Guided by Phil Chaon This was a set-departure tour
Northern Minnesota might seem an unlikely birding destination in the middle of winter. The diversity is low, and the days are short but spectacular scenery and some absolute all-star species make this a fantastic and entertaining spot for a short trip! Visiting the famous Sax Zim Bog we picked up the lion’s share of boreal specialties the very first day. A morning walk through a spruce bog connected us with American Three-toed Woodpecker and an obliging Northern Hawk Owl perched at the pinnacle of a tall pine. After lunch we rounded up a Black-backed Woodpecker and a few dashing Canada Jays. Around dusk we had a brief but satisfying encounter with the ghost of the north – Great Gray Owl. After seeing it fly through the trees several times, we eventually connected with it, perched calmly on a small spruce for a few minutes before fading back into the forest. A fantastic end to the day we were happy to head back but not before encountering one more surprise – a Northern Goshawk rocketing across the road and disappearing in a flash. Heading even farther north towards the Canadian border, a brutally cold day kept the bird activity down but with some work we managed to find a few more Canada Jays, an incredibly cooperative pair of Boreal Chickadee, another Black-backed Woodpecker and some Common Goldeneye. Later that evening we went out in search of the Northern Lights and while the Aurora was only a glimmer on the horizon we were treated to a stunningly dark and starry sky and a handsome Red Fox. The next morning was spent cruising around Grand Marais in search of Bohemian Waxwings and winter finches. While there were abundant fruiting trees that were popular among the American Robins and Cedar Waxwings, there wasn’t much else to be found. Heading inland on a remote forest road we were treated to hundreds of finches – Pine Siskins, Purple Finches, Red and White-winged Crossbills – all sitting the middle of the road gathering grit to aid in digesting pine nuts and birch catkins. After making our way back to Duluth, we continued across the bridge into Wisconsin for our final birding of the day. At the tiny airport in Superior we capped things off by spending some time with one of the Snowy Owls that usually spends the winter here. Our final day found us returning to Sax Zim Bog for another round of birding. After locating some of the great birds we had already seen, we finally came across a run of new species – a trio of Sharp-tailed Grouse in a snowy field, a Ruffed Grouse nipping buds off a dogwood and a noisy flock of Evening Grosbeaks. On our way to lunch a Barred Owl crossed the road in front of us before disappearing back into the forest – our 4th species of owl for the trip! The rest of the day was pleasantly spent in the company of Northern Hawk Owl, Northern Shrike and some other great boreal birds, though nothing new for the trip. Heading back to Duluth we had a final dinner in town that featured some great local beer, locally grown wild rice and a menu highlighting the comfort food that makes these cold winter days feel a little cozier. While most of us had early morning flights the next day a few of us headed down to the Duluth harbor for some quick morning birding. While there was only a very small patch of open water it did contain a large flock of Common Goldeneye, a small flock of Herring Gulls and a few Glaucous and Iceland Gulls along with them. With this last taste of winter birding, the last of us headed back to warm up and reflect on a great couple days in Minnesota.
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