Venture to Northern Minnesota and North Dakota:
From the Prairie Potholes to the North Woods
June 17 – 26, 2016
Leader: Carlos Sanchez
Participants: Dean & Christine Hitchcock; Larry and Carol Dole
June 17 – Arrival in Duluth
June 18 – Birding Itasca State Park and Grand Forks area. Night in Grand Forks.
June 19 – Birding the prairies of western Minnesota. Night in Grand Forks.
June 20 – Birding Kidder County, North Dakota. Night in Jamestown.
June 21 – Birding Kidder County, North Dakota. Night in Jamestown.
June 22 – Birding Bluestem Prairie SNA. Drive to Duluth. Night in Duluth.
June 23 – Birding Sax-Zim Bog. Night in Duluth.
June 24 – Birding Sax-Zim Bog and Tettegouche State Park. Night in Duluth.
June 25 – Birding Superior National Forest and Two Harbors. Night in Duluth.
June 26 – Birding Sax-Zim Bog. Airport departures.
Note: This tour was privately organized for a group of clients wishing to see several specific specialties that they had not encountered elsewhere on their travels in the United States. As a result, the itinerary was tailored a bit differently than the usual tour to this region.
Our first day of birding began on a beautiful, spring morning in Grand Forks, Minnesota. After a nutritious and delicious breakfast at the locally owned Brewed Awakenings Café in Grand Forks, we began our road trip to the city of Grand Rapids in North Dakota. Along the way, we stopped at Lake Itasca State Park. The namesake of this park is famous for being the headwaters of the mighty Mississippi River. It also provided our first taste of birding in the north woods. Most notably, the forest was full of warblers in song, and we observed many at close range: Blackburnian, Golden-winged, Mourning, Chestnut-sided, Pine, and more. However, our visit was cut short due to a rapidly approaching thunderstorm. We were back on our way.
By late afternoon, we arrived at Grand Forks – but we were too excited about the prospect of seeing new birds to check-in at our hotel just yet. We headed to the Grand Forks lagoons just northwest of town, a sewage treatment plant with a series of impoundments. We quickly encountered a wide variety of birds typical of the prairie region of North Dakota: a dozen species of waterfowl, Wilson's Phalarope, American Avocet, Black Tern, Eastern and Western Kingbird, Bobolink, Yellow-headed Blackbird, and more. As we drove out, we encountered our only Gray Partridge of the trip – an exotic introduced from Europe in the 1800s. Just a few minutes away, we explored a lonely dirt road. Marbled Godwits displayed over the fields, and the exquisitely patterned Le Conte's Sparrow furtively peaked out from the wet grass multiple times at close range. The day wrapped up with a Sharp-tailed Grouse casually strutting right in front of an old trailer. Our first dinner together was at a local Italian restaurant downtown.
It was a surprisingly cold and windy day out in the prairies of western Minnesota on our second day of the tour. Our first site of the day was Felton Prairie, a mosaic of native prairie, woodlots, gravel pits, and private ranches. Notwithstanding the blustery weather, we enjoyed multiple views of both Clay-colored and Grasshopper Sparrow in grassy areas, while the woodlots had our first Least Flycatcher, Warbling Vireo, and Yellow Warbler of the trip. A lone Common Loon floating around in a small pond was our first of the trip. At nearby Bluestem State Natural Area, we highlight observations included Northern Harrier, Sandhill Crane, and Upland Sandpiper. After lunch, we drove north to Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge – what a place! This wildlife refuge features a great mix of wetlands and wooded areas with a correspondingly long list of summer breeders. The wetlands were brimming with ducks and grebes, as well as Black Tern and Marsh Wren. As we drove around, we managed to flush multiple American Bittern out of the reed beds. The biggest highlight of our visit was a Black-billed Cuckoo that posed nicely for us right by the road with a caterpillar hanging from its beak -- our only cuckoo of the trip.
