Minnesota & North Dakota Jun 01—09, 2015

Posted by Erik Bruhnke


Erik Bruhnke

Erik Bruhnke has loved birds since he was a child looking at chickadees. In 2008 he graduated from Northland College in Wisconsin with a Natural Resources degree. Erik taug...

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Birding throughout the upper Midwest can be thrilling, and our nine-day Minnesota & North Dakota tour left us with great memories of a rich array of ecosystems. There is something to be said about getting out of the vehicle at night and hearing a Yellow Rail vocalize, and hiking through native prairie and seeing Chestnut-collared Longspurs displaying all around us. There is something about witnessing a Black-billed Cuckoo vocalizing atop aspen trees in the early morning light as the tour is wrapping up, and something about assisting a road-crossing turtle while being greeted by nearby Yellow-headed Blackbirds and Western Grebes. All of this and much more were part of VENT’s 2015 Minnesota & North Dakota birding experience.

Western Grebe

Western Grebe— Photo: Erik Bruhnke


The first day of the tour began at dinner, where we enjoyed a sky-high, rotating view of Duluth and the western bay of Lake Superior. After a delicious dinner, we headed northwest to the renowned Sax-Zim Bog where we scanned for Great Gray Owls. While out along several hotspots in the bog during this first evening, a beautiful assembly of singing Nashville Warblers, Lincoln’s Sparrows, and Common Yellowthroats filled the cool and humid atmosphere with their sounds. The Great Gray Owl would come at a different time.

Our first full day of birding was also spent in Sax-Zim Bog, where we were immersed in the dense boreal forests of aspen, spruce, and Tamaracks. The scattered sedge meadows throughout this wooded landscape added a rich touch of birds. Views of Sedge Wrens, Wilson’s Snipe, and Yellow-rumped Warblers glowed through our binoculars and scopes in the morning. A pair of beautiful Sandhill Cranes could be seen feeding together as we scanned the wet meadows. In addition to enjoying so many birds, our day was complete with Snowshoe Hare, Porcupine, and several lake-resting Painted Turtles.

Chestnut-sided Warbler

Chestnut-sided Warbler— Photo: Erik Bruhnke


Day Two had us birding locally before we made another venture into the big woods. We started the day off with a quick and wholesome meal at Caribou Coffee, followed by visiting the world’s longest freshwater peninsula (and renowned birding hotspot), Park Point. The topography of Lake Superior funnels birds towards this peninsula. One will never know what can show up here throughout the year. While at Park Point we were treated to Semipalmated Sandpipers and an amazing view of Lake Superior. After thoroughly scanning the Great Lake, we headed to Sax-Zim Bog where we had a delightful remainder of a day of birding through the bogs and sedge meadows. From the masses of Nashville Warblers singing in the Tamaracks to the soothing song of the Hermit Thrush and Veery, our day visit to the bog was a special one for sure. Upon arriving back in Duluth, we ate at the Duluth Family Grille where we met up with a good friend of mine and Louise’s, Frank Nicoletti. He is a hawkwatcher extraordinaire, and such an all-round wonderful guy! His wonderful wife, Kate, came along too. It’s always fun to meet the local celebrities.

Following our last night in Duluth, we made our way to Detroit Lakes, one of the few places in the upper Midwest where three major biomes converge. Our first stop was Hartley Nature Center, one of the birding hotspots along the top of the hill of Duluth. This nature center hosts mature cedars and spruces, and with that comes kinglets, Blackburnian Warblers, and even a few Alder Flycatchers seen on the sides of the marshy areas. We came across a well-hidden White-tailed Deer fawn, resting soundly under a tree. One tricky little Canada Warbler sang continuously and seemed to enjoy the game of “tag with the birders.” A few of us got brief looks, but even so it was a cool experience engrained in our mind of the rushing water below, the strong and beautiful song of the Canada Warbler, and the presence of Minnesota’s second state bird (the mosquito). I received a text from my friend who had located a Great Gray Owl in Sax-Zim Bog towards the end of our time at Hartley Nature Center, and we headed up to the bog immediately. Upon arriving at the spot where the bird was seen, we caught a steady and lengthy glimpse of this handsomely incredible bird. It was seen perched atop a dead tree, watching the ground below as it scanned for food. After no less than two minutes of observing the bird from our vans, it flew off into the woods.

