Big Year Day 28-31
Big Year Total: 405
Coded birds: 20
Cool animals: Bobcat, Harbor seal, gray whale, California sea lion, pronghorn, porcupine
Miles driven. 10,350
Flight Miles 14600
Hours at sea: 14
Miles walked 45.5
Miles biked 2
states/ prov. birded:12
Some people get their kicks driving route 66, others Scoop the Loop, or Cruise Rodeo Drive. Occasionally people even drive Park Avenue or the Magnificent Mile, but Olaf likes nothing better than to bird the Willie the Walleye Route in the depth of winter.
Now many of you will think to yourself, "where the heck is that?" Willie the walleye? Really?
It goes from NW Minnesota to Superior WI and loops through all the prime winter bird habitat.
The route starts with coffee in Thief River Falls, MN at first light. Occasionally it makes sense to stay at the C'mon Inn in TRF, but today my birding daughter Lena, I and the intrepid bird dog Brighid took off at 4am from South Dakota. The route goes from there to Roseau then across on Hwy 11 through Baudette to Little Fork, then down hwy 53 to the Bog, Sax-Zim, then to Duluth by way of the Superior National Forest via Two Harbors to the Canal Park, then onto Superior to Peavey Elevator, and Bong Airport. It used to finish at the Superior Dump, but they have redone the dump and it isn't so good, there are a couple of optional extensions including Mary Lou's feeders and a couple of other locations, but they are generally the same deal. I have done the route in 2 days, getting almost all of the possible birds but this year, but owls can be elusive so I'm doing it in three, I really need to get the owls. This path will yield an amazing completion of Minnesota's winter birds, with a little luck, you can get everything, but this is winter, something always can happen, and if the weather changes, what may be an easy drive can be just a brutal experience. Snowpack and winds need to be watched closely.
On the 28th Day, Olaf rested but I had to go get #389 Wild Turkey up on top of the ridge at Summit, SD
I sent a note to Lena's school that she needed to be excused for Friday as we had to go to the Canadian border to see a man about an owl. Probably the first time they had seen that excuse. At 4 in the morning, we took off. The first song on XM Radio was the birder's theme song "X's and Oh's" a good sign and I was thinking about the difficulty in getting owls while Lena snuggled in to sleep in the passenger seat and six miles from home, a probable great horned owl spooked from the ditch and I missed it by maybe an inch. I say probable as it went right over the windshield by my face, and I had a arm over my face to protect from the impact. I didn't get the best look. My small scream woke up Lena, "dad, if it isn't a snowy, don't bother me. I'm tired. You have a great horned already, so do I."
I had just removed my wife's Thule carrier to lower the wind profile as it was a very windy morning and if I hadn't I would have killed that owl. I wondered "why"? Owls are spiritual animals and foreboding, when you see an owl in an odd place it could mean something more than just seeing an owl.
Then for 150 miles I wondered about the significance, was that owl incident before going owling, a good or bad omen? Then in the next 100 miles I was trying to determine if it was actually brown, maybe it was white? No, it was brown, I think. Why would I even still be thinking about this? We had coffee and gas at daybreak in Thief and it was time to begin the route.
Fields of the abandoned and the downtrodden
The birding tour begins here, at this abandoned farmhouse in the middle of nowhere (stock photo from my 2013 book Boobies Peckers and Tits) just west and South of Agassiz NWR, in some of the most productive locations for winter Sharp-tailed grouse, Greater prairie chicken, and occasionally even Gray partridge, but I don't look for them specifically. It took me 1/2 of a mile this year to find the first flock of birds. In 2013, 2 and 4 miles respectively, and this year two flocks were together.
#390 Sharp-tailed grouse
#391 Greater prairie chicken
Two lek stakeouts cancelled for April!! Yea, it was a great opening double. If anyone wants to go to a fun GPChix lek in NC Minnesota, let me know, I won't be there. It is about a 1/2 mile walk. I didn't bother to look for the Gray Partridge, the big score were the chickens so we drove back on the scary ice-covered road back to Marshall County 7 which is also a scary ice covered road.
Agassiz is a very desolate place in the winter. The goals here at black-billed magpie, occasionally northern shrike on trees, and the feeders at the visitor center. I saw #392 Black-billed magpie in the first 300 yards of the refuge. I can never photograph that bird and never tried. I made the obligatory stop at the feeders at the visitor center. Lena saw her year common redpoll and used the bathroom. Note, the refuge visitor center is not open on weekends and if the wind is out of the south, like today, the birds get blown out of the feeders. The poor lonely woman wanted to talk to Lena but she got scared and zipped out. I've even seen a hoard of bohemian waxwings over the years in the trees east of here, and a ruffed grouse and some other finches but this year it was just a dog stop and a bathroom break.
The Minnesota elk herd is around Grygla, and there are good wires for rough-legged hawks but the hawks have moved on south this year. Sometimes the roads off the main road can be scoured but many are closed right now, we drove on after causing concern we were casing a house.
Roseau has the second best birding bog in the state, it is either totally ignored, sandbagged or both. I can point to many sandbagging here and it so infuriates me I'm starting to use the Subway as my new bird location. Either we are helping other birders or we are selfish pricks, who just take my data and give nothing back. No one has posted a Northern hawk-owl in Minnesota since January 3, one quite far south of town, not the usual spot, IDK, so I go where I always go and I ALWAYS see hawk owls and I slowed down and pointed out the suspicious lump to Lena, bingo. Why was I worrying? It is in the same tree as December 2014, and Feb 2014, AND Feb 2013....this is a hawk-owl tree.
#393 Northern hawk-owl
we got out of the tight spot and I didn't have to be ignored by the border patrol again this time.
We drove on the main road, and then I sped past 3 dark grouse on the side of the road. I almost did a skidding u-turn and then they flew when I got heading north again, but only to a yard. Then they spooked a second time before I could get a camera on them, and flew over the car...."spruce grouse!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" I yelled. Life is good, really good...bird #394.
I learned later people pay good money to see them. The last time I saw them up here, there were seven, and a golden eagle and then there were six.........
It was good to see the three grouse in close proximity for Lena to compare and contrast....lucky bonus bird and my roll continues.
We found a northern shrike for Lena's year
#396 Hoary redpoll
We also had an unexpected treat, but it remained unphotographed. A nearly white redpoll showed up by itself at a feeder dead into the sun but the other birders at her feeders were walking about to try to take photos, We remained in the car. They kept scaring the birds. I'm not sure they got it. IDK. Sigh....light bird dead into morning sun and then flushed, we waited, it never came back. We left the feeders to this foursome chasing birds more out of the yard than anything. But...I had the hoary, now comes the problem eventually. As of January 30th, 2016 this bird is safely on the ABA checklist, BUT, come summer it may be lumped with the common as one redpoll species so .....it counts today but then what and what about Hayward's hoary? Do I still get it, do all of us loose it, or just me or none of us? IDK, I'm sure another way for those in charge to punish Olaf somehow.
We drove around and around the bog passing "Lazurus the Porcupine" 7 times in a tree in the course of the day
We did score two more year birds
#397 Gray Jay