Bob and I had talked for a while about a winter trip up north to find some of the boreal species, especially owls. Duluth, MN seemed like the logical choice for a base of operations. With the DuPage County Big Year almost over and not much more to add to the list, we had a few free days available between the holidays. For a couple weeks, we collected hotline transcripts (thanks to BIRDCNTR) from Duluth, also statewide Minnesota and Wisconsin, and Madison, which was located along the way. We purchased Kim Eckert's A Birder's Guide to Minnesota (Williams Publications, Inc., Plymouth, MN; Third edition, 1994), which is an invaluable resource, and a Minnesota DeLorme Atlas and Gazetteer in order to find all the side roads, and my little car was winterized. Thanks also to Dave Calander and Warren Nelson, who gave us some information on our target species.
In this report, birds are capitalized when first seen during the trip. A complete species list is attached.
I picked up Bob in the morning and saw CANADA GEESE, RED-TAILED HAWK, AMERICAN KESTREL, MOURNING DOVE, and EUROPEAN STARLING on the way. In his backyard, there were already HOUSE SPARROWS and HOUSE FINCHES at the feeders. While crossing the Chicago western suburbs, we added ROCK DOVE and AMERICAN CROW to complement the usual suburban "trash birds". The drive across northern Illinois and Wisconsin on Interstate 90 was pretty uneventful (boring, one might say), luckily with good driving conditions: a small amount of snow on the ground but dry roads and overcast sky, light traffic due to the holidays. There were occasional hawks (no obvious Rough-leggeds, though) and crows. Near Tomah, WI, we saw a very light-colored bird fly over a field, probably a Snowy Owl. Snowy Owls had by now become ho-hum with the big invasion we were experiencing in the Great Lakes area this winter, so we didn't get too excited. Of course, until about a month earlier, this would have been a life bird for both of us.
Since we couldn't possibly arrive in the Duluth area before dark, we decided to visit some birding areas along the way, and what better place to look than the Mississippi valley. Therefore, we took I-90 to La Crosse and turned north. We first reached the Mississippi River in Trempealeau, at Lock and Dam No. 6 and found the river mostly frozen, except for a few small patches of open water below and above the dam. Quickly, we found two BALD EAGLES sitting in trees across the river (thus in Minnesota), and a third one flew across to disappear around a bend.
There were also a small flock MALLARD in an open water lead. In the town of Trempealeau, we spotted a RED-BELLIED WOODPECKER on a roof and some BLUE JAYS flying around. We then checked out Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge, but except for some AMERICAN TREE-SPARROWS, we didn't find any birds. The place looks very promising for a visit at a warmer season, though, with a variety of habitats! There were some fenced-in areas marked as Bell's Vireo nesting grounds.
We reached the river again in the one-street town of Alma, WI, adjacent to Lock and Dam No. 4, where we found four more Bald Eagles in the trees across the river. Little birds flitting around the town were unfortunately just House Sparrows and Starlings. By that time, freezing rain had started to fall out of the low clouds, and the driving became somewhat precarious. While the road handling was ok, the visibility through the windshield left to much be desired. Nevertheless, we managed to pick up one more species before nightfall: on two occasions, we flushed NORTHERN CARDINALS from the edge of the highway. Quite a surprise to find this species this far north. It wasn't until north of Eau Claire, WI, when we finally crossed the front and got into drier (and much colder!) air, and the driving conditions improved drastically despite increasing amounts of snow on the ground. We reached our motel in Duluth around 9 pm. There was about a foot of snow on the ground.
The hotline mentioned several Hawk and Great Gray Owl with good directions in Aitkin County, about 70 miles to the west, so we drove there at first light through a light snow fall and temperatures around 10 degrees F. Not much along the highway, just a Red-tailed Hawk and a few crows. The first Northern Hawk Owl was supposed to be at the intersection of Hwy. 169 and County Rd. (CR) 56, but it was not to be found. Other individuals (and also a possible Gyrfalcon) were supposed to be at various locations in open country along CR 1 north of the town of Aitkin, so we checked it out: At the first location, we saw a bird sitting on top of a small tree, and we got all excited. However, it turned out to be a NORTHERN SHRIKE, also a good bird. Another shrike was found about five miles further north, and other birds seen flying around were DOWNY WOODPECKER, BLACK-CAPPED CHICKADEE, and Blue Jays. We were somewhat surprised to find the latter species overwintering this far north, as it is sometimes hard to find one as far south as Chicago in the winter. Traffic was very light, the birds were few and far in between, and we stopped for every one of them (except crows) flying across the road.
Mission unaccomplished, we decided to try our luck with woodland species, especially the great gray one. CR 18 east of Hwy. 169 had some reports, and we drove to the intersection of CR 18 and Pietz's Road, where we had to contend with snowmobilers for a while. From the spruces, we heard chips, and soon a flock of birds appeared over the tree tops to settle down in plain view: WHITE-WINGED CROSSBILLS. We got excellent views and were even able to set up a scope. A little further east along CR 18, I slammed on the brakes for a bird in a tree stump that turned out to be our only GRAY JAY of the trip, and a HAIRY WOODPECKER was working another tree surrounded by chickadees.
