Time for Summer

May is always a busy month in this household with all four of us putting the wraps on another school year all while balancing a host of activities, recitals, etc.  And of course, this is coincidentally the peak of migration. It’s quite ironic that when I have the most free time come June, the birding starts to die down and settle into the rhythms of another nesting season.  Actually, though, I’m looking forward to some key searches in those slow summer months.  I have not been too uptight about migration since there are only a handful of migrants I’m looking for.  Vagrants, on the other hand, throw a monkey wrench into everything.  Let’s just say that it’s been a very birdy weekend for ABWCH and none of it has been by design.  Let’s recap it by day:

Thursday

I found myself home from work with a sick Evan.  Marin was okay, so Evan and I dropped her off at school and then took a detour on the way home.  We stopped by one of the area’s many marshes to take in the sights and sounds of the resident marsh birds that have returned: gliding Forester’s Terns, floating American White Pelicans, singing Red-winged Blackbirds, rattling Marsh Wrens, and caterwauling Yellow-headed Blackbirds.

Yellow-headed Blackbird

Moving on to the shorebird spot, I cruised by and saw…nothing. Just as well, I better get my sick kid home. The kid may not have been 100% but his eyes still worked because as I started to drive away he told me he saw an American Avocet!  Somehow I missed it, which is crazy because it was almost right by the road giving us crushing looks.

American AvocetAmerican AvocetI was hoping for lifer Short-billed Dowitchers, but an Avocet is a nice consolation.  Evan and I enjoyed watching this bird for 15 minutes while it chowed down.

It was a fun moment together as we watched and recalled our excitement over our first-ever Avocet a couple years ago.

Friday

Evan was back to normal and back to school.  He even sang at his school’s songfest which I attended and then promptly slipped away afterward.  I had a solid tip from ABWCH reader, Adam Roesch, on a Snowy Egret his friend Matt found about a half hour from me. So I chased this would-be state bird…and dipped. It was a great Egret spot, so this story may be continued…

Saturday

It seems more and more people are into birding than ever and are scouring all kinds of locales and turning up good birds.  Seeing as how it was a weekend during migration, I honestly approached the day with a “I wonder where I’ll be chasing today” mentality.  I didn’t have to wait long.  News came in of a Summer Tanager from Murray County in southwestern Minnesota.  Summer Tanager is rare regular for MN but has eluded my life list so far. Since it was a very cold day with nothing else to do, the fam decided to join me on this chase that would take about 5 hours round-trip.

We arrived at Janet Timmerman’s rural yard that was an oasis for gobs of migrating birds and one lost Tanager.  Trees were crawling with Warblers and Orioles, and the ground was covered with migrant Sparrows: White-throated, Harris’s, and White-crowned.  Thrushes were also everywhere and distracting me from the task at hand.  One of the dozen+ Swainson’s looked a little off…Gray-cheeked!

Gray-cheeked ThrushMy addition of Gray-cheeked Thrush to my life list has always been tainted with doubt–mostly because I never obtained a photo to back up my sighting. While the kids admired the local Chickens and while I was Thrush sorting, I was still keeping an eye out for the main thing.  It was proving harder than I thought, especially since other birders saw it just a minute before I arrived.  Finally I spotted the tie-died wonder, a first year male.  It wasn’t the coveted bright red adult male, but a cool lifer nonetheless. My camera had difficulty focusing on its mottled plumage.

Summer TanagerSummer Tanager

Summer Tanager

After thanking Janet for sharing her bird, we were on the road for the two-hour, uneventful trip home.  We did stop in Marshall to grab a pizza and walk the dog at a park–Marin was pretty excited to see a wedding party.  I kind of figured it was a boring day for the kids.   Apparently our Kindergartner and soon-to-be 1st-Grader thought otherwise as she penned us a note in the back seat:

Marin note

It was a some nice family time and a successful chase. Life could go back to normal the next day…or could it?

Sunday

I woke up wondering if I would be bringing Marin on another adventure.  Sure enough, my phone rang that morning.  It was Ron Erpelding.  The imagination goes crazy when you see that Ron is trying to get ahold of you.  Ron informed me that he had a Pacific Loon in BREEDING PLUMAGE waaaay down in Rock County, the very southwestern corner of the state.  I had just returned from a long-distance chase that direction the day before, but the pros of another chase were winning decisively over the cons.  Pacific Loon is annual in MN, but mostly on Lake Superior in the cold months. The thought of traveling 2.5 hours to see a bird in breeding plumage on a 2-acre pond in the spring was far superior to the alternative of traveling 3.5 hours to Duluth to see a drab bird on the gargantuan Lake Superior in the winter where a) the Loon could easily disappear or b) appear as a speck on the horizon or c) I could freeze to death.  It was a no-brainer.  Chase on.

