Bird Surveys in Renville County

Lessons in Monoculture Birding

By Bob Janssen, MRVAC Board of Directors 

Here’s my story of how I came to do bird surveys in one of the most intensely agricultural counties, Renville. If you check a map, you will see that the northern boundary is roughly Highway 7. The Minnesota River forms the diagonal boundary.

Common Yellowthroat, courtesy of USFWS

At the MOU spring meeting in St. Paul, I met an old friend, Steve Stucker, who is Director of the Minnesota County Biological Survey. Steve is one of Minnesota’s most knowledgeable birders because of his extensive experience with the geographical distribution of Minnesota birds. I mentioned that I was looking for useful work to keep me busy. Steve told me to get in touch with his wife who is looking for help doing bird surveys in areas in western Minnesota. It sounded exactly like what I was looking for, especially since it might get me back into working with birds.

Jennifer Stucker is the Research Biologist for West Inc who are Environmental and Statistical Consultants doing work in western Minnesota where wind generators are potentially going to be installed. I called Jennifer and was hired and assigned to survey 17 GPS locations in a township in Renville County. I can think of better locations to look for birds but it was work and best of all it had to do with birds!

Surveys were required at each location for 70 minutes once per month. I was trained in the field by one of West’s most experienced people. I thought I knew many things about doing bird surveys but I learned a lot of new techniques while doing these surveys. The surveys included observation of a Bald Eagle nest near to the points I was to survey. Who ever thought there would be a Bald Eagle nest in the “middle” of the corn and soybean monoculture in Renville County?

I have been doing the surveys since April and I have found that this monoculture of agriculture is a great lesson in the changing landscape of Minnesota. This monoculture extends for miles, as far as the eye can see, corn and soybean planted almost to the edge of the road and the ditches along the road where grass and other plants remain which is usually mowed for the hay it produces. Where is there any habitat for birds?

I was really discouraged but as time passed and I grew familiar with the landscape I found out how resilient birds can be. The main grassland habitat that remains is along the drainage ditches which are everywhere. Some of these ditches are 20 to 30 feet or more deep but they are full of grass and other vegetation “spills” out over the top of the ditches. Vesper Sparrows are common along the gravel roads where the ditches and grass occur, Horned Larks, Red-winged Blackbirds, Common Yellowthroats and even a few Bobolinks use the ditch grass for nesting. In addition to birds, butterflies are abundant in the sparse habitat along the gravel roads.

Another area that is good for birds in this intense agriculture area is the farmsteads. Most of the homes are surrounded by dense brush and many species of trees which provide excellent woodland habitat for Red-headed Woodpeckers, Northern Flickers and Downy Woodpeckers. Mourning Doves and Red-winged Blackbirds are probably the most common birds in the area, they are everywhere and an occasional Eurasian Collared-Dove can be heard about the farm houses. American Robins, Barn Swallows and House Wrens are present around each farm home. I have even found Least Flycatchers in a few of the woodlots. Red-tailed Hawks and American Kestrels are seen along the utility lines.

The agricultural portions of Renville County, with their monoculture of corn and soybeans, is not the place to look for rarities but in spite of this, the area provides habitat for many Minnesota birds so there is hope for the species that I have mentioned above.

In a few areas of the county where I am working there are extensive areas of grassland. One Waterfowl Production Area covers almost a square mile and the birdlife here is amazing, Bobolinks and Sedge Wrens are everywhere and can be heard as you drive by this beautiful prairie area. I haven’t had time to study the area but it no doubt has many other species of grassland birds. It shows what the preservation of habitat can do for birds.

The bird that is missing from the whole area is the Western Meadowlark; I wonder what it would take to restore this species to Renville County? What a treat it would be to hear their song drifting over this landscape

More Birding in Koochiching

Great Horned Owl
Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus), Gary M. Stoltz, USFWS

In my last article, I wrote about my adventures to Koochiching County in January. These adventures continued into March with the great anticipation of a county lister. Those of us that keep track of birds by county are an “interesting” group of birders. We chase after common birds in remote places and have much fun increasing our county list numbers. This may sound like a strange way to see birds but it really isn’t, it teaches us over and over again what the distribution of Minnesota birds is all about. My latest adventure took me again to Koochiching County, the Minnesota county where I’ve seen the fewest species.

