Oklahoma Day 2 – State 49 Is Now Official

When there were heavy rains on the night of November 6 and the temperature dropped significantly and the winds increased significantly, it appeared that the decision to unofficially get 50+ species the day before had been a good one.  But enter Zach Poland who would be leading the show on the 7th and his preparation, skills and enthusiasm were confidence inspiring.  It also helped that he seemingly had an in with the weather gods as at least where we birded as we did not experience a single drop of rain.  Maybe I had something to do with that as well.  Miraculously in all of the birding I had done in the previous 48 states, I had experienced rain only for small parts of two days – a little in New York and a little in Virginia.  That rain had affected the birding but only marginally.  Similarly there had been little wind and never that combination of the two that may well have made 50 species an impossibility.

Despite a full time job and a family with two young children, Zach Poland is currently the #4 birder on Ebird in Oklahoma for 2019.  I cannot imagine that the three birders who rank ahead of him are better birders than Zach.  He is that good and there is such a positive vibe about him that there was no doubt that we would succeed this day.  And it was pretty clear that he was motivated to beat the 66 species, Floyd, Bob and I had seen the previous day as well as the 81 species I had seen in Kansas.

Zachary Poland

Zach Poland

We began at 7:15 a.m. at Mohawk Park in Tulsa and by 7:45 a.m we had 25 species including both Virginia Rail and Sora, the latter seen briefly.  We also had maybe 1000 Franklin’s Gulls constantly overhead. During my visits to the three states on this last leg of my journey, there would be lots of sparrows – altogether 13 species.  There would be some new ones today and the first of those was a Red Form Fox Sparrow – so different from the ones I see regularly in the Northwest. The best bird came almost at the end.  Zach was pushing through the grass and yelled out something.  I was maybe 30 yards away and could not make out what it was, but from his excitement I knew it was something good and I got to him as best I could – just in time for a quick glance at a Dickcissel – very late for the area.

Fox Sparrow (Red Form and Sooty Form)

Fox Sparrow (2) NB Fox Sparrow

 

It was cold and it was windy but it continued to be dry and we were half way home when we arrived at stop #2, Monument Point at Lake Yahola where there were lots of ducks (8 species) and lots of gulls (3 species) and a brief look at some Least Sandpipers.  Zach’s keen ears picked up an American Pipit, our 19th species at the spot and our 38th for the morning and it was barely 8:00 a.m.   Photos were not so great in the still gray light, but it was pretty hard to miss one of the single American White Pelican on the lake.

American White Pelican

American White Pelican

Now we were back to Mohawk Park at the Mary K. Oxley Nature Center.  It was wonderful with a dash of frustration.  The Center is a real gem – over 800 acres with 9 miles of trails and a 70 acre lake that was dug out by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression.  More than 250 bird species have been recorded there and in our almost two hours there we saw 42 species including an astounding 10 Red Headed Woodpeckers (both adults and juveniles).  Half of the species were new for the day bringing us to 59 making Oklahoma the 49th state with 50+ species – now officially – important as I wanted this day with Zach and Floyd and Bob as parts of the official experience.

The First Red Headed Woodpecker Seen – Oxley Nature Center Logo

Oxley

Red Headed Woodpeckers (Adult and Juvenile)

Red Headed WP Red Headed WP Juvenile

About that frustration.  Zach was persistent in trying to find a LeConte’s Sparrow for us.  Oxley is the best place in the area to find them in November and the prairie grass habitat was perfect.  A beautiful sparrow, I had missed LeConte’s at Quivira in Kansas and had seen only one in my birding life – a mega state rarity at Discovery Park in Seattle last year.  At Oxley we had lots of Swamp Sparrows and Song Sparrows and White Throated Sparrows and Lincoln’s Sparrows.  Finally Zach found one and then one more in a secondary area along the trail.  But unlike the “Swampies” and Songs and White Throats and very much like a LeConte’s, the two seen were in the open for split seconds before returning to the depths of the grasses out of sight.  Countable? Yes.  Photographable? No.  Frustrating? Yes.  Fun?  Yes that too.

LeConte’s Sparrow – Unfortunately the One from Washington

LeConte's Sparrow5r

It was now approaching noon and the goal switched from 50+ to more than 66 (the previous day’s total). We soon reached that as we found new species at the Spartan College Fields.  My only White Winged Dove of the trip flew off its wire perch as soon as I got my camera on it, but the Great Tailed Grackles were more cooperative.

Great Tailed Grackle

Great Tailed Grackle

Now past 66 species for the day, we moved on to the Keystone Lake Dam and Spillway where Zach promised a Black Vulture to go with the Turkey Vultures that we would see later.  Lots of Gulls, Pelicans, Cormorants and Great Blue Herons but not a single Vulture of any kind – until I finally made a contribution to the day and spotted a single Black Vulture soaring away from us.  I will use that as a segue to talk about group dynamics.

Most of my birding on this adventure has been with a single other birder or maybe two.  A few exceptions have been when joining bird walks – Audubon trips or State Ornithological Societies.  It is usually a plus to have many eyes searching for birds but if too many, that may be accompanied by too much conversation making hearing difficult or even putting off the birds.  Only rarely do personalities conflict and prove troublesome.  That was certainly not the case on this day.  It would be hard to imagine a better threesome to have with me than Zach, Floyd and Bob.  Their birding skills far surpass mine and everyone added to the entertainment value of the day.  All had great stories about immense and diverse birding experiences as well as life perspectives.  There were only little glimpses into Zach’s non-birding life but just enough to make me believe that if alone, we would have found mostly full common ground.  Maybe it was because they were also participating in this day, but Floyd and Bob were 100% onboard from the start that a goal for the day would be to surpass the 66 seen without Zach the day before.  In fact after helping me get to 50 each day, there was no sense of competition at all – just enjoying the time together.

The proof of the previous assessment was in the group’s decision on where to head next.  We could head west for some very different habitats but there was not really sufficient time for that.  Instead we switched the focus from me to Zach.  He is an avid County lister but did not have much experience in either Rogers or Mayes counties where Floyd, Bob and I had birded the day before.  So we retraced steps from the previous day and added birds to Zach’s County lists and our day list.  It was particularly interesting that we saw some of the same birds seen the day before in almost exactly the same spots this next day.  For example we again found the Loggerhead Shrike in the same tree and a Yellow Bellied Sapsucker in the same yard.

Yellow Bellied Sapsucker – Day 2

Yellow Bellied Sapsucker

Zach had never seen the giant totem pole so we had to make a return visit to Ed Galloway’s Totem Pole Park.  Here is part of the story:  Ed Galloway (1880-1962) was born in Missouri, fought in the Spanish-American War, and was on his way with his family to California when he took a temporary job in Foyil. He spent over 20 years teaching boys woodworking in the Children Home orphanage in Sand Springs, and retired to property he purchased in Foyil.  Working mostly by himself, Galloway started the Totem Pole in 1937 and finished in 1948. Although sometimes credited as a monument to Native American tribes, Galloway said he built it after he retired so he would simply have something to do. He thought it would be a good thing for youngsters, Boy Scouts in particular, to visit. The totem pole is constructed of concrete over a scrap metal and sandstone rock skeleton. Sixty feet tall, 30 feet in circumference, the pole rests on the back of a giant concrete turtle. Sculpted and brightly painted renditions of spirit lizards, owls, and headressed Indian chiefs climb to the pinnacle.

Who can resist bits of Americana like this – speaking of a different age in America before mass communications and much technology.  I have made a point of visiting similar places on my 50 state journey and they are always good reminders of simple pleasures and how people express and share their passions.  For us it was a fun diversion, an opportunity for some silly photos and also a chance to add Cedar Waxwings to our list.  The place was also overrun by a flock of Yellow Rumped Warblers – our best views of the day.

Blair and Zach and Floyd – There’s A Cedar Waxwing in the Tree, Floyd!

Waxwings

Yellow Rumped Warbler

Yellow Rumped Warbler 1

Cedar Waxwing

Cedar Waxwing

Bob, Zach and Floyd and the World’s Biggest Totem Pole

3 Amigos

We continued retracing yesterday’s route and this time found the gate locked at the Pryor Sewage Treatment ponds.  We were still able to add a number of ducks and the Great Egret but no White Faced Ibis this time.  We ended the day with a large flock of blackbirds that included numerous Brown Headed Cowbirds our 85th species for the day so we did surpass Kansas.  It was also species number 96 for the two day combined – my Oklahoma State Life List.

There was a non-birding spot that caught our interest near the Pryor Ponds on both days.  It is a giant industrial complex in the Mid America Industrial Park that includes the ponds.  There was no signage to identify it but we were told it was a Google server farm.  One picture is from the road and the other is an aerial one from (appropriately) Google Maps.  Neither captures the scale of the complex with huge cooling and power capacities being evident.  I wouldn’t trade it for the birds we saw at the ponds but I am sure a tour inside would be fascinating.

Google

Google

Google or Amazon

I wish I had had a recorder going on these two days in Oklahoma.  Lots of laughs, some debates and lots of stories.  And lots of birds.  With one more state to go I was feeling energized and not at all tired.  In fact I was already beginning to miss the adventure that came with each state, the chance to fully commit to the task at hand while greatly enjoying every aspect of the hunt, the finds, the misses, the varying scenes and habitats, the landscapes and geography and most of all the company of fine people who shared my passion for birds and birding.  There are so many people I hope to see again.  Certainly that is the case for Floyd Murdoch, Bob Holbrook and Zach Poland.  It is not possible to fail to enjoy their company.  Deepest thanks to all three.

 

 

Oklahoma Day 1 – Reliving Some Birding History with Floyd Murdoch and Bob Holbrook – and Making Our Own

It is about 175 miles from Wichita, Kansas to Tulsa, Oklahoma.  Excluding stops and with speed limits as high as 75 mph for much of the trip, my journey on the morning of March 6 would take something over 2.5 hours.  My official day of birding was to be the following day with Zach Poland, but the stars had aligned in an interesting way and there were some exciting developments that would affect that and provide an opportunity for some fun on the 6th as well.  There was also a possible weather complication with showers predicted for much of March 7th.  When possible in my 50/50/50 quests, I had followed a pattern of a birding day in one state followed by a travel day to the next state and then repeating that as I moved along.

The Route

Route Map

The travel day was also an insurance day.  If I had failed to reach the 50 species on the designated birding day, I could try the first state again on the travel day sacrificing sleep if that meant a late arrival at the next destination.  In Kansas as had been the case in every other of the 47 states completed, the bird gods, weather gods and excellent local birding companions collaborated to allow me to find 50 species on the designated day.  So I left Kansas very early on the morning of the 6th thinking I would do some casual birding in Oklahoma along the way and maybe push for 50 that day if possible – a pre-insurance approach just in case the weather gods turned against me.

