Northern Minnesota Winter Weekend I Jan 12—16, 2008

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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Considering that the high in Duluth this time of year is in the upper teens and the low is just a bit below zero, participants on our first Northern Minnesota Winter Weekend tour had it pretty easy. After all, four of our five days saw highs above normal, with one of these soaring all the way up to 24! And, sure, the low on one of the days dropped to -7, but this was just a few degrees short of the average. I admit, the wind on one of the mornings made even me feel uncomfortable, though this was nothing compared to what our second group had to face a week later. Cloudy skies predominated with a dusting of light snow on some days, but it was not enough to prevent Duluth from setting an all-time January record for lack of snow: less than 3 inches fell all month (the average is close to 20).

So, there were to be no meteorological excuses I could fall back on if there was something we could not find. There were indeed some hoped-for birds which failed to materialize for us (and just about everyone else), but these were easily outweighed by what we did see. As for the owls (isn't it always the owls they ask about first?), who wouldn't be impressed by a Snowy Owl seen that very first afternoon just a few minutes after everyone had arrived at the airport? Of course, it would have been nice to linger longer than we did in its presence, but unfortunately this owl chose to hunt right across the street from a federal prison camp and its unfriendly security guards.

Not satisfied with a Snowy? Well, how about topping that off the next morning with a Northern Hawk Owl in the now-famous Sax-Zim Bog? This highly sought winter specialty of the taiga chose to cooperate by hunting right along a little-used public road with wide shoulders—and not a single jailhouse for miles around. This was preceded that morning by a diurnal-minded Barred Owl, normally a nocturnal species not usually found on this tour.

And the hits just kept on coming elsewhere in the Sax-Zim Bog. Most significant among these were the American Three-toed and three Black-backed woodpeckers we saw, which had been showing up all over northern Minnesota, with the three-toeds quite uncharacteristically comprising the majority of sightings. A normal winter might see one or two three-toed records all season, but this year's total has been closer to 20 or so. Elsewhere in the Bog, a classically pale male Hoary Redpoll at its favorite feeder proved no challenge at all to identify, while in a town just a few miles away an elusive Bohemian Waxwing flock chose to cooperate for us.

Other highlights included both a Boreal Chickadee and Varied Thrush at the same Duluth feeder, a Townsend's Solitaire posing in a crabapple tree in a park not far away, and a quite out-of-season Harris's Sparrow in a Two Harbors yard—wintering some 500 miles north of where it should have been.

Conspicuous by their absence from our list were the crossbills, of which neither species was being seen with any consistency anywhere. And—you guessed it—everyone's favorite owl chose to almost completely disappear by mid-January after several scattered reports earlier in the winter. Indeed, not a single Great Gray was to be reported by anyone during the last half of January.