Trip Report

Northern Minnesota: Owls & Finches
February 2 – 7, 2020
Guide: Kevin Burke

The story of this year’s addition of the Northern Minnesota venture was great weather, great birds, and great people. The weather from the Twin Cities all the way to Sax-Zim Bog was mild, for Minnesota in the winter, and very pleasant. It was an interesting year in the bog with the cone crop booming up North keeping some of the regular winter finches to far North for us to see. There were no Redpolls, Pine Grosbeaks, and very few Evening Grosbeaks. The bog however did provide some other birds that on more “normal” years are very challenging to observe. There were six participants this year on the trip and right away our personalities meshed extremely well. We had an extremely high quality of birding expertise and that allowed us to find several birds that are hard to find in normal years. I was thrilled to lead this group of folks around the frozen white North for the better part of a week.

The first morning started out with breakfast at the hotel. We had a good combination of folks that arrived early and just on time. The winter storm that blanketed much of the East Coast in the days leading up to the tour had some flights delayed, but thankfully everyone arrived before the tour started. Full stomachs anxiously awaited the first birds that we would encounter. Our first stop was the Old Cedar Avenue Bridge area of the Minnesota River National Wildlife Refuge. This area has a good mix of open land, marsh, and frozen river habitats. As we walked the trails and bridge area, we had a few good birds come into view. Fly by TRUMPTER SWANS were a nice start. Some of the areas many BALD EAGLES patrolled the small areas of open water. Our main target was the AMERICAN TREE SPARROW and we were rewarded with great views of at least four individuals. Having seen the AMERICAN TREE SPARROWS, which can be very scarce further North, we headed toward SAX-ZIM BOG and the Duluth area. This would be our home for the next four days.

On the drive up the city gives way to open farm fields. We scoured the trees on the edges for ROUGH-LEGGED HAWKS but came up empty. On a spur of road off the interstate that is typically reliable for the hawks we were surprised with two drake RING-NECKED PHEASANTS. Quite a surprise! We pushed onward to the bog and some of the good birds that awaited. We arrived in SAX-ZIM BOG early afternoon and had a couple hours to check a few of the hot spots. One of the first birds that we encountered was a RUFFED GROUSE feeding on the buds of a birch tree. It was a boom year for these grouse, so we had several good encounters. The next bird we encountered was a NORTHERN SHRIKE. They tend to be easy to pick out sitting on top of trees and limbs in the open. Finally, we pulled onto Admiral Road in the bog. We were anticipating a specific bird that has taken up winter residence at the main feeding station. We were not disappointed. A BOREAL OWL had been very reliable at the feeding station for over a week and we had it right away. It was an incredible sighting given this secretive owl usually makes it roost in a new spot every day. This is always one of the most sought-after species in the bog and we got it straight away! As we were enjoying the owl a large dark raptor flew over the road to the North. A NORTHERN GOSHAWK gave us fleeting views. If that was not enough a fleeting view of a WHITE-WINGED CROSSBILL was the icing on the cake. We wanted to nab the other specialty that was being seen in the bog, so we went to the Winterberry Bog within SAX-ZIM and were rewarded with an exciting AMERICAN THREE-TOED WOODPECKER. This is another bird that is notoriously hard to see on most years. We hit a few more spots and headed to Duluth to check into our hotel and make our home for the next few days.

A full day in SAX-ZIM BOG was what was in store for day two. A quick breakfast at the hotel and we were out early to catch the birds that were out in the dawn hour. Quickly we were on good birds! A cooperative NORTHERN HAWK OWL was the first bird of the morning. These diurnal owls are fun to watch. They rarely flush from their perch at the top of trees allowing for great looks. A few NORTHERN SHRIKES were perched on trees as we slow drove the back roads of the bog. A visit to MARY LOU’S feeders came up with multiple HAIRY WOODPECKERS. They are huge up North. The size comparison between DOWNY and HAIRY WOODPECKERS seems a lot easier to distinguish up in Minnesota. We made another visit to the Admiral Road feeders to check on our BOREAL OWL that was still there. Several COMMON RAVENS were observed throughout the bog.

We stopped for lunch and a warmup at the Wilburt Café in Cotton. We had two lunches here and they were tasty and fast. After lunch we headed back to the Winterberry Bog to try for BLACK-BACKED WOODPECKER. We did not see that woodpecker, but did have great looks at BROWN CREEPER, RED-BREASTED NUTHATCH, and the AMERICAN THREE-TOED WOODPECKER. Driving onward we got our first glimpse of a SNOWY OWL. It was way off in the field, but we had decent scope views. We spent the rest of the day driving around the bog searching for all other birds. Several spots had the charismatic CANADA JAYS. We headed home near dusk to set up for the next day.

Day three of our Northern Minnesota tour took us up the Lakeshore of Superior, into the Northern forests, and into Wisconsin. The hotel was gracious enough to get us breakfast early so we could try to be up in Superior National Forest early. We drove about an hour and a half before we saw a car on the side of the road and several birders out of the car. We decided to turn around and see what they were looking at. It was a male SPRUCE GROUSE, our target for the morning! We had great views of this bird gritting on the road. We drove a little further North and found four SPRUCE GROUSE feeding on the Jack Pines. One of the males even started displaying on the tree. We could see the rufous tips of the tail on the bird in the sun. It was stunning! PINE SISKENS were all around our stops, and we had a flyby RED CROSSBILL. Satisfied with the SPRUCE GROUSE we headed down into Two Harbors for a coffee break and more birding. Agate Bay in Two Harbors had several COMMON GOLDNEYE feeding in the water. HERRING GULLS were flying all around the pilings and several BALD EAGLES patrolled the air.