The family opted not to return to the southwest with me.  I don’t blame them.  As I headed back down the same highway as I did the day before, I wanted to cry when I passed the turn-off for the Tanager spot. If only I could have combined trips! Nevertheless I eventually reached my destination, an old gravel pit filled with water and one very sexy Loon.

Pacific LoonI was not anticipating such a great distance to the bird.  The distance coupled with heat waves emanating from the soil made photography difficult.  The temptation to trespass was real. But those tiny green specks in the soil are brand new corn plants. I did not want to tick off some farmer.  I did ask a couple of neighboring residents about who owned the land and was bummed to find out the owner didn’t even live around this spot.  So, I did the best I possibly could given the circumstances.

Pacific LoonPacific LoonDespite the distance, this was a thrilling bird to see.  It is a life bird I always imagined getting as a speck on Lake Superior and being nothing more than a check mark on my life list. I had another fun find while seeing the Loon: Janet Timmerman whose yard I was just in the day before. We shared a laugh over the double chase and enjoyed the Loon together for a bit.

After watching the Loon, I popped into neighboring Blue Mounds State Park two miles to the west to try for a reported Northern Mockingbird.  I see Mockingbirds annually in Arizona, but I still needed the rare-regular for my Minnesota list.  The bird had been hanging out by the ranger station at the campground.  It took me a half a minute to find it. Good thing too–I was already pushing it for time in order to be home for kids’ bedtimes.

Northern Mockingbird

Northern Mockingbird

Rock County redeemed itself from that awful, miserable Least Tern chase a couple years ago.  It was a sweet 2-for-1 grab this time.  The good times kept rolling, too, when I spied a rare-for-this-area Swainson’s Hawk fly over the highway halfway home.

Swainson's Hawk

Monday (today)

Before I departed for the Pacific Loon chase on Sunday, I promised Melissa I would stay home on Monday, a scheduled day off work.  This act on my part is almost certainly the reason a Little Blue Heron showed up in Duluth today. Doh! I did, however, sneak out for a bit after the kids went to bed and finally claimed Short-billed Dowitcher for my life list.  Joel had seen some Dowitchers at the shorebird spot in our county but couldn’t ID them.  I was able to see them fly away and hear the soft tu-tu-tu calls, clinching the ID.

Short-billed Dowitcher

What’s next?

With the Dowitcher locked up, I’m waiting around and hoping for one other migrant for an inconsequential add to my county list. But afterward, we’ve got some fun summer searches ahead.  In the meantime, maybe some other fun stuff will show up.

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!

By-product Birds of a Blue Grosbeak Search

As much fun as it’s been to find Blue Grosbeaks, I’ve had some other fun bird sightings while prowling the countryside looking for those blue birds.  This is a quick post (a quick post is a fun post) where I’ll display these bonus birds in ascending order of rarity.

First up is an adult male Orchard Oriole.  Prior to this summer I had never seen a mature male.  Now I seem to run into them regularly, and this one even let me take a couple pictures before it disappeared.

Adult male Orchard Oriole

Adult male Orchard Oriole

Orchard Oriole

What could be better-looking and more rare than an Orchard Oriole?  How about this fine Red-headed Woodpecker.  Seeing these guys never gets old.  I have to stop for every one.

Red-headed Woodpecker

Red-headed Woodpecker

Red-headed Woodpecker

Red-headed Woodpecker

But what could possibly top a Red-headed Woodpecker? Read on, and you’ll see. Randy and I were out driving the southern part of Kandiyohi County checking out a probable Blue Grosbeak site (at least it looked that way on the satellite photos).  It turns out the site was a bust, far from Blue Grosbeak habitat.  It was a huge marsh.  All was not lost, though.  Since Randy was driving I was checking out all the hawks we’d see. Normally I don’t check hawks too closely because we basically just have Red-taileds. I’m sure glad I took the time to look up at this hawk though because it was a Swainson’s!  I couldn’t believe it.  I just saw one for the first time ever a couple weeks prior and now I see one in Minnesota, in my own county no less!  Randy can only recall seeing a Swainson’s Hawk four or five times Kandiyohi County in his 25 years of birding.  It was a magnificent sight.

