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.
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 and White Warbler
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.
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!
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.
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.
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
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
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!