Venture to Northern Minnesota

Owls & Winter Finches

Kevin Burke

February 2020

The weather from the Twin Cities to Sax-Zim Bog was mild, for Minnesota in the winter, and very pleasant.  It was an interesting year in the bog with the booming cone crop keeping some of the regular winter finches too 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.

Our group, photo by Kevin Burke

There were six participants this year on the trip and right away our personalities meshed extremely well.  I was thrilled to lead this group of folks around the frozen white North for the better part of a week. 

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. 

Trumpeter Swans by Martine Stolk

As we walked the trails and bridge area, we had a few good birds come into view.  TRUMPTER SWANS were a nice start.  BALD EAGLES patrolled the small areas of open water.  Our main target was AMERICAN TREE SPARROW and we were rewarded with great views of at least four individuals.

We arrived in SAX-ZIM BOG early afternoon and had a couple hours to check a few of the hot spots. 

Ruffed Grouse, by Kevin Burke

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.  A BOREAL OWL had been very reliable at the feeding station for over a week and we had it right away. 

Boreal Owl, by Kevin Burke

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. 

American Three-toed Woodpecker, by Kevin Burke

We wanted to nab the other specialty that was being seen in the bog, so we went to the Winterberry Bog 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, our home for the next few days. 

Day two was a full day in Sax Zim Bog. A cooperative NORTHERN HAWK OWL was the first bird of the morning. 

Northern Hawk Owl, by Kevin Burke

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.

After lunch we headed back to the Winterberry Bog and got 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 way off in a field, but we had decent scope views.  We spent the rest of the day searching the bog and several spots had the charismatic CANADA JAYS. 

Spruce Grouse, by Kevin Burke

Day three of our Northern Minnesota tour took us up the Lakeshore of Superior, into the Northern forests, and into Wisconsin.  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. 

PINE SISKINS were all around our stops, and we had a flyby RED CROSSBILL.  After a coffee break we went to Agate Bay in Two Harbors and found COMMON GOLDNEYE feeding in the water, HERRING GULLS flying around the pilings and several BALD EAGLES patrolling the air. 

Iceland Gull, by Marianne Feeney

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. 

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: an ICELAND GULL.  Our target for the area! We also had brief views of a GREAT BLACK-BACKED GULL among 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. 

Snowy Owl, by Kevin Burke

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 the day to find all the birds we had missed on the previous three.  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 surprisingly 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. 

Sharp-tailed Grouse, by Kevin Burke

On our 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. 

Northern Goshawk, by Marianne Feeney

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. 

We pulled up at Winterberry Bog and a BARRED OWL was out in the open directly above the feeders.  It allowed for fantastic photos and views. 

Barred Owl, by Kevin Burke

Our main target at Winterberry Bog 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.  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. 

On the way out of the Bog we spotted two NORTHERN GOSHAWKS on a nearby tree line.  They were perched and stayed for us to get scope views. 

Northern Goshawk, by Kevin Burke

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!

Kevin Burke


Some of us drove and some took a plane, but we all ended up at the hotel in Iowa (“Eye-oh-way”), Louisiana at the correct time! Thank goodness for cell phones, so we could at least keep track of each other on our cross-country perambulations!

Our group, with leaders Simon Thompson (front) and Keith Watson (back left)
by Simon Thompson

Our “Beat the Crowds” rail trip that first afternoon was postponed due to the heavy rain earlier in the week, so we all joined a very pleasant, albeit foggy, trip along some quiet side roads in the rice country. One of our first birds was a Dickcissel, closely followed by great views of both Sedge and Marsh Wrens – all excellent birds to start our trip.

Sedge Wren
by Simon Thompson

Flocks of Greater White-fronted Geese flew over and we had our first (of several) Vermilion Flycatchers of the tour. A brief stop in a pine lot was amazing with a day-time roost of 20 or so Barn Owls – more seen in one day than many of us had seen in our lifetime!

Barn Owl roosting
by Simon Thompson

One of the attractions of the festival was the food, although vegetarian options can be challenging at times. After a classic Cajun sausage meal our first evening, we moved on to crawfish etouffee, catfish bites, shrimp and a veggie plate – definitely something here for all of us.

