Tuesday, February 9, 2016

One More Time (But More), Minnesota

February 1st seemed to come along way too quickly.  It was already the final day of the Minnesota birding trip, and I didn't want it to end.  I was having too much fun.  Fortunately, every owl that was a possibility for me on the trip was seen before this final day, and I had every reason to get a good night's sleep on January 31st.  I'm sure Josh got a much better sleep.  With all four of our owl targets under our belts and a dozen other lifers, the trip was nothing short of incredible.  Josh, Gordon, and I had more searching to do on our last day, and we were lucky to have the one and only Evan Wallestad join us for this outing.  We had more highlights to discover.  Regardless of what we saw on this last day, I was content.  The four biggest highlights ran through my mind as a strong black and white, and there weren't any gray scales in sight....

To start off February 1st, we packed our stuff up and got everything ready to leave both the cabin and prepare for our final trip back home.  The day's itinerary started off by birding around the Angora area.  We decided that it would be fun to explore around Rick and Sandi's home (Josh's parents house where we were staying at) and try to find some goodies in that area.  In similar ways to Sax-Zim Bog, this area had similar habitats as well as a giant black spruce bog.  The scenery was awesome around the Wallestad home, and Josh had told us many awesome stories of sightings that he had around the house over the last several years.  During one of the previous days, Evan had spied a few Spruce Grouse walking across the road in this area.  Josh has seen a few Spruce Grouse here over the years, and we felt like that would be an awesome bird to search for.  We began our day in this area by Spruce Grouse hunting, and of course, by looking for other birds.  With the big bog nearby, this place has had Great Gray Owls too, which I was majorly craving another sighting of.  Josh, Gordon, and I cruised the roads looking for Spruce Grouse without luck in the morning.  I then had the idea of looking for them by walking the road on foot, because I thought our luck would be better that way.  Josh liked the idea, and decided to let Gordon and I walk down the road while he drove a longer loop through the area to quickly check out some other things and pick up Evan while Gordon and I would carefully check the road we were walking on in pursuit of the Spruce Grouse.  I'll admit right now, I found myself looking for Great Gray Owls more than Grouse, I couldn't help it!  Josh told me about the route he was going to do, and Gordon jokingly told me about the Snipe hunting pranks that he experienced as a child growing up in Nebraska after Josh drove up.  In these hunts, friends would take someone hunting and would prank them by leaving them for an amount of time which would cause them to walk home.  I laughed and said to Gordon, "there's no way a prank like that would be pulled in freezing weather".  Melissa even drove by once while Gordon and I searched and joked about Josh not being there.  It was funny at the thought of a Snipe prank, and then it wasn't.  Gordon and I listened and looked for birds, and we detected a Blue Jay, a few Gray Jays, and a flock of Common Redpolls.  We were also keeping a hopeful ear out for Black-backed Woodpeckers.  This woodpecker was one that Josh and I have only seen once, and one that Gordon and Evan have never seen.  If we were to find this woodpecker than it would be a highlight topper for Josh's trip.  And for everything that Josh had done for us on this trip, I wanted to find something that would be an epic and rare highlight for him.  As we came up upon a section that had bird activity with the birds I just mentioned above, Gordon and I suddenly heard a woodpecker drumming.  I knew right away it was either a Black-backed Woodpecker or the much more rare American Three-toed Woodpecker (which I see in Arizona annually).  As Gordon and I walked in the direction of the drumming, Josh was then pulling up to us and Evan was with him.

When Josh got up to us, he told us about a Northern Goshawk he had fly in front of the road while he was driving on the loop that he did.  An awesome find by Josh!  When I told him about the woodpecker, he laughed and said, "Your just messing with me, aren't you.."  As I continued talking about it, Josh asked where the drumming was.  Gordon and I heard the woodpecker a few minutes before Josh and Evan pulled up, and by the time we walked towards the general area of the drumming, that area was probably adjacent to us by the time Josh pulled up.  We told Josh we were probably very close to the source.  Josh had a stunned look on his face and a look like he really wanted to see the bird.  I suggested to play the drumming call on one of our playback sources, which we decided to do.  What happened next was very shocking.  A woodpecker flew right over the treetops and landed in the open in a tree alongside the road.  It was a Black-backed Woodpecker!!!!  We all started to celebrate!

