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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Minnesota in Winter

2019 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 that are able to survive the winter in a given area. 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 and mammals that make winter in the north so enticing to birders:  Great Gray, Snowy, Northern Hawk Owls Black-backed Woodpecker, Pine Grosbeak, Evening Grosbeak, and all three expected grouse species, Sharp-tailed, Ruffed and Spruce. In all, we encountered 49 species of birds and 9 species of mammals on our travels through Northeastern Minnesota and Northwestern Wisconsin. We added one species to the all time tour list, Fox Sparrow.

In Detail:

We started birding shortly after picking up the van on the on January 25. We drove to Canal Park and Minnesota Point to find Black Ducks along with a few other species. The Ice had frozen over and we were unable to find the Female Tufted Duck that had been around a week earlier. We then went and visited a feeder just outside of town and watched over 40 Pine Grosbeaks and 50 Common Redpolls along with other typical feeder birds. As we drove some of the back roads toward Duluth we picked up Ruffed Grouse. We ended our day looking at a female Snowy Owl and an adult Peregrine Falcon in Superior, Wisconsin.  We went to dinner at the Canal Park Brewery where we sampled some of Duluth finest micro-brews and food.

On January 26, our first full day of birding was spent at Sax-Zim Bog in search of Great Gray Owls and other bog specialties. We managed to find owls - one each of Great Gray and Northern Hawk Owls. We got great scope views of the Great Gray Owl as it hunted and we also watched the Hawk Owl being harassed by a Pileated and a male Blackddd-backed Woodpecker along with Canada Jay’s and redpolls. We also we had great views of Sharp-tailed Grouse and Ruffed Grouse, 5 each, most of the winter finches including Pine and Evening Grosbeak and Common Redpolls. We ended the day with 30 species in the bog including Fox Sparrow, which was new for the tour. Also a highlight was finding three kit Bobcats, just hanging out together, playing, resting. We were able to watch them for nearly 30 minutes before we decided to leave.

On January 27, we headed up to Lake County along Highway 2 and 1 and the forest roads in the area. We spent the greater part of the morning in the Superior National Forest where I discussed the ecology of the area explaining that in spring and summer, these forests are 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 some of them including a male Spruce Grouse, adult Northern Goshawk and Red Crossbills along with the more regular species such as Gray Jays and other winter finches. We got lucky and found a sleeping Gray Wolf on a frozen lake which we got to watch for 20 minutes before it woke up and took it’s time retreating into the woods. Shortly afterward we watched two Pine Martens as they chased each other and played around. We saw Lynx and Moose tracks and all that beautiful scenery.

We headed to Ely to look for Bohemian Waxwing which we found a flock of over 40 eating on Mountain Ash berries. We then headed to back to Sax-Zim Bog in the afternoon and were able to watch a Great Gray and Barred Owl hunting.

January 28, we ventured up the north shore of Lake Superior to Two Harbors hitting other birding locations along the way, then worked our way back toward Duluth using the back roads.  We went to Superior in the afternoon to look at gulls at the dump, which we had excellent views of 3 Iceland (Thayer’s) and 5 Glaucous Gulls among the Herring Gulls. We were also treated to viewing nearly 30 Bald Eagles at close range. I reviewed the different ages of the eagles. We ended the day watching four different Snowy Owls, one of which aerial attacked a Red-tailed Hawk which had ventured into her territory. It was such an amazing interaction between the two species.

January 29 we decided to head back to Sax-Zim Bog. The weather conditions were quite brutal with a temperature of minus 21 below zero with wind chills of minus 45. However, we spent time viewing feeders and had awesome looks at Boreal Chickadees, winter finches and a Pine Marten.

January 30, the last morning before flying out of Duluth. We stayed in Duluth and just did some local birding and added a few new species to the trip list.

-          Frank Nicoletti, 2019


Created: 27 February 2019