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

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.