It was a male Black-backed Woodpecker, and he came in with quite the curiosity in his intentions.  This was a huge highlight for me.  Ironically, when I had barely gotten interested in birds in 2000, I was in the Black Hills of South Dakota for a week.  Within the first 15 birds that I had ever seen in my life, one of them was in the Black Hills, and that was a Black-backed Woodpecker that I saw in a dense stand of fir trees.  And over 15 years later, I had gotten to cross paths with one again!

The Black-backed Woodpecker flew back into the woods and out of sight after perching for each of us to get a good look.  When the playback process was repeated, the woodpecker came out of the woods again, and this time, it had another Black-backed Woodpecker with it.  And that one was a female.  It was very interesting to have a pair of them in the area, and Josh was very stoked!

As the woodpeckers perched for us, we could make out their field marks.  The male on yellow on his forehead, both had some barring on the flanks, and what really stood out...the solid black back!  Seeing this woodpecker practically felt like seeing a lifer.  When I was 14 years old in the Black Hills, my mind worked a lot differently.  I didn't realize how cool the bird was that I was looking at.

Black-backed Woodpeckers prefer coniferous forests in the boreal zones, and along with dense and mature woods, they also really like sections that are burned or logged, quite similar in ways to the closely related American Three-toed Woodpecker.  Locating this uncommon to rare woodpecker usually means looking on trees for signs of them, which those signs are indicated by peeled park, especially in sections of burned trees.  The Black-backed Woodpecker ranges from Alaska through much of Canada, and then into some Lower 48 states such as Minnesota to New York in the east, Washington, Idaho, Oregon, northern California, and more in the northwest, and also a seemingly isolated population in South Dakota's Black Hills (where I first saw mine).

It was awesome to find Josh an epic bird, and he was sure enjoying the sighting.  It was awesome to see Evan get a life bird out of this and it was awesome to see Gordon continue his life bird parade (this was his 18th!).  It was awesome for me to see this bird for only the second time, and to get a photograph out of it too.  Before and hour-and-a-half of birding Angora went by, this was the only major highlight and the only bird we were able to photograph in this area.

Once leaving the house and Angora, we made our way back to Minneapolis for a 3.5 hour drive.  This drive would have many birding stops along the way, and several of those stops produced some cool highlights.  One was at a rest stop, and at that rest stop, I got to see a Blue Jay well and out in the open for the first time in my life.  In 2004, I went to South Dakota for my aunt's wedding, and when I walked through her neighborhood, I had a few flocks of Blue Jays flying around.  That was the only time I had ever seen this cool-looking bird before this trip, and only briefly.  During this trip, the same thing seemed to happen.  The Blue Jays would call and make noise some and would follow that up with a glimpse by flying by through the trees.  Seeing this guy was awesome!

I love the many sounds that Blue Jays are capable of making.  They are very common and famous in their large range in North America, which covers all of eastern United States, some of the west, and much of Canada.  And this was the first time I thoroughly got to enjoy one.  I was pumped!

We also stopped at this really cool park for awhile that had a river going alongside of it.  While we were standing in Minnesota the entire time, we were looking into Wisconsin across that river.

