Playing Solitaire by Yourself is No Way to Win

Like most birders I am fond of my home county list and crave those new additions which happen with less and less frequency with each passing year.  This year I am trying in particular to go after those species that we know are regulars in the county every year.  The year got off to a good start on New Year’s Day with the Kandiyohi County birders teaming up to go after Short-eared Owls.  Seeing as that event was successful and fun, why not try again?  One of my other biggest wants for the county has been a Townsend’s Solitaire.  This bird of the western montane forests moves eastward and downward in elevation in the winter months and can be found all throughout Minnesota. They pop up everywhere. Kandiyohi County has an abundance of suitable habitat in the form of large stands of Red Cedar, so I knew there had to be one or more lurking out there somewhere. So I put out a call to action to the Kandi crew on FB, and to my surprise, 10 people said they were down for it. The event was dubbed “Super Solitaire Saturday” for being held on the eve of the Super Bowl.

Ten people is much too large and way too inefficient for one search party, so for SSS we split into three groups to tackle large swaths of the county in an efficient manner.  Herb Dingmann, Dan Orr, and Milt Blomberg came down from neighboring Stearns County to the north and were going to hit Burbank WMA. Steve Gardner, his brother Scott Gardner from the Cities, and rising birding phenom Garrett Wee from Lyon County comprised team #2.  They planned to scour Sibley State Park. I joined up with local birding legends Randy Frederickson, Joel Schmidt, and Jeff Weitzel to tackle Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center.

In planning for the day I was quite optimistic that we would achieve the target, but I had no idea just how efficient this divide and conquer strategy would be. My crew decided not to start until 8:30.  Good thing, too! Just as we parked our cars at Prairie Woods and were about to step into the Red Cedar landscape to begin our search, I got a call from Herb. They had already found one at Burbank! All groups converged on team #1’s location and picked up a sweet county bird…

Townsend's SolitaireAs we enjoyed the bird and expressed jubilation over a very early success, we detected a second Solitaire as well! Townsend's SolitaireTownsend's SolitaireWith the objective met so quickly and so easily, no one really knew what to do afterward. After shooting the breeze for quite awhile, we settled on going after the only other type of new county bird we could really try for this time of year: Owls.  Now the focus was on Eastern Screech-Owls, Long-eared Owls, and Northern Saw-whet Owls.  Each of the teams put in a few hours of Owling but came up short.  No one was really bothered about that.  The group ended up having lunch together and then we each went on to our separate birding objectives for the day.

So what’s next for the Kandi crew? Time will tell, but this group birding has proven to be both popular and effective. The next event is likely going to have an Owl focus.  Steve and I are already hot on the trail of one of those coveted birds, so maybe, just maybe, we will have another successful story to tell.

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?

EvanGreater Roadrunner

Best Photo Redemption of a Bird

Buff-breasted Sandpiper

Buff-breasted Sandpiper

Right?

IMG_4788

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.

Arizona 2015: The Return to Madera Canyon — Elegant Trogon or Bust!

Getting back to my hotel in Green Valley that afternoon on the 31st after lifering hard at Mt. Lemmon, Florida Canyon, and Madera Canyon, I couldn’t take any more birding, mostly because my stomach bug was still raging hard. I got about an hour’s rest before Evan made a big birding discovery at the hotel that forced me into full-on birding mode again.  This discovery will be the focus of the next blog post. Once that excitement settled down, I finally collected my thoughts enough to remember that Tommy DeBardeleben and Gordon Karre were counting on me to check the internet for Trogon reports to decide what we should do in the morning.  According to eBird, no Trogons had been seen for over a week at Patagonia Lake State Park.  On the other hand, just the day before, Eric Ripma had eBirded two male Elegant Trogons 1/4 mile up the Super Trail at Madera Canyon.  The choice was now clear, especially since Madera was a short 15 minute drive away where Patagonia was closer to an hour.  I texted Gordon and we all mutually agreed that Madera it was.

