Birding. It never stops throwing surprises at me. After going on those raging birding benders this past month in northern Minnesota, it was time to settle down. Time to get back to the real job, back to responsibility. And that’s exactly what I set out to do this Wednesday when I woke up ready to get stuff done. My work for the day involved collaborating with some of our district’s elementary teachers. Responsibility was going well. Productivity was happening. But just as I was packing up to leave, Jeremy (Barred Owl Jeremy) started telling me about a “baby Great Horned Owl” in his friend’s yard. My mind was slowly processing this information–February, baby Owls…something isn’t adding up here. While I struggled to understand, he held his hands about 8 inches apart and said, “Yeah, it was this big.” Now I was awake and shock was setting in as I realized he was talking about a Northern Saw-whet Owl. And the evidence kept mounting: “It just sits in a pine tree all day right by their window.” I nearly dropped my laptop. A quick Google image search had Jeremy confirm what I suspected. Jeremy then added fuel to the fire that was raging in me when he told me the Owl was in the tree that very morning. Then, nice guy that he is, Jeremy, through a flurry of text messages, arranged for me stop by his friend’s house that very evening after work.
Birders know that Saw-whets are tough, tough birds to get. They aren’t rare, but hardly anyone finds them because of their size and their ability to remain still in well-concealed perches. Then, when birders do find them, they often don’t share for fear that numerous birders will come and disturb the Owls on their roosts. If a generous or green-horned birder does post a location of a Saw-whet on FB, you better screenshot it quick before Admin takes it down. So, to find one, you either have to put in a lot of time searching, have a serendipitous encounter, or know a guy who knows a guy that owes that guy some kind of an Owl favor. Nearly 4 years and 400 birds into this hobby, I had yet to be successful in getting a Saw-whet through any of those means. I had seen 14 of North America’s Owl species, and this was not one of them. I knew it would happen eventually. I’ve put in time searching near and far. I even went to great lengths to track down a roost site that was public knowledge for all of 5 minutes on FB. But not even three visits to that white-washed tree this winter netted me that bird. Then a couple weeks ago I found out I there was one on a very road I had traveled that very same day in the Sax-Zim Bog. The Saw-whet saga dragged on. Until this day.
My moment had finally arrived.
On hardly any notice, birding buddy Steve Gardner was ready to roll with me just as soon as I got out of work, picked up kids at school, and dropped Marin off with Melissa. I just assumed Evan wanted to go. Strangely, and this may haunt him someday, he opted to go along to his sister’s dance practice instead. What the heck? He hates going there, and this was a lifer Owl. As Steve and I pulled out, Melissa asked Evan if he was sure he knew what he was doing to which he responded, “Mom, I’m 8. I have my whole life to look for that bird!”
Steve and I don’t have our whole lives and much has already slipped by Saw-whetless. Needless to say, we were booking it to get to the location an hour away just before sundown. I don’t think Steve and I were prepared for how cool this Owl was in real life.
The Saw-whet is not much bigger than a pop can. I don’t think I’ve seen an animal that’s cuter. Jeremy’s friends pinpointed it for us right away. That was probably a good thing…
This tame Owl just sat and watched me and Steve, mostly Steve.
Occasionally it looked at me.
But it was mostly captivated by Steve.
What was fascinating to me was how sloth-like this Owl was in moving its head. The movement was almost indiscernible. The fact that we were finally looking at a real Northern Saw-whet Owl combined with a close encounter with a tame bird makes this one of the best Owl experiences I’ve ever had.
After taking last looks at the Owl and admiring the massive pile of pellets and all the whitewash from an Owl that has sat in this same spot every day for the winter, Steve and I thanked the homeowners and headed home feeling good…or evil. Steve called up his twin brother who is also a birder and rubbed in his new lifer. I went to the liquor store.
This was a long-awaited day. It felt so good. I honestly thought it was still years away from happening. A huge thank you to Jeremy for an extraordinary addition to mine and Steve’s life lists!
Much to the my childrens’ great annoyance, there has not been a single day of school called due to weather this year. We are generally bereft of the white stuff this mild winter. I’m totally okay with no snow so long as we still have SNOW.
Long-time readers of ABWCH may recall that two years ago, my coworkers and students were feeding me sightings nearly daily of a crazy number of Snowy Owls. Those were the gold old days of the first of two consecutive irruption years. Fellow teacher, Bonnie, spotted this one this past weekend. Bonnie has a way with the SNOW–she found me two of them a couple years ago.
Despite this being a non-irruption year, I’ve had reports this winter of at least 5 Snowy Owls in my two-county birding area. This, however, is the first local one I’ve seen this season. Fellow teacher and birding friend Brad relocated Bonnie’s find Monday morning. Brad did the Minnesota-nice birder thing of babysitting it until I got on scene. Another birding/teacher friend, Theresa, also joined the mix. Monday was a scheduled day off for all of us, yet here we were holding a staff meeting in the open countryside. It was a pretty good meeting.
