Northern Minnesota Winter Weekend Feb 02—06, 2017

Posted by Erik Bruhnke

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Erik Bruhnke

Erik Bruhnke has had a love for birds since he was a child. He graduated from Northland College in Wisconsin with a Natural Resources degree in 2008 and taught field ornith...

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Winter birding in northern Minnesota is an exhilarating experience. The area boasts a unique array of northern specialties found both year-round and some solely during the winter months. The snow and temperatures invigoratingly grace the landscape, providing nonstop scenic views of both Lake Superior and the boreal forest among other habitats. From daily locally-sourced cuisine to the birding experience as a whole, our 2017 Northern Minnesota Winter Weekend left us with warm memories of this snow-filled adventure.

Great Gray Owl

Great Gray Owl— Photo: Erik Bruhnke

 

We started our first day of birding by visiting the renowned Sax-Zim Bog, located a short drive northwest of Duluth. Glimpses of light began to penetrate the horizon of spruce and tamarack tops as we entered the bog. Our very first bird of the tour was a Pine Grosbeak. We witnessed a flock of them feeding beautifully atop the black spruce tops. This study of male and female Pine Grosbeaks delighted our eyes through binoculars as the sun rose. The Pine Grosbeaks’ colors glowed in the early morning light. Flocks of White-winged Crossbills fed ravenously atop tamaracks where their bills worked carefully to expose the food-rich cones. Then it happened… Just down the road, along the boggy edge, flew a Great Gray Owl, hunting angelically as it flew from snag to snag with ease. Its fine gray mottled plumage and piercing yellow eyes treated us to quite a show. We watched this gentle giant of the boreal edges for several minutes. Snow all around. Peace in the woods. Birding zen.

Evening Grosbeak

Evening Grosbeak— Photo: Erik Bruhnke

 

Following this highlight we visited one of the many birdfeeding stations in Sax-Zim Bog. Dozens of Evening Grosbeaks welcomed us to the feeders as Blue Jays, Pine Siskins, and Black-capped Chickadees fed together in a whirlwind of activity. Evening Grosbeaks, especially when observed in considerable numbers, are a real treat to witness, as this beautiful species has declined immensely throughout much of its historic range. Their yellows, olives, and high contrast black and white left us in awe. Not far from this location we were treated to Black-billed Magpies flying around, showing off their two-toned wings and lengthy iridescent tails.

A lunch at a local café recharged us before birding the afternoon throughout the Duluth limits. A Thayer’s Gull was picked out among a few Herring Gulls at Canal Park. Dozens of dapper Common Goldeneyes swam about, and one handsome adult male Long-tailed Duck mingled with them. Following this lakeshore birding we drove up to Hawk Ridge to experience this renowned scenic bluff overlooking Duluth. To our surprise a flock of Cedar Waxwings (much rarer than Bohemian Waxwings in the winter) flew by. We ended the day with two Snowy Owls among brisk air and lavender-colored skies.

The second day was a truly memorable experience on so many accounts. The forecast was steady snow, and snow it did. A constant flow of massive and picturesque flakes fell from the moment we left the hotel until our return for dinner. The day incorporated a drive well north of Duluth into the Superior National Forest. Every spruce and pine branch was coated in a delicate layer of snow. Spruce Grouse, one of the habitat specialists, can be a challenge to come across. Their fondness of consuming spruce needles takes many a birder into the deepest spruce forests, hoping for a glimpse of this unique grouse. We had not one, not two, but SIX Spruce Grouse resting among the snow-laden ground. It was breathtaking to see them at peace among our presence. We watched them for several minutes through the heavy falling snow. We took the roads slowly and savored the scenery to fullest extent. A charismatic flock of Boreal Chickadees made an appearance for minutes on end. Everyone’s binoculars were locked on these amazing birds as they called and fed among the spruce branches.

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl— Photo: Erik Bruhnke

 

After a hearty lunch we headed towards the North Shore of Lake Superior. The massive, snow-dazzled woods continued to put on a show as we traversed throughout the limits of the Superior National Forest. As we approached Lake Superior, a dark aura of lake effect snow hung over the water. Our thrills of the day weren’t over yet. On the lake side of the road we were treated to two Great Gray Owls at the same time. We watched them perch, hunt, and triangulate on prey within the snow. It was incredible. After about fifteen minutes of owl zen, we continued heading down the North Shore where we found another Great Gray Owl, this time on the inland side of the road. We watched this owl from the vehicle as it flew in our direction, perching on a tall snag not far from us. Its complexion blended in perfectly with the bark. Its movements were careful and delicate yet robot-like. Following this, on our last stretch to Duluth we had one additional Great Gray Owl at dusk, hunting into the twilight among the wooded edge.

Spruce Grouse

Spruce Grouse— Photo: Erik Bruhnke

 

On our third day of birding we headed up into Sax-Zim Bog one more time and were rewarded with incredible views of an active Sharp-tailed Grouse lek. As of this current morning we had seen all three grouse species possible for the tour! The Sharp-tailed Grouses’ golden-tans glowed among the sky-blue snow as they strutted towards each other and sprinted after each other. Gray Jays, Red-breasted Nuthatches, and Northern Shrikes were seen in great light. We enjoyed up-close views of the handsome Boreal Chickadee one more time. After a filling lunch and homemade pie at the local café, we headed towards the Friends of Sax-Zim Bog Welcome Center where dozens of Common Redpolls, Pine Siskins, and a few Pine Grosbeaks were enjoyed. The exceptionally close views of the redpolls at their feeders were spectacular! Birding the North Shore of Lake Superior and a little bit of Two Harbors concluded our day of birding. The drive back to the hotel was ornately decorated in snow both near and far. Although the skies were clear, the landscape clearly showed the accumulated snow from the day before. It was a scenic grand finale to our tour.

From unique birds to unique habitat and an invigorating climate, the Northern Minnesota Winter Weekend tour left us smiling. Embracing the weather, the habitat, and the wildlife here makes for an exceptionally rich winter birding experience.