I had been successful finding 50 species on my own in several states on travel days before, using Ebird research to find good spots along my route to try for the magical number.  Zach Poland had been so thorough in his preparations for my joining him and so persuasive that finding the 50 species would be “a cinch”, that I had not done any research on my own for Oklahoma.  BUT…I had an ace up my sleeve – actually two aces.  In a convoluted path that started with super birder Ken Knittle in my home state of Washington and went through a number of other great birders in a number of states including Oklahoma, I was contacted by Floyd Murdoch who was interested in joining me in Oklahoma.  This was after I had found Zach Poland and arranged to bird with him, but as will soon become clear to those of you who do not already know Floyd’s story and place in birding lore, this was an opportunity not to be missed and one that would add immensely not just to my birding in Oklahoma but to the story of my 50 state adventure as a whole.  And better yet, a good friend of Floyd’s, Bob Holbrook, would be joining us.  They were available on the afternoon of the 6th and all day on the 7th.  I was thrilled and so was Zach.  First a bit about birding on my own in the morning and then an explanation and continuance of the story that will explain the “why” of our excitement.

The plan was to meet Floyd and Bob in Tulsa in the afternoon which left me time to bird on my own earlier.  I had no hotspots in mind which in some ways made it more fun as I simply pulled off the highway almost as soon as I crossed into Oklahoma and just picked a likely road and explored.  It was only 7:30 in the morning (love those high speed limits) when I exited Interstate 35 onto U.S. Highway 177 and then turned onto N. 60th Street in Braman, Oklahoma. This took me through rural farmland with scattered brush and a few trees.  I checked the fields, the wires, the copses of trees and the brush (and a small pond) and in a half hour had 15 species including an unexpected Red Headed Woodpecker, a fairly rare Raven, 2 Harris’s Sparrows and both Eastern and Western Meadowlarks – hearing both distinctive songs.  I really had no idea what was around so I was happy with the results.  Back on the Interstate, I added House Sparrows, Rock Pigeons and Red Winged Blackbirds at a rest stop and then turned east on Highway 412, the Cimarron Turnpike, and quickly added Mallard, Northern Harrier and Hooded Merganser.

Western Meadowlark

Western Meadowlark

Feeling that I was way ahead of schedule, I again got off the highway and added some more species including an American Kestrel and a Red Shouldered Hawk among others and found myself with 30 species by around 10 a.m.  I was something over an hour away from Tulsa where I would meet Floyd and Bob so I decided to forego further birding and head to that rendezvous.

Red Shouldered Hawk

red-shouldered-hawk-1.jpg

Where to start about Floyd Murdoch?  And once started where to end?  There could be many separate blog posts on Floyd and also his buddy Bob Holbrook.  I will start with that it was a blast birding with these two guys and it was like taking a ride through the history of birding in the U.S.  I started birding in 1971 while still in law school at Stanford.  That was a very different world without the internet, Google Maps, GPS systems, Ebird, cellphones, email, personal computers and digital cameras. I had a very inexpensive pair of binoculars and no spotting scope.  You contacted people face to face, by letters or by telephone.  At most phone trees were sources of information about what was seen or being seen when and where.  It was 40 years before the release of the movie, “The Big Year” .

It was two years after Jim Tucker, Stuart Keith and others founded the American Birdwatcher’s Association, which soon was renamed the American Birding Association (the ABA).  I had never heard of that group and my attention was on another much older ABA – the American Bar Association which I soon hoped to join.  Benton Basham became membership chairman in 1971 and he was responsible for much of the organization’s growth in the next decade.  The current membership of the birding ABA is almost 50,000 strong.   For comparison there are almost 4 times as many dues paying members in the lawyer ABA.  Might the world be better off if the number was higher in one and lower in the other?  Readers can decide for themselves.

Unlike the Audubon Society (Societies) which were mostly involved with conservation and research, the ABA was focused on the sport/hobby of birding with listing being a driving force and Big Year’s were a Big Deal.  In 1953, Roger Tory Peterson traveled the U.S. and set the Big Year record at 572 species.  Building on that experience, the Keith brothers added another 27 species coming all so close to the then magical 600 mark.  In 1971 Ted Parker, a college freshman took the Big Year lead with 626 species.  As Scott Weidensaul says in his wonderful history of birding, Of a Feather, “Lists that had once taken a lifetime to accumulate were now the work of a single frenzied, year”. (Page 290).

Enter Floyd Murdoch, a graduate student at the University of Michigan, and Kansas teenager Kenn Kaufman.  Floyd took a year off from his research and set out with a goal of seeing 600 species.  Kaufman from the start was out to break Parker’s record and despite very little funds, he did so ending 1973 with 663 species, his story recounted in his popular book Kingbird Highway.  What many people do not know is that it was Floyd Murdoch who set the new record that year with 669 species.  I heard many stories about that year and could easily write a blog about them.  But equally of interest were the many stories Floyd shared about his birding all over the world, his work on the boards of many charitable organizations, his development work in poor countries around the globe and his time as President of the National Audubon Society.  He is a devout Seventh Day Adventist and a life long Republican (forgive him but only because he does not support Donald Trump).

Floyd’s perspective on birding is best summed up by an intro to an article in College and University DIALOGUE :  “Spend an hour with Floyd Murdoch and you’ll walk away a convert—to the joys of bird watching. Even if you’ve never ever looked for a bird, he’ll have you convinced it’s the most exciting thing in the world. For Floyd, bird watching goes beyond a mere hobby. It’s a passion that opens up doors to bigger issues: creation, camaraderie, conservation, a God of love who creates beauty.”  My personal take would omit the reference to a God of love although I would not argue about that for him or anyone else who views the world through that lens, but it is otherwise exactly in sync with my view of birding and especially my experiences with, the purpose behind and the lessons from my 50/50/50 Birding Adventure believing birding to be a passion that opens up doors to bigger issues – especially ones of shared values, shared experiences and shared appreciation of birds and nature and those that love them and finding beauty in that – despite our differences in other areas.

Floyd Murdoch and Bob Holbrook

Floyd and Bob

Bob Holbrook was another Adventist birder and although not as famous as Floyd, his credentials (and skills) were very impressive.  He is not a lister (or at least an admitted or publishing one) but has birded since his youth and has traveled to 95 countries and birded in most of them.  The size of his Life List never came up but I got the sense it was well past half of the birds of the world and I think he has well more than 100 species in each of the 50 states.  He was also a fun companion with great eyes and was often the first to find a bird during our time together.  The photo above was taken at a famous roadside attraction off the famous “Route 66” in Foyil, Oklahoma.  I will include more about it in the next blog about the second day in Oklahoma, because we did return with Zach.  Hint:  it is in front of the World’s Largest Concrete Totem Pole a creation of Ed Galloway.  More later.

We birded primarily in Rogers County northeast of Tulsa starting at the Rogers State University Conservation Reserve.  Eleven of the 19 species we found there were new for the day and it began to look like 50 species would be reachable.   Two species that were often heard on this trip but not always seen were Red Bellied Woodpecker and Northern Cardinal.  Here I had nice photo chances for both.

Red Bellied Woodpecker

Red Bellied Woodpecker (2)

Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal

I also took advantage of a great photo opportunity for Northern Bobwhite.  Unfortunately these birds were in a pen, so not “countable” in the wild, but I include the photo anyhow.

Northern Bobwhite

Bobwhite

We continued birding in the Claremore, Oklahoma area and found an Eastern Phoebe and a Turkey Vulture and then Bob spied a gray and white bird on a small roadside tree.  Was it another Northern Mockingbird or a Loggerhead Shrike?  It allowed us to get close and the picture is proof that it was the latter, my 45th species for the day.

Loggerhead Shrike

Loggerhead Shrike1

Species 46 was a Yellow Bellied Sapsucker in the same area.

Yellow Bellied Sapsucker

Yellow Breasted Sapsucker

When I had spoken to both Zach and Floyd  before arriving in Oklahoma, they had both emphasized how the timing was working out well since waterfowl were beginning to arrive and would guarantee getting fifty species.  So far on this day the only water birds were a Pied Billed Grebe, an American Coot and a Mallard.  Our next stop took care of that and raced us past 50 species.  At a pond on South Oak Street, still in Claremore, we added 8 new duck species bringing my total to 54.  So the insurance policy was in place and state number 49 was unofficially complete.  If the weather turned against us the following day, there was money in the ban so to speak.  The weather did not turn bad and we did not have to draw on these reserves, but that will be a story for the next blog post.  And there would be more this day as well.

Floyd was familiar with every nook and cranny in Rogers County where the family had a home and in neighboring Mayes County.  It was in Mayes that we had one of my favorite stops and with a favorite story.  When we arrived at the Pryor Sewage Ponds, Floyd was surprised to find that the gate was open.  We had found gates open twice before earlier and counted that up as good luck.  Here was better than good as it gave us access to two ponds filled with good birds.  We found 16 species, half of which were new for the day and included our only shorebirds:  Killdeer, Greater Yellowlegs and a Wilson’s Snipe.  We also added two gulls:  Franklin’s and Bonaparte’s and better yet, two waders: Great Egret and White Faced Ibis.  The latter was quite a surprise, not just in being there but in how we found it.  Bob and I walked up to the edge of the first pond and the Ibis must have been no more than a few feet away but down along the bank invisible to us.  Fortunately it just flew across the pond and we were able to get good views and an ok photo.

Franklin’s Gull

Franklin's Gull

Great Egret

Great Egret1

White Faced Ibis

WF Ibis1

As we were about to leave an official looking pick up truck drove up to the gate.  Were we in trouble?  Not at all.  He was indeed an official and was there to close and lock the gate but was happy that we were having a good visit and invited us back anytime.  He enjoyed learning about some of the birds we were seeing and was interested in my 50 state Adventure which Floyd explained to him.  So what could have been a down moment proved to be an up one with yet another person giving his best when given the chance.  There have been so many of these moments during my trips.  We left the ponds with 62 species.  There would be 4 more species ahead of us including one good and controversial one.

Not far away still in Pryor we found several birds foraging in the leaf litter along the road and in the nearby brush and small trees.  We added House Finch, American Goldfinch and Swamp Sparrow to our day list and then all of us focused on a “different” small bird bobbing its tail as it foraged on the ground.  We noted its distinct and large supercilium and its drab yellow brown color.  We all immediately thought Palm Warbler from all of those details and the behavior.  Ebird noted it as a rarity at this time but we did not give it a second thought.  Later I was contacted by the Ebird reviewer who asked for a photo.  Mine was not great, but I felt it supported the identification, and forwarded it to him.  He wondered if it might instead be a juvenile Orange Crowned Warbler.  The ID was not important to me but I recalled the Palm Warbler was a new County Bird for Floyd so hoped we had been correct  It turned out that the Orange Crowned would have been a new County Species for him as well so it did not matter, but we were correct that it was a Palm Warbler.

