Skip to navigation, or go to main content.

WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Minnesota in Winter

2018 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 that make winter in the north so enticing to birders:  Black-backed Woodpecker and Three-toed Woodpecker, Pine Grosbeak, Evening Grosbeak, Great Gray, Snowy, Northern Hawk Owl and Boreal Owls, and Sharp-tailed Grouse, just to name a few! In all, we encountered 45 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, Canada Goose. 

In Detail:

We started birding shortly after dropping luggage off at our tour hotel on January 26. We drove over to Duluth Township, Minnesota where we had great scope views of four Great Gray Owls and two Northern Hawk Owls. We were able to observe them hunting and taking voles!!! We went to dinner at the Canal Park Brewery where we sampled some of Duluth’s finest micro-brews and food.

January 27: We headed up to Sax-Zim Bog in search of Great Gray Owls and other bog specialties. We managed to find owls - one Great Gray and two more Hawk Owls. We also we had great views of Sharp-tailed Grouse (5) most of the winter finches including Pine and Evening Grosbeaks (50), Common Redpolls and Hoary Redpolls. We had some great scope views plus seeing them in their natural habitat is always a treat. We were able to study not only their plumages but also their calls. We managed to find an American Three-toed Woodpecker in the bog, which is fairly uncommon. We decided to head to Duluth and we were treated to 3 Snowy Owls including one young female that had just captured a muskrat!

January 28:  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 day 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 male Black-backed and Three-toed Woodpecker, nine Boreal Chickadees, and Red Crossbills along with the more regular species such as Gray Jays and other winter finches. We headed to Two Harbors late in the day where we found a Boreal Owl, which we watched as it slowly woke up and got active; certainly a rare treat to find.  We ended the day watching two Great Gray Owls hunting and catching voles.

January 29: We ventured to the small scenic north shore town of Grand Marais. In Grand Marais we watched 330 Long-tailed Ducks many of which were displaying and calling. We all watched in amazement! We also found our second Boreal Owl of the trip at a friend’s house near town.  We ended the day watching three different Snowy Owls along the shore.

January 30: We decided to try for Spruce Grouse in Lake County, but even though we searched hard we failed to find any grouse. There were other interesting sighting including watching four Ruffed Grouse eating buds, Lynx and Moose tracks and all that beautiful scenery.

January 31: 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.


Thanks for joining me in Minnesota!

~Frank Nicoletti, 2018

Created: 14 February 2018