Wondering on Whimbrels

Last week I was in Los Angeles, California and while there I had some whimbrels hanging out with me on the beach (incidentally, that is now bird 138 for my Digiscoping Big Year challenge to help build a Visitor Center for Sax Zim Bog). Whimbrel


These are always cool birds to see--gotta love that beak. But whimbrels have an incredible migration so it's fun to not only enjoy these crazy looking birds but also imagine where this bird has been and what it may have seen.

The Center for Conservation Biology has done some amazing tracking work on these birds--we really didn't know all that much about their migratory route and thanks to transmittors, we know these birds are tough. We've learned that a whimbrel flew into Hurricane Irene and survived...only to be gunned down by lax shooting laws in the Caribbean.

Now that we have an idea of how they get from their breeding ground to their wintering grounds in South America, we need to learn what route they take to get back.  Looks like it's going to be a loop, that they don't go the same way that they came.

According to the website the birds were, "originally captured and marked on the breeding grounds along the Mackenzie River in far western Canada in June of 2012, the birds took a bold fall migration route flying 2,800 miles (4,500 kilometers) to the east coast of Canada in mid-July to stage for 2 weeks before embarking on a marathon 4,300-mile (6,900-kilometer) flight out over the open ocean to the northern coast of South America. All three birds have spent just over 7 months in the extensive tidal system of the Gulf of Maranhao before initiating their migration north."

Screen Shot 2013-04-29 at 8.04.14 AM

The whimbrels left their wintering grounds near Sao Luis, Brazil between April 9 - 13, 2013 and flew nonstop for 95 to 100 hours averaging 40 mph before reaching the Gulf of Mexico. They flew that. Non stop. Wow, maybe all the hassles I deal with in airports are not so bad. Where will these particular birds go? Straight up the continent? Or to the west coast where I saw the whimbrel in the above photo?

So if you ever see a whimbrel, enjoy the crazy madcap design, but also keeping in mind what that bird can fly through...and how many countries it can visit.

My Perfect Birding Day

Yesterday went kerflooey. Someone close to me was in the Boston Marathon and I knew she had finished... but didn't know where she was. Her phone would go directly to voicemail. Was it off? Was it tucked away in a locker? Was she caught in pandemonium? Was she injured or worse? Was she at the scene helping? Watching the news, trying desperately to ID her based on glimpses of people in running clothes. Then finally getting a text that she and her family were safe. In the grand scheme of things it wasn't a long time, but the adrenal fatigue that followed put me in a fog the rest of the day. In the midst of this I got a call to do a bird segment on WCCO on how the snow is affecting migratory birds... I love the reporter in that segment (DeRusha is a cool dude, you should follow him on Twitter) and I hope I did my best, but I worried I was not my usual upbeat self. flocks

I think this is a good post for the time. I find comfort in birds and I need that right now (like a lot of us when senseless violence happens). No matter how bad things get for me, I always find comfort in birds. They are one of maybe two things I can do that when I'm in the middle of doing it, I can block out everything else going on. And while I was in South Texas, I had for me what is a perfect birding moment.


We headed to the stretch of beach next to the Convention Center and I was ready to get my digiscoping mojo on. I try to play it cool around birds, I try gradually work towards them and not flush them. The advantage to having a spotting scope is that you can be a good distance away from birds and still get great views. I've noticed this with some of my friends who are in to bird photography, I can be twice the distance away that they can be. But as I was keeping my distance, a teenager at the other end started walking towards the birds, she walked through them, most flushed but a few stayed, apparently used to lumbering humans in their midst. She left and all the birds landed. I decided to see how close I could without flushing them.

American Avocets

I used some snoozing American avocets. I would take a few steps closer and if any opened their eyes, I stopped walking. I tried not being threatening in my approach, I didn't stare directly at any bird while I walked, I tried not to keep my scope aimed at any one bird for too long. I moved slowly and fluidly, not dashing around like a cat stalking prey.


