January 23 – 28, 2022
Narrative and Photos by Kevin Burke
This year’s Owls and Winter Finches tour was fabulous! It was nice to be back in “the bog” after taking a year off due to COVID. Birding in Northern Minnesota in the winter presents its own set of unique challenges. The weather is usually what is on everyone’s mind. We had a particularly cold week with the high temperature for the week being just below 20 degrees, and the low being right at -37. Everyone was prepared for the cold, but I will say -37 is a little hard to prepare for.
We saw a ton of great birds, had a lot of laughs, and ate some great food. We spend a lot of time in the van on this trip, especially when it is -37, so you get to know the other participants well. The finches put on a good show for us this year, with multiple looks at Hoary Redpoll, Pine Grosbeak, and tons of Common Redpolls.
The first full day of the tour consisted of touring around the Twin Cities seeing what we could find. Our first stop was the visitor center for the Minnesota National Wildlife Refuge. We had a very cooperative Red-tailed Hawk land in the trees right next to us.
Three Wild Turkeys flew into the feeders from their nightly roost, and a whole host of other feeder birds were actively fueling up after a chilly night. We stopped at a couple other spots on the refuge and managed to see several Bald Eagles, Trumpeter Swans, and Hairy Woodpecker.
Our final stop in the Twin Cities area was a little west and north of the cities. We hiked into a local park to a small grove of crabapple trees. On the hike in we were treated to a large flock of Common Redpolls foraging on the ground. One of the birds stood out as being especially frosty white with no real streaking on the sides and an extra small bill, it was a Hoary Redpoll!
We all got great looks and it was a lifer for several in the group. As if Hoary Redpoll wasn’t special enough, it was not the main target of the stop. In the grove of crabapple trees, we found four Long-eared Owls.
We spotted the first one in the middle of the grove and by the time we left three others flew into the same tree, giving us all fantastic views of all four owls at the same time. This was one of the highlights of the trip! We headed North to Duluth to check into our hotel and set up for the next day in Sax-Zim Bog.
We rose early on the morning of the 25th. Everyone was extra excited to get up and get into Sax-Zim Bog. The bog is a 300 square mile mix of Black Spruce/Tamarack bog, Upland Forest, and Floodplain Forest making it awesome habitat for a multitude of bird, wildflower, and insect species. We arrived in the bog early slowly driving the roads looking for anything we could find.
We arrived at the visitor center and were immediately greeted by Pine Grosbeaks at the feeders. The brilliant pink coloration of the males was on full display against the white snowy background. It was beautiful! Common Redpolls were abundant here as well. Black-capped Chickadees busied themselves at the feeders. Red-breasted Nuthatches, Hairy Woodpeckers, and Canada Jay were present as well.
We tore ourselves away from the visitor center to go visit other places in the area. Our next stop was the famous Mary Lou’s feeders. Mary Lou has been welcoming birders to her house and feeders for a very long time. She also has a heated outhouse for travelers in need. This has been long reliable spot for Evening Grosbeaks and did not disappoint this year. There were dozens of Wild Turkeys around everywhere too, including a smoke phase turkey that was almost all smoky white. We headed back out to the bog and spotted Northern Shrike on one of the roads bisecting the bog. The highlight of the day, and perhaps the trip came just before dark when several of us spotted a Great-Gray Owl on the side of the road. It was perched on a dead Black Spruce about twenty feet off the ground. We got to view this bird for roughly fifteen minutes before it flushed back into the depths of the bog. It was a magical experience that is hard to put into words.
The next morning, we headed way up into Superior National Forest to look Spruce Grouse. We ended up missing the Grouse but had a nice drive up into some beautiful country. It was chilly, so we headed back down to Two Harbors for some coffee and a pit stop. The Coffee went down well, and we headed back out to look for birds before lunch. We wind off the lake made it pretty chilly, so we were content to stay in the van. Wind was gusting around thirty miles per hour! We had a nice lunch in Two Harbors and then went back out for one more round before heading back to Duluth. We ended up finding a mixed flock of Bohemian and Cedar Waxwings.
They were feeding on a fruiting tree and didn’t mind us getting close for awesome views! Bohemian Waxwings are tough to find, so to have close views was one of the highlights of the trip!
No birding trip is complete without a trip to the local landfill. The Superior Wisconsin landfill is a must stop birding spot while in the area to look for gulls. We ended up having four species of gulls including: Herring, Great Black-backed, Iceland, and Glaucous. One nice thing about the dump in the winter is that it doesn’t smell because everything is frozen. Next, we headed to the Richard I. Bong Airport to look for some long staying Snowy Owls. We were treated to several Horned Larks foraging on the side of the entrance road. While driving around looking for the Snowy Owl we were approached by a local owl monitor, and he drove us right to a beautiful immature female Snowy Owl that we all got great views of. It was a great way to end the day.
Our final day was spent back in Sax-Zim Bog for the whole day trying to find birds that we had missed on the previous days. On the drive in we spotted several Black-billed Magpies foraging near livestock at the local farms.
We also tried again for Sharp-tailed Grouse and were successful spotting them at their traditional lek spot. It was awesome to see this spectacular grouse with big fluffy feathers all the way down to its feet, and distinctive chevrons on the undersides. We visited a few familiar spots in the morning and had another great view a couple Hoary Redpoll’s coming into a feeder. A Northern Shrike was spotted on top of another feeder right before lunch. After lunch we continued our search for more birds and scored quickly with several Snow Buntings foraging on the railroad tracks. Soon after we spotted an immature male Snowy Owl on top of a spruce tree next to a house. We rounded out the day by finding a nice flock of White-winged Crossbills working some Tamarack cones. The final sighting of the day was a fat Porcupine feeding in a tree.
Our final day we ran back up to the bog before heading back to Minneapolis and departure. We took a short walk in the cold air out the back of the visitor center and had great looks at Common Redpoll, Canada Jay, and Pine Grosbeak.
We headed back down to the Twin Cities for departure. This trip was full of great birds, chilly weather, and laughs. This is a trip that everyone should take a least once. The serene beauty of Minnesota in the winter is so peaceful. I hope that you will consider joining me on a future venture to the great white North!