Palm Warbler

Palm Warbler

We called Zach Poland and told him the good news that we had surpassed 50 species for the day and arranged to meet for dinner.  On the way we found a small flock of Canada Geese, our 66th species for the day.  Dinner was at a fish market/restaurant and I overdid it with too much fried food, my first in quite a while and I hoped the weight I had lost in several weeks of dieting before the trip was not returning.  But it was a celebratory meal and having Zach Poland added to the group was great.  Lots of stories at dinner and it was clear that we would have lots of fun the next day.  Zach was pleased that we had more than the benchmark 50 species, but I was pretty sure he was determined to beat our mark for the day and was confident we would do so.  You will have to read the next bog post to find out if the confidence was well placed and what our total was despite a change in the weather with dropping temperatures, heavier winds and those predicted showers.

 

No Jayhawks and No Seahawks – Birding in Kansas

This was to be the last leg of my 50/50/50 Adventure – birding in Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas. Kansas was the only state I had not visited before, so even the touchdown at the Wichita Airport was meaningful. I had come close before – about 7 miles to the west as part of the “Chickens” tour with High Lonesome Tours in April 2016. Another member of our group had not been to Kansas either, but we were unable to talk Forrest Davis into a short detour to check off a new state rather than checking off a new species.  I would be birding with Tom Ewert on November 5th. Our email exchanges and telephone calls had been positive and enjoyable. I was sure the day would be fun but Tom was a little unsure if we would be able to get the targeted 50 species as this was a “tweener” time after most of the fall migration was complete and before all of the winter birds were in place. He did not want Kansas to be the only state that failed to produce 50 species in a day on my journeys. I don’t mind breaking the suspense to report that we surpassed 50 species early in the day and with Tom’s excellent guidance we found 81 species – a surprise to both of us. It was also a very fun day reaffirming the major point of my project – lots of great people in our birding community and birding with them is a very enjoyable activity.

Jayhawk and Seahawk

Jayhawk seahawk-logo.jpg
About that Jayhawk/Seahawnk title. At least in the bird world, there are no actual “Jayhawks” or “Seahawks”. The Seahawk is the mascot and name for the NFL football team in Seattle. Birdwise, it is most likely an Osprey but the name itself was chosen as a combination of “Sea” as in Seattle and Hawk – as in many non-specific birds of prey. The history of the Jayhawk is more complex. It is the mascot of the University of Kansas and is supposedly a combination of Jay as in Blue Jay and Hawk as in Sparrow Hawk (now a Kestrel). The name was coined in 1848 and the reader is referred to https://kuhistory.ku.edu/articles/blackmars-origin-jayhawk for an interesting historical account.

As related to my birding trip in Kansas, no Ospreys but lots of Blue Jays and Kestrels but I certainly saw lots of “Jayhawks” on the sweatshirts of KU supporters even though I was birding around Wichita – home to Wichita State University known as the Wheat Shockers – and I can conjure no avian reference there. So much for that diversion – on to the birding. On visits to previous states, I found that several species could be found around my motel before heading off to more traditional spots. European Starlings, House Sparrows and Rock Doves are often around and while almost always found later as well, there is a sense of momentum that comes with an early start to a list. Tom was picking me up at daybreak, but I was up early and so walked around my motel and found a little pond that got me off to a great start without any of those aforementioned species. There were 5 duck species, a Great Blue Heron, a Carolina Wren and a Song Sparrow. It turned out that the Wood Duck observation was the only one of the day. A great start for sure.

Tom arrived ahead of schedule and there was an immediate comfort level reaffirming my good feelings from prior communications. We headed off to Maple Grove Cemetery where we found many of the more common birds that were expected and one great surprise. My 50/50/50 trips are really focused or maybe better “unfocused” on simply finding 50 species in a day unlike many of my other birding trips which are often targeting specific species without regard to quantities. On those excursions I am chasing a rarity or perhaps trying to add to a year list, a state list or my ABA list. No ABA “Lifers” were possible in Kansas but there was a possibility for a new ABA Life photo – IF we could find a Winter Wren. Tom thought it was possible and in fact had scouted some potentially good areas the day before. He had not found a Winter Wren then but this was the time they should be arriving so maybe we would get lucky. As we passed by a small stream – perfect habitat – Tom perked up and said he was hearing the “kilp” call/rattle of our target. These are notoriously skulky birds and are very quick to pop into the open but then disappear even more quickly into brush. This was the act we watched for several moments – with fleeting glances at best. Then it was in the open – for less than a second – insufficient time for me to get in focus. There was one more somewhat open view in abysmal light and I finally got a photo – a very poor one that is better than perhaps only one of my other ABA photos – the equally elusive Sinaloa Wren found onto Santa Gertrudis Lane in Arizona last February. Use your imagination when you look at the photo but poor or not, I was thrilled and our day list was now at 28 species and it was not yet 8:00 a.m.

Winter Wren

winter-wren.jpg

We picked up a few more species on the way to Chisholm Creek Park and Great Plains Nature Center where 3 goose and 3 sparrow species brought us to 41 for the day and Tom was definitely more relaxed. I also saw my first Osage oranges. Fortunately they were discovered on the ground and not after one hit me in the head.  Perhaps not as bad as getting hit by a coconut, but with a diameter over 4 inches and solid, they are dangerous.  Many were seen during the day on the ground and still on trees and several were heard thudding on the ground.

Tom Ewert at Great Plains Nature Center

Tom Ewert

Osage Orange

Osage Orange Osage Oranges in Tree

After the Nature Center, we did one of those things that comes with having local experts and local knowledge. We stopped at a Walmart and got the Great Tailed Grackles that hang out there looking for handouts. Not a pristine environment but in this exercise, a species is a species regardless. At Cheney Reservoir and SP a Savannah Sparrow was species 49 for the day and we still had a lot of birding ahead. Quickly on Silver Lake Road we added another 6 species and there was no longer any concern that Kansas would not join the other 47 states where I had success. A lowly Eurasian Collared Dove was the 50th species for the day.

Great Tailed Grackle – A Walmart Special

Great Tailed Grackle1

One of the fun parts of birding in many different states is seeing the variation in species in different areas.  Song Sparrows and Dark Eyed Juncos are very common in my native Washington and are found in many other states including Kansas.  Note the differences between the typical variations found in the two states.

Song Sparrows (Washington and Kansas)

Song Sparrow  Song Sparrow

Dark Eyed Juncos (Washington and Kansas)

Dark Eyed Junco  Dark Eyed Junco

When I first started planning a trip to Kansas and knew it would have to be in November I thought that waterfowl would have to play a major role in reaching a good total. Inevitably this led me to Quivira National Wildlife Refuge. Birders I knew said this was a must see place and early conversations with Tom confirmed this and he thought this spot might have to be the place to get us our 50 species. Now with 50 species already in the record book, we headed west to enjoy this special place. The Kansas Ornithological Society had trips at Quivira the previous weekend and Tom had served as a guide. A highlight at the Refuge is the concentration of Sandhill Cranes with a sub-highlight sometime being the inclusion of some Whooping Cranes as they passed through in migration on their way south to Aransas NWR in Texas. On the Sunday before I arrived 4 Whooping Cranes had been at Quivira. We hoped they might have stayed but it was a long shot.

Well, there were no Whooping Cranes – just thousands of Sandhills and by the end of the day we had 52 species at Quivira and had added 25 species for the day – all but 4 being water related. One that was not water related was a Short Eared Owl that Tom spied hunting on a grassland behind one of the ponds. That would turn out to be the only owl seen on the entire trip.  There were also 7 species of sparrows including two of my favorites – Field Sparrow and Harris’s Sparrow.  But the highlights really were the waterfowl with 5 species of geese, 2 swans and 9 ducks.  There were also maybe 100 American Avocets.

American Avocet

American Avocet

Field Sparrow

Field Sparrow

Harris’s Sparrow

Harris's Sparrow

We had our rarest bird of the day at Quivira also – a late Wilson’s Phalarope that we originally identified as a Red Necked Phalarope but when Tom posted the photo (distant) on a Kansas Birding site, the consensus was Wilson’s.

Wilson’s Phalarope

Wilson's Phalarope

All in all 36 of the 81 species seen during the day were water related – geese, ducks, swans, shorebirds, waders, gulls, grebes or cormorants. We did even better than Tom had suspected in these categories and much better with the passerines although nothing like the experience would have been in the spring or fall migrations.  And while we had hawks and jays, there were neither Jayhawks nor Seahawks.

Sandhill Cranes Silhouetted at Sunset

Sandhill Cranes at Sunset

In my write-ups after these 50/50/50 birding trips, I try to cover some non-birding issues but stress that it is the birding that links us as part of a wonderful community with many wonderful people all with their own stories.  Tom Ewert is a great case in point.  I had contacted him via Wichita Audubon and he had graciously agreed to join me for the day.  He had done great scouting before our trip and was super on the day of birding itself both as an excellent birder and a very interesting person.  Most birders I know are more to the left than the right on the political spectrum, but there are Republican birders out there, and the states I was visiting on this trip are definitely Republican strongholds.  None moreso than Kansas which is very conservative.  Nothing is more indicative of this than that Kansas (and Wichita) is the Headquarters for Koch Industries one of the largest privately owned companies in the U.S. and is home to the Koch family with its enormous influence on the Republican party through massive financial contributions.  Fortunately Tom and I were mostly on the same page so no difficulty there.  His major issues were with Kansas politics that are often at odds with conservation issues and threaten the loss of birding habitat.

I admired Tom’s birding acumen and his activism on conservation issues.  I also admired his personal story of overcoming a potentially serious health threat.  Last year with little warning, he found that he had a meningioma – a tumor that forms on membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord just inside the skull.  It required brain surgery and fortunately as is usually the case was determined to be benign.  Nonetheless there are impacts from the tumor and the surgery that are similar to strokes and require time and lots of rehab efforts to overcome.  Other than a scar on his head where the surgeons cut through his skull, there seem to be no impacts.  The desire to get back into the field to bird was a motivator in his recovery efforts.  It has been my privilege to bird with people like Tom who have overcome major health matters and who continue to add to and benefit from our community.

Some of my good birding friends in Washington are very serious County Listers – a “disease” I fortunately have not caught.  Tom has it big time and while I am sure I have the details wrong, I think he either has already seen or is close to seeing 100 species in each county in Kansas.  This takes on a lot more meaning when you understand that there are 105 counties in Kansas (Washington by contrast has only 39) and that the distance from Northeast Kansas to Southwest Kansas is over 420 miles.

