May 11th–12th, 2019: Spending the morning in a blind with two good friends and some chickens…
Day 1: Heading northwest
I’d been looking forward to this trip to a well-known Greater Prairie-Chicken lek out in Ottertail Co., MN (almost South Dakota) for quite a while. Over a year actually. I’d found out about it the previous spring from a good friend who also wanted to head up there (again for him), but we weren’t able to book the hide in time. We made sure to do it this year, and brought along another birding buddy too! (I’ll hold off on the maps for this post because the eBird lists all have a map feature you can check out if you’re interested.)
The drive from Northfield (where I am) to Rothsay WMA (where the lek is) is about 4 hours northwest if it do it in a straight shot. But what birder does that? Besides the fact that we needed to be at the hide before dawn to ensure we wouldn’t disturb the chickens, we weren’t about to miss a chance to bird a bunch of great sites along the way! (This is especially important if, like my friends, you’re trying to see 200 birds in every Minnesota county.)
I was incredibly lucky to be travelling with two excellent birders who know MN really well and planned a great weekend trip. We left early Saturday and headed straight to Niemackl Lake: a nice spot (thought incredibly windy today) with a marsh, some good riparian habitat, and a large shallow lake. We were very pleased to see 51 species here. Highlights were Red-necked Grebe, Sora, Harris’s Sparrow, Northern Waterthrush, and Cape May Warbler (eBird list).
Next, we headed to one of those things every birder loves: sewage ponds! In this case, it was the Herman Sewage Treatment Ponds, where we didn’t see the variety we were hoping for (eBird list). The 35 Least Sandpiper, 14 Lesser Yellowlegs, and 7 Spotted Sandpiper where the majority of shorebirds, but we did manage to turn up 4 Wilson’s Phalarope and a Semipalmated Sandpiper in the mix!
Next we headed to the expansive North Ottawa Impoundment. This area is great for things like American Bittern (we glimpsed one as it landed at one point) and can be fantastic for all manner or shorebirds. Again though, the wind was hurting us. Almost everything was hunkered down (with the exception of ~300 Yellow-headed Blackbirds) and we had to work very hard over a large area to find much in the way of waterfowl and shorebirds (eBird list). Given the weather, we did well to turn up our highlights: 3 Western Grebe, a singing Western Meadowlark, and a sole shorebird flock with 44 Least Sandpiper and 1 Baird’s I was pleased to pick out at some distance.
With these modest successes for such a huge area and historically great spot, we turned out of the area. What did we find just as we departed some drier, adjacent fields, but an Upland Sandpiper! This was actually only the 3rd of these birds I’d ever seen (which seems odd) and the first I’d seen in the U.S. Plus, it was right next to us on the roadside! The Upland was perhaps THE target bird for the impoundment and easily made the super windy visit worthwhile!
Orwell WMA was a nice place to visit and we quickly turned up 34 species. Our highlight for this lake/marsh area was probably the lone Yellow-bellied Sapsucker we saw. Other birds were the usual suspects, but it was nice to see lots of sparrows and swallows when we’d missed them earlier today (eBird list).
We arrived in Rothsay, which is so proud of its Greater Prairie-Chickens that is has a giant Prairie-Chicken just off the highway. Lots of small towns in rural MN have their own giant animals of various kinds, but most of them are mammals. One could spend/waste a lot of time visiting all of the kitchy giants, but we weren’t going to just drive past a giant Prairie-Chicken!
Our last stop for Saturday was Rothsay WMA to do some recon for the following morning. We found the hide without trouble and turned up some interested birds in the evening before heading back to Rothsay proper to grab some food and check into our hotel. It was great to see and hear 3 Marbled Godwit coming in to roost for the night, while a Wilson’s Snipe winnowed in the distance. We were also pleased to see “our” chickens on the lek even in the evening and I was excited for the looks we’d get the following morning when they would be in full display.
Day 2: An early morning and the trip home
After getting up impossibly early (read: “slightly early” for birders) to get to the hide in time, we were not disappointed.
As I crept across the field and into the blind, it was easy to mistake the chickens’ ethereal hooting for the morning breeze passing my ears. The birds continued to arrive as we set up our binoculars/cameras/scopes in the blind and soon the show was well underway. Chickens inflated their neck sacks, brilliant orange in the sunrise, lifted their pinnae above their heads, raised their wings to the side, pointed their tail feathers straight up, and hooted, dashing across the grass in a ridiculously flamboyant display of raw male prowess. Honestly, it looks both immensely graceful and astonishingly stupid at the same time.
Really, you’re watching a bird do everything it can–and using some muscles that are literally ONLY for this–to impress the few ladies around in the hopes they’ll be chosen for a mate. With the inflated neck, pinnae, tail, and weirdly short and straight dashes, they end up looking like they’re part squeaky toy, part rabbit, part porcupine, and part remote control car. Sadly, it was late enough in the mating season that we didn’t see any females: they’d likely already mated earlier with alphas, leaving the mostly adolescent males we were seeing to hope (and practice for next year).