Heading south, we continued to stop at more places to bird and enjoy the trip back.  At one of those places, I heard what I thought was another potential lifer calling from high in a tree.  It struck me as a Red-bellied Woodpecker, and when I looked eyes with the bird, it was a Red-bellied Woodpecker!  Red-bellied Woodpeckers look very similar to our Gila Woodpeckers and range throughout most of the eastern half of the Lower 48, where they prefer swampy woodlands as well as parks and neighborhoods.  As we were in a neighborhood and park-like setting, it was a perfect place to find this woodpecker.  It was my 15th life bird of the trip, and it flew away before I could snap off any photographs.  I did see the Red-bellied Woodpecker fairly well through my binoculars, and making out the zebra-striped back and the long red nape was easy.  Things got even more fun in the woodpecker department when Josh shouted out, "Pileated Woodpecker, on this pole, left side of road!".  I looked to see this huge woodpecker sitting on a wood pole as Josh was starting to slow down.  Wow, they are massive in size for a woodpecker!  As Josh stopped, the woodpecker decided to fly off and it continued to a grove of trees that were a long distance off from the main road that we were on.  I did manage to get a few very distant photographs of this spectacular woodpecker flying away from us.  I'll never forget the close look at it as it was sitting roadside on the pole, a great memory!  Out of the 15 life birds I was able to get on this trip, I photographed 14 of them, with the Red-bellied Woodpecker being that only one who avoided my camera completely.

As previously mentioned, much of this day was about the drive back, and birding stops were few and far between.  Before we knew it, it was getting to be later in the day and we arrived at Fort Snelling State Park, right by the Airport.  We had one more target for the day, and that was us hoping to get looks at the Barred Owls at the Park.  Before we started to look for the Owls, Evan spied a nice surprise.  In what was mostly a frozen river that runs through Fort Snelling, there was a pocket of open water.  And on that water was a nice flock of Trumpeter Swans!  It was only my second ever sighting of this species, and the first time I ever saw adult Trumps.  Gordon was even more happy, because it was a life bird for him.

Our concluding search came at a second attempt at these Barred Owls that were in the park.  After missing them the first time we came here, we were hoping for a nice redemption.  After all, we saw Barred Owl the previous night in epic fashion, so there really wasn't any pressure on seeing these birds.  When we got to the area, we couldn't find them again.  As we were starting to think this bird would outsmart us twice, we took a loop around the parking lot that the bird usually favored.  I looked up and saw the bird sitting in a neighboring tree next to the tree that it usually sits in.  We all got out and enjoyed some closer views of this Barred Owl, who never opened it's eyes or moved around.  It was cool to see, but nowhere as cool as the bird Josh discovered on the previous night!

As we left the Barred Owls, the trip had come to it's ending point.  I didn't want it to be over, but at the same time-wow!  I was beyond thankful for everything and I'm glad to say that I've lived to see amazing things like the great state of Minnesota and the amazing birds they have.  The following part of this post will recap the trip briefly, and more importantly, I am mentioning those who made this trip such a success.  Josh made a post of FaceBook recently that explained who really helped us on this trip, and I want to thank those people too that Josh mentioned on his post.

Thank You!

I want to thank Josh's birding buddies:  Clinton Nienhaus, Jason Mandich, Jeff Grotte, Jim Lind, Peder Svingen, Kim Risen, Randy Frederickson, and Sandy Aubol.  These amazing people gave Josh whereabouts of many of our targets, gave Josh good directions to things, spied things for us, and kindly wanted to make sure that we were as successful as we possibly could have been.  Clinton helped us find Great Gray Owl locations and spied us a Glaucous Gull, Jason helped find more of Sax-Zim Bog's amazing birds while we were there, Jeff shared his fantastic knowledge of owls with Josh, Jim spied us a Long-tailed Duck, Peder helped us with our gull troubles and gave us timely directions to our first Snowy Owl of the trip, Kim found us a second and much whiter Snowy Owl than our first, Randy texted Josh about two of our most wanted gull lifers, and Sandy helped us find our first Northern Hawk Owl.  The Minnesota birding community is full of amazing people who get just as big of a thrill over helping other birders find birds as seeing the birds themselves.  Gordon and I were blessed to have these people be a part of it and to experience this community.

I want to thank Josh's friends, Allen and Amanda Huselid.  Before this trip, I didn't have any boots to keep my feet warm from the elements.  Thanks to Allen and Amanda, they loaned Josh a pair of boots that were just the right size for me.  Long story short, after a lot of walking and hiking through the snow, my feet were comfortable the entire trip.  These boots made chasing the Northern Hawk Owl that much more fun!