Eventually, I found a perfect spot.  My toes in the warm Gulf water, with a mixed flock of terns, gulls and shorebirds in front of me and the heat and light of the sun behind.  I was also excited to finally discover a use for the hook in the center on my tripod legs--perfect for keeping sandals out of the water! You can see the flock of avocets from the previous photo off to the right.

american avocet

As I stayed and had my fun, the birds continued to sleep and go about their own business.  Even a few of the avocets began to feed and paid me no mind.

birds behind me

Herons and shorebirds soon started working the shallows behind me. And that is a perfect birding moment! Great looking birds completely surrounding me while I have my toes in the water, friends nearby, a few empty media cards and a full battery in my camera. I got to spend time just watching the birds and digiscoping them. This was what I was hoping for from South Padre Island!

royal terns food pass

I got to eavesdrop on a royal tern date that I think went incredibly well. He was hanging out and presenting his fish and she approached and took it from him.


"Wait...she took it???"

I was reading up on this on Birds of North America Online. Courtship rituals include: "food item may finally be offered to female, who retracts neck and carpal joints and sleeks plumage (while keeping crest raised), thus assuming more relaxed, submissive posture. If female accepts and swallows food, both then fly off or preen."

I saw her take the food, but I did not see her swallow, but they both flew off, hopefully to preen or more...

sandwich terns Sandwich terns were posturing like crazy as they established their pair bonds. Some of the photos I have of sandwich terns at South Padre Island are better than the photos I got for my Digiscoping Big Year, but I don't want to trade those out because I got them at a nude beach.

least tern

I almost missed these little guys because I was busy watching the big terns.  This is a least tern and they're about nine inches long. To give you perspective, an American robin is about ten inches long. These are tiny dudes compared to the at least 20 inch royal terns surrounding them.


As much fun as I was having with the terns, my main goal in approaching this flock was getting shots of black skimmers. I love these birds. This bird was roosting flat, which is something you see the young do in the nest (they just quite don't know what to do with that ginormous beak). Though with this photo, the bird looks like it just woke up from a hard bender and is a little hungover, "Ugh, why did I drink so much? Uh oh, and who is that sleeping next to me??"

Black Skimmer

Here's a better shot where you can see that magnificent beak.  I love these guys, with their longer lower mandible and striking black and white plumage. They're another one of those birds that I would see in my Peterson Guide as a kid and imagine what it must be like to see such a weird looking bird in person. If you've never had a chance to see a skimmer in action, here's some BBC footage (and bonus, it's narrated by the 10th Doctor):


Isn't that cool?

approaching stilts When I'm digiscoping in one spot, it's amazing how close some shorebirds will get... sometime even too close to digiscope. Black-necked stilts were zipping back and forth while I focused on terns. You can see a couple above.


Working this group of birds, it's fascinating to see all the different shapes that bird species take in order to use the Gulf as a food resource. You saw how the skimmers use it above. Terns will crash into the water and black-necked stilts like the above bird have long spindly legs and a beak to match to look for tasty invertebrate morsels. And though all of these birds are elegant patterns of black, white and gray you still get crazy accents of color in the form of bright orange mandibles or bubble gum pink legs.


I could have stayed planted in that spot for hours. The longer I was there, the more I felt tension and stress leave my body. My hope is that my buddy Clay and I might be able to do a digiscoping workshop here in South Padre Island during the Rio Grande Valley Bird Festival this fall.


And we can digiscope the crap out of South Padre Island among the sanderlings.






Broken Toe Birding Part 2

In the previous blog post, chronicled how I broke my pinky toe and was birding Estero Llano Grande in the Rio Grande Valley with a bit of a handicap. alligator pond

Ranger John was graciously giving me a tour of the park via tram and we picked up a few extra birders along the way. We were birding around Alligator Lake which is a known spot for anhingas, green kingfishers, herons and well...

alligator teeth

...alligators if you can believe it! How often do see the animal a like is named for? There are a lot of Otter Lakes that have left me woefully short of otter sightings. This alligator was a huge beast--you can even see the teeth. There was a story going around that a group recently witnessed an alligator in this pond take out a nutria.  Well...I found the blog entry with the photos (warning, that link is GRAPHIC), If you are like me and like to watch a good train wreck, you'll want to see those images.  The above was a large gator, I wonder if that was the one that took out the nutria? If not...that means there are several huge ones in that lake.  Yikes.

gentleman I always manage for find people generously willing to carry my scope. Even though my scope is really light and not bad to carry (unless I'm on some insane odyssey up the side of a Guatemalan volcano) folks seem to genuinely want to help me out. Above, Bob (a new birding friend) kindly offered. I'm sure my doctor wouldn't be thrilled with me carrying things around on my broken pinky toe, so I was relieved to have some help.

night heron

There were a few herons around like the above yellow-crowned night-heron and I imagine they all fish the lake with a bit of trepidation, they could easily wind up like the afore mentioned nutria. Other birds zipping around included scissor-tailed flycatchers, green kingfishers, little blue herons and egrets. As we were watching the birds, my coffee had worked its way through my system and I needed a restroom.  I asked John if he would mind driving me back and some of the other group thought a drive to the visitor center restrooms was sensible. As we slowly made our way back, I had a text message alert. Some friends have a group messaging system they are testing for rarities. The text read, "Curlean male @ Estero by the start of the Green Jay Trail."

