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.
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 Great Horned Owl watching a helicopter fly over|
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.|
|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.