January 23 – 28, 2023
With Kevin Burke
Narrative by Kevin Burke, Photos by Kevin Burke and Gisele Schoene
This year’s tour to Northern Minnesota and Sax-Zim Bog was fabulous! Every year is different up in the great white north. We were fortunate to have temperatures in the 20’s for most of the trip, although we did see -13 once. I must admit that is a little chilly.
It was a banner Grosbeak year with Pine and Evening Grosbeaks at nearly every stop. The way that these birds show up against the white snow is stunning. I could sit and watch them all day.
Our group of nine was comprised of birders of all levels and geographical locations. Everyone got along famously, which meant a lot of laughs and good conversations in the van. It is so nice to see birders from all over connect and share stories on these trips.
We started the trip with flights arriving at the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport. Introductions were made at dinner on the evening of January 23rd. Travel days are always a little exhausting, so we had a nice meal and headed to bed.
The next morning, we hit a couple of spots near the twin cities before headed up to Duluth. Our first spot was Shakopee Mill Pond where we got killer views of hundreds of waterfowl. Trumpeter Swan, American Black Duck, and Common Goldeneye were the highlights.
As we walked down to the water’s edge a small flock of American Tree Sparrows were foraging on the ground giving good views. There were a few lifers at the first stop, and frozen smiles.
Next, we started up to a small park outside of the Twin Cities to a known Long-eared Owl roost. It was a decent walk in the snow over a frozen lake to get to the stand of trees, but so worth it.
We fanned out in the small stand of crab apple trees to try to find the owls. It wasn’t long before we had an owl flush and fly to the other side of the roost.
We were rewarded with killer views of three Long-eared Owls all within feet of one another! As a bonus a few of us got to see a perched Short-eared Owl before it flushed off to unknown territory. It was shaping up to be a good day. On the way up to Duluth some minor persistence paid off with good looks at a soaring Rough-legged Hawk, and a few female Ring-necked Pheasants foraging on the roadside. The finale of the first day was getting to see three Snowy Owls at the Richard I. Bong Airport in Superior, Wisconsin. We had one juvenile female fly in and sit on a building right in front of us. Amazing!
The next morning was off to the famous Sax-Zim Bog birding area. The birding here is interesting. There are a bunch of feeding stations and small pockets of preserved land within this vast Black Spruce and Tamarack Bog.
Driving the roads searching for birds can be quite tedious but extremely rewarding. This morning was not unlike others I have spent in “The Bog”. One of our first species of the morning was a small flock of Snow Buntings. They were gritting on the road and flushed to the nearby field giving us good scope views. Common Ravens were abundant. We passed several Northern Shrikes with scope views of some. One of the main targets of the trip was a cooperative Northern Hawk Owl.
It was quite a ways off, but eventually flew near the road and we hiked out to right under the tree it was perched on. Our first good looks at Pine and Evening Grosbeaks came at the famous Mary-Lou’s feeders.
This place is so special because of the heated outhouse! In the late afternoon we headed back down to Duluth for a nice meal and bed.
As we do every year we spend a day going a little far afield. Today we headed Northwest near the small town of Cook.
We started down a road with some great habitat and immediately found a foraging male Spruce Grouse. This bird gave us prolonged looks at it right next to the road. If we didn’t see another bird for the rest of the day, I think we would have been satisfied. We did catch up with a small flock of Boreal Chickadees, accompanied by another Spruce Grouse, a female this time foraging on the road. A nice lunch in Cook had us ready to head back down to Sax-Zim for some afternoon birding. We caught up with a few Canada Jays and a small flock of Common Redpolls. It was a nice day to tour around the area looking for birds.
The final full day of our trip was spend looking for birds that we may not have seen yet. We returned to Sax-Zim and scoured all the familiar spots. We had our only Pine Siskin of the trip at the Visitor Center. We caught up with a few Black-billed Magpies near some open farmland. A couple flocks of Bohemian Waxwings gave us fleeting views. A super cooperative Pileated Woodpecker occupied Mary Lou’s feeders for an extended period.
Also present at Mary Lou’s was her flock of Wild Turkeys. One of which was jumping up to get suet out of a feeder. As the day wound down, we got views of a Ruffed Grouse eating buds off a willow tree. It was good to catch up with some birds that we had not seen yet.
The final morning, we packed up to head down to the Twin Cities for departure. We made one last stop down on the Duluth waterfront to look for gulls.
We had to work a bit, but eventually found the huge flock and picked out Herring, Iceland, and Glaucous Gulls for the group. It was a high note to end on. We next drove down to Minneapolis for departure.
Northern Minnesota in the winter is a must do for any avid birder. The species diversity isn’t high, but the quality is tremendous. Most everyone on the trip went away with a lifer, or at least a “relifer”, or a bird that you haven’t seen in years and barely remember. I would encourage you to sign up for next year’s Northern Minnesota trip. It is sure to be a grand time!
A few more birds…