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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Minnesota in Winter

2024 Narrative

In Brief: The expansive bog lands, boreal forests, and Lake Superior shorelines of Duluth, Minnesota 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 hinges 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 Owl, Northern Hawk Owl, Pine Grosbeak, Evening Grosbeak, and Bohemian Waxwings to name a few. In all, we encountered 58 species of birds and five species of mammals on our travels through Northeastern Minnesota. We even added a few new species to the all-time tour list: Ruddy Duck, Merlin, Brown Thrasher, Eastern Bluebird and Eurasian Tree Sparrow!

In Detail: After picking up the group at the airport, we started the tour with some birding in and around Duluth. We then went and checked in to the Hampton Inn and walked down the hall to have a nice dinner at the Canal Park Brewery. We discussed the upcoming days and planned a strategy. I had my work laid out and knew what everyone wanted to see. I was excited to show the group the beauty of northern Minnesota and all the wonder it holds.

On January 19, our first day of birding was spent at Sax-Zim Bog in search of Great Gray Owls and other bog specialties. We managed a Barred Owl and great looks at a Northern Hawk Owl. However, the Great Gray Owl eluded us. We had great views of most of the winter finches including Pine and Evening Grosbeak, Common Redpolls, Boreal Chickadee, Canada Jay, Rough-legged Hawk and Northern Shrike. We stayed in the bog until dark in search of Great Grays but no other birders had seen them during the day.

The next day, we ventured north into the Grand Marais area including some back roads, which included the Superior National Forest. We saw little in the forest and back roads but enjoyed the breathtaking scenery of the beautiful bogs and boreal forest habitat. I discussed the ecology of the area, explaining that in spring and summer, these forests are teeming with breeding Neotropical songbirds and are a premier location normally to find some of the more elusive resident and irruptive birds of the boreal forest in winter. In Grand Marais we had some good birds in town and in the campground around the harbor. Among the highlights were a flock of 16 Bohemian Waxwings, a group of Eastern Bluebirds, Townsend’s Solitaire, winter finches and a few wintering ducks.

On January 21, we went up to the Superior National forest near Isabella. Again the forest was quiet and the windy and cold conditions didn’t help. So I decided we should make a run up to Sax-Zim Bog to see if we could find Great Gray Owls in the late afternoon. Unfortunately, we had no sightings.

On January 22, we started again back up to Sax-Zim to try one last time for Great Gray Owl. And we had great success! We watched one perched, hunting and flying around for over thirty minutes. Everyone was so thrilled to view this owl. We also managed great views of Boreal Chickadees and Pine Marten.

January 23 saw us birding the harbor around Duluth. We picked up some nice birds including Ruddy Duck and good numbers of gulls including Glaucous, Thayer’s, Iceland and Lesser Black-backed to round out the trip.  

Thank you for visiting our beautiful neck of the woods. I hope you all enjoyed the birds, ecology and mammals of the region. Come back and visit again soon!

 -          Frank Nicoletti

Created: 31 January 2024