Thursday, June 23, 2016

You Should Go Up Land to Felton

"Prepare the way for Tommy, he is coming". -The BOBO bro

I sat at McDonald's having breakfast on June 11th while I was in Grand Forks, North Dakota.  While eating oatmeal, I realized I made a big mistake in not going to the Prairie further where Sandy and I had birded the previous night.  Instead I settled for some campground which had one cool bird rather than twenty cool birds.  Oh well.  On the way back to Kandiyohi from Grand Forks, I didn't plan on driving for four hours straight.  Josh wasn't gonna let me do that either, there were some places he wanted me to see and bird.  After oatmeal came a hashbrown I think.  And then some emails and a Facebook post to let the world know that TOBY reached 18 owls.  Then came a conversation with Josh, "You should go up to Felton Prairie once you get to Fargo".  Josh told me I could get some local species for Minnesota at Felton Prairie like Chestnut-collared Longspur, as well as a few highly wanted life birds of mine such as Upland Sandpiper and Greater Prairie-Chicken.  I wanted to go to Felton as soon as Josh mentioned it, and seconds later, Josh sent me directions.  When I got off the phone with Josh, I swear I heard him say, "Okay, I'll let the Bobolinks know..".  Once I hit Fargo, I made my way up to the Felton Prairie, which is managed for game.  I could tell the area was beautiful once I hit the spot.

The road through the Prairie was about four miles in length.  En route to the end of the road, I kept going to scout out the terrain and I would then take my time on the way back.  Once there, I could only think about Upland Sandpipers.  I wanted that life bird bad!  They are odd, and they are cool.  With Greater Prairie-Chicken being there too, I wanted that badly as well too.  Because it was later in the day, my odds for the Chicken likely went deep into the prairie grass.  That thought left me to really focus on Upland Sandpiper, who's unique calls echo across the habitat they inhabit.  Pulling into the Felton Prairie and after I just got started, a few noisy Marbled Godwits flew over and in front of the van and noisily scolded at me for being in their home.  I'm not trying to bad mouth myself too much, but if I were a Godwit and I saw a TODE driving and birding in my home, I'd get a little angry too.  I think Godwits get over things pretty quickly though.  At the end of the road and by a lake on the Prairie, I caught up with a Marbled Godwit.

I thought the lake was a grassy valley at first.  I saw some large birds fly into it and I thought they were Chickens.  I must have been tired, cause we all know how much Grouse and Chickens fly around in the afternoon.  Josh called once I got to the Prairie and I told Josh, "oh shoot, some chickens just dropped down into a grassland valley I think..".  Five minutes later, that valley turned into a lake, and those Chickens turned into Ducks.  Something then happened in my head when I walked around for a bit in the grass.  I woke up and reality sunk into place, "I need to find that Upland Sandpiper, it's somewhere in this huge area".  A flock of Hooded Mergansers on the lake was cool, better than the ducks I thought were high day-flying-prairie-chickens.

As I walked around, I heard a Clay-colored Sparrow singing his buzzing song.  This was a sound I was hearing often in the first two days of the trip, but I hadn't put time aside for viewing time with this bird.  The Clay-colored Sparrow is one that I have seen in Arizona several times, where it is a rare but annual transient and winter visitor.  When I heard this Clay-colored Sparrow, I decided to enjoy it for awhile, and I came away with some really awesome views.  Thanks Playback!

After enjoying the Clay-colored Sparrow, I headed back down the central road through the Prairie.  One hundred yards later, I saw a side road that ventured off from the main road.  I love side roads, and I always take side roads as a sign to park off the main road and walk down the side road.  At first I was really hoping I would be walking into an Upland Sandpiper home, but this side road turned into the land of the Bobolink.

Throughout the trip, I never got sick of seeing this awesome bird.  They are that cool to me!

Males delivering their positive and cheery Mr. Rogers-like-song in flight made me feel welcome in the BOBO-hood.

Felton Prairie is a place I lost track of time at.  Serenity is found in these habitats, that's for sure.

I was trying hard for Upland Sandpipers wherever I went.  I searched in the grass, along the roadside, on poles, on fences, and on anything.  Upland Sandpipers will commonly perch on man-made structures, and most of them are found sitting on a fence post or something similar.  A Brewer's Blackbird decided to perch on a fence post, making it's way onto my rapidly growing Minnesota bird list.

I then spied a Minnesota favorite of mine, the Eastern Kingbird.

I saw something weird that I didn't think I'd see in a Kingbird, it's reddish crown.  Birders might think, "Huh?".  That's because Kingbirds don't show their hidden crowns that much at all, and they probably only show it under special circumstances.  I guess people have personal parts they need to cover up, maybe in some weird way the Kingbirds have to cover some personal parts up too.  This Kingbird was quite the poser!

Eastern Kingbirds are just fantastically awesome beyond a shadow of a doubt.  My first one came when I was sitting in the passenger seat of a truck traveling 40 M.P.H. in Gila Bend, Arizona (EAKI is rare but annual once or twice a year in Arizona).  I could see that it wasn't a Western Kingbird, and the rest was history.  This bird has always had a good seat in my books.

I also got to see this cooperative Grasshopper Sparrow.