Through a network of birders created by Al Meadows in International Falls I found out that there were Great Horned and Northern Saw-whet Owls being heard near the small town of Littlefork. I had to plan a trip there ASAP to see and/or hear those owls and add them to my Koochiching County list. The trip was postponed for many days because of high winds and bad weather in the area. Windy days are bad for finding owls. Finally on March 21, I headed north. There was lots of snow left on the ground and the temperature was 10 degrees when I reached Littlefork at 5:00 PM. There was no wind and the sky was clear, great for looking for owls.

I met Lori Dobbs at her home. She greeted me like I was an old friend. Aren’t birders the greatest people! She immediately said let’s go and I will show you where I heard the owls.
For the next hour we drove around numerous back roads around Littlefork. Lori explained to me the area and where she had heard and seen both species of owls that I was looking for. After this adventure she led me to the only motel in town and the fancy (only) restaurant in town. I rented a room and then told Lori I would call her later and inform her of my findings. I sat down to dinner and when the waitress came to my table she asked me if I was Bob. Surprised to say the least, I asked how did you know? She replied that Lori and Gordon Dobbs were providing my dinner. What a treat and again I said to myself aren’t birders the greatest?

The sun was setting and I was through with dinner so I set off to find the owls. I went down a deadend road where Lori had pointed out that other birders had heard Great Horned Owls a week or so ago. It was a perfect night for owls, calm, clear and cold. I stopped the car, opened the windows and listened. Within 20 seconds I heard a Great Horned Owl hooting its’ “heart out” loud and clear. I scanned the horizon in the fading light and there was the silhouette of the most beautiful Great Horned Owl I had ever seen, # 222 for Koochiching County and the # 87th county for me in Minnesota for Great Horned Owl!

Northern Saw-whet Owl
Northern Saw-whet Owl (Aegolius acadicus), Dave Darney, USFWS

I spent the next 3 hours traveling lonely back roads trying to hear a Northern Saw-whet Owl, all to no avail. It was well after 9:00 PM, I was tired after driving 300 + miles since morning. I decided for one last try, close to the motel that was near Lori’s home. It was near 10:00 PM, the stars and Milky Way were out brighter than ever. Before I got out of the car and turned off the engine I vaguely heard something that sounded a bit like a Saw-whet, I passed it off as my ears (brain) hearing what I wanted to hear. I stopped in the Dobbs’ driveway and got out of the car to enjoy the stars. Within 30 seconds there it was, the distinct low whistled “toots” of a Northern Saw-whet coming from some distance away. It was # 223 for Koochiching County, only 2 away from the coveted 225. Isn’t it great that county listers can count heard birds!

I slept well that night in Littlefork. I got up at 5:30 AM to drive to my next birding effort in Cook (St. Louis County), about 70 miles away, to look for an American Three-toed Woodpecker. I was to meet Julie Grahn, a local birder, and another birder named Jack (I never did get his last name) from Kansas City, who also wanted to see a Black-backed Woodpecker and the American Three-toed Woodpecker. We met at the McDonald’s in Cook at 8:00 AM and got into Julie’s car and spent the next 4 hours looking for my nemesis bird, the American Three-toed Woodpecker.

American Three-toed Woodpecker
American Three-toed Woodpecker (Picoides dorsalis), by pbonenfant – Flickr, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2483238

The definition of a nemesis bird is a bird that all your fellow listers have seen but no matter how hard you tried you have never seen one. Well to make a long story short, in spite of Julie’s great efforts and hospitality, the American Three-toed Woodpecker is still my nemesis bird. I did find two Black-backed Woodpeckers which made Jack happy. Julie and Jack went back to the spot after I left for home and saw the Three-toed. See what I mean by nemesis? So it is back to Cook in the near future to see what I can do about a nemesis. Maybe I will write a success story about it in a coming issue of the “Trumpeter”. I sure did meet some great birders on this trip which is always a neat experience.

