Tag Archives: rare bird

Duck Farms and Raptor Ranches

I’m in California’s Central Valley for a few days, exploring a region of the country that I have not yet visited this year.  Many people know the Central Valley as one of the nation’s agricultural hotspots.  It produces almost a tenth of all of the fruits and veggies grown in the US, supplying much-desired produce especially during the cold winter months when much of the country is snowbound.  Apparently it’s especially suited for growing almonds, as the Central Valley produces 70% of the world’s almond supply.  Who knew?

In the far northern valley where I am now (northwest of Sacramento), many of the farm fields are fallow or flooded for the winter.  But that doesn’t mean that they are idle or empty.  Three million ducks and almost a million geese use the valley as a wintering site, and many of them spend much of their time in these muddy or flooded fields.  Raptors who breed further north also come down to feed on the abundant rodent population (rats and mice are so numerous here in part because they feed on the grain crops that grow in the spring, summer, and fall).  So during the winter, the farms and ranches of the central valley switch from growing asparagus, corn, and tomatoes to growing ducks, geese, hawks, and owls.

Flooding

Here is picture of a Northern Shoveler.

Northern Shoveler

Shovelers have huge, spatula-shaped bills that they swing back and forth in the water, straining out small aquatic invertebrates.  In 30 minutes of walking approximately half a mile down a rural road in Yolo County, I passed an estimated 3000 Shovelers.  No, I didn’t count each one.  But you can count a group of ten ducks, and then see what that looks like.  Then you can count to a hundred by counting ten groups of roughly ten ducks each.  And so on.  And that’s not including the other ducks present: Buffleheads, Gadwall, Mallards, Ring-necked Ducks, Scaup, Green-winged Teal, etc.

Bird of prey are also out in force.  I’ve seen 11 species of hawks, falcons, eagles, and owls in only two days.  Like this charming Burrowing Owl, who posed on a fence post before yakking up a owl pellet:

Burrowing Owl

Or this adult Cooper’s Hawk, who rested nonchalantly in a bare tree:

Cooper's Hawk

Or this White-tailed Kite who huddled on a power line in the cold morning dampness:

White-tailed Kite

Or this Red-shouldered Hawk who stared down at me from a lamp post:

Red-shouldered Hawk

In addition to birding backroads along farms and ranches, I visited a number of National Wildlife Refuges including Colusa and Sacramento.

Sacramento NWR

These refuges control the water levels inside the refuge to create good wintering habitat for waterfowl (generally, broad expanses of shallow water interspersed with some mud or vegetated areas for resting and roosting).  A treat for me was watching these Ross’s Geese, the smaller cousin of the Snow Geese we have back home in western Washington state.

Ross Geese
While most of the birds here are relatively common to this area, I did see one rare one – another lost bird from Eurasia.  This one is called a Tufted Duck.  It looks like a Scaup, but it has an all black back.  And if you look really closely, you can see the hint of a tuft on the back of his head.

Tufted Duck Lake Merritt

This one was too sleepy to take much notice of me, but he did open one yellow eye to give me the once over.

Up next: the search for more owls.

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Wild Goose Chase in New York City

When I sat down to make my list of “must see” places to go nature-watching during my Big Year, a few spots sprang quickly to the top of my list: Florida’s Everglades National Park, Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in Texas, the Capitol State Forest south of Olympia, the Bronx, and Coronado National Forest in Arizona.  Ok, I’m just kidding about the Bronx.  If you would have told me last month that I would be making a special trip to the Bronx to go birding, I would have laughed hysterically and then told you that it wasn’t bloody likely.  The funny thing about really unlikely things is that occasionally they happen anyway despite their long odds.

Thus I found myself in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx (not far from Yonkers) a few days ago with my spotting scope and binoculars.  I always giggle whenever I say “Yonkers,” but I don’t quite know why.  Ironically I was already planning on spending a day in the Bronx, at the famous Bronx High School of Science (less than a mile from Van Cortlandt Park!), but my school visit would last all day and leave me no time for a wild goose chase.

