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More coming soon on 2019 goal of 10K County Tics in one year.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

A Hoary Gift Under the Tree

Back on the 16th of December the Bohemian Waxwing in Washington County was likely to be the last added bird species for the year in Washington County. A great find by Greg Jahner that my wife and I both were able to see and document along with a surprise Townsend's Solitaire.

I returned to the Bohemian location on December 25th with a few hours to spare before family holiday celebrations. My hopes were to see if the cedar grove had any magic left before the year was out and it did in fact produce the Bohemian Waxwing again with a large flock of Cedar Waxwing. A few other birds were present like Red-breasted Nuthatch and Northern Flicker. This grove, though on private property, is the type of regular stop a birder should include in regular winter car birding routes. In the depths of a serious cold spell (-11 as I write this) that Cedar Grove has produced December birds of Bohemian Waxwing, Northern Flicker, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Townsend's Solitaire, Red-shouldered Hawk, Eastern Bluebird, and a possible Hermit Thrush I couldn't get identified fast enough as it crossed the road.

I also stopped by the Grey Cloud Gravel Pit and found the water very steamy, but still open. This location is the deepest pool of water in the county so it stays open well beyond other lakes. The proximity to the Mississippi river allows a very nice collection of birds to collect and this day proved the same as I pulled in American Wigeon, Canvasback, Redhead, Ring-necked Duck, and American Coot for waterfowl that are typically a challenge this late into December. With just a few miles separating the gravel pit and the above noted cedar grove the locations are amazing 1...2 punches of car birding that even in severe cold still produced 17 species in limited birding.

With little else shaking I decided to return home early and help prepare some food for the holiday celebration. As I pulled into my Lake Elmo neighborhood I saw a large flock of birds that immediately drew my eye as I had not seen any large song bird flocks in the area this winter. I stopped the car and threw up my bins to find a large flock of Common Redpoll at a feed station nearby. I pulled into the driveway and grabbed by camera to get a neighborhood first for me. I got more than I bargained for as the Redpolls quickly flew across the street and landed on the roof and trees of the sales office for the development. I began taking pictures and quickly realized I was looking at a very pale/frosty bird in the group that stuck out even without optics. After I reviewed the pictures I found every id mark needed to call the bird a Hoary Redpoll. Based on MOU data prior to 2017 the last accepted report for the species was 1988. Here I was wrapping up a big year in the county and a county life bird (year bird 243) landed just 100' from my home.

A Great profile viewing showing limited streaking on the flanks and white undertail coverts.

Another perfect view of the undertail showing no markings at all.
A straight on view making this Hoary Redpoll look like a ghost with the limited streaking and clean undertail. So fortunate to have found this bird and gotten these pictures.

I immediately sent messages to Peter Nichols and Greg Jahner even though it was Christmas. Pete was able to steal himself away for the quick trip north and snagged the life bird for himself also. In the coming days I've helped 14 friends and fellow birders get this amazing county bird to add to their own lists as well. Today marked the 6th consecutive day I have seen the Redpoll flock and the Hoary travelling with them. On the second day (12/26) I even chanced to find the Hoary on our own feeders and landing on the neighbors roof looking for grit. What fortune to wrap up December with Glaucous Gull, Bohemian Waxwing, and then Hoary Redpoll.

A view of the Hoary Redpoll the next day on a roof showing the level of lightness compared to Common Redpolls all around.  

With a day and a half left in the year I may limit my efforts for county birds. So little is reasonably left on the table to find that I can't imagine doing yet another Crossbill & Pine Grosbeak route. The extreme cold has eliminated open water locations as a serious option, though I can think of a few places to bird a little bit if the itch strikes New Years eve and a last ditch effort to add a final bird on the year.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Final Plans - Design Everything

I've been working hard in my spare time to get lists together of things I'll need for my trips to the State Parks. I'm a bit of a boy scout when it comes to stuff like this so massive prep time is often the prelude to the fun.

The last couple days I started working on a Google MyMap for all the park locations, honing in on the main entrance roads so directions are easier to call up, especially when I'm on a multi-park day and I need to drive from one to another. My map will be linked on the main page of the blog and be available for anyone wanting to see what I'm building and operating from during the year.

I have also added a layer for the State Waysides and may add other key locations near the state parks that I might want to stop at for a look see. I'm thinking things like key roadside stops that might add value for a bathroom break and a quick eBird list, etc... I like to squeeze every last drop of fun out of my trips so these type of prep efforts for me help to ensure I don't waste time and energy while I'm out and about.

Birding: Work finished up for the year today and it has been tough to get out much lately, but I was able to steal out after work today with plenty of sunshine. I got stops in at Afton Marina, Carpenter Nature Center, and Point Douglas Park. The best bird was the continuing Long-tailed Duck at Point Douglas that gave me nice looks so I could finally snag a decent picture of the species.

Pete Nichols and I have some tentative plans the next week to try and find some extra birds before our Washington County big year is complete. We are thinking additional open water looks for something like Black Scoter (before the big freeze-up comes), Spruce tree routes to look for Crossbill species, maybe some northern routes looking for Snowy Owl. We don't have a lot on the table, but anything is possible and I would love to add at least one more bird.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

A Northern Walkabout

Having the day to bird watch I set out just after sunrise and soon found it to be a dense fog. This would immediately shift my plans to drive some northern county Snowy Owl circuits, into something else, but I really couldn't decide what that might be.

Eventually I ended up at Big Marine Park to walk around for a bit and see what might present itself. Scarcely any birds seemed awake as the highlight was a flock of 5 Pigeon flying through the park, that seemed really out of place in a foggy park setting.

I then got the idea that I should hike into Crystal Springs SNA on the off chance something is over wintering in the deep cut valley. With the spring feed I was sure open water would exist. The hike was good quality, but a nearby gravel pit seemed to have some serious noise going on today so the serenity of the hike was well broken. Nothing of great interested was found on this hike either.

I then figured I should get fresh State Park stickers for both vehicles so that I'll be ready for my State Park Big Year. I stopped at William O'Brien for the stickers and figured I'd take a look at the feeder station, but a county park shoveling crew was moving through the area and any potential birds had vacated the feeders.

Undaunted I headed south to Marine on St. Croix and drove a few city streets I have not been on before listening for oddities. I eventually found a historical marker for their oldest saw mill in the state. This property comes with a bit of space for an overlook of the river itself and is a spot to at least make note of for future efforts. I'd at least be able to stop into such a place for a quick look on spring migrations. A neighborhood walk up the hill also turned up some American Robins, Mourning Dove, and American Goldfinch at a feed station.

I continued working back down HWY 95 and found myself on Arcola Trail thinking about sparrows along this brushy stretch. I did however find a new to me public access location that is park of the National Scenic Riverway called Arcola Bluffs - Day Use Area.

With shoulder parking this hike in site has a nice mature forest that appears to have gotten an invasive removal effort. The trails were great and the view from the rivers edge was outstanding looking at the High Bridge railroad bridge over the river.

It was a really good hike that left me winded on the return coming up the bluff trail. I left a lot of trail space on the table so I'll have to be sure to find time in the future to hike more of this new space. (A fly over Common Redpoll flock was a nice bonus.)

I eventually met up with Peter Nichols at the Afton Marina as we looked over the large (100+) flock of Trumpeter Swans and mixed Canada Geese. The location is still supporting numbers of Common Goldeneye and Merganser. We enjoyed having some looks at a River Otter as well (pic on my Instagram) and even a Coyote walking on the ice way down river.

After some late lunch Pete and I drove to the Grey Cloud Gravel Pit and scoped looking for more day tics and possible rarities. We did pick up a Pied-billed Grebe and a Cackling Goose along with a bevy of other waterfowl continuing to be present. As some of the last lake water to freeze up this gravel pit has been an excellent stop.

We then ran by the Cedar Grove from the Bohemian spot the day before and looked for birds. I was hoping for Eastern Bluebird, but we settled for Townsend's Solitaire, Northern Flicker, and Yellow-Rumped Warbler (5) all being really nice birds for December.

The day had no plan when I began really, but even the general idea of Snowy Owl hunting was abandoned early due to fog. I rolled with it though and found some great hikes while investigating new spaces and expanding my knowledge of others. With the temp in the low 30's it was a great opportunity to get out and make the winter feel shorter just by being warm and staying out all day.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Bohemian Interrupted

My wife is an occasional birder that really seems to pick out a small group of birds she really loves and will from time to time ask me to bring her to one. The latest iteration of this game kicked up when a birder found a few Bohemian Waxwings as Lake Byllesby Regional Park in Dakota County. This is one of her favorite birds and we've only had a couple opportunities to see them and the one time we had 300 or 400 fly over us and exit just as we arrived at a prospective location. The other time we had prior reports of 150 on the north shore and found a single bird present with only mediocre optics to enjoy.

