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Clinton Nienhaus—2018 Big Half Year


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Great Gray Owl from Lake Nichols Road by Clinton Nienhaus

My Big Half Year:
Because the rules of the Big Half Year are that your targets must be bird related, my Big Half Year is going to include birds, butterflies, and dragonflies. All of these species are related, whether it is the birds that eat caterpillars, or the dragonflies that eat butterflies, or the need of specific habitats for all of the above. To make this challenge more interesting, I am going to do my Big Half Year on Birds, Odonates, and Butterflies on Lake Nichols Road only!! Lake Nichols Road is one of my favorites in the entire bog. There is access to a diverse set of habitats (black spruce/tamarack/cedar bog, a lake, a stream, and deciduous forest) which makes this road one of the best if you are interested in a little bit of everything when you visit the Sax-Zim Bog! The impetus for this Big Half Year is to add to the “bogdiversity” of the Sax-Zim Bog and find “the one that got away,” a hairstreak (butterfly) that I saw along the road, but could not ID!
About Me:

I am the Head Naturalist for the Friends of Sax-Zim Bog and Education Director for Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory. This is my third season working for FOSZB. I am originally from southern Minnesota, but have been in the northland for 5 years now. I have been interested in a myriad of things over my time in the field, starting with fish and reptiles and moving to plants, birds, and odonates. Butterflies are not new to me, but I have spent very little time in the field with them! I am excited to participate in the Big Half-Year this year!

Big Half Year Totals

Birds: 87

Butterflies: 7

Odonates: 2

Total: 96


Big Half Year Update 5/22/2018

Things are heating up!!…. literally and figuratively! My Big Half Year Total grows and grows!

Spring migrants have finally started arriving in the northwoods, nearly a week later than usual. It has been wonderful to see the influx of breeding birds back to the Sax-Zim Bog! My last visit on the 21st was musically accompanied by the returning song of Chestnut-sided Warblers, Common Yellowthroats, and Ovenbirds. I had a chance to add a couple of pesky species that had been eluding me up to this point on my last visit as well: Broad-winged Hawk (after being foiled by a Blue Jay mimic or two) and Pine Siskin!! Pine Siskin is huge relief, as they were absent all winter and I didn’t think I would pick one up for this Half Year! This leaves me with Red Crossbill and Evening Grosbeak needed to complete a finch sweep on Lake Nichols Road. Is there a chance at either? Not likely! But with Red Crossbill’s penchant for moving around and them nesting in the Bog this year…. maybe! Evening Grosbeak is seen at a feeder or two along the road in the winter, but I don’t hold much hope for them this summer. I do have one major target left for this road for the half year… 100 bird species! This is a tough task, as the number of migrants is slowing… but I don’t yet have Osprey for Lake Nichols Road and flycatchers have been disappointing so far (I only have seen Eastern Phoebe and Least Flycather, still 6 species I could get!), meaning there are plenty of species yet to see this season!

If you notice, the butterfly and dragonfly lists have also grown… however slowly the growth may be! I am quite hopeful regarding what is happening in butterfly and dragonfly realms! Finally, I have seen my first non-migrant butterfly and dragonfly of the season along Lake Nichols Road! Spring Azure (butterfly) and Hudsonian Whiteface (dragonfly) are both non-migratory species and are a good sign that my butterfly and dragonfly lists will soon be skyrocketing! Lake Nichols Road happens to be my favorite road for dragonflies and damselflies in the whole Bog. I am expecting a good showing soon from Baskettails, Bluets, and Emeralds! Butterfly wise, I am excited to report my second ever Hoary Comma (which is a rare species in the northwoods)! I also know a couple of things, however vague, regarding butterfly expectations: 1) lots of milkweed and flowering plants in the ditches. 2) I am determined to ID some butterflies 3) I have a field trip or two coming up that may or may not be targeting butterflies, where we may or may not be visiting Lake Nichols road 🙂 I am excited to expand my knowledge base and add some butterfly species to my list!

To those out there reading and excited about the Big Half Year for the Sax-Zim Bog…. June is coming! With one month left for this event, who knows what species will be seen (or not seen….)! What heartbreak or heroics remain for the folks working hard to track down species!?

Stay tuned!

Bird Species added:

  • American Kestrel
  • Broad-winged Hawk
  • Northern Waterthrush
  • Palm Warbler
  • Swainson’s Thrush
  • Black-throated Green Warbler
  • Common Yellowthroat
  • American Redstart
  • Ovenbird
  • Tennessee Warbler
  • Golden-winged Warbler
  • Chestnut-sided Warbler
  • Wilson’s Warbler
  • Baltimore Oriole
  • Least Flycatcher
  • Veery
  • Ruby-throated Hummingbird
  • Pine Siskin
  • Yellow Warbler
  • Hooded Merganser
  • Blackburnian Warbler

Butterfly Species added:

  • Hoary Comma (my second ever!)
  • Spring Azure

Odonate Species added:

  • Hudsonian Whiteface

Big Half Year Update 5/11/2018

My last few visits to Lake Nichols Road have been incredibly fun! In my last 3 visits, I have seen 7 total porcupines, added 31 new birds, 2 new butterflies, and 1 new dragonfly.