Swainson's Hawk

Swainson’s Hawk

Swainson's Hawk

The Blue Grosbeak hunt goes on.  Finding Blue Grosbeaks has been fun, but with birds like these it’s fun even if we don’t find any.  But the Blue Grosbeak hunt isn’t the only thing that’s been going on bird-wise around here.  Coming up, we’ve even managed to squeeze in a couple lifers and document a historic nesting record for Kandiyohi County.

Swainson’s Redemption and Nebraska’s New State Bird

All good things must come to end as they say, and this Colorado story is no different. Except this story needs to come to an end because more hard-hitting birding stories have been brewing back home since we got here.  It’s been intense. We’ll catch up on all that later, but for now we must finish the tale of birding Colorado.

Having taken four hours to get to Colorado Springs from Uncle Jon’s (a trip that takes non-birders two hours), we were now ready to hit the plains of eastern Colorado where the birds and landscape would be less inspiring and allow us to push the pedal down and get home. When driving through Colorado you learn that elevation is a big deal as it’s posted on every city’s population sign.  Undoubtedly this was the brain-child of the much cooler mountain cities, and it’s the scourge of those self-concious eastern towns who must display to the world just how elevationally-challenged they are.  The drop in the cool-factor of birds is directly correlated to the simultaneous decreases in elevation and town self esteem.  But what the eastern birds lacked, they made up for with great vigor. Case in point – Western Kingbirds.  They were everywhere and perched boldly on any kind of wire proudly displaying their awesomeness.

Cruising along on U.S. 24 I had a beautifully patterned Swainson’s Hawk come sailing high over the road.  Evan dipped on this bird in South Dakota and pouted about it since I saw it.  Because of this debacle, I kept my mouth shut when I saw one while driving through Denver earlier in the week.  But this time I couldn’t help myself, and I hollered that we had a Swainson’s.  Of course this jarred Evan out of his backseat activities, and he couldn’t get on the bird in time, setting off a fountain of tears.  Apparently he really wanted to see this hawk bad. I turned the car around to chase after it, but it had vanished.  Nuts.

Thankfully, though, that’s not how the Swainson’s saga ends.  As I drove east out of some non-descript town (sorry town, I only remember the names of the cool, high-elevation cities), a Swainson’s Hawk shot up out of nowhere from behind a grassland hill flashing his white wing linings and reddish brown chest as he soared across the road a mere 20 feet off the ground. I hollered. I couldn’t help it.  Evan was panicked.  I pulled over.  Thankfully this bird cooperated and gave Evan his sought-after lifer as it circled on thermals right by the road.

Swainson's Hawk

Swainson’s Hawk

Swainson's Hawk

So it took four Swainson’s Hawks before Evan finally got his lifer and I got my photo documentation.  Then a funny thing happened – or not if you are a birder: they were everywhere.  I bet we saw close to a dozen Swainson’s Hawks by the time we finished out Colorado, nicked Kansas, and then got into Nebraska.  And Nebraska? Well, when I was filling up with gas at some podunk town in the east-central part of the state, Evan was getting out of the car to go into the convenience store and he looked up and said calmly, “Hey Dad, a Swainson’s Hawk.” Sure enough another Swainson’s was cruising low over the gas station canopy!  The Swainson’s no longer had power over Evan, but it was still having an effect on me.  Gas still pumping, I reached for my camera to get try to get a shot of a Nebraska Swainson’s.

Swainson's HawkAre you sick of Swainson’s Hawk photos yet? Too bad!  It’s probably the coolest hawk I know, and there’s even more coming in a future post!

The Swainson’s Hawk alone would have made Nebraska a worthwhile state to drive through as far as birding goes, but surprisingly Nebraska put up another cool bird and lots of them.  No, it wasn’t the Western Meadowlark that holds the title of state bird in Nebraska and like a half dozen other western states (the meadowlark is a cool bird, but really the states all should have drawn bird names out of a hat).  Instead it was the Red-headed Woodpecker. Interesting side note about state birds on the trip – we didn’t see a single Ring-necked Pheasant in South Dakota and only one Lark Bunting in Colorado.

