Northern Minnesota Winter Weekend I Jan 14—18, 2006
Posted by Kim Eckert
So, how many Great Gray Owls could we expect to see on our 2006 winter tours of Northern Minnesota? After all, on one of last year’s trips we saw no fewer than 98 of them, with 78 individuals on just one day. (We also turned up 14 Northern Hawk Owls on that tour.) However, these numbers paled in comparison with the 200+ Great Grays counted per day by a couple of birding parties in February, and with the total of 5,200+ individuals compiled statewide during the season!
On this year’s tour we saw one Great Gray Owl, which was actually a success—one more than I thought we’d see. Consider that numbers this season were close to normal, and most birders had been going out and finding none, so it was a pleasant surprise to find and watch one Great Gray hunting along a Lake County roadside just after dawn.
And, no, we didn?t see 14 Northern Hawk Owls like last year, but we did see two of them, more than we find on most of these winter tours. Both of these small but fierce-looking owls were somewhat expected, since they had been present at their respective locations for days, even weeks. That’s the nice thing about this interesting species: when present, they hunt by day, are usually out in the open and visible, and typically stay put in the same place for several days.
The Snowy Owl is practically a given on this tour (although this species was virtually absent in the Duluth area last winter), and we saw three on this tour. The first of these was just about the first bird of the tour, hunting along a busy street near the Superior airport.
Perhaps the tour’s highlight, though, was not an owl. It took two drives over to Ashland, Wisconsin, but on our last tour day a handsome adult gray-morph Gyrfalcon was finally seen perched on the iron ore docks. This individual had been sporadically present here for two winters, and it failed to appear during our first try, although we did see one of our Snowy Owls there as a consolation. We also performed what may have been an all-time VENT first: to adequately check the ore dock, I drove the van out on the rock-solid bay ice (which was also supporting dozens of other ice-fishing vehicles at the time)!
With a modest trip list of 45 species (in some winters we see only 30 or so), this tour is definitely one which concentrates more on quality than quantity. Among these quality highlights were a group of six Sharp-tailed Grouse in a rural Aitkin County yard (with one of these coming down to the feeders, something I’d never heard of this species doing!), both Iceland and Glaucous gulls on the last day, Northern Shrikes and Snow Buntings in the Sax-Zim Bog, a Boreal Chickadee interrupting a Gray Jay hand-feeding session, a Bohemian Waxwing flock in Ely, and those winter finches—including an unexpected flock of White-winged Crossbills, which had been practically non-existent all month.
There were also some non-avian highlights. A pine marten ran towards the van along a Superior National Forest roadside, disappeared into the brush, and reemerged with a mouse in its mouth. A brilliant “snow pillar” greeted us on our last day as the sun rose above Lake Superior. But most amazing of all was the weather; it was the warmest January ever in Duluth and throughout Minnesota overall! Temperatures on all but one of our five tour days were well above the normal (= high +17 / low -2). The warmest January ever in Duluth had been over 60 years ago, but January 2006 in Duluth was a full two degrees warmer than the old record: more than eight degrees above the average.