Bucket List Birds

As we gathered for the potluck offerings for the launch of the 45th Salt Lake Birding Weekend, an older woman sitting across the table spoke of her drive out from Minneapolis to our far “west coast” of Minnesota. “For years,” she said, looking across at her birding buddies, “I’ve always wanted to see my first White-faced Ibis. We drive out here and they’re everywhere. I’m guessing we’ve seen 30 or 40 of them already … just this afternoon.”

The interestingly and colorful Ibis arrived in the area a week or so before. Initially after moving here 11 years ago I mistook them for Curlews, which I’d seen in the deep south. That first spring I spotted one in a wetland a few miles from Listening Stones, and I would eventually identify them as the Ibis after seeing and photographing them en route to the Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge between Sisseton and Houghton, SD. A grouping of about a dozen seemed to congregate in the same flooded farm field each spring. 

Thanks to Rhyan Schicker I was able to find and photograph my first American Avocet just east of Marietta on the “annual” Salt Lake Birders Weekend.

Then, a few weeks ago, a flock found a flooded piece of shallow flood water within the Ortonville golf course, a spot they would alternate after rapid escapes to a slip of shallow muddy water maybe a football field away. 

Obviously the Ibis were on the woman’s personal birding bucket list. That caused me to wonder about my own bucket list of birds. One I’ve chased with no luck for years, even though my writer friend, Tom Watson, has sent me notifications of his sightings between here and his hometown of Appleton numerous times, is the American Avocet. Unlike the Ibis, a wader with a down-turned bill, the Avocet has a beautiful orangish head boosting an slightly upturned bill. It’s just a beautiful species, and often a favorite of wood carvers who favor waders over duck decoys. 

Another on my short list is the Western Grebe, a long-necked beauty of a bird known for its courting “rushing” ceremony where twin birds skim across the water surface on their feet in perfect synchrony. Although videos have captured the rush so many times, it’s something I’ve dreamed of seeing and hopefully photographing sometime.

A closer view of one of my bucket list birds. We saw the other, the Western Grebe, although it was too distant and dove underwater before I could capture an image.

So there you have it. Two birds. My bucket list. Over the years there have been other birds of interest including some real surprises. Take the Puffin. I never expected to see one before I encountered several on the western seaside cliffs of Ireland years ago. I even asked a guide if it was indeed a Puffin for I expected a much larger bird, and they were much smaller in stature than a Crow … perhaps the size of a Brown Thrasher. 

Many such sightings are unexpected. Take the time when an old and now departed friend, Greg Gosar, then an organic farmer in Colorado’s San Luis Valley, asked if I’d like to see a large grouping of Sandhill Cranes that had landed in one of his wheat fields. We snuck up on them via a sandy, dry gulch before easing onto our bellies to crawl up the bank to see about a hundred Sandhills on a feeding frenzy. Although this was my first sighting of the birds that have captured my interest ever since, the highlight of the moment was actually seeing a single, tall and majestic Whooping Crane. Back then, in the late 1970s, Whoopers were nearly extinct with perhaps 60 total in the entire country. Greg was just as shocked and excited as I was. We talked about that moment for years afterwards, and always with awe.

For those who had never seen a White-faced Ibis, there were ample opportunities on the caravan.

Cedar Waxwings eventually came off the list while looking through a “boardroom” window on the second floor of Java River Coffee Shop in Montevideo. An Indigo Bunting appeared a few years ago at a friend’s bird feeder in a Driftless forest near Cannon Falls, and the striking Scarlet Tanager was spotted while canoeing with friends on the Concord River near the historic town a bit west of Boston. How appropriate this sighting so near the shadow of Thoreau, and for a member of a family of birds that seemingly completely miss our prairie biome! 

And, so on it goes. From the high mountains through my years in Colorado to living along the Mississippi Flyway to now having my home in the depths of the former Prairie Pothole region of SW Minnesota, where a chain of river lakes annually brings birds I had rarely seen before, and sometimes, like the Snow Geese migrations and the immense murmurations, are absolutely stunning. While I don’t maintain a physical checkoff list, mentally the list is alive and growing.

