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Posts Tagged ‘Boreal Chickadee’

When I committed to this trip nearly a year ago, I checked to see if any life birds would be possible.  I found three possibilities – Spruce Grouse, Northern Goshawk, and Little Gull.  They were all far from guaranteed; the Spruce Grouse would be nearly impossible.  But, I wanted to try, so I made plans to hire Joan Collins, owner of Adirondack Avian Expeditions.  The original plan was for Joan, David, and I to spend Friday looking for my birds, but Derek had joined our group since that plan was made.  The weather also affected our plans with rain forecast for Friday, so Derek and I were guided by Joan on Thursday.  We added a few birds to our wish list – Black-backed Woodpecker, which would be a life bird for Derek, Black-billed Cuckoo because it’s a cool bird and we had not seen it often enough, and Boreal Chickadee because Derek had not seen it in the US.

We saw several Black-and-White Warblers in the mixed flocks that we encountered. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

We saw several Black-and-White Warblers in the mixed flocks that we encountered. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Joan picked Derek and me up at 5:30 AM on August 15.  After a quick stop for breakfast (to eat on the way), we headed to Spring Pond Bog, a conglomeration of properties owned by hunt clubs, a small bit of private land, and The Nature Conservancy (Spring Pond Bog Preserve).  There is only one entrance into this area with a manned security gate.  We began seeing birds on the entrance road before we even got to the gate.  We had our first mixed flock of the day with several warblers.  We also saw a pair of Red Crossbills and a Blackburnian Warbler dustbathing in the gravel road.

Red Crossbill (male). Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Red Crossbill (male). Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Joan soon heard both a Black-backed Woodpecker and a Black-billed Cuckoo calling.  The woodpecker did not cooperate, but the cuckoo could not have been much more accommodating.  He gave us good views on both sides of the road and loudly sang for 20 minutes, “coo-coo-coo coo-coo-coo.”

Black-billed Cuckoo. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Black-billed Cuckoo. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Early in the day we saw this very young sparrow.  Initially I thought it was a White-throated Sparrow, but now I’m not certain.  It will join the list of things to research after the trip.  Babies frequently look so different from adults that identification of even common species can be a challenge, especially with species that do not breed where we live.

Juvenile sparrow [Update: it has been identified by experts as a Song Sparrow.]

Juvenile sparrow [Update: it has been identified by experts as a Song Sparrow.]

We finally made it to the gate and were waved through as Joan has permission from The Nature Conservancy to use their property.  The entire area is beautiful and much more birdy than any place Derek and I had visited earlier in our trip.

Derek and Joan looking for waterfowl on Rock Lake

Derek and Joan looking for waterfowl on Rock Lake

The entire day was wonderful and filled with surprises. Joan and Derek may have seen a Northern Goshawk quickly fly over a wetland and into the trees, but I was on the wrong side of the car for even a quick glimpse.  However, the rarest bird of the day was amazingly a Black Vulture.  There are only two or three reports of this species in the Adirondacks. In birding, rarity is mostly about location and Black Vulture is a more southern species, but its range is slowly expanding northward.

We frequently heard Hermit Thrushes singing throughout the day.  We had a few views of the birds, too.  This one held onto his beakful of bugs the entire time we watched.  It seemed as if he were saying “Would you hurry up and leave already so that I can feed my babies.”

Hermit Thrush

Hermit Thrush

We could have spent days exploring Spring Pond Bog, but we had to leave a little before 4:00 PM so that we could drive to Albany to pick up David and Derek’s car at the airport (where we had left it four days earlier).  The three of us had dinner together a little north of the airport and then we drove back to Tupper Lake.  The drive would normally take an hour on the Interstate and then another hour and a half on two-lane county roads, but the rain and fog made it even longer.  David and I got back shortly before midnight and Derek pulled in 20 minutes later at 12:15 AM.  It was a long day!  But there would be no rest for us as we had made plans to go out with Joan again on Friday.  The weather forecast had changed to give us a dry window between 8:00 AM and 2:00 PM to look for Black-backed Woodpecker at another location that Joan said was more reliable.

We met Joan as planned and started with roadside birding after picking up food for breakfast and lunch.

Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Within a few minutes Joan heard a Black-backed Woodpecker across the road.  She gestured towards the thick forest and said something like “You guys are OK with going in there, aren’t you”?  We all said yes and then Joan ran up the side of the road and plunged into the woods.

Bushwhacking through boreal forest was worth it, though, for Joan found a pair of Black-backed Woodpeckers and we saw both the male and female well.  We would never have found birds at this location on our own.  Joan’s hearing is supernatural and her knowledge of these woodpeckers and their behavior were directly responsible for our encounter with them.

Black-backed Woodpecker (female). Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Black-backed Woodpecker (female). Photo by Derek Hudgins.

We ran into an old snowmobile road and used it off and on while following the woodpeckers and then we finally walked on it back to the highway.  We found other treasures besides the woodpeckers in those deep woods.

Red eft, the juvenile stage of Eastern (red-spotted) newt. These widespread, native salamanders of eastern North America can live for 12-15 years!

Red eft, the juvenile stage of Eastern (red-spotted) newt. These widespread, native salamanders of eastern North America can live for 12-15 years!

Wood Frog. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Wood Frog. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Later Joan told us about the breeding behavior of Black-backed Woodpeckers.  The male excavates the nest.  He does all of the nighttime incubation and most of the daytime incubation.  He also does most of the feeding.  Joan said she has rarely seen a female feed young.  She described the females as lazy and told one fascinating story.  A female flew in and landed near her nest tree with food in her beak.  A juvenile in the nest was screaming to be fed.  The female sat there a few moments, ate the insects she had been holding, and then flew away.

After we had our fill of woodpeckers, we drove to another roadside birding location to look for Boreal Chickadees.  Amazingly, we found over a dozen of these adorable little birds.  Joan said that specific location is the only place that she has ever seen so many in one area.

Boreal Chickadee. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

Boreal Chickadee. Photo by Derek Hudgins.

We also saw quite a few warblers along the roadside with the chickadees and other birds during the day.  The rain held off a little longer than expected and we were able to keep birding until after 4:00 PM.  Our two days with Joan were the highlight of our trip.  Joan Collins is phenomenal and we highly recommend her as a birding guide in the Adirondacks.

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Great Gray Owl

Great Gray Owl hunting in the Superior National Forest. Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

The Great Gray Owl was actively hunting in a bog in the Superior National Forest as we watched it from the side of Minnesota Highway 2 north of Two Harbors.  It sat in the tops of trees surveying the ground below in the early morning light.  Every couple of minutes the owl  flew to a different tree, always alert, but not seeming to care that we were watching.  The fifteen minutes that we stood there in the serene beauty of the north woods was a wonderful start to the five-day trip.  This owl was not in a known location, but Erik had found it simply by knowing the habitat and carefully watching.  The Great Gray Owl is the tallest North American owl with a height of 24 to 33 inches.  It has the largest wingspan of five feet, but it is just a big ball of fluff.  It preys mostly on rodents with its small feet and talons.  Both Great Horned and Snowy owls weigh half again as much and have larger feet and talons allowing them to capture lager prey.

Our group of birders

Our group of birders – Gary Ludi, Shelley Rutkin, Myrna Harris

Myrna Harris and I had flown to Minnesota the day before where we met our guide, Erik Bruhnke, and Gary Ludi from Atlanta, for the Partnership for International Birding trip.  On the first day, we birded a little in Minneapolis and then headed north where we saw the first owls of the trip, two Snowies at the Superior airport in Wisconsin.  We learned that it was definitely not an irruption year, but that owls were actually rather scarce.  Still, we could not stop ourselves from teasing Erik that we expected an owl every day.

After our Great Gray Owl flew deeper into the woods and out of sight, we continued north.  There were long stretches without any birds at all, but the ones that we did find were the northern specialties that had motivated us to travel to northern Minnesota in January when sane people were heading south.

Myrna - warming up in Isabella

Myrna – warming up in Isabella. The temp outside was -9 degrees F.

In Grand Marais, we found a flock of Red Crossbills and Common Redpolls with one Hoary Redpoll and one White-winged Crossbill.  Four finch species in one binocular view!  An even more exciting find was a flock of about 30 Bohemian Waxwings.

