Pokin’ Around the Northwoods

Tamarack BogNorthern Minnesota is home.  Every season offers up something special in terms of wildlife and scenery.  I was able to get out and do some birding in the forests, bogs, and open country on the same recent trip that included the Blackburnian Warbler.  Cool stuff abounds everywhere here. It was good to be home.

Pink Lady Slipper

Pink Lady Slipper (Not MN’s State Flower, the Showy Lady Slipper)

Tamarack bogs like the one pictured above get a lot of attention from birders in the winter because of the Owls and some other boreal specialties.  In the summer, though, they are not visited by birders as much.  It’s too bad because they are quite lush and beautiful and the polar opposite of the forests of the seemingly dead Tamaracks.  I say seemingly because Tamaracks drop their needles after turning a beautiful golden yellow in the fall, leaving dead-looking trunks and branches.

This particular bog was home to the Blackburnian Warbler I showcased in the last post, but there were also some other fun birds in this area.  The Blackburnian was a happy accident; I had actually gone to this spot to look for some Boreal Chickadees that local birder Julie Grahn had told me about.  I found them, and they were literally sharing turf with the Blackburnian.  They were not as cooperative though, refusing to come out of the Spruce tops.

Boreal ChickadeeJudging from my picture, it appears that this was a family group with a couple fledglings!  This Chickadee is so cool.  Most MN birders only see them in the dead of winter when they come out to the remote feeding station on Admiral Road in the Sax-Zim Bog.   I was very pleased to see BOCH in the summer and much closer to home than SZ.

Sharing space with the Boreal Chickadees and Blackburnian Warbler were numerous Nashville Warblers whose song I just learned.  I am now just starting to learn the songs of the more common Warblers that I see during migration. I tend to photograph common birds last too, so on this day I finally got some shots of the Nashville.

Nashville WarblerNashville WarblerAnother fun bird to see even if it couldn’t be seen well was the Lincoln’s Sparrow.

Lincoln's SparrowThe varied habitats in northern MN offer up some unique opportunities for viewing wildlife.  While looking for an American Bittern lifer in a marsh near my parents’ house, I found this gal looking for a place to lay her eggs.

Snapping TurtleIt was not the biggest Snapper I’ve seen.  This one’s shell was the size of a dinner plate. I’ve seen them twice as big before.

Snapping TurtleI didn’t spend a lot of time in the mature, upland woods other than just passing through.  That was enough to nab my FOY Blue-headed Vireo that I missed during migration.

Blue-headed VireoThis bird has never been good to me.  It was once a nemesis and continues to be a photographic nemesis. By the time I figured out its rhythm of jumping to a new perch each time after it sang, the bird disappeared from sight.


In the area of the Iron Range we call home, there is a substantial amount of open farm country, mostly hay fields and no crops.  Still, the grasslands and horse farms are great for some good non-forest birds, the best of which was a pair of Black-billed Magpies.  Julie Grahn had told me about these, and I’ve been seeing this species more and more every time I go up north.  It’s been stated that the Sax-Zim Bog is the furthest east this species breeds.  Well, this location was even further east yet, so it’s a pretty exciting find!

Black-billed MagpieAlso found in an open area was a bird that I have seen so many times this year and never before in the Northland, the Brown Thrasher.

Brown ThrasherOne bird that favors the open grassy fields that intersperse the Northwoods are the showy, and unique-sounding Bobolinks.  They must be having a good year because I saw so many.


They were also more cooperative than I’ve ever seen them before.  It felt good to finally photograph a BOBO properly.



BobolinkOne bird that I was absolutely surprised to find in the open fields were Brewer’s Blackbirds! I had no idea they were in the area.  Honestly, I often just dismiss most blackbirds I see as Red-winged Blackbirds or Common Grackles.  Needless to say I was pleasantly surprised when I saw the Brewer’s.  Like the Bobolink, it was nice to finally be able to get some decent photos of this bird too.

Brewer's Blackbird

This dad was busy feeding a fledgling.  I was scolded often during this photo shoot.

Brewer's Blackbird

Brewer's Blackbird

Brewer's BlackbirdBrewer's BlackbirdI had some really fun birding on this trip up north.  I was not lifer hunting as there really are so few lifers I can still get.  And none of them are easy. Or so I thought. In the next post I’ll tell you about a three-generation lifer that was delivered right to the doorstep.

Tiny Dancers

This past weekend was an action-packed weekend full of visiting family.  Not only was Mother’s Day part of the mix, but Marin had her first ever dance recital.  Both sets of grandparents each made the 265 mile one-way trip to see first-hand the results of “hard-work” and hundreds of dollars on dance lessons.  Surely the two-minute performance by a bunch of 3 and 4 year-olds would live up to the hype.