The “annual” Salt Lake Birding Weekend has been on my radar for years and is anchored around the small alkaline, 20-acre lake just a few miles southwest of Marietta. Although the Covid years interrupted the string of consecutive years of these birder caravans, this was labeled as the 45th year. Otherwise it would have been the 48th, and apparently there are only a few of the original organizers still alive. One was Fred Eckhardt, of nearby Boyd, MN, who now uses a cane, and has a vivid memory and legacy in this area of Minnesota. A birder, through and through.

A chance sighting of a short-eared owl captured interest, for most had migrated north.

My hope was of perhaps capturing my two bucket list birds. At the Madison potluck gathering the night before I had mentioned my quests to the Lac qui Parle County SWCD director, Rhyan Schicker, who said she had actually seen a few Avocets at a temporary flooded wetland just east of Marietta. I made note and drove down early before the 7 a.m. meeting at the Marietta Legion Hall to see if my quest had come true. And, it had! There, stalking through the shallow, muddy waters was this beauty of a bird. The striking orangish head, black and white striped body feathers, long spindly legs easing through the muck and with that characteristic upturned bill. I was so delighted, so much so I could have skipped the next several hours! I’m glad I didn’t.

After capturing several images I sped over to the Marietta Legion Hall just as the caravans were organized and leaving, and was able to join with a birder buddy and organizer, Jason Frank, who started his group’s trek along the western shore of Salt Lake. This is the only alkaline lake in Minnesota and was created by runoff from surrounding alkaline soils in this unique and solitary watershed. There are no outlets, and this a briny body of water annually attracts all sorts of birds, especially waders like the Avocets, who are not native to the area, and has become a birdwatching mecca. It’s said that brine shrimp in Salt Lake can reach a couple of inches in length!

Birder leader, Jason Frank, center, knew the area like the back of his hand, and was amazing in his quick and accurate identifications.

Jason grew up on his family’s prairie farm just a few miles southeast of Salt Lake where many acres of prairie grassland, in cooperation with nearby neighbors, are now in permanent easements of prairie grasses and undrained wetlands. It’s an excellent resource where you can almost visualize how this part of the prairie looked before Euro-American migration. Jason knows the surrounding area like the back of his hand, and we traversed the country roads going past dozens of huge wetlands and abandoned woodlots in search of birds. 

And at one large wetland of what appeared to be about the size of Salt Lake, surrounded by prairie grasses, Jason pointed across to the far side of the windblown waters to my second bucket list bird. Raising the camera with the 600 mm lens, I momentarily caught sight of a pair of Western Grebes just moments before they dove underwater. Although I searched the surface for several minutes I never saw them resurface. Those long white necks with the silhouetted black head and neck gave their identity away. It made for an incredibly successful and fun day!

One of the original organizers nearly 50 years ago was Fred Eckhardt, who once again made his presence.

Later that evening, at the Sons of Norway Lodge in nearby Madison, the birders gathered for a fried chicken dinner with fixing that concluded with Jason and fellow leader, Steve Weston, conducting the official tallies for the day. One by one, all the way through the two-pages of five column lists, they worked to check off the sighted birds from the capacity crowd of birders, including Eckhardt who occasionally murmured, “Really!” with the name of the bird.

One woman had not only kept a detailed list of every single species she’d seen, but also a count of how many. When tally was complete, the birders climbed into their cars to head to their respective motels stretching across the Minnesota River valley, realizing that 139 total bird species had been sighted. Perhaps an all-time record, according to Jason — a list that included the two I had most wanted to see!

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About John G. White

Somewhat retired after a long award-winning career in newspapers (Wisconsin State Journal, Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, Denver Post and a country weekly, the Clara City Herald). Free lance photographer and writer with credits in more than 70 magazines. Editor with various Webb Publishing magazines in St. Paul, and a five year stint as editorial director at Miller Meester Advertising.

1 thought on “Bucket List Birds

  1. John, knowing the reader that you are, you probably have already read “The Big Year” but if not, give it a look. Your interest in birding gives me flashbacks about that book.

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