No two days of birding in Northern Minnesota are ever the same. This sentiment rings true when applied to our Boreal Birds Adventure Weekends! Our third Boreal Birds Adventure weekend was completed over the weekend of February 1-2, 2020. Our intrepid group of 9 (from California, Delaware, Connecticut, Massachusetts) sought boreal specialties near and far, in rain, in snow, and in very mild February weather. This trip was lead by Head Naturalist Clinton and Volunteer Naturalist Kristina Dexter-Nienhaus.
Day 1: Duluth and Sax-Zim Bog
Our February trip covered nearly the same path as our January trip, with the exception of starting in Duluth! Great Gray Owls, leading up to our weekend and even now as I write this post, have been very difficult to find. There was a Great Gray Owl reported and showing well in the Duluth area that we decided to target. This bird showed up in an odd location: an exit ramp along I-35! Not quite scenic like the Sax-Zim Bog, but it was our best shot at a Great Gray and our group took it. Unfortunately, this was not a bird that was doing very well and the morning we saw it, it was transported to the Raptor Center and died en route, unfortunately.
From Duluth, we ventured to the Sax-Zim Bog for our first targets of the day: Sharp-tailed Grouse! On our way, we were interrupted by two Black-billed Magpies! We missed seeing this species during the January Boreal Birds Adventure Weekend, so we made sure to stop and enjoy this pair. While watching them, a pileated woodpecker bombed along behind the magpies, giving everyone good looks of this large woodpecker.
Arriving at the Racek Road Lek, we were able to find a trio of sharp-tailed grouse in the Racek’s yard. We were pleased to see these stout grassland grouse running about, showing off their feathered feet. This season has been very interesting, compared to last year (or any year prior!). There have been only 3 Sharp-tailed Grouse at the Racek Road Lek, where we usually expect 7-8 birds dancing in the snow from late December-June! This year, the birds have only recently started to perform on the lek, with very little consistency.
From here, we made a trek up to the Arkola/Overton Road intersection for a shot at the Northern Hawk Owl that has been holding a territory at this intersection for the winter. This was one of 4(!) Northern Hawk Owls during our trip, with 3 being found in the Sax-Zim Bog and our 4th up in Cook, MN. Northern Hawk Owls are a wonderful, day active, and falcon shaped owl that are always a crowd pleasing species. After checking out this bird, we made our way to Mary Lou’s Feeders…. but not before we interrupted by more birds! This time, our group got side tracked when a beautiful juvenile Northern Goshawk blasted across the road in front of us! It has been a great winter for Northern Goshawk in the Sax-Zim Bog, with a number of different individuals being seen in scattered locations.
After being dazzled by Evening Grosbeaks and Hairy Woodpecker courtship at Mary Lou’s our group, we made a quick pass along McDavitt Road looking for Northern Shrikes, Black-backed Woodpeckers, and White-winged Crossbill. No luck! But sometimes, that is the way that birding goes. We continued on to the Welcome Center to enjoy lunch and to watch Canada Jays.
We decided to stretch our legs after lunch and enjoy the Warren Woessner Boardwalk in the Warren Nelson Memorial Bog, hoping for woodpeckers and more. The only woodpeckers that were checking out the feeders and black spruce in Warren Nelson Bog were Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers. Still great species to see, but not a woodpecker that draws people to the Bog! While plodding along the boardwalk, we were scanning for snowshoe hare, as a very cooperative individual has been seen near the beginning of the boardwalk this winter. Kristina’s sharp eyes found the hare, tucked below some alders. We got great looks of this hare, but also were able to find 2 of the 4 American Tree Sparrows that have been overwintering in the Warren Nelson Bog. American Tree Sparrow typically winters in Minnesota, but very seldomly as far north as the Sax-Zim Bog. And these were lifers for a few of our participants and one of the last sparrow species in the US for one of our participants!
If you have read through the report from the last Boreal Birds Adventure Weekend, you may notice a similar story line: starting with owls and grouse, moving to woodpeckers, etc. This Boreal Birds Adventure Weekend Trip also had similar owl-excitement at the end of the first day! It is hard to top a Barn Owl in the Sax-Zim Bog, but we tried our best getting great views at the Boreal Owl that has been visiting the Admiral Road Feeders! Now, this small owl is not interested in the bird seed, peanut butter, or suet… it is interested in the voles below the feeders (which are enjoying the above!). We made our way through the owl-jam to see this bird and loaded the group back up for the last bird of the day… Snowy Owl!
Day 2: Cook, MN and Sax-Zim Bog Redemption
Our second day started in the Cook, MN area, and with much effort, we were able to find a couple of targets in some tough conditions. Rain during the winter is never something to look forward to, especially if you plan on birding! Our group took the drizzle in stride and we were able to find a nice group of 5 Boreal Chickadees right off the bat! This group was very vocal, giving a chance to hear the nasally, slow bzz-bur of Boreal Chickadee against the bright fee-bee of Black-capped Chickadee. Later in the day, we reunited with the same group of chickadees and got to hear the song of Boreal Chickadee!! Down the road from our first chickadee group, we got some wonderful looks at a fiesty female Black-backed Woodpecker! She was drumming, flying around, calling, and displaying while our group watched. If you haven’t gotten to watch the antics of a Black-backed Woodpecker, they are something to behold!
Our exciting morning was dimmed a little by the lack of sunshine and drizzle, so after lunch our group decided to head back to the Sax-Zim Bog to find a few last birds, especially birds we didn’t have time to find on our first day (chiefly better looks at Ruffed Grouse and American Three-toed Woodpecker).
Our first stop when we arrived back to the Sax-Zim Bog was Winterberry Bog. Winterberry Bog is one of the seven Friends of Sax-Zim Bog properties in the Sax-Zim Bog. This winter has been exciting, with a nice American Three-toed Woodpecker showing off next to Black-backed Woodpeckers, as well as a very cordial young Barred Owl. Our group trekked through the maze of trails leading through bright red, woodpecker worked, tamarack and black spruce. We took a few pointers from folks who had already seen the American Three-toed Woodpecker and plodded along further in to the bog. We were able to get wonderful looks at this rare, northern woodpecker! While watching the woodpecker, we were treated to views of a couple Brown Creepers that have been wintering in the property. On our way out, the famous Barred Owl was back to its typical perch, just off the side of the feeders and the Winterberry Bog sign. Our group enjoyed the bird for a few minutes and then made plans for the end of our day and trip.
Our group decided to give one last shot at Great Gray Owls. With none having been seen in the previous week, our odds didn’t look great, but we gave it one last shot. Owl-o-clock came and went with no Great Grays, but we were able to get redeeming looks at Ruffed Grouse and found a young Porcupine. A similar ending to our last Boreal Birds Weekend and a great way to end a weekend of birding!
Thank you to all of our trip participants this winter season! These Boreal Birds Adventure Weekends are just an introduction to the wonderful winter birds in the boreal forest of northern Minnesota. However, if winter is not your thing… we hope to also try out a summer Boreal Birds Adventure Weekend targeting warblers and beyond in northern Minnesota. Stay tuned for more details to come!
Field Trip Bird and Mammal List!This will be the full list, not broken down into days. I will make notes on certain species if not everyone in the group saw said species. The mammal list will follow! We ended up with 30 species. We also ended up with 4 species of mammals, with all species seen!
Northern Hawk Owl
Great Gray Owl
American Three-toed Woodpecker
North American Porcupine