April 25 - 26 & April 27 - 28, 2024

MBW Summary: "Chasing Gargoyles"  –  by John Quinn (with minor edits by KRE)

I never did figure out the driver/rider arrangements, the weather, or which county we were in. Le Sueur, Brown, Nicollet, Blue Earth, Rice, Renville, Cottonwood, and Watonwan were all recorded in my eBird. But we made it work. I had the opportunity to ride in several vehicles, and so my theme is about how we become better birders.

(Note: If you are unsure who I am, I am the guy in the wool pants with the patch on the left knee. As the OWJTLIT – i.e., Obsequious Wannabe Junior Tour Leader In Training – I’m trying to keep my high-paying job by agreeing to summarize several trips. If you enjoy these ramblings, please let my boss, the esteemed Kim Eckert, know. If not, please delete. I am still working on the best way to capture the quantity of information over four days of birding, so this version is rather long. I promise to do better.}

Thursday, April 25

How we become birders: When I climbed into the front seat of Tom and Laurie’s car I was just happy to have arrived on time and to have taken Thursday and Friday off. As we shared our birding experience, I learned Laurie caught the avian bug about five years ago. Being a fine husband, Tom drives her and anyone else all over the state in pursuit of 50 Minnesota county species. To say she’s obsessed is incorrect. I suggested she read “To See Every Bird on Earth: A Father, a Son, and a Lifelong Obsession” by Dan Koeppel. And that Tom finds a good therapist. She’s at the stage of birding, like many of us continue to be, where you’re constantly trying to get on the bird that was spotted by Car Number One (more on that obsessed group in a minute).

Horned Larks and Vesper Sparrows disappear into corn stubble as if they never existed. Eared Grebes and every other important water bird either dive or turn into Lesser Scaup the moment you look in the scope. The small victories have nothing to do with experience or equipment but the commitment and persistence to keep trying. My mother gave me a cheap pair of binoculars when I was twelve or thirteen. Mostly to get a boy with too much energy out of the house. Over the next fifty-six years I’m largely self-taught starting with the waterfowl guides for hunting and Peterson’s Guide to Birds. (I still draw arrows in my Sibley to the key diagnostic details.) Birding with a group is amazing and intimidating at the same time.

Thursday dawned dry, cold, and windy. I don’t remember when it wasn’t. Except when it was raining, cold, and windy. Kim was off in Florida chasing the Black Noddy [spell-check changes this to Black Naughty –KRE], (average temperature 78 degrees). Thankfully, another capable leader was available. Craig Mandel took charge and led us back and forth through so many counties so often that even my eBird got confused.

We started Thursday in Rasmussen Woods Park with an Orange-crowned Warbler that I didn’t see. But the House Wrens, Hermit Thrushes, and Brown Thrashers were cooperative. I had 26 species to start the day. After Williams Nature Center in Blue Earth, a “Gargoyle” was reportedly still present in Cottonwood County. OK, I jest, but Wikipedia reports “Some gargoyles were depicted as …..combinations of real animals and people, many of which were humorous. I’ll get back to Paul and Jay later.

By semi-unanimous vote and because even Craig Mandel didn’t have a Garganey in Minnesota, we headed to Long Lake in Cottonwood County. [This is the third state record, the first back in 1987 found by Ray Glassel (which I later saw); this also represents #372 on the MBWeekends composite list – KRE.] It was relatively easy to identify, and people were reporting it regularly. But then we all spent some time looking at shorebirds, discussing size, breeding plumage, leg color, tubular bills, bill and wing length, humped versus flat back, I gained a lot from the experience of others. It was interesting to observe the avocets swimming. A few odd ducks were in abundance. (Right Paul?) I think it’s important to acknowledge the critical habitat efforts made by the DNR and Ducks Unlimited for our success. Without those efforts, it would have been just another Long Lake. So purchase an annual Duck Stamp and send some money to Ducks Unlimited. Even if you don’t hunt.

The number and variety of shorebirds was amazing. [Craig’s list includes no fewer than 20 species! – KRE.] Combining the two days we visited we saw American Avocets, Greater and Lesser yellowlegs, Dunlin, Pectoral, Baird’s, Semipalmated and Least sandpipers, Semipalmated Plovers, Dunlin, Long-billed Dowitchers, Hudsonian Godwits, Wilson’s Phalarope, Killdeer, American Golden-Plover (in breeding plumage!), and Willet. Forster’s Tern, Peregrine Falcon, White-faced Ibis, and Rusty Blackbird were also nice to have for the day. I recorded 68 species in Cottonwood County over the two days.