On day three, we found ourselves at the Tuttle Section School Prairie early in the morning, watching a couple dozen Chestnut-collared Longspurs sing and display over their evocative grassland habitat. Afterwards, we spent most of the rest of the day at nearby Horsehead Lake Wildlife Management Area. Breeding birds were in spectacular abundance throughout the long drive around the lake, including large colonies of Black Tern, Western Grebe, Yellow-headed Blackbird, and Marsh Wren. Hidden among the large number of waterfowl, we managed to find a local rarity in the form of a Cinnamon Teal, as well as several Snow Geese. One sharp-eyed participant spotted a stunning male Ring-necked Pheasant right by the road, and we got to study the intricate plumage at length. A lonely metal tower was home to a nesting pair of the regal Ferruginous Hawk, one of the largest hawks in North America. We celebrated at Sabir's Buffalo Grill in Jamestown, a restaurant located in a lovely historical building.
We returned back to the Tuttle Section School Prairie the following day, keen on connecting with Baird's Sparrow. This highly specialized sparrow can sometimes be difficult and elusive. Nonetheless, after about thirty minutes of careful listening, we were victorious in observing and photographing a singing specimen at close range. Elated with our success, we hopped over to Horsehead Lake WMA where two Virginia Rails were carefully lured out of the reeds for excellent views. Two pairs of Red-necked Grebe displaying and nesting at Tappen Slough, a singing male Black-headed Grosbeak in Bismarck, and an obliging Nelson's Sparrow at Dewald Slough further built on our success, as we turned the day into a 'clean up' day for any remaining specialties. However, our most interesting experience of the day came in the form of a mountain of grain covered in gulls by the road, giving us the opportunity to carefully study the difference between Ring-billed and California Gull.
Our mission today was to connect with Greater Prairie-Chicken. After some research and a few phone calls, we decided upon returning to a different section of Bluestem Prairie SNA. As luck would have it, a bird flew in front of the vehicle as soon as we arrived. As we got out of the car, a further eighteen or so birds flew into the field as well! We were rewarded with leisurely, walk-away views. We spent the rest of the day traveling to Duluth, making a couple stops along the way to humor Christine's love of photographing 'world's biggest' objects.
Today was the start of our birding in an entirely new biome: the boreal forests of northern Minnesota. We focused most of our effort over the next few days at Sax-Zim Bog, a site famous in winter for its owls and in summer for its breeding population of Connecticut Warbler. After an unsuccessful early morning cruise along the dirt roads in search of Gray Gray Owl, we turned our attention to the large number of breeding passerines present here. Every field seemed to have a Sedge Wren, and ethereal tunes of Hermit Thrush and Blue-headed Vireo echoed through the forest. Over the next few days, we made repeated visits to this lovely site, enjoying picnic lunches in the surprisingly cold June mornings. During one morning, we even had a Black-backed Woodpecker fly into a tree just a couple hundred meters south of the vehicle!
One of the highlights of our trip was getting to see breeding Connecticut Warbler. The birds sing from the interior of the boreal forest, and a ditch separated us from the bird. Undeterred, the tour participants came prepared the following day with their feet inside plastic trash bags to avoid getting wet. After some stumbling and a lot of laughs, we zeroed in on the (fortunately) incessantly singing Connecticut and observed it at length as it belted out notes from the top of a black spruce.
On our final day together, we paid a visit to the Superior National Forest via Tomahawk Road. Although it was fairly quiet, we observed a surprise flock of Evening Grosbeak in the forest far away from any feeders. On our way back, we passed by Tettegouche State Park – a really pretty park with waterfalls and a slightly different assortment of breeding specialties, including Black-throated Green and Canada Warbler. By this time, a massive thunderstorm was rolling in, and we made a beeline to Duluth for the Pickwick Steakhouse. We made it with just a minute to spare, and we enjoyed our memorable farewell dinner in the comfort of the restaurant while the thunderstorm rolled through. The following morning before our respective flights, we returned to Sax-Zim Bog at a more leisurely pace – yet still seeing several new species for the trip such as Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Northern Waterthrush, and Purple Finch. And then it was time to back to Duluth.
Over the course of nine days, we observed 178 species, including 20 species of waterfowl, 18 warblers, 14 sparrows, and 6 grebes.