Birding Duluth, MN area, January 17, 18 19, 2017

Why would someone leave the warmth of sunny Arizona for the below-freezing snowy fields of Duluth in the middle of January????  AN AVID BIRDER would know that this is the month to find two birds that, in all likelihood, will never make it to Arizona.

GREAT GRAY OWL:  Photo taken within the Sax-Zim Bog Visitor Center (not a live bird)
SNOWY OWL  (male)   Photo from internet
Prior to my leaving on Monday, January 16th, my greatest concern was the cold that would greet us in Duluth. With posted temperatures as low as -30°F in December, I began to have doubts. As it turned out, Erik, our guide was the one concerned about the weather. He had never experienced “self-road-melt” in January; winter snow doesn’t melt until late March or April…and it melted while we were there. Local news coverage dubbed it the GREAT MELTDOWN OF 2017.  At just freezing and above high-temperatures for our second two days, the three of us traveling from AZ were warm and thrilled. 

Joining me were Lois Lorenz, local birding friend; and Kay Hawklee from Sedona with whom I’ve birded on several trips. Kay and Lois were both on my High Island trip to Texas last Spring where we all met Erik Bruhnke, the young guide learning the ropes as a VENT birding guide. (Victor Emmanuel Nature Tours) When I learned Erik operated his own birding trips out of Duluth in the winter, I asked if we could hire him to lead us to some of the top birds of the boreal forest. And, he did lead us to many areas to find the birds we sought. Each of our three days of birding began about 6:15 a.m. and ended twelve hours later.

Boreal simply means “north country” - by latitude, not elevation. Think forests in the far north of the USA and Canada, then tundra. Although we dipped on a fair number of boreal birds on our “want list”, we saw enough that I ended up with TEN LIFE BIRDS. 

By 7:15 a.m., we had entered SAX-ZIM BOG, northwest of Duluth. By layout, I would liken it to the grid of Santa Cruz Flats (Pinal County, AZ) - but with dense Black Spruce and Tamarack Lark forests within the peat bog and Aspen trees outside the bog. The peat bog was frozen this time of year, but cannot be entered by foot when it thaws. Temperature at the start of our day was 5°F.

COMMON RAVENS, were just that. The first and most frequent bird of the day. 

But next up made Erik our hero!  By 7:45, we were staring back at a GREAT GRAY OWL, one of the most difficult to find. Didn’t realize when I was snapping photos that it was so hidden behind branches but I post because it was my very first sighting of a Great Gray. With binoculars, I was looking directly into its yellow eyes.

My First View of a GREAT GRAY OWL
Celebrating the GGOW:  L-R: Kay, Lois, Erik.
Before the end of that first day, we would see two more Great Gray Owls, one of which appeared to have a bad eye. Consequently, it was hunting in the afternoon when we spent about thirty (30) minutes watching and photographing it. We never closed in on it, but stayed in the snow-crusted roadway. It came closer and closer enabling excellent views.

Note its white bow tie.

The Hoar Frost of the morning, lasted into the afternoon

Although I was born and raised in Pennsylvania where the State Bird is the Ruffed Grouse, I never saw nor even heard of it until I became a birder about five years ago. The photos below are of the RUFFED GROUSE, another Life Bird.

Found walking beside the road eating grit. Although stopped far from it, it saw us and moved away
Its belly became its snow plow clearing a way for its feet
Checking to see if we're still watching, I guess.
Later in the day, we would spot more Ruffed Grouse in trees where they moved about on the slimmest of limbs.

The Red Squirrel (below) was a delight and a nemesis; we kept mistaking its call for a bird.

When Erik used to stop by to check what birds might be on these feeders, he spoke with the homeowners about Friends of Sax-Zim Bog. Subsequently, they increased the number and variety of feeders in their yard but best of all, added a heated porta-potty. Worth more than the usual donation to a private yard!

Additional Life Birds for me on Day #1 included: COMMON REDPOLL (difficult to photograph); WHITE-WINGED CROSSBILL and NORTHERN SHRIKE.

Common Redpoll
COMMON REDPOLL - lots of them

WHITE-WINGED CROSSBILL (two above photos)
NORTHERN SHRIKE (much more narrow black eye-stripe than Loggerhead Shrike)

L-R at end of Day #1: Erik, Lois, Me, Kay
Sunset as we drove back to Duluth

With another early start in our large Nissan SUV rental, we arrived about 7:30 in the Superior National Forest, a boreal forest ecosystem, northeast of Duluth. At 24°F, the first bird we saw today was another RUFFED GROUSE, feeding along Highway 2.

This is how we saw the forest:

The next grouse we spotted surprised even Erik!  Alone by the roadside, also eating grit to aid its digestion, was a male SPRUCE GROUSE -- another Life Bird.

SPRUCE GROUSE-MALE  (3 above photos)

As we drove past the SPRUCE GROUSE, Kay was able to get this close-up photo.

