Yellow Rail—Midnight Madness in the McGregor Marsh (VIDEO calling, preening, sleeping)

YELLOW RAIL in McGregor Marsh, Aitkin County, Minnesota. June 13, 2019

Okay, so I was home and in my own bed by midnight, but “10:44 pm in the McGregor Marsh” isn’t quite as catchy as the title, “Midnight Madness.”

It has been about 30 years since I’ve actually SEEN a Yellow Rail (one of Kim Eckert’s multi-birder late-night Yellow Rail “round up” in the 80s). 

Yellow Rails are one of the most secretive birds in North America, and only nest in localized sedge marshes in MN, ND, Manitoba, Ontario, Saskatchewan (and a few other isolated spots). Seven were calling last night (June 13). The rails are only the size of a softball, and they walk around under the cattails…usually. A tape of another male, or clicking two rocks together to imitate their call can elicit a vocal response. But they are used to semi-close neighbors so you have to be in the heart of their territory for them to come out from beneath the sedges/cattails.

Access to the McGregor Marsh is difficult, but an old railroad grade (now an ATV trail) runs through it off MN65. It is a vast sedge marsh, which is the vegetation Yellow Rails prefer.
First glimpses of the elusive YELLOW RAIL. They are only the size of a softball and usually scurry around like mice UNDER the downed layer of sedges and old cattails.

Thanks to my friend Kim Risen who suggested a place in the Marsh to start listening. He has heard and seen many more in the area this spring/summer. Good year for Yellow Rails! They are dependent on proper water levels.

I waded into the marsh at sunset (about 9:15pm) wearing knee-high rubber boots with rain bibs over the top. One bird was calling just off the trail but quit. The McGregor Marsh is a floating mat of sedges and cattails in ankle- to calf-deep water. Good thing I’d laced myself with Deep Woods Off (25%DEET) since the mosquitos were thick.
This rail was calling on and off (sometimes as close as 6 feet away!) but it took 1.5 hours to actually see him in the sedge marsh (in the full company of mosquito hordes, and stumbling around in waders). A powerful flashlight aided in the search. I would sit in the marsh, click my rocks and wait. If he called, I’d sweep the area briefly with my flashlight. 
It was very dark by 10:30 pm when I started photographing him. This Yellow Rail was so calm that he called, preened, and even tucked his head into his back feathers and slept all within 15 feet of me. I only stayed with him for about 15 minutes.

SEE VIDEO OF YELLOW RAIL CALLING, PREENING, SLEEPING HERE

But it took me 15 minutes more to find my backpack (including my car keys!), which I had left laying in the marsh when I started tracking this Yellow Rail. Home by midnight!

Sony A6500 and Canon 70-200mm f4 lens; f5.6 at 1/60; ISO 1600; pop-up flash and flashlight for illumination.

Yellow Rail male in northern Minnesota’s McGregor Marsh; June 13, 2019; 10:15-10:45pm
This little guy got so comfortable with me only 10 feet away that he actually would preen and even tuck his head in his back feathers and fall asleep!
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Sky Islands: Huge Pines, Mexican Chickadees, Spotted Owls, Juncos with yellow eyes —Southeast Arizona June 2019 Part 4

“Mexican” Spotted Owl high in the Huachuca Mountains of southeast Arizona.

June 6-12, 2019

We don’t really think of high elevation mountains right near the Mexican border in Arizona, but these “Sky Islands” rise to over 8,000 feet in elevation. And they host a completely different set of flora and fauna.

Here is a sampling of critters and flowers from two such Sky Islands—Rustler Park in the Chiricahua Mountains (outside of Portal, AZ) and Hunter Canyon in the Heuchuca Mountains near Sierra Vista, AZ.

Western Tiger Swallowtail pair on the road to Rustler Park [Coronado National Forest]
Yellow Columbine (Aquilegia chrysantha) grows along the road to Rustler Park at this stream crossing. [Coronado National Forest]
View from the road to Rustler Park outside of Portal, Arizona in the Chiricahua Mountains. [Coronado National Forest]
Ctenucha venosa – Veined Ctenucha Moth on Lupine in Rustler Park
[Coronado National Forest]
The Lupines were in full-bloom at Rustler Park.
[Coronado National Forest]
10mm lens view of Lupines and pines.
[Coronado National Forest]
Lupine
[Coronado National Forest]
Hedgehog Cactus blooming (Echinocereus species) at Rustler Park.
[Coronado National Forest]

Even though I was at 8,000 feet elevation, there was still cactus in full bloom.

