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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Minnesota and North Dakota

North Woods to Prairies

2017 Narrative

In Brief:  Our Minnesota and North Dakota, “North Woods to Prairies” tour, covers a region of dramatic shifts in habitats and bird communities, at a time when the majority of breeding bird species is in a frenzy of activity and song.  Beginning our tour in the Twin Cities allows us to explore rich alluvial forests along the Minnesota River corridor, ringing with many of the songs one might hear in the temperate forests of the Southeast, including some species, notably Hooded Warbler and Acadian Flycatcher, reaching the extreme northwest corners of their range.  Here we also have the chance to encounter birds more typical of the tallgrass prairie region of the Midwest, like Dickcissel and the globally rare Henslow’s Sparrow.  From here we head north towards Duluth and Lake Superior, along the way seeing the landscape change, entering a transition zone rather like the aspen parklands of Canada, where prairie transitions to boreal forest, and seeing our first Tamarack and spruce bogs.  A rest stop along the way might yield songs of Nashville and Yellow-rumped Warblers, among other breeding species typical of montane and boreal regions, while Ovenbirds, Veeries, and Red-eyed Vireos sing in the aspen groves.  From our base near the lakeshore, we devote a couple of days to exploring the famed Sax-Zim Bog, actually a network of bogs, willow and alder marshes, and farmland.  Here, Connecticut Warblers breed in surprising numbers, along with other classic birds of the northern boglands, like Lincoln’s Sparrow and possibly even the rumor of a Great Gray Owl.  We also visit the beautiful forests along the North Shore.  These forests, though mixed, and therefore diverse, contain areas of dense spruce, and birds typical of the true North Woods.  We hope for Black-backed Woodpecker, Boreal Chickadee, and a host of warblers, including Bay-breasted, Cape May, and Tennessee.

 After getting our fill of the North Woods, we head west to the Red River and Grand Forks, North Dakota, with stops along the way.  Grand Forks is a convenient stopping point on our journey towards the Great Plains, and, in some years, offers a chance for the elusive Yellow Rail in the expansive wet meadows along the upper reaches of the river valley.  And then it’s onward to Jamestown, veritable gateway to the shortgrass prairie region of North Dakota, and home base for our jaunts into the bird-rich areas around the towns of Steele, Dawson, and others, just to the west.  Here we explore areas which support populations of breeding Chestnut-collared Longspurs, Marbled Godwits, and other iconic birds of the prairies, while in the numerous “potholes” find grebes, Black Terns, and an abundance of ducks.  We also look for the rare Baird’s Sparrow, a bird increasingly restricted by lack of suitable habitat. Coming full circle, our tour ends back in the Twin Cities.

 In Detail: With few exceptions, this year’s tour enjoyed excellent weather conditions for detecting nearly all the myriad breeding bird species to be expected on our route.  Our first morning was spent just south of the Twin Cities, at Murphy-Hanrehan Park Reserve in Savage, Minnesota.  A former farm and estate, the park is an incredibly beautiful and relatively wild piece of land barely outside the metropolitan area.  Songs of Ovenbirds, American Redstarts, House Wrens, and others, were heard even before our first stop.  Parking at the head of one of the many multi-use trails in the park, we spent a leisurely early morning strolling along woodland edges and through meadows, encountering a few birds, like Blue-winged Warbler and Field Sparrow, which we wouldn’t be seeing elsewhere on our route.  If it can be said that we had a specific aim in mind, it was to head for the far end of a large field that looked especially good for Henslow’s Sparrow, a rarity both on a local and a global scale.  Here, a good mat of last year’s grass, as well as some old standing stalks, mixed with lush new growth.  We weren’t long in this realm before we detected the humble little song of this disappearing inhabitant of the tall-grass prairies of the mid-West and of the upland reaches of coastal marshes in the mid-Atlantic, who likes not the mower.  Other birds here included Red-bellied Woodpecker, Alder Flycatcher, Yellow Warbler, and Indigo Bunting.  As the heat rose, we headed into the shaded forest on a different trail, and here encountered the locally rare Acadian Flycatcher, here at the extreme edge of its range.  Many other forest birds, such as Eastern Wood-pewee, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Yellow-throated Vireo, and Scarlet Tanager, made for an excellent morning.  A particular treat was an Olive-sided Flycatcher perched high in a snag, a late migrant, and a bird we would be hoping to see in the coming days, where they breed in northern bogs.  Leaving the park, we headed for a grassland in the town of Vermillion, where a small colony of Dickcissel, as well as Bobolinks and Willow Flycatchers, and a spacious shaded picnic area, provided an ideal spot for lunch before turning northward to the shores of Lake Superior.

