Our 2016 Minnesota in Winter tour was a great success!
10 participants braved a rather frigid five days of temps starting below zero in the morning in hopes of seeing birds that are often hardier than the birders who chase them.
In the five days of the tour, we logged a little over 1400 miles and 41 species of birds, and an additional five species of mammals.
Highlights included: Great Gray Owl, Snowy Owl, Gyrfalcon, Spruce Grouse, Sharp-tailed Grouse, Black-backed Woodpecker, and Boreal Chickadee, among others.
These stats are more than enough proof that birding in the northlands is an exercise in quality over quantity. The birds we see are few, and often many miles apart, but they are very special and very hardy species.
Northern Minnesota in winter is a beautiful frozen landscape punctuated by icy north winds and copious amounts of snow. The proximity of the largest of the Great Lakes means that depending on the wind direction, it could snow at any time throughout the season.
We started our tour with participants arriving in the scenic college town of Duluth, MN. From there, we made the short run up to the renowned Sax-Zim Bog and started our search for the boreal specialties that are found there, some of them at the very southern tip of their range. Pine and Evening Grosbeaks called from tall spruces and Common Redpolls were plentiful at feeders. Gray Jays looked on with curiosity from their perches as Ruffed Grouse picked at the buds of alder and birch. One early morning found us patrolling a stretch of road long before the sun rose. Our target, the intruigingly cryptic and beautiful Great Gray Owl presented itself suddenly and without warning on an open branch right next to the road. After watching it for a while, it turned, and, just as suddenly as it had appeared, disappeared into the forest.
Two other mornings found us along a lonely county road two hours drive north of Duluth before sunrise. Watching the boreal forest awaken in the morning is one of the most spellbinding things one can observe. As the darkness falls away into light, the silence of the forest is complete. If it is calm, one could conceivably hear a pin hit the snow in the deafening silence. As the first rays of sunlight begin to fall over the forest, one begins to hear the silence broken up by small cracks and pops as twigs and bark encased in ice from the long, cold night begin to heat and shift the ice around them. Snow slowly melts and falls from the trees. Then, suddenly, the distant drum of a woodpecker. In answer, another, from some unknown perch, equally distant. The sky by this time is highlighted in red and gold as the first rays of sunlight fall across the forest. Cruising up and down the roads, we search for Spruce Grouse, coming to the road for grit. It is only in the early mornings that one can find these beautiful grouse of the boreal forest and our first passes strike out. Our second morning reveals a stunning male in the middle of the road that tolerates our presence for more than an hour. Happy with our extended time with this species, we turned our attention to the drumming of a nearby Black-backed Woodpecker. A female, the bird was easily found searching for freeze-dried insects on a dead snag, all but oblivious to the group of birders below.
Snow sparkles in the sunlight as we drive through miles of mixed boreal forest, the winding, twisting road weaving an uncertain path through the uneven, mountainous terrain known as the Iron Range for its plentiful supply of the Taconite ore. The small town of Biwabik (so named from the Ojibwe word for Iron) provides us a brief respite from the surrounding wilderness and enough fruiting trees to support a flock of Bohemian Waxwings. At first evading our scouring eyes, the flock appears, suddenly before us, in a field of Mountain Ash bushes in a small hamlet near town. Evening Grosbeaks are also present, chattering and arguing among themselves, their softly trilled calls sounding lightly over the snow-covered landscape.
Our travels during the week also take us along the rugged and beautiful north shore of Lake Superior. The small tourist and port town of Two Harbors afforded us a flock of Long-tailed Ducks, Common Goldeneye and Common Merganser. Duluth itself provides excellent access to the lakefront and to gulls. The nearby landfill in Superior, WI is a haven of food for gulls and they gather in droves throughout the year. Every afternoon, they make the short flight over to Canal Park where birders often offer them bread. Herring, Glaucous, Kumlien’s and Thayer’s are common, with the occasional Great Black-backed and Lesser Black-backed Gulls. Taking a few minutes to sort them out, we spend an hour or so photographing them. Then, by mid-afternoon, it becomes time to search for Snowy Owls.
Many years, there are Snowy Owls in the Duluth-Superior twin ports area and this year is no different. After a short search, we find our first Snowy Owl, this one wing-tagged and banded just like the other two in the area. A few minutes later, we begin our search again and quickly find a second Snowy Owl. Our search concluded, we decide it is dinner time and turn in for the evening, ready to be up before sunrise the next morning and do it all over again.