The goose in question is a Barnacle Goose.  Like Lapwings and Little Egrets, Barnacle Geese normally occur in Eurasia.  Perhaps, like the Lapwing, this goose was blown in by Superstorm Sandy.  Or maybe she was trying to take the A train down to 49th St to visit her Aunt Maude, and missed the entrance to the subway.  In any event, the chase was on for this wild goose.  At least I hoped it was wild.  Barnacle Geese are occasionally kept in captivity: at zoos, animal parks, duck farms, etc.  In fact, the second largest duck farm in North America is on Long Island (you can find out if one-legged ducks swim in circles at their website – but I could not find any information about whether they also raise Barnacle Geese).  As I have mentioned previously, you can only tick the bird if it’s wild – domesticates, avian inmates, and escapees don’t count.

Walking through the park, I spied a couple hundred Canada Geese, Mallards, and Hooded Mergansers cruising the north end of the lake.  After sorting through them for a few minutes, I found my bird (who I refer to fondly as Barney).

Barnacle Goose

Barney is one spiffy looking goose, I have to say.  I checked for signs that Barney might have escaped from captivity: no leg bands were visible, and Barney’s wings were not clipped.  Barney also seemed fairly wary, and did not come waddling up to me to see if I had any cracked corn.  None of this proves that Barney flew in from Iceland and not from a Long Island duck farm, but the available evidence seems to favor a wild origin.

Barney swimming

There were a few other wild (and semi-wild) critters knocking around the park, several of whom did come up to see about that cracked corn.  Sorry, fella.

NYC Black Squirrel

On my way out of town and back to Boston, I stopped at Hammonasset Beach State Park in CT for a couple of hours.  There I picked up some fun birds, like this Brant:

Brant

Like almost all of the New England beaches, there were a healthy number of Great Black-backed Gulls, like this one:

Great Black-backed Gull

I also stopped at the jetty, and was able to pick out one Purple Sandpiper.

Hammonasset Jetty

Purple Sandpipers are the eastern cousin to the Rock Sandpipers, like the one I saw a few weeks ago at Ediz Hook.

Purple Sandpiper

Purple Sandpiper

Like the goose, this Purple Sandpiper is pretty spiffy for being primarily gray, white, and black.

I did visit several schools on this trip including Groton and Bronx Science, both of which were very interesting and gave me lots of food for thought.  I really appreciate the teachers and staff hosting me there, and I will post some reflections of my visits when I’ve had a little more time to process my experiences.

 

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Balmy Cape Cod

Balmy – “pleasantly warm” and also “foolish and eccentric”

Yes and yes.  Well, foolish and eccentric is a little harsh, but I found Cape Cod to be a bit quirky and eclectic, but in a mostly friendly and cheerful way.  Also, a warm front had pushed out the frigid arctic air that had been blasting me on Cape Ann, leaving sunshine and unseasonably warm temperatures.  Because Cape Cod is surrounded by water, it is blessed with a more moderate climate than rest of Massachusetts.  Still, highs in the mid-60s in the first week of December were really unusual, even for the Cape.  I made the most of the weather and the delightfully odd offerings of Cape Cod.

One of the first unusual things I found on the Cape was this little fella.

Little Egret

It looks like a Snowy Egret, which would be unusual on Cape Cod in December. But it is, in fact, a lot more unusual that that.  This bird is a Little Egret, the Snowy’s Eurasian cousin.  Little Egrets are extremely rare visitors to North America.  Someone located it in Hyannis Port, just a mile or two from the famous Kennedy compound, a few days before my arrival.

Many North American birds have “sister species” in the Old World – closely related genetic relatives that descended from a common ancestor in the relatively recent past.  Little Egrets look very similar to Snowy’s with a couple of subtle differences.  Little Egrets have slightly larger, thicker bills and their lores (the area between the eyes and bill) are gray instead of yellow.

