New England and Minnesota/Dakotas in the early summer – beautiful

Continuing to enjoy non-solo birding for a change, with longtime friend and co-worker Murray Scott still on board. After the Hatteras pelagic birding trip, and layover in DC, we arrived in Portland Maine on June 31st, with enough time left in the day to begin searching for the Code 4 Little Egret that had been reported every few days. Murray was bumped up to First Class, which was good news/bad news. Good because he sure had a good time. Bad, because he enjoyed himself through at least four Bloody Mary’s during the flight, and was little to no help in trying to find the elusive egret in the final hours of the day. We narrowly averted an international incident when Murray ventured beyond a ‘Keep Out’ sign nailed to a tree trunk to relieve himself, as a friendly New Englander loudly advised him from the protection of a backyard fence ‘The sign was there for a reason!’. There was no discernable answer when Murray shouted back, as is his way, ‘And what reason is that?!’. He later admitted considering the option of pulling the sign down and sign and countering with ‘The sign has come down for a reason!’. No way am I letting Murray out of my sight on any future flights.

We didn’t find the egret amongst the nearly-identical Snowy Egrets, and opted to head up into the New Hampshire to score a Bicknell’s Thrush, a species that I never properly saw in 2016, despite four full days of hiking various mountain trails, settling for a couple of ‘heard only’ records. This species migrates annually from the Caribbean to breed in dense stunted conifer forests in high elevation strongholds in New England and southeastern Canada. This species is reputedly easy to find while singing enthusiastically through most of June. But by the end of the month they have found their mates, and have shifted to nesting, during which time they are far less vocal. To make matters worst, the very similar, and much more widely distributed Swainson’s Thrush can easily be confused with Bicknell’s in the abases of accompanying birdsong, and with the typically poor views to be had in the dense brush that they prefer.

Caps Ridge Trail, approaching treeline, and preferred nesting grounds of Bicknell’s Thrush. I made this hike, and several others in 2016 without a sighting. Murray and I hit the trail at first light on the 1st of July, when most of the Thrushes will have gone quiet while in reproductive mode.


Fools gold – we saw several Swainson’s Thrushes during the search for similar Bicknell’s. Swainson’s are more distinctly marked, with quite apparent eye-ring.


What a comedy of errors it was when Murray and I finally encountered a Bicknell’s Thrush. We had decided to change tactics upon hearing our third Bicknell’s along the long climb uphill. We moved to the approximate location of the occasionally calling (not singing) bird, and sat on our arses and waited. The mosquitos had a field day. Finally we had brief, but brilliant looks at a cooperative bird that sat obligingly in the open, no more than ten feet away. With the comedic tussle of getting our cameras up while trying to overcome ill-timed autofocus gremlins, we missed out. A second or two later, I managed to squeeze off an almost recognisable shot of the bird as it skulked away through the heavy brush, never be seen again.


A friendly White-throated Sparrow marking its territory with its wonderfully haunting song.

After the success in New Hampshire, we drove back to Maine for round two of the Little Egret search. We combed through a huge portion of wetlands in the Scarborough Wetlands before receiving notification via hourly eBird rarities reports that ‘the’ egret was present less than an hour earlier a few miles away.


Scarborough Marsh, just out of Portland Maine. I began my 2019 big year just a few miles away at Deering Oaks Park for the wayward Common Black Hawk that would eventually and tragically succumb to the cold New England weather conditions.


That’s it! The Little Egret, complete with long bill and gray lores, but minus twin nape plumes, was awkwardly present at a great distance, here in cropped image. After beelining to the site where the Little Egret had been reported less than an hour earlier, we found it mixing with four Snowy Egrets, and several Greater Egrets.


Super-cropped view of the target rarity.


I want one. Really.


Spring rush is really over by early July for most US breeding birds, including the endangered Kirtland’s Warbler, that only breeds in short regrowth conifer stands in northern Michigan. Nowhere else. The efforts of conservationists and wildlife agencies to bring this species back from the brink is awe-inspiring, and includes massive landscape management and control of nest-parasitising Brown-headed Cowbirds.


Kirtland’s Warbler strongholds are confined to planted and managed pine groves like this one.


A conservation success story that notably involved remedy of the environmental problems that caused the decline (loss of habitat and associate issues).


Kirtland’s Warbler


OK, you’re a pretty boy too. Rose-breasted Grossbeak.

One of my American birding mates, Minnesota birding boy-genius Alex Sundvall joined Murray and for an epic two day sprint across Minnesota and North Dakota. I met Attu a month or so earlier, but before that, had enjoyed lots of information and tips on finding birds in the American north. Having Alex on board was like having a bird-sniffing dog. His ability to single out target birds from dense, and sometimes distant birdsong was game-changing.


Alex Sundvall and Murray feeling the warm glow of success. Our Connecticut Warbler success required wading around in the forested swamplands of the Sax-Zim Bog in central Minnesota – a world-famous birding destination. We had an absolute ball.


The ‘big one’ – Connecticut Warbler. This bird led us on a merry chase through calf-high swamp water, but it was a late singer, and irregularly broke into song while moving through the forest, making this brief view and photo-op possible.


Sedge Wren.


North Dakota prairie town. Several tracts of native prairie remain intact, and provide breeding grounds for a range of bird species, including the elusive Baird’s Sparrow.


Alex’s hearing and birdsong radar is exceptional, and the two Baird’s Sparrows we saw, albeit at considerable distance, were the proof.


Baird’s Sparrow!


Cropped view of the singing Baird’s Sparrow. Whoo-hoo!


Clay-coloured Sparrow


Chestnut-collared Longspur


Spectacular Yellow-headed Blackbird


Two Ferruginous Hawk chicks of very different sizes.