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  • Writer's pictureGregg Severson

Rapid response to a report of a Rock Wren; resolve results in a Red-Throated Loon

On October 8 I biked to work, and while I was there, news of an extreme rarity surfaced - someone had photographed a Rock Wren at the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters that very morning! I quickly made the decision that I needed to go for this bird - it was only about 8 miles from work, and on the way home, so it was a no-brainer to give it a try. I biked over there and found a crowd already gathered, staking out the area where the bird had last been seen. After the original sighting in the morning, there were a couple of people who thought they might have gotten glimpses of the Rock Wren, but views weren't really good enough to be sure. I settled in to wait and see if the Rock Wren would come to the rock wall where it had been seen that morning. I (along with many others) waited 2.5 hours for any glimpse of the Rock Wren, but the closest I got to that species was a House Wren working the wall. Often, if you get to the location of a rarity like this, on the same day of a sighting, you have a good chance of re-finding it. However, we all dipped on this bird; perhaps because there were so many of us there that the bird was driven away by the number of onlookers. Some of us speculated that the Rock Wren was likely staying up on the roof of the headquarters, which seems like the most similar habitat to its preferred rocky boulder landscapes of the southwest.

Then, on the 10th of October, Cole Bauer reported that he'd found a Red-throated Loon on Lake Harriet! This was a great bird - I had seen them in Norway before, but never on this continent! A bunch of birders went that day and saw the loon, but I was at work in Eagan, and getting all the way to Lake Harriet before dark was impossible, so I made plans to try the next day. On the morning of the 11th, I led another bird walk for the park board - this time at Theodore Wirth Park and the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden within it. After the walk, Kellie and I headed to Lake Harriet. We went around almost the entire lake, stopping to scan every so often, but we saw no sign of the Red-throated Loon. Eventually we gave up and went home. Later, I found out that a number of other birders re-found the loon on Lake Harriet that evening, so I again made plans to try the next day.

I knew that finding the Red-throated Loon would be a challenge - the weather was supposed to be windy and cold with some snow falling. The rough chop generated by the wind would make the bird harder to find, and it was going to be uncomfortable. So, I loaded up with my best winter gear (stuff that I normally wear to Sax-Zim Bog in mid-winter) so that I could stay out there until I found the loon. I got to the lake around 10am, and settled in to watch the waves and see if I could see that bird.

There were a bunch of Common Loons out in winter plumage, and even those birds were hard to see (Common Loons are significantly bigger than Red-throated Loons, so they are relatively easier to see). But I kept at it, continuing to watch and hoping that the Red-throated was still out there. After a while, I ran into Matthew Zappa, who'd driven up from Northfield for the loon. He had seen it just a few minutes earlier from the southeastern part of the lake, but he thought it was headed towards the bandshell area at the northwestern end. I took up a position at the beach on the north end, hoping that the little bit of elevation there would make it easier for me to spot the loon. I spent a fair bit of time there, but I didn't see anything that looked at all like a Red-throated Loon. I decided that I'd head to the southeastern part of the lake since that was the last place it was definitely seen. After a while of waiting, I noticed a loon come up that I could tell with my naked eye was different than the Common Loons. I got my binoculars up and got a good view of the distinguishing characteristics before it dove under water. I watched it surface another two times (getting farther away each time) before I lost sight of it. I had finally gotten lucky to be in a spot when the Red-throated Loon came close to shore and surfaced where I could see it. It was easier to scan the lake from this position - there was a southwest wind that day, so the waves were somewhat lessened in the southeastern corner. Furthermore, as we looked into the northeast corner of the lake, the waves were moving away from us, and this also made it easier to spot waterfowl than it was when I was standing on the more northerly shores of the lake. Red-throated Loon was another quality bird to get, and one that wasn't even on my radar as any sort of a likely possibility. Sweet!

Picture of a lake in Norway with a forested hill behind it.  There is a tiny dot on the lake that is likely a Red-throated Loon.
I wasn't able to get a photo of the Red-throated Loon at Lake Harriet, so instead you get this pic of what is probably a Red-Throated Loon outside of Trondheim, Norway! Honestly, it could be an Arctic Loon, too, since we saw both that day, but it looks to me like it has the bill turned up in a "snooty" way, so that would make it the Red-throated Loon! We didn't have a good birding camera back then, so this is as zoomed in as we could get!

Satellite image of Lake Harriet with my route during my birding looking for the Red-throated Loon.
My bike route wasn't that exciting this time, so here's a new map for you. This is the map of my track during my eBird checklist. 2.5 hours spent, and just covering this one side of the lake. Some birds take a lot of patience and persistence!

Mile biked on the successful Red-throated Loon trip: 5.7

Miles biked during this time: 87.8

Miles biked year to date: 2959.9

Species count (MN): 226

Species count (overall): 227

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. These causes are really important and they could really use your dollars to do a lot of good!

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