The 400 Bird Quest: Everyone’s a winner

Final count: 404 !

Happy New Year! Well, I did it. I finished 2018 with 404 species. 407 if you count a memorable backpacking trip in Canada. At the beginning of 2018 I set out to find and identify 400 species of birds in the US without any major travel beyond what our family had already planned. The travel plan was basically a long winter driving loop from Minnesota to Arizona, across the south to Florida, and back home. Then some birding trips around Minnesota and the Dakotas.

You probably have 2 questions:

First, there is no official way to prove bird identifications, so did I cheat? I am confident all the species identifications and the count are correct. So no, not in that respect. But I did take a December trip to the east coast planned on January 1, when I set the goal to do it without any significant additional major travel. Luckily Jeff (son) bought a house in New Hampshire in October, so this helicopter Dad jumped at the chance to go visit and help with a couple of DIY projects. Certainly birds were also on my mind when I booked the trip. The Atlantic shore provided those last few species to push past 400.

Second, 404! This must be a huge accomplishment! Some kind record, right? NOPE. The all-time ABA area Big Year record was set in 2016. It’s 821! In fact, according to my 404 was only the 530th best of 2018. 2018 was very fun. But nothing more than a “mini big year”. I’m happy with that. Thanks for following along. Happy birding.

0 Rock Pigeon MA 2018.jpg

Favorite bird of the year? There are way too many to mention. So many memories. But no matter how rare or hard to find every species still counts as just one.

The 400 Bird Quest: Revenge at Last

Count Update: 404/ 400

December 7, 2018

I woke up north of Boston, before the sun, after a restful night’s sleep in the back of my rented SUV. Boston area hotels charge more than the cost of a week’s car rental. Outside temp is about 30. I feel like a champ. Fully as good as I did after the night before at the barely heated hotel near Cape Cod. So take that lodging industry!

Nearby Plum Island / Parker River NWA in far north Massachusetts, is a locally famous birding spot, and known Snowy Owl hang out. Jeff is busy at work till mid-afternoon, so I head out there. I don’t find the owl, but enjoy the ocean sunrise, and tally 42 species. The highlight was an American Bittern that flushed out of some tall grass on a frozen solid marsh. Why is he still here in December?

My last birding stop was at Hampton Beach State Park, New Hampshire. A vacant sandy beach, that’s looks like it would be crowded in the summer. I scoped the beach, then the rocky jetty. There is Great Cormorant perched there. A flock of something small and white flies into view from the left, low and fast. They land on the big jetty rocks. 30+ Sanderlings. These shorebirds typically hang out on the sandy beaches running back and forth in the surf looking for morsels as each wave recedes. Like the Bittern, I am thinking these guys should be way down south by now. I scan the flock through my scope. There are a few dark ones in the flock. Drab grey-brown, longer curved bills. Winter plumage Dunlins. Also interesting. I scan further through the rocks. When what to my wondering eyes should appear? But 6 or 8 tiny Purple Sandpipers (#404), this ID is clear. “Gotcha! You little degenerates! You’re mine now!.” Their menacing plots to hide from me in FL, GA, SC, and MA were finally foiled. They were no longer on the lam. I’m pretty sure I even saw them drop their heads in shame when I spotted them?

Or maybe I’ve over personifying the conspiracy thing just a little? Maybe it’s time to rest the binocs just at bit? … Nah

The 400 bird quest: Cape Cod is Raining Seabirds

Count Update: 403 / 400

December 5, 2018

Even before our triumphant November 29 Zax- Sim bog day, I had booked a flight to Boston. I knew that getting to 400 by Dec 31 in Minnesota is a long shot. Maybe without work, family and holiday responsibilities it could be done? But even then, it would be a hollow victory – celebrating as unemployed jerk and all.

Son Jeff is a new home owner in New Hampshire and could use a hand with some repairs. I booked a trip to see him. The east coast has mostly the same birds that Minnesota does except for one thing: The coast. The salty sea, bays and brackish marshes provide unique habitats, that house their own species. I did some advanced research. By going out a couple days early and hitting the coast, I should find 6.5 new 2018 species (expected value). Yes, these are the sorts of probability calculations bird nerds do for fun. Do you think there is a “Behind the Birding” television serious pilot here?

My plan was to bird from Cape Cod, south of Boston, to Jeff’s in southeast New Hampshire. I also found online that a Cape Cod birding club had a field event scheduled for the morning of Dec. 6. You know I’m crashing that party!

The plane touched down in Boston at 10:30 am on Dec. 5th. I rented a car, bought a sandwich and bolted for nearby Belle Island Reservation Marsh. I had a pleasant walk covering all the trails quickly. Tallied 16 species, but nothing new. Northern Mockingbirds and a Hermit Thrush were a surprise this far north in December. It was now 12:30 and I knew it would be dark by the time I got to the cape. I opted instead to find the closest sea water. I can drive south in the dark.

Boston’s Revere Beach, which is in a protected bay, was nearby. There were 1000’s of birds on the water. Mostly Scoters everywhere ( Surf, White-winged and Black), and tons of gulls on the beach. I set up the spotting scope and scanned the water. Right away, what’s that white in the sea of dark scoters? Bingo, Common Eiders (#397)! A couple hundred of them.

I scanned the gulls, Greater Black-backed, Herring, and a few Ring-billed. Nothing new jumped out. I find no Kittiwakes among them. I turned the scope back to the sea beyond the sea-ducks. There are a few scattered birds to the north, ½ to 1 mile but I can’t see enough detail. They bob up and down behind the waves and keep diving. Loons, or grebes? Maybe. I dump the scope back in the car and move north ½ mile cutting down the angle. Now closer, I can see better. Loons I’m pretty sure. But I can’t make out the bill detail. I move again, another ¼ mile north and set up again on the sidewalk of this busy 4 lane street. Parking is easy. Few humans go to the beach on a cloudy, breezy, December day. Don’t forget your sunscreen. There is constant traffic. Trucks, cars, honking... Then I hear a crunch. Someone rear ended someone. They pull over next to me and jump out. No one is hurt. I remain just a few feet away standing behind my tripod with my eye buried in the scope and my ears filled with their bickering. Scanning the now closer loons I see several: Thick bill… Yep, winter plumage Common Loon. Next one, another Common. Next one, slighter, lighter color, lots of white on side of head, smaller bill! Confirmed, Red-throated Loon (#398)!