After telling Evan about the cool birds I saw and after he had some good sightings at the hotel, he was in a birding mood and wanted to go on the Trogon hunt the next morning.  I felt our chances were decent after that eBird report, so I was glad he made that decision.  Adding to the excitement was that my health was back to 100% on April Fools morning.  It was feeling like a GREAT day to lifer on my grail bird.

sunrise

Tommy and Gordon picked us up at the hotel at 6:00 to bring us back to the mountain.  As we drove to the Super Trail parking lot, Evan lifered on Mexican Jay out the car window near the Santa Rita Lodge.  We weren’t stopping for those secondary lifers, though.  We were on a mission, and our crew-leader Tommy was shouldering all the weight and anxiety of the Trogon hunt.  Like Kirby Puckett in Game 6 of the 1991 World Series, Tommy was putting the team on his back and was determined to bring us all to glory.  Before we got to hiking that morning, Tommy spoke to me in a hushed tone, “Now, I don’t want you to get your hopes up, but Gordon and I scouted the Super Trail last night and we…heard a Trogon.”

“Yeah, I won’t get my hopes up,” I lied between pounding heartbeats.

Almost immediately after we got on the Super Trail, Evan had his Painted Redstart lifer.  I was happy for him because I knew he also really wanted to see this bird too even though he didn’t go with me to Mt. Lemmon the day before. Gordon pointed out a Bushtit at one point which didn’t get me too excited since I had seen them and crushed them in Colorado.  Evan chimed in, though, and reminded me that that was a life bird for him! Oops.

Not long after that I spotted a crazy-looking creature barreling down the path toward us.  It turned out to be a single-striped morph of the Hooded Skunk.

Hooded Skunk

I’ve learned that birders, myself included, are an easily distracted lot, especially when it comes to cool animals.  The TROGONS-ONLY! mode was now set-aside for a wild-skunk chase, a venture that could have gone south in so many regards.

Gordon Tommy Evan

Front to Back: Gordon Karre, Evan, Tommy DeBardeleben

Thankfully it didn’t, though, and we were back on the Super Trail hunting for Trogons again.  A little bit later as we were walking along looking at every mid-level perch along the canyon wash for our target, an exotic bird sound boomed and brought us to an abrupt halt.

“That’s it!” Tommy exclaimed.  Tommy thought he heard it further up the wash, but as we all paused to listen, the sound was coming from behind us in an area we had already walked past!  Tommy had been leading our single-file procession up the wash and was actually the furthest from the bird.  Tommy immediately sprung into action and quickly walked by all of us to now take the lead in the opposite direction we had been traveling.  It was an extremely serious and tense moment–we were on the cusp of glory, and we could all taste it. The whole time we were hearing the cool sound of the calling Elegant Trogon and multiple heart beats were collectively being skipped.  In seconds Tommy had pinned the location of the calling Trogon from across the wash.  Then, magic happened– he saw it take flight, in all its splendor, and land on our side of the wash!  This was the moment when Tommy pointed it out to all of us and became a greater hero than Kirby Puckett. We got to see it in the early morning light briefly before it flew into an open area allowing incredible but brief looks.  It was staggering. We were really looking at an Elegant Trogon. I managed to get a couple photos before it flew further up the mountain slope.  Considering the early morning light and the bird’s unwillingness to sit still, I was beyond thrilled to get this shot which is the best souvenir I could hope for from the 2015 AZ trip.

Elegant Trogon

I never could get that classic shot of the bright orange belly and white neck band, though I saw those features whenever the bird would fly.  That forward look was the photo I really wanted, but the more I think about it, the more I like the photo above because it shows off the bird’s emerald sheen on its back as well as its coppery tail.  You don’t see that too often in photos.  And considering some birders dip completely on the Trogon or get crummy views at best, I count myself extremely lucky for the sighting alone.  This photo was the icing on the cake.

That said, I didn’t stop trying for the classic shot.  I never got it, but it’s a right of passage that I should post at least one blurry, bigfoot-esque photo of this massive prize.  At least you can get a sense of the bird’s orange belly.

Elegant Trogon Tommy and Gordon were excited with the find too, namely because they had gotten us this key lifer, but also because it is a fantastic year bird for them.  The only comparison I have is a Great Gray Owl to a Minnesota birder–it’s a bird we can never count on, is elusive and easily missed, and is always a thrill to see.  So as the bird kept calling and moving up the slope, Tommy asked me, “You want to go after it, Josh?”  Um, yeah!

Tommy, Evan, and I started racing up the slope for better looks at this bird.  It continued to call and move often, which Tommy believes is a sign that it was looking for a mate.  Evan was having trouble on the steep incline with his sandals, so he waited on the trail with Gordon while Tommy and I went uphill.  Eventually the bird had gone completely out of sight and earshot, and we gave up and headed back down the hill.  Once Evan and I were in sight of each other again, he called up the mountain with a huge grin on his face, “Hey dad, I just got my Arizona Woodpecker!”