We watched this for about 4 hours, just soaking it all in. Apparently, they weren’t quite as close as they’d been on other visits, but I wasn’t complaining. Who knows when (if ever) I might get to see something like this again? I mean, we also didn’t really have any choice since they needed to stop displaying before it was safe to leave and be sure you wouldn’t disturb them. But it’s not like there wasn’t anything else to look at.
First, in additional to the 23 Greater Prairie-chicken there were 3 Sharp-tailed Grouse on the lek. This was VERY cool bonus. But we weren’t sure what it meant really. We noticed that the lekking Sharp-tails had a much larger “personal bubble,” shall we say. They were easily aggravated by the Prairie-Chickens to the point where there were some very long chase sequences as the grouse vied to establish the incredibly large area they needed to display, while incessantly chasing the chickens out of their space.
We also noted a few Sandhill Cranes, the same 3 Marbled Godwit from the night before,4 Bobolink, 6 Western Meadlowlark, and some Ring-necked Pheasant. Most exciting for me (after the chickens) were the 6 LeConte’s Sparrow we counted as they sung around the blind, and even popped into view once or twice. LeConte’s was a lifer for me and, as one of the grassland-walking sparrow species (as opposed to the fly-and-perch sparrows), I was extremely glad to have had any view of all. I love their orange/gray/purple patterning and have long looked forward to a chance to see these beautiful birds (eBird list).
Before we left we saw something that none of the three of us had ever seen and it was riveting. We watched for nearly an hour as an (apparently) injured Blue Jay was hunted mercilessly by two Northern Harriers and a Peregrine Falcon. All of them kiting/hovering just a few feet above the ground and trying to nab the Blue Jay from out of the grass. It looked to us like the Blue Jay had been chased and briefly grabbed by one of the harriers as it fled a woodland area, but it was now completed trapped with low, open grassland all around it for hundreds of meters in every direction.
It was taking shelter in a tiny 4x4ft area of slightly taller grass (maybe a sedge) that helped it to keep the raptors at bay. I’m finding it difficult to describe this completely enrapturing event, so I’ll just note that watching a bird like a Blue Jay–known to be a loud and aggressive bully–hunted mercilessly like this sure flipped the script on the bird. Perspective is everything, I suppose. In the end, we took the opportunity to sneak off, while the chickens were hunkered down to hide from the nearby Peregrine, and we never saw what happened to that Blue Jay. I really hope he/she escaped.
It was time to head back southeast again, but not without some stops along the way. First was Prairie Wetlands Learning Center (eBird list): a nice spot with a small lake, some marsh, and riparian edges along one side. Highlights were 7 Purple Martin, a Lincoln’s Sparrow, two Swamp Sparrow, and a Black-crowned Night-Heron I managed not to see.
Then Grotto Lake (eBird list). Just a little neighborhood lake with lots of locals (people I mean) and a giant fake otter. But man, was it ever packed with roosts: Double-crested Cormorants and Great Egrets were everywhere.
So everywhere that one of my friends got absolutely drenched by a particularly large and well-timed excretion. It made for some of the best viewing of Great Egret I’d ever had (complete with the breeding “plumage” neon green facial skin). We counted a minimum of 80 cormorants and 45 egrets at this little lake/pond and I was happy to see a Chimney Swift flutter overhead at one point.
Quick stops at Buse Central Lakes Trail (eBird list) and Lake Maria SP (eBird list) added substantially to our warbler count for the trip. At Lake Maria, we turned up 8 warbler species: Black-and-white, Nashville, Common Yellowthroat, Yellow, Palm, Yellow-rumped, and the less common Bay-breasted and Black-throated Green! This doesn’t sound like much for MN in the second week of May, but they were very late this year and this was the first decent-sized mixed flock I’d encountered.
We decided to delay our arrival back home until later in the evening because there had been a Western Tanager (a big deal in MN) reported at a private residence in Coon Rapids, MN. When we got there we learned that the bird hadn’t been seen since very early in the morning and many people had had to wait many hours before seeing it (if they saw it at all). We were short on time, so we said we’d leave after about half an hour.
Well, it decided to show up about 5 minutes after we arrived. It was hiding, perched and unmoving, in a leafy tree in the back yard (we were allowed to walk around the side). But shortly after I spotted it, it decided to hawk insects in the front yard, grabbing large flies from around the garage. And it was golden hour! We couldn’t have been luckier for photos and it was a fantastic finale to a great trip!
A huge thanks to my good friends for planning this amazing trip! It’s not one I’ll forget. And I strongly urge any of you to check out Rothsay WMA’s great(est) Prairie-chicken lek if you’re ever anywhere nearby!