What an amusing “natural” paradox. Standing alone among tall condos lining the busy street, crunched autos and agitated voices. I want to fist pump the air in victory but tempered it.

I scan another hour or so. See more loons, eiders, scoters and gulls, but find nothing else new. There are so many birds on this long beach that I likely missed something good bouncing on those gentle waves? It’s cold and getting late and time to start the long drive south. I found a cheap enough crappy motel near Sandwich, MA to rest for the night. Luckily, I’d brought my good 25 degree sleeping bag, to stay warm. In all fairness to the management, they never promised the room would be heated. The place reminded me of one that we stayed at near Denver in January.

December 6, 2018

Energized by yesterday’s success and the frost in my room, I awoke early. I am to meet birders at 9:00 am at the end of Cape Cod. There was time for a couple stops along the way. But which stops to select? I’ve never been here before.

I consulted the Birdseye app on my phone to see what other birders have reported. I noticed a Purple Sandpiper was seen the day before at a place called Great Island. Purple sandpipers are shorebirds that prefers rocky surf habitats over sand or mud. There are jetties at Ponce Inlet, FL where they are known to winter. I found them there in 2013 and 2017. I made 7 trips there in late winter 2018 to find them, and hunted for them up the coast to SC, but never did. It’s funny how, after failed attempts, one’s mind starts to believe that this whole species of birds is monitoring your movement. They conspire to actively elude you. I believe their top agenda item at the International Meeting of Purple Sandpipers, is “How to Avoid Hughes”. I envision them sitting in rows of chairs at some Hilton meeting room, drinking coffee and checking their smart phones. Meanwhile the keynote sandpiper stands at a podium with a power point screen revealing my travel plans and hawking 007 anti-detection technology. So you can see why I selected Great Island. It was personal! Google maps guided me directly to the rocky spot of Great Island… almost. The last ¼ mile is a gated community. I can’t get there. The sighting reported online must have been by a resident in this gated community… or entered by a Purple Sandpiper itself trying to throw me off. Foiled again!

Borrowing a trick from yesterday’s time management tools, I bolted for the nearest salt water, Seagull Beach. I’m the only car in a big parking lot. There’s a short boardwalk through the sand dunes to the beach. This is a nice sandy spot with no rocks. I’m sure it is crowded all summer. No chance for Purple Sandpiper. I see a few gulls and waterfowl down the shore. A couple look big. Geese, dark ones with a white neck marks. Bam! They’re Brandt (#399)! They are just hanging out near the ocean shore. This time I was all alone and could fist pump the sky and do all the touchdown dances I wanted. I watched the birds for a while, recalling the only other time I found them, in FL in 2017.

It’s 9:00 am. I arrive at Wellfleet Town Pier for the Cape Cod birding club event. It is a big parking lot on a large wharf. I know no one. I know only that the trip leader’s name is Mark. There are 3 folks with spotting scopes already scanning the water. I park and approach. “Hi, I’m Jim. Are you Mark?”

“I’m Doug, he’s not here yet.” We chat very briefly, while several people walk up including Mark. There are no introductions, and little conversation. These are local birders, acquainted with each other, but not particularly friendly. Birders are usually gregarious. This group was not. An aberration. An unusual culture among birders. No one seems to be interested that a Midwesterner has come to learn about their birds.

Sudden everyone’s attention turns simultaneously to a bird that pops up to the water’s surface from under a tethered boat nearby. It’s a Razorbill (#400)! Also a life bird for me! I could tell it was a Razorbill, because everyone was saying “There’s a Razorbill.” I had done it! I had my 400th bird. I’d accomplished my yearlong goal. A bird I’ve never seen before, at a place I’d never been before , with a bunch of birders I’d never met before. (And yes, I did check a bird book later to confirm the ID for myself.) Just like with yesterday’s Red-Necked Loon, it feels surreal. We are all standing together. A strong dozen, pointing our binoculars together at the same Razerbill. It dives and surface a few times ignoring our stares. I’m concealing my excitement. These folks are birders. My kinda’ people, right? I can’t contain myself. So I mention to the group that it was my 400th species for the year! There is no response? None! I was not bragging. I did not shriek like a school girl. I said it in an appropriate tempered tone. A statement of fact. Just sharing some good news. I expected more, but not just crickets? No one responded. Come on, guys? You’re killin’ me here! It’s kind of a big deal? Someone could at least acknowledge it? Of course, most people don’t care. But birders know. It’s not like I’m Uncle Rico or Al Bundy reliving a high school football victory to a stranger on the bus. We are birders. But just like Yukon Cornelius searching for gold… Nothin’! I positioned myself defensively, so no one could push me off the wharf. The whole situation still makes me laugh inside.

Eventually, these zombies and I, all moved down the pier to scan more open salt water. We find more Brandt, Scoters, Buffleheads, Loons and a Long-tailed Duck (#401). Just like that. Next Mark spotted 3 Goldeneyes, and suspected one was a Barrrow’s Goldeneye. It was in the water, but a strong ½ mile down the beach. We all get in our cars and parade to the closer beach parking lot to get a better look. Yep, Barrow’s Goldeneye (#402)!

Our birding tour continued for the rest of the morning. We convoyed around visiting several sites on outer Cape Cod. The last stop was at the end of this long peninsula, Provincetown. We walked MacMillion Pier to the end. Two Great Cormorants (#403) lounged on the rock jetty!

Soon after the tour was over. I thanked my inert partners. We waved good-bye and all headed for our respective cars. One of them accidentily backed her car into a large parked plumbing truck. All heads turned at the flinching sound. The two plumbers, whose lunch was interrupted by the jolt, jump out of the truck and watched her pull away. Without even hesitating she just drives off, cracked bumper and all. Fortunately, there was no damage to the trucks heavy rear bumper.

