Since Tommy DeBardeleben and Gordon Karre did not fly out of MSP until late in the evening on February 1st, we basically had most of the day to bird in the Northland and on our way south. And since we had knocked out their Owl targets the previous three days….
…we had a great deal of flexibility and freedom for how to bird on that final day. We had succeeded in our goals which I still find hard to believe even as I sit down to write this. There was zero pressure for that final day. Options on the table included going back for more Great Gray action in the Sax-Zim Bog, heading up to Lake County to try for Spruce Grouse, going to a birding friend’s yard to photograph Ruffed Grouse that frequent her feeders, or trying for a number of other Owls on our way south. Ultimately, though, we decided to bird much closer to our base camp. While we were on the Hawk Owl hunt in the Northwest the previous day, Evan had called me with a credible report of three Spruce Grouse seen on a road right near my parents’ house. Since I have seen Sprucies there in the past, I had no reason to doubt it. So that’s where we started our day. Evan was along with us as Marin and Melissa headed back home separately.
I was excited about birding around my parents’ house. First, it meant we could sleep in for once which felt great after the breakneck pace we’d been keeping. Second, and more important, I have tried for years for some really great birds that have been found on a road through a mature Black Spruce bog near the folks’ house. I had secured a nice male Spruce Grouse in this spot the previous year, but I have never given up searching for the Great Gray Owl and Black-backed Woodpecker that Sparky Stensaas discovered there over two years ago. I have lost track of how many times I have tried for these birds. These birds are pretty special anywhere, but even more so when they are in the backyard.
When we got to the Spruce bog and made one unsuccessful pass down the road for Sprucies, Great Grays, Boreal Chickadees, and Black-backs, Tommy suggested getting out of the car in order to walk and listen. It was a mild day, so I thought that was a good idea. Rather than joining them and having all of us have to walk back to the vehicle, I decided to stay in the car and go pick them up. Unannounced to them, I took off in a different direction in order to complete a large loop to cover more ground. Gordon later told me that when he saw me leave he had flashbacks of Snipe hunts from his youth. But I knew it wouldn’t be long and that they’d be okay.
Almost instantly on my solo tour I had a large gray and black raptor fly from a perch in the Pines on the right side of the road to a large stand of Pines on the left–adult Northern Goshawk! I wish I could have had a longer look, but such is the way NOGO sightings go. I finally did make it back to a frigid Tommy and Gordon (my loop took me longer than I thought–oops!). I asked the guys what they had seen, and Tommy told me they detected the drumming of a Black-backed Woodpecker. I’ve birded with Tommy enough to know that he can be a kidder and try to get one over on somebody, so I laughed and told him I knew better than to believe his story….except he didn’t break into a smile. He was serious! So I got out and we played the tape. Almost instantly the Black-backed Woodpecker flew out of the bog and finally gave me the sighting I’ve been waiting on for years! Even better was that this was a lifer for both Gordon and Evan!! It was a great moment that wouldn’t have been possible without Tommy and Gordon walking–thanks guys! This one felt really, really good.
Something even more amazing happened while we tried to lure out this guy–a second Black-back showed up! There was a male and a female! Unfortunately I never did see that classic field mark of the yellow crown on the male, but Tommy and Gordon each got to see it. I will continue to search for these birds until I finally see that and finally get good photos of this species.
We had a pretty tight schedule to keep for some more birding stops on the way to the Cities, so we had to leave this special bog by 9:30. The rest of the day had various stops for various things as we ventured south. We tried for a Northern Saw-whet Owl that would have been a lifer for me if we would have found it. We did not, however. This was my second attempt, and I’ve since made an unsuccessful third attempt. It is just not meant to be at this point in time.
As we traveled we did get to see a couple more Pileated Woodpeckers, including one close up on a power pole. Getting photos of this bird was another story, but the sightings were still exciting for the guys. Tommy was able to finally get a Blue Jay photo which was a photographic lifer for him. We did bump into an unexpected but not surprising Red-bellied Woodpecker in a suburban neighborhood which was a lifer for Tommy! No one was able to get photos of this striking bird. The one pictured below is one I recently photographed in my yard.
We had a couple of revenge stops to make right by the airport itself. When I picked the guys up late in the afternoon on January 28th, we had about 20 minutes of daylight to search for the Ft. Snelling State Park Barred Owl which is a 5-minute drive from Terminal 1. Not being successful there on that first night, we quickly got over to the aircraft viewing area on Cargo Road just as it was getting dark to look for a reported Snowy Owl. No luck on that one either. Even though Tommy and Gordon got their Snowy and Barred Owl lifers, we all wanted revenge on these particular Owls, especially the Barreds which NOBODY misses on. Anyhow, we were all optimistic and relaxed on this second attempt.
As we were driving into Ft. Snelling State Park, Evan casually mentioned seeing some Trumpeter Swans. This immediately caught Gordon’s attention who informed us that would be a lifer for him! Evan’s eagle-eye had come up with a lifer that wasn’t even on my radar. Tommy was also excited about this sighting as it was the first time he had seen adult birds and only his second time viewing the species. Way to go, Evan!
We also redeemed our failure from the previous night when Tommy spotted the female Barred Owl. The guys enjoyed getting another chance at photographing a more cooperative Barred Owl.
Because we found the Barred in such short order, I told the guys I had enough time to make one quick check for the airport Snowy Owl before I had to hit the road. When I asked them if they were interested in looking, they responded with an emphatic yes.