So we got up and snagged a Starbucks breakfast and started driving south for Point Douglas Park in Washington County first. (aiming for Long-tailed Duck and Glaucous Gull) We were about 5 miles out when a series of cell phone pings told me that something serious was happening. Greg Jahner had found and was still watching a Bohemian Waxwing in Washington County!! Melissa and I were also just 6 miles from that location. After a few seconds I knew we had to redirect with Greg noting he would stay on the bird for anyone coming to look.

I knew the cedar grove he was pointing us towards so it was a quick jaunt towards Grey Cloud Island. I found him setup on the shoulder of a relatively quiet road and we parked and zipped out of the car with Greg on the bird via scope. Seconds out of the car I had gotten Washington County year bird 242 for my big year and life time bird 252, edging me closer to county legend Tom Bell and his 253 listed in MOU records.

Top center bird. 

After a minute the entire flock of Cedar Waxwing and the Bohemian lifted and acted like they were going to exit. We thought at first a Northern Shrike had made a run at them as a bird landed on the tree top behind us. I looked up and found that it was a Townsend's Solitaire instead. (Two rarities within about 100' of each other!) The flock settled in though after a minute of watching them fly around and seeing the size difference of the 2 Waxwing species. Several birders came out very quickly to get this coveted bird including Kevin Manley, Pete Nichols, Larry Sirvio, Dana Sterner, Michael Sack, Bob Williams, and Gavin Anderson. This is the fun added part of birding, how often you see friends by accident, while we all go about our hobby in our own ways and converge on something really cool.

My wife and I then headed out and stopped at a few locations including Point Douglas and picked up really nice pictures of the Glaucous Gull I had found a week prior and the Long-tailed Duck that another birder found while looking for the Glaucous Gull. (Patagonia Picnic Table Effect.)

Glaucous Gull with Mallard photo bomb. 

With both of those nice rare birds on the list we did some county road driving in Dakota County looking for Snowy Owl or Snow Bunting, but came up empty. We got all the way down to Lake Byllesby Regional Park and though those Bohemian Waxwing were not present we did find 3 more Townsend's Solitaire, which was pretty cool.

We had a great day of birding together and picked up a number of birds Melissa had never seen and of course the Bohemian Waxwing she really wanted to see the most, just not the one we would have guessed.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The Unavoidable Slippery Slope

Given a competitive athletic background, coupled with years of compulsive collecting via sports cards, Magic the Gathering, stamps, coins, Magic the Gathering. (Yes, that last one happened twice.) I now find myself 6 years into bird watching, wrapping up a county big year (sitting at 241 species in Washington County, MN) and on the precipice of jumping in with both feet on a big year of personally found birds in the state parks of Minnesota. An adventure that will bring me to all corners of the state looking to explore the natural spaces while recording every bird I can find.

These adventures overlay a much deeper mania wanting to get out, but which I've so far kept at bay. LISTING. Easily the most terrifying word in the bird watchers dictionary in my opinion. It is impossible for some of us to just bird watch. Like many others, I record my efforts in eBird and also import a copy to the MOU (Minnesota Ornithologists Union) and pour over those records on a regular basis.

Every day it seems a new statistic stands out. Hey, I just saw a Pectoral Sandpiper in December, how does that compare to my previous late date? What is the latest all time record for the county, state, etc...

The MOU website takes this all to the extreme. With a short cut on my smart phone I can call up my December month list for species seen and look for the gaps. Many exist as it is my most under birded month due to holidays and family obligations. I began the month at just 55 or so species seen in the state in December and now on the 13th that is up to 72. Just 8 more and my name will pop up on the list of all birders with 80 or more for the month. I already appear in the other 11 month lists with the minimum required number of species. So I'll set out these last couple weeks to reel in more birds like Horned Lark, Barred Owl, and maybe those Bohemian Waxwings hanging out down in Dakota county.

Don't even get me started on what happens when you find your MOU section called 'Personal Monthly Checklists' and you realize how many days of the year you have birded and how many days are sitting at zero species still, just begging you to bird watch on December 17th. Or even worse, the days missing listing that will show which days of the year you don't have a particular species. My top is Black-capped Chickadee with 309, yep just a scant 56 days left and I'll have a Chickadee recorded for every day of the year. (American Crow is close with 293.)

So all that sliced and diced data is available just by putting in your bird watching outings. Then when you dig into it you find a rabbit hole so deep you might never get out. I can't decide if that is good or bad. I'm going with good as it does make you pick at the edges of what is possible, it makes you think about birding differently and it can make every single species 'count' again. That lingering Common Grackle might be a month bird, or a day bird. What's that? Put up 45 species on an unseasonably warm winter day, might be a record for the county. Better check that out. (I personally have set 6 single day MOU month records this year for Washington County and one for Dakota County) I do love a big day that's for sure.

My state park big year will undoubtedly put me on the edge of a county listing adventure in the future. Gotta color in that county/state map, since eBird gives you a nice pretty one with shades for number of species seen. I know some other birders that county list and they seem to have functional lives so maybe it will all be alright. Maybe all this data is really just encouragement to get out and enjoy the birds more, appreciate their resilience and understand their lives better.

So for now, I'm a Washington County lister (251 lifetime), a future State Park lister, and then just a dude that keeps an eye on month lists, adjacent county lists, season lists, day lists, and personal early and late dates. I've no doubt that will all change in the future, but it's all good. As long as I go outside, enjoy the moment, and record birds I don't think any of it is right or wrong. I just really love this hobby and the numbers is another way to extend that fun.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Accidental Day & Intentional Gull

I got up early this morning (just after sunrise) thinking I would make a hiking effort for Crossbills in Pine Point park north of Stillwater. With breakfast plans I had a couple hours to hike and see about potential crossbills. It was a nice morning with little wind and high 20's for temp. Out of the gate both Red and White Breasted Nuthatch were present as I expected for this location. Not longer after starting I was happy to find my first December Brown Creeper. (4 of them in fact.)

It would seem the longer you bird watch the more you begin to pick up on the counting off-shoots and month listing has been a fun way to motivate myself for more regular outings. It also forces you to think deeper about where to find niche birds that are overwintering. My birding in December has always been very thin with the holidays and little interesting me so late in the year.

I continued on my hike listening for Crossbill calls, but mostly just picking up on a few woodpecker species and a lingering American Robin. I eventually wrapped things up and headed back to town for a dating anniversary breakfast at the Caribou Coffee that my wife and I had our first date in 17 years ago.

After this late breakfast I returned to the road thinking I might work for gulls again with the cold likely to continue to concentrate birds near the water. Afton Marina was my first stop and it continued to show 100+ Trumpeter Swan as well as Greater Scaup, Hooded Merganser, and the expected Common Goldeneye and Common Merganser. No gulls were present, though I figured south to Point Douglas was likely to have something.

I stopped first at Carpenter Nature center wondering what might show itself near the feeders as I added some easy birds. I briefly thought I spotted a Swamp Sparrow, but the shadows of a brushy patch later showed it was an American Tree Sparrow.

I quickly headed further south to Point Douglas, with my eye on the clock and thinking I needed to get another look at Grey Cloud Island Gravel Pit. I rolled into Point Douglas though and saw the ice had extended a lot since the day before bringing birds much closer to shore for viewing. I had pulled into a parking spot and spied a large white bird circling over the water. What caught my eye was the size. At first I thought it would be very strange location for a Snowy Owl to be flying, that is how large the gull appeared to be. I jumped out of the car without even turning the ignition off, bins in hand. I locked onto a large gull with snow white wing tips wheeling about over the open water. I knew immediately based on size and color that I had finally found a Glaucous Gull on my own and for the first time in Washington County. I watched the bird gain elevation and then arc over the bridge and eventually the rail bridge heading south. At the time it didn't even occur to me that I might jump over to Prescott and maybe see the bird working the Dakota County waters. I was able to get a phone message into Pete Nichols and other alerts went out to a county short list.

I though seemed to be driven to continue to other locations, still thinking about the Pectoral Sandpiper that had been found by Alex Sundvall and Liz Harper the day prior at the Gravel Pit. I liked the idea of snagging this bird in December knowing my personal latest ever was unlikely to have been much past mid-September. (September 23) First though I didn't want to waste the trip and stopped by Lock and Dam 3 to look at the sandbar area that is on the Washington County side of the Mississippi River. An ice shelf in front of the marina was present and with it a small host of gulls.