After this meeting of the minds, I actually went off to a real meeting at school. But then it was back to birding business as I traveled up to Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge that same day to look for the White-winged Crossbills that have become very reliable there. My previous lifer-sighting was a quick glimpse at a female; I was wanting to see and photograph a male.
I did find the Crossbills when I was walking the Blue Hill Trail through the Spruce forest at Sherburne NWR. I saw pine cone debris raining down from above. It was a glorious sight and sound because I knew what was causing it–Crossbills feed on the seeds in pine cones, destroying the cones in the process. The problem was that I couldn’t get a view of the top of the tree. After tracking birds from below as they moved from tree top to tree top, I finally found an opening where I could see the birds at the top. I wanted a photo, but first, I wanted to get a good look with binoculars. Picking out a reddish/pink one (male!), I watched it until it turned and I saw those diagnostic bright, white wing bars on the black wings. I was happy. Now the photo hunt was on. I took a step to get in position, but my foot snapped off a dead branch from a tree and created a loud ‘crack’ that scattered the birds. And so I chased the White-winged Crossbills around and around the small woods only to come home empty-handed. Perhaps the outcome would have been different if my coworkers were there. We seem to work well together and get things done.
Fresh off my birding binge with Tommy and Gordon, the Northland was once again calling me back. No rest for the weary as they say, or more accurately, no good birds for the well-rested. This time I was headed back to work as a field trip leader at the annual Sax-
Zim Bog Birding Festival. It would be my second time guiding in as many weeks, only this time would be so much different. Instead of taking out a couple of hardcore listers, I’d be with a huge group of all ability levels. To compensate for such disproportion, there was a great number of fellow guides, most of whom were more skilled at the art of bird and people wrangling than I. Some I knew, many I did not. The camaraderie of this team was instant, though, and brought a bit of warmth to the air that flirted with 30 below. Of course, this is bound to happen when the guides are quartered in the wood-heated Ringhofer farm house where you are instantly welcomed by the hosts with smiles, handshakes, and multiple glasses of wine. Meadowlands truly does welcome birders. We were, in many respects, in the heart of the Bog. Stories and laughs abounded. Little sleep was had. Anticipation was high.
A key difference between this trip and my last was the food. Birding like madmen the last go-around did not lead to the best diet which was a strange mix of fast-food and hastily thrown-together, sometimes sketchy meals by us crazed birders who were always on the run. On the other hand, the good people of Meadowlands see to it that you eat like kings, giving us three squares a day that tasted like it was cooked with a grandma’s love.
Despite enjoying my hot breakfast that first morning, I was apprehensive about this new form of guiding. Where I once I had heated seats, defrosted glass, and vehicular independence, I now had the cold, hard bench seat of a school-bus that was slow to warm and a trademark SZ Festival ice scraper for keeping my pane clear of frozen condensation. What was the same between this trip and the last, though, were the birds and the high Great Gray hopes of those I was showing around. Because of that I was grateful to be with experienced Festival guides, Alex Watson and Ben Harste. Meeting Alex was a highlight for me–he was previously a mystery birder that has shown up occasionally in my home county and filed some reports that led me to my county Cerulean and Blue-winged Warblers. Alex is not only good at finding good birds, but he was also at ease being the main tour guide on our bus. So as Alex talked over the constant window-scraping, I was able to concentrate on trying to keep my feet warm while looking for birds and visiting with those around me.
Our first stop was the Sharp-tailed Grouse lek which did not pan out. From that point we were puttering along at 5 MPH, scraping windows and trying to spot one of several Grays known to inhabit the Bog. Our route and plans were quickly abandoned when John Richardson on Bus #2 texted me that Frank Nicoletti had a Great Gray over ten miles to the north. This bird is the main attraction, the kind that attracts birders to our frozen state in the winter. Needless to say, we informed our group and told Amy, our bus driver, to kick it into high gear. The nerves of the group were palpable.
As we were nearing the location, though still a bit out, fellow guide Ben Harste hollered “Stop!” from the back of the bus. I don’t know how he did it, but through the frosted, fogged up windows from the BACK of the bus, he spotted a Great Gray Owl DEEP (100 yds) in the Aspen stand of all forests and became a hero to a busload of overly excited birders, myself included. The bus was nearly on two wheels as everyone piled on one side to get a peek. Once they got their life look, I slipped out to get a scope set up so people could get a real good look.
Fumbling with the scope barehanded in 30 below caused me to climb back on the bus immediately after setting up the apparatus, but eventually I did get back out for a couple quick photos myself.
