On February 8, 2019, 13 young birders and their families met Executive Director Tyler Harms and volunteer leader Kevin Murphy for a weekend of winter birding in Duluth, Minnesota for our Northern Minnesota Weekend 2019. The plan was to visit Sax-Zim Bog, a world-famous winter birding location where one could delight in several boreal bird species including both Great Gray and Northern Hawk Owls, birds for which the area is known, as well as others like Boreal Chickadee, both Evening and Pine Grosbeak, and Canada Jay. Despite a somewhat stressful and treacherous drive for all on Friday the 8th, spirits were still high and excitement was in the air when we met briefly Friday evening to welcome everyone and discuss logistics. We also started our trip list with a Common Raven that was seen earlier that afternoon by one of the young birders in the hotel parking lot. Then, it was off to prepare for an early morning with boreal birds on our minds!
After a quick breakfast on Saturday morning, we loaded our van, which was to be later named the “Snowy Owl” (I’ll let you guess the color), by 6:00 AM in order to arrive at Sax-Zim Bog before sunrise to search for Great Gray Owls. By the time we reached the Bog, the Snowy Owl was recording an ambient temperature of -26° F! Still somewhat sleepy from the early morning, we were quickly awakened by the sight of a large owl flying across the road upon entering the Bog. We scanned the treeline in the twilight with hopes high of locating our #1 target bird (Great Gray Owl) in the first 10 minutes of the trip, but it was a Great Horned Owl that elevated our hopes. Still a fun bird to see! Because of the extremely cold temperatures, much of the birding is done from the comfort of a heated vehicle. Therefore, we continued to search for owls along both McDavitt and Admiral Roads, two areas known to be frequented by Northern Hawk and Great Gray Owls. With no owl luck by sunrise, we stopped briefly at the Admiral Road bird feeders. Pine Grosbeaks and Common Redpolls were numerous at this location, both of which were life birds for many, along with some Black-capped Chickadees, Pine Siskins, and the occasional Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers and Red-breasted Nuthatch. This is also a known location for Boreal Chickadee and, while some had fleeting glimpses of a single individual, not all were able to see the chestnut-colored relative of our common Black-capped. We planned to stop by later.
After the feeders, we headed towards an area known for lekking Sharp-tailed Grouse. We searched this area for some time with no luck, so we continued to the Friends of Sax-Zim Bog Visitor’s Center for more feeder watching. Pine Grosbeaks were again numerous at this location, and all enjoyed close looks of this species along with more Common Redpolls, Black-capped Chickadees, and others. We also saw what was believed to be a Common Raven in the distance and added Red Squirrel to our mammal list. Back in the Snowy Owl, we then headed to the northwest corner of the Bog for a visit to Mary Lou’s feeders. It was here that we saw our first Evening Grosbeaks of the trip, another life bird for all. The vibrant colors of these birds made it worth standing for several minutes in the cold watching them come and go from the feeders. While there, we also heard and saw more Common Ravens in the distance. We then decided to look once more for Sharp-tailed Grouse and check for an actual Snow Owl (not our van) at a location on the south end of the Bog before lunch. Though we did not see either of these birds, we did stop en route to put the spotting scopes on two Canada Jays foraging along the roadway. Another target bird checked off the list, we headed for the Wilbert Café in the Cotton, Minnesota for a delicious lunch and time to warm up. Little did we know things were about to get very exciting that afternoon!
Near the end of our lunch, Kevin received information that a Northern Hawk Owl was just located in the Bog. We quickly loaded the Snowy Owl and headed for the location. We arrived, donned are warmest clothing, and started out for a hike on a narrow snow trail into the Bog in search of our #2 target bird. After hiking for about a half mile, we joined several other birders and photographers to view a gorgeous Northern Hawk Owl perched high a spruce tree. It was very cooperative, and all were able to get great views of the bird through the spotting scopes.
Excited from seeing one of our top target birds, we hiked back to the Snowy Owl to continue our afternoon. We received a tip from some fellow birders that a Great Gray Owl was seen not 10 to 15 minutes earlier just around the corner from where we were currently standing. We decided to become a bit more methodical in our search for Great Grays, so we carefully scanned the aspen and spruce trees along Admiral Road and turned down Kolu Road, an area where Great Grays hadn’t been seen yet but the habitat looked appropriate. As we slowly drove down Kolu Road, we were rewarded for our patience. About 15 yards off the road, we located a Great Gray Owl hunting in an aspen stand! All were plastered to the windows, staring in awe at this majestic bird. What an amazing experience to see the tallest of the North American owls! After the Great Gray, we quickly headed for the Friends of Sax-Zim Bog Visitor’s Center where we were treated to a fantastic program from Lead Naturalist Clinton about the history of the Bog and its many plants and animals. A huge thanks to Clinton for taking time to speak with us!
Based on a tip from Clinton, we left the Visitor’s Center for the Warren Nelson Memorial Bog to look for the elusive Black-backed Woodpecker. The scenery was spectacular as we quietly walked along the boardwalk listening intently for tapping among the many black spruce trees. We hiked to the end of the boardwalk, seeing Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers and Black-capped Chickadees along the way. We stood, dead quiet, at the end of the boardwalk for five or more minutes. Listening and watching intently, we finally saw a woodpecker fly overhead and land in a nearby spruce. There it was! A Black-backed Woodpecker was working up the tree before it flew away briefly only to land directly in front of us at the base of a tree, providing better looks than any of us could ask for!
We left the Bog to return to Duluth, but not without adding both Wild Turkey and Ruffed Grouse to our bird list and a quick stop to see a Porcupine high in a tree!
On Sunday morning, we headed back to the Bog to look for Sharp-tailed Grouse and Boreal Chickadee in order to complete our target list for the weekend. We went directly to the Racek Road feeders, a known feeding location for grouse, to wait and watch. We did so for about 30 minutes with no luck, so we decided to head to Admiral Road for the Boreal Chickadee. On the way there, we stopped to look at a Canada Jay and had brief looks at a Northern Shrike. Good thing we stopped, because it was then that Sharp-tailed Grouse were reported at the Racek Road feeders. We had just missed them! We headed back to the feeders along with several other birders (testament to how challenging these birds are to see in the Bog). We joined several others to see three grouse picking below the feeders. Only one target bird left! We headed back towards Admiral Road for the Boreal Chickadee. Not long after turning onto the road, a large raptorial bird flushed and flew across our path. We quickly put binoculars on the bird – a Northern Goshawk! The bird continued flying and landed in a distant tree, allowing us time to put the spotting scopes up and study the bird to confirm the identification. We then continued to the Admiral Road feeders and waited only a couple minutes for a Boreal Chickadee to show up on the peanut butter feeder. Our target list was complete! We headed back to Duluth, extremely pleased with the great end to a fun weekend.This trip would not have been possible without the assistance of volunteer leader Kevin Murphy. Thanks also to the young birders and their families for braving the wintery weather and driving conditions to join us for a bird-filled fun weekend! You can view photos from our weekend here.