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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Minnesota and North Dakota

North Woods to Prairies

2018 Narrative

The Minnesota and North Dakota: North Woods to Prairies tour is a personal favorite of mine, and this year was no exception.  Beginning our tour in Minneapolis, where the birdlife is primarily of the Eastern deciduous forest character, moving on up to Duluth, at the transition zone into the Boreal, with a great variety of breeding songbirds occupying the numerous habitat types, and then out west as far as Kidder County, North Dakota, the landscape giving way to the vast open spaces of the Prairie states.  Here we encounter a different suite of birds, while all the while noting interesting overlaps and extensions in the ranges of common birds, here in a region of great transition.

Our tour officially kicked off on the evening of the first of June at our hotel in Bloomington, near the airport serving the Twin Cities.  A brief meeting followed by dinner at a steakhouse down the street.  Our birding activities began the following morning with a lovely morning at Murphy-Hanrehan Park south of the city, a big old former estate now full of mature forest, ponds, and fields teeming with wildlife.  The birdsong was truly impressive, with American Redstarts perhaps leading the way, along with many other species.  Some, like Field Sparrow, Blue-winged Warbler, Hooded Warbler, and Acadian Flycatcher, we wouldn’t encounter anywhere else on our tour.  We had great looks at many of the species present, including a cooperative Henslow’s Sparrow in full-throated song, a beautiful male Cerulean Warbler, and other showy characters like Indigo Buntings and Scarlet Tanagers.  After the park we went over to Whitetail Woods Regional Park in the town of Vermillion, where we found Dickcissels, Grasshopper Sparrows, Lark Sparrows, and several other new species, while enjoying our picnic.  After lunch it was time to trek up to Duluth.  The weather was deteriorating a bit and by the time we reached Duluth we were happy for a good meal and a hotel, with no birding plans for the wet evening. 

The next day was an early morning, one of many on this tour.  The reason for the early start becomes evident as we get into the habitat at the break of day and hear the great chorus of songbirds that is already well underway.  We spent all morning around the Sax-Zim bog.  Our first objective was to look for Great Gray Owls in the dim earliest part of the day, and we sure did find one.  A great big dapper fellow, in the company of many angry robins, and a Black-backed Woodpecker passing through.  We spent the rest of the morning systematically experiencing each species in its turn, the many warblers including Connecticut Warbler, which put on a show-stopper right along the road, singing loudly and perched a stone’s throw away.  We also located a Black-billed Magpie, here at the edge of its range.  Lots of other great birds to keep us occupied all morning.  After leaving the bog we explored Lake Nichols, where we found Common Loons and Trumpeter Swans, and then had an excellent lunch at the Wilbert Cafe in Cotton.  We returned to Duluth for some downtime, then set out into town to look for a Eurasian Tree Sparrow which had been frequenting a neighborhood flock of House Sparrows.  We found the little bird quite by himself, taking a drink in a local garden.  Then we spent some time looking at Lake Superior, at Park Point, spotting several well-plumaged Red-throated Loons, some shorebirds including Sanderling, and the like.  Lots of Common Terns and Ring-billed Gulls from a nearby colony.

The next day we again set out early, this time to Superior National Forest in Lake County, Minnesota, up on the North Shore.  Primarily on Stoney River Forest Road and Whyte Road, we spent the morning absolutely immersed in splendid habitat and a symphony of birdsong.  Most of the mixed-forest and many of the more sought-after boreal warbler species were present, including spectacular Bay-breasted Warblers, many Cape May Warblers, Tennessees, and the like. We often stopped to take in the drumming of the Ruffed Grouse, more a feeling than a sound.  Some of us were lucky to glimpse a Northern Goshawk which briefly flew beside our van.  By lunch time, with the temperature rising but lots of birdsong still going strong, we were out in the town of Finland.  After lunch we took the shoreline route home, stopping at Two Harbors to scan the lake, and swinging by local birder Frank Nicoletti’s house to watch his feeders for Evening Grosbeaks, which never showed, although Purple Finches and a Northern Parula were of note.  We returned to our hotel followed by a dinner in downtown Duluth, spying a nesting Peregrine on its predictable perch overlooking the city center. 