The striking undersides of the Arizona Sister butterfly
[Coronado National Forest]
Not just any chickadee!…The Mexican Chickadee

The Mexican Chickadee that is only found in a few places in the U.S.
[Coronado National Forest]

Rustler Park at 8,000 feet in the Chiricahua Mountains [Coronado National Forest]

Rustler Park at 8,000 feet in the Chiricahua Mountains. It was formerly a better site for birding until a massive wildfire burned the area several years ago.

Yellow-eyed Junco
[Coronado National Forest]

Juncos with yellow eyes? These close-relatives of our Dark-eyed Junco are restricted to the very southeast corner of Arizona and extreme southwest New Mexico. They are only found at high elevations. There were several pairs here in Rustler Park (8,000 feet) and they were finding caterpillars under the needle duff layer.

HUNTER CANYON near Sierra Vista is our second stop on the blog post about the higher elevations of southeast Arizona.

The view of the Sierra Vista valley from the top of Hunter Canyon. A Rufous-capped Warbler had been reported here sporadically over the past few weeks. But we had no luck in finding it.

I got an early start to make the hike up to Hunter Canyon to look for a reported Rufous-capped Warbler. I hiked up an easy trail that gave me good looks at Arizona Woodpecker and Spotted Towhee, but it wasn’t getting anywhere near any large pines…plus folks had said that the hike to the Rufous-capped Warblers was a beast. This must be the wrong trail…And, yes, I was on the wrong trail.

I finally made it back to my car and found the correct parking area. Now this hike was straight up the mountain! Must be the right trail. As I reached the pines, I ran into three birders from Maryland that I’d birded with near Portal. They had had no luck in finding the warbler, but a while later they discovered a roosting “Mexican” Spotted Owl! It was only about 20 feet up in a maple along the creek. He was resting but allowed us a few minutes of photos and gawking. A real find and a beauty. I’d seen one in 1994 but this was much closer.

“Mexican” Spotted Owl is morphologically a bit different than the Spotted Owl of the northwest US and adjacent Canada.
His/her spotted plumage made for excellent camouflage in the sun-dappled canyon woods.

Patagonia-Sonoita Creek —Southeast Arizona June 2019 Part 3

Patagonia is a very small town that looms large in the legacy of American birding. It is a must-bird site for all visiting birdwatchers. I hit two of the most famous spots; Paton Center for Hummingbirds (formerly the home of Wally and Marion Paton and their plethora of hummingbird feeders) and the Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Sanctuary.

The handsome and well named Gray Hawk is a specialty of the Patagonia area. They nest along the Sonoita Creek. I almost got too good of a look at this guy as he left off the edge of the dirt road as I rounded a corner. Here he is being harassed by a Kingbird. Unfortunately I didn’t quite get the focus on this shot.
Cassin’s Kingbird at The Nature Conservancy’s Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Sanctuary
My lucky day! …but this Desert Tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) had to endure being manhandled by me for a few minutes. He/she was huge and hefty! (Let’s call it a “she.”) The carapace was almost two iPhone 7+ long! And it probably weighed about 10 pounds (total guess…but she was heavy!).
I love tortoises. The Sonoran Desert Tortoise can reach 15 inches in carapace length. This gal measured at 10.5 to 11 inches long so I imagine she is quite old. They eat all kinds of vegetation including cacti. I’ve also caught and “played” with the much smaller Texas Tortoise in, you guessed it, Texas. I helped this gal across the dirt road and off into the brush.
I was quietly walking a deserted and narrow dirt road west of Patagonia when I heard rustling in the brush. I stayed very still and watched this Javelina forage for about 10 minutes. As far as I know it never saw me.
Wally and Marion Paton’s home in Patagonia, Arizona has been a Mecca for birders and hummingbird enthusiasts for decades. I was here in 1994 and our group sat quietly under the canopy in their backyard waiting for the rare Violet-crowned Hummingbird to show. It did and I got my lifer Violet-crowned.
Wally and Marion passed away a few years ago and the Tucson Audubon Society stepped in to save this treasured and beloved location. Donations from birders and birding organizations helped buy the house and acreage. It is now loaded with gardens and paths and ponds…and of course, hummingbird feeders…and the Violet-crowns still come to feed.
This is the renovated hummingbird watching area at the Paton’s…now called the “Paton Center for Hummingbirds”
And the star of the show arrived! Several Violet-crowned Hummers fed at the Paton Center’s feeders and perched obligingly for us photographers.
Canyon Towhees in the underbrush.
Wildflower gardens and paths at the Paton Center for Hummingbirds in Patagonia, Arizona.
Common Checkered-Skipper at the wildflower gardens at the Paton Center for Hummingbirds in Patagonia, Arizona.
White Prickly Poppy (Argemone albiflora) is a large and beautiful wildflower in southeast Arizona.
“The oil of the white prickly poppy was used as a fine lubricant during WWII. It was found that the oil content of the seed is 25.8% which is similar to the oil content found in soybeans.”
—Quote from wikipedia.com
Vermilion Flycatcher along the dirt road to Sonoita Creek.
Any riparian area in the desert southwest USA is going to be an oasis for birds. The Nature Conservancy’s Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Sanctuary is no exception. Unfortunately I arrived just an hour before closing so was not able to explore much.
Sparky and huge Cottonwood along Sonoita Creek.
Phainopepla at Sonoita Creek Sanctuary.
Broad-billed Hummer at the Sonoita Creek Sanctuary.

