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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Minnesota in Winter

2020 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,  Evening Grosbeak, and all three expected grouse species, Sharp-tailed, Ruffed and Spruce. In all, we encountered 49 species of birds and 6 species of mammals on our travels through Northeastern Minnesota and Northwestern Wisconsin. We added one species to the all time tour list, American Kestrel.

In Detail:

We started birding shortly after picking up the van on the on January 23. We drove to Canal Park where birding was slow. We ended our day looking at a female Snowy Owl  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 24, 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 - two each of Great Gray and Northern Hawk Owls. We got great scope views of one of the Great Gray Owl as it hunted and caught a vole. We also we had great views of Sharp-tailed Grouse and Ruffed Grouse, two Black-backed Woodpecker and  Evening Grosbeak. We ended the day with 24 species in the bog which is lower then in previous year with finches being mostly absent this winter..

On January 25, we traveled up to the small artist town of Grand Marais.  We had great time watching the flock of Long-tailed Duck doing courtship display on Lake Superior. We found a male Varied Thrush near a feeders in town.  We had lunch in town and preceded to then bird the Gunflint Trail where we had scope views of White-winged Crossbills and Purple Finch.

Januyary26, 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 four Spruce Grouse, two more Great Gray Owls, Black-backed Woodpecker and four Boreal Chickadee along with the more regular species. We saw Lynx and Moose tracks and all that beautiful scenery.

We headed back to Two Harbors and down the shore to Duluth birding along the way where we had several species for the trip.

January 27, we ventured back to the Sax-Zim Bog to try to find a few species that eluded us the first day.  We managed to find a male American Three-toed and a female Black-backed Woodpecker, along with views of Northern Hawk Owl along with other species. We headed back toward Duluth having lunch on the way. We were able to get excellent views of both Iceland (Thayer’s) and Glaucous Gulls among the Herring Gulls.

January 28, 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, 2020

Created: 03 March 2020