Sunday, July 10, 2016

Birding Minnesota by Day and Night

The Minnesota trip really flew by.  It really did!  The birding was constantly a thing on the go, and that's what really made the trip go by fast.  More than half of the days of the trip were consumed with awesome out of state chases to North Dakota and Wisconsin, but Josh and I figured out our ways of throwing everything else in too.  We were men on a mission, and missions in birding are epic.  With the out of state chases out of the way, Josh and I had the last day-and-a-half to do something different, and that was to bird at a slower and more relaxed pace.  It would end up being a great decision.

On June 13th in the P.M., I went to a Willmar Stingers baseball game with Josh, Melissa, Evan, and Marin.  After the game, Josh and I were going to head out for some P.M. searching for nightjars and owls.  Before I get to that, I'll go of the birding topic a little bit.  The baseball game I went to with the Wallestads was one of the funnest things on the trip.  While Evan provided most of the entertainment for the game, the game was awesome and hanging out with this awesome family is even more awesome.  It's not just birds that make vacations fun!

Following the game, Josh and I picked up Steve Gardner, who showed me around Kandiyohi County on my first day of the trip.  The three of us headed south of Kandiyohi to the Minnesota River Valley in Chippewa County well after dark.  Our main target was Eastern Whip-poor-will, and we were also in hopes of landing an Eastern Screech-Owl.  One of Josh's buddies, Garrett Wee, was already down by the river and was going to meet us there.  As we were heading down, Josh got a call from Garrett and Garrett explained that Whip-poor-wills were calling everywhere.  I thought it was going to be cool to get out of the car and hear this life bird right away.  As I've seen and heard Mexican Whip-poor-will in Arizona, the Eastern Whip-poor-will sounds a little different.  Both were considered con specific until recently.  Their voices differ and they also don't have any overlap in their breeding ranges.  As we got out, the only sound we heard was the river running.  And there was Garrett, a skilled young birder waiting for us.  Garrett said, "I'm not even kidding guys, but they stopped calling right when you guys got out".  We stood there and waited for awhile, and no Whips were calling.  We suddenly heard a pair of Barred Owls calling to each other and we figured that it was the owls who shut the Whip-poor-wills up.  The owls were close too.  As I got a feel for the owl source, I imitated it's call and shined my flashlight up into the direction of where I was hoping the bird would possibly fly into.  Seconds later, one of the Barred Owls flew out of the woods and straight over our heads.  It was probably 15 to 20 feet above our heads, and was very curious.  The sighting of the Barred Owl was incredible.  Walking down the road further resulted in getting a brief view of it's mate, who also started calling.  As soon as I was able to get light on this second Barred Owl, it flew off into the dense woodlands off the road.  And then the Whip-poor-wills started calling.  One started, and then more would follow.  Throughout the three hours we spent here, we had excellent and up close audio of the Whips as they were close to the road, and we also weren't able to see any of them once.  I find Nightjars harder to locate visually than I do owls.  A lot harder!  At one point I was feet away from a calling Whip-poor-will and I really thought I would be able to see the darn thing.  Whip-poor-wills get more confusing and ventriloquist sounding with the more one gets closer to them.  I did manage this sound recording to document the bird's presence:

I was that close to seeing that Eastern Whip-poor-will, that close!  When I was feet away, I didn't get a recording.  Had I had known that the bird was as difficult to see as it was, I would have gotten a recording of it when I was in the bird's zone.  We also tried for Eastern Screech-Owl.  Despite playing tapes in many stops and directions, we didn't get the Eastern Screech-Owl to respond and we didn't hear or see Barred Owls any further than what took place.  Interestingly enough, the Eastern Whip-poor-wills became quite on the spot when we played a Screech-Owl tape.  So the nightjars are quite scared of the owls, who are probably one of their biggest threats to survival.  We did hear Josh's first-in-Minnesota Yellow-billed Cuckoo vocalizing often at night.  At one point the bird called above our heads.  Like owls and nightjars, Cuckoos can be extremely difficult to locate visually as they are secretive and don't move around very often.  We did luck into a sighting of a Virginia Opossum.  This was the first time I got to cross paths with this mammal, which is primarily nocturnal.

