Tuesday, June 4, 2013



It's Tuesday, which means it's my last day in Minnesota. I love this place! It's been great for catching up with all those pesky birds that snuck past me during migration. A lot of those birds breed in the far north (Canada), but range far south enough to find them in Minnesota. The bird life here is incredibly rich - both in diversity and sheer numbers. 

In 3 days, I got some important ticks, including Connecticut, Mourning and Canada Warbler. Some of those ticks came from the Sax-Zim bog - a huge bog in north central MN (more on this later.) Even non-birders can get new ticks there - when I got back to the car, I found this one:
Deer tick

And then another. And another. I was covered in these little blood suckers! I angrily pulled them all off. But they're pretty sneaky. As I was driving away from the bog, I would feel an odd tickle and discover one of these bastards happily gnawing my leg off. I would pick them off (not easy while driving - thank you cruise control) and throw them out the window (accompanied by a choice expletive.) Ten minutes later, the same process would be repeated - same kind of tick, different appendage. I'm sure it was the same guy coming back for more. Kind of like in Alien where Ripley ejects the alien from the escape spaceship at the end, but it clings on, and gets back in again. (Whoa. Maybe Alien is really based on Minnesota Deer Ticks?) Anyway...back to planet earth...even back at the hotel, confident that I'm de-ticked, I would find them scurrying away (albeit slowly) from my pile of dirty clothes.

I spent a day at Murphy Hanrehan Park 30 minutes south of the Twin Cities which does a much better job of warning (and scaring!) you about ticks:

WANTED: Deadly Ticks

Thankfully the tick mugshot didn't match any of the bog ticks that I'd picked up. Phew! I was also prepared, with my Neos lower-leg protection…

This year's fashion in footwear - Neos from Alaska.

Murphy Hanrehan's rolling hills are covered in prairie grassland. 

I'm here because of the Henslow's Sparrow - an uncommon and declining sparrow that makes its home in mid-west praries. On the skulking spectrum, it's at the extreme end.

But the grassland looked too low to support any birds. I walked around for about 15 minutes and saw nothing. Then - I started hearing "fe-LICK…..fe-LICK" - Henslow's singing! But where? I'd walk up to a singing bird, convinced I was 10 feet from it, and couldn't see a thing. Then it would call from a different direction (oh yeah, they also run around in the grass like mice.) Occasionally, I'd flush a bird (they only seem to fly if you almost stand on them) and it would fly to the other side of the hill. After 90 minutes of this ridiculousness I hadn't seen a single bird on the ground! Very frustrating. As I was leaving, I finally had one bird perch for 5 seconds - long enough for me to get a quick pic (during which, of course, the bird refused to look at me!)

Henslow's Sparrow. Notice the pea-green head, 
reddish back with black streaks, white belly with streaking on the breast and sides.

Awesome tick!

Talking of which…what was that funny tickling on my arm? I nervously pulled up my sleeve to reveal a tick. And this one matched the poster mug shot! Argghhh! I pulled the bastard off and flung him (it felt like a him) across the meadow (ok, maybe about 2 feet - hey, it's not easy throwing ticks long distances.) Unfortunately due to the rapid nature of this harrowing experience, I was unable to get any photo documentation for this blog. So - in the interests of tick education - I recreated and photographed the crime scene, sans tick. 

Sunday. June 2nd. 09:53. 67 degrees, light wind. No other witnesses.

Hmmm. I feel a funny tickling feeling on my arm. What is that?

Arrgghhh! It's a tick…

Holy shit! It's one of those killer ticks like in the poster that's going to kill me…

(Apparently ticks also cause all your hair to turn gray and prevent you from shaving for several days….)

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Let's get back to the Sax-Zim bog, of which more was promised...

Sax-Zim bog is a mythical place to birders. It's a mixed spruce, tamarack and northern white cedar bog, with patches of alder swamp and hardwood (ash) forest. In the summer, it's home to a huge variety of breeding birds (many difficult to get elsewhere this far south.)  In the winter, it's home to a popular birding festival, luring birders with the large numbers of wintering owls. 

Sax-Zim Bog

Most muggles though have never heard of it. I was buying insect repellant in Duluth and the woman at the check-out asked where I was going that I would need that. "The Sax-Zim bog." She looked at me,  and thought "I have no idea what you're saying, so I'll just nod and smile."

