Recent News

Star Tribune: Interview and photo of mine in the Star for the Roseate Spoonbill that was found by Kevin Smith as a first state record in MN.

Article for MOU Newsletter: I wrote a new piece on Blue Mounds State Park and birding in rough weather. MOU members only.

Article for St. Croix Lowdown: I wrote a piece on the bird soundscape of William O'Brien State Park. Hope you enjoy.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Blog Update and Events Coming Up...

Some readers might be surprised to find that I have actually completed my State Park Big Year already. I got myself to 73 State Parks and State Recreational Areas before the end of July. It was a feverish pace that had me grinding out awesome trip after trip with Itasca State Park being the last one on my list.

With a family reunion on my wife's side at Itasca it was always a plan to hit that park during the family event, but as it turned out I was able make it the very last planned location for my big year. I decided to at least put this up now as the date details in my posts have been pretty disjunct from the actual current date due to the massive (~30) park back log of posts I need to write.

Having also written multiple articles for publication during this time and now starting 2 different presentations coming up this month for birding programs. (Teaching Birding 101 at Midwest Mountaineering in Minneapolis coming up on the evening of 9/12 and then presenting at the MRVAC meeting on 9/27 on the subject of finding rare birds. Open to the public!) I felt I should at least get word out on what the hold up is with getting blog posts out for these parks I've long since explored and enjoyed.

I'll also be providing count support and identification work for the 2nd annual fall raptor count at Carpenter Nature Center, which will be co-hosted by the MOU with early morning hours providing passerine count and identification. This event will be 9/29 starting at 9AM. This event is one we are quickly getting tuned up and primed for with our first sample count already happening back on 9/3 with a few good raptors like (7) Osprey moving south along with a Coopers Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Bald Eagle (4), and an amazing array of Warblers along with an early Lincoln's Sparrow and Purple Finch (2). I personally plan to complete multiple pre-count efforts this month to get a feel for how migration of Raptors is progressing.

Not to be out done by myself I'll be co-running a Fall sea duck route trip for the MOU with Peter Nichols in the East and North metro areas in November on the 10th. You can pick up details on MOU Facebook page and I would expect in the next published newsletter for MOU members.  

Donation update on my Big Half Year for the Bog. As that program wrapped up at the end of June I was knee deep in planning for my last segments of State Park visits. I decided to donate $73.00 of my own money to Friends of Sax-Zim Bog and just found out my donation match request with my company was approved so FOSZB can't expect another $73.00 coming by the end of the month. I know they just finished construction on a bog boardwalk a few weeks ago, which will be super exciting during all times of the year. They have a donate button on their website and I would love to hear of others giving to them so more bog can be preserved and opened up for birders and naturalists to explore.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Buffalo River and the Spotted-Eastern-Hybrid Towhee

After a couple weeks of rest (hard to believe you can actually rest when trying to hit every state park in a year) I got on the road on Saturday morning June 9th nice and early. I pulled into Buffalo River SP just a few minutes past 9AM, though I was hoping for earlier than that honestly.

I see a Greater-Prairie Chicken on the sign, though I didn't get one on this trip it is very high on my get list for the state soon.

I had heard great things about Buffalo River SP in the sense of it being a western edge park with rarity potential (Western Wood-Peewee last year) and some outstanding prairie space bordered to the south by Bluestem Prairie SNA just to bolster those creds even more. In the shade of the Buffalo River segment not far from the parking and swim pond I picked up plenty of American Redstart and Yellow Warbler staking claim to prime sections of habitat. The same area had an active Scarlet Tanager and the area acted more like a nice forest than anything resembling prairie.

That changes very quickly though as you cross the river and pickup the segments of the Prairie View Trail that runs a couple large loops out to the west and south edges of the park property.

The prairie masters quickly made themselves known as Western Meadowlarks perched and Grasshopper Sparrows issues their insect-like calls. A few Bobolink let out their robotic calls and chased around the open spaces. This is true prairie space that began to heat up very quickly on the day and made the open area feel several degrees warmer than it might actually have been at this point in the morning. I really needed that extra hour or more of morning time to avoid the high heat of the day.

