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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.