I want to thank Josh's son, Evan Wallestad for being another awesome set of eyes and for being another awesome buddy to have along on the final day of our trip.  Evan has quite the eagle eye, and that was proven when he spied Gordon's lifer Trumpeter Swans.  It was a big deal for me too, because I had only seen Trumpeter Swan once prior to this sighting.  The flock of Swans contained adults as well as juvenile birds, the first adults I've seen in the wild!

I want to thank my awesome buddy, Gordon Karre.  Gordon is always a pleasure to be around on birding trips and is a positive person to be around, and he is one I go on birding trips often with because of that reason.  I haven't traveled far much in my life and I rarely leave the state of Arizona.  It's been over 20 years since I've been on a plane, and Gordon really taught me a lot about traveling, and served as my traveling mentor.

I want to thank Josh's parents, Rick and Sandi Wallestad.  Rick and Sandi are both amazing and generous people.  They let us use their house for a staying place for the four nights we were in Minnesota, and that is one awesome home.  Not only that, but they let us use their van for the entire duration of the trip.  As Josh explained over video, that van was the ultimate birding van.  Having that place to stay in and than van to ride in really made the trip comfortable and really made Gordon and I feel like we were at home!

I want to thank Josh's awesome wife, Melissa Wallestad.  Melissa kindly lent Josh to Gordon and I for five consecutive days for a birding trip.  That is another thing that meant the world to us.  Josh and Melissa have two young kids, and her watching the kids to make this trip possible was something else that was very generous for us on the trip.  It was fun having Melissa, Evan, and Marin come up during the trip and to get to know Melissa and Marin more!

Finally, the biggest thanks goes out to my buddy, Josh Wallestad.  As you all have read over my last three blog posts before this one regarding this trip, Josh was Gordon and my birding guide.  And he got us many amazing birds!  Josh was an epic birding guide, and before the trip and during the trip, he was continuously researching birding areas, calling friends, looking up directions, keeping track of bird numbers and habits, putting us in position to have incredible sightings of these birds, driving most of the time, and was always putting work into every expedition.  Josh planned this trip and made it as awesome as it possibly could have been.  I can't say how much I appreciate Josh and everything he did for us on this trip!

Big Bird Highlights and Trip Facts

On this trip, I had many highlights, and not all of those highlights only came from life birds.  There were also several birds on the trip that I was seeing for only the second time of my life, and photographing for the first time.  While life birds were of course the main course, some of these second timers were very awesome too.

Life birds in order:  Great Gray Owl, Sharp-tailed Grouse, Common Redpoll, Boreal Chickadee, Ruffed Grouse, Gyrfalcon, Thayer's Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, Iceland Gull, Snowy Owl, Northern Hawk Owl, Pileated Woodpecker, Snow Bunting, Barred Owl, and Red-bellied Woodpecker.  I reached a total of 15 life birds on this trip, which brought my overall life list up to 492. species.  500 is right around the corner!

Other huge highlights, which were only my second time ever of seeing these species (some of them felt like official lifers):  Blue Jay (got my first photos of species), Northern Shrike, Black-backed Woodpecker (first photos of species), Long-tailed Duck, Pine Grosbeak, and Glaucous Gull.

Best Two Birds of Trip:  Great Gray Owl and Northern Hawk Owl.

Best Surprise of Trip:  When Josh spied the Barred Owl

Best Meal of the Trip:  When Josh, Melissa, Gordon and I went to a local restaurant to eat some great food while being served by a not-so-great and dry waiter.  I had Walleye for the first time in my life.

Scariest Moment of the Trip:  When the display panel of the van stopped working on our first day.  Thankfully, it was only brief.

Craziest Moment of the Trip:  Josh driving in reverse for 3.6 miles on a dicey back road.

My Favorite Part of the Trip:  The 45 minutes spent with the Great Gray Owl

The Funnest Day of the Trip:  Probably the third.  Rose-o County.