It's been fun to see the massive shift in gulls as just a few weeks back we had 1000's of Ring-billed Gulls with a handful of Herring Gulls. (...and a Black-legged Kitiwake), but now that cold was setting in harder the Ring-billed have all, but exited the county south and the Herring Gulls dominate in numbers. The ice shelf had a nice bonus though, an outstanding heavily marked Iceland Gull (Thayer's) type. This gull was very smudged on the head and neck with a nice dark eye. In the light it also showed a shade darker mantle than an adjacent Herring Gull, not to mention the obvious size difference. What a great bird to see and study and have all the key characteristics. This bird would apparently soon lift off as Bob Dunlap would make an attempt not much later to find it for a county tic. (I later found out though that Pete, Bob, and others had gotten to Point Douglas and instead of a Glaucous coming back around would find another Iceland (Thayer's) present so he got the tic anyway.

I was already well entrenched at Grey Cloud Gravel pit for my 2 hour scoping session. The light was perfect for once at this very tricky location and I was able to pull out birds from crazy distance with my Swarovski scope. It was the closer range though that really sung today as I was able to pull in several December tics on a wicked good waterfowl day.

Waterfowl and others I pulled out on my 24 species list for this location...
Northern Shoveler, Green-winged Teal, Redhead, Gadwall, American Wigeon, American Coot, Pied-billed Grebe, Ruddy Duck, American Black Duck (another county tic for Bob Dunlap as he came out and I was able to scope him a look), Ring-necked Duck, Northern Flicker, and yes I even got the Pectoral Sandpiper with some pictures. Pete came out after a bit and we were able to get him on all the key birds as well.

The biggest bummer of the day was Pete losing his bins sometime between Point Douglas and Prescott Marina. Hoping they find their way back to him somehow...

As noted earlier I stayed for 2 hours picking out birds at the gravel pit and still feel like that was rushed. The light offered so much that it was impossible to be completely thorough with the thousands present in the furthest reaches of the massive pool.

I say it was an accidental day as I had no real plans at the start and really just wanted a good morning hike and then breakfast with my wife. It turned into my county year bird 241 (Glaucous Gull) and county life bird 251; then when I got home and was about to head out for a Target run I did the numbers on day count and found I had blown past the county record. On the road to Target I picked up Wild Turkey and eventually a few European Starling. This put me at 47, adding 11 to the record Pete had set the day before. This really was all Gravel Pit to be honest. I just wanted to see the Pectoral Sandpiper in December and the ducks wouldn't stop revealing themselves. All total I had 12 species at the Gravel Pit that I did not have anywhere else on the day. Prior to that I hadn't even thought about my day total, I was just looking to get some good birds and maybe find myself another gull for the big year effort.

You just never know what you are going to find when you dig into the open water spaces as the last of them begin to freeze over. The concentration of ducks and gulls on these spaces really can be amazing.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Wants and Needs

Getting up today I wanted to go to the MOU paper sessions. This once a year event brings birders and ornithologists together for awards and most importantly scientific presentations on research efforts, studies, and more.

Backing up to a week of work I was constantly pounded all week due to being the only team member on my team. We are at below skeleton crew now and my last day was spent on the phone for 6 hours working on high priority efforts that forced me to work through my entire lunch hour. I finished the week mentally exhausted and just not feeling I could take an entire day at the paper sessions trying to focus on educational materials.

I opted out by sleeping in by a whole hour (up at 7AM) grabbing Starbucks for the wife and I and then running a county birding circuit. My December birding is historically weak so I thought I'd take advantage of the unseasonably warm weather and complete lack of wind.

I hit White Bear Lake finding some open water mixed with plenty of ice. Of note were some Common Goldeneye and just some standard neighborhood birds. I contemplated Forest Lake, but didn't want to climb that far north and instead opted for Big Marine Park. I arrived figuring on a wide open lake, but was actually met with just fingers of open water with thin ice flows. At first it appeared no birds were on the water, but I eventually spotted both Common Merganser and Common Goldeneye. About ready to take a hike I scanned with my bins another section of water and found my first ever December Common Loon. What a great tic for bird many believe is just a summer fixture. I've now seen Loon in 10 of 12 months, missing just January and February. Moments later 4 chattering birds flew over the parking lot and landed right in some cattails. I was hopeful for something exciting, but they turned out to be House Sparrows. Though I quickly realized that was my 12th tic for House Sparrow giving me all months in the year. I can't explain why I hadn't seen them in December up to this point other than I really don't bird much in December I guess. (They are my 29th species seen in all 12 months of the year, which will be number 30? Not sure, but I have several close with just a single month missing. Though some easy birds like Common Raven await in my big year next year in the State Parks.)

I checked in at Pine Point Park looking for Crossbills, but left with Red-breasted Nuthatch. I drove by the lake that had 64 Trumpeter Swan only a week or so prior, but the water was all ice this time. I eventually made my way down to Stillwater (nothing exciting) then to Bayport looking at river access and stopped at the poorly named Lakeside Park (it is on the river) only finding Ring-billed Gulls and Canada Geese. I eventually got to the Afton Marina looking for a Pied-billed Grebe I saw a day or so back, but was not able to find the bird. I hiked a couple spots at Afton State Park, but crashed out missing most of my target birds and being woefully out of position to see what a murder of 50+ crows was harassing. Great weather though so the hiking was the reward and a great mental recharge after that week of work.

I stopped in at Carpenter Nature Center looking for day adds and found Cedar Waxwing cooperative, but little else. Again hoping for a Red-winged Blackbird that Pete Nichols and I had the other day. Point Douglas actually produced a female Hooded Merganser snoozing by some ice for a quality day bird and also some really need water covered ice sheets. I recorded a video and posted to my Instagram @hj70ft for those interested. The metallic wave action was pretty neat.

I then checked the sandbar also hoping the November Cormorants would be around, but they seem to have gone south now. The gulls lounging were all Ring-billed and I quickly moved on to Hazen Mooers open space near Grey Cloud Island after making lunch plans with the wife. Hazen was promising with ice and open water with plenty of gulls hanging around. My hopes for a Bufflehead hanging around were dashed as well, but at least some Herring Gulls made sure it was not a wash for a spot check.

After lunch I made sure to check Lake Elmo Park and found nothing on the water and little else in the park on a short hike. I eventually was able to add American Tree Sparrow on the day while driving near the group camp. A location I call sparrow corner for the quality sparrow species that enjoy this location at the right times of the year.

All total I picked up 29 species on the day and 2 month tics. Most of all I took care of a need. I had to get out and breath the fresh air, hike a bit, and recharge after a grinding week on the phone working on complex technology solutions.

No doubt MOU paper sessions were probably the best thing happening today, but I really needed the out doors.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Thankful for BLKI

So going back to Wednesday just before Thanksgiving I was on a southern county birding circuit with Peter Nichols and Greg Jahner looking for ducks and gulls. During this period we were alerted via the MOU listserv that Gavin Anderson had spotted an interesting gull he surmised might be Sabine's Gull while driving over the Hastings bridge. We were already heading to this location to view the sandbar and lock & dam areas so we kept our eyes open for any potential rarity, but found nothing of the sort. Kevin Smith also happened upon us interested in looking for the potential bird. He was on his way to work and we all parted ways soon enough. Later we also scouted Hazen P. Mooers open space which is just up river from the lock and dam. We found many gulls, but nothing on the order of Sabine's Gull.

Fast forward past the Thanksgiving holiday loaded with an awesome meal from my parents in Wisconsin and a new report surfaced on the next day.

Karl Isley of Cottage Grove wrote down a detailed account of a bird he viewed for 20 minutes on the ice at Hazen. His description had Pete encouraging him to post Black-legged Kitiwake via eBird for review and to start getting the word out about such a rarity in Washington County.

A few of us chatted on Messenger and I noted I'd be on site by sunrise looking to work for the bird all day if necessary. I arrived as promised with a Starbucks iced tea in hand to keep me alert. A couple other birders that had seen the eBird report were also present and I was aware of Liz Harper and Alex Sundvall having abandoned an in progress Duluth birding effort to arrive in Hastings for the potential bird.

Eventually Gavin Anderson showed up also hoping to see the bird he likely had seen over the Hastings bridge a few days prior. A number of us figured his initial id while driving was pretty close for a juvenile Kitiwake which would indicate the bird may have been around for several days in the area. This stretch of river is pretty massive with many backwater roost sites and feeding zones.