It’s kind of funny how things play out.  After spending a night in Kearney, Nebraska, I missed my road that angled to the northeast.  This forced me to have to go north and east but not northeast – something that aggravated me as a traveler and as someone well-versed in the Pythagorean Theorem.  Compounding the issue was that we hit road construction where we were stopped with a whole long line of cars waiting for the flag lady to let us have our turn to proceed.  Except there was no visible road construction for miles.  We had been waiting for quite awhile with no end in sight.  When the guy in front of me got out of his car, lit up a smoke, and leaned across his hood while jawing with the flag lady, I couldn’t take it any more.  I peeled out of the line and headed back west to go south just to be able to go east and north again.  It was awful and made worse because we were now traveling on gravel roads.  In the flat land of Nebraska, the gravel roads are laid out perfectly on a grid with an intersection every mile.  And they can really grow corn tall in Nebraska, so I was forced to stop at every intersection to avoid a collision.  The agony!

But there is a silver lining to this miserable cloud that seemed to follow us on our journey home.  We spotted a couple Red-headed Woodpeckers.  It is such a pretty bird that is declining in numbers.  It’s a good day any time you see one.  As we kept driving, though, we kept seeing them! Ten in all! It was crazy and fantastic and made the miserable travel worth it.  Melissa said it best when she said this was truly the way to experience Nebraska if you have to experience Nebraska – tall corn, dusty roads, and Red-headed Woodpeckers. Good save, Nebraska.

Red-headed Woodpecker

Red-headed Woodpecker

Red-headed WoodpeckerWe also saw a couple of Brown Thrashers, and I even spied a Loggerhead Shrike in a bush as we flew past.  I was too frustrated with the stop-and-go travel to make many voluntary stops for pictures, though.

So, there you have it.  We got home to Minnesota without incident, and the birding has not slowed down a bit since we got here.  Who knew that late July and August could hold such bird wonders back home of all places?  Stay tuned.

The Colorado Trip: Birding South Dakota’s Badlands and Black Hills

BadlandsFinally. After an eight-year hiatus, the great American road-trip was reborn in our family.  There’s something liberating about heading out on the open road putting hundreds of miles under our seats, crossing numerous state lines and seeing new sights.  Our kids are to the age where they are now able to tolerate such intense travel and enjoy it too.  This summer we were headed to the mountains of Colorado to visit my aunt and uncle in their beautiful mountain home.

Though not the quickest route, we opted to head to Colorado via Rapid City so we could see Mt. Rushmore.  It would be a first for Melissa and the kids, so it was a must-stop. The scenery and the birding was most unimpressive until we crossed the Missouri River at Chamberlain.  But then, as soon as we made it to South Dakota’s better half, a western bird ambassador was there to welcome us.  A gorgeous, no-doubt-about-it Swainson’s Hawk soared over the freeway while I was cruising along at 75 MPH.  I involuntarily hollered, “Swainson’s Hawk!” Of course, soaring birds and speeding cars do not lend themselves to photo ops or good viewing.  Evan panickingly asked, “Where?!”  But it was too late and he didn’t see it.  Then the porch-lip came out in the back seat, and I was reminded by my wife to not draw attention to wildlife sightings on the road because the kids inevitably miss them.  We’ve been down this road before. Though I could now firmly claim this lifer, I tried to console Evan by assuring him that there would be more Swainson’s Hawks on this trip.  Boy, was I right, but that’s for another post.

Though not part of the original travel plans, we opted last-minute to dip south of I-90 to drive through Badlands National Park.  Growing up in Montana and then moving to Minnesota, I don’t know how many times I’ve traveled the I-90 stretch, but I have no memory of ever driving through the Badlands and seeing them up close.  I only remember distant views from the interstate.  I am so glad we decided to take this detour.  The Badlands are truly impressive with their beauty and other-wordly look.  And we were there on a beautiful day with cool temps.

Badlands

BadlandsThe expanse of the Badlands goes for miles, and I could have photographed them all day, but I was distracted by the birds.  When we stopped at one of the first scenic overlooks I caught sight of a blue bird.  It turned out to be our Mountain Bluebird lifer.

Mountain Bluebird

Mountain Bluebird

This was a hoped-for lifer and not one that I expected to get so soon in the trip.  It turns out that there would be even more life birds at this little stop. Buzzing around the cliffs and rocky outcroppings were several Violet-green Swallows.  My photo in the harsh afternoon sun doesn’t fairly show its namesake, but I can assure you that this is probably the finest-looking swallow there is.

