Minnesota Warbler Migration - May 19-21, 2008

 

I had the opportunity to visit the Minneapolis/St. Paul area of Minnesota earlier this month, arriving May 19th and leaving on May 21st.  I knew I was going to have some spare time in the afternoon on one day however, as things worked out, I ended up with a full day on the 21st which was a good thing as the weather was dreadful leading up to that day, wind, rain, very dark and overcast conditions all led to nearly impossible photography.  But, as the saying goes, it's better to be lucky than good and as luck would have it, a conference that I was to attend on the 21st was canceled and I had a free day, with partly cloudy, spring conditions!

 

I decided to go to Frontenac State Park, about 60 miles southeast of St. Paul.  Frontenac is located along the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River as it winds it's way south from St. Paul.  The cliffs are high above the valley below and hardwood forest, riparian woodlands and mixed prairie grasslands dominate the landscape.  This is the second time I have been here, the first time the weather was as described above and I had a less than memorable trip with rainy conditions throughout the day.  This time was different however and I would have to say, one of the more memorable trips, in terms of birding, that I have ever experienced!

 

I checked out of my hotel in Minneapolis at 4:30 A.M. and arrived at Frontenac State Park HQ around 6:15 A.M. with the sun starting to peak through some intermittent clouds low on the horizon.  I had the park completely to myself other than a smattering of campers in the campground near the entrance to the park.  I knew exactly where I wanted to start looking and made my way there.  There is a small overlook point at the far end of the park, it's a wooden platform that hangs out over a bluff and overlooks the Mississippi River far below.  The platform is along a trail that leads 200 yards further down the bluff to a small wooden bench in a clearing with another spectacular view of the valley.  The overlook and the trail are in the middle of a forest with a mixture of Pine, Aspen, Dogwood and many other hardwood species.  I stood there overlooking the forest when things started to get going...   

American Redstart

I heard an American Redstart calling and soon located him, then another and another joined in, there were several of them darting about and catching whatever insects there were flittering around the canopy.

American Redstart

Female American Redstart

Next up was a Black-and-White Warbler that came in low and was working it's way up the trunk of a pine tree.  Several Vireos came in and starting calling, then I heard a couple of American Robins and what turned out to be an Indigo Bunting.  Yellow-rumped Warblers started to appear above me, flittering about, chasing off some other yet to be identified warblers.  Within minutes the forest went from total silence to a din of birds singing and calling, yelling louder and louder.  It was an amazing sound!  And it was just starting...

Black-and-White Warbler

I heard an unidentified singer in the crowd and looked up in amazement as a beautiful Blackburnian Warbler in full breeding plumage stopped for a moment within feet of me before continuing on.  Several more Blackburnians joined in the group, now flittering here and there with the Yellow-rumped Warblers and the Redstarts.  It was hard to track them all, there were seemingly birds on every branch and every tree within eye sight.  I was in the middle of a flock of mixed warblers like I had never seen before.  Not only warblers but also Vireos, Bunting, Gnatcatcher, Chickadee, Nuthatches and even a Woodpecker or two thrown in for good measure. 

Blackburnian Warbler

Blackburnian Warbler

Blackburnian Warbler

Blackburnian Warbler

Black-capped Chickadee

The fun continued with a Blackpoll Warbler joining in the mix, staying only long enough for a couple of shots and the only one I was to see the entire day but at least I got off a few good shots of him.

Blackpoll Warbler

Blackpoll Warbler

Next up was another "lifer" for me (I tallied 6 on this trip) which was a beautiful male Black-throated Green Warbler.  Singing away and slowly working it's way along the branches, I was able to get some good pictures of him as he posed for me within 20 feet of my lens.

Black-throated Green Warbler

Black-throated Green Warbler

A lone, and seemingly out of place, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher seemed to enjoy the din, joining in the early-morning chorus while busily hunting out insects.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

As I mentioned earlier, not only were there warblers everywhere but also Vireos, including many Blue-headed Vireos as the ones pictured here.  They seemed to stay lower in the branches than their Warbling Vireo cousins.

Blue-headed Vireo

A stunning Magnolia Warbler caught my view as I was scanning the branches.  It was really challenging to try to get it all in.  At first I was frantically taking pictures of everything that moved but after I while I was able to calm down and settle in a bit as it was quite evident that A)  The warblers had little concern over my presence as long as I was not quick in my movements and B)  They seemed to be staying put for the time being anyway.  So I took a more tactical approach and was scanning the branches with my binoculars and when I would find something interesting, I'd then bring up my camera and focus on getting that particular bird before moving on.  All the while of course keeping my ears open for different sounds.

