TRIP REPORT: MINNESOTA: Winter Boreal Specialties 2022 Trip 1



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White-winged Crossbill (male) feeding in a spruce, photo by Alex Lamoreaux

Our first of two Minnesota winter tours this month! Unfortunately, but perhaps not surprisingly, this tour was cut a bit early due to a major snowstorm engulfing the region and making travel impossible. We enjoyed some great experiences with many of the classic winter finches – Pine Grosbeaks, Common Redpolls, and White-winged Crossbills were especially abundant this year! We found 38 species in total including 4 Snowy Owls, a male Spruce Grouse, 70 Common Goldeneye, an adult Northern Goshawk, 41 Bald Eagles, 3 Northern Shrikes, 4 Boreal Chickadees, Townsend’s Solitaire, and 14 Snow Buntings! Follow this link to see our detailed eBird Trip Report.

Feb 18, 2022 – Duluth & Superior

After meeting in the hotel lobby at 11:00am, we set out to spend the afternoon birding around Duluth. The weather forecast for heavy snow and strong winds did not seem conducive to birding, but we ventured forth to try and track down a few species around town. We first cruised around the UMD campus in search of Bohemian Waxwings. We had a quick flyover flock but couldn’t nail down any perched birds. In a neighborhood nearby we lucked into a nice flock of White-winged Crossbills feeding in a spruce, and then found 6 Pine Grosbeaks perched in a tree nearby! At Hartley Nature Center we quickly found the continuing Townsend’s Solitaire. This western species is a rare but regular winter visitor to Minnesota’s north shore. The bird was actively sallying for insects around the windowsills of the nature center and then settled down into some dense brush where we enjoyed decent photo ops despite the increasing snowfall. We had lunch down near the lakefront at Canal Park, and then birded the canal entryway where a small area of open water concentrated a nice variety of ducks. There were at least 70 Common Goldeneye plus Red-breasted Merganser, Common Merganser, and 1 Canada Goose! Bald Eagle, European Starling, Rock Pigeon, and House Sparrow helped pad the day’s list. We checked around the classic gull hangouts near Port Terminal, but the strong wind had pushed them off and we only saw 1 Herring Gull fly past. Crossing over to Superior, Wisconsin we checked the standard spots for Snowy Owls but at that point the wind was causing blizzard-like white-out conditions and we didn’t see much of anything. Back on the Minnesota side we spotted an adult Red-tailed Hawk and immature Bald Eagle glide overhead, and then returned to the hotel with 18 species for the day.

Townsend’s Solitaire, photo by Alex Lamoreaux

White-winged Crossbills fighting over spruce cones, photo by Alex Lamoreaux

Feb 19, 2022 – Sax-Zim Bog

Leaving the hotel at 6:30am, we made our way north to begin exploring the famous Sax-Zim Bog. We started of the day by crusing up and down highway 7 through the bog in search of owls but struck out. The only bird we saw was a Hairy Woodpecker. From there we went to the ‘Friends of Sax-Zim Bog’ Visitor Center for a bathroom break and to check the feeders. The feeders were super active, with easily 225+ Common Redpolls and 30 Pine Grosbeaks! Traveling south on the forest roads, we search Racek Road for Sharp-tailed Grouse and quickly found one feeding on buds in a birch along the road! This species is rapidly declining in the region, so it was great to see one so well. Nearby we found our first Canada Jays and Blue Jays, both of which offered nice photo ops! The Sisi feeders along the north end of MacDavitt Road provided our first Evening Grosbeaks – 19 of them! Around the corner along Admiral Road, the feeders there were active but didn’t produce any new bird species but American Red Squirrel was a new trip mammal! At the south end of Admiral Road, we spotted a Northern Shrike along the road which offered nice but brief views. On the way to lunch we saw an adult Bald Eagle perched in a tree. After lunch we trudged through the snow around the Winterberry Bog and saw Brown Creeper, both Red- and White-breasted Nuthatches, and lots of Common Redpolls. The new Arkola Road feeders were active with redpolls, Canada Jays, and Pine Grosbeaks, and after a few minutes we were lucky to see our first Boreal Chickadee! For the afternoon we went back to the visitor center and hiked out the Gray Jay Way Trail to the feeders out in the bog there. These feeders had plenty of redpolls and Pine Grosbeaks as well, plus a whopping 3 Boreal Chickadees! There was lots of porcupine chew marks on the trees here, and we eventually spotted a sleepy North American Porcupine resting in a spruce! Back at the feeders we had brief but exciting views of an adult Northern Goshawk flying past at fairly close range! Heading east on Arkola Road we had quick views of two Black-billed Magpies flying past, and then we closed out the day by cruising up and down highway 7 looking for owls – but again we struck out. Our consolation was a nice flock of 14 Snow Buntings along the train tracks though!

