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Recent News

MOU Members: The first half of my article A Big Year in Washington County is now available to read in the January/February edition of MN Birding News.

Fellow birder and local celebrity Birdchick (Sharon Stiteler) wrote an article on some Common Redpoll behavior I observed and photographed recently in Lake Elmo.



Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Bird Song Testing

Looking for a little bit better method of learning my bird songs I started looking for a quiz/test interface that would do it for me. Basically something that will allow playing of the call and then let me come up with the name and check the answer. I didn't really find anything like this as most of birding is designed as a field guide approach to paper, digital, etc. So you look up a species and it gives you the details you need.

What I want though is a quiz of a similar group of birds and to not know what I'm getting and in what order. Then to be able to test my knowledge and learn as I go. To do this I had to come up with something on my own and I decided to try and repurpose what I already had available to me.

MacaulayLibrary.org - Provides me the bird calls. I had to look deeper into tracks I wanted and then find the direct, no frills, link to the call track. Once I found that in the code for their autoplay frame as an MP3 link I was able to reference it directly without carrying along the bird name and related text.

Google Sheets - Basically Google's version of a Spreadsheet provides an online cloud solution for spreadsheet. I developed a way to mask the bird call link in a 6 character random number. In that same field I also put a note that is only visible when you ask for it to be shown.

Now when I browse to my Google sheet of this quiz from say my iPad, I see a list of 6 digit numbers. I click on one and a player opens to play the track. I have to click play button since mobile device browsers restrict autoplay. Once I'm done with the track I then go back to the Google sheet and click the note to reveal the identity.

The quiz works pretty well for my test group, which was all of the Flycatcher family that I might run into when in the Dakotas and Minnesota. I also have the structure built to quiz out all major groups of birds like Wood Warblers, Sparrows, etc... I just need to go get the valid MP3 links. Maybe at some point I'll open the quiz up to the world to use. The other feature of the quiz is that when anything changes on the screen the random numbers regenerate. This allows then the sortting of the column on the sheet which then reorders the list of calls. This effectively makes sure the quiz is never in the same order so you can't use that as a crutch. Not bad for something hacked together using tools/apps already available on the web.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Flycatcher Songs

Working on Flycatcher song lately. I’ll be seeing a number of them on my Dakota circuit this year and I’ve never really been solid on Alder/Willow/Acadian so I’m working hard on that kind of stuff this winter so that spring and summer will be a better id period for me on the trouble groups.

Example of below of my thoughts as I hear them and try to commit to memory. I associate the sound with wording maybe that I’ve read or something else if the reading doesn’t translate well in my head to the sound I’m hearing. I’m using the online Macaulay Library which is insane for how many audio and video items that have for each bird. Much better/deeper than most of the field guides and way beyond other sources like YouTube.

Alder – ReeBee to my ear going up and down a buzzy scale in pitch. Always reminds me of an old metal washboard for some reason with something wooden run across it.
Willow – Spit Zee to me. Ritz Bew by many book sources or Pit Spear. Always sounds spat out to me so the Pit Spear is better. The two notes are clear and separate with the first being much more spitty.
Acadian – Keet or Peet really loud single note with pause until the next a couple / few seconds later. Sometimes doubled up, but mostly just a loud yelled out Keet.
Cordilleran – Tweet Seet very fast with a pretty high pitch.
Dusky – CheUp Twe or CheUp Tweep or just CheUp sounding. High pitch on first double note call and then much lower with a T sounding start for the second note.
Yellow-bellied – CheBunk given very quickly. Just that two note piece run together. Didn’t seem to vary much more and spaced out from the next call by at least 4 seconds usually more.
Least – CheBec smacked out quick and often in close succession. A much sassier version of the above Yellow-bellied and a lot more urgency to the call.

The Macaulay Library is pretty sweet, sitting with an iPad tossing names in an having dozens of clips of great quality is pretty good. Even pulled out a Hooded Warbler and Veery calling in the background of a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher clip. The clips are nice and long in many cases 4 to 10 minutes allowing you to take in the whole forest of sounds and get a feel for the bird call in the environment.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Just Getting Ready for the Season

Title reminds me of Caddyshack when Ty Webb has a guest over and he says he's just getting ready for the season. The guest asks whether that season is duck. His reply is golf. Much of my free time has been me getting ready for the season, in this case birding. I have grander plans this year than those of the past where I specifically didn't allow myself to chase many birds and instead focused on birding regularity and trying to extend my birding activities well past spring migration.

This year I have already been chasing a little bit within reason and also taking several birding trips that never happened in the past. This shows in my having a great many more birds this year already than I have in any prior year.

