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  • Writer's pictureGregg Severson

Wanderlust leading to a Washington County Whippoorwill

As I mentioned in my last post, I looked at the possibilities for year birds in the metro area and concluded that a weekend trip to eastern Washington County was in order. Kellie and I had been wanting to do a weekend camping trip in June, and there are some good camping spots out in eastern Washington County. Tops on the list was Afton State Park, which has a variety of good birds that I hadn't seen, a really nice hike-in campground, and a decent bike route to get there.

On Friday the 7th of June, I started biking for Afton. I had wanted to get going earlier in the day, but there was a lot of packing and planning to do, so I didn't set out until 4pm. I had thought about trying to do some birding on the way - perhaps going by the Washington County Blue Grosbeak spots, or perhaps going to Gray Cloud Dunes for Grasshopper Sparrow or Henslow's Sparrow. But with the late start, I felt I needed to get along and get to Afton before it got too late, so I decided not to stop anywhere.

route from home to Afton State Park

I got to Afton, and checked in to our campground, and Kellie arrived just after! It was pretty perfect timing. When I was checking in, I (of course) asked about bird sightings. In particular, I wanted to know about Eastern Whip-poor-will sightings, as I was super excited to record that species! Wade, who was working at the front desk, was excited to hear about the possibility of Whippoorwills, but didn't have much information to offer me. He suggested that I find Linda, another ranger who happened to be doing an archery event right then, and ask her about bird sightings. Kellie and I found Linda, and asked her about Whippoorwills, but Linda wasn't often in the park after dark, so she didn't know the best spots for Whips. (After our trip, I sent an email updating the park staff on our Whippoorwill experience).

I had heard from some others that one good spot for Whips was by the yurts. But then I heard directly from the source of that info, Larry Sirvio, that he had definitely heard them there, but the last time he had done that was a couple of years ago. This information, combined with the lack of knowledge from the park staff, made me suddenly very unsure of finding the Whips.

Then, just after dinner, Kellie was walking away from the campsite. She caught my attention and made some motions for me to listen in one direction. At first, I couldn't hear anything. But I ran up to where Kellie was and then I heard it - an Eastern Whippoorwill calling in the distance. That was so exciting! Such a cool bird in such a cool place and for Kellie to get it for me after I had given up hope was super cool!

We went back to our campsite and were able to hear the Whippoorwill calling off in the distance. I used my phone to get one okay-ish recording of it, but it was quiet and there was some noise from other campers in the background. But I was happy - we had ticked the Whip!

Then, at 3:30 in the morning, I was awoken by yet another nocturnal bird - a Barred Owl! Barred Owls are one of the more common owls of Minnesota, but I hadn't managed to find one yet this year. Another cool nocturnal bird - and this one I was able to get right from bed!

About an hour later, the Whippoorwill decided to visit our campsite and woke us up with very loud calling. Both Kellie and I woke up, and I got a nice recording (other campers were quiet at this time, and the bird was quite loud, so I think the recording turned out well).

Here is the recording I got at 4:30 in the morning!

We got up in the morning, had breakfast and got ready to go birding. Afton has a large amount of prairie habitat, and there were a number of open country birds I was targeting. One of the first ones we heard from right in the campsite as we had breakfast - a Blue-winged Warbler. We walked for a ways out of the campground and towards the large north prairie at Afton. Along the way, we heard more Blue-winged Warblers (although we never caught sight of one). Once we entered the main prairie area, it wasn't too long before we heard a Grasshopper Sparrow and a Henslow's Sparrow. We never did see the Grasshopper Sparrow, but did have a very cooperative Henslow's. Henslow's are a state species of special concern, but luckily they have been doing quite well lately so aren't that hard to find where there is proper habitat. They have a reputation for being very skulky, but we were able to catch this individual belting his song out right in the open ("Belting" is of course relative - Henslow's have a very brief and unimposing song):

Henslow's Sparrow singing
Henslow's Sparrow

Then, as we headed off of the prairie and towards scrubbier habitat, we were watching a Eastern Bluebird near the path. Then Kellie spotted a bird flying away that she strongly suspected was an Orchard Oriole. So we gave chase and walked down a path in the direction it had headed. When we got to the trees where she had seen it heading, out popped a Brown Thrasher! But she was convinced that she saw something different than a Thrasher - and she was right because just a moment later a male Orchard Oriole flew over our heads!

