Northern Minnesota Winter Weekend Jan 28—Feb 01, 2016

Posted by Brian Gibbons


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 in winter conjures up some frigid images: Lake Superior’s shore with ice-covered boulders along the beach, frozen bays and harbors, and the frozen snowy north woods. While it was cool for us during our long weekend of birding in Northern Minnesota, the temperatures were well above average. We saw rain turn to sleet and finally to enormous cookie-sized snowflakes one evening. The birding, like the weather, was challenging.

On our first evening, with just an hour of daylight left, we raced over to Superior, Wisconsin to search for one of the few Snowy Owls wintering in the Duluth area this winter. After a small delay provided by a Northern Shrike, we were able to watch a Snowy Owl starting its evening hunt along the runway at the Bong Airport!

Pine Grosbeak, male

Pine Grosbeak, male— Photo: Brian Gibbons


The next morning we started early in Sax-Zim Bog north of Duluth. The spruce-tamarack bog is the winter realm of just a few birds. At dawn, while hunting for a Great Gray Owl, we saw our first Ruffed Grouse feeding on birch buds backlit by a gorgeous sunrise. At the Friends of Sax-Zim Bog Visitor Center, the feeders swarmed with Common Redpolls and a dozen stunning Pine Grosbeaks. Black-capped Chickadees were nervously flitting around the grounds as they emptied the feeders of sunflower seeds. After a great breakfast at the Wilbert Café in Cotton, we returned to the bog to feed the Boreal Chickadees. After a short wait, a wave of Black-caps came in, and a couple of Boreal Chickadees joined them. After driving roads for hours and hardly finding a bird, it was amazing how active the feeding stations were. Blue and Gray jays, finches, Downy and Hairy woodpeckers, nuthatches, and others flocked in.

Black-backed Woodpecker, female

Black-backed Woodpecker, female— Photo: Brian Gibbons













Our final morning found us cruising north into Superior National Forest along Lake County Road 2, the sweet spot for finding Spruce Grouse in winter. Their habit of getting grit along the roadways allowed us to find a cooperative male and watch him for a few minutes before he disappeared into the forest. Just down the road near the Sand River, some other birders had located a pair of Black-backed Woodpeckers, and we soon enjoyed a pair as they drummed back and forth in the frigid forest. After that great success we headed back to Superior, Wisconsin, but not before passing the starting point for the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon. Finally, back in Superior we staked out the Peavey Elevator one last time; after an hour or so without a Gyr, we decided to take a lunch break. Just what we needed! Shortly thereafter Rafael spotted a large falcon disappear behind cement plant buildings. After scanning around we were not able to see the target, but a quick drive down 53 gave us a good vantage for nice scope views of a beautiful gray adult Gyrfalcon. A quick stop at Canal Park revealed four species of gulls: Glaucous, Iceland, Thayer’s, and the common Herring. Our final run up to Sax-Zim Bog didn’t reveal the hoped for Great Gray Owl, but we did see three Northern Shrikes.

A winter with few northern owls invading Minnesota made for a challenging trip, but we did see some fine birds and mammals and enjoyed the stark beauty of the north woods in deep freeze.

I’m looking forward to our next birding adventure.

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