Our group having lunch
by Keith Watson

Our afternoon activity was walking (well maybe clambering) through a very tufty and overgrown field looking for sparrows. Sedge Wrens were the default little brown bird that we flushed, but eventually Casey spotted a very furtive sparrow which turned out to be a Henslow’s.

White-faced Ibis
by Simon Thompson

Waterbirds are a predominant feature of the area, with huge flocks of White-faced Ibis being abundant, along with White Ibis, and Roseate Spoonbill. Flocks of Snow and Greater White-fronted Geese were constant sights and sounds as they flew overhead and the most abundant duck was Northern Shoveler with smaller numbers of Gadwall, Blue-winged Teal, Mallard and Green-winged Teal.

Snow Geese
by Simon Thompson

Thankfully we had low ticket numbers for the combine rides, so we could head out birding before returning to the rice fields for our turn on the combine harvesters. One of our first stops was the wonderful water treatment plant in Crowley. Here we were able to walk around at our leisure and enjoy the vast numbers of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, Redhead and American Avocet.

American Avocet
by Keith Watson

A large flock of Tree Swallows was feeding low over the lake and it didn’t take us too long to find Cave, Barn, Northern Rough-wing and even Bank amongst the horde!

The combine rides and observing the rails as they escape from the harvest are the undoubted star attractions of the festival and while the rails are easier to see from the sidelines, how often can one ride a combine harvester?

A productive field
by Keith Watson

Covered in dust and chaff we all saw Sora, King, Virginia and Yellow Rails as they flushed from the fields, but the bumping of the combine made using binoculars and cameras almost impossible. However, as the combines cut the rice swaths into smaller and smaller sections, the rails became concentrated and soon flew out into the adjacent fields. This is when the photographers had a fighting chance of getting pictures.

Keith with a Virginia Rail about to be banded
by Keith Watson
Yellow Rail in hand for banding
by Tim Carstens
White-faced ibis
by Simon Thompson

Cameron Parish is probably the most bird-rich parish in Louisiana, so we spent the next 2 days exploring the marshes, cheniers (coastal woodlots), shore and fields of this coastal parish.

boardwalk at Cameron Prairie NWR
by Keith Watson

A flock of Sandhills soared out of the morning mist, revealing a single image of black and white flying alongside them – a Whooping Crane. Although it was a distant apparition, we all got to enjoy in-flight views of this rarity.

by Simon Thompson

Loggerhead Shrikes, American Kestrels and both Vermilion and Scissor-tailed Flycatchers were “wire-birds” along the roadsides and pairs of magnificent Crested Caracaras sat on nearby fences and trees, as multiple Northern Harriers quartered the fields.

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
by Simon Thompson

A picnic in Peveto Woods; a Baton Rouge Audubon Sanctuary was a great place for late migrants, such as Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Red-eyed and Yellow-throated Vireos, Eastern Wood-Pewee, Blue Grosbeak and a handful of warblers: Tennessee, Bay-breasted, Northern Parula, Chestnut-sided and Magnolia.

Magnolia Warbler
by Simon Thompson

The adjacent beach held the common and regularly-occurring Black-bellied and Semipalmated Plovers, along with the more uncommon Piping and Snowy Plovers, while the mixed tern and gull flocks contained all of the expected species, such as Ring-billed and Laughing Gulls, Caspian, Royal and Forster’s Terns, as well as Gull-billed Tern and several Franklin’s Gulls hiding among the many Laughing.

Snowy Plover
by Simon Thompson
Beach birding
by Keith Watson

Highlights of the trips had to be the stake-out Say’s Phoebe in a sports field, a picnic lunch in a quiet cemetery, a pelagic Harrier (why?) and a Hermit Thrush that we “chased” up a road in the marshes.

It was then off to the closing dinner for the 2019 Yellow Rails and Rice Festival; an evening of heavy hors d’oeuvres and socializing- a very pleasant end to the week. It was then some morning birding before some of us drove and some of us took a plane back to our respective homes.

Here are a few more birds (and one reptile!) from the trip:

Black-necked Stilt
by Simon Thompson
Stilt Sandpiper
by Simon Thompson
Inca Dove
by Simon Thompson
Tri-colored Heron
by Simon Thompson
American Alligators
by Keith Watson