Minnesota & North Dakota Jun 02—10, 2014

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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Birding the forests, bogs, meadows, prairies, ponds, and marshes of Minnesota and North Dakota produced an amazing array of birds and scenery during our eight days on the road. Obvious highlights included Great Gray Owl; a nest of Northern Hawk Owls that all fledged during our three days birding the Sax-Zim Bog; Connecticut Warbler; Black-backed Woodpecker; and a couple of singing Baird’s Sparrows. The swampy spruce-tamarack bogs held a beautiful variety of breeding warblers and other songbirds just back from months in the New World Tropics. All were singing vigorously and defending territories. The wide open prairie pothole country of North Dakota hosted waterfowl, grebes, rails, gulls, terns, wrens, and blackbirds. We saw 192 species of birds along the way and experienced small town America at its finest, in great little cafes.

Bobolinks were common in the prairie.

Bobolinks were common in the prairie.— Photo: Brian Gibbons

On our first evening we set out for Great Gray Owls; we saw none. The next day we spent much of the early morning cruising the bog for owls—again, no luck. We tried our hand the next evening— nope! Finally our persistence paid off; we found two Great Grays. The first one escaped quickly, leaving us wanting. The second bird, corralled up the road by Erik’s van, stayed just long enough for great views. As we were getting our views of this bog giant, Erik kept us posted on the whereabouts of the Black-backed Woodpecker flying back and forth over our van. This was our final morning in Sax-Zim Bog; we had to get these great birds and we did. The families of Gray Jays gliding over the road were a bonus. Before, during, and after our owl hunts we saw many species of forest birds: 20 species of warblers including a scoped Mourning, as well as Cape May and Golden-winged. We heard the elusive Connecticut Warbler many times.

Marbled Godwit is a prairie breeder.

Marbled Godwit is a prairie breeder.— Photo: Brian Gibbons

We had barely made it off the highway along Stony River Road in Superior National Forest when our first group of Boreal Chickadees graced us with their presence. Blackburnian Warbler, kinglets, flycatchers, and many more warblers kept us busy. Our constant serenade in the spruce-tamarack bog was provided by White-throated Sparrow. Perhaps our greatest surprise was an active Northern Hawk Owl nest we learned of just the day before the tour! We watched in amazement as three little fuzzballs teetered on the edge of their snag-top nest only to disappear when they had tempted fate long enough. Mike spotted the most adventurous youngster 100 feet away from the nest in a brush pile; it too wobbled on its perch and occasionally screamed for its hidden parents to feed it. A couple of days later we returned to see the nest empty and the young dispersed safely into the woods. Another highlight of birding the bog was the throbbing of the Ruffed Grouse display. Several times while studying a beautiful warbler we felt the thumping in our chests of a male, tucked away on a log in the woods. A surprise at Stone Lake was a baker’s dozen of Trumpeter Swans. After a very successful final morning in the bog we headed west to Detroit Lakes. Rain most of the way couldn’t dampen our spirits as we recalled our great fortune in the bog.

This stunning male Golden-winged Warbler sang in Maplewood State Park.

Golden-winged Warbler in Maplewood State Park.— Photo: Brian Gibbons

Our finest meal was at Fireside in Detroit Lakes. The parmesan and almond-crusted Walleye was spectacular! The next morning we headed to a completely new habitat at Felton Prairie. We saw our first open country birds: Grasshopper Sparrow, Chestnut-collared Longspur, Upland Sandpiper, Western Meadowlark, the wonderful Bobolink males, and vociferous Marbled Godwits.

Leaving Minnesota meant the forest was behind us and the prairie pothole region ahead. Our first pothole birding was just west of Valley City where we found a bonanza of waterfowl. Ruddy Ducks with their blue bills bobbed their heads while Yellow-headed Blackbirds screeched out their raucous songs. Grebes, the buoyant Black Terns, a cooperative and quite frozen American Bittern, Redheads, Canvasbacks, and Blue-winged Teal all made for an excellent introduction to the duck factory of North America.

The next morning, out in Kidder County North Dakota, we were birding a beautiful prairie north of Tappen. We saw many longspurs, Bobolinks, and Grasshopper Sparrows, but our hunt for the Baird’s Sparrow would continue. High overhead an unseen Sprague’s Pipit skylarked in a blue sky broken by a few cumulus clouds. Around DeWald Slough there were shorebirds, ducks, and rails. Somewhere along the way we found a beautiful pair of Red-necked Grebes, and a Nelson’s Sparrow sat on a fencepost and sang for us. The following morning, after a slight delay, we were back in Kidder County, and before too long we had two singing Baird’s Sparrows, an exciting find given the population declines this bird has experienced in the last decade. Also in the prairie this year were Dickcissels singing away as the local pair of Ferruginous Hawks patrolled the skies above. Also in the skies over the prairie was the Swainson’s Hawk, a lean, small-billed, and small-taloned buteo contrasting with the enormous gape and bulk of the Ferruginous. Ducks were simply everywhere in the prairie pothole country—every pond, lake, and roadside ditch had a teal or a Mallard in residence.

This female American Woodcock was escorting her three fuzzy young across the road.

Female American Woodcock escorting her young.— Photo: Brian Gibbons

Our final day in the prairie was very successful and we were ready to head back to Minnesota, but not before a photo-op with a famous movie prop, the woodchipper from the black comedy Fargo. Our first birding for the day would be in Otter Tail County at Maplewood State Park. This forested park was simply loaded with songbirds. Flycatchers, warblers, vireos, and sparrows were all in abundance. The male Golden-winged Warbler singing and preening in the scope stole the show for the morning, but the abundant feisty redstarts vied for our attention. The rarest bird was the Acadian Flycatcher, the third year in a row we have found this wayward bird here. The singing male Scarlet Tanager, just back from a half-year in the Amazon Basin, was singing his heart out from the tallest maple trees. Yellow Warbler, Veery, Gray Catbird, Yellow-throated Vireo, and Great Crested Flycatcher were all seen in the park.

As we headed further east, our thoughts were on McGregor Marsh, home to the Yellow Rail. That night, avoiding sleep until 11:30 didn’t allow us to even hear the temperamental caller. We revisited the marsh in the morning where we found singing Le Conte’s Sparrows and Sedge Wrens for great scope views. Then we moved onto the trail of the Connecticut Warbler along Hedboom Forest Road. Before we found the Connecticut we had numerous other warblers, Olive-sided Flycatcher, and a stunning encounter with a shifty family of American Woodcocks. While the little ones melted into the underbrush, momma allowed scope views. Finally we heard the blaring song from the bog: a Connecticut Warbler was blasting its tune from high in a tamarack allowing fine scope views. That was our final new bird and a fitting way to end this amazing trip. Thanks for traveling with VENT. I look forward to our next birding adventure.