The following day, June 14th, was my last day of the trip before I would have to fly out of Minnesota earlier in the day on June 15th.  This day would be one to just enjoy, or one for another epic chase.  A second-Minnesota-ever Calliope Hummingbird showed up in Duluth and a Baird's Sparrow also showed up at a place that wasn't too far of a drive.  It was either a chase or relaxing birding, and I was cool with either.  Josh and I were both exhausted, so we decided to take our time and slowly bird around Kandiyohi County.  I'm glad we made the decision we did, because it's always fun to have a slower full day at least one of the days on the trip.  But at the same time...these rarities that kept showing up.  Ahh!

I'll always remember Kandiyohi County as the first spot I really got to enjoy eastern birding in the summer.  The locations here are fantastic, and many of the common eastern birds I had always wanted to observe on their breeding grounds, are found in this diverse County.  On this last day, Josh and I birded Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center, several different roads, and one of my favorite places I birded at on the trip, Sibley State Park.  Prairie Woods was first, and it was sure a neat-looking place.

As we got to a marshy area, a Swamp Sparrow emerged out of the marsh and gave us good views.  This is a sparrow that is often hard to get killer views at, but a few times on this trip, that was provided.

We also heard Trumpeter Swans and a Common Loon calling out on the nearby lake.  Birds were everywhere.  Josh spied another Scarlet Tanager for the trip and I was able to pick out a calling Yellow-billed Cuckoo.  Cuckoos were the primary reason for us searching Prairie Woods, as I was hoping for my lifer Black-billed Cuckoo.  That Cuckoo will have to wait for another time, but anytime or anywhere, a Cuckoo is a Cuckoo.  They are awesome birds.  Like the other two Yellow-billed Cuckoos that we detected on this trip, this third one turned out to be a heard-only bird also.  Importantly, it was Josh's first Yellow-billed Cuckoo for Kandiyohi County.  A funny thing is, Josh got his life Yellow-billed Cuckoo in Wisconsin, his Minnesota bird the previous night along the Minnesota River Valley, and then his county bird in the Prairie Woods.  Three straight days of three different Yellow-billed Cuckoo lifer scenarios.  My longing for birding the east and finally getting to was really obvious on the trip.  I got excited over every Ovenbird we heard nearby.  And let me say, there were a lot of them!

Josh and I followed Prairie Woods with visits to a few back roads with more woodlands as well as open grassland areas.  This resulted in us finding a few Sandhill Cranes.  We also found a few Dickcissels.  This is a neat songbird, despite it's strange name.  It is one I have seen a few times in Arizona, and seeing them on their breeding grounds for the first time was something to enjoy.  The males made sure to get their broadcasting song out by perching high up on pole wires.  Male Dickcissels are one of the most distinctive songbirds in North America.

In the open grass fields, which were actually a part of a wildlife management area were a few sparrows.  One of them was this Grasshopper Sparrow.

And the other was this Clay-colored Sparrow.

I also enjoyed seeing this deer run across the field.  Just like freaking Bambi.

Our next stop was going to be Sibley State Park.  That will cover the next post, because Josh and I had plenty of highlights at Sibley.  Stay tuned!


  1. Stupid Whips! I think I'm cursed to repeat that trip at the same time of year every year to try for a picture. I actually got great flying visuals last year in the flashlight like we did with the Barred Owls.
    Regardless of not seeing the Whips this go-round, it was another successful night-birding adventure. Birding at night with friends is about as fun as it gets!

    1. For sure! Those stupid Whips!

      That was a very fun night birding, and I thought the Barred Owl flyover was epic. Those Whips are tough to get visuals on when they are perched. I must have been just feet away from that one for several minutes and scanning multiple branches without any luck..