Minnesota and North Dakota Jun 03—11, 2013
Posted by Brian Gibbons
After meeting for a great dinner at Blackwoods, we immediately got down to business. Several folks were here to see the Great Gray Owl. At dusk, Pete spotted it first as it made a dive into the roadside grass for some hapless vole; we enjoyed scope views as the owl hunted the edges of the famous Sax-Zim Bog. With the growing darkness came the Timberdoodle, the American Woodcock. He peented from the roadside vegetation and only revealed himself when he went whirling up on twittering wings and disappeared into the darkness. Soon he came wheeling back down to earth to start the process over, all to impress the ladies.
Our next morning in the bog was the most productive in the mixed marshlands, peat bogs, and deciduous forests around Sax-Zim where we spotted nearly 100 species. We saw Wood Ducks, Hooded Mergansers, Sharp-tailed Grouse that were bored on the lek, Pileated and the prized Black-backed woodpeckers, warblers galore including scope views of the Connecticut, our only Black-billed Magpies and Gray Jays of the tour, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, and all the while White-throated Sparrows sang. A Ruffed Grouse throbbed the air, but never revealed himself to our eyes. An exceptional first day was topped off with rhubarb pie at the Wilbert Café in Cotton, Minnesota.
Our next couple of mornings proved challenging as the cold rain kept the birds quiet, but we did see some great things like Mourning Warbler, American Bittern, a prey exchange between a provisioning male Northern Harrier and his mate in midair, Sandhill Crane, Eastern Bluebird, Bobolink, and Blackburnian Warbler. As we headed west the weather cleared up and we enjoyed Trumpeter Swans in the wooded ponds in central Minnesota. Along Hedbom Road we found amazing mammal tracks, but alas, not the mammals that left them; Moose, Gray Wolf, and American Black Bear footfalls were much in evidence. Northwest of Detroit Lakes we found our first Red-necked Grebe as we headed toward the Felton Prairie, our last birding stop before reaching North Dakota. We had great views of Upland Sandpipers and Marbled Godwits and many other prairie birds that would be common for the next few days in the prairies of North Dakota. In an old gravel pond a couple of River Otters delighted us as they crunched on fresh-caught crayfish.
In the wide open spaces of North Dakota our bird list swelled. The marshes of the prairie pothole region were swarming with ducks, grebes, terns, shorebirds, blackbirds, and wrens. We found 16 species of ducks including the charming “Bluebill,” the Ruddy Duck, with his sky-blue bill that he bobbed up and down—again, just for the ladies! Eventually we would see Virginia Rail and Sora very well. Yellow-headed Blackbirds were posted at every cattail patch, and from within the Marsh Wrens twittered their jumbled songs. We caught up with some late migrant shorebirds that were headed to the Arctic for the very short summer; some of these birds will already be headed south by the time you read this! White-rumped, Stilt, and Semipalmated sandpipers were among them. The grasslands held loads of singing birds: Horned Lark, the beautiful Chestnut-collared Longspur, buzzy Grasshopper Sparrows, Willets, and Savannah Sparrows.
Finally, with the help of Kim Eckert and Chris Wood, we tracked down a very cooperative Baird’s Sparrow. Nearby we had wonderful views of the Ferruginous Hawk that Ruth S spotted. The DeWald Slough is always packed with birds and here we had our first White-faced Ibis and great looks at Wilson’s Phalarope, and we even glimpsed a Badger. A little to the west we tracked down and had great looks at the wheezy-voiced Nelson’s Sparrow and a Sedge Wren. Western Meadowlarks and Dickcissels were singing all over the prairie south of Dawson.
We had to head back to Minnesota, but not after checking out the original woodchipper prop from the dark comedy Fargo! The oak woodlands held many new birds for us and Maplewood State Park was excellent. A Scarlet Tanager came down from his treetop realm to check us out, and Great Crested Flycatchers, Golden-winged Warblers, American Redstarts, vireos, and a rare Acadian Flycatcher all made appearances. Yellow-billed and Black-billed cuckoos showed for us as well before they slunk back into the forest. Red-bellied Woodpecker, Yellow-throated Vireo, and Field Sparrow also made the list. Again we had to continue our eastward journey to McGregor, but not before a well-earned DQ break!
Meeting at 10 PM for a birding outing makes for a long day, but is necessary for the nocturnal calling Yellow Rail. We heard these guys in the McGregor Marsh, but they wouldn’t come out and the roadside ditch prevented us from trekking into the mosquito haven. The next morning we cleaned up with excellent views of Le Conte’s Sparrow in the marsh. Then we had to head back to Duluth, driving back roads most of the way, which paid off. Ruth C spotted a big Black Bear on the side of the road and we all enjoyed good binocular views before he got wind of us and disappeared into the woods. Ironically, our final morning was one of the nicest days we had the entire trip, as it felt warm for the first time; a toasty 76 degrees saw us off from Duluth!
Thank you all for choosing VENT and enjoying some of the amazing north country that Minnesota and North Dakota offer.