My planning has been centered on the North and South Dakota circuit I plan on taking in advance of our family reunion for Melissa's side in the Black Hills. I have been tracking down sighting patterns during July for many key birds of the area and figuring out what driving locations are worth the effort along with what trails will be of value to hike and explore.

Spawning out of this has been my desire to include some spring activity that includes key new sites that are a bit further flung than most short day trips. This has brought into play the need to figure out if I need a bird festival in some areas or if I should just explore on my own and at my own pace. Things like the Detroit Lakes festival in NW MN and the Prairie's and Potholes festival in ND. I know my comfort level jumped a lot when I did the Sax-Zim festival last year allowing me multiple individual trips now with targetted efforts. I just wonder if all of that is really needed now and if I should just strike out on my own and explore the areas I spotlight.

Involvement: I'm signed on via Kevin Smith to volunteer at the Hastings Bird Day being sponsored by the Carpenter Nature Center this April. This should be a good opportunity to learn some things and also hopefully help others learn something about birds and birding.

Joining: I'm looking at joining one of the local Audubon groups in order to be more involved in birding and bird conservation efforts. I think so far the MRVAC group that meets at the NWR headquarters near the MOA (Mall of America) is my best bet. It's the closest meeting location of the 3 local groups and is a pretty strong member base.

Study: I have been putting a good amount of time into study on bird groups in order to be more preparred for this years birding efforts. Focus has been on the Flycatchers based on songs and look when possible. I have also been working on Gull and Shorebird groups as well lately. I have noticed an uptick on my gulls this year as I was able to read lots of content, but also apply some of it while up at Duluth Canal park multiple times this year already. That helped bring in Herring, Thayer's, Iceland, and Glaucous gulls. I'm starting to be able to pull appart the multiple cycles of birds present in a location as well as seperate species that are pretty close. I probably have a lot of work to do with stuff like Herring vs Thayer's, but I am much better now than I was. Sparrows are also getting more attention as I look to increase my life list this year with Brewer's, Le Conte's, Baird's, and Nelson's. These will need sound and visual work for me, but it's all enjoyable study time as I look forward to time in some prairie settings and canyon settings.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Duluth? Again? Yep.

The lure of quality birds and good weather was to much to ignore yet again. With little to do on a Sunday I decided on another run north. The radar and forecast was looking good and then I learned what the lake can produce on it's own. 20+ mph wind with sleet, snow, and cold. Luckily the Subaru can take care of business and I rolled into Duluth Canal park by 7:45am after getting up at 5am to leave. Birding is a special kind of crazy.

My goal on the day was gulls at Canal Park and then some specialties at Agate Bay in Two Harbors.

Gulls were just coming into the canal to rest on the ice and wait for food. I was able to snag just Thayer's Gull as a new gull on the year and figured after a little bit that I should get north fast and try to take care of Two Harbors before the weather got any worse.

Once in the small town of Two Harbors I started working the lake walk and lighthouse parking area for the reported Harlequin Duck. The wind was brutal but avoidable if you hunkered down in some less windy niches. The entire bay was open, but choppy the closer you got to the edge of the break wall. I was able to spot Bufflehead, Red-breasted Merganser amongst a few other groups of common winter water birds. I ran into a couple guys I had seen down in Duluth and we all began a scope session on the Ore Docks across the bay to see if we could pull in the small male Harlequin.

After a few moments of scope time while talking about what I had seen thus far and what they picked up in the canal after I left, I found the Harlequin. The bird was hard to make out, but still obvious with the white strap on the body and overall dark body tone. The others confirmed shortly while one of them found a raft of Long-tailed Duck out near the far break wall. This was excellent as it pulled in my 3rd year bird and all of my targets for Agate Bay.

Harlequin was especially good as it was a life bird for me. We pulled in another view or two from a different position, but it was tough going with the choppy water and active bird dives for food. I did get several looks at the distant Long-tails as well as a couple in flight, which was nice.

I eventually piled back in the car to get to Duluth again for a second gull session. This time fortune was with me as I picked up Glaucous Gull in a stationary position (my first) as it hulked over the nearby Herring and Thayer's Gulls. The bird even in 1st Winter is nearly impossible to not pick out against such a group. I then found the Iceland Gull, which was like looking at a mini Glaucous as it was noticeably smaller than the Herring's, but still had the nearly white with light brown washed feathers. I worked this group of gulls for a long while, watching them and comparing. I tried to working on Thayer's vs Herring with some luck as I found an adult Thayer's to use for some compares and was able to see the larger white primary tips along with slightly smaller bill and different head profile. Very tough birds to tell, but I was also able to use the many stages of Herring to look at feather groups and understand the composition and point out the many stages of life of these 4+ cycle birds. It was very fun even with the wicked wind and weather always coming down.

