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The Birding Challenge

The Birding Challenge by Jennifer Ditterich Designs

How many birds can you find in one weekend? Jody Doll and I teamed up to take this bird watching challenge. The Festival of Birds took place in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota May 19-22 and that was all the encouragement we needed to to let our inner bird nerds out. We signed up for several events and, in between, hit the trails to see how many we could spot and photograph.

 Maplewood State Park Area

We started out Saturday morning in the Maplewood State Park Area, where we were trying to spot a red-necked grebe. I'd seen one there earlier in the week and Jody hadn't seen one yet this year, so we were hoping to add it to her 2016 list. No luck there, but we saw an incredible array of birds including these:

Great Blue Heron by Jennifer Ditterich


He may look like he's trying to hide from us, but he was really preparing to grab a fish. He'd slowly walk through the water, then hold really still and then stab the water like an arrow and grab a fish. He got one every time!

Female Blue-Winged Teal by Jody Doll


This beauty was swimming around in a pond with geese and goslings, green-winged teal and her mate.

 Bald Eagle by Jody Doll


This bald eagle was perched over a pond and watching for his next meal.

Dunton Locks

After exploring the Maplewood and Pelican Rapids area, we headed up Highway 59 to Dunton Locks, just outside of Detroit Lakes, Minnesota. There had been a sighting of a Scarlet Tanager there earlier in the week and we were hoping to see one, too. The park has bike trails, paths through the woods, little waterfalls and picnic areas. It's a wonderful place to explore and is perfect for families. It's also excellent for birding.

Yellow Warbler by Jody Doll


These playful and cheerful birds are a challenge to photograph. They like to tease you by staying just out of reach, usually hiding on the back side of a tree. They call you over with their melodies and then fly just far enough away so that you can't get a photo. Stand still for long enough, though, and sometimes their curiosity wins out and they come close enough to give you a nice shot.

 American Redstart by Jennifer Ditterich

I had never noticed a redstart before, so I asked Jody what it was. I thought she called it a "Rap Star" so we laughed about that the whole weekend and even called it that when we'd spot one. Jody made sure to remind me to call it by the correct name in this blog post!
Female American Redstart by Jody Doll
This may be my new favorite songbird.These are very friendly birds and they gave us many opportunities to photograph them throughout the day.
American Redstart Building a Nest
Jody spotted this redstart building her nest as we walked past. She'd fly back and forth, gathering materials and adding them to her shaded nest. What a treat to see!
Green Heron by Jody Doll
Green herons are notoriously shy, so it was a treat to see this one up close. They have a rich green and chestnut coloring and can stretch their necks way out or pull them in tight against their chest, making their silhouette a constant surprise.
Wood Duck Pair by Jody Doll
It is always a joy to see a wood duck, with their distinctive shape and bright colors. This pair was nestled in a little pond off the lake.
Whitetail Deer by Jody Doll


Sometimes when you're looking for one thing, you find another. Jody spotted these two whitetails through the trees, a magical bonus to the day.

Our Saturday ended at the Festival of Birds where we listened to a presentation by owl expert, Scott Weidensaul. It was fascinating to hear of his work tagging owls and tracking their migration and behaviors.

At the end of the day on Saturday we had seen 33 different bird species and had photos of most of them. We were pretty excited about that and decided to join a field trip heading out at 5:15am on Sunday for Kelly's Slough in North Dakota...

 Kelly's Slough

Before the Sunday sun was even up, we were on the road for part two of our birding challenge. We joined a bus full of birders heading to Kelly's Slough by Grand Forks, North Dakota. The area was home to many shorebirds, some of which aren't common in our area. We had just taken a Shorebird ID class from Doug Buri and were excited to try out what we'd learned.

Kelly's Slough in North Dakota by Jennifer Ditterich

The slough was teeming with shorebirds and we were lucky to have several experts with our group, including Doug, who could help us identify them. It was fun to hear them call out their sightings and debate which type of bird each was.

Birding Party by Jennifer Ditterich

Most of the birds were too far away to photograph, but we could see them well through binoculars and scopes.

Spotted Sandpiper by Jennifer Ditterich
Here's a closeup of one of the shorebirds. They look very similar and can be hard to identify, so it was a fantastic learning experience to be with so many experts.
Savannah Sparrow by Jennifer Ditterich
Seeing shorebirds wasn't our only goal for the day, though. The area was brimming with many types of birds and everyone on the bus was working to spot new species.
Clay-Colored Sparrow by Jody Doll
With so many bird enthusiasts on board, even a sparrow sighting warranted a stop of the bus. I was thrilled, since sparrows have long been a favorite bird of mine, to be with people who liked them, too.
Sedge Wren in Field by Jennifer Ditterich
My favorite part of the day, however, was when we stopped to find sedge wrens. These tiny birds were hidden in waves of amber grasses. The only reason we knew to look for them was because an area expert was on the bus and had scouted them out for us.
Sedge Wren by Jennifer Ditterich
Spotting a sedge wren felt like a game of whack-a-mole, except instead of trying to hit them, we simply wanted to see them. They'd pop out of the grass, chirp once or twice and then go back into hiding. We'd wait a bit and another one would pop up in a different spot for just a moment and then hide again.
Singing Sedge Wren by Jennifer Ditterich
Finally, they seemed to get used to us. The one pictured above came out and sang for us, hanging on to the grasses for dear life so he wouldn't blow away in the fierce North Dakota wind.
We made it home that afternoon after an incredible day of birding. Our group had spotted 82 species of birds in that short time!
Even though the field trip was done, Jody and I weren't. We still wanted to see a scarlet tanager. We mentioned that to someone on the bus and they told us that one had been spotted on Detroit Mountain. Owls had also been spotted there, too! So after everyone left, we headed onto the trails looking for both.


Hooded Merganser Chicks by Jennifer Ditterich
We had seen this sweet family of hooded mergansers on Saturday so we were excited to see what other creatures were hidden on Detroit Mountain. We looked all over and saw a few American Redstarts and some warblers, but no owls.
Female Scarlet Tanager by Jennifer Ditterich
We did, however, find a scarlet tanager. Jody spotted this bird in the trees, the female of the species. She's not a flashy red like the male, but at least we could check her off the list.
We'll continue to look for the male scarlet tanager, but overall we were happy with the number of birds we saw over the weekend. Our final tally was 116 birds in just two days of our birding challenge. Not too bad for a couple of bird nerds!
Are you up for the challenge? Grab a friend, your camera and some binoculars and see how many birds you can find in one weekend. We'd love to hear your results!
Bird Watching Journal
To help you keep track of the birds you've seen, I made you a free printable Bird Watching Journal. Simply download, print and start recording your findings. Happy birding!