In just 26 hours since the plane touched down, 7 species were added to my list and surpassed 400. Three were lifers. There’s nothing like a change in venue to rejuvenate birding. Now it’s time to turn the car north. I’m excited to see son Jeff in New Hampshire tomorrow afternoon.

The 400 Bird Quest - I’m a Bold-Faced Liar?

Count Update: 396/ 400

With a month left in 2018, and 390 species in the bag, it would seem like reaching 400 is a slam dunk. That is until you drill down the list of possible remaining species available to get in Minnesota winter. It is a very short list of uncommon to truly rare species. Fortunately, I have scheduled a trip to visit Jeff near Boston in December. A chance to find some winter sea birds?

In the meantime, my best chances in MN are “winter finches” and owls. Both are somewhat nomadic and elusive. I’ve been monitoring rare bird alerts daily for months. When something new is reported I chase after them as time allows. Lately each trip has been unsuccessful. I was a day late for the Pacific Loon on Pearl Lake in Stearns County. And I missed the tiny Northern Saw Whet Owl in St. Cloud that was reported multiple times before AND after the morning I combed every tree in that area. After a while, it starts to feel personal. “That little bugger owes me!”

With 5 winter boreal species in mind, I enlisted the help of Big Tom yet again. I was hopeful to find 2 or 3 of them. On December 5th, at 5:00 am, we met for a day trip to the famous Zax-Sim Bog, near Meadlowlands, MN. It had not been light for long when we reached the bog. We begin slowly driving the remote snow blanketed roads. We watched intently for any movement while reminiscing fondly about many past trips to this unique area. At 8:10 am I spotted the distant silhouette of a robin sized perched bird. We stopped and quickly set up the spotting scope. It moved out of view, then back in. It was a Pine Grosbeak (#391)! There were 4 of them! My first lifetime MN Pine Grosbreak. This trip was already worth it!

At 8:59, we walked a boardwalk through a section of frozen spruce bog (Warren Nelson Memorial Bog). We immediately heard and saw some birds fly over. Then they were gone. Were those Redpolls? We thought they were, but could not confidently ID them. As we walked we heard only a few Black-capped Chickadees. Then the faint tapping of a distance woodpecker. That’s a good sound. Black-backed Woodpeckers are often “quiet tappers”. I followed the sound for a distance. Then it just stopped. As I made my way back to Tom, he was quietly waving his arms and pointing frantically. I thought, “Is this what a stroke looks like?” Nope! He had spotted a female Black-backed (#392) on a tree trunk along the boardwalk. I hustled over and we watched it hammer and chip flakes of bark off the large spruce trunk. At one point, we were just 10’ away and observed it for over 5 minutes grabbing multiple insect larvae as her work revealed them. The bird was busy and did not care we were present. An extra memorable encounter!

Back in the car… Again a suspected Redpoll flock passes over and eludes a positive ID.

At 9:59 am, we stopped the car to admire the first Rough-legged Hawk of the day. But also, near the top of a small cluster of distant leafless trees, were a dozen song birds. Waxwings, with rusty colored bellies! Tom confirmed with a spotting scope. These were Bohemian Waxwings (#393)! There were just sitting there, in front of God and everybody! Woot! Woot! 3 new species! My hopes for the day had been met!

Ten minutes down the road, yet another suspected redpoll flock. Tumbling through the treetops. This time they landed and we got a good look. Common Redpolls (#394)! We also search the flock for rare Hoary Redpolls, as if we are owed a pot of gold. Hoarys are rare and hard to ID. Of course we found none.

In amazement, with now 4 new species, we move on to “Mary Lou’s Feeders” on the edge of the bog. A known good spot that attracts Evening Grosbeaks(#395). Sure enough, these heavy billed yellow Grosbeaks arrive at the feeders just minutes after we do! They are stunning.

What a morning! Before lunch, we got all 5 on my wish list! Now what? We enjoy a daily lunch special at the Wilbert Café in Cotton. MN.We pondered that question birders have pondered forever: how to best use the remainder of the day? Do we scour the bog for Great Gray?Other winter Owls? Using the aid of reports, we see no recent Great Grays sightings.We decide to take a flyer and head for a Mille Lac county spot we’d never been.A Long-eared Owl had been reported days earlier. These are secretive rare MN owls. Like I said, it was a long shot.

We arrived just about sunset. The plan was to stop and listen/look at several spots along the single dirt road that bisects Kunkel State Wildlife Management Area. We stopped twice. Nothing. We got back in the car, went around one bend and came upon a locked gate across the road. Had to turn around. We give up. We agree to stop twice more on the way out and call it a day.

I have not used tapes much all year, but now it was full dark and owls sometimes respond. We played Long-eared and Saw-whet owl calls on iPhones. Without the aid of any speakers, we stood there and held them over our head like John Cusack in Say Anything. To our astonishment, we heard a Northern Saw-whet Owl (#396) repeat the call for a long time. Over 30 seconds! Tom and I could hardly believe it! We checked with each other multiple times to verify it was not some mechanical noise, or a dirty iphone trick. It was real. We could not see this tiny 3 ounce owl. But we could hear it clearly from its dark perch not far away.

Not being satisfied with just six Olympic gold medals for the day, we made our final stop and played a Long-eared Owl tape. We stood in the silent dark still pinching ourselves at the good fortune of the last stop. While straining to hear even the tiniest distance sound, we were suddenly both startled by the loud whoosh of large wing beats immediately overhead. VERY close, just a few feet overhead! Then as quick as we heard it, it was gone. Maybe three or four flaps then nothing. Speculation followed.

We both surmised it was a larger owl attracted by our audio.It must have glided in silently to investigate and maybe even intending to land on one of us, as we stood in the open? But then fled when it recognized we were not stump’s nor posts. We will never know if it was a Long-eared Owl?The common Great-horned Owl or a Barred owl are also candidates. Nevertheless, it was unforgettable. BTW, we are confident is was on owl, as it was pitch dark, and we heard no wing noise immediately before nor after. What a cool experience to top off an already incredible 6 species day!