Fortune smiled though as the warm weather did leave a nice close ring of ice for daytime preening and resting of gulls. As our numbers swelled to about a dozen Liz and Alex arrived and attention turned from the ice ring to the bulk of Mooers lake. Roughly 2,000 mixed gulls sat on the water and amazingly Liz pulled out the first sighting of the day of the Kitiwake. It was a good distance out, but was unmistakable with a dark collar and bold black markings on the wings and head.

Updates began on social media platforms and the chase was on for many birders. Josh Wallestad came in from 2.5 hours away to snag this life bird. I'm sure he will relate the details of his adventure in his blog soon. I quickly saw 2 dozen friends and other birders stream in from all parts of the metro looking to add the bird now that it has been refound.

In total I spent about 5 hours at Hazen hunting or helping others get on this wonderful bird. I even had a great opportunity to finally meet county birding legend Bill Litkey and talk with him. It was fun to hear he had seen my name popping up a lot this year and asked me some questions about my birding at Big Marine Park/Lake. I shared as many details as I could with him and he listened eagerly asking questions about my access points. It was great to think I might have added something to his knowledge of the county as I know he has helped my birding success greatly this year.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Yellow Flags are Good

With an extra day of vacation before the holiday we got the band back together. Peter Nichols, Greg Jahner, and myself agreed to make an effort for Townsend's Solitaire together and then find any other birds we could on the day.

We happened upon Michael Mann and his young son out birding as well and they came along as we hiked out to the spot I had recon'd a couple days earlier based on the eBird report from Pam Albin. Needless to say it was a quick effort. We hadn't arrived at the location more than 2 minutes prior and heard call notes coming from just around the corner. We moved maybe 60' and 2 Townsend's quickly showed at eye level. This flagged pair for relative rarity was the first time I've seen more than one of the species at the same time. We lingered long enough for a few quick snaps/looks and left the Manns to try for better pictures and figured we saved a ton of time and could spend that looking for rare gulls or ducks.

After hiking less than 100 yards back out a gray bird flew just above our heads and landed in a Cedar tree. Without bins I was able to identify it as a Gray Catbird. Just a little bit out of it's normal time range. For me this eBird flagged bird was my latest since an October 9th sighting a few years back. It is not often you get to extend your latest date for a migrant species by over a month. This evening doing some research I found out based on MOU records only 2 other records are later for Gray Catbird in county history. Pretty sweet add to the list and a very nice November tic as well.

After the hike out we started hitting open water looking for something rare. That never really materialized as we checked out the Lock and Dam #2 area, Hazen Mooers Park, Grey Cloud Gravel Pit, and later Pete and I added Lake Elmo together. I even added some hike time at Bayport power plant hoping for some gulls while Pete checked the Afton Marina. Though we didn't turn up anything serious we did find a really solid count (~20) of Herring Gull at Hazen. This at least tells us that gull numbers are shifting rapidly with the cooler weather icing over key areas to the north.

You can't find rarities if you don't look and these open water routes late in the year are a great way to get familiar with your local area and see fluctuations in gull/duck populations. Knowing what bodies of water are largest, deepest, or spring fed will aid in knowing which will ice up last and present a great opportunity for water birds.

It was a great day of birding especially since we got our target birds right away and added a very out of season Catbird.

Monday, November 20, 2017

County Big Year 2017 - Townsend's Solitaire - #239

Over this last weekend I was able to add a couple county year birds (Northern Pintail & Iceland Gull) thanks to direct shares from friends Greg Jahner and Peter Nichols respectively. This was a nice bonus after running several weeks of northern county routes looking for and finding Scoters, Long- tailed Duck, a couple owl species. It can't be said enough that a big year is impossible to maximize without friends and the willingness of others to report and share birds.

As fortune would have it another excellent species was reported by Pam Albin via eBird over the weekend also. A pair of Townsend's Solitaire reported at Afton State Park. The same general area that a few of us found one last winter.

I jumped at the chance after work tonight to try and track down this species to add to my year list. I have actually already done a couple of routes looking for Townsend's already this fall at Afton so the area was familiar that would be the most productive. I had a few segments in mind I knew to be most likely to produce Solitaire feeding on Cedar berries. As I walked down a path I heard some warbling chatter that sounded good and stumbled through a pine stand to a clearing and promptly bumped a group of 4 Ring-necked Pheasant. At the last second I noticed a bird fly up and over the tree line that looked to be the right size for Townsend's. I returned to the trail and moved up further, quickly finding a bird fly back over the stand I had just moved around. I began to hear the wonderful submarine type pings that Townsend's are well known for and knew I had the bird identified. After a few minutes of looking I realized the bird was popping along the very tops of the pines I was near.

I was able to get my camera on this bird a few times to get some documentary shots. One can be found on my Instagram account. (@hj70ft)

The Albin family should also be thanked for my county lifer Western Kingbird also in Afton State Park this spring. It's something what regular efforts in a specific location can produce. I think about my efforts at my preferred patch of Lake Elmo Regional Park this year alone. I've found some excellent species due to regular efforts to scour the entire park like...American & Least Bittern, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Henslow's Sparrow, Summer Tanager, White-winged Scoter, and Red Crossbill.

This has been a great year of birding in the county. Looking forward to trying to break the 240 barrier before the end of the year.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Washington County Big Year Update

These last two days a few things have peaked the radar. Fellow county birder Greg Jahner pinged a few friends that a Northern Pintail was present at the Grey Cloud Island Gravel Pit. This location is insanely productive, but about as non-viable as a spot gets for birding.

The very next morning at first light I found myself rolling over the small one lane bridge onto Grey Cloud Island. The gravel pit is down a serious slope and opens up in a large lake with a few sand bars. From the single viable roadside viewing point you have some serious distances with which to cope in order to view the entire area. Even then you will miss water zones with gravel equipment and small buildings littering the area. The depth of this man-made lake is impressive and is nearly always the very last piece of open water in the county besides fast moving river stretches or those immediately under large roadway bridges such as the bridge to Prescott, WI.

You set up scope from the road shoulder and have to look between some scraggly pine trees and often some remnants of tall grasses before seeing the gravel pit areas. The lake areas closest to you are often nearly impossible to see properly due to the sharp angles involved. My super power is often simply being 6'7" so setting my scope up as high as possible and then angling the eye piece down will allow me to scope with the objective lens well above my head. This proved advantageous since I eventually found a pair of Northern Pintail (County bird species #237 in 2017) preening on the shore almost hidden behind a small tan building and light pole. Friend Peter Nichols tried later in the day for these birds and was not able to find them. The light is also always working against you at this gravel pit with any sunlight at this time of year presenting impossible views. History is mixed at this sight as people used to be welcome to walk the ridge line and informational kiosks as still present on the entire stretch. Word is that a death on the property with a lawsuit ended such access for everyone not a worker at the sight. Extreme long term planning has this being part of a massive county park project, but that won't happen until such time that the gravel pit is closed to mining. It could be that even at the age of 41 I won't see such a thing come to pass in my lifetime.

Even with all that working against this location, it is a premium sight that with a solid scope and cooperating weather you need to check until it freezes. A day later all 3 of us were on sight hoping to get another sighting of the Northern Pintails for Peter Nichols and the light was even worse. At the far end of range hundreds of gulls lounged and even my top scope was worthless to verify anything beyond many Ring-billed Gulls and a handful of larger gulls being present. (Likely Herring.)

Earlier though today I was in the southern portion of the county actually looking for Iceland (Thayer's) Gull. Peter had found one lounging on the sandbar just down from the Lock and Dam #3 the previous day while I was on yet another northern lake circuit looking for sea ducks. This sandbar is squarely within Washington County and viewable at reasonable range from Dakota County using the boat launch parking lot. When I arrived I could see 6 Double-crested Cormorant and easily 75 gulls on the sandbar area. After several minutes I was able to pick out a bird that looked good for Thayer's/Iceland Gull.

This is pretty much where I reach the limit of my current skillset. Iceland Gull, especially in the Thayer's end of the spectrum is like reading tea leaves some days when trying to separate them from Herring Gull. This bird was adult in plumage had legs that seemed bright enough pink, had a moderate amount of mottled head and neck feathers and from a size standpoint was a closer match to the surrounding Ring-billed Gulls than would be expected from a Herring Gull. The one piece that didn't land very well was the lighter colored eye, though I did note the eye area wasn't a clear bright yellow, and was more dusky. While still studying for my initial thoughts on this bird it lifted and flew off towards the lock and dam to join the typical gull tornado that churns around the dam spillways. Minutes later a bird came in I had hoped was it, but turned out to be an easy Herring Gull with a more severe look, brighter eye, paler pink legs and large bulky head.

