TRIP REPORT: MINNESOTA: Winter Boreal Specialties 2022 Trip 2

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Our second of two Minnesota winter tours this month! We enjoyed some great experiences with many of the classic winter finches – Pine Grosbeaks, Common Redpolls, Hoary Redpoll, and White-winged Crossbills were especially abundant this year! We found 44 species in total including 4 Great Gray Owls, 4-5 Snowy Owls, Barred Owl, a male Spruce Grouse, 2 Sharp-tailed Grouse, 59 Bald Eagles, 2 Northern Shrikes, Black-backed Woodpecker, 5 Boreal Chickadees, 7 Black-billed Magpie, 162 Bohemian Waxwings, and 4 Glaucous Gulls! A great encounter with an American Marten, and a brief sighting for one participant of a Canada Lynx were also major highlights! Follow this link to see our detailed eBird Trip Report.

Taking a group selfie with a Great Gray Owl at -36F!

Feb 24, 2022 – Duluth & Superior

After meeting in the hotel lobby at 11:00am, we set out to spend the afternoon birding around Duluth. The weather was hovering around 10F but we had a nice sunny, cloudless day to kick of this trip! 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. We then birded the canal entryway where a small area of open water concentrated a nice variety of ducks. There were at least 4 Common Goldeneye plus 20 Red-breasted Mergansers. Bald Eagle, European Starling, Rock Pigeon, and House Sparrow helped pad the day’s list. We had lunch down near the lakefront at Canal Park. From there we checked around the classic gull hangouts near Port Terminal and Lincoln Park. We got lucky and found a nice gull flock at the WLSSD where we picked out 4 Glaucous Gulls, 1 “Thayer’s” Iceland Gull, and 1 Great Black-backed Gulls among the large number of Herring Gulls. There were also over 20 Bald Eagles, mostly immatures, and one adult “Northern” Red-tailed Hawk present. American Crows, Common Ravens, Rock Pigeons, and European Starlings were abundant. After swinging back to the airport to pick up one last person, we headed toward Hartley Nature Center. On our way we encountered a nice flock of 150 Bohemian Waxwings but only had a brief view of them perched in a tree before they took off. At Hartley we unfortunately didn’t turn up the wintering Townsend’s Solitaire. Down at the Lester Rivermouth where some open water can attract ducks, we had 210 Mallards plus 5 American Black Ducks and 1 Red-breasted Merganser. We finished out our first day by cruising around Superior, Wisconsin in search of Snowy Owls. Immediately after crossing into Wisconsin we spotted an adult Red-tailed Hawk and then without much trouble we found 3 Snowy Owls! Two were heavily-marked and one was moderately-marked, but all appeared to be immatures. We ended day 1 with 19 species.

First-winter Glaucous Gull, photo by Alex Lamoreaux

Snowy Owl in flight, photo by Alex Lamoreaux

Feb 25, 2022 – Sax-Zim Bog

Leaving the hotel at 6:10am, we made our way north to begin exploring the famous Sax-Zim Bog. It was a chilling -36F when we reached the bog! We started off the day by cruising up Admiral Road in hopes of finding Great Gray Owl, and sure enough – just north of the feeders we lucked into an awesome encounter with Great Gray perched along the road lit up by the morning sun! The owl was fluffed-up and trying to stay warm, with its eyes closed except for a few moments when two Canada Jays came over to investigate it. What an awesome start to the day! Traveling south on the forest roads, we searched Racek Road for Sharp-tailed Grouse and quickly found two feeding on buds in a birch along the road! After a few minutes they flew down and briefly visited the feeders. This species is rapidly declining in the region, so it was great to see one so well. 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 loads of Common Redpolls and 20+ Pine Grosbeaks! We also had our only Pine Siskin of the trip here. At the Arkola Road feeders a few of us saw our first Boreal Chickadee, but then we waited around for it to return in vain. Back on Admiral Road the feeders were active with redpolls, American Red Squirrels, and Canada Jays. There was also a very photogenic Hairy Woodpecker there. Lunch was at Wilbert’s Cafe. 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 plus a whopping 3 Boreal Chickadees! There was lots of porcupine chew marks on the trees here, and we eventually spotted a North American Porcupine feeding in a larch! Just south of the visitor center we had two nice encounters with flocks of White-winged Crossbills feeding on larch cones. Heading south back down Racek Road we found a huge flock of 64 Wild Turkeys! Nearby we found another porcupine, and this one was a bit more photogenic. We finished the day by driving highway 7 and Admiral Road in search of owls but we struck out.