"Hey, John, I just got an alert about a Cerulean male at the head of the Gree..."

Before I could finish the location, he gunned it and we were on our way! Some poor aramdillo tried to crawl up on the road and as much as I would have loved to stop and get his photo, a Cerulean is a warbler I have not seen in years and waved as went by. John had us there in less than two minutes. We could see the group of birders scanning the trees and made a beeline for them. Someone from our group asked, "Hey, didn't you need to use the bathroom?"

"A cerulean takes precedence," I said. "Also, I apologize now in case my excitement at seeing this bird gets the better of me and well, I don't make it to the bathroom. This bird is worth a pee in the pants!"

We started scanning.

cerulean warbler


There mixed in with a couple of northern parulas was the cerulean warbler male. Not the best photo ever of a cerulean, but a documentable shot and I'm going to count it for my Digiscoping Big Year (the fundraiser for Friends of Sax Zim Bog is the Half Year, but I'm very curious how many species I can get photos of in a year and I'm going to take it to December). But what a treat to get a look at this bird again. I think the last time I saw one of these was before I even started blogging in 2004! I neglected to apply any bug spray before walking in the shade and ended up with some mighty fine insect welts, but it was worth it to get a look at a bird like this!


After finally hitting a restroom, John took me around to grab more bird photos at the ponds. During migration these can be filled with fun birds like black-necked stilts and all sorts of fun shorebirds from snipe, dowitchers, yellowlegs and any number of sandpipers.

fulvus whistling duck Waterfowl migration was starting to shift northwards but I was still able to get some fun target birds like the above fulvus whistling ducks. Fulvus refers to this ducks color.  I learned something very interesting from John.  You can black-bellied whistling ducks at this part too.  The black-bellies will nest in cavities and nest boxes, whereas the fulvus nests on the ground.  But this is one of the species you come to valley to see.



Another favorite that I got to see was a cinnamon teal! Love that bird and loved that he was mixed with some shoverelers and green-winged teal.

ice cream


John eventually had to head back to do a butterfly program and I happily spent time on the shaded deck. If you like digiscopiong or taking photos in general, the deck is best in the afternoon and the sun shifts to being behind you.  You can also grab some ice cream from the shop and watch birds to your heart's content! I had an ice cream and ibises in front of me: heaven.


While I was hanging out on the deck, I ran into a Minnesota birder named Alex.  I think because Sun Country flies direct from the Twin Cities, this is a popular and economical destination for Minnesota birders, I run into them every time I'm here.  But it was fun to hang out with Alex and watch the birds as well as catch up on each other's lives. Turns out we were both rooming at the same place for the night.

So, even though I didn't start my birding in a new place in Texas, no day at Estero Llano Grande is ever wasted.  I had only planned visit for half a day, but ended up dedicating a full day there.  I could easily spend a weekend in the Rio Grande Valley and just park on that deck...actually, I have done that with a girlfriend and we had an amazing girl's weekend.

harris hawk All parks are a must visit in the Valley, but I hope if you ever come here, you'll have as much fun at this one as I do.  It has a little bit of everything.  Even Harris's hawks!




A Little Connecticut Birding

Screen Shot 2013-04-02 at 8.56.36 PM I had a great time speaking Connecticut Ornithological Association last week.  I was honored to be part of a Cornell/Birdchick sandwich.  Marshall Iliff from eBird spoke before me and I was followed by Steve Kress of Project Puffin. I was kind of the cheesy filling that brings the sandwich together.  I tested out some new material for my talk Today's Office (it's a bunch of stories of all the crazy things I do to get paid to go bird watching). Non Birding Bill and I discovered a nude beach in January and well...let's just say that I really needed a photo of a sandwich tern and I regret nothing and it's now part of my talk.