As far as birds go, warblers have just started to show up and waterfowl is starting to leave. I did have a good run of waterbirds on Lake Nichols, with both Common and Red-breasted Merganser, a surprise Double-crested Cormorant, and even a rarity in the form of a sharp male Ruddy Duck! Ruddy Ducks are not rare in the state, but in St. Louis County, they are not very common migrants. Ruddy Ducks tend to stay westward in migration, and to have them away from Lake Superior is not very common at all! A few other bird surprises include a Wilson’s Snipe during a Frog and Toad Survey, a Wild Turkey (my first for Lake Nichols Road), a Bald Eagle (only surprise because it took me until the second week of May to see one!), and FINALLY!!!! DOWNY WOODPECKER!!! Now, if you have been following along my posts, I did not see a Downy Woodpecker all winter!! This very common species has been a thorn in my side along Lake Nichols road and I am very pleased to have finally gotten one!

Butterfly action is in a bit of stall, though I did add two new species: Milbert’s Tortoiseshell and Red Admiral. The good thing is that seeing a Red Admiral means that migrating butterflies are starting to return north! Migrating butterflies? You bet! Red Admiral is one species that typically moves south and then returns north, much like Monarchs, but at a shorter scale.

However, though butterflies are in a stall, migrating butterflies returning also means the return of migrating dragonflies! Common Green Darner is perhaps the best known migrating dragonfly, but there are a couple of other species I will be watching for in the next couple of weeks before our resident dragonflies start hatching. Those species are Black Saddlebags, Wandering Glider, Spot-winged Glider, and Varigated Meadowhawk. Each of these species undertake yearly migrations and can be found in large numbers when they return to the north following the return of Spring!

The next couple of reports, as we are nearing peak migration, could be bonkers bird-wise! Stay tuned!!

Bird Species added:

  • Wilson’s Snipe
  • Mallard
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • Horned Grebe
  • Pied-billed Grebe
  • American Goldfinch
  • Red-breasted Merganser
  • Chipping Sparrow
  • Bufflehead
  • Common Goldeneye
  • Blue-winged Teal
  • Lesser Scaup
  • Common Merganser
  • Wood Duck
  • Double-crested Cormorant
  • Black-and-white Warbler
  • Nashville Warbler
  • Blue-headed Vireo
  • Bald Eagle
  • White-throated Sparrow
  • Tree Swallow
  • Brown-headed Cowbird
  • Swamp Sparrow
  • Ruddy Duck
  • Eastern Phoebe
  • Downy Woodpecker
  • Winter Wren
  • Ring-necked Duck
  • Wild Turkey
  • Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
  • Trumpeter Swan

Butterfly Species added:

  • Milbert’s Tortoiseshell
  • Red Admiral


Big Half Year Update 4/25/2018

It has happened! Spring! Its here!!! Uffdah!

As you may be able to tell from my last post, spring has felt like it has been arriving for nearly a month. There certainly have not been many clues that spring is coming, since late March! Last week, we got around 15″ of new snow in the Sax-Zim Bog, with much of the weather being just barely in the 30’s. We have not had any wood frogs calling yet, no skunk cabbage in bloom, and very few American Woodcock and Wilson’s snipe have made their way north. In years prior, these sure fire signs of spring have been observed for a couple of weeks by this time in April. However, the tides have finally turned to the tune of a couple of 60 degree days in a row this passed weekend. I took advantage of this change of weather to get out and bolster my Big Half Year list. As you might see, my list has increased from 16 species to a whopping 38! And, if you note: Butterflies!!

Minnesota is home to a few species of butterfly that do over winter as adults, meaning that you can see them well before you see any sort of flowering plant activity. These butterflies are always a fine sign that spring has come. Mourning Cloak, is perhaps the most familiar example of a butterfly that overwinters as an adult, as they can be seen when snow is still on the ground in both the early spring and late into the fall. I have been lucky to chase down nearly all of the early season butterflies this season so far, with just 3 species eluding me. However, not all of these have I been able to find on Lake Nichols Road! The most exciting butterfly, for me, to add to my Big Half Year List is Green Comma! This was not only a new species for the Sax-Zim Bog Master Species list, but it is a lifer butterfly for me! The commas are a tough group of butterfly to ID, but the Green Comma is heavily marked on the underside of the wing, often showing green borders and marks on the hindwing. From the photo below, you can also see the namesake gray/silver “comma” on the middle of the hindwing.

Green Comma from April 20. These are one of the most beautiful and cryptic butterflies out there!

Butterflies are nice, but the birds have really been showing up in fine numbers lately! Migration has been slow based on lack of proper winds to aide migration, as well as a wall of snow in the southern part of the state. Slowly, but surely, our early migration species have begun to show up, and in number! Dark-eyed Juncos are one of the earliest species to arrive to the northwoods to begin their nesting and they have arrived in huge numbers to Duluth and the Sax-Zim Bog! These sparrows are first in the line of sparrows that will soon make their way back north. The best surprise of the last week’s birding and butterflying on the road had to be the return of Purple Finches! These colorful songsters have arrived and are making their presence known along Lake Nichols Road. Things are “heating up” in the Sax-Zim Bog!