Chihuahuan Desert Bonanza: Barren? No way! —Southeast Arizona June 2019 Part 2

June 6-8 near Portal, Arizona.

During my brief stay in Portal, I birded multiple biomes….from mountain pine forest (at elevation 8,400 feet!) to low elevation Chihuahuan Desert scrub. The desert was most alien to this Minnesota boy, and maybe that was its strong appeal. It was also easier to see and photograph the critters than in the wooded habitats.

Foothills Road is very near Portal and a great place to explore at dawn and dusk. Midday is quiet due to the heat. On this road I had great looks at Scott’s Oriole, Cactus Wren, Gambel’s Quail, Scaled Quail, Verdin, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Lesser Nighthawk (dusk), Desert Cottontail and Black-tailed Jackrabbit.

Stateline Road is another great birding road. New Mexico will be on the east and Arizona on the west side of the road. Stop at Willow Tank and bird this water feature as well. I saw Loggerhead Shrike, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Curve-billed Thrasher, Greater Roadrunner, Chihuahuan Raven and possibly a Kit Fox (just a long-tailed blur running across the road).

Chihuahuan Desert vistas look bleak and lifeless…but they are anything but. Birds, mammals, insects and reptiles thrive in this desert.
Yellow Bird of Paradise shrub (Caesalpinia gilliesii) has a stunning flower with 3-4 inch long red stamens.
Yellow Bird of Paradise shrub (Caesalpinia gilliesii) is a native of South America but naturalized in Arizona where it can be found growing wild along roads and in other disturbed areas. It is also grown in gardens.
Verdin is a tiny, yellow-faced bird of desert scrub.
Scott’s Oriole in Ocotillo. We don’t think of orioles in the desert, but the Scott’s is right at home in arid Chihuahuan scrub desert.
The male Scott’s Oriole is one of our only yellow orioles. No orange for this guy!
The Scaled Quail is encountered far less often than its Gambel’s cousin. It is also found at lower elevations in the shrub scrub.
I was extremely excited to find this Round-tailed Horned Lizard along the Foothills Road after dark. These little guys are only about 3 inches long.
It was a lifer and is my third species of Horned Lizard that I’ve seen (joining Texas Horned Lizard and Northern Horned Lizard on my life list).
Ocotillo at sunset
Ocotillo at sunset
My first non-feeder Lucifer Hummingbird! I have seen Lucifers at hummingbird feeders several times before but this was the only one I’ve seen out in “the wild.” This is a female (note her white chin and yellow throat).
Greater Roadrunner on the hunt for lizards at dawn.
For some reason it seems like I’m always shooting into the sun when I take Roadrunner photos. But it gives the birds a neat rim light (also see photo below).
Greater Roadrunner getting ready to make good on its name and run on a road.
Along Foothills Road at dawn I found this male Gambel’s Quail greeting the morning by singing his heart out from the top of an Agave.
Unlike many birds who live only in one habitat, the Gambel’s Quail can be found from Chihuahuan Desert scrub up to higher elevations in wooded forests.
Gambel’s Quail calling
Foothills Road near Portal, Arizona passes through prime Chihuahuan Desert and is great birding. Best to bird it at dawn and dusk, and park the car and walk.
Prickly Pear cactus was in full bloom. This cactus was over 7 feet tall! A related species grows in southwest Minnesota but rarely even reaches 18 inches tall.
Yuccas are a characteristic plant of Chihuahuan Desert scrub. This is in New Mexico just north-northeast of Portal, Arizona.
Black-tailed Jackrabbits are most active in early morning and towards dusk (when this photo was taken).
Can you find the Black-tailed Jackrabbit?
This little bundle of energy is the Black-tailed Gnatchatcher. It is a tiny sprite of a bird that lives in open desert scrub.
At 103 degrees, everybody needs to drink! Greater Roadrunner at Willow Tank.
Don’t overlook the Chiricahua Desert Museum just N of Rodeo, New Mexico and east of Portal. It is an eclectic reptile-themed museum with world class snake exhibits and an outdoor plant and reptile exhibit.
The exhibits of the live Rattlesnakes (many species!) are impressive. They were made by a professional Hollywood set designer for Michael Jackson (yes, that Michael Jackson). But Michael changed his mind and the museum benefited.
The outdoor exhibit at the Chiricahua Desert Museum. Lizards run free here….if you can find them. Native plants are labeled as well.

