Owls & Winter Finches of Northern Minnesota Trip Report:
February 2-7, 2018
Another winter, and another Venture up to the snowy white realm of Northern Minnesota. This is indeed a trip that defies logic for the majority of people (and even a fair amount of birders) but for those more intrepid travelers who really wish to see owls & other northern specialty birds, it is absolutely a must-do, and bearing frigid, sub-zero temps is all just part of the experience!
Our original plan was to start our tour as usual in Minneapolis, but with the Twin Cities hosting Superbowl LII on the very same weekend, we changed our plan to avoid the majority of the football madness. After gathering up everyone at the MSP airport in the evening, we drove straight to Duluth. It did mean a bit of a long day, but we would be perfectly placed to get a head start on exploring the Duluth area for our primary targets bright and early the following day. After an interesting drive through a bit of snow, we finally arrived in Duluth and called it a night!
Despite the late arrival the night before, there was excitement in the air on our first morning – not at all surprising considering there had already been a number of Boreal Owl reports just north of Duluth this winter. Boreal Owl irruptions tend to happen rather cyclically ever 4 years or so, and this was shaping up to be one of those years. After a quick hotel breakfast, we were on our way north towards Two Harbors, birding back roads along the way. Brighton Beach was the first stop, and right away we were rewarded with scope views of our first owl – a Snowy, perched on an ice pile on the lakeshore. As we moved closer to get better looks, a small flock of Common Mergansers flew by, and the ubiquitous Black-capped Chickadee called from nearby spruces. After getting closer views of the owl, we continued on through the Knife River area. The snow which had begun light and scattered began to pick up as the morning progressed, but road conditions remained good for most of it. On Homestead Rd, we were pleasantly surprised to find not one but two Great Gray Owls on roadside perches, affording us ample time to enjoy these majestic gray raptors with vivid yellow eyes. Researchers from a nearby university just happened to be onsite as well, and we got to see up close as a small male was banded and released. As if the morning couldn’t get any better, we stumbled upon a flock of 200 or so Bohemian Waxwings and the trip’s first Pine Grosbeaks on our drive back to the highway.
After lunch, the snow continued picking up so we decided to play it safe, head back to our hotel and take a short rest while keeping a close eye on the forecast. Such a successful morning of birding can afford one with such luxuries! Thankfully conditions cleared before too long and we made our way back out, with the plan of spending the rest of the afternoon searching for Boreal Owl. While leaving the hotel we spotted a Ruffed Grouse perched in a tree, and a bit later at Stony Point we added Herring Gull, Red-breasted Merganser, Common Goldeneye, and a beautiful Northern Shrike to the day’s haul. Bird activity was a bit slow and sparse for most of the afternoon, so we turned our attention back toward Duluth and an early dinner – although the day had one more surprise in store. Driving back via Old Highway 61, we rounded a curve and couldn’t help but notice a group of people looking at something on the roadside. As we slowed to a stop, we could make out a small, fluffy shape perched on a low branch just over the guardrail – a small owl, with a spotted crown – a Boreal Owl! We spent nearly 20 minutes photographing and observing this incredible and oft-missed species before eventually deciding we could end the day in no better way, so we headed back to Duluth and called it a day.