Gray Jay, photo by Alex Lamoreaux

Common Redpolls, photo by Alex Lamoreaux

Feb 20, 2022 – Superior National Forest, Two Harbors, Duluth, Superior

We departed Duluth early to head northeast into the northern portions of Superior National Forest in search of Spruce Grouse and Black-backed Woodpecker. A massive fire last August has burned up some of the best grouse habitat, but it did create the ideal scenario for woodpeckers because of all the charred, standing timber. After a little playback, we had a great view of a stunning male Black-backed Woodpecker fly in and show off for us. Nearby we also saw our first Pileated Woodpecker plus had more sightings of Pine Grosbeaks, Common Redpolls, and of course – Common Ravens. Heading back south toward the lake shore, we stopped briefly in Two Harbors to scan Lake Superior and aside from two distant Herring Gulls the only birds we saw were a pair of Red-breasted Mergansers flying past. We swung past Lester River Park to look for a wintering Townsend’s Solitaire, but there was a bit too much human activity. Migrant Bald Eagles heading north overhead were pretty nice to see though. Throughout the rest of the day we’d seen nearly 30 Bald Eagles – many bombing north on warm (well, ok 34F!) southerly winds. At the Bagley Natural Area alongside the UMD campus we had great views of a flock of White-winged Crossbills eating snow! At the same site we had a flyover flock of 20 Bohemian Waxwings and a brief, but close, view of a Northern Shrike. Driving down through the hillside neighborhoods of Duluth we spotted more White-winged Crossbills which then led us to our first *perched* flock of Bohemian Waxwings! 45 were sitting in a spruce-top and calling! A few times they made short, looping flights overhead and were beautifully lit up by the sun! We checked the local gull hangouts again, but failed to find any – very weird. At Pier B we checked the ice flows for gulls but didn’t see anything aside from the waterfowl gathered over by Canal Park that we had seen on day 1. From there we crossed over to Superior, Wisconsin in search of Snowy Owls although first we made a brief stop at the landfill to look for gulls. Again we struck out, but we did have nice photo ops of Common Ravens and Bald Eagles. At Gull Bluff at least 14 eagles were sitting out on the Lake Superior ice. Setting out sites on Snowys, we cruised around to all the classic locations and started to rack up our first (and final) owl species of the tour – finding at least 3 or 4 heavily-marked Snowy Owls! All of the owls provided really nice views, with the setting sun lighting up their stunning plumage and piercing yellow eyes.

Bohemian Waxwings, photo by Alex Lamoreaux

Feb 21, 2022 – Sax-Zim Bog, Cook

As a major snowstorm engulfed the region, we made one last attempt to find Great Gray Owl around Sax-Zim Bog but didn’t have any luck. A few flocks of White-winged Crossbills were nice to see though, and some folks had nice views of a Red Fox and a Coyote! From there we ventured north to check a few sites around Cook, Minnesota. Our primary goal was to find Spruce Grouse. Arriving at some pristine habitat around 10:00am we walked up and down the road, scanning the spruce bog for grouse. We had another nice flock of White-winged Crossbills here and also froze our a***es off. We climbed back into the SUVs to warm up and Alex looked back toward the road we had just spent over an hour birding and suddenly there was a male Spruce Grouse just standing right there in the middle of the road! We jumped out and enjoyed excellent views of this stunning bird! After that we had a nice, warm lunch at the Sawmill Saloon and then slowly made our way back to Duluth through a decent blizzard.

Spruce Grouse, photo by Alex Lamoreaux

Feb 22, 2022 – Departures

Due to the snowstorm, we were not really able to do any birding on the final morning. A few of us did drive a short loop around a few neighborhoods near the hotel, though, and saw a couple nice flocks of Bohemian Waxwings.

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