White-tailed Deer fawn

White-tailed Deer fawn— Photo: Erik Bruhnke


After the Great Gray Owl, we headed towards the Wilbert Café, the go-to spot for dining just outside of Sax-Zim Bog; we came across two little rufous fluffballs waddling across the road. We pulled over and watched them through our binoculars to find that these were recently-fledged Wilson’s Snipe! They walked seemingly proud with their disproportionately large feet. As they stood in place near the middle of the oncoming lane, a vehicle drove in their direction and, thankfully, drove around them. Both chicks experienced tires on either side of them for a split second, but were unscathed. They had a tumbling roll down the road, but shook it off and moseyed safely into the grass.

After lunch we partook in the lengthy drive west, stopping for a few minutes at the Walker Water Treatment Ponds to enjoy the company of recently-fledged Common Goldeneyes among other birds. Our evening meal in Detroit Lakes was at the Fireside, and our hopes for a great dining experience were exceeded by far. We were treated to a screened dining area overlooking glassy-smooth water, vocalizing loons, and a dark horizon of mixed treetops. Most of us ordered their almond-crusted walleye, which topped off a very special day of birding.

Wilson's Snipe

Wilson’s Snipe— Photo: Erik Bruhnke


The next morning we headed to Hamden Slough NWR (just north of Audubon, MN), where the roads are named after birds. Following this we visited the Felton Prairie, our grand introduction to Chestnut-collared Longspurs, Western Meadowlarks, Grasshopper Sparrows, and Marbled Godwit. For lunch we ate at Usher’s Place, an upscale restaurant in Fargo with a scenic view. Several of us had binoculars at the table (not surprising), and we were treated to brief views of a Richardson’s prairie race Merlin enjoying a meal within view of our dining area! After a delicious meal we headed west into the Duck Factory of North America—an impressive landscape of rolling prairies and lakes, known as the prairie potholes.

Over the next two full days we explored a few remaining patches of intact native prairie throughout central North Dakota. Our first day in the prairies was spent enjoying some of the rolling hills around Horsehead Lake. Grasshopper Sparrows and Savannah Sparrows wowed us with many close views. Chestnut-collared Longspurs and Bobolinks dazzled the air with their skylarking displays. Western Kingbirds and Eastern Kingbirds patrolled the fence posts, and we had many great side by side comparison views of these two species. The declining Baird’s Sparrow and Sprague’s Pipit eluded us today as well as in the upcoming days; however, the immersion of the prairies was enough to leave us smiling in awe with great birding memories. Swainson’s Hawks ruled the prairie skies.

On our second full day in the prairies we headed to Dewald Slough where we picked up a distant Le Conte’s Sparrow, enjoyed the presence of overhead Marbled Godwit and Willet, and later on found Clark’s Grebe among the many Western Grebes. Both of these long-necked grebe species are incredible birds, and it’s such a thrill to have the prairie wind rushing by, accompanied by the sweet smell of native flowers and grasses. We enjoyed lunch at the Dawson Café for the second day in a row, where we experienced small town, upper Midwest hospitality. We birded Horsehead Lake after lunch, where we soaked up very close views of Yellow-headed Blackbirds galore, Black Terns, Western Grebes, and many American White Pelicans.

Marbled Godwit

Marbled Godwit— Photo: Erik Bruhnke


Throughout the morning of our return to the big forest of Minnesota, we made sure to stop in at the Fargo/Moorhead Visitor Center to exchange “youbetchas” and to see keepsakes from the movie Fargo. Following this we headed southeast where we birded Maple Woods State Park, a unique state park in western Minnesota where big deciduous forest and a little swamp habitat meets prairie. We heard Ovenbirds nonstop and got a brief observation of an Acadian Flycatcher, which was out of range for this species! After a dinner in McGregor (northcentral Minnesota), we headed out along the roads in McGregor Marsh to listen for the Yellow Rail. With some persistence, we met our goal and got great “listens” of this sneaky and secretive bird. It was a lifer for all of the VENT participants, as well as myself!
The last morning of the tour always comes too fast. Before heading back to the Duluth airport, we made sure to bird Hedbom State Forest Road, a locally-renowned stretch of road for boreal birds of many kinds. We had incredible and long-lasting views of a Black-billed Cuckoo, as well as many boreal warblers and even a close Snapping Turtle! Our tour tallied 182 bird species over the nine-day experience. It was a real delight birding with all of you, and I look forward to our next Victor Emanuel Nature Tours birding adventure together!