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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Minnesota and North Dakota

North Woods to Prairies

2022 Narrative

IN BRIEF: The Minnesota and North Dakota tour went beyond expectations. We dodged most of the rain, had incredible sightings, and had an overall wonderful trip. On the warbler front, we tallied 25 species including the holy grail - Connecticut - along with Cerulean, Hooded, Mourning, and Golden-winged. Sparrows didn’t disappoint either with our tally reaching 17 species including beauties such as Henslow’s, LeConte’s, Nelson’s, and Baird’s. The Northwoods provided point-blank views of a gorgeous pair of Great Gray Owls while the potholes and prairies region, after some much needed rain, was alive with vast numbers of waterfowl, grebes, and shorebirds along with some specials including Yellow Rail, Greater Prairie-Chicken, and Sprague’s Pipit. It was truly a trip you could always hope for!

IN DETAIL: Our tour kicked off on the first evening near Minneapolis where we made introductions and discussed the upcoming tour over a tasty dinner.

The first morning we focused our attention on the surrounding area of Minneapolis targeting species with more southern affinities. Thunderstorms threatened our birding, but the weather remained on our side. We arrived at an area of extensive grassland just over the St. Croix River in Wisconsin right as the rain subsided. After a short walk we had great views of our target Henslow’s Sparrow. It was the beginning of a very successful sparrow tour! We also picked up Grasshopper, Chipping, and Song Sparrows along with Eastern Bluebird and Eastern Meadowlark.

The rain resumed during our drive north to William O’Brien State Park back on the Minnesota side of the river. Again, our arrival was timed perfectly as the rain subsided as soon as we got out of the vehicles. Our first stop was a Cerulean Warbler I pinned down the day prior during some scouting. Upon arrival it was already singing a bizarre alternative song that sounded much like an Orange-crowned Warbler. We ended up having suburb views of this gorgeous bird right out in the open on the edge of the forest.

We then spent a few hours birding slowly by foot on a network of trails. The open scrub and grasslands provided Alder and Willow Flycatchers, Warbling Vireo, Sedge Wren, Field Sparrow, Eastern Towhee, as well as great views of Blue-winged Warbler. A marsh area held the usual suspects including Blue-winged Teal, Green Heron, Sora, Swamp Sparrow, and Marsh Wren. Much of the morning was spent in the forest where we targeted Red-shouldered Hawk, Acadian Flycatcher, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, and Hooded Warbler – all of which were recorded and do not occur further north. We also picked up Eastern Wood-Pewee, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Yellow-throated and Red-eyed Vireos, Veery, Wood Thrush, Scarlet Tanager, Rose-breasted Grosbeak and several species of warblers including Ovenbird, Black-and-white, Tennessee, American Redstart, and a Canada.

After a successful morning of birding, we headed a couple of hours north to Duluth. With some spare time before checking into our hotel, we visited Park Point, a strip of land on Lake Superior, which can be an excellent migrant trap. American Redstarts sure put on a show with no fewer than eight individuals. Mixed in we found Magnolia, Blackburnian, and Chestnut-sided among other warblers. We also found a mixed flock of Sanderling and Dunlin, a Merlin actively hunting the migrant passerines, an Olive-sided Flycatcher, female Bobolink near the restrooms, and a nice bonus of a Philadelphia Vireo, which can be very tricky to find later in the tour.

An early departure the following morning brought us to Sax-Zim Bog where we immediately began our search for the magnificent Great Gray Owl. With a little bit of searching, we encountered a pair right off the road sitting out in the open on a bare branch. What a start of the day! South of the bog we visited an area of damp meadows where we had a Sharp-tailed Grouse, a handful of Black-billed Magpies, displaying Bobolinks, and a Western Meadowlark. Traversing back through the bog we had a number of new birds such as drumming Ruffed Grouse, Sandhill Crane, winnowing Wilson’s Snipe, a Canada Jay teed up on a spruce, singing Hermit Thrush, and an assortment of breeding warblers including Nashville, Mourning, and Palm. Not far from the bog, another damp meadow yielded excellent views of a LeConte’s Sparrow while a nearby lake had pairs of Trumpeter Swans and Ring-necked Ducks along with a Common Loon.

