On February 7, 2020, 13 young birders, parents, and grandparents joined us in Duluth, Minnesota for our second Northern Minnesota Weekend trip. The mild weather resulted in much better travel conditions than last year, allowing us to arrive in Duluth on Friday afternoon with time for an evening visit to Sax-Zim Bog, our target location. Before heading north, we met for a brief welcome and introduction to our weekend. The excitement for Boreal birds was building, however, so we kept the welcome brief and loaded our van (the Snowshoe Hare), to head north!
Photo credit: Heidi Walz
After about 45 minutes, we entered the south side of the Bog, an interesting habitat consisting of spruce-tamarack bog areas intermixed with shrubby, wet meadow areas. We immediately commenced our search for owls and were quickly rewarded with one of our target birds, a Northern Hawk Owl, on the east side of the Bog perched high in a spruce tree. The bird was extremely cooperative, posing nicely for photos and close looks through spotting scopes. Saying goodbye to the Northern Hawk Owl, we headed towards the Admiral Road feeders to await the arrival of the Boreal Owl that had been consistently seen for the prior week. However, after only ten minutes, we received word of a Great Gray Owl at another area in the Bog. We quickly loaded the van and headed that way but were just too late. The disappointment of missing the Great Gray Owl didn’t last long, however, because we were diverted back to the Admiral Road feeders because the Boreal Owl had appeared. We arrived just as the sun was setting, but the Boreal Owl was still present and extremely cooperative! Everyone was able to see the owl through spotting scopes as the daylight rapidly disappeared. What a great end to our first day!
We arose bright and early Saturday morning for a quick breakfast at the hotel before loading the van for a 6:30 AM departure to the Bog. Our first stop - the Racek feeders to view Sharp-tailed Grouse that fly over from the nearby lek for their breakfast each morning. We arrived at first light but the grouse had not yet arrived. We waited excitedly in the van, spotting the occasional Black-capped Chickadee and Downy Woodpecker visiting the feeders and were treated to a Red-breasted Nuthatch that landed on the road ahead of the van. Our patience paid off, and after waiting just shy of an hour, three Sharp-tailed Grouse landed in the top of the tree immediately beside the van, so high that some of us were unable to see them. Soon after, however, one of the grouse flew down to ground under the feeders for his or her breakfast. Our first stop was a success!
After viewing the grouse, we stopped by the Friends of Sax-Zim Bog Visitor’s Center to see what was visiting the bird feeders. We added Canada Jay at this location as well as more Black-capped Chickadees and Red-breasted Nuthatches. However, the most entertaining observation was the local Red Squirrels! These quick and feisty critters were constantly stealing from the bird feeders and it was fun to watch their acrobatics as they jumped from tree to feeder and back.
Next, we made our way to Mary Lou’s feeders, a regular location for Evening Grosbeaks. Upon our arrival, we immediately spotted a pair of Evening Grosbeaks at one of the feeders near the road. We exited the van and joined the many other birders enjoying these vibrant yellow finches (yes, although it has “grosbeak” in its name, the Evening Grosbeak actually belongs to the finch family). Also frequenting Mary Lou’s feeders were numerous Hairy Woodpeckers, the occasional Downy Woodpecker, and few Black-capped Chickadees and Red-breasted Nuthatches.
After about 30 minutes at Mary Lou’s feeders, we loaded the vans to warm up and make our way south Winterberry Bog. A quick stop before lunch along County Road 7 on the east side of the Bog yielded our second Northern Hawk Owl for the trip as well as a distant group of both American Crows and Common Ravens, allowing for a nice comparison of these two similar species. We then arrived at Winterberry Bog to search for both Black-backed and American Three-toed Woodpeckers. We were greeted by several other birders with the same idea, who all stated both woodpeckers were present and actively foraging a short hike into the dense sprue bog. Excited, we started off down the narrow path in the snow. Listening intently for drumming as the snow crunched under our feet, we hiked for about five minutes before meeting other birders that were photographing a Black-backed Woodpecker high in a spruce tree. We waited patiently as the bird worked up and down different trees, voraciously removing bark with his beak in search for tree-burrowing insects. After a short time, the bird was nearly on top of us, showering us with spruce bark and allowing for fantastic views! We started our hike back to the van with hopes of encountering an American Three-toed Woodpecker. Lucky for us, young birder June spotted one hidden among the dense spruce branches. What a cool bird!
Lunch time! We stopped again at the Wilbert Cafe in Cotton for a delicious meal and our fill of coffee and hot chocolate, just the energy boost we needed to continue our search for owls in the afternoon. We started back down County Road 7 as this road seemed to be the place to see owls this year. Not far down the road, we stopped to look at a Northern Shrike. While doing so, volunteer leader Kevin found a distant Snowy Owl perched high in a tree, a new bird for our trip! Everyone had great looks through the spotting scopes before loading the vans and continuing our search for owls. Much of our afternoon was spent searching for a Great Gray Owl along the roads throughout the Bog. We did stop again at the Friends of Sax-Zim Bog Visitor’s Center for a visit to the gift shop and were greeted again by the feisty Red Squirrels and a few Canada Jays. Additionally, we had great views of an adult Northern Goshawk that flew over the road just in front of the van. Thanks to young birder dad Paul for spotting this gorgeous bird for us! Unfortunately, our day of birding ended without a Great Gray Owl, but we saw several other fantastic birds and made some great memories along the way.
On Sunday morning, we decided to visit Canal Park in Duluth to look for gulls and other waterbirds on the mighty Lake Superior. Once again, we were not disappointed by our decision. Among the many Ring-billed and Herring Gulls around the lake were at least five different Glaucous Gulls, all of which were close to shore and easily viewed through binoculars. Additionally, we spotted a distant Great Black-backed Gull on the lake, a life bird for nearly everyone on the trip. Finally, while exchanging farewells in the parking lot, we were treated to the show of two Peregrine Falcons chasing Rock Pigeons around the nearby buildings. An amazing finale to an amazing weekend!
This trip would not have been possible without our young birder parents, who chauffeured their young birders to Duluth to join us and who graciously helped with spotting birds and other trip logistics along the way. We are extremely grateful to volunteer leader Kevin Murphy, who once again provided fantastic leadership, expert navigation around the Bog, and a contagious passion for birds and birding. Many thanks to Annalise Skrade, Paul Skrade, Heidi Walz, and Kathy Solko for helping capture the many great memories on this trip and for sharing photos with us, all of which you can view here. And lastly, a huge thanks to Bobby Walz for diligently maintaining our eBird checklists throughout the weekend, which you can view below.
Sax-Zim Bog - Admiral Road Feeders (2/7/2020)
Sax-Zim Bog - Racek Feeders (2/8/2020)
Sax-Zim Bog - Visitor's Center (2/8/2020)
Sax-Zim Bog - Mary Lou's Feeders (2/8/2020)
Sax-Zim Bog - County Road 7 (2/8/2020)
Sax-Zim Bog - Winterberry Bog (2/8/2020)
Sax-Zim Bog - Kolu and McDavitt Roads (2/8/2020)
Duluth - Canal Park (2/9/2020)