Bohemian Waxwings

Bohemian Waxwings. Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

They were close enough to see well with our naked eyes, but with bins and scopes we could see every feather. These are BIG birds! Bohemian Waxwings are only one inch longer than Cedar Waxwings, but they weigh almost twice as much (56 grams vs. 32 grams). Their breasts and bellies are gray rather than the gorgeous bronze of Cedar Waxwings, but their classic waxwing head and face, intricate markings on the wings, and Rufous undertail coverts make them just as beautiful.

Bohemian Waxwings

Bohemian Waxwings eating snow. Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

Day three of the trip was spent entirely in Sax Zim Bog.

Sax Zim Bog

Sax Zim Bog

I recorded only 21 species that day, but three of them were lifers.  Our owl for the day was an extremely cooperative Northern Hawk Owl who allowed us excellent looks.

Northern Hawk Owl.  Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

Northern Hawk Owl. Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

A common bird in the bog, but exciting for me was Ruffed Grouse – seven of them!  This grouse was close to becoming a nemesis bird, but I can now claim it as a lifer.  Most of them were adeptly clambering around in the tops of shrubs or trees, foraging on buds.  We also had a wonderful view of a Sharp-tailed Grouse.

Sharp-tailed Grouse.  Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

Sharp-tailed Grouse. Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

One of my favorite new birds is Pine Grosbeak – big, lovely, easy to identify, and very cooperative.

PineGrosbeak

Male PineGrosbeak. Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

Boreal Chickadee

Boreal Chickadee – an adorable Minnesota specialty. Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

Next it was time to look for gulls.  But first we wanted one more look at a Snowy Owl, so we headed back to the Superior airport early on our fourth day.  This time we found a Snowy perched in the top of a tree.  This is not common behavior for a Snowy, but it allowed us to get the scope on it for a quality view.  Crows harassed the poor bird and we could see the Snowy hiss at them.

Snowy Owl.  Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

Snowy Owl being harassed by American Crows. Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

Satisfied, with our Owl encounter of the day, we headed to the Superior landfill and Wisconsin Point to look for gulls.  We found only Herring Gulls and fly-over Glaucous Gulls.  But back at Canal Park in Duluth, we walked to the water’s edge and discovered a beautiful Iceland Gull right in front of us.  This is the kind of gull that makes gull watching fun.  Erik also found a Thayer’s Gull, another lifer for Gary, Myrna, and me.

Iceland Gull.  Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

Iceland Gull. Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

We celebrated our life gulls with one last visit to Sax Zim Bog where we found Redpolls everywhere, including five Hoaries.  We also saw Pine Grosbeaks, two Northern Shrikes, and other bog birds including Bald Eagles, which we saw four of our five days in Minnesota.

Black-capped Chickadee and Hoary Redpoll

A Black-capped Chickadee checks out a Hoary Redpoll. Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

Common Redpolls

Common Redpolls were the most numerous feeder visitor. Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

Red Squirrel

Minnesota’s Red Squirrels were much cuter than our Gray Squirrels at home.

The last day of our trip came all too quickly, but we had seen most of the expected birds.  The Boreal Owl just wasn’t meant to be for this trip.  Ironically, they started showing up as soon as we returned home.  So, our main target for the drive back to Minneapolis was Rough-legged Hawk.  We finally found a distant dark morph Rough-legged Hawk at Crex Meadows in Wisconsin.  The distance was too great to see detailed field marks, but we could see the characteristic hovering behavior.  The Rough-legged Hawk is one of only two large raptors that hover regularly when hunting.  The other large raptor that hovers is the Osprey.  Although the bird was not close, it was exciting to see the special hunting behavior that makes it unique.  On that last day, our owl for the day was this beautiful Barred Owl.

Barred Owl.  Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

Barred Owl. Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

We boarded our plane for home with happy memories of winter in Minnesota and dreams of returning in the warmth of spring.  This trip was January 16-20, 2013.  Partnership for International Birding sponsored the trip and Erik Bruhnke of Naturally Avian was our guide.  Many thanks for Erik for a wonderful trip and for granting permission to use his beautiful photos in this post.

Erik and Shelley - trying to stay warm!

Erik and Shelley – trying to stay warm!

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