there’s only been like 20 ever in the state. Besides the rarity of it, though, this thing decides to show up in the Cook sewage ponds and was discovered by my birding friend, Julie Grahn.  Cook is the town I graduated high school from. In fact, my father-in-law manages those ponds and even saw this bird…as did about 50 other birders.  Unbelievable.  A mega bird party was raging in the hometown and I was MIA.

The clouds kept billowing, though. Not long after the Red Phalarope was announced, news came of a Brant–A BRANT–in Two Harbors.  This was the first Brant that has shown up in the state since I became a birder.  Two Harbors and Cook are less than two hours apart. My email and FB were bombarded with ecstatic messages of people going to get the Brant and then simply hopping over to Cook to pick up the Phalarope too. Both birds were super mellow and cooperative for photos, something which didn’t exactly part the clouds. Meanwhile in Arizona, I was like, ‘Yay, a Brewer’s Sparrow!” Don’t get me wrong, I had a great time with great friends in Arizona but the megas couldn’t have come at a worse time.

As days went by with both birds still being reported, I was holding out hope that these lifers would stick for when I got home.  We were to fly home on a Sunday, and I had Monday, October 24th off. Getting the birds would mean putting in 11 hours of just driving, not to mention time to search and hastily enjoy the birds.  Everything would have to go perfectly, and it would still be utterly exhausting.  It didn’t sound fun. I didn’t really want to chase. But I know myself.  I would have gone. Those birds were just too compelling. Even when the birds were still being seen on Saturday, I honestly prayed they would just leave. It would just make life so much easier.

Sunday came and we hustled to the airport. As we waited to board, I checked all my reporting outlets for the latest news. Silence. Well, I figured that while my phone was off and I was cruising 35,000 feet above the birding world, something would shake loose and there would be news when I landed. Again, nothing.  Finally, toward late in the afternoon, word was slowly seeping out that people had been looking unsuccessfully all day for both birds. It appeared the fun was officially over. I missed it completely.

In a sense I was relieved.  I didn’t want to make that insane trip anyway. Tommy and Gordon both knew my angst while we were birding together in Arizona and expressed their condolences.  With a now freed up day off on that Monday, I sent Tommy a message that said something to the effect of me having to find my own rarity and create my own fun for the day.  Little did I know how prophetic my words would be.

Before we get to that, let’s rewind to pre-Arizona.  I had been pouring my birding efforts into finding a Surf Scoter in Kandiyohi County which had no record of that species before.  At first glance it might seem like a waste of time to go after something so fervently when no one had ever found such a thing (not even in Ron Erpelding’s 40+ years of birding the county), but probability was suggesting otherwise.  Let me explain. Surf Scoters pop up all the time in fall migration around the state.  Kandiyohi County has lakes galore.  So why couldn’t we have one? That was the question that pushed me out the door during the Surf Scoter migration window to check lake after lake after lake day after day after day.  It was tiring, honestly.  Show up at a lakeshore, scan, repeat.  The result never changed. I was looking for a needle in a haystack; I was trying to find Waldo. It was discouraging to say the least.

Redhead CootsBack to that Monday off, I was doing my lake scanning thing and sinking into a birding funk when I was getting the same dismal results.  Except this time it was aggravated by thoughts of those two birds I missed. Anyway, I photographed a duck on Big Kandiyohi Lake that was a long distance off.  My blurry photo revealed a shape similar to a Surf Scoter.  I passed it on to Randy, and he thought it was good enough to warrant a trip out there himself to take a look.  So Randy and I met up at Big Kandi, and we used his high powered scope and found…nothing. Randy asked what we should do next.  I suggested that Lake Lillian was close by and worth a look.  Not feeling the greatest, Randy declined and sent his scope with me.

I continued to poke around Big Kandi and had only left myself about 20 minutes to check Lake Lillian before I had to leave to go pick up my kids from school.  I was going to burn that time at the Lake Lillian sewage ponds, but I saw something there as I drove up that I had never seen before–someone else walking around the ponds with dogs! That caused me to turn around immediately.  I now had about 15 minutes to check Lake Lillian by driving along the eastern shore. Hundreds of ducks were right close to the shore which is unusual.  So I would stop, scan, drive, stop, scan, and so on.  More of the same. More sighs. I got to the very northeast corner of the lake, just before it disappeared from sight and saw a handful of ducks. By this time I literally had a minute to look.  I was pushing it.  But holy moly, two dark, bulky ducks started paddling away from shore and I could instantly see with my naked eyes that they were Scoters!! But which ones? I already had White-winged Scoter for the county.  I couldn’t get my binoculars up fast enough, fumbling them while I tried. But once they were up, the bins revealed what I had been searching for so hard, two Surf Scoters! What a moment that was. But, oh crap, kids! I snapped some quick, horrid doc shots for proof (my hands were shaking pretty good at this point) and tore out of there.

Surf ScoterSurf ScoterThe phone calls to other birders began in earnest as I was making my way to the kids’ school, officially well behind schedule.  Eyes were now trained to look for Kandiyohi County Sheriff squad cars instead of birds. Once Randy Frederickson realized I wasn’t lying to him on the phone, the expletives came easy and a coherent plan for him getting down there did not.  Remember, I had his scope, and I had to get my kids.  There wasn’t time to meet up to exchange the scope.  It was a mess, but a good mess. Steve Gardner, the 20-year Army vet, was able to act cool under the pressure and hatched a plan to pick up Randy and get down there quickly with Steve’s scope.  Once I got the kids from school and coordinated a drop-off with Melissa, I raced back to Lake Lillian with Randy’s scope.  I figured it was a moot point now, thinking the guys had the birds.  But they weren’t finding them, and Ron Erpelding was also there looking with his scope.  Finally, after nearly three hours of searching, the three of them found the Scoters and added a very long awaited county bird.  For Steve it had the bonus of being a life bird.

Many others came for the Scoters as well and were successful.  I got down there a second time a few days later and was able to enjoy the pair in a more relaxed fashion. Scoters are bulky ducks that really stand out.

Surf Scoter

Surf ScoterSurf ScoterSurf ScoterAbout a month later, Randy found a Surf Scoter on a different part of Lake Lillian.  Whether it is one of these two is anybody’s guess, but this bird was much more cooperative hanging out just 50 feet off shore.  In fact, I just saw it this morning–same exact spot.

Surf Scoter

Surf ScoterOctober 24th ended up being a day better than I could have imagined. Rare bird chases for things like the Red Phalarope or Brant are fun, but they are quickly forgotten.  It seems the most memorable chases are the most heart-wrenching misses.  While I have enjoyed and loathed many chases, nothing beats finding your own rarity. And finding a rarity when you’ve been searching for it all along beats one that is found by serendipity. But enough pontificating. Kandiyohi County has never had a Black Scoter–back to work I go.

And the Award for Worst Birder goes to…

Dear Regular Readers,

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

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

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

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

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

Surf Scoter

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

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

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


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

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

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

The responses were as overwhelming as they were fast:

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

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

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

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

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

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


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