After three remarkable days there was one target bird remaining for our return trip to Kansas City on Sunday. It was the previously reported Slaty-Backed Gull in Des Moines. This is a bird I potentially saw a week earlier with my wife and kids, but it was too far away to tell for certain and never spread it's wings while we were watching. I wanted another chance at this vagrant.
Before we got too far into our drive we saw a couple of Rough-legged Hawks. One of these birds was a dark adult male. Below are some photo of Rough-Legged Hawks I saw over the Christmas break. The dark male on the left hand side was the same bird we saw on Sunday.
By midday we read a report of a Brambling in Nebraska. Unfortunately it was too far to arrive before dark and we continued as planned. Two days later we would drive to Nebraska only to arrive at the house five minutes after it was last seen. Back in Des Moines we stopped at the locations the Slaty-Backed Gull had previously been reported around Saylorville Lake. At the fourth stop we finally found gulls, but there were only a few there. None of the gulls were Black-backed but I grabbed the scope none-the-less and focused on each bird. One stood out from the handful of Herring Gulls and Ring-billed Gulls. It was an adult California Gull! While this bird is common further west, it is tough to find in the Midwest. My hopes were so high that the rare bird did not compare to the hopeful vagrant and I failed to take any pictures of it. Alas it wasn't even a bittersweet consolation for dipping on the Slaty-Backed Gull again.
Even with the last day miss the trip was absolutely amazing. During the massive road-tour Jennifer added 13 lifers, Micky 10, and I added one! Below is a complete list of species and the daily number of birds of that species seen on the trip.
Fortunately planning the trip was not as challenging as visiting an area for the first time since I've been on these roads and searched the areas multiple years before. Realistically anyone could search recent reports on eBird, the MOUNet Listserv, and Facebook groups to have a decent idea of where to start looking for their target species. Volunteers at the Bog Welcome center are amazingly kind and often share recent information for visitors.
If I've learned anything from the past three years of showing KC birders around northern Minnesota it is to make sure everyone has cold-weather clothing. We were fortunate to see all the species we did from the comfort of a vehicle this year. It is nice to have a reliable car and being prepared for the worse case scenario. Respect private property and remember that others call these areas home. Don't be a bad steward of the land, block the road, or represent birders as anything other than grateful guests. While I could give driving suggestions for snow packed icy roads, I suspect no matter what I write here won't change your tendencies anyways. Instead make sure to add AAA, your insurance, and tow-company contacts to your phone as you may be lucky enough to have coverage if something happens. Good birding.