We made the dramatic descent into Duluth in time to view the lakefront at Park Point, where we saw Common Terns, Common Loons, and a flock of Sanderlings and Dunlin, and to freshen up at our hotel before dinner, prepared for an evening excursion to Sax-Zim Bog.  A few pairs of Great Gray Owls breed in the bog, and a slow evening drive in the summer can, with a lot of luck, provide a chance encounter.  We were abundantly rewarded with great views of an adult owl perched in the open, and tracking down the scratchy wail of a begging juvenile, had wonderful views of a partly-feathered, partly fluff young Great Gray!  And all the while, a male Black-backed Woodpecker put in several appearances on the roadside.  As night was falling, we listened to the displays of American Woodcocks and Wilson’s Snipes, and the outrageous sounds of American Bitterns out in the willow marshes. 

Early the next morning it was back to Sax-Zim.  It was a beautiful morning full of birdsong, and we got to study the sounds of some of the more common bog breeders, including the omnipresent (but rather difficult-to-see) Nashville Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler, Mourning Warbler, Palm Warbler, and many more.  It wasn’t long before we heard the rich, staccato jumble of the Connecticut Warbler from somewhere deep in a Tamarack fen.  In fact we heard several before detecting one close to the road.  And so, whether in boots, old sneakers, or barefoot, we all prepared to take a walk into the soggy sphagnum.  Connecticut Warblers are a famously skulking bird, hard to see in large part because of their sluggishness.  When out of sight, they will likely remain so.  A fall migrant, finding food in a dense field of Goldenrod is an extremely difficult bird to detect.  On territory, males will sing from high up in a conifer, rarely changing perches, and so often just as hard to spot.  It took quite a bit of maneuvering, echo-location techniques and the like, to spot the bird on his perch.  We ended up with excellent scope views of this most prized and little-known warbler, in full-throated song.  Standing amid the Tamarack fen, surrounded by lady’s-slippers (and, yes, mosquitos), the encounter was dramatic, indeed perfect.  A new bird for many, and what better way to see it?

We stopped to view other birds of interest heard singing as we drove along, and took lunch at a timeless little café in Cotton.  After lunch we went back into the bog, deciding to revisit the location of the previous evening’s Great Gray Owl encounter.  Strolling along this section of dirt road, enjoying views of both Lincoln’s and Swamp Sparrows, Blue-headed Vireos, Black-backed Woodpecker, and others, we noticed that several robins were giving sharp calls from within the forest.  We eventually located the source of alarm: two fledgling Great Grays perched together on a branch!  While we observed these birds in the scope, we could just make out the form of an adult bird swooping in to drop food for one of the young.  Truly spectacular!   We spent the rest of the afternoon leisurely exploring a few lakes, taking in the perfumed air of the north woods and all the wonderful songs that go along with it.  The highlight was perhaps an unusually cooperative Black-billed Cuckoo that sat for leisurely scope views. 

Our second full day we devoted entirely to exploring the magnificent tracts of forests in Lake County, Minnesota, mostly in Superior National Forest.  A great variety of songbirds occur here, where the forest endlessly changes, from mixed broad-leaf and pine, to dense spruce-fir boreal zones, to alder and Red Maple swamps, to gorgeous Tamarack-Black Spruce bogs.  This is a fascinating place to observe the habitat preferences of many of our breeding birds.  In some of the better stretches of boreal-transition forest, we encountered such true boreal species as Bay-breasted, Tennessee, and Cape May Warblers (the latter two especially numerous), having superb views of all.  We also flushed a Spruce Grouse, enjoyed amazing views of a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, and located the scarce Wilson’s Warbler .  Other species were more widespread.  Blackburnian, Nashville, Yellow-rumped, and Magnolia Warblers were all common.  In an especially dense, young stand of mixed Balsam and hardwood, we enjoyed stunning views of a Canada Warbler.  Northern Waterthrushes sang from the maple and alder swamps.  The drumming of Ruffed Grouse resonated throughout.  As we drove slowly along the largely untraveled dirt roads, song after song wafted in through the open windows.  Both kinglets, Hermit Thrush, Swainson’s Thrush, Veery, the locally-scarce Northern Parula, Black-throated Green Warbler, and the beautiful and never common Mourning Warbler.  All of us having the appetite that comes from fresh air, early mornings, and active discovery, we stopped in for lunch at another gritty little café full of local color (a bit of a theme on our tour), where we enjoyed an excellent lunch while admiring the work of local taxidermists.  Afterwards, we took a different road back to home base, explored some of the unique aspen forests of the north shore (where we tried in vain to detect a Philadelphia Vireo in the lull of the afternoon), descending down to Lake Superior and back to Duluth.  A little downtime, another great dinner of walleye and wild rice (with other options, of course), and a much-needed earlier night were in order to prepare us for the next leg of our trip.

