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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Minnesota in Winter

2017 Narrative

In Brief: The expansive bog lands, boreal forests, and Lake Superior shorelines of Duluth, MN, and environs, offer a uniquely accessible opportunity to see specialty birds of the northern climes in winter.  Because of the nature of the boreal ecology, being comprised of relatively few species, the presence and abundance of northern birds such as owls and finches is hinged on the presence and abundance of a few or even a single food source.  The cyclical crops of spruce and fir cones, for example, or the fluctuating populations of voles, determine to a large extent the numbers and species of birds able to survive the winter in a given area, as does the availability of these foods in other areas.  Rather than undergoing predictable migrations, these northern species are erratic: wandering the expanse of the boreal forest and settling where food is most abundant; or, in some years, not moving at all.  Occasionally, a number of factors line up, and an area like northern Minnesota will experience a veritable bird “event”, a great irruption of birds otherwise scarce or absent.

 Even in a year that could be said to be an “off” year for some of these northern nomads, we nevertheless enjoyed memorable encounters with many of the birds that make Winter in the North so enticing to birders:  Black-backed Woodpecker, Pine Grosbeak, Evening Grosbeak, Bohemian Waxwing, Great Gray, Snowy and Northern Hawk Owl, Spruce and Sharp-tailed Grouse, just to name a few! In all, we encountered 63 species of birds and 7 species of mammals on our travels through northeastern Minnesota and Northwestern Wisconsin. We added 7 species to the all time tour list including: Red-necked Grebe, Cooper’s Hawk, Varied Thrush, White-crowned Sparrow, Red-winged Blackbird, Common Grackle, House Finch and two mammal, both extremely early records of Eastern Chipmunk and Striped Skunk.

The pleasantly mild temperatures often in the mid 30’s and reaching 40 degrees one day resulted in some very unusual rain and fog a few mornings. This is not typical of the weather for Minnesota during January.

 In Detail:

We started birding shortly after dropping luggage off at the hotel on January 20. We drove over to Superior, Wisconsin where we had great views of two young male Snowy Owls. We went to dinner at the Canal Park Brewery where we sampled some of Duluth finest micro-brews and food.

 January 21, we headed up to Sax-Zim Bog in search of Great Gray Owls and other bog specialties. We struck out on the owl, but did manage to see lots of Ruffed Grouse (18) most of the winter finches including Pine and Evening Grosbeaks, Common Redpolls and 70 White-wing Crossbills. We had great scope views at times of many of these plus seeing them in their natural habitat is always a treat. We were able to study not only their plumages but also their calls. We also lucked out finding two flocks of Bohemian waxwings, which are uncommon in the bog. We decided to stay in the bog until late afternoon to try again for the Great Gray Owl, but again no luck.

 January 22, we headed up to Lake County along Highway 2 and 1 and the forest roads off of them. We spent the greater part of the day in the Superior National Forest were I explained that this area in spring and summer is teaming with breeding Neotropical songbirds and is a premier location to find some of the more elusive resident and irruptive birds of the boreal forest in winter.  We had high hopes of finding some of the areas specialties. We were successful in finding all of them including two male Spruce Grouse, Black-backed Woodpecker, Boreal Chickadees, and Red Crossbills along with the more regular species such as Gray Jays and other winter finches.

 We then headed toward the town of Ely were we had lunch at the Front Porch Café.  In town we drove around the streets, walked some of the neighborhoods and checked feeders. We added some species to the day list and gave ourselves time to venture our way back down to Sax-Zim Bog where we encountered our second and third species of owls for the tour. First was a Barred Owl which we watched sitting along a roadside. The second was the Great Gray Owl, which we watched sitting on an old lichen spruce tree stump. We were able to view it through the scope before it flew into the woods. The Great Gray Owl was on the most wanted list of all who came on the tour.

 January 23, we ventured to the small North Shore town of Grand Marais. We stopped along the way first to view a River Otter I had known about on the Temperance River. It was amazing to watch the otter and it did not disappoint! It was seen for 20 minutes, playing, rolling and sliding on the snow bank of the river.

 In Grand Marais we had great luck finding the birds I had hoped we would find. There were feeders in town, which hosted two Varied Thrush, Red-winged Blackbird, Common Grackle, both White-throated and White-crowned Sparrow and Northern Cardinal.  We had lunch in town and proceded to then bird the harbor and lakeshore were we found a male Harlequin Duck, group of Long-tailed Ducks along with Common Goldeneyes, and a male Bufflehead. While working our way down toward Duluth we checked a few locations and added Red-necked Grebe and White-winged Scoter.

 January 24, on a whim, we decided to check an area in Aitkin County near the town of McGregor where a Northern Hawk Owl had been seen about a week earlier. Knowing the area well, I thought we could locate it and thus we had our forth species of owl for the tour.

 Afterward we made our way to Two Harbors were we checked feeders and walked some of the neighborhoods. There we found a Townsend’s Solitaire, another White-crowned Sparrow, and our only flock of Cedar Waxwings with some Bohemian’s.  We also added a Horned Grebe at the mouth of the Stewart River. In Duluth, at Canal park we studied four species of gulls of various age classes, including Herring, an adult Great Black-backed, 3 Thayer’s and four Glaucous. We ended the day in Superior, Wisconsin were we added Peregrine Falcon, Red-tailed Hawk, Rough-legged Hawk and a big surprise was a Cooper’s Hawk hunting a flock of Starlings. We found a new Snowy Owl, a young female who had displaced one of the young males. She put on a show for us as we watched her vocalize, stretch and preen.  The group was thrilled to witness this behavior.

 January 25, the last morning before flying out, we headed to Sax-Zim Bog again, searching for Sharp-tailed Grouse at a known lek site. We found two that sat in trees for us while we viewed them through a scope. Also at this location we had Black-billed Magpies, which is at the easternmost extremity of the species’ normal breeding range. 

 - Frank Nicoletti

Created: 07 February 2017