18 June Update
Yehr, yehr, shoore: Minnesota and North Dakota sweep
Leaving the busy twin cities airport after a fantastic ‘connect-the-dots’ birding mission from south and east of Minneapolis, through the famous Sax-Zim Bog, and across to the prairies of North Dakota. Whilst ever there is a break in the vagrant rarities action I’ll continue to pick off so-called ‘common’ breeding species, trying to stay ahead of the onset of cessation of singing. During these last four days I managed to win that race for all but one species – though its admittedly a ‘big one’ – Yellow Rail. The rails were aggressively vying for mates and calling their heads off at well-known rail breeding ground McGregor Swamp not far out of Duluth as recently as a week ago, but I didn’t hear a peep two nights ago.
The good news is that I made a huge dent in my ‘needed’ list, adding 22 species for a current count of 713 species - and had a great time in the process. I’ve attached a list of the remaining 38 breeding species that I’m chasing during the coming weeks at the bottom of this post.
During the Minnesota blitz I had the pleasure of bird-searching with pals John Richardson and Nigel Marven. As discussed in earlier posts, I met John at the icy cold Duluth canal in January when chasing the Ivory Gull – two days too late as it happened, though I did successfully connect with it after it returned to the birding radar a couple of weeks later. John and I initially got on like a house on fire, and I am mighty impressed by his birding skills and sterling character. John decided to harness these qualities and has recently become a birding guide. I highly recommend anyone seeking a guide in the Minnesota region to contact him. Nigel and I have been close friends since the mid-90’s, when he was producing segments of Attenborough documentaries. Since then he’s increasingly become a familiar face on Discovery television and beyond, and always has a whole range of films and books on the boil. Due to our shared fascination for both reptiles and birding we always have plenty to talk about. During our long drives these past few days, Nigel’s endless supply of entertaining stories had John R and I with sore ribs and running eyes. What a guy.
Although I had a range of target species for the trip, there was a special focus on Connecticut Warbler because it was the only ABA area wood warbler that Nigel had not ‘ticked’ during his 25 years of birding in the region. It proved an easy bird to locate, given its regular breeding occurrence at ‘the Bog’, and loud and incessant singing. Hearing singing males proved to be the easy part – getting a view required about an hour of sloshing around the dense black cypress swamps in bare feet following a foraging individual. But we were eventually rewarded with a fascinating minute of observing ‘our’ bird walking the length of one horizontal cypress branch after another in search of insect tid-bits.
Another incredible moment came when our drive through ‘the Bog’ was interrupted with a jolt with Nigel’s shout “GREAT GRAY OWL! GREAT *#@^% GRAY OWL!!!”. This was the last of the owls on my needs list, and I hadn’t given us more than a remote chance of seeing it on this trip. Still, there it was, roosting roadside larger than life – just as spectacular as I’d imagined it would be. Very satisfying indeed. Another totally unexpected occurrence was the report of a Calliope Hummingbird in a Duluth park. Although common in the west, this one really got local birders worked up, and we couldn't resist the opportunity to have a look.
This is a short communication as I’m short of time. I’ll try to add to it later – there are plenty of stories to recount. But I wanted to get my list updated, and hopefully attached photos will give some substance to this post. Also, I’ve attached my current needs list at bottom of page – now contracted to 38 ‘common’ species. Some of these are more urgent than others – having finished breeding and beginning to disperse before eventually migrating away for the year. Crikey.
Pair of Sandhill Cranes
Happy days. John Richardson and Nigel Marven
Nigel’s long anticipated Connecticut Warbler – the final of the ‘box set’ of NA warblers he’d been systematically searching out over the past twenty-odd years.
Principal North Dakota prairie target bird – Baird’s Sparrow
Sensational unexpected Great Gray Owl that Nigel spotted during our drive through Sax-Zim Bog.
John’s hit list of 38 Code 1 and 2 ‘common’ bird species as of 18 June 2016