As we were watching this bird, it dawned on me that we hadn’t yet reached the bird Frank reported, which meant there was a second one! We loaded everybody on our bus back up and continued on down the road. Minutes later one of our group members spotted the second Great Gray, only it was far more skittish and dove for the cover of the bog even before the bus could stop. Oh well, we got a good fix with the first one and it was bathroom break time at the McDavitt Fire Hall anyway. Breaking gave us a chance to mingle more with the festival-goers. I visited with a man who looked like he was dressed for a chilly October day in Minnesota, much less for sub-zero. Sadly this made sense when I saw on his name tag that he was from Florida. But if he was cold, he wasn’t letting on. I think the birding adrenaline was pumping hard in this one. Whenever we asked the group about wanting to see this bird or that bird, Mr. Florida would instantly pipe up to let us know those birds would be lifers.
So after the break, it was time to hit the Bog hard looking for lifers for Mr. Florida et al. One of those was the Admiral Road staple, Boreal Chickadee.
I know I’ve posted photos of this bird already this year, but just like the Chickadee himself cursed with his own addictions, I just can’t stop…
Another crowd favorite were both species of Grosbeaks, though on this day I only photographed the “yellow ones” as locals sometimes call them.
I checked in with Mr. Florida a couple times throughout the day to see what his lifer tally was. Besides the Great Gray, both Grosbeaks, and the Chickadee, he also picked up Northern Shrike, Common Redpoll, and a surprisingly hard-to-find Gray Jay. Despite missing on Ruffed and Sharp-tailed Grouse, Mr. Florida had the highest lifer total for our group. He was happy, especially because he told me he was not expecting the Great Gray.
In addition to the bird lifers, we got the folks their porcupine lifer. People go crazy over porcupines when they visit, an infatuation I don’t understand.
After birding for some time, our day was truncated late afternoon and did not allow for more Owl searching during prime evening hours as we had to get back to Meadowlands for the dinner and program by Canadian Great Gray Owl researcher, Dr. James Duncan. Listening to an authority on Great Gray Owls give a captivating presentation in a Canadian accent is like a giant exclamation point on a day in which many got their coveted lifer.
Day 2–Lake County Field Trip
The second day of the Festival I was scheduled to be a guide on a far-flung field trip to Lake County. The birds would be few even if we found them, but mighty birds they would be. We were targeting Spruce Grouse, Black-backed Woodpeckers, and Bohemian Waxwings. There was, of course, the potential for more Great Grays and Boreal Chickadees. More impressive, though, was the fact that the Lake County team the previous day found the very-rare-for-Minnesota American Three-toed Woodpecker! I was beyond stoked to go along on this trip with that news.
Even better than a Three-toed was that we were riding a cushy, warm coach bus for the long haul east and north. That was, unfortunately, about the most exciting the day would get as we failed to turn up any of those boreal greats. We would be going through several towns on the way home in the hopes of finding nomadic Bohemians feasting on decorative fruit trees in residential neighborhoods. When we were in Ely we stopped to look at some Pine Grosbeaks in a crabapple tree.
Then, as I watched the birds point-blank out those coach windows, I noticed one of them wasn’t very Grosbeak-like and was in fact the sought-after Bohemian! A bizarre, lone Bohemian! I alerted the group and finally felt like I earned some of my pay. It was an overdue sighting on a very slow field trip. Georgia woman was very happy and by extension so was Georgia man. We did later see a fly-by flock of about 30 Bohemians, but this was the only individual our group could photograph.
These were photo upgrades for me, though much work still needs to be done with this species. Considering I was sandwiched between a bus and a snowbank, I’ll take them though.
One of our other stops for this field trip was the Blue Heron B&B near Ely where we would eat our sack lunch and have coffee and cookies while watching their bird feeders. I was not excited to watch Redpolls, Chickadees, etc. I was excited about my sandwich–so much so that I could have choked on it when someone shouted, “Boreal Chickadee!” This brought feeder-watching to a whole new level. I was not expecting this.
Then again, maybe I should have considering the address.
Our group continued on from the B&B searching towns on the way back for the ever elusive Bohemians. A Snowshoe Hare, thought he was elusive and brought some excitement to the group when the birds were lacking.
With one major bird lifer and one mammal lifer for the group, it was a long, sleepy day. We did have a slight pick-me-up when we were coming back into the Sax-Zim Bog and spotted a very out-of-season Common Grackle. But still, it’s a Grackle and doesn’t come close to filling the Sprucie void. There’s always next year. After all, it gives the festival-goers and guides a reason to return. As if they need another reason…
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!
