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  • Writer's pictureGregg Severson

Loping for a Lapland Longspur

On April 28, I woke up in Hastings, knowing it was going to be a long day of biking to get back home, but with the chance to visit some really cool birding spots. I started by heading west on 160th Street to get to the 180th Street marsh - this is a good biking highway, and I actually saw other cyclists out and about!

I turned south on Emery Avenue. This looks like a farm road like any other, but is regularly travelled by birders because of its location between the 140th and 180th Street marshes and because it frequently had Eurasian Collared Doves and Loggerhead Shrikes. I was particularly hoping to find a Loggerhead Shrike, since those are quite hard to find in Minnesota and this is the closest location to my house that has them. I didn't find either on my first pass on this road. I did find a big flock of blackbirds near a house and barn, but most of the birds were hidden from sight, so I didn't have a chance to try to pick out a Brewer's Blackbird.

I turned on 180th street to head east to the marsh, and I flushed a bunch of birds off of the roadway. I stopped to try and take a look and discovered that I had found a large flock of Lapland Longspurs! This was a bird I was worried had already headed north and that I wouldn't be able to find for my big half year. The longspurs were in breeding plumage and are a very snappy looking bird. My pictures aren't very good and won't do them justice, but I think they will give you a hint of how cool looking these birds are. I managed to get a sound recording of them too.

Three Lapland Longspurs in a field

Then I went over to the 180th Street Marsh - the water is so high that it is covering the road! One of the main reasons I wanted to visit this marsh is that Yellow-headed Blackbirds nest there, and it wasn't long before I heard their harsh call.

Yellow-headed Blackbird

There were plenty of birds at the marsh - Tree Swallows fighting with House Sparrows over a nest box, Yellow-rumped Warblers hawking insects, Soras actually visible, and a Lesser Yellowlegs foraging in the road.

While taking in all the avian wonders, I heard the distinctive song of a LeConte's Sparrow! This was a hell of a find - LeConte's Sparrow is a species I've never seen in my home county, and so I thought I had little chance of finding one this year. It goes to show the importance of getting actual field experience with birds - last year I was able to see and hear them several times on their breeding grounds up in the Sax-Zim Bog, and that familiarity helped me instantly key in on the song when I heard it. I never did manage to see the LeConte's, but that song was plenty to ID it by and the bird sang it a number of times while I was there.

After leaving I went to the town of Vermillion to get some food and drink at the convenience store and then I had a decision to make as to how far I wanted to push things in terms of the length of my day.

Lake Byllesby is a birding hotspot that is much farther south than all of rest of the spots I was thinking of hitting (it is actually on the south end of Dakota County, with the south side of the lake being in Goodhue County). I had gotten a good scouting report on the Lake Byllesby area from a number of birders who had been there the day before leading a trip for the Hastings bird festival. They had seen some rarer shorebirds there - American Avocets and Willets. Furthermore, they had large flocks of Lapland Longspurs near the lake (including at Great Western Industrial Park - which despite the name is a well-known birding spot). But going to Lake Byllesby would add about 20 miles to my day. So, instead of a 50-mile day with a heavily laden bike, I'd have a 70 mile day with a heavily laden bike. That is a long way to go, especially since I'd had two long days before this.

That morning, I had put out a call on Facebook to be kept updated as to what people were finding at Byllesby, so I could have the freshest information as to what to expect if I got down there. Doug Keiser was down there, and wasn't finding much. Also, I found some Lapland Longspurs on my own, so I didn't need to try for that species any further. Based on my luck with the Lapland Longspurs and the negative reports from Byllesby, I decided not to head farther from home.

As I headed north out of Vermillion, I heard a Ring-necked Pheasant. That is another solid tick for this trip out in to farm country. I headed back to Emery Ave to get another shot at the birds along there. I didn't come across a Loggerhead Shrike, but I did get back to the large blackbird flock when more of them were out in the field and I pulled a Brewer's Blackbird out of the group.

I then headed up to the 140th Street Marsh, but there wasn't much bird activity there. As with everywhere, water levels were really up, and there wasn't a lot of birds around. After that stop, it was mostly a long push back into Minneapolis. I was glad that I didn't try for Byllesby, as I was quite tired by the end of the day! I stopped at a Chipotle in Eagan (not far from my work, actually) to refuel and rest a bit before making the final push for home.

Over this weekend, I put in a bunch of miles, dragged my scope, tripod, and laptop all over four counties, and got a lot of help from fellow birders en route to a great three-day haul of 29 year birds. Many of those species were tough-to-get birds that will really help my list when all is said and done. A big shout-out to everyone who helped make this possible, including but not limited to Pete Nichols, Ben Douglas, Alex Sundvall, Dana Sterner, Pam Albin, Loren Albin, Jennifer Veith, Kevin Smith, Dwight Smith, Doug Keiser, and Kellie Hoyt.

Route from Hastings, down to Vermillon, and then back home, birding all the way

Miles biked on this trip: 50.0

Miles biked year to date: 539.5

Species count: 124

My bike birding eBird profile: (Please note that you need a free eBird account to see profiles in eBird)

Fundraising links for the two organizations I am supporting with this green big half year. Please donate!

If you were planning to donate 10 dollars per bird species, you'd be up to $1240.00 right now. That is a whole lot of money, and it would really make my year. Please tell me if you are planning to donate that much ;)

Friends of Sax-Zim Bog:

National MS Society:

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