Lunch was had at a nearby café, which coincided perfectly with the rain. By the time we were finished, the rain had dissipated. We visited a bird feeding station that were very active with birds including Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers side-by-side, Purple Finch, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and a surprise Bobolink feeding under the feeders among the grackles and cowbirds.

Our final stop of the day were a couple wastewater treatment ponds. New additions picked up were Green-winged Teal, Semipalmated Sandpiper, and a pair of Wilson’s Phalaropes.

The next morning saw us rise early and head north into Superior National Forest in little-visited areas of Lake County. Although it was raining upon arrival, after about 30 minutes the weather improved, and we were soon being serenaded by dawn chorus far from civilization. The melodic songs of Swainson’s and Hermit Thrushes carried through the spruce forests as White-throated Sparrows sung nearby, while ubiquitous and emphatic songs of Winter Wrens colored the background. A Lincoln’s Sparrow popped into view offering great views, Pine Siskins called overhead, and Red-breasted Nuthatch and Golden-crowned Kinglets called from nearby trees. However, it was the warblers that put on a show! We had no fewer than 14 species of warblers on our walk along the quiet gravel road. Our main target was Bay-breasted Warbler, which has a limited breeding range in Minnesota preferring the boreal forests of Canada, but after a while, we found a female offering extended views. Tennessee Warblers sang from a distance, Magnolia Warblers showing off their necklaces worked the spruce trees along the road, and we had a stunning male Cape May Warbler come in to investigate us. It was quite the magical morning.

By now it was nearly lunchtime, so we headed towards the coast stopping briefly at a wastewater treatment plant that hosted Wood Ducks, a pair of Ring-necked Ducks, and a single Lesser Scaup. We stopped by a delightful local coffee shop picking up delicious wraps, sandwiches, pastries, and of course coffees, and enjoyed them on the picnic tables outside surrounding by conifer forests.

We continued back south towards Duluth making a few stops along the way on Lake Superior and headed back to Park Point. We jumped out of the van and headed over to a patch of trees, which was filled with migrant warblers. We picked up our first Wilson’s Warblers and immediately after caught on with a Connecticut! They hadn’t been very cooperative in the bog lately, so it was a real treat to pick up a migrant as a good backup. Other migrants included good numbers of Canada Warblers, several Philadelphia Vireos, no fewer than five Yellow-bellied Flycatchers, and a surprise Hooded Warbler, which is a rare vagrant this far north.

With the following day being a travel day to North Dakota, we had a sightly later start to catch up on sleep. Seeing that Sax-Zim Bog is somewhat along the way towards Grand Forks, we did a loop around the area. The wind was howling, and rain was intense at times, but we managed to get superb views of a male Mourning Warbler and picked up two more Sharp-tailed Grouse before hitting the road.

Upon arriving at Grand Forks, we stopped along the Red River for a short while to see if the resident Red-headed Woodpecker was around, but the winds were relentless. We did see a couple dozen Chimney Swifts battling the winds overhead, a Merlin shoot right over our heads, and a Spotted Sandpiper fly down the river.

Fortunately, the winds were forecasted to die down by evening. After dinner most of the group headed fifteen minutes out of town to listen for Yellow Rails. We arrived early to enjoy the last birding before dusk and had ten Sharp-tailed Grouse, Common Nighthawks circling over a tree line, a Marbled Godwit, several winnowing snipe, and a nice collection of sparrows namely Grasshopper, Clay-colored, Savannah, and some distant Nelson’s. Soon it was dark, and we were able to pick up on at least four Yellow Rails giving their insect like clicking calls.