We drove back through Watonwan County. (According to Wikipedia, cited here because the Watonwan Historical Society is desperately in need of a director: “The county was named for its eponymous river, whose name reflects the Dakota word ‘watanwan,’ meaning ‘fish bait’ or ‘plenty of fish.’ The word first appears in the written record on an 1843 map of the area so naming the river.”) I ran up my county list from zero to seven.

Most of us finished the day desperately trying to get Laurie to 50 birds for Blue Earth County. Forty-eight was a lucky sighting of Sandhill Crane near Eagle Lake. Thankfully before dinner Laurie walked outside the restaurant and ticked off House Sparrow and House Finch to get to fifty. I don’t know that she ever saw a Rock Pigeon. It’s a hard life if that is your nemesis bird.

Friday April 26

We started again from Mankato (Blue Earth County) but my first eBird record was in Le Sueur County. We discovered two Osprey in a field – sitting on the ground. Why? Shortly after, a Ring-necked Pheasant was walking around in an RV camping area. I’ve never seen that. I have no idea why or what they were doing. I added this to my list of strange birds and behaviors.

To keep us on our toes, Craig took us to Sakatah Lake State Park and across the county line into Rice. Several decent birds in Rice County, including Spotted Sandpiper close to shore and Forster’s Tern on the distant island. We stopped to watch a nesting Cooper’s Hawk on the Rice County side of the park and then Paul or Craig spotted a Barred Owl close to the road on the Le Sueur County side. Shortly after, and still in Le Sueur County, I can’t remember if it was Fran or Allison who called out the Lark Sparrow on the wire from Car Two. Car One had driven by and I had dismissed it as Song or Vesper Sparrow from Car Three. Even Craig was impressed. Great bird. All of us got good looks.

At Gorman Lake, Paul (“I’m not a birder, Kathrynne’s the birder”) proved he’s not only an excellent birder but also a real glutton for the toughest conditions. With cold wind and rain blowing in his face, he – and only he – got out of the car to scan the lake. Spotting something way, way out, he rushes back to car, whips out the scope and finds a couple of Ruddy Ducks. Several of us felt shamed and obligated to get out and prove we were nearly as tough and committed “non-birders” as Paul. We then stopped for lunch and Car Two and Three took their leave for various reasons. All good excuses in light of the weather and travel or maybe it was the smell of my wet wool pants.

There was a discussion about what are the best binoculars. The 8x42 Swarorskis, that I bought after my trusty pair of Zeiss’s were stolen from my truck, are amazing, I also look over at Kim occasionally when we’re all scrambling to see a bird and I watch him find the bird, observe it without binoculars, then look through a tiny pair of 10x32 Leica binoculars and identify the bird before I can open my mouth. My observation is that birding is not about the best equipment. It’s about spending time learning, observing, and listening.

Watching a chickadee for several minutes helps you determine if it’s really a yellow-rump flitting in the tree. Or it’s watching a red-tailed hawk in flight until you’ve seen them from every light and angle that allows you to see other birds with ease. And practicing finding everyday birds with your scope makes all the difference when that unusual bird is right there at the edge of the scope, your heart is pounding, your hands are cold, the wind is blowing, and the bird is about to take flight and disappear over the horizon. As Craig says, if you want to see more birds, go birding.

It was after lunch that I entered the realm of Car Number One. I tried to get in behind the driver. No, that was unequivocally Kathrynne’s seat. I got in behind Craig. I was shown “the library” – shorebird books and other birding books organized in the seat between us. I was handed a yellow microfiber towel in case I needed to clean or wipe my various lenses. (I carefully hid my soggy paper napkin in my pocket.) Off we went. Birds on the left, birds on the right. Out of the car, Paul had the scope out and focused before I had my seat belt off. (Cautionary Note: The fine in his Subaru for not fastening your rear seat belts before the ping-ping-ping starts is twenty-five cents per ping. I’m roughly twenty-five dollars in debt.)

Kathrynne had eBird ready and Craig stood ready to confirm or identify. Paul says he’s “not a birder” but he seemed to find and call out birds with confidence. Perhaps he and Craig had separate earpieces. Perhaps it’s the military experience that makes Paul and Katherine good birders – prepare, observe, move with purpose and confidence, work as a team. Anyway, it was another level of birding for a guy who mostly wanders around the woods looking at flowers, trees, the sky, animals, and listening and looking for birds. Paul’s ear was also excellent. I had to up my game to stay with this group. I finished my day in Nicollet County with 60 species for the day and a trip to New Ulm courtesy of Craig. I learned a new eBird option of accepting other birders (in this case Kathrynne’s) lists and then editing them based on what I observed myself. Who can pass up that level of commitment and efficiency?