Oh, Canada, how you grab our imagination, especially as birders. Perhaps no other bird signifies the Far North and gets stuck on birders’ brains quite like the Northern Hawk Owl. Though Hawk Owls occasionally breed in the boreal forests of northern Minnesota, they are most often seen in winter when birds decide to cross the border for the season. They are a highly coveted bird for any birder. Most birders get their Hawk Owl lifer in Minnesota. That’s exactly what Arizona birding friends Tommy DeBardeleben and Gordon Karre were hoping to do. One problem, though: Hawk Owl reports were virtually non-existent in Minnesota this winter. There were only a couple of scattered reports from the under-birded, remote counties of northwestern Minnesota. This bird failed to show up in the Arrowhead this year despite being fairly regular around the Sax-Zim Bog and Duluth in recent winters.
Of course, this reality, which was was not improving with each passing day, was weighing on me prior to Tommy and Gordon’s arrival. It would mean that if we wanted to even TRY for this bird, we’d have to travel some 3.5 hours north and west of my parents’ place in northern Minnesota. We’d be going right to the Canadian border on the west side of that “bump” on Minnesota’s northern border. All told, this is about 7 hours away from Minneapolis/St. Paul. It’s up there, folks. I’ve been up that way maybe only twice in my life, but never as a birder. It was new turf, remote turf, that I’d be exploring in the winter. I’d be lying if I said the thought of it didn’t make me nervous and give me pause. Once I accepted the reality that we’d have to venture into the northwest, I began to devour any scrap of birding news out of that remote country. The more I pored over maps and read up on Roseau and Lake of the Woods Counties in some old Minnesota birding books, the more excited I was getting. Visions of Hawk Owls, gobs of Great Grays, two species of Crossbills, Black-backed Woodpeckers, and Spruce Grouse flooded my mind. (Sometime if you’re bored, do an eBird query for Great Gray Owls and see the dozens upon dozens that Hawk Ridge’s Karl Bardon found around Roseau in February of 2013.) The lack of Hawk Owls in northeast Minnesota was actually a good thing–it was getting me out of my comfort zone and getting me to explore an area that I’ve always wondered about. Birding is often as much about exploring as it is seeing birds.
So on January 31st, our third day of the big northern Minnesota birding adventure, Tommy, Gordon, and I left base camp in Angora at 4 AM to reach MN Highway 310 north of Roseau by first light. This would be the furthest point from home we’d be exploring, so we’d be birding our way back home from the start of daylight. It was surprisingly foggy on our way to Roseau. Once we made it to MN 310, the 10-mile road to Canada, we first took a run up the Sprague Creek Road as this time of day was prime for Great Grays and Spruce Grouse. The road was not what I expected though, as we went through a lot of Aspen and open areas. We could see Black Spruce and Tamarack bogs, but never came close to them. However, it was good to explore this road and see where many Great Grays have been seen in the past, including one earlier this winter. Gordon did find us a Black-billed Magpie, but otherwise it was dead up that way.
Once back at MN 310, we turned north and the countryside changed from open fields to Tamarack/Spruce bog. This is one of the most reliable places to see Great Gray Owls in all of Minnesota, and this was the area that a Hawk Owl had been discovered by Sandy Aubol over a month prior to our trip. Yes, we had made a 3.5 hour trek on information that was over a month old! However, Hawk Owls tend to be pretty loyal to their winter territory, so I thought we had a pretty decent chance. Needless to say, we were all on high alert for northern Owls! But all we were seeing was the incredible hoarfrost that developed from the fog.
We drove up to the checkpoint at the border and turned around there, having to pass right through the car portal at the guard shack, and nobody was home… So, so weird. The dumpster on this property was enclosed in a chain link fence topped with concertina wire, yet nobody was there to stop wackos coming in to the United States?!? Such a different experience than when I crossed into New York a decade ago and got grilled by our own border patrol for why I was returning to the country where I…live. I guess things are just a little more laid back here in the north. To be fair, some Minnesotans have to travel through Canada to get to where they live in Angle Inlet (the bump). That “bump” is composed mostly of water, so the only way to get to Angle Inlet without going into Canada is by boat or snowmobile.
Back to the birding story, we still hadn’t seen Sandy’s Hawk Owl despite a couple passes on 310. I had other Hawk Owl prospects lined up, so I asked the guys if they wanted to make another run up and down the highway for this one or if they were ready to go after a different one. They opted for another try at this first bird. It was another wise decision because once I turned the car around to go north one more time, I spotted their third main target of the trip. It felt good to finally beat Tommy at spotting an Owl because he’s really, really good at it! Of course, this is the only kind of Owling I excel at–finding blobs on tops of bare trees right next to the road.
Brakes were deployed, and doors were flung open. It was a happy moment indeed. If you look, you can even see a big smile on Tommy’s face in this pic.
I’ve seen plenty of Hawk Owls, so it was fun to watch these guys enjoy the moment. For this pic below I actually laid on the cold 310. A nice bonus occurred when we were observing the Hawk Owl–Tommy spied their lifer Pileated Woodpecker fly across the road! I had told Gordon all along that if we see a Pileated, that’s exactly how it would happen.