Some fun thoughts to conclude my first Minnesota birding trip:

-Going into this trip, my two most wanted birds for North America were Great Gray Owl and Northern Hawk Owl.  I got to see them both, and I got to see them both very well.  I guess I have to pick a new most wanted bird for North America now.  That bird is now the Boreal Owl.

-On this trip, I got four owl lifers.  With me having all 13 of Arizona's owl species, that brought my owl total for North America up to 17 species.  Because North America has 19 breeding owl species, I only have two more to go:  Boreal and Eastern Screech-Owls.

-Between Minnesota and Arizona, the two states combined have all 19 of North America's owl species.  If I could owl with a limitation of only two states, Minnesota and Arizona would be my two picks.  Arizona hosts 13 owl species and Minnesota hosts 12.  Owls that Minnesota has that Arizona doesn't are Great Gray, Northern Hawk, Snowy, Barred, Eastern Screech, and Boreal Owls (most likely).  Owls that Arizona has the Minnesota doesn't have are Elf, Northern Pygmy, Ferruginous Pygmy, Western Screech, Whiskered Screech, Spotted, and Flammulated Owls.  What an awesome combination of owl filled states!

Have room for just one more?

As Josh, Gordon, Evan, and I got done looking at the Barred Owls that afternoon on February 1st, Josh actually wasn't finished.  Despite the fact that he and Evan were needing to head home shortly, Josh still had a little bit of birding left in him.  "Hey guys, you wanna check on that Airport Snowy Owl real quick?".  There's no way Gordon and I would say no to that.  We still had a three hour wait at the airport for our plane's departure.  The four of us made one last cruise, and Josh spied that white bird on a distant UPS building.  We didn't get very close to it, but it was awesome to see the Snowy Owl looking over it's airport domain.  Things ran through my mind in the final moment of the trip.  Seeing a whiter Snowy Owl than the previous Snowy Owls from a distance made me want to see more of them.  The problem was that this time, I had to leave Minnesota.  All it did was make me want to come back even more.  And you can guarantee that in a future winter, I will be back to enjoy more amazing birding, more of this amazing state and it's awesome people, and more of it's amazing owls that I want to see a lot more of...


  1. A great recap of everything that we experienced. Impressed with your PIWO photos. Unfortunately, I never did see this one and it was over in a flash. It was a fun adventure and thank you for being part of it and allowing me to tag along! I am sure we will have some more great birding adventures in the future!

    1. Thanks Gordon! No doubt we will have more great birding adventures in the future! What an epic time MN was. I got a little lucky with that PIWO.

  2. Tommy, don't read this wrong, but my first reaction to this post was to literally yawn--not because I thought it was boring (far from it!) but because I got tired thinking about all we accomplished in such a short period of time. It is really unbelievable when you think about it! Your first four Owl lifer pictures strung in sequence like that at the beginning of this post says it all! This was an amazing odyssey even for me.

    Thank you for your gracious words! You are too kind. We were happy to host you and look forward to doing it again! A return trip in summer would be a whole new set of fun with all our Warblers and Red-headed Woodpeckers, but I know that GGOWs in the winter beckon to you! You'd have the luxury of being picky with your winter targets. We could even get you some better-looking Snowy Owls in yet another part of the state I have not birded (near Grand Forks, ND).

    Looking forward to our next adventure together while I reflect on this one fondly.

    1. Thanks Josh! I'm looking forward to our next birding adventure too, it will be epic whatever it is! I guess my goal for the intro was to give readers a sense of peace and to replicate what I was going through in my head, and that night sleeping was peaceful cause there was nothing else owl-wise to conquer. We did all with you as our leader!

      I want to come in the summer. Those warblers and Red-headed Woodpeckers, and of course more Great Grays, are really jabbing at me right now...

  3. You should consider owling Washington! FLOW, SPOW, WESO, SNOW, GHOW, BUOW, BADO, SEOW, LEOW, NSWO, NHOW, GGOW, BOOW, NOPO! Great trip Tommy!

    1. Wow Walker, 14 species huh?! You've got me thinking...