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Boreal Birds Adventure Weekend: January 2020 Summary

January 16, 2020 Category: , ,
Our group for the weekend! Photo by Sparky Stensaas

Last weekend (January 11-12) saw the completion of the 2nd Friends of Sax-Zim Bog Boreal Birds Adventure Weekend. The purpose of this 2-day field excursion is to find and see many of the boreal forest specialists and winter specialties of northern Minnesota. For our January excursion, we spent one day in the Sax-Zim Bog and our second day in the under-birded and often unexplored bogs and forests around Cook, MN. The field trip was lead by Head Naturalist Clinton Dexter-Nienhaus and Volunteer Naturalist Kristina Dexter-Nienhaus. Our 10 participants hailed from Rhode Island, New York, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Minnesota.

Day 1: Sax-Zim Bog

Day 1 started below 0, bottoming out around -18F. The morning started, as most do in the Sax-Zim Bog… looking for owls! We started down Lake Nichols Road, with 15+ Ruffed Grouse, but no owls. Not to worry, we got eyes our first target of the trip along Admiral Road, with scope views of our first Great Gray Owl! A good start, but short looks left the group wanting more. We cruised along Admiral and McDavitt Road, with no luck. We stopped along McDavitt Road to get some nice looks at a few Evening Grosbeaks at the Sisu Feeders. Great Gray Owl redemption came when Sparky let us know he had another Great Gray along Zim Road, actively hunting. We scooted north for our 2nd Great Gray of the day! This bird offered much better looks than our first. Following this stop, we dropped by Mary Lou’s Feeders, with few grosbeaks to be found.

Can you spot the Great Gray? This was our first of three of the day giving many of our participants the first life bird of the weekend. Photo by Head Naturalist Clinton

We next trekked south to the Welcome Center, with hopes of seeing the Ermine. No luck, so we headed toward Overton Road looking for Northern Hawk Owl. We were able to get nice views of one Hawk Owl, which just so happened to be life bird #1000 for Art and Sandi!

Art checking out his #1000 life bird: Northern Hawk Owl! Photo by Head Naturalist Clinton

Following this momentous bird, we wound our way back to the Welcome Center, only to learn that the Ermine made an appearance just as we had left! Hopeful for its return, we enjoyed lunch in the Welcome Center, as well as good views of Canada Jays visiting the deer carcasses at the Welcome Center. From the Welcome Center, we headed down Owl Avenue, with hopes of finding Sharp-tailed Grouse at the Racek Road Lek or Feeders.

Wouldn’t you know it… again, the Ermine made an appearance after we left the Welcome Center for the second time! Shoot! Fortunately, three Sharp-tailed Grouse gave us great looks upon our arrival to the Racek Road feeders. These grouse have been very hard to come by this winter and it was great to see a couple of these stout grouse.

Black-backed Woodpeckers were next on our agenda, so off we were to the Warren Nelson Bog. No luck here, but we did end up with a small group of Golden-crowned Kinglets! Unbelievably, these tiny songbirds (only weighing 5.5 grams!) do spend the winter in northern Minnesota in small numbers and can tolerate temperatures up to -40F! They were busy foraging high in the black spruce, and we were only able to hear their tiny contact calls as they moved along. Nice birds!

Our list of target species was still fairly long, so we started our up Highway 7 to look for Northern Shrikes and Rough-legged Hawks. Northern Shrikes have been abundant this winter, but for some reason, our group had a difficult time at getting one of these wonderful birds to sit still. It took until our third (or fourth) shrike, until we were able to get everyone good looks! Along Highway 7 we were also able to find a few Rough-legged Hawks, with decent views of a group of 4 light morph birds, and distant views of a gorgeous adult male dark morph Rough-leg!

Since we had missed Black-backed Woodpecker with our earlier effort at Warren Nelson Bog, we gave these birds another try. We stopped at Winterberry Bog with hopes of both American Three-toed Woodpecker and Black-backed Woodpecker. These northern species both have the unique distinction of having only three toes on each foot, where most woodpeckers have four toes! Quietly, our group hiked the snowshoe trail and Kristina was able to pick out a woodpecker, working in the dead black spruces: Black-back! The female Black-backed Woodpecker was very hard to find, but after some work, we were able to get everyone a view of this beautiful bird.

