Minnesota and North Dakota Jun 21—29, 2010
Posted by Kim Eckert
Of the 20 or so species of warblers we see during this tour, the Connecticut is easily the most highly sought. Though this tour has never missed it (dating back to 1982!), I was mildly concerned this time around since several birders recently reported difficulty finding any in the Sax-Zim Bog. (Sax and Zim may be little more than uninhabited railroad sidings near Duluth, but the surrounding bogs and other habitats have become well-known to birders over the years.) But, undeterred by recent reports, off we went to the Bog on our first morning and found there was no need for concern. At the second place we stopped to listen for it, a singing male Connecticut (with its beak full of food) came in to the roadside and offered repeated close views.
Elsewhere in the Bog, during this day or our return two days later, we heard two or three other Connecticuts and turned up several other birds of note. Among these, there were nice views of a cooperative Mourning Warbler, our first Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, our only Black-billed Cuckoo of the trip, and a few teed-up Sedge Wrens and Le Conte's Sparrows. In addition, we relocated two pairs of Black-backed Woodpeckers. They were in a bog favored by this sought-after and easily-missed species in recent years, even though reports this year had been sporadic at best.
Our second morning took us up into the more closed-canopy Superior National Forest northeast of Duluth in Lake County. Our first stop was quite unexpected, as a family of "Wild" Turkeys appeared along the road, some 100 miles beyond their normal range. (Their origins at some game farm would be suspected, but there were virtually no habitations in the vicinity.) Our second stop was a bit more predictable as we spotted a Northern Hawk Owl a mile from where one was sighted in early June. This Minnesota specialty is normally present just in winter and not to be expected on this tour, but a handful had remained into the breeding season.
Elsewhere in the forest later that morning, we were unable to relocate a hawk owl family seen the previous week, and we looked hard without success for a Great Gray reported the week before that. But some nice consolation prizes were two well-seen pairs of Boreal Chickadees (typically hard to track down in summer) and two Wilson's Warblers (at the southern edge of its breeding range and missed on most tours). The day was also highlighted by our lunch stop and some unexpectedly productive birding at White Pines Wayside along County Road 2. We almost chose not to stop here, as noisy lawn mowing and other maintenance work greeted our arrival. But we stayed until the crew left and were rewarded by a responsive Pileated Woodpecker, a male Ruby-throated Hummingbird, and our first looks at such warblers as Blackburnian, Northern Parula, Black-throated Green, Pine, and Ovenbird.
After our return to Sax-Zim the next morning, co-leader Brian Gibbons (who will inherit this tour in 2011) was pressed into service to lead the group on his own into western Minnesota and North Dakota for the next four days. I had to reluctantly stay behind to check on a potentially serious medical problem, but, as you can see by Brian's italicized comments on the bird list, the group did just fine. They saw such prairie specialties as myriads of pothole-nesting ducks, grebes, waders, and shorebirds; a Sharp-tailed Grouse family; Ferruginous Hawks at nests; Short-eared Owls; sky-high Sprague's Pipits; Baird's (now uncommon and highly local) and Nelson's (teed up on a fence wire) sparrows; handsome Chestnut-collared Longspurs; Dickcissels; and more.
Fortunately, the medical "problem" was a false alarm, and I was able to rejoin the group for the final evening and morning in Aitkin County west of Duluth. At dusk, we finally tracked down a Great Gray Owl, as a big female ponderously flew from one tamarack to another, oblivious to our pishing-and-squeaking presence as it hunted for small mammals. And the evening ended with a Yellow Rail clearly heard by all as we stood high and dry on the road—a deep water-filled ditch between us and the rail.