One of the fun things about the Internet is that I have friends EVERYWHERE. When I mentioned on Twitter that I was going to be speaking in Connecticut,  some friends that I've communicated with via the blog and Twitter mentioned that they would come. We have a friend in common and after checking with him, "Yo, Ari, Rick isn't an axe murder, or anything," and getting confirmation from Ari that Rick and his lovely wife Delia were not crazy murderous types, I made arrangements to do a little birding with them. I was anxious to see an oystercatcher again and they knew a spot. American oystercatchers are such iconic looking birds for me. Even though I have them on my list, I will always seek them out when

Milford Point


We got the oystercatchers at Milford Point which was a lovely beach on an early spring day. I was hoping that we also might get piping plovers which were just returning to the area but was content to settle myself with the oystercatcher. My friends aren't hardcore birders, but they know enough out birds to point me in the direction of birds I don't normally see.  We heard a peep and as it was barely registering with me, Rick said, "I hear a piping plover."

piping plover reflection


And sure enough he did hear piping plovers. What a treat to see these cuties again.  I know some people get bent out of shape about beaches being closed off for their nesting season, but how can you get angry at a tiny little bird like that? They are too adorable for words. It's amazing how well they blend in, even when their running.  At a casual glance, they look like a piece of fluff rolling away on the sand with the wind.

parrot nest tree

Rick and Delia were happy to help me in my quest for the Big Half Year, even helping me get monk parakeet photos.  They nest in the surrounding neighborhoods at Milford Point. There's a nest in this pine tree.  All the pine trees in the neighborhood were turning brown.   Since this area would have been flooded from Hurricane Sandy, I wonder if that is causing problems for the trees?

Monk Parakeets

Cute little snoozy parrots in their nest! Wonder if in the next year or so if these birds will have to find a different tree to use for nesting?

Carolina wren

Early migrants were just returning, I saw an osprey checking out the nesting platform and lots of ducks working the backwaters. And I was able to add some common birds we don't get in Minnesota, like the above Carolina wren.

birder log


There's a visitor center at Milford Point and people leave notes of what's been observed...this is a hot spot, there have been some very unusual sitings recently.  Ah, Humanity.



Birding In The Arena

Watching as much tv and movies as I do, I frequently find myself in places that are practically celebrities from being used so much as sets so much. My recent project was last minute and I didn't realize where all we would be working and one morning as I was being driven to my daily office, I gasped when I saw something familiar: gorn

Any Star Trek (original series) worth their salt knows exactly what this is and perhaps even hears music.  For those who do not, here's why it's iconic:

Screen Shot 2013-03-31 at 12.06.44 PM

It's the set of Arena or as many know it as: the famous Kirk vs Gorn battle! Lots of other movies have used Vasquez Rocks, check out what's on its Wikipedia Page. But the birds were off the hook on this spot. Also, note the little cave directly above Captain Kirk's head? Check out what's really in there:

raven nest

It's a raven nest! I know for sure because I saw ravens in there several times, but every time I aimed my scope at them, they took off.  Clever birds.


But Vasquez Rocks has some classy looking birds. Up until last year, this was a bit of a nemesis bird for me, but now that I've seen it, it has since been very obliging every time I visit its habitat. As if this silky flycatcher didn't have a cool enough name, you can add some colorful metaphors right in the middle of its name making it cooler. It think that's my new favorite profanity now. I did manage to digiscope it with my iPhone and one of my colleagues asked, "So is that an iPhainopepla?" So much fun wordplay with such a great bird.

california towhee 2

But I loves me some brown birds and Vasquez has those in abundance.  This California towhee was a treat, lovely dull brown with a few splashes of pumpkin coloring to add a bit of snazziness. These birds were tucked all over around the rocks and they lacked color wise compared to some of the other snazzier towhees, allows them to blend in well with the terrain.

lawrence's goldfinch


There were some splashes of color like this male Lawrence's goldfinch. I got a female at a bird feeder in Las Vegas a few years ago, but to get great views of a male was a real treat. Another fun thing about visiting different parts of the country is that you get to see different versions of common birds.  I'm used to the American goldfinch and though that is an uber colorful bird in breeding plumage, there's something classy about the minimalist use of yellow on this particular goldfinch.

Anna's Hummingbird


We found a homestead at Vasquez rocks and that allowed me to get views of a lot of backyard birds like the goldfinch abut also Anna's hummingbird.

western bluebird

And here's a western bluebird...hm...do you think this bird likes to perch on this roof a lot?  Who knew such a small bird could accumulate so much poop?