I left the day with just missing Greater Black-backed Gull on my list of day birds. Not to bad really. I was on the road and back home by 3:30PM so it was a pretty nice day that left me plenty of time to hang out with Melissa.

Birding and being outside, even in nasty weather, really does light up my soul.

Post thoughts on the north: I feel I've done a pretty solid job of winter birding the north. With three trips and this one being very targetted I have pulled in a lot of winter birds of the north and was able to snag many life birds while learning birding techniques for several of them. Finding birds on open, choppy water is a challenge, but possible and requires a lot of patience and scope scanning the same area multiple times.

Reasonable Misses of the North: Northern Goshawk, Spruce Grouse, Black-backed Woodpecker, Red Crossbill, White-winged Crossbill, Greater Black-backed Gull

I find the above list to be pretty small after 3 trips and I feel good about my winter efforts. I figure I'll only winter trip again if another rarity shows up on the water or in the harbor area like a Gyrfalcon or something. I also feel like Black-backed Woodpecker will be a solid shot during summer as well in the bog as it is resident so I can hopefully get it when I try for Conneticut Warbler and a few others.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Roosting Turkey & Life Owl

I decided to get on the road towards Hastings on the off chance I got bumped into viability for the Owl prowl being run by fellow birder Kevin Smith at the Carpenter Nature Center WI Campus. I attended last year, but we didn't get any owls. This year Kevin found Northern Saw-Whet in pre-birding trip scouting.

I didn't get the call, but I made a fun night of it to be sure. At Point Douglas it was pretty tame with just a handful of Common Goldeneye in the remaining open water. From the bridge view point I did spot the single male Wood Duck that has been hanging out between Prescott Marina and the bridge areas. This added another year bird for me before I decided to run down to Chimney Rock SNA.

This site is also another where I had seen Kevin Smith report Eastern Screech-Owl only a week or two prior. The site was inconspicuous, but quickly showed some interesting sandstone formations just off the road. I saw Turkey signs pretty early as they had tread nearly everywhere in this area.

I soon found footsteps and dog prints that led me to believe they were from Kevin and his dog. I followed them a long ways back on the SNA property and eventually ran into a good number (15) of Turkey flying up into the trees to roost for the night. They were causing a pretty good racket and this is the first time I had ever seen this behavior so it was pretty fun.

While I was watching and taking a cell video to show Melissa I heard a monotone call of an Eastern Screech-Owl. This happened maybe 6 times and I tried moving closer to the owl, but never could zero in on him/her. I suspect my tramping around so much was what quieted the bird down. Still a lifer and a great auditory experience.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Open Space & Lazy Drive

I decided after work to do a little new location scouting so I drove to the Woodbury Open Space that I had spotted off of Manning and just south of 94. Upon arriving a Red-bellied Woodpecker made itself known immediately, but little else did during the walk. The largest portion of the woods no longer looks like what is seen from overhead in current satellite images. The understory has been gutted and appears to be in the process of being gutted heavily. I'm guessing a lot of dead / downed trees along with buckthorn had them go for a very aggressive strategy. The area is not a very open woodland for a good sized portion of the location.

About half way back on the trails that appeared to be travelled only by another person and a dog since the last snow opened up into a hidden track of long grass, though not likely true prairie. It at least holds some interest in that it might support some interesting sparrows in summer.

The back half nearest the sand/gravel pit was much less gutted and had some pretty thick territory. I'm not sure the birding value of the whole area, but it certainly seems to be of interest. Maybe now that the main wooded area is opened up the way that it is, we'll see Red-headed Woodpecker.

I did see a nice hole in a tree about 30 feet up and wanted to see if it worked to rub a stick on the tree to make a resident pop it's head out. Sure enough a squirrel popped up immediately to see what was happening on his tree. Almost looked like the face of a Fox Squirrel, but was hard to tell at the angle I was at before it ducked back inside.

I plan to give the area another look in the spring and then maybe again during breeding time to see what sets up shop in the area and see if I can put it on the map a bit.

After that I drove through Lake Elmo Regional Park just to take a look around. I saw a good sized (20) flock of American Tree Sparrow near the road working for seeds and grit. Just short of the equestrian center I found 3 Horned Lark (year bird) near the road also and they only hooped to the road edge and gave me a nice long look at them from the car. It was a pretty windy and brisk day, but always fun to get out and see some birds. Now if I could just get my BirdLog phone app to submit records. It quit working 2 days ago and I've tried every type of troubleshooting possible to remedy the problem. I may submit something to the app devs and see what they come up with as I couldn't find anything online about the issue I'm having.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Sunfish Lake Park

Finally remembered that locally Sunfish Lake Park is not restricted to just ski use in the winter. This is nice since 90% of trails are off limits at Lake Elmo Park Reserve in the winter. After work I took a nice long hike with my Yak Trax on my winter boots. they worked great as I never slipped once with the soft snow over the icy stuff.

