Saturday, June 18, 2016

Empids and Thrushes and Warblers, Oh My!

Josh, Evan, and I weren't wasting any time.  On June 9th, we headed further northeast of the Twin Cities to a place called Falls Creek State Natural Area.  This place was also near the Minnesota and Wisconsin border.  At Falls Creek, more lifers were bound to cross my path, as well as Josh and Evan's path.  For Josh, he had 398 life birds on his list prior to the Falls Creek outing.  He had two birds that he was targeting here:  Louisiana Waterthrush and Acadian Flycatcher.  These are two Minnesota birds that have a very limited range within the state, and both were known to be at Falls Creek in good quantity.  While both were lifers for Josh, the Acadian would be a lifer for me.  While looking at eBird, I saw that I could get a handful of other lifers at this location too.  Out of the itinerary that Josh made for this opening day of my Minnesota trip, I was looking forward to Falls Creek State Natural Area the most.

Gorgeous huh?  This is part of Falls Creek State Natural Area.  Josh compared it to Oregon or somewhere else in the Pacific Northwest.  Upon arriving at Falls Creek, we encountered some habitat with open fields before heading into some pine forest and a lush and scenic Pacific Northwest-like deciduous forest.

Just after getting out of the car and carefully preparing for biting insects like ticks, we headed off on the trail.  Excitement hit me early as I heard a loud "Bee-buzzzzzzzz" song.  Right away I knew it was my fourth lifer early into the trip, the Blue-winged Warbler!  It didn't take us very long to locate this nice-looking bird.

The Blue-winged Warbler was #502.  This warbler is closely related to the Golden-winged Warbler, whom it often hybridizes with.  Blue-winged Warblers prefer abandoned fields and pastures, forest clearings and edges with clumps of various bushes and young trees mixed in with such habitats.

A pure Blue-winged Warbler will show blue-wings with two white wing bars, a solid yellow front continuing down to the undertail coverts, black in lores and behind eye, and white undertail coverts.

Getting a warbler lifer is always fun.  Blue-winged Warblers are losing their habitat in many places due to human suburban expansion.

From the meadow clearing areas with appropriate Blue-winged Warbler habitat, we then headed towards more thick woods.

Once entering the woods of pine and mixed deciduous, the bird songs were epic again.  Red-eyed Vireos, Ovenbirds, Pine Warblers, etc.  Song was coming from every direction.  Through in Yellow-throated Vireo, Indigo Bunting, Eastern Wood-Pewee, and another Scarlet Tanager.  Another lifer came as a heard only for this stop, the Least Flycatcher.  The bird I really enjoyed hearing a lot of was the Ovenbird.  It's song, "Teacher, teacher, teacher, teacher", was constantly heard at this site.  I managed to record two of the Ovenbirds singing, as well as a Red-eyed Vireo singing alongside.

We then dropped down into Falls Creek where the scenery was epic-ally beautiful as I mentioned before.  Josh and I thought the place was great and started to search for Louisiana Waterthrush, Acadian Flycatcher, and more while Evan used the place as his exploring grounds for searching for cool things along the creek.  

Right when we started to walk down towards the creek, it didn't take long to hear the song of the Acadian Flycatcher.  This song is very distinctive and is quite loud for an empidonax Flycatcher like the Acadian.  The song sounds similar to a squeak toy or if the Flycatcher is screaming out, "Pizza".  Acadians are known to hang out higher in the trees and canopy, therefore they can be harder to see.  Right then it became Josh and my first shared lifer of the trip.  Minutes later, we heard the distinctive call note of the Louisiana Waterthrush, and that was soon followed by the bird giving it's song.  I've seen LOWA several times in Arizona, but seeing them and hearing them sing on their breeding grounds was a new level of awesome.  The Waterthrush popped into view and wouldn't sit still long for photographs, but it gave us looks.  This Waterthrush was epic because it was Josh's 400th life bird.  Josh and I reaching new century marks on the same day was great, and it's not too often that takes place in birding.  Sometimes, the LOWA liked to perch on overhanging branches.

The LOWA started to sing often and Josh found himself seeking a better look and a picture to go along with it as he celebrated his 400th bird.  I then got distracted by the Acadian Flycatcher, which was close by and sounding seemingly high up still.  Plus, I was still intrigued by all of the other songbirds that were singing, like Ovenbirds.  Evan waded in the creek.  As I worked my way over the the Acadian Flycatcher, I got lucky and spied my target.  I thought Josh was further up the creek than he was at first, and by the time I realized he wasn't as far as I thought he was, the Flycatcher left before he could get to the spot on time.  Luckily, we continued to seek the ACFL during our time spent at Falls Creek and we both got more views, and Josh got even better views (killer views actually) than I had put together.

Josh and I both mentioned that the more empids that we see, the more we start to like this challenging group of petite flycatchers.  They are fun to encounter in the field, with most of them presenting serious identification challenges unless birds are vocalizing.