I spent the day traveling up the Cape, by which I guess I mean “down” the Cape.  In the local parlance, the “upper cape” is the southern end (the “biceps” of the arm) while the “lower cape” is the northern end (the “fist”).  I have to admit that this seems totally backwards to me (c.f. Michigan’s southern Lower Peninsula and its northern Upper Peninsula!).  Those balmy Cape Codders.  Coddians?  Coddites?

Eventually I reached Provincetown, the small town on the northern (lower??) tip of Cape Cod.  This is a fishing village and tourist spot, and in the off season it felt quiet and peaceful.

Provincetown

Provincetown is actually the very first place that the Pilgrims landed in the New World.  They stayed in the area for several weeks, signing the Mayflower Compact there before traveling on to Plymouth.  The tall tower in the picture below is the Pilgrim Monument, commemorating their landing in Provincetown nearly 400 years ago.  At over 250 feet tall, it is the “tallest all-granite structure in the United States.”  Hmmmm.

Provincetown

I also located the tallest Christmas tree made entirely of lobster pots in New England:

Lobster Pot Christmas Tree

The lower Cape is a great place to go birding.  Razorbills, a relative of the auks and murres, are common here.  I saw several in the area, although they often stayed just a bit too far out for good pictures.

Razorbill in distance
Young Razorbill

I also saw some dolphins and a whale:

Dolphins

Cape Cod Whale

I made two visits to Race Point at the very tip of the Cape.  One in the afternoon when the skies were dark and threatening.  Hundreds of scoters and mergansers were racing the wind above calm seas that stretched nearly 270 degrees around me at the point.

Race Point

I returned the next morning at dawn to see Kittiwakes and Razorbills diving for their breakfast in the waves.

Dawn at Race Point

Dawn at Race Point

After several balmy days on Cape Cod, I felt like this Common Loon – ready for a nap!

Snoozing Loon

But there was no time to lounge around.  I had scheduled visits to several well-known schools, and was eager to spend some time with their teachers and students.

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Far From Home

I’m in New England for a winter birding and school-visiting expedition.  Although I went to college in Connecticut, visiting this part of the country always feels a little alien to me.  I panic when I get to the toll plazas on the Mass Turnpike – which lane for cash?  Do I need exact change?  What is the ‘tickets’ lane?  What the heck is an EasyPass?  Everyone always seems in such a damn hurry.  Some lady in a silver sedan blitzed passed me in a no-passing zone (right next to a school) and shot me a dirty look when I was going 22 in a 25 mph zone – I was lost, what can I say?  I can barely understand those Baahstun accents, I don’t know why Highway 28-South actually goes north, and I certainly don’t get why main thoroughfares have the cross-street stop signs at a 45-degree angle (wait – is that stop sign for ME?!).  And it’s COLD here (26 F when I arrived at my first birding stop this am).  Sometimes traveling in South America or Europe feels more familiar and more comfortable than venturing up to the Northeast.

Nevertheless, I’m here, far from home (at least compared to the relatively cozy confines of North America).  I spent a quality hour this afternoon in a field of corn stubble with another critter far from home, this Northern Lapwing:

Lapwings are a kind of plover, distantly related to our North American plovers (like the Killdeer).  Northern Lapwings are common throughout much of Europe, but they are hardly ever seen on this side of the Atlantic.  Turns out this poor fella was trying to migrate south to his wintering grounds in Africa when he was swept off course by a powerful storm system that later became part of Superstorm Sandy.  A small group of Lapwings made landfall in New England along with the hurricane, and they have been trying to scrape by on a foreign continent ever since.

Lapwings are so rare in the United States that they even warranted an article in the Boston Globe.  My favorite quotation from the article is from Joan Walsh of MA Audubon: “It’s the equivalent of walking down Mass. Ave. and seeing 15 double-decker buses filled with Brits wearing Burberry jackets.”  Yep, pretty unusual.  Most of the Lapwings have since disappeared, but this one south of Bridgewater, MA is hanging on amidst the corn stalks.

Often we are far from home, physically or metaphorically, arriving by choice or blown there by the winds of fate.  We could do worse than to take a page from this Lapwing: soaking up a little sunshine, enjoying some local food, and checking out the new scenery.

