Recent News

Hastings Earth Day Festival: I'll be guiding at Afton State Park in the morning and presenting on gear in the afternoon at Carpenter Nature Center. Check it out this weekend!!

MPR Radio Segment: My appearance on MPR for a segment on bird watching. Podcast link.

Friends of Sax-Zim Bog: I have committed to donate and raise money for this great organization as part of their big half year for the bog. My big year is of course finding birds in the MN state parks. Follow this link to my page if you wish to donate and help fund their excellent work in preserving bog lands for future generations to enjoy. Big Douglas Bog Link.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Afton Lifetime Statistics Tracking

Considering my desire to use Afton State Park as my "bulk birding" location for this years state wide big year I wanted to get a stats tracking post up for the park. This is where I'll keep my visit statistics for Afton to give me an idea of my trip count, miles hiked, species seen, life birds, etc...

This will be posted on the side of the main blog webpage along with my overall statistics post that is also continually updated.

Lifetime Bird Species Count:

146 at end of 2017
162 as of 4/17/2018

Single Year Count: 74 species (4/18)

Total Trips in 2018: 21 (4/18)
Total Miles Hiked in 2018: 46

Total Day Ticks: 321* (4/16)

January: 20 species seen
February: 21 species seen
March: 42 species seen
April: 56 species seen

All Time Best Bird Species:
1. Bell's Vireo (2016)
2. Black-billed Cuckoo (2014)
3. Black-throated Blue Warbler (2014)
4. Common Raven (2018)
5. Golden Eagle (2018)
6. Henslow's Sparrow (2014)
7. Hooded Warbler (2015)
8. Horned Grebe (2016)
9. Long-eared Owl (2016)
10. Northern Saw-whet Owl
11. Ruffed Grouse (2017)
12. Short-eared Owl (2015)
13. Townsend's Solitaire (2016)
14. Western Kingbird (2017)
15. Yellow-breasted Chat (2017)

Mammals: 5 [White-tailed Deer, Coyote, Grey Squirrel, Red Squirrel, 13-Lined Ground Squirrel]
Reptile: 1 [Snapping Turtle]

Flowers: 0

*Total number of species seen by day. Meaning you can tick a Chickadee once per day every day of the year.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Pure Gold at Afton

With radar lighting up to the south overnight I wanted to get out right after work. Prior to yet another spring storm coming to town I needed to get out and bird watch as much as possible.

Afton was again my target with it being square in my view as a big year within my State Park big year. I figured even with large numbers being blocked to the south that southern Washington county would still be able to put a few new species on the list for the year. I was not disappointed on a nice 48 degree evening with light winds that eventually died down to almost nothing.

One thing I love about going to the same location repeatedly is you get to know the machinations of nature. You get a feel for how things flow and change over time and you begin to notice minor shifts in habitat utilization as migration ebbs and flows. This evening I quickly got a look at the relatively small patch of open water on the river from the top of the bluff. This puts you about 1500 feet away from the water and elevated well above it as well. This patch I've seen briefly inhabited by a flock of Hooded Merganser, but beyond that activity was limited as it is a stretch of water bordered by long runs of ice in the center of a high current river. I quickly found a number of Mallard were setup resting on the ice and paddling around the pool. While doing this a number of Bald Eagle were squabbling over what looked like a large carp that had been pulled onto the ice. (Imagine being a species that must rest and eat within a 100 feet of the thing that constantly tried to eat you for dinner.)

I started scanning the entire pool and soon landed upon a couple Blue-winged Teal, an odd duck so to speak for the middle of a river. Quickly I found some Common Goldeneye that had been joined by a raft of Lesser Scaup. I wanted to ensure I didn't miss anything so I started my hike down to the river edge so I could shrink the distance to the birds and pull in some Nikon shots of what ever else might be moving around. On my way a FOY (First of Year) Hermit Thrush pair popped up from the wooded edge and picked at some wrinkled berries.

One of 4 I saw on my hike, this Hermit Thrush was near the picnic overlook.

Further down I picked up a chip note of sparrow level interest and gave a small low volume phishing noise. A Fox Sparrow popped up into view and put on a show in perfect light for me for a couple minutes. I had wanted to snag one from Afton for a while now to make sure I got one on my year list for the parks.

This Fox Sparrow was so cooperative I had to put two pictures in the post. 