So I stood thinking to myself about the 2 birds. I know for certain the second is Herring and have zero doubts. Then I have the first bird that matches the details Peter related from a prior day sighting. So where does that leave a person? We are told often to not make gull identifications on single details. I used at least 4 and I know Pete did the same or more on his bird the day before. I really wanted a longer look at this bird so I could look more closely (70x zoom) to see about the underside tucked wings and the paleness they may show for Thayer's/Iceland. I also would have liked a bit of flight time with the bird to watch it in the air instead of it lifting when I looked away and then realizing it was out of my view. With the amount I have been out birding and plan to be looking for rare gulls I'm certain that another Iceland (Thayer's) will show up and I'll have ample observation time. This one is simply the first I've seen this year and it matters only personally as it is species number 238 in 2017 for Washington County. For the time being I'm comfortable with calling this bird an Iceland Gull (Thayer's), but hold no delusions that I'm infallible. In this, the most challenging bird category we have in the state it very well could have been a petite female Herring Gull, but for my experience level and the effort put into the bird I will leave it with my initial identification.

Gulls are hard people. Do your best, do your homework, and be open to being wrong.

I later found out that another bird is on the radar that I've been looking for a couple of times. A report came in from Afton of Townsend's Solitaire. (P Albin) I'll be making this bird a priority for the next week and trying to fit efforts in around work and Thanksgiving Holiday. That one represents #239 and I think with it being deep into November such a bird could be on wintering grounds using cedar trees for feeding. That to me gives it a good chance of being re-found at some point and coupled with a personal find in the same park last year with Peter Nichols and David Adair I think it's a strong possible add to the big year.

I really didn't think 240 was possible in a single year in the County, but here we are in crunch time just 2 species away from such a lofty county number. All my free birding time will be dedicated to pulling in those couple extra birds. It is a game of diminishing returns on adding new species, but it is a wonderful journey to explore a finite area to the absolute maximum possible to try and squeeze out every possible bird species.

I see hunts for White-Winged Crossbill, Glaucous Gull, Townsend's Solitaire, Varied Thrush, Black Scoter, Harlequin Duck, and potentially some type of dark mantled gull (Lesser/Greater Black-backed) all being viable searches. Maybe with the type of finch irruption happening also targeted efforts for things like Bohemian Waxwing and Pine Grosbeak wouldn't be out of the question. We have seldom visited winter spaces begging to be investigated if a good snow pack and freeze will allow before the end of year. I have my eye on some sights that need the core hunting seasons to close out first as well before I can look at snow shoeing in for a look. (Again assuming we get some kind of snow pack.)

Thursday, November 16, 2017

App Listed, Quick Forays and Lots of Thinking

A week or so back I asked fellow birder and application developer Richard Hoeg if this blog could be added to the Minnesota Birding News app he designed and released for Android and Apple devices. Richard kindly did so and I'm happy to welcome any new readers and hope that in the next year I can add something to your birding and personal adventures into the outdoors. Especially with my plans to visit every State Park in MN during 2018 while blogging, tweeting, and instagraming every moment I can.

General Birding:

Including tonight I've had short outings recently after work before it gets to dark. Last night with a family birthday to attend I checked out a gull spot near Stillwater and found it to be a wind blown beast coming out of the north right down the St. Croix River. Undaunted I reached the furthest point of a sandbar and found a large raft of gulls bobbing up and down on the river all pointed head first into the wind. It was apparent that roughly 200 Ring-billed Gulls really don't care about cold and wind while sitting in 33 degree water.

I dutifully scanned the entire group and found one man-child of a juvenile Herring Gull (below) sitting amongst them looking out of place as it regularly would lift a foot or two off the water and plunge head first looking to snag an easy bait fish. This location presents warm water outflow from the nearby power plant and the gulls all seemed to be setup on the transition point between the cold river water and the relatively warm outflow water. (Perhaps because the same is true of the fish?)

Additionally a few Common Goldeneye were making the rounds as a large flock of Mallards worked the shallows. Nothing revolutionary, but the effort for me is one aimed at exploring deeper the potential in gull haunts at this time of year and looking to get a feel for when the Ring-billed Gulls fully exit south and what heartier northern gulls fill in behind them. I have historically been a rather limited winter birder, but with the big year in Washington County on going I've been keen to use it as a learning experience in all facets of skillset.

Working from home today I immediately went north after work and tried to tap the vein that is Big Marine Park and Lake yet again. I found the lake opened fully up, but scant few birds on the water. (1 Common Loon, 1 Common Merganser) Perhaps duck hunting during the morning and day time limited the ducks appetite for hanging around this generally very productive body of water. With time to spare I found myself on a hike hoping for something fun and soon found a foraging flock of Common Redpoll (25) at the tops of a few Birch Trees. Limited numbers are this far south right now, but I have found Redpoll 3 times now and it's fun to soak in such a bird since they don't always irrupt this far south.

2018 Big Year Planning:

Last night I worked up my list of park locations with Fire Towers, Waterfalls, and special scenic views. (Though I found the last list to be lacking on the DNR website as I didn't see anything listed for Split Rock Lighthouse SP or Tettegouche SP, and I know them both to have amazing views of the lake shore that should easily make the list of views not to be missed.)

I'm attempting to weave in these additional sights or activities to my birding focused efforts so they add to the experience and adventure of it all.

I've started to think about some of my tech device stack that will be coming with me on these outings and I'll need to work on a few bits before the new year and have them squared away.

Phone Apps: It would be good for metrics to make sure I've got a better GPS tracking app that can give me accurate distance measures of areas hiked. The eBird app has added this feature on Android, but I've found it to be way to aggressive in distance and often providing a reading of 4 miles when I know for a fact the distance covered was only 1.5 or 2. Shouldn't be to hard to track down something, though I do wish Google hadn't deprecated their Google Tracks as that worked perfect and even synced to your Google Cloud account.

Phone Power: Given some of my goals I'm wondering if I need to track down a battery piggyback of some kind that can give me extended juice for long hikes and outings away from the car. My Samsung Galaxy S7 is limited due to having an internal battery, something that irritates me a bit as prior versions allowed battery swapping.

Video: I'm still debating heavily if I want to go after a GoPro Camera and record video segments on these adventures and pull together a YouTube channel that could accompany this big year. My desires probably outweigh my actual ability to put everything into this big year, but I do like the notion of going that deep in the tank for content to provide a unique perspective on such a year.

Camera: I suppose it is possible I could just record video segments on my Nikon P900 and use those for any type of situation where I want to provide additional content for the experience. That would be more deliberate and hand held though and limit birding efforts over a GoPro that would be head mounted. I should probably stay clear of the GoPro though as I'm already a walking ad for Cabela's with my gear, optics, and electronics on me while birding.

So much to think about. Must remember to enjoy the ride and find adventure at every corner.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Short Window of Light gets me Thinking

I ran out to Lake Elmo park quickly after work (4PM) knowing that sundown comes so quickly that I'd barely have more than an hour to checkout to the lake and try to get a good walk completed. I quickly found an odd single Tundra Swan sitting in the middle of the lake. Still present were 9 Pied-billed Grebe and my night list had scant few other birds as the sun chased quickly to the West.

While I was hiking though I thought to myself that I should harness the darkness or at least waning light during my big year and remember to find time for Short-Eared Owl hunts and related night calling owls.

Basically need to put myself in position to listen at night in some strategic locations for owls calling. Instead of trying to get out of the park before dark I should remember to linger and give myself a chance to sit and listen. I'll have to look at some range maps and figure out timings on best night sessions for some key locations.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Sea Duck Unstoppable

I continued over the weekend hunting for sea ducks to add to my Washington County big year list. On Sunday I got up before sunrise and got to White Bear Lake (Mahtomedi Beach) in time for first light. I found some waterfowl present on a mostly ice free lake, but nothing of great interest. I then ran up to Forest Lake and found it 80 or 90 percent iced over. I did find that with my scope I could see the edge of the ice and made out several species present, but again nothing new for the year listing.

I then shot over to Big Marine Park and found open water visible at close and long range. I soon found that duck hunters had set up near the boat launch and on the distant island in key positions. This I figured would limit any value I might extract, but I was soon proven wrong. After pulling out some near birds of interest I noted a single bird overhead calling repeatedly. Though not visible the park was quiet enough to hear the bird very well. It was my first American Pipet of the year and county life bird 249. I tried very hard to find this bird in spring and fall near proper habitats, but nothing worked and then it just flies over me standing on a beach looking at a half frozen lake in November. Birding can be very odd like that and having a great ear can help you pull in extra species that you would otherwise miss. I also heard Red-breasted Nuthatch about this time and figured I had my best birds of the day.