Eastern Bluebird perched on a branch
Eastern Bluebird

Then we headed through some woods toward the spot that has hosted a Yellow-breasted Chat for the past few years. As we were walking through the woods, we saw a Eastern Towhee foraging. Then, all of a sudden, "QUORK!" - a Common Raven called as it passed overhead. I knew that ravens were possible here, but I thought it was a long shot that we'd actually find them. Common Ravens are my favorite bird, so it was a supreme treat to add them to my green list! For the next while - we heard lots of scolding and fighting and alarm sounds from all the corvids (American Crows, Blue Jays, and Common Ravens), plus some sounds that seemed to be from a hawk of some type. We couldn't see much, but it was interesting listening to the avian battle that was going on!

After we tore ourselves away from that spectacle, we got to the Chat area. One person was already there when we arrived, and he said he'd heard the Chat briefly about 5 minutes previously, but hadn't seen it yet. We began the vigil - waiting, pacing, walking up and down the paths for better vantage points, thinking of previous times that we'd seen Chats, wondering if we were too late, etc, etc. After a while - it popped up from a bush and starting singing. That was it - the Yellow-breasted Chat! We watched the tree it landed in, and could hear it continue to vocalize, but couldn't see it. Then, it flew to the next tree over that was much less dense and we had solid views. It was fun to hear the Chat singing and calling - it has one call that it liked to use a lot that was a dead ringer for an American Robin call. Getting the Chat was a great one for the year - that species is very rare in Minnesota, although this is the third year in a row that one has been at Afton State Park.

Yellow-breasted Chat perched in a shrub
Yellow-breasted Chat

After we saw the Chat, we headed back towards our campground. We hoped to see a Bobolink or a Dickcissel in the prairie area, but saw neither. We had to get back to the campground to pack up our campsite and head to the upper picnic area to meet with my parents. They were coming to meet us along with our niblings (niece and nephew) to have a grand adventure. We met them at the upper picnic area because we wanted to have lunch together, but also because that area frequently hosts Hooded Warblers.

Kellie and I arrived at the picnic area first, so we set our stuff down and then did a little birding along the bluff edge. We didn't see or hear any Hooded Warblers, but there were other birds around to entertain us. Then we all had lunch together. A pair of Bald Eagles came and sat on the large power line towers nearest to the picnic area. Bald Eagles sometimes get a bad rap among birders because non-birders are so keen to make sure that we've seen the eagles (and believe me, we've seen the eagles). However, there is no denying that Bald Eagles are awesome birds, and they are a great bird for introducing young children to birding since they are so large and easily identifiable. Even though the eagles were high up in the tower, both our niece and nephew could see them and thus hopefully feel like they went birding with us.

After lunch we all walked about a half mile down the bluff to the river edge (for those of you who haven't been there - Afton is a hilly park right along the St. Croix river. Getting anywhere usually involves walking up and down steep hills!). There we found that the swimming area was quite small - the beach was underwater since the river was so high! But we had lots of fun anyway, catching tiny fish in our hands and getting out of the heat of the day. After swimming, it was time to head out, so we walked back up the bluff to get to the parking area. As we were walking along a Hooded Warbler starting singing! This was at least the fourth time we had walked through this area since we arrived on Friday night, and the fourth time must have been the charm since we finally heard the warbler! Hooded Warblers are another rarity in Minnesota - they have a couple of areas where they regularly breed (including Afton State Park and Murphy-Hanrehan Park Reserve), but otherwise they are rare and hard to find.

And that capped off a tremendously successful trip to Afton State Park! Stay tuned for the next post about the remainder of our weekend trip!

Miles biked on this trip: 35.7

Miles biked year to date: 1068.7

Species count: 198

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!

Friends of Sax-Zim Bog:

National MS Society:

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