If you don’t believe that we got all six of these normally difficult species all in one day, I don’t blame you. You probably think I’m a liar. I still don’t blame you. I almost think I’m a liar myself. But we were there, and we were sober, so deal with it. 😊

Female Black-blacked Woodpecker. Notice how much bark she has chipped off this spruce tree. ( the reddish areas).

The 400 Bird Quest - Unexpected bonus

Count Update: 390 / 400

In late October, I stole 3 days and drove west. I joined my college buddy, Joe W., in North Dakota for some waterfowling, just before the ponds froze up. We kept warm in his luxurious 1970’s RV and enjoyed the ducks. We drove endless section roads bordering prairie fields. Seeing flocks of thousands of Snow geese and Canada geese never gets old. I enjoy them every year. We were in Swainson’s Hawk range. I kept my eyes to the sky in hopes of spotting one. I never did, but I was, as giddy as a school girl when a covey of Grey Partridge (#390) flushed unexpectedly from a gravel road ditch, landing in a cut grain field. I had searched hard for Grey Partridge in western Minnesota this summer but had missed it. So it was a bonus to pick up these beauties in central ND.

Grey Partridge in grain stubble are a distance.

Grey Partridge in grain stubble are a distance.

The 400 Bird Quest - Hawk Ridge Skip Day

Count Update: 389 / 400

For years, my bird mentor and lifelong friend, Big Tom Nelson, and I have taken a day off work in October to bird Hawk Ridge in east Duluth, MN. We have always called it skip day, as if we were still in high school. Now Tom’s son, Matt, is a high schooler and has joined us in recent years. This year on October 19th, our son Jeff (30) was in town to run the Wild Duluth 50K race and joined us as well. What a delight to have these fine young men join us on the Ridge.

By the way, I cannot stop myself from boasting a bit here. The Wild Duluth 50K is a 32 mile foot race up and down the hills from Jay Cooke State Park to downtown Duluth. Much of the route is on the Superior Hiking Trail. It is longer than a marathon and a grueling route. In 5 hours and 45 minutes, Jeff placed 14th of the 207 runners that finished! As for me, I was unable to finish the race, as I elected not to even start.

Hawk Ridge is a special place. September through November birds migrating south, especially raptors, preferring not to cross Lake Superior and are funneled down the coast. This concentrates the birds and offers good viewing opportunities from the high ridge. As many as 10,000 hawks have been seen here on a single day. Hawk Ridge is one of a handful of the best places in North America to see hawks in the fall. Even for non-birders, it’s a great view of Lake Superior and makes an interesting midday fall outing. Grab your binoculars and check it out:

I had encountered most of the Minnesota raptors earlier this year. But one uncommon raptor, Northern Goshawk, had eluded me to date. Sure enough Hawk Ridge came through. We admired good looks at many passing Sharp-shinned Hawks. Several Bald Eagles and even a Golden Eagle came through. As I had hoped, a couple or Goshawks (#388) also glided by. Also got an unexpected bonus bird. My first 2018 Northern Shrike (#389) flew by. They summer far to the north but come down to bask in the “Minnesota warmth” all winter.

The 400 Bird Quest - Long overdue update

Count Update: 387 / 400

It has been a busy summer. But mostly I have been busy neglecting this blog. Some large work projects have consumed the summer. Birding has been here and there as time allows. Here’s a recap of the species added to the Big Year list:

Went on an annual fishing trip to Northern MN with some college friends. “Elective” detours found these four species :

#374 Yellow-billed Cuckoo at Rice Lake NWR, June 09, 2018 - I heard several singing on their breeding territories along the automobile tour route.

#375 Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Sax-Zim Bog/ St. Louis county, June 12, 2018

#376 Canada Warbler, Sax-Zim Bog, June 12, 2018 Both species were heard singing in the mosquito infested bog one early hot muggy morning. It was one of the worst mosquito environments I can remember.

#377 Eurasian Tree Sparrow, Essentia Health-Duluth Miller-Dwan Hospital Building parking Ramp, , Duluth, MN, June 12, 2018. I stopped in Duluth and located this very rare MN visitor. Perched on a parking ramp fence. It spent the summer in Duluth and had been reported by many birders that had come to see it, before and after I did. This guy was a “lifer” for me.

#378 Prothonotary Warbler, William O'Brien State Park, Scandia MN, June 17, 2018. Another Lifer for me! They are uncommon but not rare in MN. I was lucky to get him. I first heard him sing from an island in the river. Not far across the water from where I stood without a boat. I listened for some time. Finally he flew into view for just a few seconds, and then resumed singing from the cover.

#379 Blue Grosbeak, Flying Cloud Fields, Eden Prairie MN, Jun 24, 2018. It took me 2 trips to these ball fields to find this often reported “stake out”. Blue Grosbeaks are regularly in only the very SW corner of MN. This individual spent the summer way out of range in the SW metro area. Strangely, last year, there was one in Ramsey, MN (Anoka County) equally far from its normal range.

On a separate trip to northern MN with my Mom in July we added these:

#380 Boreal Chickadee at Big Bog State Recreation Area, Near Red Lake in Beltrami County, July 08, 2018. I encountered a small group of Boreal Chickadees on the 1 mile board walk through the bog. Very cool bog walk. If you are every in that area this walk is very interesting. Thompson Forest Road in Beltrami County was also buried in fresh, ripe blueberries. What a treat!

#381 Nelson's Sparrow at Agassiz NWR, Marshall County, MN July 09 2018. Heard in the cattails, in full daylight. Agassiz NWR is another, don't miss spot for waterfowl and other birds if you are in that area.

#382 Western Kingbird , Hwy 10 and Armstrong Blvd., Ramsey MN July 10 2018. During 2 trips to Western and NW MN, I had Western Kingbird on my mind. I failed to find one until we returned to our own “back yard”. Some one reported them at this location in Ramsey. So I talked Mom into a 5 minute detour on our return home. Mom was skeptical about the "5 minutes” . There were 3 Western Kingbirds perched just as reported days before. We found them right away and were literally back on the freeway in 5 minutes. So take that Mom!!