Violet-green Swallow

Violet-green Swallow

I expected this bird and was able to identify it easily because of my eBird scouting. That scouting also helped me identify another fast-flier, the White-throated Swift! Photographing swallows and swifts is a daunting task under normal conditions, even more so when you are trying to keep children frum plummeting to their deaths. Needless to say, I didn’t get any photos of the swifts.

EvanI could not believe how accessible death was at this place.  Sure there are fun hills to climb like pictured above, but the other side is a doozy. This canyon was well over 100 feet down.BadlandsIt was fun to look at the bottom of this barren piece of earth and see a family of Say’s Phoebes, another good western bird.

Say's PhoebeWhat a good little stop this was – three quick lifers and a fun place to stretch the legs after a long drive.  But we had more Badlands to see and hopefully more birds too, so we continued on our drive through the park.  We spied Western Kingbirds wherever there were trees on which they could perch.  Such a fun bird.

Western Kingbird

Western Kingbird

As we made our way out of the park on Sage Creek Road, I was watching the fences for more WEKIs as well as Lark Buntings.  This potential lifer was reported as “ubiquitous” on this road in one eBird report.  I was very hopeful. We did stop to be entertained by the myriad of Prairie Dogs as they popped up and disappeared like a real-life whack-a-mole game for as far as the eye could see.  The whole family enjoyed the antics of these cute, pudgy rodents.

Prairie Dog

Prairie Dog

But doggone it, I completely forgot to check out the Prairie Dog Town for Burrowing Owls.  I had seen reports of them being with the Prairie Dogs.  One of those dogs poking its head up could just as easily been one of the Burrowers.  We’ve seen them before in Arizona, but one should never pass up an opportunity to look for a Burrowing Owl.

We continued our drive, and I was getting frustrated that we were not seeing the “ubiquitous” Lark Buntings.  Finally as we pulled out of the park, Evan pointed to a group of birds on the fence and asked what they were.  Mixed in with dozens of Mourning Doves were two Lark Buntings!  But they were a long way off and not letting themselves be photographed well.

It didn’t matter because as we kept driving on Sage Creek Road on the outside of the park, the Lark Buntings truly were ubiquitous.  I guess I should have read that report a little more carefully.  In case you are a birder and are looking for the Lark Bunting, the birds were on the wires on the north-south stretch.

Lark Bunting

Lark Bunting

Lark BuntingLark BuntingAfter securing a tidy haul of life birds and enjoying the scenery, it was time to make our way to the Black Hills of South Dakota to meet up with the presidents at Keystone.  The most notable bird seen along the way was a Red-headed Woodpecker – always a treat to find.

The stop to see Mt. Rushmore was brief.  It was basically a tick on the bucket list for many in our party and nothing more.  To us it just did not compare to the natural beauty of the area and its wildlife.

IMG_0032

Great Faces

With their pine covered mini-mountains, the Black Hills are absolutely gorgeous.  Our destination for the night was Hot Springs, a great small-town without the tourist trappings of Keystone.  But on the way to Hot Springs we passed through Wind Caves National Park.  Nothing new in terms of birds, but this guy right by the road was startling, a little scary, and very cool!

Bison

We eventually made it to Hot Springs where we settled in for the night.  But being in new lands with new birds does not lend itself to getting rest.  I was up and at ’em at first light to check out a local city park, Lower Chautauqua Park, located near a water park called – get this – Evans Plunge.  I was going to this park because it was very near our hotel and there had been eBird reports of Black-headed Grosbeaks among other notable western birds.

The first bird I heard and saw was the Spotted Towhee.  It was quite a thrill to catch up with this old friend after finding my lifer as a Kandiyohi County first official record back home in April.  In the early morning light I was only able to moderately improve my photograph of this species.

Spotted Towhee

Spotted Towhee

Eventually I had the good fortune of bumping into the reported Black-headed Grosbeaks. Despite my best efforts of following them through the trees, I only managed to get one decent photo.  Regardless, I was pretty excited to get this lifer.  It was such a cool-looking bird.  I don’t think I’ve met a grosbeak I didn’t like.

Black-headed Grosbeaks

Black-headed Grosbeaks

I wish I could have hung out longer to get more photos of these birds in better light, but I had to head back to the hotel so we could get ready to venture through Wyoming on our way to Colorado. South Dakota was good to us with several lifers and spectacular beauty, but it was time to get to Colorado to see what avian treasures awaited us.