Tuesday, May 6, 2014

An Epic Month of Rarities and Lifers

If you are hoping to see some great bird photos in this post, you will be greatly disappointed. If, on the other hand, you want to see and read about phenomenal birding that will have you sitting on the edge of your seat then keep reading.  I have had a month of birding like none I have ever had and will likely not experience again. It has been one non-stop adrenaline rush as I have been turning up rarity after rarity and chasing the rarities of others.  A bird's rarity is always relative to where one lives, so I will do my best to explain the significance of each bird in this post as it relates to birding in my state of Minnesota.  I will also list them in the chronological order I saw them.  All birds listed below were lifers for me.

Spotted Towhee
On April 2nd, I went out to a state wildlife management area looking for migrating Long-eared Owls.  Since no one had ever eBirded this WMA before, I pulled up the binoculars on everything with wings to begin to tell the bird story of this place.  To my astonishment I found a Spotted Towhee within five minutes of being there.  If you look at a range map for this species, you will see Minnesota is not even included.  The nearest range is the western Dakotas.  We do, however, get one every now and then.  The last time one had been seen in my county was over a decade ago, but no one ever submitted the necessary documentation to the Minnesota Ornithologists' Union.  Therefore my find was an official county first record.  The photo below was taken during a blizzard from about 50 feet away.

Spotted Towhee - official Kandiyohi County first record

Mute Swan
On April 13th, I was driving home from my CPA's house after going over my tax returns.  I stopped at a slough to take a closer look at an egret all hunched up in the cold weather.  I was hoping it was a Cattle or Snowy Egret.  Turns out it was just a Great Egret.  I had ignored a bigger, white bird on this pond thinking it was just a Tundra or Trumpeter Swan.  Not until my wife asked me what it was did I pull up the binoculars to look up and see it was a Mute Swan!  This is a controversial find since Mutes are known to be destructive and invasive.  Minnesota maybe gets a couple each year, but even still the Department of Natural Resources often eliminates them.  Regardless, my find was a Renville County first record.

Mute Swan - a Renville County first record

Bonaparte's Gull
Not a rare bird for Minnesota by any means, but on April 18th I finally managed to see a migrating Bonaparte's Gull life bird.  And then I saw them everywhere.
Bonaparte's Gull

American Avocet
On April 23rd when I was at work I was honestly thinking it felt like a good day to find an American Avocet.  I had a strong hunch about it.  This might have been because I remember a few showing up in our state around this time last year.  I had never seen one before and really wanted to see one.  Minnesota is east of their breeding range, but we do get a few every spring.  So based on that and my hunch I went to the local sewage ponds after work.  To my astonishment, my hunch paid off! There was a lone American Avocet there, only the second one in our state this spring according to eBird.

American Avocet

Eurasian Wigeon
On April 25th I was at work when news came in of a Eurasian Wigeon just 45 minutes away.  I don't think I need to explain the rarity of this bird.  This was the 4th sighting of this species this spring which is highly unusual considering we can go years without getting one.  Some of this sightings may be the same bird, but we for sure had two different ones.  Anyhow, I took off work early to go chase this good bird.  It was several hundred yards from where I stood.

Cousins from different continents - Eurasian Wigeon and American Wigeon

Lesser Black-backed Gull
The very next day on April 26th I was back at those sewage ponds where I discovered the American Avocet.  I was watching the gulls and one stood out like a sore thumb with is black back and wings.  I knew it was either a Lesser Black-backed Gull or the Great Black-backed Gull, so I snapped some photos from over a hundred yards away to help me ID it.  It turns out it was a Lesser Black-backed Gull, a rare visitor from Europe and a Kandiyohi County first record.  Not even the long-time birders in our county who have tallied 290 species have seen it here even though they have seen birds like Vermilion Flycatchers, Ruffs, and Harlequin Ducks in the county.  We do get the Lesser Black-backed Gull every now and then in our state since we are near the Great Lakes, but they mostly show up on Lake Superior near Duluth.  Seeing one so far inland was quite a treat.
Lesser Black-backed Gull - a Kandiyohi County first record
Left to Right: 2 Ring-billed Gulls, 2 Bonaparte's Gulls, 1 Lesser Black-backed Gull

Need I say any more about how rare and cool this bird is?  On April 27th, I joined the throngs of Minnesota and Wisconsin birders in chasing Wisconsin's first state record Garganey at Crex Meadows Wildlife Area just 80 miles north and east of Minneapolis/St. Paul and just a few miles across the Minnesota border.  It was raining cats and dogs the day I went, but I got killer looks from just 15 feet away of this amazing duck.

Garganey at Crex Meadows Wildlife Area near Grantsburg, Wisconsin

Ross's Goose
On May 1st, I went chasing after 16 reported Cattle Egrets - another scarce bird for Minnesota.  I struck out on the egrets but did get my lifer Ross's Goose mixed in with a late flock of Greater White-fronted Geese.  Again, a Ross's Goose is an expected lifer for our area, but they are usually scarce in numbers compared to the thousands of Snow Geese, Canada Geese, and Greater White-fronted Geese that migrate through our area.

Ross's Goose with Greater White-fronted Geese in the background

White-faced Ibis
On May 3rd I was on the chase again.  This time I was after a report of 5 White-faced Ibises.  Since a small number nest in South Dakota, we occasionally get some that show up every spring during migration.  I was fortunate to get to see them.

White-faced Ibises

The Ibises actively foraged in and out of the cattails and marsh grasses on the edge of the road.

Baird's Sandpiper
Again, this is not a rare bird for our area during migration.  But it was a life bird I got on May 3rd on the Ibis trip, and it was lifer #10 for a month's worth of unimaginable birding.

I don't think I will ever have another month with the intensity and numbers of life birds as I had this past month.  Only the Ross's Goose, Bonaparte's Gull, and Baird's Sandpiper could have been reasnonable expectations even though they are all uncommon themselves.  I never imagined I would see all the birds that I did and discover a few of them myself.  It was an unforgettable month, and I'm still trying to calm down from all that I experienced.

For more detailed stories on any of the above birds, head on over to A Boy Who Cried Heron.


  1. Josh, how wonderful to get all these life birds and county records! I am so happy for you! I am so glad you were able to document the sightings with photos so the records would be accepted! I don't blame you for your excitement. I would have a hard time calming down after that as well! I am still learning my new area here in Maine and am so excited to see new species dropping in every day! I am so glad that you are an eBirder!

    1. Thanks, Kathie! The photos have proven invaluable in both identifying birds for myself and having others believe me. As a relatively new birder I don't necessarily have the credibility that established birders do. It was a
      So nice to be able to get some other birders onto these birds via listserv postings. Yes. eBirding is fun and helpful. Sadly it is not widely used in Minnesota by those more established birders. My county records are through the longstanding Minnesota Ornithologists Union; it would be easy to get all kinds of county records on eBird since it's not used much.

    2. Very exciting stuff here! Congrats! I am from Wisconsin and would love to go back and bird more there.....and eat cheese. Seriously, no one makes good cheese around Arizona.

  2. Don't bad mouth your own photos. They're fine.

  3. Great and exciting narrative and well-documented with lots of good shots.