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Emu Composting

I am taking full advantage of my sabbatical by spending as much time as possible on the Olympic Peninsula, one of my favorite places in Washington.  I love the wild confluence of the Olympic Mountains, the Hoh Rainforest, and the Salish Sea.  And all just a short ferry ride away from my home in Kirkland.

Near the Dungeness NWR north of Sequim, I ran into two more Tropical Kingbirds.  Are they more lost souls, or the vanguard of a coming Tropical Kingbird invasion force?  I’m betting on the former, although I will check to see if my insurance covers flycatcher damage.  Here’s one of today’s Tropical vagrants:

At Ediz Hook in Port Angeles, I watched shorebirds and seabirds as the sun set behind the mountains a little before 4pm.  Sanderlings (the lighter ones in the picture below) and Dunlin (the darker ones) fed nearby.  They are some of the most common sandpipers in the County in November.

Much more rare in these parts was this Rock Sandpiper that my wife spotted under the Pilot House:

This was a new bird for my Big Year, and one that I thought I’d have to drive back out to Ocean Shores to do some more jetty walking to see.  They had not yet arrived for the Winter when I was last at the Point Brown Jetty.

Finally, adding to my collection of unusual signs, I offer this one – seen near Hansville on the Kitsap Peninsula.  I have composted many things in my life: leaves, sticks, fir needles, vegetable peels, pizza boxes, and moldy jack-o-lanterns.  But I have never had the need to compost 6-foot tall Australian birds.  Now I know where to go when the need arises:

I wonder if they take Ostriches, too?

 

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A Fog Enshrouded Nation on the Edge of the Map

On the northwest tip of the Lower 48 States lies the Olympic Peninsula, and on the northwest tip of the Olympic Peninsula you can find the Makah Nation.  The Makah Indians welcome visitors to their small but spectacular reservation, perched on a finger of land where the Straits of Juan de Fuca meet the Pacific Ocean.  The Makah call themselves “the people who live by the rocks and the gulls” in their native Klallam language, and their home is indeed nestled between a pair of rocky shorelines and hosts the highest diversity of gulls in the Lower 48.  The Makah lands are also on the edge of the largest temperate rainforest in North America, and it rains about 220 days a year (for an average total of 110 inches, or over 9 feet of rain).  When I visited last week, the forecast called for (surprise!) thick clouds, misty rain, and heavy fog.  Fortunately, real birders have waterproof binoculars.  I packed my things and started driving northwest.

My first stop was at a little tribal store in Neah Bay where I picked up a visitor permit ($10 allows access to all of the Makah’s recreational sites for a year), a map, and a snack.

The fog was lifting and the winds were calm, but the rain was coming down in the steady drizzle.  The waters of Neah Bay were teeming with ducks, grebes, loons, cormorants, and alcids (birds of the auk family).  My camera told me it was too dark for distant photography, but I snapped a few pictures anyway.  This gray and grainy image doesn’t begin to do justice to the handsome male Harlequin Duck, but it’s the best one I have:

“Rockpipers,” sandpipers and shorebirds that prefer rocky coasts were also present in great numbers, especially Black Turnstones (named for their habit of turning over small stones to look for lunch hiding underneath).  I also found a Surfbird, an unexpected treat here (and last seen near the end of the Point Brown Jetty).  As I continued my walk along the bay through the cold, November rain here in at almost 49 degrees north latitude, I ran into a …

Tropical Kingbird?!?

Yes, a Tropical Kingbird.  According to my field guide, Tropical Kingbirds are “… uncommon and local in southeastern Arizona and the Rio Grande Valley of Texas.”  In fact, Tropical Kingbirds are one of the most common and widespread birds of Central and South America.  Their normal range ends in the extreme southern portions of the US.  This was one LOST Kingbird, and he knew it.  He sat a bit forlornly in an alder tree, occasionally flying out to snap up one of the last flying insects of the season.