Several low areas had Alder Flycatcher claiming their own space as thickets of bushes dotted the moist areas. As I arced around towards a river overlook I heard a call I did not recognize and my heart jumped. This happens less and less these days and I was keen on figuring out what new single phrase call I couldn't immediately identify...

I got closer and closer to the woodline and the call was repeated the entire time. I soon made the treeline just south of the river and still it persisted. I was having trouble finding the bird that seemed to be calling from the tree tops so I circled the area even cutting into the brush line hoping to change my viewing angle enough to pick up the bird.

After nearly 10 minutes of this I finally set eyes upon a Towhee! Well, I knew for a fact this was not an Eastern Towhee call note. Even with their tendency to issue several calls and also modify/shorten their signature "Drink-Your-Tea" call I knew this voice was not an Eastern voice. I immediately jumped to Spotted Towhee. A rarity, I was almost ready to send out alerts for any that might happen to be in the area and want such a bird. I paused though wanting to snag a photograph showing the spotted wings and eventually was able to do so.

My angle finally shows me a spotted wing pattern I had hoped would be the final clincher for Spotted Towhee and a new rarity to report for my State Park big year.

As soon as I got my photo, confident I had gotten my bird even though I'd never heard this call before, the bird did something that was at once amazing and disheartening. It began to sing...the entire normal "Drink-Your-Tea" song of an Eastern Towhee. This bird had I not seen it would have gone down as an Eastern on this song alone and if the song had never started would have been an easy call for Spotted for me with an assumption that I just didn't know all of their call notes.

Now I knew where I was and that was bird limbo. I had found an Eastern/Spotted Hybrid that all at once was super cool and a bit sad since it would not have an official count on my life list. The educational value though far outweighs the indeterminate tick of finding a hybrid. I popped out to Facebook after a Google search showed me an article on the hybrids and I even found a short description that indicated such hybrids often have a call type not matching either bird, but a song matching Eastern Towhee. In my post I made short joke of "That moment when" meme of thinking you have one thing, but it turns out to be another. Not long later Bob Dunlap (MOU President) commented that the same bird was present last year as well playing the same games with birders.

I was happy to have not completely fallen for the ruse and worked through the identification using my own skills, some quick article research on hybrids, and photographic evidence. It was a great education and a story I won't soon forget.

A nice White-Admiral butterfly that I was able to photograph while hiking one of the trails.

The Great: Finding a unique hybrid and getting to work on the identification was as special moment that lasted for nearly 30 minutes. The park has a great section of prairie and being bordered by an SNA helps to make it an even bigger preserved natural space. The river valley helps to ensure this area has some diversity of species and I certainly look forward to keeping this location on my NW MN tour stops for birding.

The Meh: Beyond the Hybrid I wasn't astounded by the birding I encountered, but I was already into June at this point and finding some additional unique prairie natives likely takes a lot more than a couple hours in a single loop. One area I hiked had a recent burn so a swath of my effort was basically a bird dead zone. The park seemed to have a huge influx of humans by the time I finished my first loop showing dozens of cars in the lot looking to use the swim area, making the park seem more crowded than I would have expected.

The Verdict: Getting native habitat like this is a thing to treasure. Were I closer to this park it would be an easy monthly or more visit type of place looking for errant rarities. I'd also expand efforts into the adjacent SNA and the regional science center land to the east. I'll be back at some point I'm sure when I want to expand my park or county life list or simply look for things I've never seen before in the state.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Code 10 - Roseate Insanity

It was going to be an off day. I was going to spend most of my time working on an upcoming presentation for the MRVAC monthly meeting, kicking off their fall speaker series by talking about finding more rare birds and goal setting. My wife and I rolled into Starbucks around 10AM and I snagged on of the few remaining tables, while she got in line to order for us.

Seconds later my phone started ringing. I get very few phone calls these days simply because messaging is the way things are typically done, but my friend Pete Nichols and I have a system. If it's a serious find, it's a phone call and the one getting the calls picks it up ASAP.

Pete: Dude!
Me: What's Up?
Pete: Are you ready for a code 10 in our county?
Me: Uh, yes?
Pete: Dude, Kevin Smith just found a Roseate Spoonbill at the sandbar!
Me: ....what?
Pete: Yes.

Me up at counter in line with my wife.

Me: We need to go, now!
Her: What?
Me: Roseate Spoonbill at the sandbar.
Her: I'll get it to go then.