All in all a great time full of western species and fun to get to bird around a former Star Trek set.





West Coast Beach Birding

The beauty of bird watching is that you have something to do, no matter where you go, no matter how urban. dockweiler beach

I had a project in Los Angeles to work on and time spent on a beach is never wasted and there always birds...though many of them were gulls (not my favorite). But I thought I would use it as opportunity to focus on the super common gulls I rarely get to see rather than trying to tease out something rare, hybridish or just odd as--gull experts are want to do.



Here's a nice comparison of a western gull (biggest gull) and a California gull (smaller gull in front). But the beach was a great time.

Heermans gull


I was excited to pick out this guy, a young Heermann's gull! I've seen the adults before in San Francisco and though this bird wasn't in breeding plumage, I felt it was a triumph of the human spirit that I was able to pick it out.  I'll never be a true laruphile, but I'm better than I was.


red-throated loon

Even more exciting than the beach was all the fun stuff floating just off the shore.  At least exciting to a usually land locked girl like myself.  I have a tendency to take my spotting scope out more than the average birder (yes, that will be me at Biggest Week with a scope on the boardwalk) but spotting scopes are perfect for sea watch birding. There were some loons right off the shore, here's a red-throated loon, but even more exciting was a Pacific loon, that's a life bird for me.  I wasn't able to digiscope it but fun to add a bird to the list.

surf scoter

The best part of the day was getting up close and personal with a surf scoter. These are crazy looking sea ducks to begin with. This particular bird was living up to name by coming in on the surf and then actually landed on the beach. It tried eating whatever is behind it...sea crap? But the bird is quite awkward out of the water...walking doesn't come naturally to these birds.



I think when the bird noticed we were watching it thought it best to sit so as not to embarrass itself any further. Those feet, so perfect for swimming, so not meant for walking on land. But what fun to get such great looking birds so close to the Los Angeles airport. This was my first trip to LA and I cannot believe how everywhere you turn, somebody is filming something.  At one point there was a small two engine plane with a helicopter right next to it racing past.  Was it a high speed chase? No, one of my colleagues pointed out, "They're just filming that plane."

But a fun way to spend the day and to get some more birds for my Big Half Year challenge.






Winter Won't Stop Coming

This time last year, I was kind of freaking out because it was crazy warm and I was tapped to help out with some eagle nest surveys. The leaves were fast approaching and there was concern that we wouldn't be able to see into the nests from the plane, much less if there were eggs or chicks. Snow

This year, March is living up to it's reputation as Minnesota's snowiest month. One weather man said, "You know, we're only 11 inches away from our tenth snowiest March...and we have enough snow events coming that we could actually make that record before the end of the month."


So, as I see my friends in the south rejoicing about returning field sparrows and towhees...I try to keep enjoying the winter finches that are remaining in and around the Twin Cities and surrounding areas. Mr. Neil's feeders are still covered in common redpolls. I hear them sometimes fly over as I'm on my evening run around the Chain of Lakes and watch them devour seed at friends feeders. While I was digiscoping the above birds with my iPhone, I thought I would play around with the Vine app.  This app lets you take 15 second videos that look and viola, you have a gif to share all over social media. I'm not sure how much I'll use it for birding, after all how many people need a 15 second loop of redpolls?

Common Redpoll

This was digiscoped with the Nikon V1.  One of the advantages to the iPhone with the scope eyepiece is a wider field of view.  But man, the photo quality with the Nikon V1 is fantastic. It occurred to me as I was digiscoping the redpolls that I didn't have a pine siskin yet for my Big Half Year Challenge.

pine siskin

There was a pair of siskins hanging around, but they stayed away from the flock of redpolls, preferring to gather seeds on the ground. So I got bird #63 for my challenge. The siskins may stick around, sometimes they nest around Mr. Neil's house, so I may get a chance for a better shot later on, but wanted to make sure I got at least one before they headed back north.



I also got a cardinal photo too.  I'm so pleased with how this turned out, I may replace the cardinal photo that's already in the Big Half Year album...also, I like how I managed to frame the bird in such away that you can't tell there's three feet of snow on the ground.  With the buds on the tree, it almost looks like spring.

Next week brings a crazy travel jag that starts in LA.  I should get some crazy birds for the challenge a respite from the ice...which I just noticed has turned to snow that I'm getting this week.