What was a Tropical Kingbird doing in Neah Bay?  This unfortunate fellow fell victim to reverse migration, sometimes also called “mirror migration.”  Most migratory birds hatch in the early summer, and are tended to by their parents for a few weeks.  By autumn they are on their own, and must rely on their genetic programming to figure out which way to migrate for the winter (exceptions would be gregarious birds like swans and geese which tend to migrate together in flocks).  In over 99.99% of cases, the juvenile birds go exactly where they are supposed to go.  But in rare cases, a bird gets mixed up and travels 180 degrees in the opposite direction.  Thus, a Tropical Kingbird born in Arizona does not migrate south-southeast to Mexico but instead travels north-northwest, eventually hitting the Pacific Ocean and following it north… to someplace like Neah Bay.  On this northwest peninsula, the Kingbird is now surrounded by ocean on two sides, and is probably seriously regretting not stopping for directions when he hit Fresno.  Some species are more prone to mirror migration than others, and while a Tropical Kingbird in Washington state is most definitely not an every day occurrence, they are seen almost every year – usually along the coast, and usually in October or November.

While this guy is probably doomed (like kingbirds everywhere, he depends on a robust supply of flying insects which are becoming in short supply in Neah Bay right about now), mirror migration might in fact be a genetic feature, not a bug.  Imagine that almost all of the kingbirds in a certain area travel to a known, safe wintering location.  This ensures that the vast majority of the population will end up in suitable habitat.  But a tiny fraction travel instead in almost the opposite direction, or wander at random (imagine they have, for example, a rare “crazy explorer” gene).  Most of these explorers will perish, but a few might randomly end up someplace hospitable.  This could be how kingbirds find distant new areas to populate.  They are one of the most widespread birds in the Americas, and perhaps their tendency towards vagrancy is one of the reasons why.

A little while later, I ran into another lost avian soul.  But this one was a visitor from Asia who has travelled too far west (actually so far east he made it to the west!) and too far south: a Eurasian Wigeon.  We have good old American Wigeons in abundance in Washington, but about 1 out of every 10,000 or so wigeon here in our state is actually a transplant from over the ocean.  There are a few differences between the two species of wigeon, but the most noticeable one is that the Eurasian Wigeon has a red head with a yellow crown stripe, not a gray and green head with a creamy white stripe.  The bird in the middle standing up and facing left (and again, too far away and too dark for good pictures) is the Eurasian one:

A little further along, I stumbled upon a pair of Snow Buntings.  These beauties nest in the high arctic, and winter in the northern tier of states (but rarely in western Washington).

This is a male and a female.  The males have a little more white on them, and the females have a bit more brown and yellow.  It’s hard to see all of the differences in this picture, but the female is in the background.  Here’s a picture of the male alone (he was a little less shy – or maybe more hungry for the grass seeds):

I spent most of the morning around Neah Bay, but had a little extra time before I needed to head back so I drove a short distance to the Pacific coast and Hobuck Beach.

Here a gale was blowing, waves were crashing, and I began to understand why the Makah identified themselves as the people who live near gulls.  Because there were a lot of gulls.  I mean, I whole lot of gulls.  I didn’t count them all, but my conservative estimate was at least 2000 individuals.

This photo only shows a tiny fraction of the multitude.  Contrary to popular belief, there are no such creatures as “seagulls.”  As a group, they are simply called gulls.  And of course there are many different species of gulls.  In this group, I picked out Western Gulls, Glaucous-winged Gulls, Thayer’s Gulls, Heerman’s Gulls, Mew Gulls, Herring Gulls, and Bonaparte’s Gulls (named for a French ornithologist and nephew of Napoleon).  And yes, the convention is to always capitalize the name of a particular species.  Capitalization is what helps you differentiate a blue jay (any kind of jay which happens to be blue) from a Blue Jay (a specific jay which lives in eastern North America, and/or the mascot of the Toronto major league baseball team).

All too soon I had to drive back along the winding route 112 to the south and east.  As I was leaving, the sun peeked out for a moment creating a brilliant rainbow.  And at the end of the rainbow?  (I checked with my binoculars!)  It was a gull.