Next up was a full day spent in the famous Sax-Zim Bog, widely considered to be one of the best places in the US to see a number of highly-sought after northern specialties. It was always going to be a challenge to match yesterday’s success of seeing 3 of our target owls, but we we determined to give it our best shot! Our first stop was at Warren Nelson Memorial Bog on the southern side of Sax-Zim, and we arrived just as the sun was coming up. Winter dawns in the far north can be truly mesmerizing, and this morning was such a dawn. A certain stillness and quiet unlike what many of us are used to greeted us as we stepped from the car, as well as crisp, icy air (the thermometer on the dash read -28F!). Soon enough we heard tapping from a nearby tree trunk, and we soon found a very close and very obliging male Black-backed Woodpecker. There was no sign of the previously reported Three-toed Woodpecker, but we did add Pileated & Hairy before moving along to the next stop, a known Sharp-tailed Grouse lek. We found the grouse almost immediately underneath a feeding station along with chickadees, Starlings, and the trip’s first Common Redpolls. Any trip to the Bog in winter must include a short stop to the visitor center to check the feeders as well as the local sightings board, and who would pass up a chance to warm their hands inside? Upon arrival we immediately spotted a small flock of Gray Jays (now known as Canada Jay) visiting the suet feeder, plus the usual chickadees and redpolls. From inside the visitor center we observed a single Hoary Redpoll in a flock of Commons at the feeder around back, and we all got great looks as we ticked off each of the key field marks – noticeably paler & ‘frostier’ than the Commons, with an unstreaked white rump, and stubbier bill. After satisfying prolonged looks we had time for one more stop before lunch, so we drove north through nice boreal forest looking for any targets so far missed. Boreal Chickadees were nowhere to be found (we had heard they had been scarce this winter) but we did manage to find a Northern Hawk-Owl perched on a snag right on the roadside. Incredible views were shared by all and the lighting seemed to be quite good for photography as well, and once we had our fill of observing and photographing this diurnal owl, we made our way to a nearby establishment for lunch. After doing so well the first day and a half, we knew it had to slow down at some point! Indeed, things did slow a little after lunch, but an afternoon stop at Mary Lou’s turned up a beautiful adult Bald Eagle and the trip’s first Evening Grosbeak, a female. We spent the rest of the afternoon driving the Bog’s network of roads, finding yet more Northern Shrikes, Common Redpolls, and various woodpeckers before heading back to Duluth.
We hoped our excellent luck would continue as we rose quite early the next day with the plan of driving north to the Superior National Forest and hopefully finding Spruce Grouse and Boreal Chickadee, among other missed targets. Though we arrived in the right habitat at seemingly the right time, this morning’s birding ended up being quite sparse, and we found little other than Black-capped Chickadees and Common Ravens. A pair of Red Crossbills landed in the road in front of us for good but very quick views, providing one of the morning’s only highlights. We decided to spend the rest of the day exploring the town of Superior, WI, only a short drive from Duluth. A large flock consisting of Mallard and American Black Duck (as well as a few hybrid individuals) on a roadside pond grabbed our attention, and the nearby landfill did not disappoint, providing us with excellent looks at a Glaucous Gull in flight as well as the aerial acrobatics of several Bald Eagles. At the nearby airport, we found 2 more Snowy Owls – one perched on a wind sock; the other perched on the corner of a Menard’s billboard. We still wanted better views however, so we went back to Brighton Beach, hoping the bird we saw 2 days ago was still around. We were pleased to find it was – and much closer this time! The afternoon sun was almost too bright for photography, but we managed to get a few decent shots and we thoroughly enjoyed seeing one so close.
The rest of our trip was primarily focused on cleaning up and targeting those birds we’d missed. For our last full day we headed back to Sax-Zim. We finally found some Snow Buntings along the roadside on the western side of the Bog, and saw quite a few more Evening Grosbeaks (including some spectacular males) at Mary Lou’s. Otherwise, we didn’t have much luck with finding missed targets – Boreal Chickadees indeed were scarce and we missed Black-billed Magpie as well. However, a day spent in Sax-Zim is almost always a worthwhile venture and there were additional highlights, including seeing a sun dog in the afternoon and an American Marten at a suet feeder in the evening. We called it an early night, knowing we’d have to make our way back to Minneapolis in time for our departing flights the next day.
After an early breakfast and a couple hours in the car, we arrived in Minneapolis with enough time for birding at a few spots before our departing flights. By this point we had pretty well seen the majority of our main targets, but we still managed to find some new birds for the ‘trip list’, such as Dark-eyed Junco, American Goldfinch, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Northern Flicker & Red-bellied Woodpecker to name a few. There were no American Tree Sparrows to be found at the Minnesota Valley NWR Headquarters feeding station, another somewhat peculiar miss, but a partially-leucistic Downy Woodpecker (with a nearly all-white head) did provide us with something interesting to look at before we headed to the airport and said our goodbyes.
Any Minnesota trip that has Boreal Owl on the list must be considered a success, but we also had Great Gray, Snowy, and Northern Hawk as well! Although we only ended up with 46 total species, it’s fair to say that everyone thoroughly enjoyed this year’s edition of ‘Northern Minnesota: Owls & Winter Finches.’
Now – who’s ready to brave the cold with us for next year’s trip?
Birds and Other Wildlife Seen on our Owls & Winter Finches of Northern Minnesota:
March 9-18, 2018
American Black Duck
Mallard x American Black Duck (hybrid)
Northern Hawk Owl
Great Gray Owl