Northern Minnesota Winter Weekend I Jan 13—17, 2007

Posted by Kim Eckert


Kim Eckert

Kim Eckert, with over 40 years of birding experience throughout the U.S. and Canada, has now been guiding birders or teaching bird identification classes for more than 25 o...

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Sure, it was cold, but not abnormally so, as the high temperatures each day were not too far off the seasonal norm of +18 degrees, and the lows at dawn never plunged that far below zero. And we never had to face severe wind-chill readings, as the winds each day were mercifully light to moderate. It also helped to have sunny skies each day. What was newsworthy, though, was the relative lack of snow cover: officially only three inches at the airport, with several places showing more grass than snow on the ground.

But enough meteorology, especially since most of the participants never had time to fret about the cold. Less than 10 minutes after leaving the airport with five of the seven participants, our attention was entirely focused on a Northern Hawk Owl which had the courtesy to appear just a few miles from the airport only two days before the tour started! Indeed, this was?and still is?the only hawk owl known to be anywhere in the state this month. (And, luckily, the two later-arriving participants had already seen this species in Alaska.)

We weren’t quite done owling for the day, though, since a Snowy Owl was waiting for us as it hunted at dusk down around Duluth’s grain elevators. And this bird was nearly as special as the hawk owl, being the only individual reported anywhere in northern Minnesota this month. It also was obliging enough to show up again the next day so all seven participants could see it.

It took a bit more effort, however, to find our only Great Gray Owl the next day. Arriving at dusk at the Hedbom Forest Road, about an hour west of Duluth, we spotted one on its hunting perch that flew into the woods before those in the back of the van could see it. Fortunately, it didn’t go far, and we were able to relocate it after a tense minute or two, and all enjoyed views in the scope before darkness fell.

While owls?especially the Great Gray?invariably are at the top of visiting birders’ hopes, there is more to see here in winter. The length of our list on this winter tour may be modest (the 48 species listed this time is actually higher than normal), but this tour is more interested in quality than quantity. Witness some of this tour’s highlights: Ruffed and Sharp-tailed grouse up in the aspens and tamaracks feeding on catkins; Glaucous, Thayer’s, and Iceland gulls circling over Superior’s landfill; both American Three-toed and Black-backed woodpeckers atypically widespread and easy to find in Hedbom Road’s tamarack bog; a completely unexpected flock of Bohemian Waxwings in an otherwise sterile Superior neighborhood; and that amazing group of three Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches which had been visiting an even more sterile site in Cloquet since November (representing only about the 10th state record).

Quality, indeed! We also found such northern Minnesota specialties as Northern Shrike, Boreal Chickadee, Pine Grosbeak, both Red and White-winged crossbills, and Common Redpoll, but these great birds almost pale by comparison. In addition, note our unusual array of ducks?including Northern Pintail, Harlequin Duck, White-winged Scoter, Long-tailed Duck, and Hooded Merganser?which normally don’t occur here in January. Despite the cold weather at the time of this tour, it had been unusually balmy earlier, and much of the harbor was still ice-free and full of ducks.