Saturday, January 9, 2016

Northern MN Birding: Part 1

Last year Jack Landes visited Duluth with me in search of northern MN birds. We visited Sax-Zim Bog last year but left many species on his target list. As 2015 neared an end I was particularly excited for winter break, as he planned to return with Terry Swope on January 2nd for a few days of birding. They sent me a wish list of birds, many of them species that they hoped to see for the very first time. 

Wish Lists
Boreal Chickadee (Jack and Terry)
Gray Jay (Jack and Terry)
Northern Hawk Owl (Jack and Terry)
Great Gray Owl (Terry)
Black-backed Woodpecker (Jack and Terry)
American Three-toed Woodpecker (Jack)
Spruce Grouse (Jack and Terry)
Ruffed Grouse (Terry)
Sharp-tailed Grouse (Terry)
Rough-legged Hawk (Jack)
Thayer's Gull (Jack)
Iceland Gull (Jack)
Glaucous-winged Gull (Jack)
Bohemian Waxwing (Terry)
Pine Grosbeak (Terry)
Red Crossbill (Jack)
White-winged Crossbill (Jack)
Boreal Owl (Jack and Terry)
Gyrfalcon (Jack and Terry)

Looking at this list I initially eliminated the last two species as none had been seen in the area this year. I used previous knowledge, eBird, MouNet, FB, and reached out to acquaintances and friends to create the map above with possible locations for each species on the list. I was particularly stoked to get out birding again with Clinton Nienhaus and reached out to him to schedule dates and a plan to get as many species as possible. Preliminary planning was completed shortly after Christmas and I was excited to get out.

Before Jack and Terry arrived however I received a text from Clinton that a Gyrfalcon had been seen in Superior Wisconsin!!! This species was back on the list!! I drove over on December 31st myself in search of this bird, but alas came home without seeing it. This species was one of the few on the wish list that would be a lifer for me, a species that I have not previously seen. I did find Ruffed Grouse and plenty of gulls at Canal Park and Superior Landfill however, raising my expectations of good birds for Jack and Terry's visit. On new years I received even better news, an Ivory Gull had been seen in Canal Park! Terry and I saw the Quincy Illinois bird last year, but I suspected this would be a lifer for Jack and one that was not on our radar.

Day 1: January 3rd  

Roads traveled this day.
Jack and Terry arrived on the 2nd and we made plans for the coming days. We left early on the 3rd for Roseau MN in search of a Northern Hawk Owl, as the only credible reports came from Norris Campground and from Roseau County via a birding acquaintance. We also had hopes of finding Spruce Grouse and Great Gray Owls north of Roseau in the Lost River State Forest. If needed we planned to spend the night in the area to have both the evening of the 3rd and morning of the 4th before heading east toward Duluth on the 5th.

We arrived at our first stop in the Bemidji area shortly after first light and had two flocks of calling Red-Crossbills. Eventually a flock flew over the road and we had our first lifer of the day for Jack!

The early morning clouds gave way to sun and the drive around Red Lake was quiet both in and out of the car. After leaving the Red Lake Nation we saw a large flock of Sharp-Tailed Grouse eating in a field.  We pulled the car over and spent nearly 15 minutes studying and observing these beautiful birds. These beauties were lifers for Jack and Terry and we were all happy to finally have seen a few birds.  In the next few miles we also saw a fly over Rough-legged Hawk, Snow Buntings, a Northern Shrike, and Black-billed Magpie.

Walking a road search unsuccessfully for Spruce Grouse and Norris Fire Tower.

We turned off on Dick's Parkway and headed toward Norris Campground. As is often the case with Northern Minnesota winter birding, the birds were few and far between and the roads were icy. Fortunately it had not snowed recently and the roads were relatively clear.

We arrived at Norris Campground to Gray Jays and Pine Grosbeaks on the feeders. The Jays had been trained to eat from the hand and soon they were approaching us for handouts. Terry was the only successful hand-feeder in our group in the couple minutes we tried. 

Driving north from the campground we searched for the reported Northern Hawk Owl, but were unsuccessful. Fortuitously we did find a second year Northern Goshawk, which perched long enough for all of us to see it through the scope.  

With a few hours left in the day we went to Roseau to search for Owls. We found very few birds but had nearly a dozen Black-billed Magpies along 110th Ave north of Roseau. The sun was nearly gone for the day and the sky was full of all colors of the rainbow. We had spent the entire day driving and my mind started to drift toward the next day. I was thinking how we would need to find a hotel, would return the next morning to search for northern owls, and was rambling aimlessly as I abruptly switched topics and stated "There it is!"

I pulled over to the side of the road immediately, we all got looks at it through binoculars and piled out of the car to get scope views of this visitor from the north. A fellow birder had shared information on this bird and we were all very grateful for Sandy for it.

My girls had asked for photos showing them were I was and what I was looking at, so I took the silly photo on the left with the bird on my phone. Yes that little speck is the bird and yes you do get better views taking photos with your phone through a scope. I have been terrible at taking photos through my scope so I tried to document the bird better with this short video.

The bird sat patiently for almost 10 minutes and at last light flew across the road. We got the bird we were looking for.  What an awesome way to end the day. Without the need to search for this one bird the next day we decided to drive back to Staples late into the night and spend the extra day in the Duluth area.  The story of that search will have to wait for the next blog post.  

Day 1 Recap of Wish List
Gray Jay (Jack and Terry)
Northern Hawk Owl (Jack and Terry)
Sharp-tailed Grouse (Terry)
Rough-legged Hawk (Jack)
Red Crossbill (Jack)
Snow Bunting (Officially in eBird now for Terry)

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