Great Gray Owl, photo by Alex Lamoreaux

Male Pine Grosbeak, photo by Alex Lamoreaux

Boreal Chickadee, photo by Alex Lamoreaux

North American Porcupine, photo by Alex Lamoreaux

Feb 26, 2022 – Sax-Zim Bog, Cook area, Superior National Forest, Two Harbors, Duluth

We were up and out, on our way north to the bog again today. Temperatures were just slightly ‘warmer’, hovering around -5F. We slowly drove along a few of the most promising roads in search of Great Gray Owls are sunrise, but struck out. At the north end of McDavitt Road we visited the Sisu feeders where our first and only flock of Evening Grosbeaks was perched high in some trees, hesitant to drop into the feeders. 24 of these striking finches were present. Further south on McDavitt we encountered a nice flock of 7 Black-billed Magpies gathered around some cattle. This is the furthest east portion of this Corvid’s range, and it’s always nice to see here. From there we drove about an hour further north, out of the bog and into the forests and farmland east of Cook. Along Johnson Road we spent some time exploring a small spruce bog for the aptly-named Spruce Grouse. After nearly an hour of searching, we didn’t find any grouse but did have nice looks at our first Brown Creepers of the tour in addition to an immature White-winged Crossbill. As we wandered back to load up in the trucks, a male Spruce Grouse suddenly appeared in the road ahead! Perfect! We snuck in closer for photos ops and eventually the grouse disappeared into the densely-wooded bog. Heading from there toward Ely, the gateway to the famous ‘Boundary Waters’ region, we encountered a flyover Pileated Woodpecker and saw many Common Ravens. We had a nice lunch in downtown Ely before heading south through Superior National Forest on Highway 2. A massive fire last August has burned up some of the best Spruce Grouse and Boreal Chickadee habitat along this road, but it did create the ideal scenario for woodpeckers because of all the charred, standing timber. Despite playback at various locations, however, we did not turn up any Black-backed Woodpeckers. Further down the highway we came across two high school girls out of their car looking at the side of the road, so we asked what they saw and they said a Canada Lynx had *just* run across the road! We all jumped out to take pics of the tracks in the snow of this mysterious northern cat. Alex and Chris figured that our commotion would have certainly caused the lynx to take off. So after awhile we trudged deeper in to take photos of some better tracks, but one lady was standing down by where a snowmobile trail crossed through and amazingly the lynx walked out on the trail broadside to her and then ran off away down the trail! This is the first time a Canada Lynx has been seen on our Minnesota tour – hopefully not the last, cause Alex and Chris had to cry themselves to sleep that night! Back down along the lakeshore in Two Harbors, we checked the little patches of open water on Lake Superior for waterfowl and found a few Red-breasted Mergansers and a Common Goldeneye. A few Bald Eagles were actively migrating on the southerly winds. Back in Duluth we found an immature Bald Eagle perched in the evening sun which made for some excellent photos ops. We planned to finish up the day over in Superior, Wisconsin in search of Snowy Owls. While crossing the Bong Bridge we watched an adult Peregrine Falcon mobbing a Bald Eagle and then the falcon made a nice flyover right over us! After quite a bit of scouring around the favored owl haunts in Superior, we only managed to turn up one heavily-marked individual but it offered us nice views as it moved between hunting perches in a lumber yard. Our first Northern Shrike of the tour was certainly a highlight as well!