A Surprise Bird

I got a surprise bird for my Big Half Year fundraiser for the Friends of Sax Zim Bog...a Townsend's Solitaire a mere three miles from my house. This bird is a bit out of range. And normally, I'm not much of a chaser in Minnesota, I've seen this bird before in its usual range and years ago at bird festival in northern Minnesota but when I've tried to chase wayward solitaires in the Twin Cities, I have zero luck. As a matter of fact, Friday was my third trip to cemetery to look for the bird. cemetery



I'd seen the report right away on my BirdsEye app and headed out the first day.  No luck.  I tried again...no luck. I saw on Facebook that some local birders were getting it, so I gave it one more try on Friday. We had about nine inches of snow this week and when I arrived at the cemetery, I could see where birders had been looking for the solitaire. I meandered around for about an hour and didn't even see a bird let alone a solitaire. Usually this cemetery has the usual suspects (cardinals and chickadees) and currently a boat load of pine siskins.

coopers hawk iphone


Then I found the reason why...what I at first thought was a sharp-shinned hawk. It was large so I figured female. The head looked rounded and it was a smaller bird. This is a photo I took with my iPhone and scope.



The hawk was in no hurry to leave and preened its feathers for quite awhile. This photo was with my Nikon V1 and Swarovski ATX scope. As the bird was moving around, I realized that it may not be a sharp-shinned hawk, but was probably a male Cooper's hawk. Here's a great break down down between sharp-shinned and Cooper's hawks.

Coopers hawk

Even though while preening the bird's head looks rounded, the back of the head is lighter than the cap and the white band on the tip of the tail is very thick, so it has to be a Cooper's hawk. While it was preening, the poor thing got one of its belly feathers caught in its eye. But I didn't have an accipiter yet for my big year, so this was bird number 61.

Eventually the Coops flew off and I waited for bird activity to resume. Despite all the snow, cardinals started singing cautiously, soon followed by house finches and pine siskins. I watched all the juniper trees with berries to no avail.  I staked out the spots the bird had been reported on eBird and scanned and canned the junipers with the most berries. After two hours of lurking in the cemetery, I decided to head home.  I needed to grab one more ingredient for dinner anyway. I sent Non Birding Bill a text to give him a head's up that I was going to be home soon...some of the following conversation may be edited:

Me: Screw this solitaire

NBB: And yet I know that's not an autocorrect problem

Me: -_-

I packed up my scope, binoculars and camera, put them in my trunk and started the I car. Then I began to leave the cemetery and a robin sized bird flew over the road and I knew, I just knew that was the frickin' solitaire. I stopped and texted NBB again:

Me: Holy crap, I just saw the solitaire!

I scurried to get get my scope and camera out, angle my equipment so the solitaire was in good light and...

Townsend's Solitaire


As if making up for all the times I'd been out to look for it this week, the bird perched in perfect light. Someone driving by saw me take my scope out of the trunk and pulled over. "I saw you take your scope out, do you have it?"

townsends solitaire


And I was happy to give him a look.  His wife showed up a few minutes later and they were kind enough to stay with the solitaire while I did a loop around the cemetery to see if anyone else was around to see it. Apparently the three of us were the last in the Twin Cities to get the Townsend's solitaire, no one else was around.

And now I have bird number 62 for my Big Half Year. I was kind of taking a break this week to catch up on work because I have some insane travel coming the second half of March and early April that should really bump up my bird numbers, but a solitaire was too good to pass up.

If you don't know what my Big Half Year is, it is a fundraiser for the Friends of Sax Zim Bog to help build a visitor center for all the birders who go up there to see great gray owls, northern hawk owls, boreal chickadees and well just all the cool birds you can see there.  I don't care if you donate on my behalf or any of the other really cool birders fundraising for the cause, so long as you donate.  The minimum amount is $10.  So if you have ever visited the bog or plan to, consider donating what you can.  The visitor center will help guide people to a better birding experience and help them avoid some of the weirder parts of the bog (like the scary guy who chases you off the public Stickney Road).

My goal is to see how many different bird species I can digiscope from January 1 through June 30 (though I may keep it up for the rest of the year because I like the challenge). To see all of my digiscoped photos for the Big Half Year, check my Flickr Album.

I'm already half past my goal, so thank you everyone who has donated so far!