The next morning began at a stand of cattails, which hosts the attractive Nelson’s Sparrow. It didn’t take long before one was teed up right in front of us offering great photographic opportunities. We then worked our way towards Kelly’s Slough National Wildlife Refuge picking up a Gray Partridge along the way, which was feeding in someone’s lawn. Turning our attention to a large body of water, we picked up our first American Wigeon, Gadwall, Northern Pintail, Redhead, American Avocet, and a flock of migrant Red-necked Phalaropes. Back in town we revisited the Red River and immediately found a Red-headed Woodpecker hanging out near its nesting hole.

We returned to the hotel, packed out bags, and headed out for long before working our way towards Jamestown, our home base for the next two nights. The plan was to stop at Arrowwood National Wildlife Refuge before arriving at Jamestown, but it took a while to get there due to the fact that we saw so many birds along the way. Our route from Grand Forks to Jamestown took us through rural backroads with little traffic and plenty of prairie “potholes” loaded with waterfowl and other birds. Along the way we picked up Canvasback, Upland Sandpiper, a very obliging American Bittern that ‘froze’ right along the edge of the road, as well as plenty of Black Terns and Franklin’s Gulls…not to mention an American Badger!

We finally arrived at Arrowwood, which hosts extensive wetlands, mixed grass prairies, and small patches of trees. Western Grebes were common, and we even witnessed a pair displaying. We also found a couple lingering geese – Snow and Greater White-fronted – with the latter being the first one recorded in the last ten tours. Elsewhere around the reserve we had Orchard Orioles, Cedar Waxwings, Brown Thrasher, and large numbers of swallows; mainly a couple hundred Cliff with lesser numbers of others including Bank. Later one we stumbled upon our first Wilson’s Phalaropes of the trip, the only phalarope that breeds in the Great Plains, not the Arctic.

While the nearest locations for Baird’s Sparrows have become unreliable, we opted for an earlier start the next morning and ventured further afield to try our luck finding this localized denizen of tallgrass prairie. When we stepped out of the van, there was already an individual singing and not long after we were provided with extended views of a pair. Nearby we picked up another northern Great Plains specialty, a Sprague’s Pipit. A Loggerhead Shrike was a nice bonus.

After great success, we worked our way south stopping at the Nature Conservancy’s Davis Ranch Preserve. It didn’t take long before we were watching several stunning Chestnut-collared Longspurs in this area of protected grassland. A nearby lake provided our first California Gulls.

After lunch, we spent much of the afternoon exploring around Horsehead Lake. The main birding road was unfortunately under construction, preventing us from birding all the usual sites, but we still managed a lot of great birds including a 300-strong breeding colony of Western Grebes, a Say’s Phoebe pair at their usual spot, a large assortment of waterfowl and grebes, the pale “Krider’s” Red-tailed Hawk and of course a nice collection of shorebirds. These include White-rumped and Stilt Sandpipers, Ruddy Turnstones, Sanderling, and a surprise Piping Plover sitting on a nest.

On our way back towards Jamestown we made a brief stop at Crystal Springs where we scoped through a rookery comprised of Snowy, Cattle, and Great Egrets and the occasional Black-crowned Night-Heron.

Our final day was a travel day back to Minneapolis, but we made the most of it! Just east of Jamestown we made a brief stop at Hobart Lake where we had our last taste of the bird-rich bodies of water the northern Great Plains has offer with excellent numbers of waterfowl, grebes, terns, and herons. We eventually made it to Fargo where we ventured just east of town Bluestem Prairie State Nature Reserve. This is a known breeding area for Greater Prairie-Chicken and despite being late in the year for the lekking, we still managed to find a male. We also enjoyed nice scope views of Marbled Godwits and Upland Sandpipers.

Back in Fargo we made a series of stops crisscrossing the city picking up point blank views of Virginia Rail, Dickcissel, more Gray Partridges, and a pair of Lark Sparrows. The latter marks our 17th species of sparrow! With all our targets in the bag, we continued our way to Minneapolis.

-          Ethan Kistler

Created: 15 July 2022