Saturday, April 27

This day presented an opportunity to ride with Mark again (my Lyon & Lincoln MBW driver) and Carol (also my wife's name), a Golden Valley neighbor. We talked about obsessive birders and Carol mentioned Pheobe Snetsinger who at age 50 took up birding and became “a birder famous for having seen and documented 8,398 different species, more than anyone else at the time, and the first person to see more than 8,000. Her memoir, Birding on Borrowed Time, explores this achievement.” Think about that the next time someone asks you why you’re “into watching birds.”

We started out in Brown County, where Brian led us on a wild-Henslow’s-Sparrow chase. Jay and Paul took up where they left off, their puns and ribbing winging their way back and forth for the rest of the day. We traveled to Wood Lake WMA. No Henslow’s but Grasshopper Sparrow was in the area. Great bird. Katherine called out an Upland Sandpiper’s ethereal call, and I decided that made a great morning.

By default, we made another journey to Cottonwood County to tick off the Garganey for those in the new group who hadn’t seen it yet. We saw White-faced Ibis on way in (but no Glossy). I spent some extra time working on my shorebirds with Least, Semipalmated, and Baird’s within 20 feet in good light. I was quite proud when Craig confirmed my identification. The American Avocets were amazing.

When I am working hard and sometimes desperately to identify a species, I frequently remind myself of a birding trip with Kim last year. We had seen a kestrel/sharp-shinned/cooper’s/accipiter/falcon. It flew past me: “sharpie” I called. It flew past another birder: “kestrel!”. Kim discussed the observations with us. Finally, based on our descriptions, he replied “I’m uncertain.” What a relief! Not every bird has to be positively identified. There are plenty of birds and god-willing plenty of time to see them. It’s OK to be regularly uncertain when birding – and, therefore, in life. Because life is birding. My therapist says that’s the most progress I’ve made in months.

We traveled back towards, hmmm, I’m unsure where at this point, but we made a stop in Storden. The Shady Drive-Inn was meant for a couple of characters like Paul and Jay. The service was bumbling but refreshingly polite and the food was excellent. Add that to your list the next time you’re in Cottonwood County. Without creating a scene, Craig mentioned a Cattle Egret not far away. Little did we know this would be his 200th Cottonwood County bird. Sometimes the birds are cooperative and good pictures were taken. The Belted Kingfisher hovering over the little creek at Bingham Lake and the kids yelling “what are you looking at” from the farm across the pond were both fun. And we enjoyed Bank Swallows swooping right over our heads trying to find the bird calling on Craig’s phone.

It was here that I saw the master of the flip-around in action. Another birder had pulled up next to us to see the cattle egret. Craig led us up to the highway, then left in about a mile, then a left turn across the highway with oncoming traffic, while navigating a sort of mini-roundabout. We all had to follow suit. There he proceeded back in the direction we came, then we did a U-turn back in the direction we had started before, then another left-hand turn onto the side road. The poor guy must still be scratching his head. Where did they go?

We proceeded to Lawcon Park where we added Orange-crowned and Black-and-White warblers to our list. Seeing the flush of gold and then red on kinglets was a highlight. The good old Attractor did the job. Jay took a siesta while Ellen joined us. We checked off our cemetery for the day. (Kim, please note that your OWJTLIT advocated for a waste treatment pond AND a cemetery stop every day.) We proceeded to the Mountain Lake WTP and found good populations of waterbirds. Craig and a few others saw a Red-necked Phalarope, and Paul saved my neck with a last-minute Eared Grebe in his scope. Red-necked Grebe and Purple Martin were counted, too. We traveled to Ewy Lake in Watonwan County, and heard several Soras.

Thanks to the locals, Jay and Ellen, we had dinner reservations that evening at New Ulm’s Turner Hall, “The Oldest Bar in Minnesota.” The Jaegerschnitzle was the size of a dinner plate and Schell’s Vienna-style Firebrick amber lager was the appropriate beverage to wash it down. We felt like family as the staff stopped by many times to say hello. I took Carol (my wife) up the hill to see Hermann the German ( Seeing the wings on his helmet, I added that as my last bird of the day. Counting Hermann, I ended up with 90 species for the day.