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Twitched, dipped, ticked a mega nemesis, but nearly gripped off

I’ve been doing a mixture of activities lately: some fun, some important, some both, and some neither (nature walks with my kids, visiting some awesome science teachers, reading Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise, getting my car serviced, cleaning the garage, writing college recommendations, and searching for the missing mates to a bunch of socks).  I’ll leave it to the reader to sort those activities into the appropriate bins.  I’ll be posting about some of my school visits next month after I’ve had more time to mull over what I’ve seen.  But this post is about twitching.

Twitching, if you didn’t know, is about chasing a rare bird that was first found by someone else.  Normally I’m not a huge twitcher.  I enjoy exploring on my own and finding my own birds.  But since I’m doing a big year, I have decided to switch to the twitch (at least on occasion).  I don’t have the time or money to find all of the birds on my own in 365 days or less, so I will sometimes be chasing reports of rarities (usually posted on Tweeters or eBird).  A mega is a really rare bird, one that doesn’t regularly occur in your geographic area.  The definition of “your geographic area” varies, but often refers to the continental 49 states [except for the really far-flung Alaskan bits] and dang near all of Canada.  When I heard there was a Slaty-backed Gull hanging out in the warehouse district near the Port of Tacoma, I decided to twitch this mega.  Slaty-backs are commonly found from Siberia to Japan, but only very rarely in our neck of the woods.

One of the bad things about twitching is that you don’t pick the birding location; the bird does.  I like to pick beautiful nature preserves, parks, wildlife refuges, and remote wilderness areas.  Rare birds often choose landfills, abandoned industrial plants, or vast mucky mudflats.  This Slaty-backed Gull selected a choice industrial area in Tacoma, near factories, warehouses, garbage-strewn empty lots, and abandoned railroad tracks.  Sweet!

I headed down last Tuesday, determined to tick Slaty (that is, check him off my list).  But despite scanning many rooftops full of sleeping gulls, trudging through fields of broken vodka bottles and Himalayan blackberries, and checking various water birds loafing in the industrial canal, there was no Slaty anywhere.  I had dipped (or ‘dipped out’) – the bird may have seen me, but I had not seen the bird.  Slaty-backed Gull was becoming a nemesis bird – one that I had tried, and failed, to see several times going back to at least 2008.

Not to be deterred, I went back two days later.  I decided what I needed was a bit of optimism, a strong dash of persistence, and a tiny dab of luck.  With some hard work, I was going to tick Slaty!

Three hours later, I was tired and thirsty.  And my feet hurt.  The afternoon rush hour was already started to clog I-5, and I cursed Slaty and all of his ancestors as I trudged back to the car.  I had identified a handful of other gull species, but no Slaty.  I thought I caught of glimpse of him flying overhead and disappearing behind a hill a half-mile away.  But when I trekked over there, I saw Glaucous-winged Gulls, Western Gulls, Thayer’s Gulls… but not Slaty.  Later, I thought I saw him on a rooftop, but just as I hurriedly set up my spotting scope to get a better look, he walked behind a group of other gulls and promptly disappeared.  When I trekked over to the rooftop to get a better look, the gulls waited until I was within 100 yards before exploding off of the roof, scattering far and wide.  I caught a flash of a very dark gull disappearing behind a mountain of recycled wood scraps a half-mile away.  This gull was starting to piss me off.

I made it back to my car to find two other birders just leaving.  “Did you see the gull?” one of them asked.  “No,” I responded glumly.  “Well, it’s right here!  We were watching it until just 30 seconds ago.  In fact, we’ve been watching it right here for over an hour!”  I jerked my head around, but from that angle I could only see a small part of the roof.  But was that the very edge of a very dark gull I saw just over the ledge?  I walked 15 steps up the hill to a better vantage point, and set up my scope.  That stupid bird had been waiting for me back at the car all this time?!  Scanning the roof I saw… nothing.  Well, not nothing.  I saw 14 Glaucous-winged Gulls, and 4 Glaucous-winged x Western Gull hybrids… but no Slaty.  The two guys got out of their car and came over.  “Where did it go??  It was just here!”