Birding Koochiching County In January

Male Varied Thrush
Male Varied Thrush (Ixoreus naevius), Dave Menke, USFWS

I leave my house at 3:40 A.M., it is a “beautiful” January morning in Minnesota, January 15, 2017 to be exact. I am off on my favorite winter birding adventure in Minnesota, the seeking of a Varied Thrush in a new county, this time in a very special county. Most of my Minnesota birders know me as a compulsive county list keeper, they are correct. I am addicted to finding new county birds in the state which helps me keep track of the distribution of Minnesota birds, another favorite activity of mine.

Now back to my adventure to find a Varied Thrush in a new Minnesota county. As I head north on I-35 the temperature is falling. By the time I reach Cloquet it is well below zero, 9 degrees below to be exact, but the skies are clear and there is little or no wind. Wind is one of the worst things for birding, in my opinion, so I am pleased with a windless day so far. I head north on Highway 53 through Virginia and reach one of my favorite towns in Minnesota, Cook. I get gas and see my first birds of the day a Common Raven and an American Crow looking for food (hand-outs?). I always try and use the full names of birds so people are aware of them. As I continue north on 53 the temperature is on the rise, unusual for this time of year. I reach the Koochiching County line at 8:45 A.M.

Koochiching CountyKoochiching County is special to me, it is Minnesota’s second largest county at 3,173 square miles. It is difficult to build a big bird list in “Kooch”, as many people call it, because the habitat is so uniform, cutover, second growth forests, lack of lakes and much of it inaccessible plus being 300 miles from the Twin Cities. It is my lowest county list-wise at 220 species so any time I might be able to add a species to the list is a special event for me and now to have the possibility of adding a special species, the Varied Thrush, is a county lister’s dream. It is 9:20 A.M. and I arrive, 293 miles later, at the MacDonald’s in International Falls where I am to meet Al Meadows who will take me to the Varied Thrush location. Al is one of Minnesota’s best bird photographers. The temperature is near 20 degrees, just great for the “ice-box” city in Minnesota.

Al seems somewhat upset when he arrives, we exchange greetings and he says he has found out that the man whose house we are going to has a bad case of the flu. My ‘heart” drops to my stomach, all this way and now we can’t go look for the thrush. Al relieves my anxiety when he says “I will take you to the home but I won’t go in because I don‘t want to get the flu, I am going to Panama in a couple of days and I don’t want to get sick”.

We drive through downtown International Falls and to a residential area along the Rainey River. I am prepared to wait for hours if necessary to see the thrush at the bird feeder. We drive in the driveway and I see a man in the window motioning for us to come in, Al says “I will stay in the car”. I go into the house and meet a gentleman who seems very healthy, there is no introduction. All he says is that “the thrush is in the tree”. He leads me to a big window overlooking the river and there in the tree is a beautiful female Varied Thrush. I watch the bird for 5-10 minutes as it feds at the feeder. I thank the gentleman and go back to my car and Al is just leaving, he doesn’t want to get any closer to the flu “bug”.

Curve-billed thrush
Curve-billed thrush (Toxostoma curvirostre), Gary Kramer, USFWS

I decide to head for Grand Rapids to look for a Curve-billed Thrasher that has been coming to a feeder in a residential area of Grand Rapids. It is shortly afternoon when I arrived after a neat ride through wild Koochiching County along Highway 6. I saw Gray Jays and White-winged Crossbills plus 22 Pine Grosbeaks feeding in a crab apple tree in Big Falls. Arriving at the spot in Grand Rapids, I find three of my favorite county listers present looking for the thrasher. Have they seen the bird I ask, “no and we have been here since sunrise”. To make a long story short we all wait another four hours and the bird never puts in an appearance. We had great “bird” conversation but no bird, the trials and tribulations of birding! I finally decide to leave, dejected but happy with the Varied Thrush.

I arrive back home 594 miles later, tired but thankful that the roads were in great condition and that I had no problems. The lack of a Curve-billed Thrasher, there are only four other records for the state, is disappointing but to “bat 500” on a birding trip isn’t all that bad.