Bird Species added:

  • Canada Goose
  • Blue Jay
  • White-breasted Nuthatch
  • American Robin
  • Red-tailed Hawk
  • Sandhill Crane
  • Turkey Vulture
  • American Woodcock
  • Great Blue Heron
  • American Tree Sparrow
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler
  • Fox Sparrow
  • Dark-eyed Junco
  • Golden-crowned Kinglet
  • Ruby-crowned Kinglet
  • Purple Finch
  • Belted Kingfisher
  • Song Sparrow
  • Northern Harrier

Butterfly Species added:

  • Green Comma (pictured)
  • Mourning Cloak
  • Question Mark


Big Half Year Update 3/29/2018

Signs of spring are slowly, but surely, making their way to Sax-Zim Bog! The ice is receding in the ditches, the ubiquitous muddy roads and trails are making the task of getting around the Bog a little more exciting, and of course owls are starting to call. There are three active owl survey routes within the Sax-Zim Bog, which target rarer owl species, like Great Gray or Boreal Owl. The owls have their own calendar when they like to call, but March 27 was the first time this season (which starts March 1 and runs to April 15) we had Northern Saw-whets calling (as compared to early March last year)! The owl survey route which I run is not along Lake Nichols Road, but there is one owl survey route that is run along Lake Nichols Road. Following our survey route, Kristina and I took a drive down Lake Nichols Road to have a listen to what might be out in the woods along Lake Nichols Road. Mostly, we were hoping to hear Northern Saw-whets, but hit the jackpot at our third stop along the road: 1 Northern Saw-whet, 1 Barred Owl, and 1 Great Horned Owl all call from the same area! Both Great Horned and Norther Saw-whet Owls were new species for our Big Half Years! Now it is just a matter of time before cranes, woodcock, and snipe arrive… here is to an exciting April!!!


Bird Species added:

  • Great Horned Owl
  • Northern Saw-whet Owl


Big Half Year Update 2/28/2018

March is almost here and migration is picking up in regions to our south! I am just dreaming for the flocks of geese and waterfowl that will be landing on Lake Nichols! This last month has been incredibly slow. If you can believe it… I have not seen a Blue Jay OR Downy Woodpecker along Lake Nichols Road yet this year!!! There are a few houses with feeders, but none that are easy to observe from any location. Uffdah! I did pick up one new species during this update period, near the middle of February: Northern Shrike. If you are keeping track of my tally, nearly all of the winter only species that I can find along this road have been accounted for and with raptor migration beginning soon, Rough-legged Hawk is my next big target to see along Lake Nichols Road. I might have to spend some time just sitting and waiting along the road, but with a good wind, who knows what will blow over!


Bird Species added:

  • Northern Shrike


Big Half Year Update 2/01/2018

One month is in the books! What a stagnant end to January I have had. Lake Nichols Road can be a bounty for species, but my winter species list is exceedingly low due to the quick start I got in January. Realistically, the options I have left for the winter species on Lake Nichols Road is small: only 7 species! It is going to take a lot of work to get the last few winter species before migration begins to expand my options. However, I can report that I added a very difficult bird (at least this winter) to my list while looking for woodpeckers in mid January: White-winged Crossbill! These cone dependent wanderers have been vacant from most of the state this winter, with pockets showing up here and there. Two of these boreal finches flew over-head while looking for woodpeckers along the east end of Lake Nichols Road, a very welcome surprise and unexpected addition for the list this year! Hopefully, another surprise or two is in for me this winter season, but I am telling you now, spring migration can’t come soon enough!


Bird species added:

  • White-winged Crossbill


Big Half Year Update 1/11/2018

Of course, no butterflies or dragonflies have been encountered in the brisk winter temperatures of the Sax-Zim Bog, but that does not mean species have not been added to my list! The birds of Lake Nichols Road have treated me well so far!

At this point of the half year, my hope is to check off the hard to find species of bird. Winter visitors, like redpolls and pine grosbeaks will not stick around in the summer, so the only window to see them is the winter. I have had great luck checking out a feeder along Lake Nichols Road, which has given some great birds including Common and Hoary Redpolls and Pine Grosbeak. This feeder was also the location where my Christmas Bird Count Group also had a Pine Siskin, which have been very hard to find this winter! I have not seen it yet, but will be checking regularly!

The other hard to find species in the winter are those birds that might not be active much during the daylight hours or those who move around so much that they are difficult to find. Of the hard to find species, I have checked off 4 tricky ones, including Great Grey Owl, Northern Goshawk, Ruffed Grouse, and Barred Owl. There are lots of birds to find along this road and I cannot wait to see what other surprises lay ahead!

Bird Species added:

  • Northern Goshawk
  • Pine Grosbeak
  • Hairy Woodpecker
  • American Crow (bird #1 for the Big Half Year List!)
  • Common Raven
  • Black-capped Chickadee
  • Common Redpoll
  • Hoary Redpoll
  • Red-breasted Nuthatch
  • Ruffed Grouse
  • Barred Owl
  • Great Gray Owl

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