Some other quick reflections on Kansas:  (1) At least where I was it was flat – VERY flat – did not even notice a hill.  (2)  Kansas is an “open carry” state, although I never saw any firearms.  (3) Despite a big downturn with big changes at Boeing, there is a strong aerospace industry in Kansas and the Wichita airport is as beautiful an airport as I have seen. (4)  A big surprise to me was that Pizza Hut was founded by the Carney Brothers while students at Wichita State University in 1958.  And just saying – Carney certainly sounds more Irish than the expected Italian as a “pizza heritage”.  (5)  Kansas is a very religious state including a sizable Mennonite population.  Tom was raised in that tradition but left it.  As with the Amish in Ohio and particularly at Magee Marsh, many in the group are excellent birders – and yes, there is a story there – but not for this blog to tell.

So Kansas was the 50th state I had visited and the 48th state where I had observed more than 50 species in a single day.  I thoroughly enjoyed my visit and like so many other places along the way during this 50 state Adventure, I hope to get back.  I would love to get to the prairies in the western part of the state or to experience migration in the eastern part.  The presence of both eastern and western species is a fascinating part of the Kansas ornithological story and explains why more than 450 species have been recorded in this completely landlocked state.  I was off to Oklahoma and there will be stories to tell from that experience – many.

Black Tailed Gull or Yellow Browed Warbler: A Chasing Dilemma

On Friday afternoon, October 18th, I saw a post on Tweeters that a Black Tailed Gull had been reported from Port Townsend, WA.  I had seen one on the log booms in Tacoma in 2011 but did not get a photo.  If I could find it and get a picture that would help with one of my goals – removing species from my ABA seen but not photographed list (there are 28 species on that list).  I have been helping Cindy after her knee replacement surgery but a trip to Port Townsend seemed manageable.  I planned to go on Saturday and sent emails to birding friends to see if they were interested.  Then things got complicated.

Good friend Melissa Hafting texted me that a Yellow Browed Warbler had been seen in Victoria, B.C.  Frankly I had no idea what a Yellow Browed Warbler was.  Quick research showed it to be one of the “Leaf Warblers”, tiny Eurasian Warblers.  This species had never been seen in Canada or in the Lower 48.  Western Hemisphere records were limited to 2 in remote Alaska and one in Mexico.  This was a Mega-rarity. But Victoria was a much more difficult and longer trip than to Port Townsend.  No doubt a better bird but also more of a gamble and a much longer absence from care giving duties.

Photo of the Yellow Browed Warbler from First Sighting – Geoffrey Newell

First YB WA

Nobody was able to join me to go to Port Townsend, but friends were interested in Victoria.  A plan came together quickly.  Carl Haynie would pick up John Puschock in North Seattle and they would pick up Ann Marie Wood in Mountlake Terrace.  They would drive to Vancouver and catch an early ferry on Saturday morning.  There was room for one more in the car.  Meanwhile Melissa was already headed to Victoria to be at Panama Flats first thing in the morning.

There are lots of reasons to cherish my relationship with Cindy.  One is that she understands the often seemingly crazy parts of chasing rare birds.  Another is that she is a pretty tough gal.  That has meant that her post surgery recovery has been a great success and also that she could do (actually overdo) without me even for a long day.  All I had to do now was get to Ann Marie’s by 4:00 a.m.  Sure let’s go!!

Not a whole lot of sleep but I was there before 4:00 a.m.  John and Carl were on time and we were off.  Three hours later we were on the Tsawwassen Ferry to Victoria.  With luck we would be looking for the bird by 8:40 a.m.  Just as we were arriving at the Ferry terminal, I got a text from Melissa.  She was looking at the Warbler!!  It was there!!  Amend the previous sentence.  With luck we would be looking AT the bird by 8:40 a.m.

Birders at the Scene

Crowd

I am going to skip a lot of details but what followed upon our arrival was an extended case of frustrating hide and seek.  There were at least 25 birders there many of whom who had already seen the Warbler and some who had almost seen it and others who were still trying to see it.  Two younger birders with truly keen eyes seemed to be constantly saying “there it is” and others were saying similar words with somewhat less regularity but the same conviction.  I tried to follow the directions of all of them but just could not see the bird.  Sadly this is not the first time I have found myself in a similar place as not only are my eyes not very keen but they are even worse at pulling a bird out of a detailed jumble of leaves and branches.  I am wretched at “Where’s Waldo” as proof of the problem.

The bird seemed to prefer the tops of the trees, constant activity never resting, and burying itself among and behind leaves of which there were still many.  The light was dreadful – gray skies, a few raindrops and the area was constantly backlit.  And it covered far more territory than I would have expected.  Friends Melissa and Ilya were most helpful in pointing me in the right direction, but I was not able to get a view that told me with any confidence that I had seen the target.  Not sure of the eye brow or of the two wingbars, but it was certainly a very small bird that I saw.  But was it the prize?  And then finally I could at least make out the eye brow.  And then it disappeared again.  And then another peek and maybe there were two wingbars.  And this continued for several peeks interspersed with those disappearing acts – never a good look but at least cumulatively finally I was certain I had seen it if not well.  A picture would confirm it, but trying to get it in the viewfinder of the camera was even harder than in the view of my binoculars.  But I tried…and tried and tried and tried.  And after literally one hundred attempts I did get THE Yellow Browed Warbler in my viewfinder.  And surprise, surprise I actually got a couple of photos and a bigger surprise, they were actually not horrible under the conditions at hand.

Yellow Browed Warbler

Yellow Browed Warbler Flight

Yellow Browed Warbler1

I continued to try for better views and photos without much success.  The poor views and viewing conditions made it a less exhilarating experience than some other successful chases but in no way decreased the sheer amazement of actually seeing a bird that I never expected I would see anywhere in the world let alone in the ABA Area.  More than 50 birders were there during our visit and many more were arriving as we left around 10:35.  The Warbler was last seen around 10:45 a.m. and despite the presence of many birders for the remainder of the day, it was not seen again on Saturday.  Was it gone?  Then it was seen again in the morning on Sunday and took a midday break before returning later that afternoon.  It was seen by many happy birders from all over Canada and the U.S. and even made it onto television in Vancouver.  It is now Monday morning.  I have friends who are trying for it today.  I hope they are successful.

Remember the Black Tailed Gull that started this post.  Many people searched for it on Saturday and it was not seen.  I guess I made the right choice.

Prairie States Wrap – Up – Nearing the End

This will not be real long, but having finished the blog posts for the states recently visited in the Midwest, I wanted to do a quick overview summary.  For starters maybe they should be “Prairie States” as opposed to the Midwest.  I hope nobody is offended with either choice.  In order visited the states are Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Nebraska.  All at least had prairies but especially since I was only in the eastern parts of the Dakotas and Nebraska, I hardly had a taste of real prairie country.  I do hope to get back to do it right.

The Route

Fly in to Minneapolis.  Then Rochester, MN; Grand Forks, ND; Vermillion, SD; Sioux City, IO; Lincoln, NE; fly home from Omaha.

Prairie States Trip

Some numbers: 

These were states 43 through 47 in my 50 State journey/saga/adventure where I have endeavored to see 50 species on single days in each of our 50 states.  So far so good, as I saw that threshold number in each of these states as I have in each of the preceding 42.   I traveled more than 1500 miles by car during the 10 days.

The remaining 3 states are Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas.  If the bird gods cooperate, they will be added to the list later this year and the in the field part of the 50/50/50 Adventure will be completed.  Ahead will hopefully be a book sharing stories, experiences and insights gained along the way.  Also ahead will be some presentations to birding groups with at least a few invitations already in hand.  The purpose of all of this will be to inspire others to create and pursue their own adventures and to have their passions take them to special places with special people.

Along the way I have birded with individuals and groups in each of the states visited both on the actual “project days” and in days preceding or following.  Being with members of the local birding communities in each state has been an important part of this endeavor and has given me the greatest return on the time that I have invested.  I have not kept track of the exact number but know it has been more than 400 people.

The state with the most birds on a single day is Maryland – well over 100 – but since it is an exception to my normal rules, the records are fuzzy and inexact as it predates my Ebird records by almost 40 years.  The reason for this exception is that it was an extraordinary day of birding with the legendary Chandler Robbins, a co-author of my (and maybe your) first birding guide, Birds of North America.  I simply wanted that day to be part of my story.  Leaving out Maryland, the highest number was the 102 seen on May 25, 2019 with Mike Resch in New Hampshire.  The fewest seen were 51 on the Big Island in Hawaii on February 6, 2019 with Lance Tanino.

Altogether the cumulative numbers for species seen are 494 species for the 50 days in the 47 states (465 if Hawaii is excluded) and 660 species for the 47 states counting additional days birding on the same trips in those states (629 if Hawaii is excluded).

I have not kept track of miles traveled, motel beds slept in or dollars spent.  Those are significant numbers, too, but my lists are only of birds.

The 5 Prairie/Midwest States

Details and many photos are included in the blog posts for each individual state.  This summary overview picks just the top birds and a single favorite photo for each state and again thanks the birders that aided me so much.

For just the 5 Prairie/Midwest states, I saw 153 species.

     Minnesota

Birded with Craig Mandel and a fun group of birders.  66 species seen.  Best birds were the 10 warblers and 3 vireos.  Favorite photo was of a Magnolia Warbler.

          Magnolia Warbler

Magnolia Warbler2

     North Dakota

Birded with David Lambeth.  83 species seen.  Best birds were a Krider’s Red Tailed Hawk and a Red Headed Woodpecker.  Favorite photo was of the Krider’s Red Tailed Hawk.

        Krider’s Red Tailed Hawk

Krider's Takeoff

     South Dakota

Birded with David Swanson and Paul Roisen.  59 species seen.  Best birds were an Eastern Screech Owl and a Field Sparrow.  Favorite photo was of a White Breasted Nuthatch.

      White Breasted Nuthatch

White Breasted Nuthatch2

     Iowa

Birded with Paul Roisen and Bill Huser.  59 species seen.  Best birds were a Blue Grosbeak and a Lark Sparrow.  Favorite photo was of a Sedge Wren.

    Sedge Wren

Sedge Wren3

     Nebraska

Birded with Michael Willison and Knut Hansen.  91 species seen.  Best birds were a Sabine’s Gull, a Dickcissel and a Peregrine Falcon.  Favorite photo was of a Yellow Throated Vireo.

          Yellow Throated Vireo

Yellow Throated Vireo2

There were no new ABA Life birds nor any new ABA Life photos on the trip but the photos of the Sedge Wren and Yellow Throated Vireo were significantly better than others I have taken.  The birding itself was quite different than in most of the other states as the role played by lakes and surrounding areas was critical in each state.  I was continuously surprised to find little pockets of important diverse habitat in these lake areas and out among the seemingly endless fields of soy beans and corn.  To a greater or lesser degree in each state, the number of species seems larger than expected due in significant part to the presence of both eastern and western species.  This area is the easternmost range for many western birds and the westernmost range for many eastern species.