I quickly told Pete we are on our way. He was getting a pickup from Larry Sirvio and would be in bound also. Not only was this a big deal for Washington County, but it would be a first state record for Minnesota. We raced down to Hastings crossing the river and I could see gulls and one big light/white bird on the sandbar. It would turn out though that shortly after getting the word out the bird had lifted along with the gulls. The gulls returned, but the Spoonbill did not as it flew north over the lock and dam.

Talking with Kevin Smith now and a few others that started to trickle into the boat launch parking a plan started forming. Greg Jahner was already working from the lock and dam along with Kevin's wife Cindy. Pete and Larry showed up and did the same along with looking at Lake Rebecca and the dike area. Soon Tom Bell showed up as well looking to add this State Record. Jenn Veith arrived with her husband on her birthday no less and they plotted a possible boat trip from their home to the backwater areas around Spring Lake to search.

Alex Sundvall arrived and we agreed that Schaar's Bluff would be a good place to look as well now with plenty of backwater areas to observe from high up on the river bluffs. The group dispersed quickly with Greg noting he was going to be checking Hazen P. Mooers Park as well as the gravel pit on Grey Cloud Island. The hunt was on.

I talked my wife into a run to Schaar's Bluff and she was game as we pulled in and starting looking at the river in various locations. Kevin had noted the bird likely would be looking for more Great Egrets as it had been associating loosely with the one I had seen while crossing the bridge. The river from Schaar's Bluff had plenty of Egret's and hundreds of Ring-billed and Franklin's Gulls, but nothing remotely pink could be found. Liz Harper showed up as well at this point while 7 or 8 of us scanned various sections of river without luck.

Many of us dispersed at this point while others like Liz Harper stayed in the area searching various locations. My wife and I ended up getting lunch and returned home. I started working on my MRVAC presentation again and figured the day would end with Kevin Smith notching a first state record in 2 counties along with his wife and nobody else would have the fortune of seeing such a great bird. At 2:45PM I got a message from Pete the "likely bird" was refound at Old Cedar Avenue in Hennepin County now, 20 miles away! Had someone searched this whole time and thought to check another section of river 20 miles away from the first sighting?

Pete was keen on another run at this bird and offered a ride if I made it down to his place. I thought for a few seconds and realized state records don't show up every year so this might be my only chance in MN ever. I got in the car with my gear and got to his place. We jumped in his car and quickly made our way towards Old Cedar.

The effort wasn't drama free as we arrived to find Old Cedar Ave in the worst shape I've seen it to date. The city/county has continued at a glacial pace in rebuilding this area for 2 years now. I used to go to this place regularly and finally stopped when they started the pedestrian bridge project. Now the road itself to the new parking area was utterly destroyed. This hill down is daunting and certainly wasn't something Pete should be hiking in the oppressive heat and humidity of the day. So we drove down the single choppy dirt lane the last stretch of navigable road and turned around. Pete jumped out with the gear and I drove it back up the hill and rushed back down on foot. It was then at least a half mile further down the road and out to the boardwalk. Signs were good though as we ran into Greg Jahner fresh from seeing the bird and rushing back to his daughters softball game. Birders will find a way to wedge a chase into any personal/family event possible when it is this singular in nature.

Once on the platform the sleepy Roseate Spoonbill was easy to spot just a couple hundred feet away. Kevin's comment from earlier resonated as I eventually counted 25 Great Egret in the area and it became pretty apparent this bird was looking for rest and food and wanted to associate with a bird species as similar to itself as possible.

The next hour became a who's who in birding as people streamed in from all corners of the metro and even state to get a sight of this wonderful rarity. Off the top of my head I talked with or recognized, Dana Sterner and her mother, Michael Sack, Bob Jansen, Julie Winter-Zempel, Tony Lau, Amit Kulkarni, Richard Gotz, Travis Bono, John Jonas,  Bill Litkey, Erik Collins, Becca Engdahl, Alex Burchard, Bob Dunlap, William Marengo, Alex Sundvall, Joe Lindell, Liz Harper, Brad Abendroth, Larry Sirvio, Joey Sundvall, a large contingent of the Hosch family (Ezra, Isaac, Jackie, and I think Caleb).