We headed south back into Aitkin for lunch, first on Hwy. 169, then on CR 56 (still no Hawk Owl near that intersection), but we found an immature SNOWY OWL perched on a power pole for a perfect view and some nice photographs. Another Hawk Owl was reported along Hwy. 47 east of Aitkin, but we missed again. All we found was a Red-tailed Hawk, crows, and starlings. The weather was by now sunny and the temperature around 10 deg. F.
So we made the circuit again: north on CR 1, where the Hawk Owls was supposed to be and not far from where the shrike had been in the morning, another Snowy Owl sat on a telephone pole along the road (more photographs). Little birds in a grove turned out to be RED-BREASTED NUTHATCH, along with some chickadees (alas, no Boreal Chickadee). We also drove a loop near the town of Palisade, where Sharp-tailed Grouse can be seen at times, but we had no luck. We arrived at CR 18 and Pietz's Road in the late afternoon, the time when Great Gray Owls are supposed to be most active. Pietz's Road is also said to be the most consistent single location to find this species (according to Eckert's book). We drove the entire length of the dead-end road very slowly, stopping frequently and scanning carefully all the wood edges, but after sundown we had to concede defeat for the day.
In a light snowfall we drove through Duluth (no cars on the road on an early Sunday morning, only a few pigeons) and drove on scenic Hwy. 61 along the north shore of Lake Superior. Since Oldsquaw (potential lifer for Bob) and a Harlequin Duck had been reported a few days earlier, we made frequent stops and scanned the narrow band of water between the shore and the lake ice but didn't see any birds. We had almost reached Knife River (Lake Co.), when we saw our first new bird of the trip: COMMON RAVEN. On the north shore, they seemed to be at least as common as American Crows, while to the west in Aitkin Co., we didn't see any ravens at all. A feeder search in Knife River didn't produce any interesting birds.
The next town, Two Harbors, was more productive. Again, we drove around residential streets in search of feeders and mountain ash trees with berries. At the corner of 3rd Street and 3rd Avenue we hit pay dirt: a tree full of birds, and only a few were starlings! No, they were waxwings, mostly CEDAR WAXWING, but three of them stuck out even as silhouettes because they were bigger. They had reddish-brown undertail coverts, more white in the wing, they were more gray, and they were our first life birds: BOHEMIAN WAXWING! A scan of the lake from the waterworks yielded a Bald Eagle flying across one of the bays, but there wasn't anything in the harbor despite open water.
That was about all we could find in town, so we headed north on CR 2 where the book indicated the possibility of Spruce Grouse. We checked out some side roads, but never found any grouse of any kind. However, at one house about five miles out of town we noticed considerable feeder activity. The majority of the birds were PURPLE FINCH, and a Hairy Woodpecker fed on some suet. More birds were feeding in adjacent spruces, and eventually we added a Downy Woodpecker, Black-capped Chickadees, two AMERICAN GOLDFINCHES, several PINE SISKINS, a number of Red-breasted Nuthatches, and a few Blue Jays to the list. However, the number of Purple Finches was staggering, probably exceeding 50 and the largest number either of us had ever seen in one place. We continued driving side roads, now in more open country, and along CR 121, just north of Township Rd. 33, I spotted a medium size bird in a tree top. From the road, we were able to recognize this as a NORTHERN HAWK OWL, and by driving into a road leading to a farm we were able to get closer looks and obtain some photographs. The bird was intensely focused on a sheep pasture below it, where undoubtedly there were some rodents.
After lunch, we drove back through Duluth because we wanted to explore the famous Sax-Zim spruce bogs (ca. 50 miles northwest of Duluth west of Hwy. 53) in the afternoon. The snowfall had stopped during the morning, and the sun was now out. There were numerous possible side roads (many described in Eckert's book), all well plowed but not much traveled, and initially we found mainly Black-capped Chickadee, Red-breasted Nuthatch, and Downy Woodpecker. Even the "reliable" spot near the intersection of CR 203 and CR 53 didn't produce any Boreal Chickadees, "only" White-winged Crossbills. However, a mile further east on CR 53 a flock of bigger birds flew across the road and landed in the trees where they could be seen: PINE GROSBEAK (lifer for me and previously on the BVD-list for Bob).
However, we were still looking for the Big One, and the light was starting to fade. We still had one spot to check, where the hotline had reported a Great Gray. To get there, we drove north on CR 7, and just north of Sax, while Bob was consulting the map, I announced "Big bird in a tree on the right -- probably just a crow or raven." However, when we almost passed the bird, which sat in a tree top right next to the road in relatively open habitat, we realized that this was no corvid, but rather our target, a GREAT GRAY OWL! No problem slamming on the brakes and backing up, we had practiced that all day, and we came to a stop right next to the bird, maybe 40 feet from the road. It just sat there and looked around. It seemed to concentrate mainly on the snow cover in the ditch below it. Maybe it was hearing mice down there. Of course, we took lots of pictures despite the low light (some actually turned out quite nicely), and when the owl flew to another tree next to the road, we backed up the car again and gawked a bit more. Now that we had seen our bird, we turned around and drove back south on CR 7. We discussed which way we should return to the main highway and decided to continue on CR 7 to cover some new ground. Good choice, because about 10 miles further, now well into twilight, we spotted another big blob on a branch that almost hung over the road. We came to a stop and watched this second Great Gray Owl until it decided it had enough and disappeared in the trees. We concluded this most successful day with dinner at a nice restaurant in a former brewery building along Duluth's waterfront.