“What?! You beat me to it?!”

This was the smug look that met me at the bottom of the hill.  Do you see the smug all over that face?

Evan

He and Gordon had gone behind my back, literally and figuratively, for this life bird which I was now desperate to see even though I had just come off a literal mountain-high from seeing the coolest bird of my life.  But it didn’t take long for Gordon to find the AZ specialty  for me too.  I got crummy looks, but a lifer is a lifer after all.

Arizona WoodpeckerAfter double-lifering, our party of four continued up the wash in hopes of refinding the Trogon or finding a new one altogether.

Gordon Tommy Evan

L-R: Tommy, Evan, Gordon

Sadly, we never did see or hear the Trogon again even though we walked the wash as far as we could.  The walk back was pleasant with lots of bounce in all our steps as we had secured the main treasure.  As we walked along, I could visibly tell that a weight had been lifted from Tommy’s shoulders.  He was relaxed; he had done his job that he took more seriously than anyone else.  The rest of us were all just on Cloud 9, now enjoying being in bonus-birding mode.  To kick things off, we had another lovely Painted Redstart, and Tommy found Evan his Townsend’s Solitaire lifer.

Townsend's SolitaireFinally the sun crested the mountain peaks, washing the valleys below with beautiful light.  Evan announced he had found a great photo-op of an abiding Mexican Jay while Gordon and Tommy simultaneously found him his Hutton’s Vireo lifer.  I opted for photographing the Jay while Evan got his Vireo.  Great photo-scouting, Evan.

Mexican JayAnd nearing the parking lot, we were also able to get Evan his Bridled Titmouse lifer.  I was finally able to get a photo of them.

Bridled Titmouse

Getting back to the car, we decided to make a stop at the spot in Madera Canyon where Gordon and Tommy crushed Whiskered Screech-Owls the night before.  I got to sleep in a hotel room the previous night instead of a tent. They got WHSOs.  I guess that’s a fair trade, or not. Definitely not. I’d sleep on a rock for those shots: Tommy’s photos and Gordon’s photos. Sadly, our brief owl search turned up nothing, other than a nice photo op of a lone Band-tailed Pigeon that Gordon found.

Band-tailed Pigeon

Evan and I then hung out at the Santa Rita Lodge feeders to get Evan caught up on some lifers while Tommy and Gordon went to work packing up their campsite.  Evan quickly lifered on Broad-billed Hummingbird, Acorn Woodpecker, and Red-naped Sapsucker.

Acorn Woodpecker

Red-naped Sapsucker

Red-naped Sapsucker

We also had an Arizona Woodpecker fly over our heads, and Evan finally got good looks at numerous Lesser Goldfinches.  His lifering on LEGO was the same brief sighting as mine in Colorado.

Lesser Goldfinch

After enjoying these birds for a little while, Evan and I went into the gift shop at Santa Rita Lodge where we were greatly wooed by anything and everything Elegant.  There’s nothing as effective as victory for loosening the purse strings: Trogon hat for me, Trogon pin for Evan, Trogon postcard for Randy back home who’s always dipped on ELTR…  Thankfully, Tommy and Gordon came back before we were completely bedecked in Trogon bling/apparel.

It was a monumental morning that will go down in the Wallestad birding history books as one of the greatest birding adventures of all time. We got the big guy.  All the dreaming and planning culminated in success. Moreover, Evan added nine additional lifers, including the dazzling and much coveted Painted Redstart. A huge thanks goes out to Tommy and Gordon for making it all happen. The only fitting way to end this post is a group photo of the conquerors.  These men will never be the same; they belong to an elite club.  They stand a little taller.  They walk with confidence. These men have seen the Elegant Trogon.

Josh Gordon Tommy Evan

L-R: Yours Truly, Gordon, Evan, Tommy

The 2015 Arizona series has eight chapters: 1) Maricopa Birds, 2) Mt. Lemmon, 3) Florida Canyon, 4) Madera Canyon Part 1, 5) Madera Canyon Part 2, 6) Evan’s Big Discovery, 7) Owling at Coon Bluff on the Salt River, and 8) Evan’s Nemesis.