I trained by scope on the island area in spite of the hunters and realized that out from their decoys was actually 4 diving ducks. One I could tell was a female Canvasback duck and another I could tell for sure was the previously reported (by me) White-Winged Scoter still present on the lake. The other 2 though seemed odd to me and the birds were just about to heat shimmer zone and near impossible to know for certain. What I did know is that I couldn't immediately ascribe them to species and that always peaks my curiosity. I stayed on 1 of the 2 birds for a long while thinking maybe Long-tailed Duck based on size and color pattern. At this point a duck hunter wanted to stir the pot a little and zoomed around the island in an extended arc chopping ice flows and getting any ducks up in the air. I followed one bird with my scope and it went behind the 1 mile out island and I picked it up on the other side as it began to arc closer to my position. Once the bird settled in to a spit of open water it was finally inside heat shimmer range and I was sure Long-tailed Duck was the id for this bird. I stayed on that bird with my scope for over an hour after sending word to Pete Nichols that I had found another sea duck on Big Marine Lake (3rd species this year) and added a 2nd bird on the same list for my Washington County year total.

I eventually headed home with the plan to lunch and maybe bird some more. I soon found out I was already at 39 species for the day after adding 3 more on the drive home (RTHA, WITU, and MODO) and that put me just 3 off my own November record for the county.

I had a lunch with my wife and soon jetted off to the Hastings Sandbar down from the Lock and Dam #3 to see about some birds and added Double-crested Cormorant. I missed American White Pelican, but moved to Point Douglas Park hoping for something else new and missed also. Carpenter Nature Center was just a few minutes away though and I quickly broke the record by adding some easy birds like Dark-eyed Junco, Downy Woodpecker, and Red-bellied Woodpecker. To add extra value I spotted a lingering Northern Flicker. I had been chatting with Pete and scheduled a stop at his place and also rapidly added Pine Siskin (a November first for me), Purple Finch, and White-Throated Sparrow. So running up the total I finished with 49 on the day and broke my prior record by 7.

Worth noting that none of the above even relates the fun I had while out looking for possible Townsend's Solitaire at several different locations and finding instead 4 Long-Eared Owls. One of the coolest personal finds yet and in a location I'm sure nobody has find them before. Birding always presents wonderful surprises.

In the evening I worked on my big year schedule for the State Parks, adding locations for the months of February and March. My strategy is to focus effort in the areas of the state most likely to produce unique situations...

1. January/February: Work for northern species likely down from the far north for the winter like Redpoll, Pine Grosbeak, etc... Also plan to hit the south-east in order to have a small chance at Golden Eagle.
2. Late February/March: Depending on how quick spring comes I know that Geese, Swan, and some waterfowl will start moving in February, but most certainly in early March. That will focus efforts in the west and south-west to put me on quality fly over territory so I can snag Greater White-fronted, Snow Goose, Ross's, etc...

I'll fill in the early months with some local trips or slightly northern trips in hopes of snagging something hiding out like an overwintering owl or maybe a northern species that has dropped farther south. This would be places along the St. Croix river like St. Croix SP, Interstate, etc...

Deep into November already and I'm getting antsy to get out and start this big year. I need to settle my official tracking plans a bit as I'm still not sure if I want to bother with the hiking club or passport club items. I like the concepts a lot, but I don't like being tied down to those goals as they aren't really my own goals. I'll have to see how I feel this coming month and decide on 1 or both. My main concern on hiking club is that some trails are not as winter friendly as I'd like so the ability to finish it in a single year (not the design of the program) may not be viable for me.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Scoter Finds and January Plans

Trying to get out every day if possible in the county for open water checks looking for sea ducks I picked up a second sighting of White-winged Scoter at Big Marine. Likely the same bird I found a week or so prior at this location. I pinged the Washington County crew and Bob Dunlap motored up to get the bird (his 240th) for his county list. The lake also still had 2 Common Loon present and Common Goldeneye and Ring-necked Ducks as well. I also had a couple Rusty Blackbird fly over me at one point which was a nice collection of birds for November 8th.

Of greater import is planning this evening for the big year. I started to hone in on locations for January looking to get out for distance trips 3 of the 4 weekends and on New Years day to really get things going quickly. Any other month time frames I'll try to snag some quick trips to Afton, William O'Brien, or Fort Snelling I think.

New Years Day: (1 of 2 plans to be executed...Full hiking day at Jay Cooke using a couple different trails or just a quick Jay Cooke effort and then also hit Moose Lake and Banning on the return trip doing some type of drive in and short hike/snowshoe effort.)

January 6th weekend: Carley and Whitewater, basically my winter options for getting to the SouthEast and thinking that they provide some small measure of Golden Eagle sighting. I'd be happy at this point if such a thing happened outside of the parks themselves as I've never seen one before.

January 13th weekend: McCarthy Beach and Scenic, I realized anything in eBird for winter is almost non-existent. I don't see that many attempt to bird in the State Parks over the winter, especially the further flung ones. In my case I will need to look at the adventure as, birds are bonus, and the scenery and hike is the important part of the adventure.

January 27th weekend: Crow Wing and Cuyuna Country SRA at least provide something central and north of the cities. Again scant evidence of birds to be seen at these places. One set of eBird reports represented the bulk of any Jan/Feb eBird efforts, but all 4 were 30mins each day from a window. So really nobody has hiked some of these places for the purpose of bird watching in the winter.

This would give 7 to 9 locations in January, which would be on or above pace for a full year spread. Considering my plans for May this would be a great start and provide plenty of blog fodder and winter photo ops. Additionally, what good is an adventure I knew what to expect where ever I went.

I like the idea of something North Shore to start off February and see the lake, maybe frozen over or something. We have started very cold in the state so far, but maybe we will hit a warm spell and keep a bay or two open for some interesting North Shore birding between the parks.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Of Shrikes and Owl Hunts

So this fall I've stumbled upon 10 Northern Shrike in the county since they returned around mid-October. It seems about everywhere I go I run into a Northern Shrike to add to the list. This evening I biked out to some remote prairie space looking for potential owl roosts in some isolated groves without much luck. The Northern Shrike I found was a nice consolation though as it perched high on a hill in a tall tree. The nearby European Starlings and Red-bellied Woodpeckers didn't seem real impressed or worried though.

I have done my research for potential Owl territory using Google Maps and then the Washington County property viewer to determine which land areas are inside public access park locations at the County and City levels. A spot I had tracked down last year and visited a few times has now provided both Northern Saw-whet (my find) and Long-eared Owl (a friends find). It is good to see a find like this spot producing as it demonstrates an advancement of skills in understanding where certain owl types prefer to roost.

I continue to work on my skills in the Eastern Screech Owl category as I'm still without one in Washington County. Additionally I'll begin searching for Snowy Owl in the county as one was reported off handed in the county in the last week and I see tonight someone eBird reported one from Dakota County.

Planning continues on the SP Big Year as I'm spending some cycles trying to figure out phase 1 at the New Year. Basically what can I expect for hiking/snow-shoeing at a few parks to the north on New Years Day.

I'm debating a full day effort at a place like Jay Cooke vs a strategy of visiting 3 parks in that span just to get a visit in and maybe car bird plus parking lot and road hike to see what is stirring. It may bear fruit to keep an eye on the plowed roads if they get the salt treatment to look for Crossbills right off the bat. (Also Snow Bunting, Redpolls, etc...)

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Accidental Big Days

With a solo noon to dark day on Saturday I was able to cobble together 38 species in Washington county while looking for new year birds to add to the list. This involved a lake circuit in the northern half of the county and had me finding my second White-winged Scoter (Big Marine Lake) of the year in the county (also Common Redpolls) and later while scoping Eagle Point Lake at Lake Elmo Park I was viewing a couple (FOF) Common Goldeneye and Lesser Scaup when a unique call was heard above me. Coming right over me from across the small lake were 5 birds flying together in a chaotic group weaving up and down and across each other. Knowing in a sense what I don't know I identified them as Red Crossbills (County Lifer 248) for their size, call notes, and flight characteristics. All of which didn't match anything I typically could expect to see at this time of year.

I tried in vane to run them down to some pine/spruce trees back closer to the parking area, but I'm confident in the identification even though it was a short fly over. This time of year nothing else could possibly match them for size, flight, calls. Later at home I listened to call notes of the many types of Crossbill and figured them to be the huskier voiced Type 2.