As Canadian cars approached from the north, I wondered what they thought of this scene of the three of us gawkers and imagined their conversations went something like this:
“What are those hosers looking at, eh?”
“Looks like a hawkowl, eh.”
“What’s so special ‘boot a hawkowl, eh?”
“Dunno, eh, saw like 50 on the drive down this morning, eh. It’s not polite to stare, though eh.”
“You’re right, eh, sorry, eh.”
“No problem, eh. Stop the car, eh.”
“There’s a piece of litter we need to pick up, eh.”
The longer we lingered, the more the sun began to burn off the fog and illuminate the incredible hoarfrost. What a site it was, all the better that we were looking at a Hawk Owl in the hoarfrost.
Many Owl photographers could only dream of this perfect set-up. It did not go unappreciated by us.
Check out the blood on the Hawk Owl’s bill. Perhaps it was feasting on a mouse somewhere when we made our first pass.
A little while later, the Hawk Owl was on a different frosty perch, only this time the sun was even brighter and the blood was all gone.
This experience was a lot of fun, even for me. I really, really like Hawk Owls too. There’s just something fun and engaging about them.
We spent some time eating a picnic lunch in the van and started to make plans to head home and look for what would now be bonus Hawk Owls. Our next stop was the Beltrami Island State Forest where a Hawk Owl had been reported on the Roosevelt Road a couple miles north of the Norris Fire Tower. On the way, though, I opted to drive some gravel roads through the open farmland south of MN 11; I had a strong hunch I could get the guys their Snow Bunting lifer if we did. Sure enough, we found a few flocks.
Once we got on the Roosevelt Road, I was very excited. This was a desolate forest we were entering, and I wondered at the possibilities it held for us. There wasn’t a lot of bird life except for some Pine Grosbeaks. Once we got in the vicinity of the reported Hawk Owl, the habitat looked perfect–large open areas surrounded by Tamaracks. It practically screamed Hawk Owl. I mean, it must have, because Tommy heard the message and spotted a super distant, tiny blob in the MIDDLE of a tree that turned out to be…another Hawk Owl!! We were on Cloud 9.
The bird flew to a more classic perch, doing his duty of acting Hawk Owlish for these Arizona guests. Tommy and I actually bushwhacked through the knee-deep snow to get some photos. Gordon stayed back on the road to watch the Hawk Owl through Tommy’s scope.
Turns out we needn’t have bushwhacked because this accommodating little fellow must have felt sorry for Gordon and flew practically right up to him. Even Gordon couldn’t resist wading into the snow for this new perch. Get ‘im Gordon!
Get ‘im Tommy!
Even though the blue skies and the hoarfrost were gone, this was my favorite Hawk Owl experience of the day. We were totally alone in the middle of the remote Beltrami Island State Forest with this Owl. There was not even another bird around. Truly, it was an idyllic setting.
The rest of the drive through the Beltrami Island State Forest was uneventful birdwise. However, I did spy my lifer Bobcat!
Upon closer inspection, though, it looked very sickly. It did not move even as we pulled up alongside it. While we watched, it made feeble attempts at gnawing on this slab of meat which came from where? Clearly this cat could not eat what was in front of it, let alone kill something. Sad.
Continuing our journey, though, we drove the road north of the Faunce Fire Tower and looked for a reported Great Gray. The habitat was perfect, but the time of day was not, so we kept rolling. I decided to drive down the Pitt Grade Road where Black-backed Woodpeckers and Crossbills had been reported a month earlier. There was some snow on the road, but I thought the van could handle it. The more I drove, though, the more I realized that I was driving on a snowmobile trail! As the soft snow on either side of the skinny road was trying to pull me in, I realized I had to get us out of this situation. We could A) Keep driving, not knowing when or if we’d be able to get off this road, B) attempt a 99-point turn to get us turned around, or C) drive in reverse the entire 3.6 miles we had come. After much debate, we decided on the reverse option. I’ll never forget the look on Gordon’s face as I drove in reverse (trust me, I got a good look as I craned myself around to drive the stressful, painful, 3.6 mile, 15-minute trip all the way back). Thankfully, the reverse attempt was successful, and we were birding once again!
We made one pass for yet a third Hawk Owl south of Baudette on MN 72 a few miles. The habitat was again perfect, but we did not strike gold for the third time of the day. I’m sure if we would have made more passes, we eventually would have spotted it. Instead, it was time to finish the long drive back to Angora.
Somewhere west of International Falls as Tommy and Gordon were fading in and out of sleep, I caught sight of a large, gray Owl fly out from the Aspen stand on the north side of MN 11! I hollered, “Great Gray!” but as we got glass on it, we saw it was something even better! It was the guys’ lifer Barred Owl, their 4th Owl lifer of the trip!!!! Woo-hoo!!