#383 Whooping Crane, Minnesota Valley NWR, Hennepin County, MN Aug 15 2018. Whoopers in MN…what!? I really wish I could say I found this pair. But these were stake outs that many other birders had reported. This pair is really special. They were so close to extinction. Wikipedia says that in 1941 there were only 23 left on the planet! Now there are 800+. Still not many, but better than 23.

#384 Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Jirik Sod Farms, Dakota County, MN Aug 17, 2018. Another stakeout reported on was worth the trip on a beautiful August evening. Buff-breasted are another lifer for me!

#385 Baird's Sandpiper, Jirik Sod Farms, Dakota County, MN Aug 17, 2018 I found this bonus species among the other misc shore birds on the same wet field. A “two-fer” ! Time well spent.

386 Rusty Blackbird, Old Government Road, Rush City, MN Oct 12, 2018, Sitting in a tree with a flock of Red-wing blackbirds.

387 Cackling Goose, Pine City WTP, Pine County, MN Oct 14, 2018 “All the best things in life happen at sewage ponds”. This stakeout bird was reported by others for 3 days in a row. So we drove up there, sorted through 50 plus Canada Geese with the scope at a long distance, and finally spotted one. But the best part of it was fresh waffles and chicken brunch with good company! Thanks Joe and Joyce!

So that brings us up to date. For those of you that have not been following this Big Year story on CNN, I’m sorry for the long gap in coverage. I’m sure it is a huge relief to know that my birding expeditions have not ceased due to a fatal attack by mosquitoes, poison ivy, or a red fox.

I did not get any quality photos of the species listed in this post, but here are a few others from along the way.

The 400 Bird Quest - Spring Migration Winds Down

Count Update:  378 / 400

Managing work and chasing birds this spring has been a challenge.  But thanks to rare bird alerts and an especially huge thank you to my good friend Big Tom Nelson, I've been able to locate most of the expected Minnesota birds this spring, on limited time. Tom traveled the north half of the state with me for 3 fun days in May and guided me on a key June 3rd morning trip to Three Rivers Park, (Murphy-Hanrehan), south of Savage, MN, to find an impressive list of uncommon "specialties":  Acadian Flycatcher, Hooded Warbler, Cerulean Warbler, Mourning Warbler, and Henslow's Sparrow, plus Bell's Vireo at Cliff Fen.  Thanks Tom!

Other memorable and fun finds were Canada Warbler, in the mosquito infested Sax Zim bog, the staked out Eurasian Tree Sparrow that is spending it's summer in Duluth, and Yellow-billed Cuckoo at Rice Lake WMA.   

With the year count at 378, my 400 goal would seem easily in hand.  But to find 22 additional species in MN will be very hard.   The 400 goal may turn out to be a good excuse to trip in the fall?

The 400 Bird Quest - it's raining migrants!

Count Update: 313 / 400

 I got a chance to ride along with Big Tom on Monday in a attempt to break the Ramsey County April Big Day record, which was 102 species.  It goes without saying the your best chances to find a high number of species in Minnesota in April is going to be on the last day of the month.  That gives you the best chance to see birds arriving from the south.   And they really did!  We saw Nashville Warbler, Orange Crowned Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, and dozens of Palm Warblers, and White-throated Sparrows, that for the most part where not here the day before.   We birded from 4:30 am to about 7:00 pm, which is an early whined down for most Big Days.  We had a reason. Due to Tom's excellent scouting, route management and keen ears, we accumulated 111 species, scattering the previous record.   The most memorable bird of the day, by far, were 4 Red Crossbills!  The sat in a pine in clear view at Vadnais-Snail Lake Regional Park in Vadnais Heights.  It was a delightful day!  Big Days are fast moving, there is not a lot of time for photos so I did not get many.  


The 400 Bird Quest - Frozen Lakes

Count update:  306 / 400

It's been 10 days since our spring blizzard, and most the snow is gone.  But Anoka County lakes are still frozen solid like the rest of Minnesota. Arriving waterfowl have no where to go except the rivers.   Coon Rapids Dam is as great place to visit right now to see a variety of waterfowl up close.  I stopped in there yesterday and found these birds.  In all I counted 45 species of birds there.  A respectable April list for a short visit.



The 400 Bird Quest - The Journey Home

Count Update:  303

It's snowing sideways outside today.  Nevertheless it's good to be home from FL.   I made this trip a personal challenge to seek rarities, advance my 2018 year bird species list toward the 400 goal, and try to surpass 100 lifetime species in as many states along the way as I can.   I left FL on March 26 and arrived in Minnesota on April 5th, car camping every night along the way.   Spring songbird migration was just beginning when I left, but I quickly passed it up traveling north.   

Needless to say I did not log many highway miles.  For the most part, I avoided all but the smallest towns, zigzagging through state parks, wildlife management areas (WMA), mountains,  seashores, farm fields and various green spots on the map.  One exception was Gatlinburg, TN.   I entered the Great Smokey Mountains in North Carolina on a Friday afternoon and found unexpected 'up north' birds like Common Raven and Ruffed Grouse before camping at 5000 ft elevation.  There was hardly a soul around. Natural solitude. It was extremely peaceful...but cold.  I woke to 24 degrees.  It was late Saturday morning when I finished winding down the Newfound Gap Road (US 441) and tumbling into downtown Gatlinburg. It was jammed with tourist traffic and swarming pedestrian families stampeding the shops and restaurants that were smashed side by side along the street.  A dramatic contrast from the nearby mountains, and a bit of a culture shock to this unprepared Grizzly Adams.  The town is a Branson wanta-be, complete with  a Dollywood theme park, Ripley's believe-it-or-not, an enormous King Kong clinging to one of the tall hotels, and all the standard issue souvenir shops.  On the why through town from the car, I  had no trouble picking up Pigeon, House Sparrow, and Starling for my TN list, but I was glad when traffic freed and it was behind me. 

Temps were cold and snow was covering ground most of the rest of the trip.  We got 3" of fresh snow one night on the IN, IL line. This provided excellent birding in open field ag land.  The snow concentrated migrants to the uncovered gravel roads, making them easy to spot.   I found Lapland Longspurs, Vesper, Song, Field, Tree, and Chipping Sparrows, American Pipits (100's), Horned Laks (100's), Snow Buntings, Pectoral sandpipers, Wilson's snipe  and more.

