Minnesota & North Dakota Jun 03—12, 2016
Posted by Erik Bruhnke
Our 2016 Minnesota & North Dakota tour was filled to the brim with a range of weather, as well as an outstanding array of bird diversity. The varied scenery is always a special highlight of this tour. Each day brought new birds, new sights, and new sounds. It is an amazing experience to be immersed in such a broad spectrum of life, and all of this takes place within the Northwoods of Minnesota and the Prairie Potholes of North Dakota.
Our first day began with birding along the shores of Lake Superior. Racing shorebirds and flurries of warblers and flycatchers made themselves known along Park Point, the longest freshwater peninsula in the world. The daytime temperature never broke 50ºF on that first day, and the cool, damp air focused migrants of many sorts to hunker down in the vegetation within easy viewing. One of our first birds of the morning was an unexpected find, an Orchard Oriole. This species is more regularly found within wooded patches throughout prairies to come later in the tour, but was far from likely in Duluth. Minutes later we found a Northern Mockingbird, another highly unexpected bird for not only the Duluth area, but for this tour as a whole! In the afternoon we came across not only multiple close fly-by Common Loons, but also two additional rarities for the area: Pacific Loon and Red-throated Loon. Amazing locally-sourced food complemented the rich bird life. Like all VENT tours, this tour offers an outstanding sense of place of the flora and fauna within the region. Our first day was one of boreal migrants and unexpected rarities.
Our second day had us exploring and enjoying the entirety of the renowned Sax-Zim Bog. Expanses of Tamarack and Black Spruce provided a rich aroma of earthiness as an impressive spectrum of warblers greeted us by both sight and sound. Scope views of Yellow-bellied Flycatchers, Chestnut-sided Warblers, and a Black-backed Woodpecker hit a sweet spot for many of us. Later in the day our lunch was topped off with homemade pie, as many participants were in need of some lifer pie with all of the birds we were seeing. Our afternoon highlights included families of Gray Jays, Blackburnian Warblers, and Alder Flycatchers galore. A very memorable moment was watching a male Golden-winged Warbler sing for nearly 10 minutes!
By the time our third day rolled around for Northwoods birding, we had tallied 19 different warbler species, all of which breed locally in the areas we visited. We started off with a morning of bog birding, followed with transitioning habitat as we drove westward. Homemade barbecue provided us with energy for watching a family of Common Goldeneyes, as well as Caspian Terns, Ring-billed Gulls, multiple Ospreys, and more. Nesting Common Loons and Trumpeter Swans shared a lake nearby. After an afternoon of further commuting west towards our destination of Detroit Lakes, we dined on freshly caught almond-crusted walleye as the view of a woodland lake delighted our evening view.
The next morning started out among native shortgrass prairie which touches the northern forests. Our day began with a Greater Prairie-Chicken no more than 50 feet down the road. Declining over the years, they are a remarkable highlight of the tour. A gorgeous Wilson’s Snipe provided up-close study while perched atop a fence post. The afternoon was filled with mixed pines and maples which catered to Pine Warblers, more nesting Common Loons in the lakes below, and a fly-over Scarlet Tanager! Several participants couldn’t help but order a second round of the almond-crusted walleye for dinner. It’s that delicious!
A little bit of forest and a little bit of prairie. Now comes the big change westward into large scale prairies. At our first spot, Chestnut-collared Longspurs and Bobolinks bounded through the air, singing in their own acoustically vibrant tones and cadences. Savannah Sparrows and Grasshopper Sparrows buzzed gracefully from the tallest dried seed stalks. The sparrows combined their songs with the endless yodeling of numerous Western Meadowlarks. The effect of these prairie birds singing together is unlike any other experience. As we headed towards Jamestown, we stopped at a prairie pothole, a low spot within the central prairie where masses of water naturally occur. The single most common bird species of the afternoon was the Yellow-headed Blackbird—dozens of them, all around. It was magical. Canvasback, Redhead, Northern Pintail, and both teal species occupied the water surface en masse, as well as a scattering of Western Grebes carrying chicks on their backs. Among these potholes we found a Glossy Ibis, a species very rare for the tour and highly unanticipated throughout North Dakota!
The Prairie Potholes contain intact fields of native shortgrass prairie dazzling with flowers, butterflies, and birds. Many of the birds found in this region of the country are habitat specialists, like the Upland Sandpipers and the nesting Ferruginous Hawks we saw. Early in the morning we had not one but two Baird’s Sparrows singing beautifully as nesting Northern Harriers and Marbled Godwits patrolled the rolling hills. Baird’s Sparrow is a species of great concern, and it was a fantastic experience to view multiple individuals. Scope views of this species were shared by all. Pairs of flashy Wilson’s Phalaropes fed and scurried their way through the shallow waters, as a distant Krider’s race Red-tailed Hawk kept watch over an adjacent field. Numerous side by side comparison views of Western Kingbird and Eastern Kingbird were savored. On our second full day in the prairies we visited the largest known nesting colony of American White Pelicans. Thousands of distant pelicans filled our binocular views. From Clay-colored Sparrows to Ruddy Ducks, the prairies delighted each of us every day.
On our last day in North Dakota we started out at the Jamestown Sewage Lagoon where a mother Hooded Merganser was seen with a train of ducklings. While scanning the fence extensions we scoped four perched swallow species at one time! The Eared Grebes dove among the displaying Ruddy Ducks, and several White-faced Ibis flew overhead. After a stop at the Fargo Visitor Center to see the wood chipper, we headed east back into Minnesota. We couldn’t help but admire the beauty of the world’s largest American White Pelican on our drive to the final hotel. Our last night together was really special. The elusive Yellow Rail eluded us, as Alder Flycatchers and Le Conte’s Sparrows sang in the fields. Hundreds of lightning bugs filled the air all around us. The air was calm and the moment was amazing.
On our last morning we birded our way eastward where we had remarkable views of two side by side snapping turtles laying eggs. Scope views of numerous Alder Flycatchers and a second Black-backed Woodpecker made for a special sendoff.
Over the course of the tour we tallied 191 bird species, 17 of which were either nesting or feeding young. It’s an amazing time of year to experience this part of the country, and I’m already looking forward to next year’s Minnesota & North Dakota tour!