My appreciation of and thanks for the help from the extraordinary birders who were kind and generous enough to join me cannot be understated.  Great times in the company of great birders and great folks.  Many thanks.

 

Iowa – Really Good Help Really, Really Helps!

I have met so many wonderful people around the United States while trying for my fifty species in each of them.  And I have had tremendous help from many wonderful folks as well.  Some of that help has been organizational or logistical including planning, providing information and providing contacts, and some of the help has been in the field, accompanying me and helping me find and identify birds.  In Iowa, I had extraordinary help from a pretty awesome guy — Paul Roisen.

I think it is how Paul is all the time rather than a particular interest in my undertaking, but he jumped in with both feet and was critical in hooking me up with birding resources in North and South Dakota and essentially fully taking care of Iowa.  He joined me with Dave Swanson in South Dakota and then was my guide in Iowa having another great birder, Bill Huser join us in the morning.  Despite a later than most start, Paul has the number 2 Ebird list for Iowa.  He is also number 10 in neighboring Nebraska and oh yeah, also number 12 in South Dakota.  I have not researched it but believe he is near the top for a lot of counties in those states as well.  He does a LOT of birding!!  And just for the record, Bill Huser is no slouch being number 5 in North Dakota.  They were great company and superb birders.  I would have missed many species without them.

When we birded together in South Dakota, we decided to move our birding day up from the 19th to the 18th because Paul’s research suggested that there was a chance of bad weather on the 19th.  It worked perfectly.  When he met me at my motel in the Sioux City area in the morning, he was excited because he had already been out and had found a “special bird”.  We headed to Graceland Cemetery and went to “the spot”.  There they were – Red Crossbills – not a great rarity but not common and a great start for the day.

Red Crossbill

Red Crossbill Female

In the same area we first heard and then saw some Pine Siskins, another good species.  During our 45 minutes at the cemetery we had 15 species including numerous Chipping Sparrows and many Eastern Bluebirds.

Chipping Sparrow

Chipping Sparrow

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird1

This was clearly a great start and Paul was pumped.  We then met Bill Huser at Bacon Creek Park.  We added a few species but it was much slower than expected.  One added species was a Red Bellied Woodpecker which has to be one of the most misnamed species as there is hardly a red belly.  It was species number 21 for the day.

Red Bellied Woodpecker

Red Bellied Woodpecker

For the next hour or so we birded non-specific habitats in the area and added species here and there including Wild Turkeys, Gray Catbird and a Hairy Woodpecker.  There was no doubt about the ID of the latter but there is some doubt whether the picture below is of the bird initially seen as there were Downy Woodpeckers in the area as well.  It can be challenging to distinguish between Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers.  Usually the bill length is a key factor with that of the Downy being significantly smaller.  What do you think?

Downy Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker

Hairy Woodpecker

Hairy Woodpecker1

A flyover Cooper’s Hawk was our 30th species and it was only 10 a.m.  But there was definitely a feeling of things being slow – or as Paul and Bill called it, “as slow as we have ever seen it.”  At Stone State Park, we added Yellow Throated and Red Eyed Vireo and had a brief look at a Red Headed Woodpecker.  I was not able to get a photo of any and this was particularly disappointing for the Yellow Throated Vireo as my only photo of this species was very poor.  [Later I would get a great photo in Nebraska.]  Still slow though.  This is where local expertise is so valuable – knowing specific habitat areas and even some private areas where more species may be found.  It was a little like pulling teeth but mostly one at a time, we reached 40 species a bit after noon.

I was confident we would get to 50 but I could sense that Paul was unhappy about the slow day, but he was at least as committed as I was.  Bill had to leave soon so we would be on our own.  We visited some lakes and added a few new species at each including a Virginia Rail and surprisingly one of the only Song Sparrows I had on the entire 5 state trip – our 48th species for the day.

American White Pelicans at Sandhill Lake

White Pelicans

As a birding spot “Square 280th” does not sound like much but it proved an important stop for us as we had 16 species there including 6 new ones for the day getting us past the “magical 50” for the day.  We only had a single Sedge Wren but it was the most cooperative bird and I was able to get some very nice photos.  I had worked so hard to get my first photo of this guy last year in Alabama and it was not much of a picture.  These were very pleasing.

Sedge Wren

Sedge Wren2

Sedge Wren3

Eureka!! We had more than 50 species.  There were no more spots that were likely to produce tons of new species, but Paul had ideas of places to try.  We continued on with the plan being to try a few places as we worked back to my motel and an early conclusion enabling me to move on to Nebraska.  Paul took us to the Owego Wetland Complex where we had two surprises, an Eastern Kingbird and a Blue Grosbeak, both a little late.

Blue Grosbeak

Blue Grosbeak

Just as Paul noted surprise that we had not seen any Cedar Waxwings, he spied one near Elk Creek Pond, then another and another and eventually we had 40.  Immediately after that I saw a bird perched on a lone branch that turned out to be a very surprising Lark Sparrow.

Cedar Waxwings

Cedar Waxwings

Lark Sparrow

Lark Sparrow1

And then a bit down the road an Eastern Towhee flashed across the road.  I went for a photo and Paul went back to the car to get his camera.  The Towhee did not cooperate and we could not find it again.  It would be the last new species for the day – number 59.

So Paul had now played a direct role in my 50 species day in both South Dakota and his own Iowa as well as helping me getting together with Dave Lambeth in North Dakota.  Before writing this blog post, I asked Paul if it was ok to mention a very impressive part of his history.  His answer was yes.  I wanted to share that Paul had determined he needed to lose some weight for health reasons and completely changed his diet and with great personal strength, commitment and dedication, he lost and has kept off more than 40 pounds.  He looks great.  He brings that same dedication and commitment to his birding and is a large part of his success and was evident in our journey this day.  I was a beneficiary of it.

His approval of my request to share that information included the following:  “I am the birder I am due to the very many people who have given me of their time and knowledge.  I will never be able to repay all the help and friendship that has been extended to me.  It is only right to pass it on“.  This is exactly who Paul is and his words certainly apply to me and probably to all who read this blog.  We had succeeded in making Iowa state number 46 completed in my 50/50/50 Adventure.  I want to close by repeating and somewhat modifying part of Paul’s words:  We are the birders we are due to the very many people in our wonderful birding community who have given of their time and knowledge.  We are all fortunate and should all be grateful and should all pass it on…

Thank you Paul.

 

Double Your Pleasure, Double Your Fun…Nebraska with Michael and Knut

Nebraska was to be the fifth and last Prairie State visited during what will hopefully be my penultimate trip as part of my 50/50/50 Adventure.  On my original schedule, I had planned to get to Lincoln, Nebraska on Friday evening, September 20th, bird in the area on the 21st finding 50+ species and flying home to Seattle from Omaha that evening. That was the day that friend Michael Willison was free and birding with him would not just be fun but would be the best way to assure success as he is a great birder and also knows the area intimately.  I have had great luck throughout my 50 state journey and this luck continued two fold in Nebraska.

Michael’s great birding buddy Knut Hansen was coming to Lincoln to bird with him and Michael was able to take off work on the 20th to bird with him.  Due to the earlier success in Iowa than originally planned, I was able to arrive in Nebraska on the night of the 19th and also be available to bird on the 20th.  It could not have worked out better.  Getting to the punchline before the story itself, I birded with both Michael and Knut on both the 20th and 21st and we were able to find more than 50 species each day.  It really was doubling the pleasure and doubling the fun as well as doubling the number of birds seeing more than 100 species combined  over the two days.  We had a great time.

Some more background.  Michael was a top birder in Washington before leaving in 2013.  A major feat was putting Eide Road on the map.  Living nearby in Stanwood, Michael birded the hotspot religiously and established it as one of the best shorebird spots in the State with other great birds as well.  It took him very little time to establish himself as a birding force in Nebraska and was the top Ebird birder there every year from 2013 through 2017 and ranks 4th all time.  He is also an Ebird reviewer for the state.  I first met Michael on our mad dash to see the Ross’s Gull that Charlie Wright had found at Palmer Lake in Washington on December 21, 2011.  Knut Hansen had been along on that trip as well.  I birded in Washington on numerous occasions that next year but Knut was piloting for Jet Blue and our paths did cross as much.

Ross’s Gull – Palmer Lake, Washington – December 21, 2011 (First birding with Michael and Knut)

Ross's Gull 2

Michael and Knut have birded together on many international trips and I listened with envy to many of their stories on the two days together.  All of that would have made for a great trip regardless of the birds seen in Nebraska, but I was there primarily to get my 50 species.  Knut was more interested in adding to his long list of birds photographed and Michael was serving as super guide to help each of us with our quests.  I could not have had better help nor better company and that says a lot as it is evident that I had great help, great company, great birds and a great time on each of the states visited on this trip – and that has generally been the case in each state I have visited during this entire adventure.  I am very fortunate.

Day 1 – September 20, 2019

There were thunderstorms with heavy rain on the night of the 19th but good weather greeted us as we began our birding on the 20th at an aptly named hotspot – the Marsh Wren Community Wetlands.  Really great habitat.  We circumnavigated the small lake giving us some good exercise and wonderful birds.  Appropriately we had a Marsh Wren joined by Sedge Wren and House Wren.  Carolina Wren has been seen there rarely but was not by us.  Now if a Winter Wren had been seen, that would have been even better as I need a photo of that one.

House Wren

Marsh Wren1

Sedge Wren (Left by me, right by Knut Hansen)

sedge-wren-1.jpg knuts-sedge-wren.jpg

I have included two photos of one of the Sedge Wrens to demonstrate that I am more of a picture taker than a photographer.  Mine on the left is “OK”.  The one on the right by Knut Hansen has the focus and settings “just right”.  Mine is a picture and his is a photograph.  Moving towards that is a project for next year.

All told we had 40 species at this very enjoyable stop.  One of my favorites there was a very cooperative Green Heron which we saw in the reeds at the marsh and perched on surrounding trees and in flight in between.  We also had a Great Blue Heron but no Egrets or Night Herons which were possibilities.

Green Heron

Green Heron Vertical

We really had a good mix of birds with 4 duck species, 2 gallinaceous species (Pheasant and Turkey), 4 shorebirds including the only Wilson’s Snipes of my trip, 3 swallows and 4 icterids.  The latter included both Eastern Meadowlarks (heard singing) and a few Yellowheaded Blackbirds.  There was also a single Dickcissel in with a flock of blackbirds.

Wilson’s Snipe

Wilson's Snipe1

On the path back to our car we saw at least 2 Brown Thrashers playing hide and seek with us and each other.