As the afternoon was flying by and as I was searching for Upland Sandpipers for way longer than it felt like I was searching for, all it took was for me to glance at the watch.  The Prairie had become very windy and it was getting hard for me to hear over the wind.  Upland Sandpipers are very vocal at times, but it would be hard for me to hear over the wind.  I knew that I was running out of time, but I did remain hopeful.  As most of the time was spent birding in taller grass, I came up upon this field that had been recently plowed, with even shorter grass in it.  I decided to give this field a chance with a slow scan.

Sometime you win some, and other times, you lose some in birding.  Spoiler alert, this trip will have some of both.  But in this case, I decided to scan the field, and within a minute of scanning, I saw this medium-sized bird just walking along the dirt...

It was my wanted Upland Sandpiper, and it was slowly walking along the field momentarily!  I was shocked, and as I got a decent binocular look at the bird and a few terrible pictures to go along with it, I couldn't help but throw my fist up in celebration.  Seconds later, I climbed out of the van and just couldn't relocate the bird even though I knew it was nearby.  At one point, I thought I heard it give a call the species gives when they are flushed.  I probably did.  For the next twenty minutes I walked through this field in midst of some beginning rain, and stared at a lot of this.

After twenty minutes, I then found my quarry again flying across the field.  It landed at a reasonable distance as to where I could see where it went.  And of course, a truck happened to pull up and stare at me in the field.  It appeared to a person who was acting like a landowner, and I could see that two guys were staring at me as a pursued the Upland Sandpiper.  I thought, "that sucks, that figures!".  As the two men sat there looking at me, I aborted the Upland Sandpiper to make sure I wasn't doing anything wrong.  The men turned out to be managers of the Prairie and they were simply curious about what I was doing.  Once I explained myself they didn't care at all and told me to help myself.  When I mentioned Upland Sandpiper, one of the guys even said, "Oh, those are the ones that have the long necks and small heads right?".  Right he was, but the Upland I was tracking now had to be tracked all over again.

I figured that the Upland Sandpiper I was tracking had flushed, because I just couldn't find it.  And then an amazing circumstance happened, I heard an Upland Sandpiper singing.  It wasn't just singing, but it was flying directly towards me and was singing!  For those of you who don't know much about Upland Sandpipers, they have a very weird song.  This song is given in flight, and David Sibley describes it as, "Flight song a weird, unearthly, bubbling whistle, slowly rising then falling bububuLEE-hLEEyoooooooooo".  Sibley's text gives a decent description, but hearing the Upland was something else.  I read that this flight song may be heard at distances close to a mile away!  The sandpiper proceeded to land close to me, with it's wings raised as it landed (a behavioral trait often shown by this bird).

I'll admit, I was a little giddy when this bird flew in.  I've always wanted to see an Upland Sandpiper because of their unique look and behavioral traits.  The Upland Sandpiper is closely related to Curlews and pretty much is....a Curlew.  It's a "shorebird" that doesn't like water all that much, and it is found in meadows, fields, prairies, and pastures.  It is known to perch on fences, utility poles, rocks, and stumps.  It's silhouette is very distinctive, and quite oddly awesome.  Once the Upland Sandpiper (or Upland Curlew) landed by me, it started to walk slowly in the field as it foraged for food.

As a birder you've gotta love the unique looking birds like this one.  Check out it's long neck, and small-rounded dove-like head and big dark eyes.  It's great how one bird can tip the scales for one's feeling of success.  As I was about to head out of Felton Prairie, this bird gave me that sense of great accomplishment.

The Upland Sandpiper seemed to be very aware of my presence and stayed for a couple minutes.

The bird then flushed as I made movement and flew past me and relatively close, calling as it went.  The bird kept going this time, and it went way too far for me to continue pursuing it.  In flight, the Upland Sandpiper shows a pale inner wing as well as a bright white outer primary shaft.  The latter is a trait shared with Curlews.

As the sandpiper kept going, I was beyond thankful for the observation that I obtained of the bird.  It was an epic way to get a life bird (my 18th of the trip), and an epic way to remember my first visit to Felton Prairie.  Felton Prairie is one that I hope to visit again someday, perhaps for my first ever look at a Greater Prairie-Chicken.

Thanks Josh for the suggestion and directions to Felton!


  1. I love the prairies. They are really relaxing to bird. The Upland is a great bird . Part sandpiper; part curlew. The evolutionary link. We tried for this bird but no luck. It's a species of concern.

    1. Thanks for stopping by Chris. I love the prairies too, easy place to lose track of time. I've wanted to see Upland Sandpiper for a very long time, it felt like a won a round when I scored that bird. Hopefully you guys can catch it on a future trip or maybe even in Arizona..

  2. It's always a huge deal when you get one of your most-wanted targets. Congrats on getting that bug-eyed bird, Tommy!

    I've been to Felton a couple of times and have seen all the specialty birds there (CCLO,LOSH,MAGO,GPCH,WEKI) but have never seen the supposedly "easy" UPSAs there. Sounds like we had opposite visits!

    Speaking of opposites, our Kingbird stories are just reversed. I saw my Western Kingbird as my vagrant discovery, and then I couldn't stop looking at them in AZ because I thought they were so cool still.

    1. Thanks Josh!

      Funny thing right? We had our luck at Felton Prairie reversed with targets as well as our Kingbird species.

      This place was awesome and thanks to you, I got to see it and bird it! The Upland Sandpiper made the trek and hopefully someday, I can land that Prairie-Chicken!