Lunch at the Vanilla Bean Café was nice and provided us a little warmth. We headed down the lakeshore and stopped off at Brighton Beach and Canal Park in Duluth. On a quick restroom break we had a large flock of gulls fly over our heads. Mostly HERRING GULLS, but a larger white one was in the mix. A GLAUCOUS GULL flew over at one hundred feet giving good views. The flock eventually landed on the ice and we put a scope on them and had five GLAUCOUS GULLS mixed in with the HERRING GULLS. We still needed one more gull, so we went to the Superior Wisconsin Landfill. No good birding trip is complete without a trip to the landfill! Soon after arriving at the landfill a smaller all white gull flew over. It was an ICELAND GULL. Our target for the area. We did also have brief views of a GREAT BLACK-BACKED GULL in amongst the hundreds of HERRING GULLS. The last stop of the day was at the Richard Bong Airport in Superior to try for the SNOWY OWL that had been reported. After waiting it out for about an hour we finally found it on the adjacent fairgrounds perched on a light post. An awesome encounter with this iconic owl. It was a great way to wrap up the day.

Day four was our clean up day. The day to find all the birds we had missed on the previous three. It did not disappoint. We had a brief look at a BLACK-BILLED MAGPIE first thing in the morning. The first scheduled stop was at MARY LOU’S feeding station. We were rewarded with a half dozen or so EVENING GROSBEAKS. These large finches were surprising hard this year, but we managed to catch them with this visit. We drove South after a visit to Mary Lou’s and encountered another NORTHERN HAWK OWL. Took a quick stop at the visitor center and with little going on there we decided to go for the SHARP-TAILED GROUSE. On the way we encountered a very cooperative RUFFED GROUSE that allowed many good photos. With our fill of the RUFFED GROUSE we quickly encountered a single SHARP-TAILED GROUSE at a reliable feeding station. This was our second grouse species in five minutes! Still on our mission to go for more birds we drove a few farm fields to try for SNOW BUNTINGS. No luck on the Buntings, but we did come across a hunting NORTHERN GOSHAWK. It was a great encounter watching the GOSHAWK swoop down on a flock of ROCK PIGEONS. We had great views of the bird in flight. It stuck around and everyone had a nice look.

Lunch was back a the Wilburt Café. We were all excited about the encounters we had in the morning. Our cleanup day was going well so far. Full stomachs and warm extremities made us excited for the second half of the day. The first stop was at the Winterberry Bog. We pulled up and a BARRED OWL was out in the open directly above the feeders. It allowed for fantastic photos and views. Our main target was the BLACK-BACKED WOODPECKER. We walked the loop in the bog and finally found it near the back drumming quietly. This was our third try for this bird and we were all happy to get it. On the way out of the bog we picked up a new trip bird, a DARK-EYED JUNCO. We moved on to drive the backroads of the bog searching for other birds. A short walk on Admiral Road produced a stellar look at a single WHITE-WINGED CROSSBILL. This was by far our best look and it even perched for a few photos. The last stop in the bog was on the way out. We were looking for BLACK-BILLED MAGPIE again and spotted two NORTHERN GOSHAWKS on a nearby tree line. They were perched and stayed for us to get scope views. They eventually flew right across the front of our van and we got some great photos of this elusive species. This round up day was a success with adding seven new birds to the trip!

The final day was a travel day down to the Twin Cities. We took a quick spin through SAX-ZIM BOG, but it was snowing, overcast, and chilly. We decided to head down to the Twin Cities and have one final meal together. We had many stories of great encounters. Each year in Northern Minnesota is different. This year was the year of the NORTHERN GOSHAWK, BOREAL OWL, and AMERICAN THREE-TOED WOODPECKER. Our group got a combined total of forty-two life birds! I am really looking forward to going back next year to see what the area has in store. Please think about joining me on this Northern adventure!


Northern Minnesota: Owls & Finches February 2 – 7, 2020

Species encountered: 53 species

Canada Goose
Trumpeter Swan
Common Goldeneye
Red-breasted Merganser
Ring-necked Pheasant
Ruffed Grouse
Spruce Grouse
Sharp-tailed Grouse
Wild Turkey
Rock Pigeon
Herring Gull
Iceland Gull
Glaucous Gull
Great-black Backed Gull
Bald Eagle
Cooper's Hawk
Northern Goshawk

    Red-tailed Hawk
    Snowy Owl
    Northern Hawk Owl
    Barred Owl
    Boreal Owl
    Downy Woodpecker
    Hairy Woodpecker
    American Three-toed Woodpecker
    Black-backed Woodpecker
    Pileated Woodpecker
    Northern Shrike
    Canada Jay
    Blue Jay
    Black-billed Magpie
    American Crow
    Common Raven
    Black-capped Chickadee
    Belted Kingfisher

    Red-breasted Nuthatch
    White-breasted Nuthatch
    Brown Creeper
    American Robin
    European Starling
    House Finch
    Red Crossbill
    White-winged Crossbill
    Pine Sisken
    American Goldfinch
    Evening Grosbeak
    Dark-eyed Junco
    Northern Cardinal
    House Sparrow
    Common Merganser
    American Black Duck