Finally at the bottom I slogged over the flood plain forest section towards the open pool. Fortune smiled as a walker with a dog kicked up a few ducks from the Trout Brook out flow and into the middle of the river. That contained a pair of Green-winged Teal, a bird I would typically rule out of Afton State Park on the account of being very limited desirable habitat even for a  migrant Teal. (Getting both on the same day together was a nice treat and added 2 Afton State Park life birds for me.)

Male Green-winged Teal on right and Malr Blue-winged Teal on the left. Both lifer Park birds for me. 

A FOY Belted Kingfisher also rattled off a few salvo's of calls during this time adding to the wonderful audio layers of a nice spring day. I moved about in some wooded spaces after this and found a couple more Hermit Thrush working open patches of forest. I like adding the hilly sections of Afton as they provide awesome accidental exercise while birding for extended periods. (4 hours on this day)

Making it back to the top of the river valley I figured I could setup for a sky watch at my favorite overlook spot just south of the visitor center by about a 1/4 mile. On my way 3 FOY Vesper Sparrow popped into a tree to give me an eye. This is a nice bird for the park as they don't seem to nest at Afton and they were again a life park bird for me.

Lighting was tough, but still got a nice picture of this tougher to get Park bird. Vesper Sparrow.

 Shortly after I also picked up a few Tree Swallow working up the river valley for yet another FOY bird on the day. In some cases I had to watch really closely to get some of these birds as they streamed up river at a moderate altitude. At the same time I could see even higher up Ring-billed and Herring Gulls working back down river. Apparently they did not like what they saw in the north or they were returning a roost site further down river.

As I neared my overlook location I locked on a Peregrine Falcon moving like a bullet down river along the ridge. It was crazy to see the speed with which this bird moved. Everything else appeared to either labor against a cross wind or attempt to soar on updrafts and thermals. Not this Peregrine though as it pulled wings in tight and moved with purpose.

During my sky watch an Eastern Meadowlark let out a volley of song behind me in the prairie. A few days back I had my first 3 in this area begin to make some noise. Prior to that I had a single bird near the entrance station giving contact calls only. You can get a vibe for these changes the more you get out in the same space and really track the arrival of a species, it's transition to song, and eventual claiming and winning of a coveted territory that causes others to move onto another location.

My day wasn't done yet though as I started to see some Turkey Vultures working a thermal together to the south. It started with 4 or 5 and as I looked back a minute or two later saw they were joined by many more and the tornado expanded to 35. This is always fun to watch the formation of such a flock looking to spend as little energy as possible.

Watching Turkey Vulture soar in a large kettle is mesmerizing.

Something interesting happened though as this flock overtook my position I noticed another couple behind them and a pair of American Crows came out of the Pine ridge to give chase and started making a racket. I was confused why on earth they would care about a Turkey Vulture. It dawned on me that wasn't the case and I next assumed they were giving chase to one of the many Bald Eagles in the area. That made little sense either as I've rarely seen a Crow work over an Eagle. In fact I had just watched them hang out with the Eagles at the river looking to get in on the Carp that had been landed. It finally dawned on me that I was seeing something else completely and I got my binoculars on a Golden Eagle (juvenile/2nd year). the white tail base and small patches of white at the feather bases on the winds sealed it very quickly. I was able to see a golden sheen on the head and neck, which showed a distinctly shorter projection that you would see on a Bald Eagle. Fortune smiled as I had my camera already on and the zoom fully extended and I just had to get it in frame as the bird started to come out of a soar and switched into a gliding dive looking for the next thermal. The bird flew directly over my head no more than 100' above me. What an amazing moment and one I finally was in the position to snag a picture. As you can see below I had terrible lighting so the post processing is rough, but shows this amazing bird as it quickly exited to the north a mere 30 seconds after the American Crows pointed it out.

First rule of identification shows is to just get the picture. 30 seconds is all I had and as you can see a lot can be done in post to get a good enough picture for identification and documentation. 

I'd go on to add a Sharp-shinned Hawk and many fly by Mallards along with a few more days birds before I topped out at 38 species in 4 hours of after work birding time. What a great evening of bird watching for the spring.

The great finds added 6 all time Afton State Park birds for me and moved my Afton year list up to 65 species while ticking the State Park list up to 93 species. I even added 13-lined Ground Squirrel to my mammal list on the evening.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Fabricating Fun

As we continue the spring cycle of freeze, snow, wind, repeat I have been evolving my goals a bit. State Park Big Year is still happening and I'm not giving that up for anything. However with a stall in that action for the time being it has allowed me to bring into greater focus other sub-goals in this year of focused effort.