Brown Thrasher

Brown Thrasher

Unfortunately Knut and I missed a flyby Sora seen by Michael so I was “only” at 39 species for the 100 minutes that we spent covering 3 miles there.  This was clearly a great start and Michael was talking about the possibility of 100 species.  I was willing of course, but first we needed 11 more.   Six were quickly added on our way to and at the Whitehead Saline Wetland all supposed “gimmes”: Eurasian Collared Dove, Rock Pigeon, House Sparrow, American Crow, Turkey Vulture and Great Tailed Grackle with the latter being the first for my trip.

Great Tailed Grackle

Great Tailed Grackle on SIgn

We also had a large flock of Brown Headed Cowbirds.  I had expected them to be common in all of these prairie states but found them only in two.

Brown Headed Cowbird

Brown Headed Cowbird

On our way to our next stop – Wilderness County Park – we passed a tower with a gathering of at least 150 Purple Martins.  I have seen other swallow groups like this but never Purple Martins – probably close to as many Martins as I have seen over the past 5 years.

Purple Martins

Purple Martins

At Wilderness County Park we had superb passerines, roaring past 50 species adding 16 new ones for the day.  New species were Chimney Swift, Sharp Shinned and Red Tailed Hawks, Red Bellied Woodpecker, Yellow Throated and Red Eyed Vireos, Black Capped Chickadee, White Breasted Nuthatch, Gray Catbird, Eastern Wood Pewee, Common Grackle, Yellow, Yellow Rumped and Wilson’s Warblers, Northern Cardinal and a surprising Indigo Bunting.  I cannot tell you which was number 50 but that milestone mattered only as meeting the specific “needs” of the 50/50/50 Adventure and it was clear that there was lots more great birding ahead.

I was particularly pleased to get good pictures of the Yellow Throated Vireo as my previous ones were pretty awful.  These were much better.  Getting a photo of the Red Eyed Vireo was nice as well.

Yellow Throated Vireo

yellow-throated-vireo2.jpg

Yellow Throated Vireo1

Red Eyed Vireo

Red Eyed Vireo1

We were now at 62 species for the day and it was not yet noon.  We had also added another mile plus of walking so I was feeling good about birds and exercise – feeling good about everything.  All of our birding would be in Lancaster County and there were still some really good lakes to visit.  Michael still had his sights set on 100 species for the day.  At Yankee Hill State WMA, we added Red Headed Woodpecker and American Kestrel and then at Conestoga Lake we added more species including a Spotted Sandpiper that Knut spied in flight and some Chipping Sparrows only our second Sparrow species for the day.  One of the Chippers had an odd deformed head but otherwise seemed healthy and active.

Chipping Sparrow with Deformity

Odd Chipping Sparrow

Now over 70 species, it was time for lunch.  On serious birding days, lunch is not a major undertaking – usually fast food, a sub and something liquid with a bathroom stop.  I cannot even remember where we stopped this day, but we did actually sit down to eat and then we were quickly back in action.

Our next visit was to Pawnee Lake State Recreation Area.  I had visited it the day before in sweltering heat and had a paltry 7 species in 35 minutes.  This visit was the same length in somewhat less heat and in fact with threatening skies.  We had twice as many species including some challenging ID’s between Forster’s and Common Terns – my first terns of my trip.  My photo shows both terns and a Ring Billed Gull – all new for the day.

Three New Birds – Common (left) and Forster’s (center) Terns and Ring Billed Gull

Three on the Beach

A Ring Billed Gull is a relatively small gull so it is fun to see the size difference with the terns.  Here are the comparative dimensions:  Forster’s Tern – 13 inches long with a 31 inch wingspan; Common Tern – 12 inches long with a 30 inch wingspan; and Ring Billed Gull – 17.5 inches long with a 48″ wingspan.  Interesting to note perhaps that the gull weighs 17.5 ounces while the two terns weigh in at 6 and 4.2 ounces respectively.  Birds are truly lightweights making flight possible.

At this stop we also added Eastern Bluebird, Osprey, American White Pelican and Willow Flycatcher to our day list.  It was here that we had our first real rain of the day – a heavy downpour that lasted less than 2 minutes.  After that it was clear skies for the remainder of our birding.  It is amazing that in my 47 days birding in this grand adventure this was only the second day with any rain and it had no impact whatsoever.

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird1

American White Pelican

American White Pelican Flight

I had also visited Branched Oak State Recreation Area the previous day.  It is a huge area with a horseshoe shaped big lake.  I had merely gone in to one entrance and scanned the lake finding Franklin’s Gulls and not much else.  After a few minutes, I had departed.  This day we would spend 2 hours there covering and recovering more than 10 miles.  We had lots of birds – 44 species in all adding 16 species to our day total bringing us to 91.  There were some very good birds but the rarest had to be an immature Sabine’s Gull – a rarity here and anywhere inland.  I have seen them only on pelagic trips and in Nome Alaska.  The gull was always distant so despite taking literally dozens of pictures, none are great, but no question on the identification.

Sabine’s Gull

Sabine's Gull

We also had more Ring Billed Gulls and some new for the day Franklin’s Gulls.  Another distant bird was a Black Tern.

Franklin’s Gull

Franklin's Gull

This turned out to be a good spot for shorebirds as well although again they were mostly pretty distant.  Species included Stilt Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper, Killdeer, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Semipalmated Plover, Long Billed Dowitcher, Sanderling and Lesser Yellowlegs.  All but the Least and Killdeer were new for the day.

Shorebirds

Stilt Sandpiper and Long Billed Dowitchers

Shorebirds

At one point all of the shorebirds took off in a flash and Michael, Knut and I all simultaneously yelled “Peregrine” anticipating that there would be one scaring them off.  A few seconds later one did indeed swoop by.  It put on a great show hanging around for several minutes – chasing but not catching any of the shorebirds and then landing in shallow water providing a great photo opportunity.

Peregrine Falcon in Flight

Peregrine Falcon Flight2

Peregrine Falcon

Peregrine Falcon1

Hard to choose which was the more exciting – the Sabine’s or the Peregrine but both were great shows and great birds.  Other new birds for the day were Bald Eagle, Olive Sided Flycatcher, Cedar Waxwings, Double Crested Cormorants and House Finch.  So we fell a bit short of Michael’s hoped for 100 species, but there were a number of misses for the day and the 91 species seen (not including the Sora seen by Michael only) still ranked 4th as a day total among all of the states to date in my Adventure.  So officially Nebraska was completed state number 47 – completed a day earlier than planned which meant there was still a half day on the 21st to get out and bird some more.

Lincoln, Nebraska is the capital of Nebraska and is also the home of the University of Nebraska.  This is football country and the locals, and residents from all over the state, take the Cornhuskers seriously.  A little bit of a down time from the national prominence that the team once had but that has barely curbed the interest.  We saw signs of this birding in some of the campgrounds surrounding the lakes as is evident from the sign below – at a campsite with an RV – one of many all with similar signs.  There was a group of maybe 15 fans having fun together dressed in their Nebraska Cornhusker red attire.  And this was the day before the game – which was an away game anyhow.  We would see much more Cornhusker love the next day when we made a coffee stop in the Haymarket area near downtown Lincoln.

2P5A0982

We celebrated the day with an excellent dinner at Copal Progressive Mexican Cuisine.  I had a short rib dish that was as good as anything I have had – anywhere – super tender, well seasoned, more than reasonably priced and a very sizable helping.  I would encourage anyone to try this rather unique place. https://www.copallnk.com/

“BEEF SHORT RIBS  Our famous short ribs, slow cooked for 6 hours in a mixture of beer, Dijon mustard, agave honey and spices. Accompanied with avocado paste, mashed potatoes, meat juice reduction, rice and beans.”   Yummy!!

Day 2 – Saturday September 21

On Saturday the 21st we were back in the field chasing Nebraska birds starting at the Lincoln Saline Wetlands Park.  It was an even better start than the day before as we had 42 species some which were similar to the preceding day but with several new ones as well.  A very late Orchard Oriole was new and rare for the time.  Good looks but no photos.  I was able to get a photo of a Blue Gray Gnatcatcher and an American Redstart neither very good though.

Blue Gray Gnatcatcher

Blue Gray Gnatcatcher

There were better photos of two other warblers – Wilson’s Warbler and Common Yellowthroat.

Wilson’s Warbler

Wilson's Warbler1

Common Yellowthroat

Common YellowthroatThere were many swallows – five different species including another large group of Purple Martins.  We also had a Nashville Warbler – photo resistant and my first Yellow Warbler of the trip.

Yellow Warbler

Yellow Warbler

There were two new raptors for the visit, a Merlin and a Cooper’s Hawk and as we were leaving we had great views of Brown Thrashers and Gray Catbirds.

Cooper’s Hawk

Cooper's Hawk1

Gray Catbird

Gray Catbird

The single species that was found most commonly in every one of these prairie states was probably the Blue Jay as their raucous calls were heard at almost every stop.  They were mostly seen flying from one hidden perch to another.  Northern Cardinals were also common although much less so than the Jays.  Mostly it was their soft chips that we heard.  We had good visuals of both of these species at this location.

Blue Jay

Blue Jay1

Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal

With such a great start we took a break to visit the Haymarket Area in Lincoln for some coffee.  It was game day morning and even though the Cornhuskers were playing an away game, the place was jumping full of football fans wearing every conceivable type of fan wear in red.  We visited a store 100% dedicated to licorice.  Who knew that Knut not just liked licorice but was also an aficionado.

Michael (Right) and Knut (Left)

Michael and Knut

And if anyone does not understand how Nebraska football is dominant in Lincoln and throughout the entire state, here is the view of the stadium I saw as I was entering the city.  It is big.  On game days it holds 90,000 people in the stands.  So during the game, it is the thrid largest city in Nebraska behind Omaha and Lincoln itself.

Stadium1

OK, time to get back to the birds.  We went to Antelope Park, essentially a walking/biking path in a nice residential area with trees and good passerine habitat.  Our main target was a Mississippi Kite that had fledged a young bird there.  It had not been reported for 5 days but Michael thought it likely that birders simply had not been there recently.  He was right as it took us only a moment to find first one and then a second Mississippi Kite flying overhead.

Mississippi Kites

Mississippi Kite2

mississippi-kite3-1.jpg

We had other good birds as well.  One was our only Ruby Throated Hummingbird for the state – species number 100 in Nebraska.  Similarly among the 24 species seen, we had our first Warbling Vireo, Hairy Woodpecker and Least Flycatcher.