On the way out Kevin Smith and Alex Franzen were coming in giving Kevin a wild 3 county ticks in one day for the first state record bird. Unreal and super awesome. While hiking up the hill I ran into Karl Isley and even Kim Eckert whom I assume had driven from Duluth. Many more beyond those I knew were coming into the platform area and streaming down the rubble of a road to add this bird to their list. Rare bird chases are something of a wonder of human nature. I had noted on a Facebook post that birders "flashmob" better than almost any other group in existence. With todays light speed reporting avenues the word gets out so insanely fast that even leaving immediately upon finding out you are likely to be the 30th or so person to arrive when it's near the heart of the cities such as it was yesterday.

I later saw reports of the bird out to 8PM with more names I recognized like Josh Wallestad having been in the cities by some stroke of amazing luck with his wife for a conference starting on Monday. Jenn Veith was able to get the bird as a birthday bird and this time her son Vincent was with to see it as well.

From the highest high of a morning call from Pete to the lowest low of heading back home after a fruitless search, to the redemptive chase at Old Cedar, the day was an awesome rollercoaster to get a sighting and picture of a first state record. In the end it will stick with many of us how many friends we quickly got to see and talk with over this bird. Conversations of congratulations in person for other birds people had found recently like Dana Sterner finding a first county record Blue Grosbeak in Ramsey County. These moments in time can be critical to reinforcing friendships and making new birding contacts with friends of friends. The birding melting pot is as diverse as our quarry and always exciting to see again. Soak it in everyone, life is good.

Friday, August 24, 2018

"Relaxing" Local Birding

After an insane 20 park circuit with over 70 miles of hiking and touching the southwest corner of the state and the northeast corner I arrived back home on 5/18, went to bed and promptly got up at 5AM for the Grey Cloud Dunes Big Watch event. This event, now in it's 3rd year, is an all day event coupling a stationary count along with guided efforts on the properly for small groups. I have guided all 3 years and always enjoy the opportunity to see what migrants are present and how many sparrow species we can check off on the day.

For 15 and a half hours I watched, hiked, counted, and socialized at the event. It is a true endurance test that brought us all the day to dark when we moved to another parking lot to pickup the call of at least 3 Eastern Whip-poor-will. I checked off 82 species during the day (10 sparrow species) and guided multiple groups around the property helping to identify birds and even a few flower species.

A nice Grasshopper Sparrow, one of the regular breeders of Grey Cloud Dunes SNA.

Eastern-wood Peewee from Grey Cloud Dunes SNA also. This one must have been tired as it sat on this log just 8 feet away while we observed.

After the Grey Cloud event it would be hard not to admit I was gassed and in dire need of some relaxation time. I mostly birded locally all the way until 6/9 giving me plenty of time off from longer distance travel. I visited Afton State Park along with William O'Brien State Park multiple times each to keep myself in State Park mode and good hiking condition. Afton State Park can really hold the fort pretty well on quality birding options as is evidenced from my pictures of Hooded Warbler and Yellow-breasted Chat. The first has been a summer breeder in the park for several years now making it one of the few reliable spots in the state for this species. The second has shown up at Afton State Park 2 years in a row and been one of the few individuals identified in the entire state each year.

My first run in with this bird was shrouded in foliage and tough shots. I came back after a long hike and it decided to set up shop above me and sing for a few minutes. My best looks and pics of Hooded Warbler ever.

This was my first confirmed Lark Sparrow for Afton State Park so it was nice to see potential nesting efforts for the species that is very tough to find breeding in Washington County.

I had this bird on my radar to track down in 2018 hoping for a redux on the bird found last year by Kevin Manley. Another birder beat me to it and refound the bird in the exact same spot. I would go on to see this bird in 4 different months of 2018 trying in vain to call for a mate.

Mostly I wanted to get this post together so I retain knowledge of what I did between large birding trips for the big year. It was important as I finished large circuits to take some time off, but still get quality birding efforts in during the weekdays. Afton is such an amazing place considering it is bereft of any swamp spaces or lakes/ponds it brings an amazing diversity of birds that can rival most other state parks. Being only about 15 or 20 minutes from my home it is a great place to go after work and get a nice strenuous hike or setup for a sky watch in the spring/fall for migrants.