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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Minnesota in Winter

2023 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, Snowy Owl, Pine Grosbeak, Evening Grosbeak, and Bohemian Waxwings to name a few. In all, we encountered 55 species of birds and seven species of mammals on our travels through Northeastern Minnesota and Northwestern Wisconsin. We even added one new species to the all-time tour list: Redhead!

In Detail: The group met up at the Hampton Inn to start the tour with introductions and 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 20, 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, Northern Shrike and Snow Buntings. We stayed in the bog until dark in search of Great Grays but no other birders had seen them during the day or even the week prior!!

On January 21, we ventured north into the Grand Marais area including some back roads, which included the Superior National Forest. We saw a single male Spruce Grouse but little else in the forest and back roads but the scenery of the beautiful bogs and boreal forest habitat was special as usual. I discussed the ecology of the area,  explaining that in spring and summer, these forests are teeming with breeding Neotropical songbirds and is 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 140 Bohemian Waxwings, a flock of very corporative White-winged Crossbills, Townsend’s Solitaire, winter finches and a few wintering ducks.

On January 22, we went up to the Superior National forest near Isabella. We were able to find our second Northern Hawk Owl while watching Black-backed Woodpeckers. We also found a pair of Spruce Grouse. There was a spectacular display of hoar frost on all the trees and landscapes. We had lunch at Judy’s Café and continued birding in Two Harbors. There were three Redhead ducks in Agate Bay which was a first winter record for northern Minnesota! I had heard of a Great Gray Owl that had been seen in Knife River, and we searched the area but no luck.  So I decided we should make a run up to Sax-Zim Bog to see if we could find one in the late afternoon. No sightings.

January 23, 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. After that we went to several locations to see several species again and we picked up some new birds including American Tree Sparrow (a lifer for two on the tour) and White-throated Sparrow.  We were also treated to a large flock of 100+ Evening Grosbeaks. We ate an early lunch at Wilbert’s Café, then headed to Duluth to look for ducks and gulls along with other birds. We ended the tour watching an adult male Snowy Owl in Superior, Wisconsin.

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: 08 February 2023