Warbling Vireo

Warbling Vireo

Least Flycatcher

Least Flycatcher

Later at Michael’s home before leaving to get to the airport in Omaha and to return to Seattle, we had a Peregrine Falcon flyby – our 53rd species for the day.  In some other states I had birded on my own before the official 50 species day and in a few I had found 50 or more species on my own.  This time it was with the same birders as the day before but it was a much shorter day.  If we had gone with the same drive and amount of time as the previous day, we may well have hit 100 species.  As it was, combining the two days we had 105 species.  The better measurement however, is that we had a lot of fun with great birds and experiences.  I have to close with how super Michael was as a host and a guide and a friend.

So it is now 47 states completed leaving Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas to go.  I cannot get out to bird again until late October or into November or December.  Preliminary research suggests that 50 species in a day may be doable then.  It would be fun to do these days as part of Christmas Counts in those states.  We will see…

South Dakota with David Swanson and Paul Roisen

Not so sure about all the birds, but I sure do like the birders  on this trip.  I was in the company of two exceptional birders this day in South Dakota.  Taking the lead was David Swanson.  He is a Biology Professor at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion specializing in Ornithology and Physiology and that is where we began the day.  He is also the author of Birder’s Guide to South Dakota and Co-Author of Birds of South Dakota key books for anyone birding in the state.  He is also the author of many scholarly articles coming from his research.  So what would it be – academic or birder?  Both of course, but this day it would be the latter and he is as good as it gets.

Birder’s Guide to South Dakota

Birder's Guide to South Dakota

There was also the bonus of Dave being almost as interested in flyfishing as in birding – a subject of much discussion during the day.  Plus he was a super nice guy and I know I am laying it on thick, but super good looking too – and not just because he is 20+ years younger than me.  After that intro it hardly seems fair to also write about the other birder on the trip, Paul Roisen, but in very different ways Paul is just as impressive and it was Paul who got me in touch with David in the first place.  I will leave discussion of him to my next blog because Paul was my guide and companion the next day in Iowa.  For now, just leaving it that he is a great birder, too and added much to the day.

Now to the birds.  When we started the day, my South Dakota state list was at 7 species.  This included a retroactive listing of a Lark Bunting that had caught my attention in 1972 driving from Washington, D.C. to Seattle before I was really a birder.  The other 6 were birds I had seen at a pond the evening before as I traveled from North Dakota to Vermillion.  Of course none of those would count for this 50/50/50 quest but all were reseen on the official day – except no Lark Bunting.

Lark Bunting – My First SD Bird – Not My Photo

Lark Bunting

Our first official stop was at a small lake/pond with some mixed habitat.  Nothing unusual but it is always nice to have Wood Ducks and a Red Headed Woodpecker – and a count of 13 species.  This included a small flock of Common Grackles, my first of the trip, a surprise as I had expected them to be everywhere.

Wood Duck

Wood Duck Male1

At our next stop we had another Red Headed Woodpecker and another small flock of Common Grackles.  Only a few additional species for the day including a Savannah Sparrow – the first of five sparrow species we observed.

Earlier in Minnesota, we had used the call of the Eastern Screech Owl to bring in passerines.  Dave was very good at this imitation and at Union Grove State Park, it was very successful in finding a good number of passerines and also in getting a response from an Eastern Screech Owl itself.  It was the only owl I had on this five state trip and unfortunately was heard only.  We had good visuals and photo ops for both Red Breasted and White Breasted Nuthatch though.

Red Breasted Nuthatch

Red Breasted Nuthatch

White Breasted Nuthatch

White Breasted Nuthatch2

It was clear that Dave knew every birding spot in the area and the roads, mostly unpaved, to get us there.  This was complicated by there being so much flooding from recent rains.  Many roads were closed and we had to resort to a Plan B or even a Plan C.  Another consequence was that many lakes where shorebirds might be expected on the shoreline mud or waterfowl in the water were not birdable.  Nonetheless, we were able to find 3 goose species and 6 species of ducks as well as a Pied Billed Grebe, an American Coot, Ringed Billed Gulls and some American White Pelicans.  Much of our birding was finding a new species or two here or there rather than at long stops.

Flooding

James River Flood

Snow Geese – One Blue Form

Snow Geese

I have made a practice during these 50/50/50 trips to pay attention early to getting common more urban birds like House Sparrow, Starling, Rock Pigeon and Eurasian Collared Dove.  In more rural areas, the Rock Pigeon and Collared Dove may be found in less “urban” areas.  On this trip, a Rock Pigeon was not found until quite late in the day and Eurasian Collared Doves were infrequent.  Our first one was maybe an omen that the count for the day would end up well.  It was about our 40th species and went unphotographed – a single bird perched on a large cross on a pretty country church.  We had House Sparrows in several places.  Two times it was a single bird and later we came upon a flock of about 30 that had one that really stood out – highly leucistic – a first for me.

Leucistic House Sparrow

House Sparrows

As had been the case earlier in North Dakota, we saw many Monarch Butterflies in migration.  A fascinating and beautiful species, they are also major pollinators wherever they are found.

Monarch Butterfly

Monarch Butterfly

With limited habitat, we only had three shorebirds this day: Killdeer, Least Sandpiper and Pectoral Sandpiper.  Killdeer are found in far more habitats than the other shorebirds and I had at least one and sometimes many in all of my Prairie State trips.  They also seem to be the most vocal, which may also explain why they are observed more frequently.  Being so common, they often get short shrift, so I include a photo of one here.

Killdeer

Killdeer with Worm1

It is probably one of those cases where we remember the times it works and forget the times when it doesn’t, but it often seems like just mentioning a bird can make it appear.  Driving down one country road, I was told to keep my eyes open for Wild Turkeys.  Not more than a moment later, a small flock magically appeared.  These and a single Ringed Necked Pheasant were the only gallinaceous birds in this state or in any of the others visited on this trip.  At an earlier date and further west, others may have been possible.

Wild Turkeys

Wild Turkeys

We continued to add a species or two along the roads or at various stops and reached species #50 for the day a little before noon.  I did not keep track of the order of observations but believe it may have been either a Sedge Wren or maybe even the Turkeys.  We continued birding and went through s couple of dry spots in the doldrums of the afternoon heat.  Nothing astounding but we did find a somewhat early Swainson’s Hawk and a camera shy Lincoln’s Sparrow, the only ones of my tripSpecies #60 was a lovely Western Meadowlark.  Eastern Meadowlarks are also possible in this area but far less likely.  I had expected the fields to be full of these striking and usually singing birds, but they were generally scarce in all of the states I visited.  They can be a challenge to identify without hearing the very different songs.  Fortunately I heard songs of both during this Prairie State trek.  The numbers would have been different as in higher earlier.

Western Meadowlark

Western Meadowlark

Our last stop was at Spirit Mound Historic Prairie.  Recovered from former farmland it is on the Lewis and Clark Historic Trail and at least for this place, it truly was visited by Lewis and Clark – apparently not the case with some places that make such claims.  They climbed it August 1804.  There was a small hope that we might find a LeConte’s Sparrow but in this case we were a week or two early.   It was pretty quiet while we were there and we added only Common Yellowthroat and the aforementioned Ring Necked Pheasant.  There were many wild flowers and other prairie plant species.  I would love to return earlier in the year.

Spirit Mound

We ended the day with 69 species.  South Dakota was State #45 where the 50 species goal was accomplished and I would next be heading to Iowa to bird again with Paul Roisen (covered in my next blog post).  Paul headed off to Sioux City, Iowa and Dave joined me for a celebratory steak dinner in Vermillion, SD.  It was excellent and very reasonably priced.  Dave was as much fun and as interesting at dinner as he had been birding during the day.  It was a real treat and privilege to share time with him.  My closing photo is of him at Spirit Mound Prairie.  Told you he was a good looking guy.  Super birder, too.

Dave Swanson at Spirit Mound State Park

Dave Swanson

 

When Does Forty-Nine Become Forty-Four?

It happened when I visited Dave Lambeth in Grand Forks County, North Dakota.  This was my first ever visit to North Dakota, leaving Kansas as the last of the 50 states to visit.  So that explains the “forty-nine”.  The “forty-four” is explained by our finding 83 species on a wonderful day of birding in the state making North Dakota my 44th state with 50 species or more in a day as I have traversed the United States on my 50/50/50 Adventure.

Birding with Dave was another of those totally enjoyable and very rewarding personal experiences that have made this quest so incredible.  It is a great oversimplification, but Dave is what I expect many of us think of as characteristic of the solid quality of Midwesterners.  A fine person who was more than generous with his time, thoughtful and kind, hard working and appreciative of what the world has given us rather than regretting what it has not.  It was a very fun day.

Dave is the kind of person that is impossible not to respect and trust and one aspect of this was a giant boost to our birding experience as he has permission (and a key) to enter the gated Grand Forks Lagoons.  In Washington we would call these STP’s as in “Sewage Treatment Ponds” but “lagoons” sounds much better – maybe more “Midwestern”.  Call them what you will, they certainly delivered.  As previously written, my 50/50/50 day in Minnesota had no shorebirds, no gulls and very few waterfowl species.  Our visit to the Lagoons was almost a mirror image as there were many species of all of these types.  We had Eared, Horned and Western Grebes, Ring Billed and Franklin’s Gulls, Canada Goose, 10 duck species and a half dozen shorebird species.  We also had some other species and when we departed, we were more than half way to our 50 species target.  It was a great start to a great day.

Franklin’s Gull

Franklin's Gull Flight

Semipalmated Sandpiper

Semipalmated Sandpiper2

Sanderlings

Sanderlings

Semipalmated Plover

Semipalmated Plover

Pied Billed Grebe (Juvenile)

Pied Billed Grebe Juvenile

American White Pelican

American White Pelican

After leaving the Lagoons, species were added one or two or three at a time at our various stops.  I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that Dave knew every road in the area – many of them unpaved.  I never had any idea where we were.  I didn’t need to as Dave guided us to new place after new place and new bird after new bird.

In Minnesota, there was only a single sparrow species.  In North Dakota, we had six: Vesper, Song, Savannah, Clay Colored, Chipping and Lincoln’s.  I was especially pleased to see and photograph the Clay Colored Sparrow since I did not look for one in Washington this year.

Vesper Sparrow

Vesper Sparrow

Clay Colored Sparrow

Clay Colored Sparrow3

There are two sides to a coin though.  In Minnesota we had 11 warbler species and on this trip in North Dakota, we had only 4 with the Palm Warbler being the only one with a decent photo and interestingly all 4 are ones that are regularly seen in Washington, not so-called Eastern Warblers.  In generally our forest birding was very slow — almost dead.  We did not even have a White Headed Nuthatch.