For an empid, the Acadian Flycatcher is large, long-billed and long-winged.  Visually, Acadian has a thin but complete and eyering, a steep forehead, a pale malar that contrasts with a white throat, etc.  But like all empids, hearing the bird sing or call is the best clue to it's identity.

I enjoyed the Acadian Flycatcher lifer a lot!

After locking up the Flycatcher, my focus shifted to two thrushes that I was really wanting for lifers:  the Veery and the Wood Thrush.  It wasn't very long before I heard the incredible song of the Veery.  Straight from my iPod recorder, listen to this bird...

Thrushes like the Veery can often be very secretive despite their repertoire to sing up forests with their soul-massaging songs.  Such thrushes can be very plain-looking, and I guess the Veery is pretty plain-looking.  But once it opens it's mouth to sing it's song, it's all about what's inside, and everyone wants to turn the volume up.  I followed the Veery's song through the woods and hoped to get a visual of the bird.  To my surprise, I found the Veery visually and it continued to sing.  This time, the song was still being sang and I got a front row seat to the Veery music concert.

I then called Josh over immediately and he began to enjoy the Veery show as well.  The Veery is reddish in coloration on it's back, a trait that other thrushes in the same genus, Catharus, don't have.  It's chest is also faintly spotted whereas other thrushes closely related to it have more densely spotted chests.  The Veery also has an all-white belly and under tail converts to give it a distinctive look in comparisons with the other thrushes. 

The song of the Veery is one of the North's favorite songs to be heard, and I enjoyed the song just as much as I did the sight of the bird.

For some Veery factoids, this bird may forage on the ground or in trees where it feeds on various insects, spiders, berries, and fruit.  While it is usually a shy bird, this one cooperated beautifully for Josh and me.

Here's more of what I snapped of the Veery.  What a cool bird and a cool place to land this cool bird at!

Following the Veery, we heard another thrush that I was wanting to see and hear even more than the Veery-the Wood Thrush!  Like the Veery, the Wood Thrush also has a beautiful song, perhaps an even better song.  I listened to the Wood Thrush in amazement while trying to track the singer down.  45 minutes later, I was doing the same thing.  The Wood Thrush is shy and retiring despite delivering notes one would imagine as being a bird chosen to sing in Heaven.  Josh, Evan, and I caught a few glimpses of the Wood Thrush flying away when we got close, but we never got the killer look.  At times, the Veery and Wood Thrush would sing at the same time...(enough said).

Before we got lost in the woods here, we realized that we were here way longer than what Josh had originally come up with.  But who can blame us?  All it meant was cutting out another stop that could be revisited later in the trip.  On our way out of the woods, we encountered another Louisiana Waterthrush at close range.  Throughout our time here, Louisiana Waterthrushes sang quite often.  Someday, I hope to visit Falls Creek again.

Once getting back to the Falls Creek parking area, Josh found this cool-looking Fox Snake.

Following Falls Creek, we made one more stop before heading to Josh's home in Kandiyohi, Minnesota.  This last stop was at Carver Park Preserve.  It had some fine deciduous forests as well as lakes and ponds and open grassland and meadows.  This place will play a big role later in the trip.  For this first 50 minute stop at Carver, I scored two more life birds for the day to already reach ten life birds for the half-day.  Those were a heard only Field Sparrow in song and some good visuals and vocalizations of a Sedge Wren.  The Sedge Wren popped up a few times for us, and allowed me to get good looks at the bird as well as a few decent photographs.

The Sedge Wren is generally a secretive wren the prefers sedge marshes and damp grassy meadows.  It creeps through the grass and is heard more often than being seen.  This tiny bird responded to playback and it's weak flight really caught attention.

The Sedge Wren sounds a little similar to the Marsh Wren and looks similar too, but is much paler looks wise.

Visual field marks supporting Sedge Wren include a streaked crown on the bird's head as well as barred wings.  The later field mark (barred wings) sets this species apart from other North American Wrens.  For a species I thought of being a prime skulker, this was a nice surprise.

In only three stops made, the ten lifers I scored in order to bring my life list to 508 were:  Yellow-throated Vireo (seen and heard), Scarlet Tanager (seen, heard, photographed), Great-creasted Flycatcher (heard), Blue-winged Warbler (seen, heard, photographed), Least Flycatcher (heard), Acadian Flycatcher (seen, heard, photographed), Veery (seen, heard, photographed), Wood Thrush (seen flying away, heard extremely well), Field Sparrow (heard), and Sedge Wren (seen, heard, and photographed).

Thanks to Josh Wallestad for making this possible.  Stay tuned for more and more to come from this awesome trip.  Up next, stepping foot into Josh's home county, Kandiyohi.  


  1. I can relate to all the issues of great views! The SEWR is great!

  2. Falls Creek rocked! I'm glad we got to experience that together and each pocket some life birds!