This Sandhill Crane from a recent William O'Brien SP seemed to be less than excited about foraging in a frozen swamp in April. Spring is coming dude.

Already well into my participation in birding events, article writing, and radio efforts I started to consider what additional closer to home goals could sneak into this year without being a major hindrance on my larger goal.

The first of which is micro listing with Afton State Park being my target. Considering it is a State Park I figured it would play a key role this year for weekday efforts and close to home outings when family events demanded my time. What I didn't expect is that by the first week of April I would already have visited the park 15 times and scratched out 53 species in a terrible migration year. My owl species in the park are at 5 with hopes of finding at least 1 more this spring. (Eastern Screech) Last year Afton had a pretty sick list of birds that are super tough if not impossible in the rest of the county. (Ruffed Grouse, Western Kingbird, Yellow-breasted Chat, Summer Tanager, Hooded Warbler, Townsend's Solitaire, and Common Raven all immediately come to mind.)

My goal then tacked onto my year is to Big Year at Afton State Park. I'm not even sure what is possible in the park by myself, but it would be fun to see if I could get to 170, which is roughly the number of species identified in the park since January of 2017.

This goal also helps me mentally to plug into the effort fully and not think about the fact that I'm missing out on a trip to another State Park or something. Now it will be interesting to see how my weekends go once the weather gets nice. I'll need to get my out of town trips in, but perhaps this is where a few days of vacation come to play where I can get out of town for a 2 or 3 park swing and then have another day for pure Afton. Then have a day of vacation to recover/relax so it's a 3 day weekend and not beastmode every day while trying to work all week.

A bit blurry as I also had to push the color/brightness up on this backlit photo of a Red-Shouldered Hawk. In the top you can see a fresh snagged mouse/vole in the left talons. The bottom cut was a throw away shot that ended up showing the tail really well of this species.

I have had a couple Afton trips recently with poor weather that is suppressing migration a lot, but I was able to scratch out some good species anyway. During the week I was able to get decent pictures of a Red-Shouldered Hawk hunting in the open prairie and yesterday I found a Brown Creeper working near Trout Brook loop. This hike from the north end was a bit snow and mud laden but I really needed the trail time and some hills to flex my legs on a bit. Of interest on the hike at Trout Brook Loop was a single bat flying around. I'm pretty sure I've never seen a bat flying around with snow on the ground before. I'm not even sure if it can be identified to species with just an aerial view, but I've recorded it at least as a mammal species for my list.

My long Brown Creeper working the trees down in the Trout Brook Loop. I was hoping for maybe a drumming Ruffed Grouse, but I'll take this and bat on the trip.

I actually wanted the hiking to try for a Fox Sparrow at the park, but only Dark-eyed Junco and Song Sparrow were interested in showing up on this day. I realized this morning while writing this post that I'm 30 species behind my count from last year already. It is amazing how far behind the migrants will get when you have these challenging weather patterns that suppress movement.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Terrible Spring & Great Experiences

Over the weekend I was able to present along with my friend Peter Nichols on county birding and increasing your species counts. We each put in 20 hours of research and prep time to create the slides and content. It was very well received by the audience of just over 100 people.

I was very happy with how it went and humbled to be able to present to such a large audience and along with notable birders such as Bob Janssen, Kim Eckert, and John Richardson. Additionally found great education in listening to Karla Bloem and Steve Stucker during the day.

This build up to the presentation along with nasty spring snow storms coupled with an Easter Weekend heavily restricted my bird activities for State Park visits. I'm hoping to get out this coming weekend, but even that is in question with barely tolerable weather on the back side of the current snow storm that is dropping inches on us as I write this post.

My patience is nearly at an end, but I can at least say on presentation day last Saturday I was able to squeeze in some birding at Carpenter Nature Center and nearby spots to pick up several FOY birds like Fox Sparrow, Brown-headed Cowbird, Wilson's Snipe, Common Loon, Horned Grebe, and Pied-billed Grebe.

The wind was insanity out of the north stealing the warmth from your very soul, but still several of us birded anyway. It wasn't a State Park to contribute to that year long effort, but we still snagged some species tried to eek out an existence.

I'll be looking forward to this weekend but with snow blanketing many areas I'm not sure what I'll be able to get done. I may have to target the next weekend and hope the weather shifts enough to get some melt going. I need open ground and hiking time to build up my long hike endurance. Getting into May with the plans I have for 20+ parks in a week or so is not going to go well without some endurance built up.