I was now getting that sinking feeling.  Dipping out is bad enough, but the lowest of the low is getting “gripped off.”  Dipping just means you missed seeing your twitch.  Getting gripped off means that you missed it, but someone else (everyone else?) saw it.  When twitching, it’s hard to feel more depressed than when you get gripped off.  “Well, it was standing right on the apex of the roof just a minute ago, walking around…” one of the other birders started.  “It must have just walked down on the far side of the roof…” the other one finished.  The far side of the roof that was only visible from inside an industrial lumber yard, surrounded by barbed wire and filled with beeping forklifts and idling 18-wheelers.

I thought about going home.  Or crying.  Or going home and then crying.  But I decided instead to GET THE BIRD.  So, to make a long story short, I met the manager of the lumber yard (an extremely nice man) who was just getting off work, had a brief tour of the lumber yard, and then got 10 minutes of quality time looking at Slaty through my spotting scope from the far side of the roof (while half-listening to how 1-inch softwood boards start as 5/4-inch boards before they are dried and cured).  By this time, it was too dark for good pictures, but I managed a “record shot” of Slaty on the roof:

You can even get a glimpse of the diagnostic field mark of an adult Slaty-backed Gull – the “string of pearls” on the primaries (or in non-birder talk, a series of white spots that are visible on the tips of the longest wing feathers – check out the black and white feathers from his right wing that are sticking over his back, just above his white tail region).

And that’s how I twitched a mega, dipped once, narrowly missed being epically gripped off, and ticked a nemesis bird.

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A Very Lost Snowy Owl – The Whole Story

I think I was too tired to be blogging the other day when I tried to post this originally – and I kept erasing it by accident.  Finally I gave up.  It gets light here around 4:45am, and the sun doesn’t set until after 9:15pm.  One consequence of this extended daylight is that you can be tempted to spend 16 hours in the field, which doesn’t leave that much time for sleeping, eating, blogging, etc.  And that doesn’t even count the midnight trips to McGregor Marsh for Yellow Rail!  But I will try to re-write my post from the other night below…

 

I’m in the Morehead MN/Fargo ND area – prairie country!  One of the amazing things about Minnesota is that it possesses at least three distinct bio-regions, something that is fairly unusual even for a state of its size.  Each of these regions has its own unique set of animal and plant communities, which means visiting each one allows you to see a whole new array of birds.  The area around the Twin Cities, and the region south and east of there shares much in common with the eastern and even southeastern US.  They have nesting Louisiana Waterthrush, Blue-winged Warbler, and Acadian Flycatcher.  A couple hours north by car, and you transition fairly rapidly into boreal forest.  These are the spruce bogs and northern timberlands that stretch well into central Canada, and north of Duluth you can find Boreal Chickadee and Spruce Grouse.  Head west a couple hours and you are in The West – a land of gently rolling prairies and pothole lakes.  And windmills.

Image

I soon discovered why they have so many windmills here – it’s incredibly windy!  I spent a couple days roaming around the Felton Prairie area, seeing Chestnut-collared Longspurs, Grasshopper Sparrows, and Upland Sandpipers.  I looked and looked for Prairie-chickens, but they were elusive.

I checked the rare bird alert before I left, and was stunned to see a Snowy Owl being reported south of Fargo/Moorhead.  Now sometimes Snowies wander down from Canada in mid-winter to hang out in Minnesota and other far northern states, but by spring they always head back.  By June, Snowies should be eating lemmings in the high Arctic and making baby Snowies.  They most definitively should not be sitting next to a field of knee-high corn in western Minnesota.  I don’t know if this one is sick, injured, or just really, really lost.

Image

I think it’s an adult male based on the extent of white in his plumage.  He was flying around a bit, so he doesn’t have a broken wing.  The picture isn’t great because I didn’t want to get too close – he’s probably stressed enough as it is.

Tomorrow I’m heading back east!

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