We continued to see more of the good boreal birds we had observed yesterday, but one bird that is also a bird from the east coast that I knew well, was the PILEATED WOODPECKER. Hadn't seen one in a very long time and always thrill at its pterodactyl appearance. Current science is indicating that our birds evolved from the dinosaurs, many of which had feathers.

Some of our birding was done by walking the snow-covered roads listening and looking into the forests.

Kay checking out nearby birds
A mid-morning "relief" and homemade cinnamon-bun break at Stony River Cafe added more birds to our day's list.

As we returned along the North Shore toward Lake Superior we spotted several Bald Eagles.

We soon discovered that the presence of multiple Bald Eagles drives Gulls out to the middle of Lake Superior, so our stop at Canal Park was devoid of any of those special ones we wanted to see. But COMMON GOLDENEYE were present in great numbers. See if you can find the males, females and juveniles in the photo below.

It wasn't until we crossed over into Wisconsin and the small Superior Airport that we found the bird that actually motivated me to head north -- SNOWY OWL. Two Snowy Owls were present: a juvenile and a female (in separate locations). The normal winter temperatures and fields must remind them of the tundra.

Probable Juvenile SNOWY OWL

The black spot on top of the owl's head has been painted there by a bird bander who did not want to re-catch it. Feathers will molt back into their natural state prior to mating season.

Added this photo to show houses behind the field.

Female SNOWY OWL with dense red/brown bars across its chest; perched on a hangar or other bldg.
Same female as above; note its band on right wing; and its regurgitated pellet to its left

After enjoying the two owls for half an hour, from quite a distance, we headed back to our motel where Erik picked up his car to head home. Each evening, we gassed up the car and picked up a salad to eat back in our motel room where we knew we could kick back and relax.

Getting a later start today (6:30 a.m.), it was 32°F when we arrived at Sax-Zim Bog to search for some of the boreal birds we were still hoping to find.

It seems that many of the birds need to be located early when they're feeding and we can't be everywhere in the bog at the same time. So, today, we went to the Visitor's Center early where I finally saw some PINE GROSBEAK. It seems that a few of them reside in Arizona's White Mountains, but they've never revealed themselves to me when I went to their reported  potential sites. I was thrilled to finally see them:

Male & female PINE GROSBEAK
Warm temps created high humidity and foggy air - terrible for photographs. (At least that was the case with my lack of sufficient awareness of how to adapt my camera to those conditions.)

Erik had a surprise for us this morning. When we stopped at another far flung residence with bird feeders out in this wilderness, he mentioned that sometimes grouse were also present.
When Kay asked him to check a distant feeder to discern whether she was seeing AMERICAN GOLDFINCH or not (yes), he responded with: SHARP-TAILED GROUSE. Barely visible through the fog, we saw two grouse shapes in the distance. Eventually, they came closer to the feeder.

Sharp-tailed Grouse around the post supporting the feeding platform
This was the lek for these STGR. It was so warm to these two, that they started mating behavior
Sharp-tailed Grouse [Photo: Kay Hawklee]
As we continued driving through Sax-Zim Bog, we saw other sights:

White-tailed deer


Soon after Erik explained why so much bark was missing from distant deciduous trees, we came upon the creature causing it.

Distant Porcupine eating its way down a hardwood tree [First I've seen in the wild]

Porcupine-stripped bark

In our continued search for Black-backed Woodpecker and Boreal Chickadee, Erik led us on a short trek into the bog. It was fine if we could keep our feet on the footsteps of others, but, if not, we were into snow up to our knees! Yes, I did that! But I had gators plus high boots so was well protected.

Erik leading the way into the bog

Prior to leaving the bog on this, our final day: L-R: Lois, Kay and me
L-R: Lois, Erik and Babs of the North Country (as Erik called me today)
On our way out of the bog, we saw another Great Gray Owl -- that became our first (Tuesday) and last major bird sighting at Sax-Zim Bog! Nice memory.

We returned to Duluth's Canal Park, then, to see if gulls would be around today.  Yay!
In case any of us were looking for HERRING GULLs, we probably had a couple hundred to choose from. I got a kick out of some that flew up to land on a thin ice floe moving past.


Many gulls were perched far out in the Lake, one raft of them closer than another, so that when a rare ICELAND GULL flew over, Kay tracked its landing to the closest group of HEGUs. We were able to get good views of this slightly smaller and very very light gull in the midst of the larger multi-colored (depending on year of feathering maturity) Herring Gulls. Obviously, this was a Life Bird for all three of us from Arizona...on a day when city streets became bare of snow.

What a way to end our third and final day with Erik!

It began snowing when we left Duluth Airport on Friday afternoon and was raining when we returned home!

A cherished trip!

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1 comment:

  1. loved the blog. What a great adventure for you and the others to experience. Glad for your 6 lifers too. Thanks for sharing.