Magnolia Warbler

As mentioned earlier, there was a trail that led down the slope about 200 yards to another lookout point.  After a while it was evident that I had pretty much identified all of the members of this particular flock so I decided to walk down the trail to see what else was about.  I was amazed as I walked along the trail to realize that there were birds everywhere!  It was a HUGE flock, in fact, I was never without company the entire 200 yards down the trail and when I arrived at the other lookout area, there were just as many birds present there as well.  The flock seemed to be taking up the entire side of the mountain!  I saw something I was familiar with while scanning the trees, a Nashville Warbler was busily hunting out breakfast and I was able to get a shot.

Nashville Warbler

There were also birds along the ground, including an occasional Hermit Thrush and the Palm Warbler that allowed close approach in a little clearing along the side of the trail.

Palm Warbler

The next bird was another nice find for me, only the second one I have ever seen, a very shy Canada Warbler.  I heard him or I would never of even gotten off one shot but he peeped a few times and I zeroed in on what I thought was another Magnolia Warbler at first until I saw the eye rings.  He wanted nothing to do with me and I was only able to squeeze off four shots before he disappeared into denser cover not to be seen again.

Canada Warbler

This one had me fooled for a while, I kept seeing these strangely colored warblers in the background, they were shyer than some of the others and I thought that they were Blackburnian Warblers at first but something told me to keep looking until I could get a positive ID.  Finally, one showed itself long enough for me to focus and squeeze the button...  Cape May Warbler!

Cape May Warbler

Cape May Warbler

I think my favorite warbler of the day was the Chestnut-sided Warblers.  While not in nearly the numbers as the Yellow-rumped and Blackburnian, they were with me all morning, and loud singers at that!  They also seemed to me to be highly energetic, even for a warbler and were very difficult to capture as they seemed to be in constant motion.  It took a few hundred pictures to get a few decent shots but well worth it!

Chestnut-sided Warbler

Chestnut-sided Warbler

Chestnut-sided Warbler

The highlight of the day for me however, as species go, was when I heard this Buzz-buzz-buzz call coming from a small tree and saw these two tiny-tiny birds flittering around in the leaves.  I thought that they were Kinglets at first, same size, moving very quickly.  It wasn't until I was able to focus on one that I realized that I had Golden-winged Warblers in my presence!  Unfortunately, they didn't like my picture taking and were gone as quickly as they had come... And yet the warblers kept coming!

Golden-winged Warbler

Golden-winged Warbler

Golden-winged Warbler

Mixed in with the Warbling Vireos were a number of Tennessee Warblers, probably the second most commonly encountered warbler next to the Yellow-rumped that I saw.  One or two dozen of them were in trees just above the lookout mentioned earlier.

Tennessee Warbler

Tennessee Warbler

A well-recognized species was also occasionally seen, the good-old Wilson's Warbler that is quite common back home was present in the lower bushes and shrubs.

Wilson's Warbler

Yellow Warblers were also numerous, more often heard than seen with their beautiful song mixing in nicely with the din of Blackburnian's, Chestnut-sided and Vireos...

Yellow Warbler

And last but not least... The ever present "butter-butt" - the ubiquitous Yellow-rumped Warbler that always kept you on your toes with their flashes of color and never ending energy not to mention their relentless chipping...

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Quite a morning!  When the dust had settled and the smoke had cleared, I had tallied 17 different Warbler species!  - American Redstart, Black-and-white Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Canada Warbler, Cape May Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Golden-winged Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, Nashville Warbler, Palm Warbler, Tennessee Warbler, Wilson's Warbler, Yellow Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler.

It was over as quickly as it had started and by 10:00 or so, three hours later, the forest had quieted back down.  Not that it was lifeless by any means and I continued to see interesting species throughout the day but nothing like I experienced this morning.  I believe the flock was stretched out over at least 300 yards and probably across 50 or more yards up and down the slope.  I tried to measure the scope with my binoculars and see how many birds were in the trees up and down slope from my position.  They seemed to be all concentrated in a narrow swath across the side of the mountain which was a great thing for me!

Here are some additional species that I encountered throughout the day.  I was done and out of the park at 1:00 PM and made my 5:45 flight back to San Diego however this was a day that I shall not soon forget!

