Thursday, February 6, 2014

Winter Rarities Keep the Birding Action Hot!

I would hate winter right now if I weren't a birder.  This has been one of the coldest, stormiest winters that I can recall.  My son has had six canceled days of school and many late starts due to cold and blizzard-like conditions.  We could only dream of having balmy weather in the twenties or thirties. Despite that misery, I am thoroughly content and enjoying this crazy winter.

Why? The birding has been phenomenal!  The rarities that have been popping up have added a spice of life to the normal winter birding scene of just watching feeder birds out the window.  As everybody knows, one rare bird that has delighted birders and non-birders alike is the Snowy Owl.  Minnesota has not been left out of this phenomenon as we have surpassed 200 sightings.  I have personally seen six different Snowy Owls and logged 10 eBird checklists with Snowy Owl sightings.  It has been fun to hop in the car to try to relocate the owl below that seems to be sticking around our county.

Snowy Owl

I never get tired of going out to look for Snowy Owls, even if it's the same bird.  It's like a Where's Waldo hunt in our white landscape.  Sometimes you get a gift of seeing one on a pole top, but other times they will be over a quarter mile from the road.

And sometimes you find them on the ground.

I never would have dreamed that the area in which I live would be one of the hotbeds of Snowy Owl activity.  My non-birding coworkers have been responsible for nearly all the local sightings.  It is from following up on their reports that I have been able to get the word out to the birding community.

Sometimes these reports from non-birders don't always pan out, and you end up seeing something else that's equally cool instead, like this light-colored Great Horned Owl!  I was excited to actually not see a Snowy Owl when I followed up on this report from a fellow Cub Scout parent.  This was my first time seeing a Great Horned Owl in the daylight.  My only other sightings have been silhouettes on pole tops at dusk.

Sleepy Great Horned Owl
The above photo was taken from well over 50 yards through this person's window, so I went outside to sneak closer for a better shot.  At that moment a helicopter flew over, and the owl's attention was fixed on it.  I tried to capitalize on the distraction to get closer.

The Great Horned Owl watching a helicopter fly over
Either it was the helicopter or my presence, but the owl bolted to a different tree. I relocated it for the homeowner, snapped a couple more photos, and then left before I disturbed it again.  You can see in the above photo how a non-birder could mistake it for an immature Snowy. Minus the ears and gray face, it looks very similar!

As if there wasn't enough owl action happening, a new birder in our area made a huge discovery: a county record Northern Hawk Owl! This was big news.  Northern Hawk Owls are scarce in the northern forests of our state in the winter, and this one showed up in the southern half of the state - farm country! Because it was a county record, all the birders in the state who are county listers flocked to McLeod County to tick this bird for their lists.  I'm not a county lister, but I can't resist a Northern Hawk Owl that's less than an hour away.  The Northern Hawk Owl was one of my major targets for the winter.  Imagine how thrilling it was to see my fifth one and have it be so close to home!

McLeod County Record Northern Hawk Owl

But the gifts haven't stopped with the Northern Hawk Owl.  Just an hour to the northeast, a report came across the listserv (MOU-net) of a male Long-tailed Duck on the Mississippi River near St. Cloud! This was one duck I've been wanting to see. We occasionally get flocks of them along the north shore of Lake Superior, but they are rare strays inland.  However, when they do come inland they are on open areas of the Mississippi River.

I tried for this duck a week ago but was unsuccesful in locating it, even though a friend of mine had seen it just an hour earlier.  He told me to scan all the Common Goldeneyes carefully and often as these ducks all dive frequently.  So it could be under water when you are looking at a particular bunch of ducks.  After an hour-and-a-half of searching through about a hundred Common Goldeneyes, I called it quits.  Besides, it was cold.  The sound of rushing water over a dam when it is zero degrees makes for a bone-chilling experience.

Dam over the Mississippi River in Sartell, Minnesota
Common Goldeneyes in Antarctica?

There were many Common Goldeneyes to search through.
But people kept reporting this duck.  I had to try one more time on February 5th - my deadline for this BIF post.  I really wanted to include it in this post.  I nearly struck out again after searching for over an hour, but thankfully the original discoverer showed up and found it for me instantly.  It was no wonder I couldn't find it.  The whole time I observed it, the duck was never on the surface for more than two or three seconds.

The Long-tailed Duck!
Can you see how it blended in with the floating ice? The combination of distance, cold fingers, and brief spurts above the surface made photography very difficult. 

I was thrilled.  Life birds are always fun, but they are even more special in the winter when the birding world is supposedly quiet.

On the way home I stopped by a ditch in St. Cloud where the Mallards funnel into all day long.  From the road it looks like they disappear into the snowy ditch on the side of the road.  Walking to the edge of the ditch shows a different story.  And this is just a fraction of the ducks that are there.  With hardly any open water, even on the Mississippi, these ducks have nowhere else to go.

As you can see, it has been a fun winter around here.  If I do get tired of winter birding, spring migration will not be far behind!  For now, though, I'm content to chase these winter rarities, keep tabs on our Snowy Owls, and watch some of our favorite northern visitors at the feeder.

American Tree Sparrow
Northern Shrike staring me down while recovering after hitting my window in pursuit of House Sparrows

Josh Wallestad writes about his birding adventures with his family at A Boy Who Cried Heron and helps you keep tabs on rarities in your state in others at Birding Across America.


  1. Oh! what a lovely post. I love owls -- aren't they one of the most fascinating creatures? Looking at their face really gives you the feeling that they are the wisest people with full intelligence and wisdom...brrrr...looking at those ducks I am feeling cold...

  2. This looks like it has been a fun winter! Good for you and thanks for showing us all the fun. Owls are awesome. Period.:)

  3. Great series of pictures ! The snowy owl is gorgeous and beautiful !

  4. All these wonderful bird sightings haves certainly brightened your winter. Congratulations on viewing so many rarities, Josh! The Northern Hawk Owl is especially awesome. I would love to see one someday. Great photographs, terrific post!