Digiscoping In Low Light

I mentioned in a previous post that I went up North to get a look at all the boreal owls that are showing up. The trip was originally intended for just Sax Zim Bog birding, but we spent some time in Duluth first to see some owls.  Speaking of which, there is some major public shaming going on with a few well-known photographers who are accused of baiting birds across busy highways or just being complete jerkwads and walking in front of large groups of people to get closer to the owls and causing the boreals to fly away. So anyone with a camera going to see owls, I encourage you to follow Wheaton's Law. Friends of Sax Zim Bog

We didn't have as much time for the bog as I'd like and we didn't get to see everything, but we saw some cool birds nonetheless. I may go back up again later on to try and get photos of the birds I missed photographing like black-backed woodpecker and boreal chickadee.  If it weren't for my Big Half Year Challenge, I would just say, "Ah, next year." But I'm really digging this challenge I've set for myself.  Our guide, Erik Bruhnke took us to the site where Friends of Sax Zim Bog hope to build their welcome center--this is the site I'm raising money for!  They already have some bird feeders (and a port-a-potty) set up but hopefully there will be a building there soon to help people find the best places to visit to see birds.

redpoll at feeder

By the time we got to the bog, I knew that light would be fading fast for photos.  So long as some of the specialty songbirds like common redpolls would hit feeders in sunshine, I knew I would be fine.

hoary redpoll and common

The redpolls were quite cooperative, except for one hoary redpoll who only allowed me blurry photos of it (the light colored redpoll with the smaller bill on the left in the above photo).  But I considered it a triumph that for once I was able to pick out a hoary redpoll on my own.

pine grosbeak


The pine grosbeaks were also very cooperative and readily perched in the sun...though they may also appreciate the little bit of warmth that comes with it.

Screen Shot 2013-02-11 at 9.19.31 AM

We had great views of boreal chickadee, but all my shots are too dark and blurry. That's one of the shots of the snowy road at the boreal chickadee spot...the chickadee photos are worse!  I even tried to experiment using my Nikon V1 in video mode while digiscoping to see if that would get a shot. Usually when it's lowlight conditions, video is a great way to document birds.  But the video on the Nikon v1 made them all too dark. I thought about trying the timer on the Nikon, but the boreal chickadee is not a bird that sits still very long...

Then we had an opportunity when two great gray owls appeared right at dusk along the road.  I HAD to try and digiscope that, even though the sun had set.  I played with the settings on my camera and used it as an opportunity to test out the timer features on the Nikon v1.  The upside about owls is that if they are not actively hunting (or pestered by people) they will stay in the same spot and not move too much. So here is what I came up with by using my timer:

great gray timer


Not too bad.  Don't get me wrong--there were several photos of the owl's head facing the other way or the head in mid spin, but I got about three photos leaving the camera attached to the scope and setting the timer to go off 10 seconds haver I pushed the shutter button. It does have the option to take a photo 2 seconds for 5 seconds later, but I wanted to give the camera enough time to stop shaking after I pressed the shutter.

Great Gray Owl iPhone

Since there were two owls and they were being stationary, I tried getting a photo or two with my iPhone 4s.  It actually did very well and this is with me HAND HOLDING the phone to the scope and not using a timer.  Not bad considering that it's dusk.  The 4s handles low light much better than the Nikon V1.

I even tried to video the encounter and realized that if the light is this low, get video with the iPhone and not the Nikon V1:


There is some hand shake because it was 12 degrees with a windchill of 6 degrees Fahrenheit. But still, not bad at all for a souvenir bird.

Sax Zim Bog


One last thing about visiting Sax Zim bog...make sure you have a high clearance vehicle that and drive gravel roads that are rarely (if ever) plowed. That's one of the perks of hiring a guide...they usually have vehicles that can handle it if you do not. Again, as far as guides go, I can't recommend Erik Bruhnke enough--he's enthusiastic, full of naturalist info and personal observations. After hearing about what he finds here in summer, I may have to brave the mosquitoes and hire him to take me birding up here in warm weather. Plus, I love supporting a young kid making his way in a birding career. Other guides that I've birded with and highly recommend include Sparky Stensaas (the guy who created the Big Half Year concept) and Frank Nicoletti.

To see my most up to date tally of my birds for my Digiscoping Big Half Year, visit my Flickr set. If you are interested in pledging to the Big Half Year, either to for me or any of the other participants, please do.  It's a great cause for a great birding area and you can even pledge as low as $10.  Thank you to everyone who has donated so far.  I truly do appreciate it!