Trogons, Owl Bonanza & Black Bears? Cave Creek —Southeast Arizona June 2019 Part 1

I hadn’t birded southeast Arizona since 2004…15 years ago…and I needed to get back. Between 1990 and 2004 I made 4 birding/photo trips here and picked up most of my target southeast Arizona specialists plus rarities such as White-eared Hummingbird, Plain-capped Starthroat, Rose-throated Becard, Flame-colored Tanager, and Black-capped Gnatcatcher. But in those pre-digital-photography days I took few photos and my memories of specific bird sightings had long since faded. So nearly every bird I saw was a special treat…almost like getting lifers all over again.

My first two nights were in Portal, Arizona near the New Mexico border at the foot of the Chiricahua Mountains. You can experience multiple biomes in the vicinity of Portal, all within a short drive. This post is about birding in the Cave Creek and Herb Martyr Canyon areas.

The flight from Duluth to Phoenix took us right over Great Sand Dunes National Monument in southern Colorado. We visited here as a family in 2016. The kids loved running and leaping from the sand dune peaks. Very cool to see from the air!
Portal, Arizona is one of those tiny but picturesque little towns with a quaint general store and surrounded by spectacular scenery. It is in the same league as Polebridge, Montana, Talkeetna, Alaska and Finland, Minnesota. I spent two nights here, but could have spent much more time in this special part of the world.
The Elegant Trogon is really a bird of Mexico that has the far north end of its North American range in the U.S. South Fork of Cave Creek is one of the best places to find them in the U.S. This male just fed the youngsters in this nest cavity in a Sycamore tree. I was told that they nested in this same cavity last year.
Elegant Trogon male coming out of the nest cavity.
I had a disturbing Black Bear encounter in Cave Creek Canyon. This BIG Black Bear saw me, then ran about 30 yards before stopping and hissing and snapping its jaws at me. Maybe it was a female with cubs?? But I never saw any little ones. This is very aggressive behavior and of all the bears I’ve encountered in Minnesota, I’ve never had one do this.
What do you think of when you picture southeast Arizona? Though there is much Chihuahuan desert, there are also these “Islands in the Sky” mountain ranges. The Chiricahua Mountains near Portal is one such Sky Island.
Birdled Titmouse is only found in southeast Arizona and southwest New Mexico in the U.S.
Sycamores have beautiful patterned bark.
I’m sure the locals are pretty tired of Gambel’s Quail, but for me they are always a treat to see and photograph. This male was calling from a fencepost early in the morning.
Mom Gambel’s Quail with a brood of 8 adorable chicks.
The Painted Redstart is a stunning warbler of
Hooded Oriole at Dave Jasper’s feeders in Portal
Hooded Oriole at Dave Jasper’s feeders in Portal
Acorn Woodpeckers are gregarious and very vocal. It is not hard finding this distinctive woodpecker.
Acorn Woodpecker
Portal, Arizona is a town of 50 people with one general store and a cafe. But I am always out birding when it is meal time…Actually I bird from dawn to dusk and beyond, so no time for a sit down meal. Therefore I ate nothing but ham or bologna sandwiches for 3 days. 8 sandwiches total. Also, there is no gas station in Portal and I nearly ran out of gas trying to find a station. I ended up in Animas, New Mexico…the closest spot to Portal to get gas.
I called in this Whiskered Screech-Owl and he sang in my flashlight beam. I managed to get a photo, but not a great photo. This was on Herb Martyr Canyon Road, where I also heard Western Screech-Owl and I got two lifers! Heard Mexican Whip-poor-wills (a barrier song than our whip-poor-wills) and a heard Flammulated Owl…my last North American owl!

