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.

The 400 Bird Quest - 168

Count Update: 168/400

In our last few days in Arizona we enjoyed visiting, sightseeing, hiking and birding with friends.  We got to experience the rare lunar ellipse, blue moon, blood moon combo.  I took these 2 photos just minutes apart.

Blood blue full moon 2018 AZ 2 feb 7.JPG
Blood blue full moon 2018 AZ feb 7.JPG

Here are petroglyphs etched in rock long ago by the native Americas.   I guess westerners did not invent graffiti after all?


In the Gila Mountains of New Mexico I picked up Pygmy Nuthatch, Williamson’s and Red-naped Sapsuckers, Mountain Chickadee, and Green-tailed Towhee.

I also had a remarkable day-hike that included Devil’s Hall canyon in the Guadalupe Mountains on the New Mexico/Texas border.   This hike included impressivs rock formations from narrow slot areas to a natural amplitheater.  

Devil's Hall Gaudalupe Mountions TX  1 feb 7.JPG
Devil's Hall Gaudalupe Mountions TX  2 feb 7.JPG

The area was parched for rain and the stream bed was bone dry except for one shaded very deep hole in solid stone.   That water attracted many birds including this junco and the  Townsend’s Solitaire and Hermit Thrush which are rarely photographed together.    Hermit thrushes mostly stay low in the forest brush.

 Dark-eyed Junco

Dark-eyed Junco

 L to R:  Townsend Solataire and  Hermit Thush

L to R:  Townsend Solataire and  Hermit Thush

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


The 400 Bird Quest - 148

Count update: 148/400

I got out for an all day hike at Lake Pleasant Regional Park, north of Phoenix and enjoyed spotting a few of the regular local birds.   I hiked 7 miles, tallied 20 species in the dry desert surrounding the lake. No year birds.  Still, what an interesting day!  I encountered 3 bands of wild burros….

They were somewhat wary, but not as much as most mammals.  I encountered them unexpectedly on a bend in a small canyon. They ran a short ways, stopped, and froze like rabbits do.   It seems like a ridiculous concealment strategy for a 350 pound critter in sparse vegetation.  Although I suppose they have few predators, so they may not care.

Walking amongst the numerous saguaro cacti, I saw just one jack rabbit.  Now and then a tiny lizard would sprint for cover with incredible speed.

 Common side-blotched lizard

Common side-blotched lizard

One huge Saguaro cactus caught my eye and I approached it with admiration.   Saguaros this big are about 200 years old.

cactus surprise 1.JPG

Impressive yes, but look closer…

cactus surprise 2.JPG

It was only when I got right up to is that I was shocked to discover this little guy…

 Grey Fox

Grey Fox

A grey fox 11 feet high resting in shade!  I knew they climb trees, but a vertical spine covered cactus?  That’s just crazy talk?  While I concede I observed it during a long remote hike in the desert sun, I assure you I did have plenty of water.  It happened.   I took the close photo first and then backed away for the others.   Eventually he jumped down awkwardly through a palo verde bush and ran off in a flash.

Later I googled “grey fox and climbing cactus”. The behavior is mentioned in the text but I could not find any photo of a fox on a cactus anywhere.

What a memorable day.

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


The 400 Bird Quest - 136

Count update:  136/400  Jan 20th

My friend Leigh and I left Phoenix a few days ago for a trip to Denver.  In northern Arizona, we hit Montezuma’s Well and the Grand Canyon, then toured the Upper Antelope Canyon (slot canyon) which I recommend highly.  Then on to Arches National Park. These views are also breathtaking.  In addition to adding a few birds to the year list, we found elk, pronghorn antelope, coyote, and spooked a herd of 20-30 Javelina.  Utah yielded few notable new birds. We were mostly driving.  But we did get one flyover Golden Eagle, and saw mule deer.  After Denver, we headed south through New Mexico, then west over the Gila Mountains back to Phoenix

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

The 400 Bird Quest - 115

Count update:  115/400

Thursday was my last day with Tom before he had to depart.  We enjoyed the beautiful view from high up Picacho Peak State Park before visiting Casa Granada National Monument.  Then we birded the back roads through cotton, hay, and farrow winter fields on our way back to Phoenix.  We encountered many grassland sparrows and other expected birds along the way, about 20 in all.   The best was when Tom spotted a Prairie Falcon glide across the road in front of us.   We watched it cruise low over the field until it was out of site.  What a treat! This is only the 2nd or 3rd Prairie Falcon I have ever seen.  This Falcon was clear bird of the day.