All of this happened while another friend was able to put Peter Nichols on a Northern Saw-whet owl at Carpenter Nature Center. (A bird I had also found myself the day before at a different location.) The owl put Peter up to 234 county species on the year and me lagging by 1 again in our year long cooperative competition for high species count. Then with the Crossbills coming over top of me I was quickly back into a preferred tie with him with 234. Preferred because I'm not sure either of use wants to actually end with a higher number than the other at this point. What an exciting year for both of us in Washington County though to be able to put up so many species and continually work together and with other birding friends to see how big the year can get for us both.

With that in mind we both planned to meet at Carpenter in the morning on Sunday (11/5) in hopes of catching good winds and a potential Golden Eagle flight.

I arrived with the time change added sleep at 8AM at Carpenter with a lot of wind and plenty of chill to go around. Layered deep with thermals I setup on the walkway facing north.

I spent about an hour and half on the property alone watching morning flight and picking my way around the grounds looking to add day birds. (I had already picked up a mega flock (100+) of Lapland Longspurs and Northern Shrike prior to entering the property so I was keenly aware of the numbers thinking that if Carpenter went well I should go for 41 and break the November record for the county. Fortune rolled early as a large flock of mixed blackbirds rested in some trees nearby giving me Red-winged Blackbird, Rusty Blackbird, Starling, and Common Grackle. Though no Golden Eagles came in the early morning or after Peter arrived we had plenty of species come over that were the only ones seen on the day. (Eastern Bluebird fly over, House Finch, American Goldfinch, Golden-crowned Kinglet, and Sharp-shinned Hawk.)

The winds never really cooperated and seemed to pull around in such a way as to negate the quality St. Croix River flight we had hoped for the day before. We exited and left my car behind as Pete offered to drive a quick circuit and see what we could pick up while keeping an eye on the sky for possible Golden Eagle. The lock and damn area with Washington on the far shore offered up our only looks at American White Pelican and Double-crested Cormorant. We then drove an agriculture dirt road circuit back to Carpenter hoping to pick up a lingering American Kestrel or any of a number of other potential species, but had to settle for a good look at Rough-legged Hawk and a small group of Mourning Doves.

I then set off on my own again to look at a few other key locations before heading north again. I was able to find a few Hooded Merganser at Hazen Mooers and had a duck flying away from me that was likely a Common Goldeneye, but it was distant enough and moving away from me that I couldn't call it to species with any confidence.

Peter had pinged me that he was still seeing Purple Finch, Brown Creeper, and White-throated Sparrow at his place knowing I was unlikely to have seen them anywhere else at this point and that I was serious about putting up 40+ on the day. I made plans with the wife to have a late lunch and had enough time to zip over to Pete's place first. The feeders were dead for about 10 or 15 minutes until things started heating up. We got White-throated Sparrow calling in the woods and soon after 3 Purple Finch dropped into the tree tops and eventually came down to a platform feeder. While this happened we picked up the call notes of a pair of Brown Creeper in the woods as well. All 3 being the only examples I would see on the day. This 3 species gift I knew would be critical for the record as I couldn't think of another location where any of those would even be close to a sure thing.

On the way home I took a frontage road off HWY 94 I knew to have a potential Wild Turkey and was rewarded with a single bird behind a strip mall on the edge of a field. Heading to lunch a bit later I hoped for a few locations with some historically present House Sparrows, but was not able to find any in locations I knew them to frequent in the summer months.

Undaunted I figured I had the ace up my sleeve for 3 more species needed to break the record. Lake Elmo park the day before had at least 4 species on Eagle Point Lake alone that would get me what I needed. I walked with scope over my shoulder to the first duck blind, picking up American Tree Sparrow along the way (a bird missed at Carpenter likely because a pair of Northern Shrike were hunting heavily in the area they normally occur with high numbers) and thinking the day was pretty much done with just 2 species needed.

At the duck blind however I found all my prior day species were gone from the lake and it was empty and wind blown. Thinking this had just moved to a much more challenging task I hoped for something on the small retention lake behind the Nordic center was able to find 3 Pied-billed Grebe diving actively. The number was 40 now and I had at least tied the record. My thought was that I'd need a gift on Lake Elmo itself to prevent me from having to drive further north in search of more duck species. As I drove the road back to the boat launch I recalled the prior day my first ever November White-crowned Sparrow I found randomly mixed with Dark-eyed Junco. I didn't really expect such a bird to be findable considering they were just roadside birds with no trail nearby or parking spots. I came over a rise and a couple birds flushed up over the hood of the car and one I  knew for certain was not Junco. I jammed on my brakes and dropped the window looking a bit over my shoulder. I spotted a Junco teed up and then scanned the hedge row and quickly found the same juvenile White-Crowned Sparrow from the day before. I snapped a picture of bird number 41 and continued to the lake for a cursory glance knowing I was done with the record chase.

On the way out just about 1/4 mile from the above sparrow/junco spot another bird flushed and flew over the hood of the car and I knew it to be a bit more chunky and red than would be expected from something like American Tree Sparrow. Sure enough I spotted a Fox Sparrow perched in the thicket and again snapped a quick documentation shot for fun as I realized instead of the expected sure thing ducks to close out the record I had pulled 3 sparrow species and a Grebe from Lake Elmo Park instead.

So I finished with 42 species for the new record and would surmise it's low enough for someone (or myself) to attempt to break in the future. Having been out in the 15mph wind on a 35 degree day for about 8 hours that was plenty for me.

You never know when the desire to big day will come and sometimes it's fine to decide on it after you hit your first location in the morning. If the drive species plus your morning effort yield a good enough number it may just be worth it to think out the spots needed to break a record. It is a great mental puzzle and practical hunt as you work out the species remaining in your head that are reasonable to get and what locations would give you the best chance to do so.

That is the fun of birding with someone like Peter Nichols as we both were doing that in our heads without any direct resources. Even without a new record such exercises are a great way to keep your mind sharp on what species to expect at the time of year and what habitats you must visit to maximize your results.

Hoping that December will bring some open water remaining so I can reasonably attack that record also, which stands at 35 right now.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Pacing and Super Groups

Working tonight on the pacing of park visits and the idea of super groups being on the ready. So from a pace standpoint doing pure math we can break down the year into 52 parts and that would give us a need to do just about 1.5 locations per week, but they are not all equal and birding heavy in the harshest winter months will not provide the most value. (Though I'm looking at 1 per week anyway in that time frame if possible for Mid-Nov to Late-Feb.) That means I should weight the parks towards the other 3 seasons. That by my count is 14 weeks of winter and limited birding potential. (Though low numbers can still be awesome in the boreal areas and necessary for a serious total.)

All of this led to me thinking about super groups being needed to "catch up" on the pace once I get into the early spring territory about March 1st. These would be key groupings that could be clustered together for a 4 park single day adventure. (More viable with longer light days.) Doing 2 with a hotel or camping event would allow up to 8 in a weekend, which would be a fast way to pick the pace up. It would allow roughly 2 hours or so of birding per park. Not ideal, for sure, but it would be a way to complete the minimum and still experience some type of trail experience. This would be a type of thing I'd need to consider if things got in the way and limited progress for any planned periods of time. Extended poor weather without the ability to shift areas or perhaps things just come up that limit me from a work standpoint, etc...

I also sketched out a May beastmode effort designed to "follow the warblers" in that it would be a 2 week span of time where I start in the south and gradually work my way up to the far north. During this time it would be 3 park circuits daily with a day of rest every 4th day or so. The finish would be a beastly north shore run for 3 days that hits all 8. During this span I'd be back home on the rest days and ready to run another circuit after rest.

This would not preclude other efforts on the parks targeted, just allow a maximum birding window for that key time period of 16 days in May. (Maybe from like May 5 to May 20.)

I already have some locations grouped as a large multi-day at the NW corner of the state which will be 7 locations minimum and I think targeting for something around June is best for that grouping. This should allow for key warblers to be on Big Bog and working territory and also keep the bugs from being utterly insane. Also this year will already have a ton of driving, I'm not so keen on hitting that NW corner more than once. Other places I can see multiple visits as time allows and seasons change, but the closest location in that quadrant is a serious haul no matter what.

In the end keeping super groups in mind will help to give me a opportunity to fall back into a viable pace. Some type of burst mode in May will really reduce the necessary insane pace the rest of the year and may even allow for duplicate visits to some key locations that I really enjoyed and want to experience again to a deeper level.

Math: If I super group May at 31 locations in 16 days that would leave roughly 42 locations for the other 11 months. I could easily do some local places yet in May with the other days and bring it down to something like 38 or so. If I've done anything leading up to May that would mean maybe 16 (1 per week) prior to May and give a remaining total of 22 for the second half of the year. I know that 3 will happen in July for family trip in a single weekend event. At 1 per week that would be an easy pace and not require a single super group the rest of the year. Many of those would also be local day trips viable after a work day with a 2 hour or less drive.