Birding was slow as expected as I moved forward and paused to listen a lot. This strategy yielded just a small group of Chickadee that seemed to be concentrated near a ravine that has homes on the north side. I would assume with feeders that keep them close.

I then sought out trails I knew I had never worked before, half scouting for the future and half birding for a rarity. I did hear some good rapping on a tree at one point on a pause and found a female Pileated Woodpecker working hard on a tree.

This park has a lot of fall and blowdown in the thick woods so with any wind you get a lot of trees rubbing together causing odd noises that draw your attention. At a few points I hoped for some kind of owl, but none of the sounds were avian in origin.

Most of the way through my walk I did find a roving band of American Robin working some berry bushes near a locked in pond. The feisty bunch chased and yelled at each other a fair amount.

Eventually while out in the open on the south edge of the park I found a Bald Eagle soaring overhead. It was a quiet lonely hike, but it was peaceful and fun. I'm looking forward to some summer trips for a much deeper birding survey this spring, summer, and fall. The locked in pond has me curious for what might nest in such an area.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Ideas - Brain Dump

I've had a number of birding related ideas recently and wanted to get them down on 'paper' while I continue to ruminate on their merits and the possibility of getting them off the ground or crowd-sourcing them.

1. Birding League - Stemming from my sports background a birding league that would meet at a specific location 1 or 2 times a month or more in migration season and bird locations in a league format. Incentives like target birds for extra points, rarities, etc...

2. Birding Location Blog & Map - An updated version of Kim Eckert's book that would be eventually crowdsourced in a Wikipedia style compendium of birding. The site pages would go into deeper detail on how to bird the locations, parking, driving, personal conduct protocol, etc...

3. Video Location Blogging - The idea would be the above, but in a YouTube channel instead. So birders could watch GoPro style video for getting to a location, birding the hot spots, understanding where to find target birds, names of sub spots and locations. This could be really fun with some nice video editting equipment, etc...

4. MN Rare Bird Twitter - A feed designed to tweet out rare bird sightings around the state. Might use eBird results, but also MOU, FB, etc; As a collection point with fast turn around for retweet. Would need to define rare and keep to that program. Probably birds like Common Eider, Golden-Crowned Sparrow, Townsend's Solitaire, Varied Thrush, and Harlequin Duck as opposed to just an out of area Northern Pintail, etc... Maybe this would need a few feeds and you could have tiers or county based twitter feed. Kind of feel like eBird needs to just do this or perhaps I could figure out a way to generate automatic Twitter posts using API of eBird and TinyURL to link back to report forms.

Anyway, just some stuff that has been in my head lately as I think about long term birding projects that maybe I'm positioned to get off the ground as a technology person that loves birds.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

WI Double Shot - Sidetracked.

Melissa and I setup a lunch with my parents on Saturday. It was long overdue as it was originally planned a month or so back for dad's birthday, but things came up.

To piggyback I had been tracking the Long-tailed Duck sightings near the main street bridge in Chippewa Falls as well as the Northern Hawk Owl in Eau Claire on Lars Road.

On the way into town Melissa and I went to the boat launch location on the south side of the bridge near the city dirt and dumping location. It didn't take long after scanning the Common Goldeneye's for Melissa to spot the Long-tailed Ducks in the faster moving water near the south pylon of the bridge. Both females stuck close together and worked the rapid water area. Very easy get just for paying attention to bird sightings in my hometown.

After arriving at the parents house I started to watch the local feeders and was surprised to find abundant Pine Siskin and even a Common Redpoll. After a short time my FOY Titmouse showed up, again baffling me how easy the bird is in Chippewa Falls and how tough it is in MN.

After lunch in Eau Claire we drove a very short distance to Lars Road and on the way I explained what we'd be looking for. It wasn't more than a minute later that dad said he saw a large bird at the top of a pine tree just ahead. Sure enough the Northern Hawk Owl was sitting right at the turn to Lars road. Nice easy find and the 2nd lifer of the day for Melissa. Mom and dad both enjoyed the ultra short drive and get for a bird they had never seen either. This was the 3rd Northern Hawk Owl since last year for me when I got my first ever in the bog.

Fun day of visiting and accidental/opportunistic birding.