Male Spruce Grouse, photo by Alex Lamoreaux

Canada Lynx track in the snow, photo by Alex Lamoreaux

Feb 27, 2022 – Sax-Zim Bog

The final full day of the trip was dedicated to birding Sax-Zim Bog once again. Many Common Ravens were noted along the drive up, and then we were almost immediately welcomed back to the bog with two back-to-back sighting of Great Gray Owls along Highway 7! Both owls were actively hunting, moving between snag-top perches and intently listening for rodents moving around under the deep snow pack. We saw one owl make a capture attempt by plunging in the snow but it came up empty-handed. Once both owls had moved back into areas hidden from the road, we set off to see what else we could turn up. At the south end of McDavitt Road, Chris spotted a Barred Owl perched in some aspens! This marked our third and final owl species of the tour. Up at the Fringed Gentian Bog, we staked out the feeders to wait for a sighting of a continuing Hoary Redpoll mixed in with the large flock of Common Redpolls there. It didn’t take long to pick out two particularly frosty and beautiful Hoarys! One offered exceptionally nice views as it fed on seeds under the feeders. There were also plenty of Pine Grosbeaks, Black-capped Chickadees, and Blue Jays here in addition to a Red-breasted Nuthatch and both Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers. We hiked around the boardwalk at the Winterberry Bog hoping for another shot at Black-backed Woodpecker but dipped. Again there were excellent numbers of Pine Grosbeak and Common Redpolls here, plus two Brown Creepers. We headed back up along Highway 7 and found one of the Great Grays that we had already seen in the morning, but it was rather distant. At 1:30pm we got word of a Great Gray Owl pretty far south down Highway 7 so shot off in that direction, and after a bit of searching we found the owl tucked back into a cedar patch but it offered us nicely-framed shots. Canada Jays were numerous today, with singles and pairs at multiple locations. Often the jays move in to investigate the large owls, but rarely harass them – appearing more curious than angry. At the Friends of Sax-Zim Bog visitor center and feeders, we enjoyed large number of Pine Grosbeaks and Common Redpolls which included an odd grosbeak that had mostly male-like plumage except for a female-like rump patch. This is something rarely encountered on this birds, and could be an gynandromorphic indication. There was also an immature Hoary Redpoll mixed in with the hordes of Commons. The new Arkola Road feeders came through with a really nice Boreal Chickadee in addition to a rare variant of the Common Redpoll with a yellow-orange “poll”. At the intersection of Sax and Stickney Roads we found our first Minnesota Northern Shrike, but it quickly flew out of sight. Our time in the bog was capped off with an awesome sighting of an American Marten visiting the Admiral Road feeders! Another birder had arrived before us and put out some peanut-butter on the tree trunks surrounding the feeders and not five minutes after we arrived, the marten slowly began to move in to the feeders. After about 10 minutes it finally worked up the gumption to actually snack on the peanut-butter, which offered us some excellent views and decent photos! What a great way to end our time in the bog!

Great Gray Owl, photo by Alex Lamoreaux

Hoary Redpoll, photo by Alex Lamoreaux

Pine Grosbeak showing both male and female plumage features – a possible gynandromorphic individual. Photo by Alex Lamoreaux.

American Marten, photo by Alex Lamoreaux

Feb 28, 2022 – Superior National Forest, Duluth, Departures

Our final morning meant some folks had to be taken over to the airport for departures, but a few of us decided to venture back northeast into the Superior National Forest for another shot at Black-backed Woodpecker. Along the drive up we had a female Northern Cardinal fly across the road ahead of us. Along Highway 61 (yes, that Highway 61 from the Bob Dylan song!) we spotted a Northern Goshawk gliding away from us, over the treetops and heading toward the lake. It was distant but definitive. Heading north from Two Harbors we made a slight detour off Highway 2 to check a spot where someone had reported a Spruce Grouse the day before but all we found were two ravens eating a roadkill Coyote. Back on Highway 2 we tried multiple locations for Black-backs without any luck, and without seeing any birds at all until finally at one site a stunning male Black-backed Woodpecker flew in and landed in a snag along the road where it drummed back at us! Back in Duluth we checked the gulls at the WLSSD again and found 2 Glaucous Gulls, 2 “Thayer’s” Iceland Gulls, many Herring Gulls, many Bald Eagles, and an adult Red-tailed Hawk. After lunch at Burrito Union we all went to the Duluth airport to say our goodbyes and fly back home! Thanks to everyone for another great trip to the northwoods of Minnesota, we can’t wait to visit again next winter!

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