Minnesota in Winter

Venturing to Minnesota in the heart of the winter months might seem downright crazy to some folks, but when you consider the number of owls, boreal forest specialists, and possible Arctic vagrants that await, it suddenly doesn’t seem nearly as cold. Plus, winter in the “Great White North” has an especially tranquil and invigorating feel, as the landscape is made anew with each passing blanket of snow.


Our tour to Minnesota is designed to find as many of these species as possible, as well as experience the world-famous Sax-Zim Bog, a 300 square mile area that includes not only bogs but a wide diversity of woodland habitats that numerous boreal birds call home.

Day 1: Arrival in Duluth. The tour begins this evening in Duluth, a city on the western tip of Lake Superior. An airport shuttle will be available to our hotel, where we’ll spend the first two nights.

Snowy Owls regularly winter around Duluth-Superior Harbor
Snowy Owls regularly winter around Duluth-Superior Harbor (Keith Barnes)

Day 2: Sax-Zim Bog and the Duluth-Superior Harbor. We’ll head out at first light to explore the spruce and tamarack bogs of Sax-Zim. We will begin our search for “the ghost of the bogs”, Great Gray Owl. This bird can be elusive, but with patience, we usually manage to find one. Northern Goshawk is another top predator for which to keep an eye out. Boreal finches will brighten our day with Pine Grosbeak, Evening Grosbeak, both Common and Hoary Redpolls, and White-winged Crossbill all likely possibilities. We will return to Duluth for lunch, after which we will head out to the Duluth-Superior Harbor where one can usually find Snowy Owls enjoying the winter weather. Gyrfalcons also reside along the harbor some winters.

We have a decent chance to find a Great Gray Owl at Sax-Zim Bog
We have a decent chance to find a Great Gray Owl at Sax-Zim Bog (Sam Woods)

Day 3: Superior National Forest. Today we will head into the spruce and pine forests of Superior National Forest, north of Duluth. Here our prime target is Spruce Grouse, a specialist that feeds on the needles of spruce and other conifers. We will also search for other boreal specialists such as Black-backed and American Three-toed Woodpeckers, Boreal Chickadee, and Red Crossbills. After lunch in Silver Bay, we will bird our way to the town of Grand Marais for the night, on the north shore of Lake Superior. For the adventurous, we will venture out of town after dinner in hopes of finding the Aurora Borealis (or Northern Lights). This phenomenon is very unpredictable, so we will decide where to go based on information and forecasts available at the time. Those ready to call it a day are welcome to stay at the hotel. We’ll spend a single night in Grand Marais.

American Three Toed Woodpeckers can be found in Superior National Forest
American Three Toed Woodpeckers can be found in Superior National Forest (Nick Athanas)

Day 4: Grand Marais and the North Shore of Lake Superior. After sleeping in a little and enjoying a hearty breakfast, we will head out to bird the neighborhoods and feeders of Grand Marais, where we hope to find wintering vagrants among the more regular feeder denizens. Varied Thrush and Townsend’s Solitaire have visited in years past. Bohemian Waxwing is also a distinct possibility. After lunch, we will bird our way down the North Shore of Lake Superior back to Duluth, where we spend the final two nights. During the drive, we’ll make stops to check the lake for Harlequin Duck, Long-tailed Duck, and Common Goldeneye, and keep an eye out for Snow Bunting, Northern Shrike, Rough-legged Hawk, and Ruffed Grouse. Of course the real stars of the winter show are the owls. These birds are irruptive, and their abundance fluctuates with prey availability. Some years they are readily found and other years largely absent. On the north shore, we have chances for Northern Hawk Owl, Northern Saw-whet Owl, and Boreal Owl, and will modify our plans as necessary to target any of them that may be around.

Well check various spots along Lake Superior for Harlequin Duck
Well check various spots along Lake Superior for Harlequin Duck (Keith Barnes)

Day 5: Sax-Zim Bog and Canal Park. On our last full day of the tour, we will return once more to Sax-Zim Bog. Here we will visit a Sharp-tailed Grouse lek as well as stop by the feeders for another look at winter finches. Another target this morning will be Black-billed Magpie, here near the eastern limit of their range. We will also have another chance for elusive birds like Northern Hawk Owl, Northern Saw-whet Owl, and Northern Goshawk. After lunch, we’ll drop in for a visit to Canal Park, a well known spot for gulls. Beyond the ubiquitous Herring Gull, the spot has proven productive for Glaucous, Lesser and Greater Black-backed, Iceland, and Thayer’s Gulls. Even rarer species like Black-legged Kittiwake, Glaucous-winged, Slaty-backed, and Ivory Gull have also appeared on rare occasions.

We hope to track down one or more of the irruptive owl species, such as Northern Hawk Owl
We hope to track down one or more of the irruptive owl species, such as Northern Hawk Owl (Keith Barnes)

Day 6: Departure. The tour ends this morning, and a shuttle bus is available to take you to the airport. Depending on flight schedules, there may be time for one last visit to Sax-Sim Bog.

____________________

TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate. Since it is winter and the latitude is high, the days are short. It doesn’t get light until around 7:30 AM, but we often leave before dawn to reach our destinations by first light. Given the shortness of the days, we do not usually have time to return to the hotel for a mid-day break, but we will have leisurely lunches to relax and warm up. Breakfast is served at the hotel and lunches and dinners are in good restaurants.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy to moderate. With the cold weather, almost all of our birding will be done from the car, along roads, or from buildings. We may take some short walks into the snow to search for some specialties, so depending on the snow’s depth, there could be some short, moderately difficult walks. We will, however, generally avoid deep snow whenever possible. Anyone not wishing to do these walks may bird on their own or warm up in the vehicle.

CLIMATE: Usually extremely cold. During the month of February, Duluth averages winter highs of 24°F/-4°C and lows of 6°F/-14°C. On extreme days, highs can drop well below 0°F/-18°C, though this is rare. Occasionally, warm and balmy highs of 30 to 40°F (-1 to 5°C) occur. Moderate wind is also a reality on the North Shore of Lake Superior and can make the apparent temperature seem much colder. Snow is possible throughout the tour.

ACCOMMODATION: Excellent. We typically use respected hotel chains such as Best Western. All of the hotels have typical amenities, including Wi-Fi.

PHOTOGRAPHY: While this is a birding tour, Minnesota in winter offers many opportunities for taking excellent photos of most target species, from Gray Gray and other owls to Spruce Grouse, and winter finches coming into the feeders. Because the list of target species is low, we often spend more time with individual birds, so this trip is more “photographer-friendly” than average.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: For US citizens, no special requirements are necessary to visit Minnesota. Citizens of Canada may enter the US with a valid passport, and do not need to obtain a visa. For citizens of the 38 countries on the visa waiver list (including the UK, Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, and Japan – click here for the full list)), you can enter the US with a valid passport and a completed Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), which can be applied for online. For all passports, the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. Citizens of all other countries will need to apply for a US visa. Travel requirements are subject to change; please double check with the nearest embassy or consulate, or ask our office staff if you are unsure.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night day 5; meals from dinner on day 1 (unless you arrive too late for dinner service) to breakfast on day 6; reasonable non-alcoholic beverages with meals; safe drinking water only between meals (tap water is safe to drink in the US, and you are encouraged to fill your water bottles when able); Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio playback gear from the evening of day 1 to approximately noon of day 6; ground transport for the group in a suitable vehicle driven by the guide from the morning of day 2 to approximately noon of day 6; airport shuttle bus on day 1 and day 6; tips for included meals; entrance fees to the sites mentioned in the itinerary; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the tour leader; tips to baggage carriers if you require their services; flights; snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.