Blizzard Birding

Sharp tail grouse digiscope

It’s April. It’s Year of the Bird. I made so many plans to really enjoy the birds in my home state this spring. Normally in spring, I’m gone almost the whole season enjoying migratory birds in other states or countries. This was my year to bird the crap out of Minnesota!

A robin drinking water in the middle of a Minnesota blizzard.

And April in Minnesota did what April does sometimes. Rather than being a month of warmth and mud, it’s a month of SNOW! In fact, it’s a month of record breaking snow where I live. Normally, when I work on taxes I resent being human and subject to obtuse paperwork and wish I was a  wild creature living hand to mouth…or foot to beak since I’m thinking birds. I should be living a life of adventure by dodging fierce predators daily and finding my food as I can, enjoying the outdoors. But then a blizzard hits and you think that maybe the comforts of the indoors with a sauna and steak coupled with paperwork isn’t such a bad life after all.

Of course I went birding in the blizzard.

But amidst all the snow I did have a chance to visit a sharp-tailed grouse blind which one was one of my resolutions for the year. I had dreams of a warm-ish morning with grouse and maybe even meadowlarks but the weather wasn’t cooperating and all I could count on were horny sharp-tailed grouse who aren’t deterred by snow and below freezing temperatures. I packed up my scope and portable battery charger for my phone (because cold is murder on your iPhone when you are taking pictures and videos) and headed out to Aitkin, Minnesota with a couple of birding buddies.

This may look bleak, but it’s practically a disco dance floor to sharp-tailed grouse. On the upside, the frozen ground is easier to cross in the dark than boot-sucking mud.

The blinds for lekking birds in Minnesota are free. For sharp-tailed grouse, I booked a blind that was courtesy of the Minnesota DNR and the Sharp-tailed Grouse Society. Most of the time when I have booked a blind it’s been wooden or in really old cases, made of canvas.This blind was metal, I think steel. Perhaps the reason was that this area is subjected to “prescribed burns” and sometimes those old wooden and canvas blinds get burned. One made of metal should survive the flames. The blind was beautiful, but boy howdy did it amplify sound!

Our state of the art grouse blind courtesy of the Minnesota DNR and the Sharp-tailed Grouse Society.

I did have one embarrassing moment when the sleeve of my shirt got caught in the cup of my PhoneSkope adapter and when I moved my hand, my phone and case fell to the hard steel floor. The grouse all froze mid pose for about ten seconds and then flew away. I apologized to my blind mates. Fortunately, this time of year sharp-tailed grouse are ruled by their hormones and don’t notice sound…much and they were soon back to dance in the hopes of having a chance to mate.

A male sharp-tailed grouse mid stomping and dancing!

But I was super excited have a chance to get some quality time with the grouse. I know most people are scared off of using this amazing resource because you need to be in the blind by sunrise and you can’t leave until the birds are finished, but it really is a spectacular show. Since we were out at dawn with low light, I took my Swarovski ATX 95 mm. I normally use the 65mm because it’s so lightweight, but the bigger the objective lens, the more light gathering ability you will have. Since the Swarovski ATX is a modular scope, it’s a breeze to switch out the objective lenses…even when you are inside the blind.  I had to play with getting videos of the grouse…especially slowmo:

After we were finished with all of the grouse fun, we headed to a proper Minnesota breakfast of hash browns, eggs, pancakes, bacon, sausage and coffee and headed out to see more birds.

Ruffed grouse trying to cross the road.

The day did not disappoint! We added another grouse species to our list and while we were watching it, we realized we were surrounded by bohemian waxwings. We also added several raptor species to our list, including a small migratory group of rough-legged hawks. The day was so much fun that I really wasn’t prepared to go back to work when were finished. I think this sharp-tailed grouse sums up my mindset in my office after such great birding:

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