Leaving our hotel in Duluth behind, we decided to head back to Sax-Zim Bog early in the morning, before making our way west.  We still desired better views of the incredibly beautiful Golden-winged Warbler, and this very wish was granted before long.  We also had an obliging Sharp-tailed Grouse in the middle of the road, and a little farther along a great big lumbering Timber Wolf!   We also put in a little effort to see Le Conte’s Sparrow, and were greatly rewarded with breathtaking views.  A last-ditch effort to find the elusive Boreal Chickadee (secretive and quiet this time of year), resulted in a mid-morning Northern Saw-whet Owl responding to my whistle from deep within the spruce forest.  Leaving the bog, we took a 12 mile dirt road into Aitkin County, passing through the edges of a vast wilderness.  Here we saw our first Trumpeter Swans.  Coming out in the town of Jacobson, we enjoyed a very pleasant picnic lunch on the banks of the Mississippi River, where Baltimore Orioles, Yellow-throated Vireos, Black-billed Cuckoos, and Least Flycatchers were singing, among others.  After lunch we headed for the highway up in Grand Rapids, and set out for Grand Forks on the route 2 corridor.  Along the way, we left the forest behind, as the landscape opened to broad horizons, and began noting birds whose names suggested where we were heading: Western Meadowlark, Western Kingbird…  After crossing paths with an immense thunder storm, we settled into our hotel in Grand Forks and took an early dinner at the restaurant there, the skies now clearing.  After dinner, we spent the evening on the farm road that, later that very night, would be the site of our Yellow Rail excursion.  Enormous wet meadows stretched out on either side of the dirt road, with singing Bobolinks, rowdy Marbled Godwits, flocks of Franklin’s Gulls, many LeConte’s Sparrows, and several Nelson’s Sparrows, one of which perched at close range in the open, and even ran out into the road!  We spotted a Gray Partridge along the road, and two Striped Skunks running through the meadows, evidently hunting, perhaps for bird nests.  We made the short drive back to the hotel to have a little rest before those who wished would go out again at the “magic” hour (about 11pm!) to see if we might hear a Yellow Rail.  And so, finding ourselves back on the same road, now deep in the night, we got out where the habitat was particularly good (Yellow Rails are very particular about water levels, requiring a small amount of very gently-flowing water).  Unfortunately, no rails were heard this night, despite a great amount of effort, but we did enjoy a chorus of Le Conte’s Sparrow, Nelson’s Sparrows, Sedge Wrens, and a locally very-rare Henslow’s Sparrow, evidently a returning bird originally located on last year’s tour.

The next morning was leisurely, on account of the previous day’s activity.  We took advantage of the hotel’s exceptional breakfast and planned a late departure for a bit of local birding before moving on towards the prairies.  Our first stop was very near our rail meadow, where the night before we had heard a Henslow’s Sparrow singing.  A very rare bird here, we hoped that it would be present this morning.  Sure enough, we enjoyed scope views of the singing male, though no sign of a female.  A stop at nearby Kellys Slough gave us Wilson’s Phalaropes and American Avocets, a distant flock of “peeps” containing a number of White-rumped Sandpipers (lingering Spring migrants), as well as increasing our duck list by leaps and bounds.  After a pleasant walk along the Red River in Grand Forks, we started out for Jamestown, North Dakota, which would be our base for the next couple of days.  We opted for a route on smaller roads to take us there, having lunch in a prairie town along the way (unfortunately my restaurant of choice was temporarily closed for repairs, so we did a little improvising, which all worked out in the end!).  With the exception of birds spotted en route, our next birding venture was to Arrowwood National Wildlife Refuge, just north of Jamestown.  Here we had our first close encounters with Yellow-headed Blackbirds.  In fact, icterids seemed to rule this country.  Red-winged Blackbirds were abundant, Brewer’s Blackbirds were common, Western Meadowlarks sang from the fence posts.  We also had a spectacular encounter with a pair of Grasshopper Sparrows, doing a sort of bowing display on a fence wire.  On the road out of Arrowwood, we found a flock of peeps much closer than those found in the morning, and with a little effort were immensely satisfied with White-rumped Sandpipers.  On to Jamestown, and our next hotel.