Other birders have reported uncommon birds they found at  I chased some of those reports and re-found the following:  American Golden Plover, Smith's Longspur, Ross's Goose, Surf Scoter, and Mute Swan (this wild pair was countable).  I also spent hours looking hard for Long-tailed Duck, Snowy Owl, Greater Prairie Chicken,  Seaside Sparrow and others in many places they were reported, but came up short.  In all I added new 28 year species to the year list and broke 300.   I also expanded my list of 100+ species to 11 states.

So that is it recorded somewhere here is a list off my favorite journey home hotspots: FL: Kingsley Plantation area, Big Talbot Island; GA: Jekyll Island, Paulk's Pasture WMA, Altamaha WMA, Harris Neck WMA; SC: Bear Island WMA,  Seabrook Island; NC: Great Smokey Mountains TN: Norris Dam State Park; IN: Patoka Lake, Sullivan County; IL: Dixon Wildlife Refuge, Lake Bloomington;  WI: Buena Vista Grasslands

Here are some photo highlights with captions from along the way.

The 400 Bird Quest - Where's Waldo?

Count Update:  275 / 400

For every good photo I take, ten more are terrible.  So let’s use some of them and play a game.   Each of the 21 numbered photos below has an animal in it there somewhere.   Can you find the critter, and identify it?  Find the answers are further below in the next set of photos with the corresponding number.  There is prize money.

The Questions:

The Answers:

Here are the answers in numbered photos format with embedded comments. with the species name.  Scroll to the right to advance to the next answer.

How it you do?  If you tried all 21 you have incredible patience.  If you got half of them right you are a star.  If you got them all right you're a bold faced liar. Nevertheless, for winning a charitable donation will be made in your name to the The Special Committee for the Conservation of Special Committees.  Thanks for playing.

The 400 Bird Quest - A fish this long…

 Count Update:  275 /400

Our son, Jeff, came down from New Hampshire to visit for a few days. We went offshore fishing to celebrate his 30th birthday.   A 42’ boat took us 15 miles out into the Atlantic on a beautiful blue sky calm day.  We trolled for a while with no luck and then anchored up.   We were fishing on the bottom in 85’ of water with heavy gear.  We caught and released a couple of nice red snappers that were out of season.  Jeff hooked a large cobia, about 3 feet long which broke the line right alongside the boat.  This type of fishing is not like in Minnesota.  With such heavy gear it is a mild chore just reeling in an empty hook.  

Snapper Jeff FL 3-2018.JPG

I felt a bite that meant business. The stiff rod bent over immediately.   I pulled hard and tried to keep reeling as I was instructed, but this fish ignored the suggestion.  It went where it wanted and took out line.  It felt like there was a car on the line, and not a Camry, more like a Dodge Charger or one of those 2 story dump trucks they use on the Iron Range.  The virtual stalemate went on for minutes, but seemed like hours.  Slowly I gained a bit more line then it took out and eventually worked the monster up near the surface.  No fish is compliant at this point in the process.  It is the point in any fight when you can almost hear the fish repeat its self-affirmations aloud and resolve to fight with new found energy.   It was not a fish. The boat captain saw it identified it at a large sandbar shark, which are estimated to be 6’ long and weigh 100-200 pounds. I felt it pull its hardest yet and then it was gone.   Moments before the line broke, Jeff recorded this short video along with the standard issue “ridicule” at my expense.   The captain claimed that since I had reeled it all the way up to the sinker (we had 6’ leaders beyond that), it is counted as a ‘catch’.  I don’t know about that?   In the fog of war, I don’t know how far in it was.  All I could do was hang on to the rod and try to stay in the boat.   I don’t think the shark ever broke the surface.  I never saw it.     The Captain said they would have cut the line anyway.  They don’t take large sharks on board the boat.   According to my Youtube research later, that’s a good policy.  When it was over I was totally spent.  My arms arched and were sore for a couple of days after.  Unforgettable!  A big thank you to Jeff for having the foresight to film it. 

Out at sea, we saw a few Northern Gannets. The only new bird for the year was a distant Jaeger chasing a Laughing Gull. I could not determine if it was a Parasitic Jaeger or Pomarine Jaeger.  Both are known to be in this area.  Technical note on bird list:  While I have found Mute Swan, Indian Peafowl, and Yellow-crowned Parrot in Florida, I am not counted them at this time.   Although 2 are on the official American Birding Associations (ABA) official species list, they are not on the official Florida Ornithological Society (FOS) checklist. These species are established in Florida from escaped domestic birds but have not established wild populations here long enough or large enough to be considered truly wild at this time.  Due to the ABA - FOS list conflict, I am not counting them on my lists at this time.

The 400 Bird Quest - Florida Brush with Fame

Count update:  273/400

In between visiting friends, family and the small amount of work I've done, I've birded quite a bit in central and eastern Florida.   I visited many memorable places:  Green Cay Nature Center and Wetlands,  Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive, Blue Springs State Park,  Mead Botanical Garden, Topeekeegee Yugnee Park, Loxahatchee NWR, Ponce Preserve, and Lake Woodruff NWR to name a few.    I have been fortunate to find some great birds and meet some great birders along the way.  Thanks to Sam K. with gull identification.   Bob S, who stopped to size me up as I stood in the dark by my vehicle on the dirt road he lives on, listening for a Chuck-wills-widow to sing.   Bob was at first concerned about this strange stranger, as he should be.  But he turns out to be a birder and after a brief chat he invited me to his property. We walked out into his pasture and heard the Chuck-wills-widow sound off almost right way.   I doubt that I would have heard it from the road.  Thanks also to Professor Scott R. who I met randomly on a marsh road.  We were both there in the early morning trying to re-locate a LeCounte Sparrow that had been reported previously.  During our 30 minute successful search we chatted. He shared his joy of birding in China and South America.   I told him about my 400 bird quest, and  he causally mentioned he has tried a Big Year in the 1970's.  He did not say much more about it.   He is a very modest man.  When I googled him later I learned he has spent time with some of the most elite US birders, as well as bird authors.   He did a 640-680 range Big Year when the US record was not much more than that.  Another huge feat: Scott also held the World Record Big Day of 331 with partner Ted P. from 1982 until it was finally broken in 2014!  Both big days were conducted in Peru. 