With this target found, we were nearing “owl-o-clock” and started our way for our evening owling. Hoping to find the snowy owl that had been reported near Byrne’s Greenhouse, we headed up Highway 7. Near the greenhouse, we spotted Frank Nicoletti who was also leading a group. They had managed to find a Great Gray Owl near the Snowy Owl location! Our third Great Gray of the day, but very distant. The Snowy Owl had not appeared, so we decided to head toward Admiral Road, in hopes of more owls or grouse or a pine marten…. Never in our wildest dreams did we expect what would happen next.

Frank called, which was a good sign that the Snowy Owl had appeared. Super! I picked up the phone with that expectation until the words BARN OWL came over the line. And like that, off we were to Highway 7, hoping with the highest of hopes that the bird would still be hunting and we would get a chance at seeing it. We arrive near Byrne’s Greenhouse and before we could even stop, the floppy, buoyant flight of a Barn Owl was spotted. Holy cow: A BARN OWL!!!!!!

This Barn Owl was an unexpected surprise for everyone! Photo by Head Naturalist Clinton

Flabbergasted by this bird, we watched it until it flew beyond the conifers and out of sight. Floored by this sighting, we shuffled down the road less than 1/2 mile to find our last bird of the day (and 3rd species of owl on this stretch of road): Snowy Owl! A 4 species of Owl day! What a way to end day 1.

Day 2: Cook, MN

It would be hard to top the first day, but we started bright and early to see if it could be done! We started our morning (well above 0F!) with hopes for more owls! Briefly we watched the Barn Owl hunt in the morning light, on our way to find Great Gray Owls. It was nice to see the Barn Owl again, as later in the day it was captured and ultimately passed away on its way to the Raptor Center in the Twin Cities. Barn Owls are not a cold adapted species, but this one had miraculously survived in the Bog for nearly a month, in temperatures below 0F. Amazing. We were grateful to spend time with this bird before it’s passing.

Our brief morning Great Gray Owl search did not turn up any birds, so we started off to our primary location of birding for the day: Cook, MN. Perhaps, this small, northern Minnesota town is familiar, but more than likely you have never heard of Cook! Birders are familiar with this area, but mostly from two main locations: Johnson Road and the Cook Sewage Ponds! Julie Grahn, Friends of Sax-Zim Bog Volunteer, lives in this area and is perhaps one of the few folks who spend any time birding the area. The areas around Cook include wonderful stretches of bog, Jack Pine and Balsam Fir forests, and large aspens; all habitats that support boreal birds. We were hopeful to find a few of the species we missed in the Sax-Zim Bog, as well as better looks at other species.

On our way, we were quite lucky with raptor sightings! We found a couple of Northern Shrikes on Highway 7 on our way to Virginia, MN. On Highway 53 towards Cook, we were able to find the only Bald Eagles of our trip, as well as great looks at a hatch year Northern Goshawk!

Our first target in Cook was Northern Hawk Owl! There have been a number of birds in the Sax-Zim Bog, but there also have been a number near Cook. We were able to track down one of these birds and get much better looks than we had in the Sax-Zim Bog.

One of two Northern Hawk Owls for our trip. This bird was found in the Cook Area. Photo by Head Naturalist Clinton

Our next target was Boreal Chickadee. These wonderful chickadees are resident in the Sax-Zim Bog, as well as many other bogs in the northeastern part of Minnesota. Boreal Chickadee has not been an easy bird in the Sax-Zim Bog this winter, so our hopes were high to find a few in the Cook area. We started down a great road, which is well under-birded, expecting a few surprises. At our first stop, we did not have any Boreal Chickadees, but did stumble into a flock of 73 American Goldfinches! This might not seem like an exciting observation to some, but goldfinches can be quite scarce in the winter in northern Minnesota. The next stop we made was much more fruitful: we were able to find a foraging flock of Black-capped Chickadees, which just so happened to include 3 Boreal Chickadees! We got to hear the classic slow, nasaly, gruff call of Boreal Chickadee and got great comparison looks of the two species of chickadee. Boreal Chickadee happened to be a life bird for every one of our trip participants!