Nemesis Birds

  UPDATE: The Duluth News Tribune joined us for part of the day and you can see our birding posse and learn more about Minnesota's boreal owl irruption here.

snowed port a potty

Nothing says winter in Minnesota like snow drifting into a port-a-potty.

I can't really do my Big Half Year fundraiser for the Friends of Sax Zim Bog without at least one trip to the bog. I knew I would get up there at some point this winter and I had made some plans with friends and then last week, things went a little nuts. A tiny owl called a boreal owl showed up in spades. One report from Chris Wood counted seven! Granted that this not on the scale with the great gray owl irruption of 2004/2005 but it's significant none the less...especially since this is somewhat of a nemesis bird for me (a bird I always seem to miss). I finally got to the point of not even chasing one since every effort to do so ended up with the classic phrase, "Oh it was just hear yesterday (or 15 minutes ago)..."

I figured one day I'd get one.  Well, as plans solidified for my friends and I to head to Duluth and pay for the daily guiding services of Erik Bruhnke (a GREAT guide and worth every penny of his guiding fee, this is the second time we've used him). The reports of boreal owls were just too much and everyone in our group needed one for their list. The owls are mostly being seen between Duluth and Two Harbors, MN (and some right in Two Harbors). We asked Erik what our chances would be to go boreal. He said doable, but it would cut into our time for the bog.  I thought to myself, "Do I want to get as many birds as possible for my Big Half Year or do I want to risk that number and get a lifer (and hopefully a photo of it) and have fewer birds for the day. We went for the boreal.

Erik Bruhnke


Erik told us that we would have to drive along Scenic Highway 61 which is usually a pretty, scenic highway right along Lake Superior...thanks to some snow and lack of plows, it was a bit slow going, which is great if you have eyes desperate for spotting an owl that's about 10 inches long tucked in the thick brush the same color it is. Also, note Erik in the above photo.  It was 18 degrees and there he is, sweet as you please standing outside with out a coat and his sleeves rolled up. Northern Minnesota show off.

North Shore


We creeped along slowly on the highway. As the minutes passed, our vehicle became more quiet--would we miss the owl? Were we wasting valuable bog time by going for a bird we wouldn't see? Was I jinxing everyone in the group by making an attempt for my nemesis bird? You know, the typical things that go through your mind when you decided to chase a bird.

Boreal Owl

Then blammo! We got one! The bird was actively hunting along the highway, not paying any attention to us at all while it flitted from perch to perch. And those of us with cameras were able to get photos.



I don't often get a chance to celebrate a life bird--especially in Minnesota, but when I do, I do it with 16 year old scotch!

boreal owl 1


What a treat to see this bird, we got to watch it fly, bob it's head trying to listen for something small an furry tunneling beneath the fluffy snow, posing in fabulous light, I felt 15 years of searching ease right off my shoulders.  Whatever would happen the rest of the day was just gravy.

We did pursue a few more birds in and around the Duluth area before heading over to the bog.  Of note was a snowy owl which was the weirdest snowy owl I've ever seen.

Hitler the Snowy Owl

Is it me or does this snowy owl bear a resemblance to Hitler? This bird has been banded as well as marked with spray paint. As I understand it, banders have used spray paint to make sure they don't keep retrapping the same owl, because of the feathers on the toes and the bird's tendency to keep its feet hidden, it's hard to tell if a bird is banded. The spray paint can act as a sort of marker. But here is what I do not understand--note the number "8" on the wing? That's a patagial tag, a marker that allows you to know that the bird is already banded but you can actually id individual birds easily with a pair of binoculars. They are used on California condors, pelicans, old world vultures and turkey vultures.  It seems to me that the patagial tag and the spray paint is a bit of overkill as far as trying to make sure you're not pestering the same owl.

The other thing that bothers me about this is that snowy owls use camouflage to hide form predators as well as prey.  Does this muck it up? I normally side with banders on things, but fiddling around with a bird's camouflage makes me uneasy. Perhaps I would feel better if I could find some published information on this, but I can't seem to.  I found one article from the 1960s about captive snowy owls that were spray painted to id some molt  and then whole bunch of links about Martha Stewart spray painted owl stencils.

I'm currently at 56 birds for my Big Half Year, though that will change a bit in a few days. Thanks again to everyone who has pledged money to the effort to build a visitor center in the bog!