Minnesota and North Dakota Jun 04—12, 2012

Posted by Brian Gibbons

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Brian Gibbons

Brian Gibbons grew up in suburban Dallas where he began exploring the wild world in local creeks and parks. Chasing butterflies and any animal that was unfortunate enough t...

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Minnesota and North Dakota are a study in contrasts. The spruce tamarack forests of Sax Zim Bog, home to the Connecticut Warbler, Great Gray Owl, and other boreal birds, is a world away from the wind-swept North Dakota prairie pothole region which hosts a variety of waterbirds, shorebirds, and prairie breeders. Except for a few windy days in the prairie, we had great weather for our explorations of these two diverse states.

On our first evening we were seeking Great Gray Owl in the Sax Zim Bog; while we would have to wait until the next morning for our glimpse of the owl, a cooperative American Woodcock was waking up by sitting in the middle of the road. Our first full day in the bog was exceptionally productive with Gray Jays and Black-billed Magpies easy to find, and a cooperative Connecticut Warbler that came out for a minute. Perhaps our most unusual sighting was the pine marten that Mary spotted. Drowsy from a night raiding other forest creatures, he slept on a dead limb, his eyes peeking occasionally at the mob of chickadees.

Northern forests in the summer are busy with warblers, vireos, flycatchers, Winter Wren, sparrows, and more. We saw a great diversity of these birds during our three mornings around Duluth. Northeast of Duluth we found our most cooperative Blackburnian Warbler—a male singing away from the top of a spruce. In the scope, he would open wide to let out his high-pitched song for all to hear. Haunting the north woods with their voices were the thrushes: Veery, Hermit, and Swainson's. A very cooperative pair of Boreal Chickadees along the Stony River Road was a highlight of our morning in Superior National Forest of Lake County. The sunny mornings in the bog excited the Tiger Swallowtails which were getting minerals from the roadways and wolf scat. A drumming Ruffed Grouse throbbed the air with its display just out of view. During our lunch stop at White Pine, a Pileated Woodpecker put on a show for us, calling and flying right over our heads. Two boreal flycatchers caught our attention as well: Olive-sided and Yellow-bellied.

Our drive over to Detroit Lakes was interrupted by a cooperative pair of Trumpeter Swans in a marshy pond and the obligatory wastewater stop in Walker where we added a bunch of female Common Goldeneyes. Our first experience with the prairie was in western Minnesota. At the Felton Prairie a surprise Sprague's Pipit was skylarking high in the sunny sky. Apparently it never came to the ground in our two hours of birding. We also chased Upland Sandpipers, Marbled Godwits with downy young, Chestnut-collared Longspurs, and Grasshopper Sparrows.  After an excellent lunch at Usher's House in Moorhead, we crossed over to Fargo, North Dakota on our westward journey. Near Valley City the potholes were full and birds were everywhere: Yellow-headed Blackbirds, coots, Blue-winged Teal, shovelers, Gadwall, pintails, Ruddy Ducks, Wood Ducks, and loads of Pied-billed Grebes with their awkward stripe-faced young following them around. The pothole region is known as North America's duck factory for good reason.

Another early start brought us to the Tuttle Section in Kidder County, well-known for its great prairie habitat. Black Terns skimmed the grassland and a Willet was very protective of her downy young. Snipes, denizens of the marsh, betrayed their camouflage to survey their summer homes from fence posts. Every cattail marsh had a chorus of Red-winged Blackbirds and the raucous Yellow-heads. Every pothole had a duck in it, often a Blue-winged Teal pair. Marsh Wrens, Virginia Rails, and Soras were heard more often than seen. While walking through the prairie a Baird's Sparrow sang—and sang, and sang. Finally, Elton spotted him tucked into a foot-high shrub, and excellent scope views of this declining and rare sparrow were had by all. Bobolinks were singing away, their gurgling songs all over the grasslands. At the fens around Horsehead Lake we added Le Conte's and Nelson's sparrows—beautiful birds when you have the opportunity to see them well.

Our search for grebes was successful. We studied lots of Western Grebes while hunting for our Clark's, which we finally caught up with near Dawson, North Dakota. Eared were plentiful too; with their glowing ruby eyes, they really are stunners in their summer dress. DeWald Slough held some Franklin's Gulls for good looks at another prairie bird. Wilson's Phalaropes were chasing around, the females the aggressors. American Bitterns posed for us nicely a couple of times, including a bird that froze on the edge of the highway near Pettibone, North Dakota. The camouflage didn't work too well! In the same area a Ferruginous Hawk surveilled the land as it babysat its gawky young in an enormous nest a few hundred yards away. Dickcissels sang buzzy songs from several hayfields in North Dakota. Ducks were everywhere. We saw 15 species in North Dakota; Canvasback, Redhead, American Wigeon, Ruddy Duck, and Northern Pintails were some of the more striking birds. Another good find were two late or lost American Golden-Plovers that Elton spotted in his partridge quest.

Our time in the prairie was over and we headed back to the Minnesota woods. Near Pelican Rapids we watched the aesthetically-challenged young in a Great Egret colony, while across the street a pair of Red-necked Grebes were starting construction on their floating nest. The oak and maple forest hosted a number of new birds for us at Maplewood State Park. Most exciting was a rarity, an Acadian Flycatcher, which sang repeatedly for us. Most beautiful was a singing male Scarlet Tanager in all his glory. A male Indigo Bunting in the rain wasn't bad either. Ron pulled off our best photographic spotting with a Barred Owl; he got the shot, but I didn't. Next we were off to McGregor, known for the marsh just outside of town where Yellow Rails lurk. The wind and cool temps didn't help our search and we were skunked by the rail.

On our final morning we hunted the Great Gray Owl again. Hedbom Road didn't produce, but we heard a couple of distant Connecticut Warblers sing, and saw more warblers. Nichols Lake Road produced a consolation owl when a Long-eared came flying out of the woods to investigate my squeak. After we took our time taking photos of this gem, a male Blackburnian came to send us off.

Thanks for traveling with VENT. I look forward to traveling with you all again.