Besides some low-probability birds, we still had one target bird to go: Boreal Chickadee (actually, I would have liked to see an Evening Grosbeak, too). After checking out of our motel, we drove north of Duluth in a steady snowfall to Eagle Lake, where there had been a report of Boreal Chickadees the week prior. However, when we met the woman who had reported them, she told us that they had been there only that one day. However, she told us about a female Northern Cardinal coming to her feeder, which was quite unusual this far north. However, we didn't bother to wait for it to show up, and after tallying the usual feeder suspects, we returned back to town.
We skipped the Duluth harbor area: the water was now all frozen, thus there was no chance of waterfowl, no Gyrfalcon had been seen yet all winter, and the main attraction there was Snowy Owl, which we had already seen elsewhere. However, we still had one place to go before the long drive home. This entire trip, we hadn't seen a single gull yet, therefore the place to go was the Superior dump. There had been reports of various interesting species, including a possible Slaty-backed Gull (or a weird look-a-like hybrid), also Great Black-backed, Iceland, Thayer's, and Glaucous Gulls. We arrived at the dump in a steady snowfall, and the operators told us drive right up, just keep clear of the trucks (of which there were not many). This was a new experience, to drive right up on top of a garbage mountain! Actually, we parked the car halfway up and walked on the soft, smelly (not too bad because it was quite cold) stuff to the top. Of course, there were lots of HERRING GULLS and no Ring-billed Gulls. However, we quickly found several GLAUCOUS GULLS in various plumages as well, and both of us, at one time or another, were able to pick out a THAYER's GULL. The gulls were extremely tame, and I was able to take many close photographs in the scenic environment. However, they weren't the only birds around. There were also the obligatory starlings and several Common Ravens, and at least two Bald Eagles. One sat in a near-by tree the whole time, whereas the other at one time made a low pass over the dump, sending all the gulls into the air.
After an hour and a half of this "lovely" spot, we had enough and started the trip home. Just after reaching the main highway, we saw a funny looking crow with black and white wings flying over: Of course, this wasn't a crow, but a PILEATED WOODPECKER! Luckily, the snow fall ended soon thereafter. An hour later, near the town of Spooner, WI, we had heard about an albino Red-tailed Hawk that we would have liked to see. However, on CR H we didn't find the hawk, but two more Pileated Woodpeckers flew over. A Northern Shrike along Hwy. 53 just a few miles further south was the last "good" bird of the trip. In Eau Claire, during a brief stop, a flock of finches, probably House Finch, flew over, but we weren't able to relocate them at feeders in the immediate neighborhood. Not much later, it got dark, and we were done birding for the trip. On arriving back in the Chicago suburbs, the odometer indicated that we had traveled about 1800 miles in four days.
Canada Goose Chicago area Mallard Trempealeau, WI Bald Eagle MN side of Mississippi River, Two Harbors (MN), Superior (WI) dump Red-tailed Hawk Along I-90/94 (IL, WI), I-35 west of Duluth (MN), Aitkin (MN) American Kestrel Chicago area Herring Gull Superior (WI) dump Thayer's Gull Superior (WI) dump Glaucous Gull Superior (WI) dump Rock Dove Various places Mourning Dove Chicago area Snowy Owl Aitkin Co. (MN) Northern Hawk Owl North of Two Harbors (MN) Great Gray Owl Sax-Zim bog (MN) Red-bellied Woodpecker Trempealeau, WI Downy Woodpecker Various places Hairy Woodpecker Various places Pileated Woodpecker Superior (WI), Spooner (WI) Gray Jay Aitkin Co. (MN) Blue Jay Various places American Crow Various places Common Raven Lake Superior north shore (MN), Superior (WI) dump Black-capped Chickadee Various places Red-breasted Nuthatch Aitkin Co.(MN), Two Harbors area (MN), north of Duluth (MN) Bohemian Waxwing Two Harbors (MN) Cedar Waxwing Two Harbors (MN) Northern Shrike Aitkin Co. (MN), along Hwy. 53 (WI) European Starling Various places Northern Cardinal Along Hwy. 37 (WI) American Tree Sparrow Trempealeau N.W.R. (WI) Pine Grosbeak Sax-Zim bog (MN) Purple Finch Two Harbors (MN) House Finch Chicago area, probably Eau Claire (WI) White-winged Crossbill Aitkin Co. (MN), Sax-Zim bog (MN) Pine Siskin Two Harbors (MN) American Goldfinch Two Harbors (MN), north of Duluth (MN) House Sparrow Various places
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