Thursday, June 17, 2010

End of Week #24

It is Thursday afternoon, June 17th, the end of week #24 of this big year travel adventure. The prediction of high winds and possible tornadoes dramatically shortened our afternoon of birding. But again I am ahead of myself.

Yesterday afternoon we drove an hour to visit Rice Lake NWR which is just south of the small town of McGregor, MN. The sun finally came out, and the wind was not much. The refuge proved to be very quiet, so after about an hour we drove back into McGregor to check into our motel. Before leaving Duluth we had a big lunch/breakfast, so we were not all that hungry at 6 PM when it was time to make the drive up to county rd 18 in Aitkin county. We opted for some dairy queen soft serve before starting our drive.

Our goal was to see the great gray owl which is a permanent resident along this road. We also were hoping for a leconte's sparrow which is found along the same road. We arrived about 7:30 on as pretty a late spring afternoon as you could want. As we drove down the gravel road we saw up ahead a bird on a sign. Hoping for a great gray, we had to settle for the short eared owl in the top photo above. We got to watch it and its mate hunt the marsh/grasslands.

As we were watching them my wife looked in the grass close by and said, "there's a small bird." I quickly swung my binocs up to find a singing leconte's sparrow sitting on a small green plant. My view lasted maybe 15 seconds before the bird as is its habit dropped back down into the thick grass. We sat there for another 10 minutes hoping it would pop back up, but it just kept itself hidden, singing its frustrating to hear quiet buzzy whistle song.

As 8:30 rolled around we decided to make our way back down county rd 18 to a small cemetery where the great gray was most recently reported being seen. Ground fog was starting to form in places, and the sun was just setting to the west. We slowly drove the road but found no owl, so we turned down Pietz's side road looking there as well. The second photo above was an attempt to capture the ground fog that was increasing as darkness approached. Another short eared owl flew over high above us giving a short thrill thinking it might be a great gray until we got a better look at it in the dusk. Scanning the power lines for the great gray we instead found a ruby throated hummer sitting on the wire.

After a few more passes up and down the 2 roads, at 9:45 we called it a nite and drove back to McGregor. I dropped my wife at the motel, and I went the short 2 miles over to the marsh to check for calling yellow rails. I heard one fairly quickly, and then noticed further out in the marsh several flashlights and birders tromping around trying to see a yellow rail. Having seen one in Texas in April, I was content to listen to the constant rail calling that sounds like 2 stones tapping lightly against each other. My bed beckoned, so off I went.

This morning I awoke at 5:30 and decided to check the marsh again. I found 2 birders sloshing around out there, and ended up speaking with one of them. He told me that yesterday morning they had seen the great gray owl on county rd 18 twice--early and again mid morning. I raced back to get my wife up. While she was showering I grabbed some breakfast at the motel and ran into last nite's rail hunters--a group from the tropical audubon society in southern Florida. I also saw a couple from Massachusetts that I had crossed paths with yesterday morning in Sax-Zim bog.

My wife and I drove back to county rd 18, and retraced our driving path only to not find a great gray. By then the couple from Mass. had arrived and we all decided to walk down a ski mobile trail in search of connecticut warblers. We heard one calling after 15 minutes, and homed in on its position. We then headed into the spruce/tamarack trees, walking on the sphagnum bog moss which was actually drier than the ski-mobile trail. We soon sighted the elusive warbler slowly walking around on tree branches looking for food. Now I can move the connecticut warbler to the seen list.

My wife and I walked back to our car to try for the owl again. As we were walking out the Florida group was walking in. We told them where to look for the connecticut. We once again did not see a great gray, but we did find another short eared owl. As we drove back by the ski mobile trail entrance, we saw one of the Florida birders who I recognized from birding there back in March. I had met her when I went to her house in search of spot-breasted orioles. I was not surprised to see her since these kind of encounters happen regularly among avid birders.

The birders from Massachusetts then came back to tell us that they had found a great gray owl after we had left them when they walked much further down the ski mobile trail. They had seen a large bird fly by at a distance, and then soon after it dropped down next to them momentarily before flying off. This is also a typical occurrence when birding where you or someone else just misses the chance to see a "good" bird.

My wife and I looked at each other and decided not to walk out the wet, tick infested ski mobile trail again, figuring that we missed our chance. Instead we drove over to Itasca State Park to look for a black-backed woodpecker only to discover that the road to get to the hiking trail we wanted to use to search for a reported bird was closed the rest of the day because of the aforementioned high wind/tornado warnings. Thus our early check in to a motel.

Week #24 is now in the books with a total of 95 birds seen for the week, and the YTD is now up to 614 with the addition of the leconte's sparrow. My wife is thrilled to have only a partial day of birding, and hopefully early tomorrow we will be able to locate the black-backed. Stay tuned!

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