Chipping Sparrow

Cliff Swallow

Common Loon

This was a cool find!  A warbler led me to this Common Nighthawk that was perched above the din...  Wanted nothing to do with me and tried to ignore me as I took photos.

Common Nighthawk

Downy Woodpecker

Eastern Bluebird

Hermit Thrush

This Indigo Bunting sort of started all of the singing in the morning.  He came flying in below me as I was standing on the observation deck and started singing.  He didn't stop for quite some time.  I lost track of him after a while but occasionally heard him throughout the morning.

Indigo Bunting

Several species of flycatcher were in the area as well.  Willow, Alder, Least, Eastern Wood-Peewe, Eastern Kingbird and Eastern Phoebe were all readily seen throughout the day.

Least Flycatcher

Around the clearings Woodpeckers were common as well, in particular the Red-bellied and Downy varieties.  I did see two Red-headed Woodpeckers as well.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Red-headed Woodpecker

Alder Flycatcher

American Goldfinch

This was a real surprise!  I thought I was taking a picture of a Turkey Vulture.  The bird was terribly back-lit but there was just something about it that made me snap off a few pictures.  Imagine my surprise when getting home and looking through the pictures that I saw the white head!

Bald Eagle

Quite abundant in the area, Canada Geese were busily raising their young in and around standing water found in the lower elevations of the park.

Canada Geese

Even the Orioles got into the act.  Here a Baltimore Oriole is checking things out.

Baltimore Oriole

Red-tailed Hawk

Red-winged Blackbird

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Swainson's Thrush

Tree Swallow

It was quite chilly during the day, never got much above 60, perhaps 65 in the sun so I wasn't really looking for herps.  These turtles turned out to be the only herps of the trip and posed quite nicely as I was able to photograph them.  These are Western Painted Turtles.

Western Painted Turtle

Western Painted Turtle

Willow Flycatcher

Last but not least was this really cool and quite friendly Yellow-throated Vireo.  He actually kept getting too close to me to photograph him but I was eventually able to get the right amount of distance and a couple of good shots of this handsome bird.

Yellow-throated Vireo

Yellow-throated Vireo

Not bad for a days work!  I don't know if I will ever experience something like I did that day but I know that I will be back to this cool spot again to try!

Here's a list of species observed:

Common Loon                          

American White Pelican               

Great Blue Heron                     

Great Egret                          

Canada Goose                         

Wood Duck                             

Mallard                              

Turkey Vulture                       

Bald Eagle                           

Sharp-shinned Hawk                   

Red-tailed Hawk                      

American Kestrel                     

Rock Pigeon                          

Mourning Dove                        

Yellow-billed Cuckoo                 

Common Nighthawk                     

Ruby-throated Hummingbird            

Belted Kingfisher                    

Red-headed Woodpecker                 

Red-bellied Woodpecker               

Downy Woodpecker                     

Willow Flycatcher                    

Alder Flycatcher                     

Least Flycatcher                     

Eastern Wood-Pewee                   

Eastern Phoebe                       

Eastern Kingbird                     

Tree Swallow                         

Northern Rough-winged Swallow        

Barn Swallow                         

Cliff Swallow                        

Golden-crowned Kinglet               

Ruby-crowned Kinglet                 

House Wren                           

Gray Catbird                         

Eastern Bluebird                      

Swainson's Thrush                    

Hermit Thrush                        

American Robin                       

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher                

Black-capped Chickadee               

Red-breasted Nuthatch                

White-breasted Nuthatch              

Blue Jay                             

American Crow                        

European Starling                    

House Sparrow                        

Yellow-throated Vireo                

Blue-headed Vireo                     

Warbling Vireo                       

Philadelphia Vireo                   

House Finch                          

American Goldfinch                   

Golden-winged Warbler                

Tennessee Warbler                    

Nashville Warbler                    

Yellow Warbler                       

Chestnut-sided Warbler               

Magnolia Warbler                     

Cape May Warbler                     

Yellow-rumped Warbler                

Black-throated Green Warbler         

Blackburnian Warbler                 

Palm Warbler                         

Blackpoll Warbler                    

Black-and-white Warbler               

American Redstart                    

Common Yellowthroat                  

Wilson's Warbler                     

Canada Warbler                       

Chipping Sparrow                     

Field Sparrow                        

Savannah Sparrow                     

Northern Cardinal                    

Indigo Bunting                       

Red-winged Blackbird                 

Eastern Meadowlark                   

Common Grackle                       

Brown-headed Cowbird                 

Baltimore Oriole 



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