Minnesota & North Dakota Jun 01—09, 2009
Posted by Kim Eckert
I couldn't be entirely sure, but as we drove the back roads of North Dakota on Day 6, it certainly looked like some of those raindrops hitting the windshield had the characteristics of wet snowflakes! After all, the official "high" where we were that day was a mere 44 degrees, some 30 degrees colder than what it should have been—and an inch or two of snow was confirmed less than 100 miles west of us.
So, while I'm hesitant to claim we officially had snow for the first time ever on this tour, we can confirm we had more than our share of rain, cold (e.g., below freezing at dawn on Day 3), and high winds. (It was almost as if the paragraph on recommended clothing in the tour's itinerary should have come from our January Minnesota tour.) Still, all that weather impacted us more than the birds, since we ended up with an amazing total of 213 species—eight more than ever before!
Much of our success was clearly due to a delayed spring migration, since May's weather had also been cold and wet, and several migrants which are normally gone after mid-May were still around. Most of these involved shorebirds: while normally this tour can expect no more than 10 species, this time we had 20. The best of these were the Black-bellied and American Golden-Plovers, Red Knots, and Whimbrels in Duluth, all species rare and easy to miss here even in May.
But it takes a lot more than just migrants to surpass 200 on this tour. There was a long list of relatively difficult species which are easily missed without special effort and some luck. Among these, the Great Gray Owl we saw certainly topped this list. Not only is it the most highly sought of all Minnesota's specialties, but this owl was still out hunting along that Sax-Zim Bog back road in mid-morning, and it also paused to look skyward for several seconds for no apparent reason. That reason became apparent, however, when we also looked up to see a Northern Goshawk (missed on most tours) circling overhead!
The Connecticut Warbler is probably second only to the Great Gray on that list of sought-after specialties, and the first one we saw was out the van windows just up the road from the owl. But we later had an even better one, as it uncharacteristically remained silent, below eye level, out in the open, and on the edge of the road for all to watch at leisure. Our other pleasant surprises of the boreal forest were in Lake County northeast of Duluth: a drumming Black-backed Woodpecker, Olive-sided Flycatchers and a handsome Cape May Warbler (still migrating?), and a silent and motionless Philadelphia Vireo hidden behind birch leaves.
Despite that "raging blizzard" out in North Dakota, we managed to turn up several difficult species there. Certainly, turning up both a singing Baird's Sparrow at Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge and skylarking Sprague's Pipits near Tuttle on the same morning was a relief, since both have declined and become uncertain propositions in recent years. We also turned up such easily missed sparrows as the Nelson's Sharp-tailed (which posed quietly on a fence wire next to the van) and Le Conte's (one of these actually ran under the van). And on the way back from Dakota on Day 8, there were these unexpected bonuses: 3 Least Bitterns (seldom seen on this tour), both species of cuckoos, and a vocal pair of Barred Owls emerging into view at midday.
Memorable as well were our experiences with species often taken for granted on this tour. Within a short stretch of the same road in Maplewood State Park were a Ruffed Grouse visibly drumming on a log (a lifer for me!?), a family of baby Hooded Mergansers (dare I say cute?), our only Yellow-billed Cuckoos, and our first Golden-winged Warbler (one of 22 warblers on the list) in a week. Within a mile or two in North Dakota we found a Horned Grebe nest and both Western and Clark's grebes dancing in mad dashes across the water. And, not to be outdone by that running-under-the-van Le Conte's, a Sedge Wren nearly perched on the hood of the van.
Even some mammals were every bit as eye-opening as the birds. A gray wolf stood out in the open at dawn along Highway 61 not far from Duluth. Several red foxes were spotted, including a mother and two pups by their den. Those pronghorn along I-94 in North Dakota were much farther east than normal and a first for this tour. Finally, and just about as entertaining as any bird we saw, a badger posed at his burrow next to a North Dakota highway.