I guess there are no other landmarks which is why it's called the Saz-Zim bog - even though Zim only has a population of about 20, and Sax seems to be a ghost town. In some old maps, Sax had the alternative spelling of "Saxe" and in other maps it had the very alternative spelling of "Wallace."

The bog is a real test on bird song - stop anywhere and there's often 5+ different species all singing at once, most hidden deep within the bog. It wasn't long before I heard my main target bird: the Connecticut Warbler. This is, without doubt, one of my favorite birds (my email address is named after their genus, Oporornis.) They are incredibly secretive (think Henslow's Sparrow in a dense forested bog!) - when they're not singing they're almost impossible to find (and because of this it has one of the most poorly understood wintering ranges of any US bird.) I heard one singing about 100 feet into here…

I hacked into the boggy and wet undergrowth

Connecticuts have a very loud and explosive call, "chippy-chipper-chippy-chipper" which continued as I got closer and closer. Predictably, even within 20 feet, I had no idea where the bird was. Unlike almost all other warblers they walk (not hop) on the ground, and spend a lot of time hidden there. I waited it out - for 30 minutes standing dead still (except for a gradual and barely perceptible downward motion into the bog.) Eventually the bird flew a short distance, and starting singing from a branch right in front of me! I could see the slate-gray hood, stonking white eye-ring, lemon yellow belly, and olive-green back. Their under-tail coverts are so long it makes their tail look short and gives the bird a very plump look. We only see these birds rarely and often very poorly on the east coast in fall (they take a more westerly migration route in spring), so it was a real treat seeing this bird so well, and in its home.

I also caught up with one of the other Oporornis warblers at Sax-Zim too: the Mourning Warbler. Also highly secretive, this bird was singing from an exposed perch for several minutes…

Mourning Warbler. 
Notice the hood, like the Connecticut, with a black breast patch and no eye-ring.

(OK - before I get letters of complaint [yeah right, people are actually reading this!] - Mourning Warbler isn't technically an Oporornis warbler any more. It - as well as Macgillivray's and Kentucky - used to be but all three were moved to the Yellowthroat family Geothlypis, leaving Connecticut as the only US Oporornis warbler. Oh - and my last day, I drove down to SE Wisconsin to pick up my third ex-Oporornis for the trip - Kentucky.)

The other highlight of the trip was Rice NWR. In the 2 hours of sunlight I had there (after landing at MSP late in the afternoon) I heard at least 8 Ruffed Grouse drumming. Maybe felt is a better description - it's more of a pressure difference in the air than a noise. The amazing drumming sound is produced by male birds rapidly beating their open wings. I also got my life Golden-winged Warbler. I kept hearing them sing (bee bzz bzz bzz) in the dense, tangly wooded edges, but could never spot one. As I was driving out of the refuge I heard another, slammed on the brakes and jumped out. Damn it! This time I was going to see one! For 10 minutes a group of 3-4 gave me the run around with no sightings - until a male perched showing off his stunning golden crown, golden wing panel, and chickadee face pattern. It was only 3 seconds but it was unforgettable. It was definitely a highlight of a trip with many highlights.

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I'm heading back to Alaska now for 3 days in Nome - a tiny and isolated town on the West coast. Hoping for rarities, some of the local breeders, but no volcanoes or fog!

But before I leave, I'd like to thank Minnesota for being such an awesome birding place. And also:

1. for my GPS (Apple) for saying "Mini-A-Polis." Does that make Saint Paul, the other Twin City, Mini-B-Polis?

2. for being a place where this is normal…

Standard furniture in Minnesota bathrooms

3. to the hotel in Minneapolis where the woman on front desk asked me during check-in - with a straight face, mind you - "you'll be wanting to visit the Mall of America - we have a free bus service to take you there." 

4. and for showing us the future of transportation…

High-tech prototype: solar-powered vehicle.

5. and for Mr Porcupine for walking at 2 mph in the middle of the single lane road at Rice NWR…

6. to the laundromat that answered all my (very) basic questions on how to wash clothes and let me type up this post during the wait.

7. and to the very friendly Minnesotans with their endearing accents.

OK. AK - here I come…

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NEW YEAR BIRDS (11): Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Ruffed Grouse, Canada Warbler, Golden-winged Warbler, Connecticut Warbler, Mourning Warbler, Least Flycatcher, Henslow's Sparrow, Cerulean Warbler, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Kentucky Warbler.

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