There were many good chances for photos recently.  I've included several here. I also got some "Lifers" - this month (birds I've never identified before), but could not get good photos of all of them:  Fulvuos Whistling Duck, Eqyptian Goose, Red-Crowned Parrot, Monk Parakeet, Red-Whiskered Bulbul, and Burrowing Owl (finally!).

Jim is attempting to find and identify 400 different species of birds in the USA in 2018.

The 400 Bird Quest - Florida

Count update:   248/400

We’ve landed in Ponce Inlet, a Daytona Beach suburb, on Florida’s east coast.   From here I’ve had several great local day birding trips.   

Merit Island National Wildlife Refuge felt like old home.  I’ve visited there in years past, but keep going back because the area is so large, has diverse habitat, and the birding is so good.   This is the same island that Kennedy Space center is on and the SpaceX rockets are launched from.    On this trip, I found a couple first of the year birds.  These included the Florida Scrub Jay, which is classified as a threatened species, and Greater Black-backed Gull. With its 65” wingspan, this is the largest gull in the world.

Hal Scott Regional Preserve and Park – I visited this park for strategic reasons.   Red-cockaded Woodpeckers are known to be here.  This is another threatened species that can be hard to find.  Two other common species are also there.  Bachman’s sparrow, and Bobwhite quail.  All 3 of these birds are most active in the first hour of daylight, then seem to melt into the vegetation the rest of the day.   So I got up a 4 am and walked the foot trail 2-3 miles out to the best spot in the dark.   It was an immensely pleasurable walk in the still, silent warm air.  I concentrated to hear distant owls all the way out, with no luck.   Before the sun even peaked through the scattered tall pines, I got the sparrow and the quail.  I continued walking the long trail farther into this 9,387-acre preserve.  Soon I heard a woodpecker tapping gently nearby.  I approached quietly and scanned frantically with my binos.  This could be my only chance!  Then just like the climax of a suspenseful movie it appeared… except… wrong bird.  It was the ever common Downy Woodpecker.   Needing to get back to our rented condo by a certain time,  I knew I could only walk 10 minutes further before I absolutely, positively had to turn around and start the long hike back to the car.  So I walked 15 minutes farther in.  In the nick of time, I spot movement on a distant mature pine tree trunk, snapped the binos to my face, and there it was…..the Red-Cockaded woodpecker…. in profile with its white cheek in full view.  Bingo!   Then on my brisk walk back a Barred Owl volunteered to sing out loud.  Who ever said that birding was not the most exciting sport ever?!!

Jim is attempting to find and identify 400 different species of birds in the USA in 2018.

The 400 Bird Quest - Alabama

Count update:  239/400

I followed Alabama’s limited Gulf shoreline into the Florida panhandle.   Much of this is already developed with homes, condo’s, hotels and the like.   But I did find an excellent section of virtually untouched preserved National Seashore.  This peninsula is over 5 miles long.  At the very end are the ruins of Fort McRee, a small abandoned US military post.   It has not been in use since WWII.  Everything has been removed except for some cement foundation and fort walls.  Over time sand has drifted up against the once tall walls so they are now only waist high.  I guess they could still defend against enemies that are under 3 feet tall?  The beauty here was not the historic fort, but the 11.5 mile round trip deserted beach walk to it.   Birds were not plentiful but the views were spectacular!  Few things in life feel better than walking miles on a deserted beach with gentle waves and sunshine.  To top off the day, I got back to the car just in time to enjoy a perfect sunset.  I’m both surprised and grateful there are still places like this in the US.

While in northeast Alabama last year I found 88 bird species.   By staying near the salt water habitat this year it was not hard to add new birds to my state life list.  It now totals 101, making ‘Bama the 7th state with 100 or more lifetime species.  But only Horned Grebe was a new species for the 2018 year list.  I crossed into Florida with 235 for the year. 

A professional bird guide I met last year lives in Gainsville, FL and told me that Sweetwater Regional Preserve was a great place to spend a day.  So I stopped in.  He was right! This marshland was thick with all sorts of water related birds, waders and ducks were everywhere.   In a 2-3 mile walk I encountered many species and had great views of them, including 4 new 2018 year birds: Glossy Ibis, Cattle Egret, the noisy Limpkin and the "ugly bird of the day award" goes to Wood Stork.

The 400 Bird Quest - Louisana to Mississippi

Count update:  234/400

So there I was minding my own business…

It was still full dark at 5 am.  I had just woken up, but was laying in my car.  The evening before, I had pulled off a rural country road. I backed onto a field entrance, next to a rusty padlock on a metal gate.  The land beyond the gate was farm pasture with no livestock in sight.  In fact, there were no houses, buildings or anything else in sight.  Traffic was less than one car per hour.  I enjoyed the silence broken only by the begging call of a nearby great horned owl as I drifted off to sleep.   A car pulls up and stops.   As the sweeping beam of a spotlight washes back and forth over my SUV, I have a hunch what this is about.   I turn on my light and roll down the window as a boyish, slight sheriff’s deputy in an oversized uniform asked me to step out of my car.   I put my bare feet on the gravel and handed over my driver’s license.  As he examined it, I pointed out that I thought sleeping in my car was a legal activity.   He agreed, but then questioned my ownership on this land it was parked on.  Once he established that I did not own it or know the owner, he informed me that I could not sleep there because it blocked the farmer’s entrance to his pasture.   I pointed out there was not a “no trespassing sign”.   I was parked just 20 feet off the road, not disturbing anything, and that I could easily move if the owner needed pasture access.   The officer was very professional but he wasn’t having any of it.  He instructed me to stand in his headlights as he returned to his warm car to radio my license.  As I waited irritated, barefoot and chilled, I considered pressing my case further,  “It would be a rare event that the owner of this pasture had a spontaneous inspiration on that February night  between 10 pm and 5 am to suddenly bolt out of his bed and plow up his pasture right there and then.  But okay, let’s assume for a moment that it is a common Louisiana farming practice. His mission would be delayed by the amount of time it takes me to drive my car 20 feet onto the roadway so he could get his equipment by.  Easily less than 1 minute.  Assuming this spontaneous farmer is a careful planner and remembers to bring the gate key, he would have to dismount his vehicle to remove the paddock providing me extra time to move.  I also reasoned that the farmer would probably need a flashlight and a can of WD-40 along to get the old lock to work.  Now we have already established that I can walk on gravel in my bare feet, so we can assume that I can also drive my car 20 feet without any delay to put on shoes.   So Mr. Officer, if we work out the math, the farmer’s actual delay in entering his field would be less than 15 seconds.   With all due respect Mr. Officer, I have to ask how exactly am I putting modern society at risk by sleeping in my car at this tiny spot in which no other human has passed by in months or years?”