Sunday, April 28

We traveled to the Sleepy Eye WTP in Brown County and found White-fronted Goose and Eared Grebe. We traveled into Renville County, observing a Wild Turkey / White Turkey, and Mark commented that this interbreeding is creating issues with wild turkey populations. We stopped at an inviting farm wood lot, finding Brown Thrasher, White-throated Sparrow, and Eastern Bluebird, plus a raccoon sound asleep in the big pine tree oblivious to a bunch of birders. Jay and Brian peeled off to return to New Ulm. The rest of us ended up along the beautiful Sioux Trail that travels along the Minnesota River. It is a Scenic Byway, well worth another trip at any time of year. There Carol called out the calling Eastern Towhee. We tried the Attractor one more time with limited results and then departed for New Ulm.

With my wife Carol, who thinks I’m obsessed and possessed with many things, I had to get back to the Cities for The Children’s Theatre production of "Frog and Toad." I said our goodbyes and I did not stop in another county until I reached Hennepin. I recorded 71 species for the day.


Bird List = 126 species (compiled by Craig Mandel)

   • I = Mankato MBW (Thu, Fri)

   • II = New Ulm MBW (Sat, Sun)

   • species not annotated I or II = seen on both MBWs

Counties visited:

   • Blue Earth (Thu)

   • Cottonwood (Thu, Sat)

   • Watonwan (Thu, Sat)

   • Le Sueur (Fri)

   • Rice (Fri)

   • Nicollet (Fri, Sun)

   • Brown (Sat, Sun)

   • Renville (Sun)


Greater White-fronted Goose    

Canada Goose    

Trumpeter Swan   

Wood Duck    


Blue-winged Teal      

Northern Shoveler        



Northern Pintail     I

Green-winged Teal        

Canvasback     II


Ring-necked Duck        

Lesser Scaup        


Hooded Merganser        

Ruddy Duck        

Wild Turkey        

Ring-necked Pheasant        

Pied-billed Grebe        

Red-necked Grebe     II

Eared Grebe     II

Rock Pigeon        

Eurasian Collared-Dove        

Mourning Dove        

Chimney Swift     II

Sora     II

American Coot        

Sandhill Crane     I

American Avocet        

American Golden Plover     II


Semipalmated Plover     II

Upland Sandpiper     II

Hudsonian Godwit     I


Baird’s Sandpiper        

Least Sandpiper        

Pectoral Sandpiper        

Semipalmated Sandpiper        

Long-billed Dowitcher        

Wilson's Snipe     I

Spotted Sandpiper        

Solitary Sandpiper     II

Lesser Yellowlegs        


Greater Yellowlegs        

Wilson's Phalarope        

Red-necked Phalarope     II

Bonaparte's Gull     II

Franklin's Gull     II

Ring-billed Gull        

Forster’s Tern     I

Common Loon     I

Double-crested Cormorant     I

American White Pelican        

Great Blue Heron        

Great Egret     I

Cattle Egret     II

White-faced Ibis     II

Turkey Vulture        

Osprey     I

Northern Harrier        

Cooper’s Hawk        

Bald Eagle        

Broad-winged Hawk        

Red-tailed Hawk     I

Barred Owl     I

Belted Kingfisher        

Red-bellied Woodpecker        

Downy Woodpecker        

Hairy Woodpecker        

Northern Flicker        

Pileated Woodpecker     I

American Kestrel        

Peregrine Falcon     I

Eastern Phoebe     I

Blue Jay        

American Crow        

Black-capped Chickadee        

Horned Lark        

Bank Swallow        

Tree Swallow        

Northern Rough-winged Swallow        

Purple Martin        

Barn Swallow        

Cliff Swallow     II

Ruby-crowned Kinglet        

Golden-crowned Kinglet     II

White-breasted Nuthatch        

House Wren     I

Brown Thrasher        

European Starling        

Eastern Bluebird        

Hermit Thrush     I

American Robin        

House Sparrow        

American Pipit     II

House Finch        

American Goldfinch        

Grasshopper Sparrow     II

Lark Sparrow     I

Chipping Sparrow        

Clay-colored Sparrow        

Field Sparrow        

Dark-eyed Junco     I

White-throated Sparrow        

Vesper Sparrow        

Savannah Sparrow        

Song Sparrow        

Swamp Sparrow        

Eastern Towhee     II

Yellow-headed Blackbird        

Eastern Meadowlark     II

Western Meadowlark     II

Red-winged Blackbird        

Brown-headed Cowbird        

Rusty Blackbird     II

Brewer’s Blackbird     I

Common Grackle        

Black-and-white Warbler     II

Orange-crowned Warbler        

Palm Warbler     II

Yellow-rumped Warbler        

Northern Cardinal