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Up with the birds: Washington County birders treated to a year of rarities

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Ben Douglas and Peter Nichols got to see the Western Kingbirds in Afton State Park, the only place they can be spotted in the county this year. Photo courtesy of Ben Douglas2 / 5
Both a male and female Blue Grosbeak are staying in Cottage Grove this year. Photo courtesy of Ben Douglas3 / 5
Ben Douglas and Peter Nichols went to see American Avocets, which has only been recorded in the Washington County three times, near Forest Lake. Photo courtesy of Ben Douglas4 / 5
The Blue Grosbeak was spotted in Washington County for the first time in recorded history by Peter Nichols and Ben Douglas, in a prairie-like area of Cottage Grove. Photo courtesy of Peter Nichols 5 / 5

Two rare birds with heavy rounded beaks and a hue brighter than a blue jay have made their home in scrubland at the edge of Hamlet Park.

The blue grosbeaks and their three chicks have drawn several local birders to their nest, after Peter Nichols and Ben Douglas spotted it for the first time ever in Washington County last month.

It is the 324th bird recorded in the county since documentation began over 100 years ago. Nichols estimates about 235 of the 324 get recorded in the county each year.

The closest a Blue Grosbeak has been to Cottage Grove was last year in Dakota County, though on other rare occasions it has even been spotted in Fargo and up into southern Canada, according to the eBird database curated by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Nichols and Douglas have spotted their fair share of uncommon or odd birds in the county this year, including an Orchard Oriole, Cinnamon Teal, Hudsonian Godwit, American Avocet, Western Kingbird, Summer Tanager and Snowy Egret.

But the Blue Grosbeak in their own backyard, Douglas said, tops them all.

"We have had one of the most singular years ... we have seen more rare to semi-rare (birds) this year than would be expected," he said.

Since the men connected on Nichols' Minnesota Birding Facebook page after Douglas moved to Cottage Grove, Douglas said Nichols has led him on many literal wild goose chases. The Hamlet Park sighting, though, only took about 20 minutes after Nichols wrapped up his research.

Nichols heard the call he'd learned in advance of the outing and knew they'd struck blue gold.

"This was not the first species that Pete has pitched to me," Douglas said. "I think a lot of birders say that (kind of search) is a waste of time. It goes to Pete's knowledge ... and sheer luck."

Blue Grosbeaks tend to flock toward shrubby, wooded areas such as the south edge of Hamlet Park where the pair was found.

Douglas would like to see the land remain undeveloped.

"My wishlist would simply be to figure out a way ... to conserve that piece of land," Douglas said. "The only reason we were looking at this site is we see other rare birds show up there."

The self-taught birding pair have found five types of relatively uncommon sparrows — grasshopper, vesper, clay-colored, lark and field sparrows — on that land.

The city currently has future plans to extend Hamlet Park south. Parks and Recreation Director Zac Dockter said funding hasn't been secured yet, but new ballfields will likely be built there in about three to five years, with site grading beginning in two to three.

Migration stations

In the last decade, three other new birds have been spotted in Washington County: a Wood Stork found by Eric Collins in 2014, a Lazuli Bunting spotted by Jim Gay in 2013 and a Ross's Gull recorded by Bruce Fall in 2007.

Two of those birds were also only the third and fourth ever spotted in Minnesota.

Marshall Iliff, eBird project leader, said species lists in every region are growing, as increasing numbers of birders are aided by improved photography and resources. In addition, what are known as "vagrant birds," or migratory birds that appear outside their normal range, show up each year.

"Far fewer rare 'vagrant' birds 'slip through the cracks,'" he said in an email. "Thus, there are certainly more rare birds identified now than ever before."

Whether vagrant birds are being driven by climate change is still up for some debate in birding circles.

"It may be true in some cases, and there are some good hypotheses as to why this might happen," Iliff said. "But it is also very hard to measure rates of rare events between years and at least as hard to establish a cause-and-effect for climate change and vagrancy."

The National Audubon Society, a bird conservation organization, published results in 2015 of a study of climate change effect on bird species.

They report posits that over half the species in the study could lose half their range from climate change, though for many species this is also paired with potential to inhabit new areas, though several species do not get that luxury.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources pegs habitat loss as the number one threat to bird populations.

The Blue Grosbeak has been expanding to the north for the last hundred years of so, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, due in part to forest clearing. The sparrow varieties found in the same Hamlet Park land, however, have been declining based on their original area population.

Populations of both are currently stable.