Driving down Cargo Road we did not spot the bird on any of the perches on which it had been seen recently, like the FedEx building. It turns out that this bird does not play favorites, though, as I spotted it way in the distance on top of the UPS depot as we drove back out from the aircraft viewing area.
Afterwards, we took the guys to the terminal, said a hasty goodbye, and vowed to go birding again together either here or in Arizona. It was a great last day of birding that added its own unique excitement to a truly epic trip. Here is the summary of day 4’s life birds for Tommy and Gordon.
Black-backed Woodpecker – Gordon, Evan
Red-bellied Woodpecker – Tommy
Trumpeter Swan – Gordon
This trip was unforgettable, no unbelievable. It was simply magic, even for me. Though I have seen all of these birds many times, the fact that we saw so many good birds in such a short period of time makes this trip rival some of my out-of-state trips where I have gotten lifers. I enjoy birding northern Minnesota more than anywhere, and I never get tired of its special birds, especially those Owls. It was a thrill to be able to help Gordon and Tommy see them for the first time. To end this trip series, I’d like to point out some fun factoids.
Tommy and Gordon got their three main targets in this order: Great Gray Owl, Snowy Owl, Northern Hawk Owl. For those who are not fans of permutations, there are exactly six orders that this could have happened. Coincidentally I saw those same lifers in that same order.
The number of individuals we saw of these three Owl species made for a nice arithmetic sequence:
Great Gray Owl – 1
Northern Hawk Owl – 2
Snowy Owl – 3
Tommy and Gordon saw the Northern Big 3 on three consecutive days. That is substantially faster than I did it (nearly a year), even after making several northern trips. Here are the dates that I got my lifers.
Great Gray Owl — March 13, 2013
Snowy Owl — December 3, 2013
Northern Hawk Owl — December 26, 2013
Before this trip, I had (surprisingly) seen more Owl species than Tommy. He had 13; I had 14. Now, though, Tommy has 17. Of the 19 regularly occurring Owl species in North America, he is only missing Boreal Owl and Eastern-Screech Owl, both of which reside in Minnesota. I’m trying to convince him that he should get them here, especially since I need one of those as well. After all, how cool would it be to say you got all of North America’s Owls in just two states?
Speaking of Owl lifers, Tommy and I split the work of spotting their four lifers. Never mind how many more Owls Tommy found overall!
Great Gray Owl – Tommy
Snowy Owl – Tommy
Northern Hawk Owl – Josh
Barred Owl – Josh
Overall, Tommy ended the trip with 15 life birds and Gordon had 18. That is a whopping number, especially when I have only seen 60 species total in Minnesota for 2016.
Tommy and Gordon saw a LOT of GOOD birds in a SHORT amount of time. Below I’ve listed the most difficult species they saw on this four-day trip along with the dates that I got my lifer for each to give some perspective as to how good of a trip they had. As you will see, it’s taken me a long time to get these key birds after many, many trips to the north. I’ll start with my most recent lifers.
Great Black-backed Gull — November 28, 2015
Iceland Gull — November 28, 2015
Glaucous Gull — November 28, 2015
Black-backed Woodpecker — June 22, 2015
Gyrfalcon — March 8, 2015
Thayer’s Gull — November 8, 2014
Boreal Chickadee — December 28, 2013
Northern Hawk Owl — December 26, 2013
Snowy Owl — December 3, 2013
Great Gray Owl — March 13, 2013
Favorite Sighting of the Trip: Black-backed Woodpecker
Favorite Personal Find of the Trip: Barred Owl just south of the Canadian border
Best Overall Bird Experience: Hanging with the Northern Hawk Owl in the Beltrami Island State Forest
Biggest Relief of the Trip: Getting the Great Gray immediately
Biggest Stressor of the Trip: Driving in reverse for 3.6 miles on the Pitt Grade
Road Snowmobile Trail in a mini-van
Biggest Miss of the Trip: American Black Duck
This trip’s success is only because so many great Minnesota birders and non-birders made it happen. Therefore I’d like to acknowledge those folks.
Clinton Nienhaus – For all his Sax-Zim Bog advice on the Bog’s birds and their habits. Additionally, Clinton spotted the guys’ Glaucous Gull lifer at Canal Park.
Jason Mandich – For his SZ Bog advice and extra set of eyes in the Bog.
Jeff Grotte – For his Owling advice that made for an incredible final day of Owling in the Twin Cities.
Peder Svingen – For his Gull identification counseling and superior Superior Snowy Owl tips.
Randy Frederickson – For giving us timely heads-up texts on the Iceland and Great Black-backed Gulls.
John Richardson – For being an extra set of eyes at Canal Park, wearing his trademark Union Jack stocking cap, and bringing his British cheer to the Canal Park Gull party.
Kim Risen – For pointing out a bonus Snowy Owl in Superior.
Sandy Aubol – For her Northern Hawk Owl advice in Roseau County.
Evan – For always having an eagle-eye that ended up getting Gordon a bonus, unexpected Trumpeter Swan lifer.
Mom and Dad – For the generous use of their home and vehicle for our epic birding odyssey.
Melissa – For her enthusiastic support of this trip that kept me away from the family for so long.
Hungry For More?
Me too! This past weekend I worked as a guide at the annual Sax-Zim Bog Birding Festival. Later this week look for a write-up and photos of more great northern Minnesota birds from that trip!