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

 Spotted Towhee  photo by Jim Hughes

Spotted Towhee  photo by Jim Hughes

The 400 Bird Quest - 111

Count update:  111/400

It has been another amazing day in Arizona adding 10 new “year birds”.  Tom and I did an early walk in light rain at Saguaro National Park, through century old saguaro cacti as tall as a house (yep, that’s a real estate reference).  Next we stopped by a sewage pond in Alma, where a confused Brown Pelican has wandered far from its normal salt water range.  The highlights of the day were at the bird feeders at Santa Rita Lodge in the evergreens of Madera Canyon.  This has been a historic birder destination for many years.  We found the feeders loaded with lots of unusual species including several new year birds and one I’d never seen before: Rivoli’s Hummingbird (lifer!).  We topped off birding with dinner at Lin’s Grand Buffet.  My gravestone may well read, “I’ve never met a buffet I did not like.

Jim is attempting to find and identify 400 different species of birds in the USA in 2018.  Although significant, 400 is a modest “Big Year” goal for birders. A larger goal would require more travel.  The national record is around 750. 


Rivoli's Hummingbird ( formally named Magnificent Hummingbird) and Acorn Woodpecker - photos by Jim Hughes

The 400 bird Quest

Jim is attempting to find and identify 400 species of birds in the USA in 2018.  In my 4+ decades of birding I have identified 414 different species of birds in the wild.    This year I hope to discover some new species for the first time (lifers) but at the same time rack up 400 total species for the year.  Yep, that is a thing. Sort of like the movie "The Big Year" but without going too far out of the way,  from plans already made.


We are nine days into the year and on a vacation to Arizona.  I casually found 48 species of common birds in the first 7 days this year.  Yesterday and today we kicked into high gear,  Life long friend and bird expert Tom joined me in the Tuscon area.  We made a visit to Gilbert Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch east of Phoenix.  Then on to Sweetwater Wetlands near Tucson. These are both sewage treatment facilities turned into parks.  It's not what you think.  They are beautiful odorless green parks loaded with birds.  We chalked up many local birds plus a couple local rarities:  Northern Parula, and Greater Scaup.  Anna's Hummingbirds were buzzing everywhere, as we walked, laughed and searched.

Today Tom's bother Bruce, a true adventurer, joined us. We made a second visit to Sweetwater Wetlands followed by a trip to the top of 9100 ft Mount Lemmon east of Tucson.   Highlights included a Steller's Jay, one bright male Vermilion Flycatcher, a flock of Cassin's Finchs (lifer!), and a Black and White warbler (rare for AZ).  Great birds and great company.  

That brings the total to 101.  It is a good start, but of course the first birds are the easy ones.  Each species only gets counted once so each new species it harder to find.


Great Egret - photo by Jim Hughes

Spook-tacular Pumpkin Carving Contest!

Greenwell would love to see your wicked pumpkin carving skills in exchange for some bone-chilling cash!

Take a selfie of you and your boo-tiful pumpkin and post it to our Facebook page that is posted below to enter.

Greenwell will select 3 magical finalists and then all our friends will select the favorite!

1st place: $100

2nd place: $50

3rd place: $25


Happy Carving!



Andover MN real estate bubble?

Are we in a real estate bubble?

In about 2004 we started hearing a few (very few) people talk about a housing bubble. By 2005 the stats showed it was real, we just didn’t believe it. Now in 2016 prices are rising steadily and approaching 2005 levels again. So there is talk of another housing bubble. So lets look objectively at the numbers. This Twin Cities, MN housing report has good statistically info:

Housing affordability (page 13) was at 120 in 2006, now it is 180, housing cost is a low % of median income.

Inventory of homes for sale was at about 25,000 in the metro area in 2005. Now it is about 13,000 (page 14).

Similarly Months’ Supply of homes was about 4.5 months, now it is 2.5 (page 15).

Home buyer culture is also very different from 2005.   Back then buyers were trying to buy as much home as the banks would let them.  Today the buyers we are helping are consistently searching for homes with payment limits they are comfortable with.  Often much lower that the bank says they are approved for.   It's a much healthier culture.

So are we in a real estate bubble?  Nope. Not in the Minneapolis / St. Paul region.  There is room in this environment for homes values to increase. The key is “in this environment”. High local employment, a mostly stable political world, and especially very low interest rates are strong positives for real estate. The most likely threat to these “good real estate times” is a substantial interest rate increase.

What to do? Renters: buy now if you can and lock in low fixed rates. Sellers: It may be to early to sell if you are trying to time the market and you don’t plan to buy a replacement home. Investors: buy carefully selected solid deals and lock in low fixed rates while you can.

As always, this is just one person’s opinion. I’ve been right before, and I’ve been wrong… right is better :). In this case I am confident enough that I am quite comfortable making personal real estate decisions based on this data. 

Jim Hughes, CRS, ChFC, GRI, ABR, e-PRO, CDPE

Greenwell Realty