From our base in Jamestown, it is a short distance to the short-grass prairies and bird-rich sloughs and potholes of Kidder County, North Dakota.  After stopping for a roadside Ferruginous Hawk still on his nighttime perch in an agricultural area, our first destination was the so-called Kunkel Lake School Section, a plot of short-grass prairie with public access.  Here, native grasses thrive, and their ecological value, in contrast to the enormous acreages of hay grasses planted elsewhere, is clear.  One need not walk far before being serenaded by the sweet song of the stunning Chestnut-collared Longspur, common only in plots of true prairie.  Pairs of Marbled Godwits wheeled about.  Western Willets.  Great numbers of Grasshopper Sparrows, Savannah Sparrows and Bobolinks.  Another Ferruginous Hawk seen well in flight.  It was here that we heard the tinkling song of the Baird’s Sparrow, perching up for close studies in the scope.  This uncommon species, perhaps more than all the others, requires this type of high-quality grassland.  We also encountered another prairie specialty, the Sprague’s Pipit, which doesn’t happen every year, partly because of their scarcity and partly because of the timing of our tour, which tends to fall in between nestings of this species.  Nevertheless, we were extremely fortunate to flush a fledgling, while an adult hovered overhead in full song!   Having fully absorbed the atmosphere of the prairie, we continued on to nearby Horsehead Lake, stopping along the way for a Say’s Phoebe at a famed outpost of this species’ range.  Reaching the lake, one is met by a cacophony of bird sound.  Hundreds of pairs of Yellow-headed Blackbirds fill the cattail beds here.  The open water is dotted with Western Grebes and displaying Ruddy Ducks, while graceful Black Terns course back and forth above their nests in the rushes.  It’s like a vision of pre-colonial bounty.  Among other highlights here, as we continued along the lake, was a Great-horned Owl flushed from a cottonwood.  We wound up in the town of Dawson for lunch at the Yankee Doodle Diner, perhaps the culmination of our small-town, “mom and pop” restaurant tour.  Warbling Vireos, Purple Martins, and our only Eurasian Collared-doves were here in town.  After lunch we explored Dewald Slough to the south, where we had more lingering shorebirds, a number of Cattle Egrets, and a few grebes, though very high winds made birding a bit difficult.  We headed back to Jamestown for the night, where an enormous sunset storm of thunder, lighting, and rain, filled the skies with billowing towers of lavender clouds and glowing realms of golden light, a spectacular prairie storm.   

On our final morning of birding, after departing our hotel in Jamestown, we decided to make some distance early on and stop mid-morning once we’d crossed into Minnesota, at a Nature Conservancy property known as the Bluestem Prairie, adjacent to Buffalo River State Park.  This is a good spot earlier in the spring to see the lekking on the Greater Prairie-Chicken, and we were lucky enough to spot a single bird among the grasses.  A little farther down the road, a bird came fluttering overhead: Upland Sandpiper!  A bird we had feared we might miss on our tour.  Two more were just in front of us on the road, providing a wonderful experience of this unique and sadly declining American bird.  We lingered here awhile, taking in the exuberant Bobolinks, hearing yet another Henslow’s Sparrow, and wondering at the beauty of the prairie, which once covered so much of this land.  We picked up sandwiches, had a picnic at a highway rest area, and made good time back to the Twin Cities, in time for a late afternoon excursion back to Murphy-Hanrehan, where we saw many of the birds we had started with one long week ago.  After dinner we said our goodbyes, having had a most exceptionally wonderful tour.

- Evan Obercian

Updated: October 2017