Talk about a way to wake up the guys up and get the birding juices flowing again! This was personally exciting for me as it was only my 2nd personally found Barred and 4th one ever. That’s right, I’ve seen more of the “special” northern Owls than I have of this common, resident bird. It was a real treat indeed.
This encounter must have brought a jolt of life back into Tommy because somewhere just south of Ray on U.S. Highway 53, Tommy spotted us our 5th Owl species of the trip, a Great Horned Owl! What a day! What a trip!
It was an incredible trip to the Northwest and one I won’t forget anytime soon. The day was capped off with a hot meal at the Wooden Table in Angora and the relaxation of knowing that we could “sleep in” the next day even though we had another exciting birding itinerary for the day of Tommy and Gordon’s departure.
Here is a recap of the day’s lifers:
Northern Hawk Owl – Tommy, Gordon
Pileated Woodpecker – Tommy, Gordon
Snow Bunting – Tommy, Gordon
Barred Owl – Tommy, Gordon
A huge shout-out and thanks to Sandy Aubol for her Hawk Owl find and for her tips on relocating it! Thanks Sandy!
No birding trip to northern Minnesota in the winter is complete without spending a significant amount of time in Duluth, MN and Superior, WI. Not only is it the most reliable place in this part of the state to find the Snowy Owls that Gordon Karre and Tommy DeBardelben craved, but it is also a place where one can rack up a sweet suite of winter Gulls and see some oddball vagrants such as the Golden-crowned Sparrow, Townsend’s Solitaire, and the impressive Gyrfalcon–or two or three this year. In short, Tommy, Gordon, and I had a lot of work to do in this urban birding environment, and we scheduled no less than a full day from dawn to dusk on our second day of the Tour de Nord.
Our day started with a search for the most reliable Snowy Owl in Superior, Wisconsin, the one that had been hanging out around the Richard Bong Airport and nearby parking lots of Menards and Aldi. The truth is, I wanted to secure this main target early in the day rather than waiting until the day was almost over. Alleviating the stress early and getting home earlier for a hot shower and a hot meal sounded dreamy. But I really wasn’t stressed about the Snowy Owl since we had success with the Great Gray the previous day and since I knew this species of Owl would be the easiest to get for Tommy and Gordon. Anyhow, we gave up our morning Snowy search after a couple hours to pursue some other targets. We would just have to get that SNOW in the evening. No biggie.
The thing about finding the really good birds in Duluth/Superior is that they are in some of the most sketchy places–industrial complexes, oil refineries, rail yards, landfills, etc. But we birders go where the birds go. Then a funny thing happens–we grow to like those places and even dream about them. A pristine, quiet stand of Red Pine next to an untouched, snow-covered northern lake? Forget about it. Bring on the garbage trucks, train cars, and smoke stacks!
Tommy, Gordon, and I made a stop at the Peavey grain elevators to look for its most impressive avian residents. After a short time, we finally spied Tommy and Gordon’s lifer Gyrfalcon fly in. Then it perched the closest to the road I’ve ever seen this bird perch. Normally it hangs out on the huge superstructure furthest from the road, but this time it split that distance in half and even flew across the road on which we stood.
After this, we made a stop at Canal Park in Duluth to see what was going on Gull-wise. The guys picked up a handsome Thayer’s Gull lifer, but that was about it. I couldn’t even muster up a Black Duck for the guys. I did, however, do my Minnesota duty and made Tommy and Gordon skip rocks in Lake Superior.
Now, there are still blog posts to be written, but Tommy and Gordon truly hit the jackpot with all their birds on this trip. They also hit the jackpot with the weather as it was unseasonably warm their entire trip–it was nearly 40 degrees ABOVE zero and SUNNY in Duluth this day. I don’t know if they can fully appreciate that. This dude gets it.
After Canal Park we went up the North Shore of Lake Superior 20 miles to the town of Two Harbors to look for some nomadic Bohemian Waxwings and see what was happening seaduck-wise on the lakefront. We struck out on those Bohemians, but once we got to Agate Bay we met Jim Lind, compiler of the Duluth RBA, who had his scope zeroed in on a handsome male Long-tailed Duck. It was way too far for photos, but the scope views were incredible. This was definitely my bird highlight of our Duluth Day.
By this time in the afternoon it was time to head back to Superior to begin our Snowy search in earnest. We had a little time to check out Canal Park for Gulls and Black Ducks. On the way, I got a text from Randy Frederickson that they had an Iceland Gull; Randy is a birding friend from where I live, but I had found out he was in town to study Thayer’s Gulls intently in the hopes of finally seeing one in our Kandiyohi County. I got a second text from Randy as we literally just parked the car at Canal Park: the Great Black-backed Gull had just come in! Score!