… but when he got back out of the car I bit my tongue and kept my thoughts to myself.   Instead I was polite and enthusiastically explained that I was traveling on a bird watching trip hoping to find and identify 400 species of birds in the US.   By his eye roll,  I could immediately tell we were not kindred spirits.  His expression showed he was thinking, “that’s not even a real thing”.   By now, the first bit of daylight was threatening in the east and I heard the first Cardinal of the morning singing.  Still trying to persuade the cop that there was legitimacy to my existence in his County, I doubled down and blurted out , “hear that?  It’s a Cardinal.”  Epic fail!  He wasn’t buying it.  

By now a second squad car rolled up, and a more senior deputy got out.  I know this is supposed to be a serious event, but I could hardly keep for laughing out loud thinking, Junior called for backup?  For this situation?  Really?  

The second officer was also very professional, but after my limited success enlightening the Junior officer on the merits of birdwatching, I decided less detail was better.    I simplified my story to: “I was sleeping”.  

It had been a long wait. The radio voice finally came back stating that they could not find anyone with my name.  Junior then repeated my name into his shoulder mic, this time including my last name!   This time the voice came back much faster with an “all clear”.   The second officer then left and junior told me I was free to go, but could not sleep in that spot.   I moved on.  In all I was detained a good 30 minutes. When I recounted the experience to my wife, Ann, she asked me if Junior escorted me to the county line.   He did not, but  I thought to myself why not?    Who knows, maybe he got another call, or maybe he is not old enough to have a driver’s license?

So that was the end of my Louisiana crime spree and it was on to Mississippi!  I followed the southern coast so I only saw a small piece of the state. But I did stop and enjoyed Buccaneer State Park where I heard and saw the Clapper Rail in the fading light.  I also got all bit up by no-see-um insects. They provided 24 hours of intense itching entertainment.  Still, was worth it for the Clapper Rail.

Jim is attempting to find and identify 400 different species of birds in the USA in 2018. 

The 400 Bird Quest - Louisana

Count update:  233 /400

South Louisiana is known for its low wet elevation.  I had never been there before.  But I discovered it to be even truer than I had imagined.  They got 2-3 days of rain just before I arrived and many of the road ditches had swollen almost up to the payment.  In wandering through LA I was able to find 19 new species for the year.  Most are wintering species that commonly summer back home.   But a few are rarely found in Anoka County, Minnesota:  Anhinga, White-faced Ibis, and Carolina Chickadee   In all I had 101 species in Louisiana making it the 6th state in which I have 100 or more birds on my life list after Minnesota, Texas, Florida, Arizona, and California. 

The 400 Bird Quest - Leaving Texas

Count update: 214/400

If you know me, you know I am frugal to a fault.   Since I’m traveling alone with a flexible route plan and I see no need to do the hotel thing.  I have a tent, but when there is no campground handy, sleeping in the back of my SUV is quite comfortable.  I know I will not convince you, but it does save $ and time, avoids noisy room neighbors, and puts me under the bright backcountry stars, and occasional night singing birds.     Why the confession?   Aransas National Wildlife Refuge (east Texas) is many miles from any city.  Camping out in the boonies nearby got me there at sunrise, enjoying the hiking trails and birds hours before the “city slickers” arrived.    Having the place to yourself in the early morning is glorious. I encountered many birds (56 total species) that were likely silent or hiding by mid-morning, plus deer and other non-bird critters.   This alligator's estimated length is 15' nose to tail. It would just fit corner to corner in your average kids' bedroom.  Of course your kid would certainly not be average if they had this in their room.  The Wild hog shown here is scurrying away.  Wild hogs are feral escapees from domestic farms, unlike the smaller Javelina which is truly wild.

Roseate spoonbills wade in shallow water strutting along sweeping their head side to side to strain shrimp from the water.  They also get small fish and other critters, but the shrimp in their diet gives them that rich color.


Aransas NWF is the primary wintering range for endangered Whooping cranes.  The fog on this morning was too thick for distant viewing.  I heard Sandhill cranes but no Whoopers.

Aransas NWF is the primary wintering range for endangered Whooping cranes.  The fog on this morning was too thick for distant viewing.  I heard Sandhill cranes but no Whoopers.

The 400 Bird Quest - 206

Texas has been very good to me!  Especially the Rio Grande Valley at the very south tip of the state.   The area combines many on Minnesota’s wintering species plus a large number of southern “specialties” that have a limited range in the US.  Like these photos all captured near the Mexican border:  (l to r) Green Jay, Plain Chachalaca, Great Kiskadee, White-tipped Dove, Northern Crested Caracara, and White-tailed Hawk

I also got to spend some time with my mother, a winter Texan, my sister, and a friend.  Delightful!

Leaving Texas with count of 206 is a big jump from 168, but I am growing concerned that 400 is a high bar for the year.  Largely because I have set my own limitation of no substantial extra travel other than that already planned.   Although it is only February and it is winter, may of the species found so far will be a “sure thing” this spring in Minnesota.  All time spent birding is a joy for me. But number-wise, with each new species found, finding the next NEW one becomes a little harder.  It will be interesting to see how it turns out.