One of the many roads in Cook, MN that hold amazing species like Northern Goshawk, Spruce Grouse, Boreal Chickadee, and more. Photo by Head Naturalist Clinton

We made a few other stops hoping to find more Boreal Chickadees, with no luck. We were also hopeful to find a few crossbills, to no avail. After lunch we hoped to get redeeming looks at Black-backed Woodpecker, with another chance at American Three-toed Woodpecker. Again, the Black-backed woodpeckers were not very confiding, though we were able to find a total of 4 of these boreal woodpeckers. We had one more location to check for woodpeckers before our trip started back towards Sax-Zim Bog for a final shot at owls.

The group checking out Boreal Chickadees in the Cook area. Photo by Head Naturalist Clinton

Heino Road, just south of Cook, looks similar to many roads in northern Minnesota. However, this roads happens to currently be attractive to a number of Black-backed Woodpeckers and a couple of American Three-toed Woodpeckers. We were only able to find one Black-backed Woodpecker, giving us our best views yet. This Black-backed Woodpecker was a male, sporting its bright yellow cap. Not only do Black-backed Woodpeckers only have three toes on each foot, but males sport yellow on their heads instead of red, typical of our more familiar woodpeckers, like Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers.

Head Naturalist Clinton had heard a few more Boreal Chickadees, as well as a Brown Creeper, so we moved the group in hopes of getting the attention of these chickadees. While working on getting these birds out of the woods, Kristina noticed a bird fly across the road, just west of our group. Her face said it all: good bird! She had just spotted a Boreal Owl, yet another unexpected species!! We tried hard to get everyone looks at this bird, but it was not to be. It is always exciting to see a rarer species and it is tough to not be able to show it to everyone. Alas, it was time to head back to the Bog.

On our way back to the Bog, information was passed along that a Barred Owl was being seen along Murphy Road. Since it was on our way…. we stopped to look at this wonderful owl. Our 5th (6th for Kristina) species of owl for the trip and a great bookend to the weekend. Little did we know, or expect, we had some more excitement on our way to the Welcome Center!

Head Naturalist Clinton spotted a Pileated Woodpecker flying even with the van as we were driving down Arkola Road. We slowed down and the bird decided to land nearly next to the van! It hid behind the tree it landed on and flew off as we tried to maneuver for a better look. Near the Welcome Center we stopped to check out our only Porcupine of the trip, which was a wonderful critter to get great close looks at. Finally, our trip ended with the last bird of the trip, which was also the first species seen: Ruffed Grouse!

A last light North American Porcupine from Owl Avenue by Head Naturalist Clinton

We ended up with 33 species of bird and 5 species of mammal. The full list of species is included below. Any birds noted with an asterisk were species that were heard only, or were species that not everyone in the group saw. Many thanks to everyone who attended the Boreal Birds Adventure Weekend! We hope to continue to offer these longer field trips and have really enjoyed the trips so far! Our next Boreal Birds Adventure Weekend will be in February, so stay tuned for another report at that time.

–Head Naturalist Clinton

Bird and Mammal List January 11-12

Ruffed Grouse

Sharp-tailed Grouse

Wild Turkey

Rock Pigeon

Northern Goshawk

Bald Eagle

Rough-legged Hawk

***Barn Owl*** 4th St. Louis County Record, first since 1984. 

Snowy Owl

Northern Hawk Owl

Barred Owl

Great Gray Owl

Boreal Owl*

Black-backed Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker

Hairy Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

Northern Shrike

Canada Jay

Blue Jay

American Crow

Common Raven

Black-billed Magpie*

Black-capped Chickadee

Boreal Chickadee

Red-breasted Nuthatch

White-breasted Nuthatch

Brown Creeper*

Golden-crowned Kinglet*

European Starling

House Sparrow

Evening Grosbeak

American Goldfinch

Mammals: White-tailed Deer, Red Squirrel, North American Porcupine, Red Fox (tracks), Snowshoe Hare (tracks)

Red squirrel by Sandi Jacques