Tommy and Gordon quickly tallied this lifer as well as the Iceland Gull lifer. They also got to witness the spontaneous birder parties that happen at Canal Park as the who’s who of Duluth birders show up to enjoy the Gulls, look for the really wacko stuff (Ivory Gull, Black-legged Kittiwake), toss bread out to bring the Gulls closer, take orders for what Gulls everybody is still looking for, and generally be friendly tutors to those of us still illiterate in Gull identification. Peder Svingen, Clinton Nienhaus, and John Richardson were all on hand this particular afternoon to confirm species ID and point out the cool Gulls from the Herring herd. Even when some of us were distracted with trying to get a THGU/Lighthouse combo pic…
…Clinton was still keeping an eye to the horizon. All of the sudden, Clinton made a cheerful announcement to the three of us, “Gu-uys! Glaucous coming in!” It was a lifer for Gordon and gave the AZ guys the Winter Gull Grand Slam.
Finally, though, it was time to get back to priority one for this day: Snowy Owl searching. Peder Svingen gave me some great last-minute tips on a couple of birds in Superior. He was spot-on. Tommy quickly found one of those Snowies perched up giving them one of their most-wanted lifers and giving me another huge wave of relief. While viewing it, birding guide Kim Risen stopped to talk, and he pointed us in the direction of a second bird in the area and asked what else we were still looking for. The generosity of MN birders continues to impress me even though I’ve seen it over and over. Here’s the bird Kim had for us.
Can you spy Tommy, Gordon, and the Snowy Owl in this photo?
The good thing about Snowy Owls in the Twin Ports is that they are fairly easy to come by. The bad thing is that most all of them have been caught, tagged with a number, and marked with shoe polish on their heads by bird bander Dave Evans who has been studying them for 40 years.
The wing tags help Dave monitor and identify the Owls from afar without having to stress them with recapture. Here is the first Snowy Owl we saw just before #28 above.
I wish Tommy and Gordon could have seen unmarked Snowy Owls, but a marked Snowy seen is better than an unmarked Snowy not seen! Ironically, these were the first marked Snowy Owls I had ever seen in real life. Tommy and Gordon did get to gain an appreciation for the types of urban habitats these birds often winter in.
It was another rocking day of birding in the north that met or even exceeded expectations. Notable misses included American Black Duck and Bohemian Waxwing. On a sad, personal note, my Kittiwake lifer did not make an appearance. Here is a run-down of the second day’s lifers:
Gyrfalcon – Tommy, Gordon
Thayer’s Gull – Tommy, Gordon
Iceland Gull – Tommy, Gordon
Great Black-backed Gull – Tommy, Gordon
Glaucous Gull – Gordon
Snowy Owl – Tommy, Gordon
Once again, a great team of Minnesota birders helped Tommy and Gordon have a memorable day. I’d like to thank Jim Lind for pointing out the Long-tailed Duck, Peder Svingen for his Snowy Owl tips and his Gull identification tutorials, Randy Frederickson for his heads-up texts on the Iceland and Great Black-backed Gulls, Clinton Nienhaus for alerting us to the Glaucous Gull, John Richardson for being another set of eyes at Canal Park, and Kim Risen for the bonus Snowy Owl. This birding community is the best!
Coming up is a post about the day of northern birding I was looking forward to the most. I myself was going into new birding territory as we would have to venture way up into Northwest Minnesota in our pursuit of the guys’ Northern Hawk Owl lifer.
Over the years several gracious and talented birders have taken this novice birder into habitats and lands both near and far to help me see a new bird or two or twenty. Recently I found myself in a bit of a role reversal for the first time, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. My good Arizona birding friends Tommy DeBardeleben and Gordon Karre decided to take me up on an offer to show them around northern Minnesota in the wintertime to go after our impressive Owls, specifically the Great Gray Owl, Northern Hawk Owl, and Snowy Owl. Not only is it nerve-wracking to produce the winter classics because of the fickle nature of these Owls, but it is even more so when the people I was leading have produced my top Arizona targets for me over…
Was I feeling the pressure? You better believe it. And with the driest year I have ever seen for the Big 3, my stress level was rising with everyday leading up to the trip. Despite an abnormal October influx, Snowy Owls seemingly disappeared and numbers returned to pre-irruption year levels. Great Grays were fairly abundant in the Sax-Zim Bog but very, very fickle about showing themselves. The outlook for Northern Hawk Owls was even more depressing as there were only a couple reports out of northwest Minnesota. I was feeling the squeeze. But pressure aside, I really just wanted these guys to see these Owls. These birds are simply just amazing, and I wanted to share them with my friends. Now, I know Tommy and Gordon are classy guys who understand there are no guarantees in birding, but I had invited them to the home court and they had invested a lot of time and money to see the wonders of which I spoke. I attempted to counteract my stress with the only antidote I knew: preparation. Sometime in late fall I began to drink from the fire hose that is the multiple streams of birding information out there: multiple FB groups, the MOU database, the MOU-net listserv, and eBird. Living far from the north, I was only able to do a tad bit of actual scouting over Christmas which is, like, ancient history and completely useless when it comes to a birding trip the end of January. So I reached out to my contacts who had much better, more recent intel than me. Minnesota Nice is never more epitomized than it is in its birders as people like Clinton Nienhaus, Jason Mandich, and Jeff Grotte generously gave me their up-to-the-minute knowledge, and in some cases, their eyes to help this trip be a success. You take that expert info and put a crazy Owl hat on a crazy-good Owler and good things are bound to happen.