On Friday night we went to Marin’s recital.  I knew there would be other ages dancing, but my jaw dropped when I looked at the program and saw a whopping 47 dance numbers, including a couple numbers by a womens’ group of 30-60 year-olds.  (You read that right.)  And no, we could not bolt after Marin’s class was done.  It seems the higher-ups in recital planning have caught on to this dirty secret of parents and strategically scheduled one of Marin’s dance numbers near the beginning, one in the middle, and then included the little dancers in the finale with everyone else.

Right now the warbler migration is picking up some steam (warblers!) and we even have daylight until 9:00, and here I was settling in for not one, but two nights of dance.  I asked Melissa how long the program would take.  My sunken heart hit the floor when she said it would be 2+ hours – each night.  Now my concern was no longer birding; it was survival. Sure I was excited to see Marin in her cute outfit trying to make her limbs do something that resembled dance, but 2+ hours! Melissa told me the secret to get through this was to find the dancers that were fun to watch – the ones with the infectious smile or the ones who never smiled – the ones who could move really well or the awkward ones you rooted for just to not crash and burn.  Suddenly I had an epiphany: this was just like birding! You pick out the bird that’s fun to watch and ignore the rest.  With this newfound connection and positive outlook, I was ready to watch some dance.

I’m not here to report on the recital, but I did survive, even the adult dancers’ group. Having been held back from a strong day of warbler migration and lingering shorebirds, I was out the door at first light on Saturday morning to get in on some of the action. Chasing the rare birds is fun, but currently there’s no other place I’d rather be than right near home with nearly two dozen warbler species dropping out of the sky.  I couldn’t wait to watch these little dancers spazzing around much like a bunch of 3 and 4 year-olds on a dance stage.  But really, I was after anything that was fascinating to watch, even the awkward ones.

One of the awkward ones - the Green Heron

One of the awkward ones – the Green Heron

"Lovebird" Snapping Turtles - not birds, but most definitely awkward

“Lovebird” Snapping Turtles – not birds, but most definitely an awkward encounter

Some of the many dancing warblers that aren’t as much fun to watch include the abundant Yellow-rumped Warblers, the extremely dull Orange-crowned Warblers, and the sort-of-bland-sort-of-colorful Nashville Warblers.  I did find one dancer on which to focus my attention, the stunning Magnolia Warbler.  As my picture shows, I was reminded of just how dificult these ADHD birds are to photograph.

Magnolia Warbler

Magnolia Warbler

Another one of the birds I spent a great deal of time focusing on was a real key find for our area.  The Cape May Warbler is not a common migrant, proven all the more by 300-club member Joel who has never seen one before this past week.  But Joel did find one, and remarkably this male was with a female and they have been hanging on for nearly a week, visiting the same tree.  This was only my second experience with a Cape May, and both times I have been surprised by how mellow they are by warbler standards.  They generally don’t move a whole lot.  It was fun to watch the pair interact with each other.  That said, I focused mostly on photographing the male.

Cape May Warbler

Cape May Warbler

Classic Cape May pose - craning the neck to get some chow

Classic Cape May pose – craning the neck to get some chow

IMG_8375IMG_8374A Cape May is a darn nice bird and after getting some shots I was pleased with, I was feeling everything would be okay again even with round 2 of the recital on the horizon.

Another bird that my dad and I spent our time watching and tracking later in the day was the Red-headed Woodpecker!  This is now the third time I have found one, and it is never any less thrilling than the first time.  This species is quite stunning and on the decline.  It is always a delight to see one.

Red-headed Woodpecker

Red-headed Woodpecker

On one of my outings this weekend, one bird that grabbed and held my attention was the Golden-winged Warbler!  This is one of my favorites and only the third time I’ve seen one.  Now I was getting stellar looks at this bird  in the beautiful morning light from 6 feet away as it foraged on the ground in the weeds.  The views were spectacular but the photography proved quite challenging as it never really came in the open.

Golden-winged Warbler

Golden-winged Warbler

With a good amount of imagination, I think you can see just how good of a picture this next one might have been.  It definitely captures the essence of this bird, which is good enough and worthy of being posted.  I love this bird.  I can’t wait to go on the hunt for it when it’s on territory in northern Minnesota this summer.

According to the Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, Minnesota has only 10% of the GWWA's breeding habitat but over 40% of the breeding population!

According to the Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, Minnesota has only 10% of the GWWA’s breeding habitat but over 40% of the breeding population!

Some dancers are so well-costumed that their outfits are striking and demand your attention, like this appropriately named Black-and-White Warbler.

Black-and-White Warbler

Black-and-White Warbler

IMG_8448Sometimes the most unassuming dancers can hold your attention, like this Lincoln’s Sparrow.  It is no warbler, but it is arguably one of the best sparrows.

Lincoln's Sparrow

Lincoln’s Sparrow

But from time-to-time, one needs to watch the other things on the dance floor even if those things aren’t the most interesting things that are out there.

American Redstart

American Redstart

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler

It was a great weekend of dance and birding.  Picking out the fun ones ensured that the time was well spent.


One of the fun ones.