In the morning we took a jaunt back up to Sax-Zim bog to clean up on a few missing species, including Golden-winged Warbler.  Unfortunately Boreal Chickadee was only heard, the species tending to be quite elusive in late Spring.  Then we headed to Grand Rapids, got lunch, took a very pleasant stroll in Chippewa National Forest, looking at butterflies and ovenbirds; we made the usual stop at Cass Lake for Baltimore Orioles and Warbling Vireos, and rolled into Grand Forks, North Dakota (just across the border) for an earlier dinner at our hotel.  After dinner some of us spent the evening in the wet meadows and marshes north of the town’s airport, seeing new prairie birds like Marbled Godwits, Franklin’s Gulls, Le Conte’s Sparrows, Wilson’s Phalaropes, and many others.  This is an area that sometimes has the “elusive, near-mythical, highly sought-after” Yellow Rail, and a few of us returned at the “magic” hour, around 11pm, but utterly failed to locate any, and were unfortunately driven back by a violent electric storm fast approaching. 

So we had a leisurely, better-than-average breakfast the next morning at our hotel in Grand Forks, and then continued to explore the environs, visiting Kellys Slough National Wildlife Refuge, which was full of ducks and shorebirds including American Avocet, and our first Willow Flycatchers; and Greenway Park on the Red River of the North, a beautiful park with towering cottonwoods located in town.  After a nice walk we began our zig-zagging County Road route to Jamestown, stopping at Paula’s Steakhouse in Mayville for lunch of course, and already beginning to notice increased numbers of ducks, grebes, and blackbirds, as the landscape changed to wide open agriculture with bits of prairie-like grassland and marshy ponds.  Black Terns, coots, scaup, teal… In the afternoon we were at Arrowwood National Wildlife refuge, a beautiful rolling prairie and wetland.  We arrived just in time to see the visitor’s center, and then took the auto route.  Here we found Upland Sandpipers displaying in a pasture, countless Bobolinks, Orchard Orioles, Purple Martins, and a nice bunch of late migrant shorebirds, including dozens of White-rumped Sandpipers.  Leaving the refuge, we were just a short drive from our new base in Jamestown.

The next morning we were out early again, this time to hear the chorus on the Spring prairie.  We made a first stop in Kidder County at Tappen Slough, just at the break of day, to listen to the incredible sounds of the American Bittern, and the cascading gurgles of the Marsh Wrens.  Then we went up to what’s known as the Kunkel School Section, one of a handful of plots of good prairie in the area.  Here, mostly native grasses and flowers create the right community to host many Chestnut-collared Longspurs, “Western” Willets, Ferruginous Hawks, Baird’s Sparrows, and Sprague’s Pipits, among others.  We did well on all of these save the pipit, who is difficult to detect in June and provided only a couple brief fly-bys at best.  By crossing a fence we were free to roam out in the prairie, taking in the whole experience, the wonderful muted sun, the blooming flowers, the tinkling songs of the prairie birds.  Imagining the seemingly boundless wilderness of just this that once was, stretching from here to the Rocky Mountains.  We then snaked our way along the dirt roads to Horesehead Lake, a big body of marsh-fringed water that hosts vast numbers of breeding birds, including both Western and Clark’s Grebes, Black Terns, Ruddy Ducks, American Coots, great colonies of Yellow-headed Blackbirds, and more.  We were in Dawson for a well-earned sit-down lunch at the Yankee Doodle Diner, after which we walked the streets of the little prairie town, among the cottonwoods, in search of Eurasian Collared Doves and Eastern Fox Squirrels, both of which put in their expected appearances.  Then we went south to Dewald Slough, where we found still more Upland Sandpipers, more grebes, and many wading birds including Snowy and Cattle Egrets.  Unfortunately we still hadn’t seen Nelson’s Sparrow, and several spots that had been reliable in the past were dried up and thistly this year, so we decided to stop for sticky buns and coffee at the Doodle, and came up with the plan to return to Horsehead Lake Wildlife Management Area, where the sedge and rush marsh is just right for the species.  We were rather speedily rewarded here with stunning views of this handsome bird.  We then went back to our hotel in the outskirts of Jamestown. 

The next day we had a long drive back to the Twin Cities.  We made a brief stop at the Jamestown Sewage Ponds, which had many Eared Grebes and a variety of ducks.  We then stopped in Minnesota at the Bluestem Prairie and Buffalo River State Park, taking a delightful and birdy stroll, with a highlight being a late migrant Olive-sided Flycatcher, a fledgling Great-horned Owl, and many other field and forest birds.  After lunch in Fergus Falls we headed back to the airport hotel, in time for a late afternoon jaunt to nearby Minnesota River National Wildlife Refuge, now back in lush leafy forest ringing with birdsong.  We had a great final meal at a little Italian spot, and concluded a truly wonderful tour. 

Thanks for being an exceptional group!

— Evan Obercian

Updated: October 2019