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 eBird.org 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 ebird.org 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).