**All photos taken with Panasonic GH5 and Sony A6500 with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, Canon 70-200mm f4 lens, Rokinon 10mm lens, and iPhone.

Video—Dancing Chickens: Shooting with Sparky

A morning on the Greater Prairie-Chicken lek at Tympanuchus WMA in Northwest Minnesota; April 26, 2019

Easter Flower of the Prairie—Pasqueflowers bloom

April 26, 2019: Glacial Ridge National Wildlife Refuge in Polk County, Minnesota.

It had been several decades since I’d seen a blooming Pasqueflower (Pulsatilla patens) [Othern synonyms: Anemone patens or Pulsatilla nuttalliana]. They are a true harbinger of spring on western prairies, and are often pushing up when snow still dots the landscape.

My main reason for driving 4 1/2 hours one-way from my homestead in Carlton County, Minnesota to the northwest corner of the state was to spend a morning with Greater Prairie-Chickens. I only had about 24 hours for the entire trip. But I wondered if I could get a bonus photo subject and find a clump of Pasqueflowers. I really didn’t think I’d find any, but while slowly cruising down a “Minimum Maintenance” dirt road, dots of color in the mainly brown landscape caught my eye. And, Yes!, it was a cluster of just blooming “Easter Flowers.”

It is the state flower of South Dakota and the Provincial flower of Manitoba. This species grows around the globe and can be found in the western U.S., Europe, Finland, Russia, Mongolia and China. Other names for this spring beauty are Prairie Crocus, Easter Flower, Windflower, Cutleaf Anemone, and Prairie Smoke in reference to its long wispy seed plumes.

The name Pasqueflower has its roots in the Christian celebration of Easter. The name for Easter in Latin and Greek is Pascha, and Hebrew Pasach,which originally referred to Passover. Many languages use this root for their current name for Easter (Påske in Norwegian, Pascua in Spanish, Pasqua in Italian, and Pâques in French). This flower gained its common name from its association with blooming at the time of Easter, likely in its range in Europe.

Pasqueflower Glacial Ridge NWR Polk County MN IMG_5453

Pasqueflower (Pulsatilla patens) at Glacial Ridge National Wildlife Refuge; Polk County, Minnesota

[Most photos taken with Canon 7D and Canon 70-200mm f4 lens (some with Canon 500D close up lens attached to 70-200mm lens]

Pasqueflower Glacial Ridge NWR Polk County MN IMG_5459

Pasqueflower Glacial Ridge NWR Polk County MN IMG_5417

 

anepat-1

Range of the Pasqueflower in Minnesota. Note that it is mainly a prairie/grassland species so is absent from Northeastern and Northcentral parts of the state.

anepat

Range of Pasqueflower in the U.S. It is also found in Europe, Finland, Russia, Mongolia and China.

Pasqueflower Glacial Ridge NWR Polk County MN IMG_5514

Pasqueflower Glacial Ridge NWR Polk County MN IMG_5411

I’ve never seen white Pasqueflowers! Interesting that this clump was the only white ones amidst many purple clusters (see photo below).

Pasqueflower Glacial Ridge NWR Polk County MN MG_5526

Pasqueflower Glacial Ridge NWR Polk County MN IMG_5492

Pasqueflower Glacial Ridge NWR Polk County MN IMG_5540

Pasqueflower Glacial Ridge NWR Polk County MN IMG_5559

Pasqueflower Glacial Ridge NWR Polk County MN IMG_5564

Franklin's Gull flock over Glacial Ridge NWR Polk County MN IMG_5403

A flock of migrating Franklin’s Gulls over Glacial Ridge NWR. One of the most beautiful gulls in the world. They nest in massive colonies in remote marshes such as those in NW Minnesota’s Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge and Thief Lake WMA. Tens of thousands may nest in the same marsh!