Our pursuit for the Owls would begin with the Great Gray in the Sax-Zim Bog at first light on January 29th. Clinton had advised us on the most probable bird, so that’s where we began our day. We had a plan B, C, and D if that one didn’t show, and Jason Mandich was even scoping out other sites that morning too. It turns out that when you have a pretty good plan A and a Tommy, that’s all you need. Tommy spotted his and Gordon’s Great Gray lifer from the gray woods at dawn and excitedly announced it to both of us. It was a glorious moment; there were some very excited Arizona birders in the van–so much so that I had to remind them to keep their voices down so as not to spook it!
In an instant, months of stress left my body because this bird is a trip maker. I knew that if they dipped on everything else, including the other two Owls, that this bird would still create great memories for them. With the ice officially broken, the real fun could begin, like going crazy with Great Gray photos.
Not only was it thrill to watch these guys get this incredible lifer, but I also enjoyed seeing a Great Gray in a new (to me) part of the Bog. It doesn’t matter where these guys are, though. They are just plain cool.
After some great looks and photos, I gave the guys the option of continuing to enjoy this bird or going after the other Great Grays while the time was still prime. Perhaps it was the hat or all that face time with the Owl, but they made a wise choice and decided to hang with this one. Turns out that it would be our only one of the trip.
I was in full-on relaxation mode at this point, though I did have to run a tight schedule in the short term–our only window for Sharp-tailed Grouse of this four-day birding odyssey was coming to a close quickly since they are tough to find after 9:30 AM. Somehow I managed to pull them away from the Great Gray and get to the Sharp-tail lek in time.
The guys even got to see the males of this new lifer doing their courtship dances! That was topped off by the Grouse coming roadside to feast at a local resident’s feeders before retiring for the day. It really couldn’t have been a better experience for viewing this bird.
After the time and big bird pressures out of the way, we had the rest of the day to just cruise around the Bog in pursuit of whatever, like checking out the Pine Grosbeaks at the Visitors Center.This is a bird I previously had terrible photos of, so this felt good to see a male up close.
And of course, there were Common Redpolls which is a lifer for the guys. There are always Redpolls. This one had some potential for…oh, who cares anymore?
I am a huge fan of the potential lumping of the Common/Hoary Redpolls. My list may go down, but so will my birding stress!
At every feeding station we stopped at, Black-capped Chickadees always made their presence known…as they should, they are awesome.
But there is a cooler Chickadee that lurks in the shadow of its cousin and is much more shy. Thankfully the stunning Boreal Chickadee overcame that shyness just in time for the guys’ visit.
The Boreal Chickadees had started to become a regular at the Admiral Road feeders not more than a week before the guys arrived. Tommy and Gordon were truly spoiled with this lifer. It appeared within a minute of us stopping at the feeders. How many birders, myself included, have waited for an hour or more only to be skunked? Additionally, it came out often, like every minute instead of every half hour. Like the Great Gray, this bird is not a given. Also like the Great Gray, much face time is required with this bird. I would estimate that we spent equal time with it as we did with the Owl. For me this bird ranks just below a Great Gray Owl but definitely above a Snowy Owl. As such, I am on a never-ending quest to get a photo of a BOCH that I am happy with.
The first day in the Bog was as good as I could possibly hope for with the only notable miss being a Pileated Woodpecker for the guys. Otherwise, the guys cleaned house with the “good stuff” even picking up some additional lifers in the more common birds. Here is the summary of their lifers:
Great Gray Owl – Tommy, Gordon
Sharp-tailed Grouse – Tommy, Gordon
Ruffed Grouse – Tommy, Gordon
Boreal Chickadee – Tommy, Gordon
Common Redpoll – Tommy, Gordon
Northern Shrike – Gordon
Each of the next two days would have its own Owl focus. Could we be just as successful the next day in Duluth/Superior with the Snowy?
Once again, a huge shout-out and thank you to Clinton Nienhaus for his extensive Bog help on all kinds of birds and to Jason Mandich and Jeff Grotte for their owling advice. We couldn’t have done it without you guys. There’s no “I” in Great Gray.