Palm Warbler

Palm Warbler

Dave aptly described much of our day as “roadside birding”.  I am embarrassed to admit that I have never used that perfect term (but I will in the future) and we indeed had great roadside birding.    We did not have tons of raptors numbers wise, but we had an astonishing 9 different species, and our variety of one of which is now among my all time favorite birds.  It was a most cooperative and to me incredibly beautiful Krider’s Red Tailed Hawk.  We saw it perched on a power pole and approached for photos.  It tolerated our getting fairly close and then would fly to the next power pole and we would repeat our routine after more photos.  I have never seen one this white.  I am in love.

Krider’s Red Tailed Hawk

Krider's Red Tailed Hawk1

Krider's Takeoff

We had another raptor that initially was a bit of an ID challenge.  Seeing it fly by before it perched, I thought it was a Merlin.  Dave was pretty sure it was a juvenile Broad Winged Hawk, a species with which I have little experience and which I thought was larger than it is.

Broad Winged Hawk

Broad Winged Hawk Juvenile1

We also had two iconic (and half way eponymous) Eastern birds: Eastern Blue Jay and Eastern Bluebird.  To continue the theme, we later also had a relatively late Eastern Kingbird.

Eastern Blue Jay

Blue Jay1

Eastern Bluebird

eastern-bluebird.jpg

Eastern Kingbird

Eastern Kingbird

The latter was a “bonus” bird at the end of the day.  Despite what I considered fantastic guiding, I think Dave was disappointed about some of the misses for the day and to close it, we went to a favorite spot near his home to look for Wood Ducks.  We found them and then had the surprise Eastern Kingbird and also had a Common Nighthawk fly overhead.

It was not real birdy this time but a fun stop was at Kellys Slough National Wildlife Refuge.   Later in the year this famous Hotspot might have thousands of waterfowl.  Here is a photo of Dave at the NWR sign.  The other proves I was there also.  I hope to return when migration brings in those thousands of waterfowl – but definitely not after temperatures fall below zero!!

Dave Lambeth at Kellys Slough blair-at-kellys.jpg

I have included photos and stories of this species in other reports as well, but this time it was a bit different.  For whatever reason, Red Headed Woodpecker was simply not on my list of expected species for North Dakota.  But indeed they are there and two put on a nice fly catching show for us and one was an immature – a new bird for me.  As I would also say for Owls, all Woodpeckers are cool and it is definitely hard to leave any off the “most special” or “most striking” list, but for sure I would have the gorgeous Red Headed Woodpecker high up on my list.

Red Headed Woodpecker

Red Headed Woodpecker Adult

Red Headed Woodpecker Immature

Red Headed Woodpecker Juvenile1

Dave’s comments in his Ebird post sums up the day very well in his own understated way:  “The day was almost entirely sunny with temperature reaching at least 81 degrees by mid afternoon. Wind speed was less than 10 mph throughout the day. This is a species checklist for which we did not try to estimate numbers of the more numerous species. Sites visited included the Grand Forks lagoons, Kellys Slough, AFB lagoons, and Turtle River State Park, with considerable time and effort to find roadside birds.”  Very matter of fact, but hopefully from reading this blog, you can get our sense of the pleasure, excitement and accomplishment from this day with super birds and with super company.  Thank you Dave!!

On to South Dakota…

 

 

Each State is Different…Right Minnesota?

I would have bet against it.  No gulls.  No shorebirds.  One sparrow species and only one icterid species.  No way to get to 50 species in a day.  Wait, there must have been lots of ducks and geese, right?  Nope.  Only a single goose species and only 4 ducks.  How did I end up with 66 species for the day then?  A simple answer – great help from a wonderful Minnesota birder, Craig Mandel.

There have been so many lessons along the way on my 50/50/50 Adventure.  One has been the importance of persistence.  Another has been to have faith in our wonderful birding community.  As I planned this trip to add 5 prairie states to my “done” list and get to 47, I got great assistance from Paul Roisen in Iowa who hooked me up with great help in North and South Dakota, with David Lambeth and David Swanson.  I also got the wonderful news that Michael Willison would be able to help in Nebraska.  There will be stories ahead for all of these.  But Minnesota, the first state I would visit was proving a challenge.  My first two connections/leads turned out to be dead ends after each seemed to be a sure thing.  So I had wasted a lot of time and less than a week before my departure, I had no companion in Minnesota.  Time to reach out to everyone I knew and to take some wild shots in the dark with folks I did not.

And it worked.  I got in contact with Kim Eckert.  His impact on Minnesota birding is summed up well in an article in the Star Tribune: “Birding in Minnesota changed forever when Kim Eckert quit teaching, put his dog in his car and moved to Duluth.  There he created two tools that have defined the sport of birding for almost 40 years: statewide tours and an extremely detailed book.”  The statewide tours are through his Minnesota Birding Weekends company.

That extremely detailed book is “A Birder’s Guide to Minnesota”.  He is working on a revised addition and the deadline prevented him from him being able to join me himself, but he got me in touch with Craig Mandel who is one of his trip leaders and also leads trips for Minnesota River Valley Audubon.  It turned out Craig was leading a trip the weekend I was planning to visit and he welcomed me to join them in Rochester.  The rest is history.  I will not detail the trip in large part because of all my visits, this is the one where I did the least preparation and had no idea where we would be going.  But Craig was confident we would find 50 species – if the weather cooperated – so I just followed his lead and had a blast with him and his very nice group of birders.

We started off at the Willow Creek Reservoir and were disappointed to see that the heavy rain from the previous day had raised water levels dashing any hopes for shorebirds.  This pattern played out all day and not a single shorebird was seen.  We had a good sampling of birds though with the highlight for me at least being a really good view and a photo of a Philadelphia Vireo.

Philadelphia Vireo

Philadelphia Vireo

We added a few species along the way to Oxbow Park where we had 8 warbler species.  At both places Craig used a very productive technique of hanging a speaker on a tree and then playing his own playback creation combining the trill of an Eastern Screech Owl and the mobbing calls of Black Backed Chickadees.  This brought in small flocks consistently.  I would not have been able to identify most of the fall plumage warblers.  Again, I was in good hands as both Craig and his group were excellent.  Black Backed Chickadees and White Breasted Nuthatches were the first to respond and usually the most numerous but over the course of the day more than 20 species responded to this playback.

Black Backed Chickadee

Black Capped Chickadee.jpg

Black and White Warbler

Black and White Warbler1

We visited several landfills and reservoirs trying for waterfowl and shorebirds.  Along the way we found some Sandhill Cranes, always special.  And we did have some ducks – both Blue and Green Winged Teal, Mallards and a few Northern Shovelers.

Sandhill Cranes

sandhill-cranes.jpg

Blue Winged Teal

Blue Winged Teal

We had seen some earlier but the best photo of a Magnolia Warbler came at a later stop.  Also had a decent shot of an Ovenbird.  Altogether the group had 11 warbler species and 4 vireos.  Add another 5 flycatcher species and that starts to explain how we got over 50 species for the day!

Magnolia Warbler

Magnolia Warbler2

Ovenbird

Ovenbird2

Eastern Phoebe

Eastern Phoebe2

I don’t know exactly when we hit 50 species for the day, but it was early enough that there was never a feeling of doubt.  We added species here and there and ended the day with 66 species – with the last being the only icterid of the day – a Red Winged Blackbird.

These trips are not just about birds.  More about people and places but there are also unexpected delights like the snake that crossed our path and was picked up by one of the group.  Also a sign next to a lake that reminded me why I would not like to live in Minnesota.  It gets COLD there!!  When birding friends knew I was going to Minnesota they warned about the flies and mosquitoes.  Just as was my experience in the similarly bug infested Maine, I had no issues on this trip – guess it is the timing.

Snake

Sign

Neither of these birds played a particularly important part of the day – although they all count to add up to 50, but I really enjoyed seeing and photographing each of them.  I have seen Eastern Bluebirds on many of my 50/50/50 days and they seem an important part of birding in the East and Midwest.  And there is just something irresistible about a Turkey Vulture – either soaring with its outstretched wings or perched with that “turkey-like” red head that only a mother could love.

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird1

Turkey Vulture

Turkey Vulture

It had been more than 2 months since my last 50/50/50 trip and the intervening time had been consumed with developing the relationship with Cindy who had accompanied me on that preceding trip.  I wondered how a return would feel.  I think the wonderful folks on this trip were a key reason that it was so comfortable to return.  This 50/50/50 Adventure is about passion.  Now I have two passions in my life and it looks like the combination will make both better.

My next stop was to be North Dakota starting in Grand Forks which is just over 400 miles from Rochester.  Thinking it best to cut that driving time down for the next day, after we finished our birding I moved on to St. Cloud, MN itself 150 miles north and west of Rochester.  No real birding along the way as it was getting late, but it positioned me for a more leisurely trip the following day and I was able to do some birding.  As I was driving on I-94 near Freeport, I saw a lake off the service road that seemed to have a lot of white dots.  I could not stop on the highway for a look so I exited and doubled back.  They they were, my first gulls of the trip – lots of gulls.  There were at least 300 Franklin’s Gulls and a few Ringed Billed Gulls.  I did not have a scope and they were not real close so maybe there were others mixed in.  And filling another void from yesterday I also had my first shorebird – a Killdeer.

Franklin’s Gull and Ringed Billed Gull

Ring Billed and Franklin's Gulls

Killdeer

Killdeer1

In a small marshy area nearby I added two more new trip birds, a Common Yellowthroat and a Sedge Wren, the latter a real surprise.  Instead of returning to the Freeway I drove some rural roads and found a mother lode of Eastern Bluebirds  – at least 10 and maybe as many as 15 as I was unsure which ones that flew off had returned.  And this is how it went for the rest of the day.  No real destinations, hotspots or target areas, just exploring new ponds and lakes and rural roads.

I ended the day with 43 species including about a dozen that I had not seen the previous day.  Given that I did no forest birding, this was a really nice total.  The only planned stop was at Rothsay, MN where I had my favorite sighting of the trip – a Greater (some would say “Greatest”) Prairie Chicken.

Greater Prairie Chicken

Chicken

Let’s just say that Rothsay is not on the beaten path or a major tourist stop, but in the 10 minutes I was at this very cool “birding” spot, 8 others took the exit just to visit this well done creation.  This seems like a good place to end the saga in Minnesota.  This quest of mine has definitely taken me to new and fun places and I have learned to expect the unexpected.  And I also have learned that I can count on wonderful folks in the birding community and that persistence does pay off.  Just making the effort brings the rewards.

It was still surprising to me that there was only the single sparrow species – Chipping Sparrow and the Killdeer as the only shorebird.  At least on my solo day I did get those gulls and there were two more icterids:  5 Western Meadowlarks and a flock of Brewer’s Blackbirds.  I am sure that if I had been here in the spring there would have been many more species.  Craig had great stories of days with many warblers for example.  I hope to get back – maybe even see a real Prairie Chicken!