Some items are coming into clarity and I'll need fit the pieces together so that I've got a viable plan. My spreadsheets are sprawling a bit as I have then on my personal laptop, work laptop, and google doc cloud service all in various states as I try out different ideas.

Madness Blooming - More Stuff...

Of course I can never leave well enough alone as I scour the DNR website for State Parks I realize I may as well stop at the 9 State Waysides while I'm doing this big year. Of course it's never that easy as at least one of them has a 2.5 mile one way trail so that will be a 5 mile hike that will need to go into the time plan. (Should be fun to offer limited bird lists for them though.)

The wife is showing interest in one or two north shore trips that gets me all the way to Grand Portage, so that will be fun.

Friend Kevin Manley also indicated interest in tagging along to some select parks on the year. I didn't really think at first anyone would want to join such outings, but perhaps I should look at pulling others along on some of these trips and make that a thing as well. I'm sure the bulk of my outings will be solo, but it could be fun to get others in on the action as well.

I also found that 10 state parks boast waterfalls so those will be on the list for a nice sub-list and photograph experience. A few of the parks have multiple so that could be 12 or more waterfalls to get into the plan as well.

And while I was at it 5 state parks have fire towers that can be climbed by the public so that will need to be a thing also, because; Why not?

This doesn't even cover the potential need to spring for both the Hiking Club and Passport Club packages ($15) each that would have a passport book stamped for each location visited and then the Hiking Club signage that has a password involved. Not sure the hiking club one will be done in a year though since some trips will be in the winter months and I wonder if the trail will be ski only on some parks that I visit.

So much to do, but I'm working on this nightly to get a plan in place that has enough slack in it that I can absorb bad weather, bad luck, and just the general unknown happening. Fun to dig into something this epic to the deepest levels and dream big. This is where I belong, deep into the details of something bigger than myself and filled with adventure.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Maps and Books and such...

Based on research I took a first stab at my park breakdown for the year based on seasons and the desire to hit the corners of the state in all four seasons if possible. I'm sure I will refine many times as New Years nears...

And of course the book that started all this madness of wanting to do all the parks in a single year. 

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Content Streams & Planning

Planning continues as I begin to look at seasonal timings for State Park trips and figuring out ways to hit the different state areas equally in all seasons of a single year. I'm sure I'll end up having to throw out a lot of planning in favor of grinding out park visits when the opportunity rises, but I can at least try to put something together as a blue print.

I did some editing on the blog design and was able to figure out how to put my Twitter feed on the blog using a Twitter widget. Not difficult at all and should allow me to tweet on birding days fun details, etc...

I also was able to find a free widget for getting my Instagram feed up on the blog as well. This will be right across the top of the page in a banner for the time being. I'm not a huge fan of the images linking to a non-Instagram page to view the larger image content, but I guess it's the price to pay for free widgets.

More to come as the 2018 planning and content design moves forward and I try to close out my 2017 Washington County Big Year effort. (Found a small group of FOF Common Redpoll today at Belwin Ballfields as well as some Fox Sparrows. Also had a FOF Rough-legged Hawk at Lake Elmo Park along with my 3rd or 4th Northern Shrike.)

Saturday, October 21, 2017

More State Park Big Year Statistics

Afton State Park Statistics Post

Core Stats:

Total Different Parks/SRAs/etc Visited: 73 of 73

Total Trips to State Parks: 151

Miles Hiked: 638

State Park Species Seen: 222
Species Seen; Entire State: 266

Hottest Parks...
Lac Qui Parle: 51 species (1 visit)
Lake Bronson & Zippel Bay: 52 each (1 visit)
Afton: 180 species (55 visits)
William O'Brien: 99 species (6 visits) 
Lake Louise: 58 species (1 visit)

Coldest Parks...

Big Bog: 29 species (1 visit) (It was very hot and midday late June.)
Crow Wing: 21 species (1 visit)

State Month Ticks Before and After
January: 88 Before / 96 After
February: 87 Before / 90 After
March Tics: 127 Before / 129 After
April Tics: 174 Before / 179 After
May Tics: 227 Before / 242 After
June Tics: 145 Before / 183 After
July Tics: 135 Before / 164 After
August Tics: 164 Before / 168 After
Odd Statistics:

State Waysides Visited: 2 of 9
Waterfalls Seen in State Parks: ~15 (I lost count, I'm going to have to review the photos...)

Mammals Identified: 19 [Mink: Lake Bronson, Franklin's Ground Squirrel: Gooseberry Falls, Snowshoe Hare: Tettegouche, Raccoon: Banning, North American Beaver: William O'Brien, Muskrat: Afton, Eastern Chipmunk: Afton, Buffalo: Minneopa, Eastern Cottontail Rabbit: Minneopa, Red Squirrel:Many, White-tailed Deer:Many, Coyote:Whitewater & Lac Qui Parle, Fox Squirrel:Frontenac & Rice Lake, Porcupine:Scenic, Red Fox: Monson Lake, River Otter: Fort Snelling by track only., Bat Species: Afton, Gray Squirrel: Afton, 13-Lined Ground Squirrel: Afton]

Reptiles: 5 [Painted Turtle: Several, Fox Snake: Afton, Garter Snake: Several, Snapping Turtle: Afton, Northern Map Turtle: Wild River]

Wildflowers Identified: Lost count of so many flowers and lost a list weeks ago that was to be added. I'm sure it is beyond 100 at this point. Bummer, will have to figure out an app to track this stuff in the future... 28 (Gooseberry, Spring Cress, Dame's Rocket, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Birdsfoot Trefoil, Thimbleweed, Large-Flowered Trillium, Downy Yellow Violet, Birdfoot Violet, Kidney-leafed Buttercup, Wild Geranium, Garlic Mustard, Wild Strawberry, Rue Anemone, Wood Anemone, Sharp-lobed Hepatica, Round-lobed Hepatica, False Rue Anemone, Skunk Cabbage, Marsh Marigold, Bloodroot, Virginia Spring Beauty, Dandelion, White Trout Lily, Bellwort, Virginia Bluebell, Dutchmen's Breeches)

Butterflies/Moths: 15 (American Copper, Bronze Copper, Great-spangled Fritillary, White Admiral, Monarch, Viceroy, Giant Swallowtail, Tiger Swallowtail, Zebulon Skipper, White-striped Black Moth, Mourning Cloak, Comma, Blue Karner, Red Admiral, Painted Lady)

Pre-2018 Statistics

Total State Parks Visited: 9 (8 Bird Watching)
Life State Park Total: 174 (152 in 2017)


Total Parks will be the number of parks, state recreational areas, and waysides I have visited since the first day of 2018.

Total Trips will be the number of times I've gone to any State Park in 2018 to bird watch and hike. Meaning multiple trips are expected for several parks close to home and those with a very large number of trails to explore like Itasca and St. Croix.

Miles Hiked is pretty obvious, the number of miles covered by foot when birding at the State Parks.

Species Seen will be the total number of bird species observed in all state designated locations to date.

Species Seen; Entire State will be my bird species total for the entire state including non-state locations. Such as birds seen while driving or side efforts to see prior found birds of high rarity.

I may add other statistics as they come into view during the big year, such as highest count single eBird list from any park. Park with the highest species count observed, my money would be on Afton or William O'Brien considering my personal proximity to them.

Maybe gee wiz numbers like miles driven or hours driven during the year to lend perspective to how much of an effort it is to do this amount of birding in a year.

Old News

Going to use this space to store other news items for the year as they roll off the main page so I can get to them later if needed.

MRVAC Presentation: 9/27 at 7pm (7:30 present start) I will be presenting on how to find more rare birds. Their events are free and open to the public. It will be held at the National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center, 3801 American Blvd E, Bloomington MN.
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.
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.

Grey Cloud - Big Watch: I will be guiding all day at Grey Cloud Dunes SNA for the 3rd edition of our Big Watch run by Sharon Stitler. This will be May 19th starting at 7AM and going to dark where we hope to hear the Eastern Whip-poor-will sing.

Frontenac Warbler Walk: I will be guiding an MOU sponsored hike at Frontenac State Park looking for all birds, but specializing in warblers. May 12th at 7AM meet at the main parking lot at the end of park road. Planning on a 4 hour birding effort.

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!!

MOU Spring Primer: I'll be co-presenting on our Washington Count big year in 2017 with Dr. Peter Nichols at the MOU Spring kick off event to be held March 31st at Carpenter Nature Center. See the MOU website for upcoming details.

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.

MOU Article Part 2: The epic conclusion to my article in the MOU Newsletter is now live for MOU members.

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