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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Minnesota and North Dakota

North Woods to Prairies

2023 Narrative

Day 1: Our tour commenced on the first evening in Minneapolis, where we headed to a local Italian restaurant for dinner and the tour introduction. With some remaining daylight, we stopped at Lake Nokomis on our way back to our hotel where a Pacific Loon had been hanging out. After a bit of searching, we found it on the far side of the lake, where it was not associating with the Common Loons, which were also present. The lake was busy with Mute Swan-themed paddle boats and small sail boats so there was little other activity, but we did have a couple Spotted Sandpipers along the shoreline and a Great Blue Heron. The surrounding greenspace had a small selection of birds including Eastern Kingbird, Warbling Vireo, flocks of Cedar Waxwings, and a Baltimore Oriole to name a few.

Day 2: We ventured over to William O’Brien State Park east of the Twin Cities the next morning. Located near the St. Croix River, we spent the whole morning traversing a looping trail through grasslands, marshes, and eastern deciduous forest to focus on birds with southern affinities. Once we head north, a number of these species would no longer be possible to see. Around the parking lot and surrounding grasslands and shrubland, we had Alder, Willow, and Least Flycatchers, Brown Thrasher, Clay-colored, Field, and Savannah Sparrows, Eastern Towhee, and our first of many species of warblers including Blue-winged, American Redstart, and Yellow Warbler. In the distance, the calls of Sandhills Cranes, Trumpeter Swans, and a Ring-necked Pheasant added to the dawn chorus.

As we neared the forest edge, we added Red-shouldered Hawk, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Yellow-throated Vireo, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Baltimore Oriole, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting, and a few more warblers with Golden-winged being the most notable, but also Ovenbird and Black-and-white. A wetland area hosted Green Heron, Blue-winged Teal, Pied-billed Grebe, Virginia Rail, Sora, Swamp Sparrow, and a displaying Wilson’s Snipe.

We ventured deeper in the forest and continued racking in new species with the likes of Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Red-eyed Vireo, Veery, Wood Thrush, Mourning Warbler, and Hooded Warbler, one of our main targets here. The drumming of a Ruffed Grouse was a nice addition. We slowly worked our way back to our van, picking up a cooperative Sedge Wren along the way and a couple Pine Warblers as we exited the park. We tallied over 70 species on our morning walk.

After lunch we headed north towards Duluth, picking up the usual roadside suspects such as Red-tailed Hawk, a couple Wild Turkey out in a field, and an Osprey over a river. A productive rest area not only provided relief for bladders, but also birds as it was an eBird hotspot with bird feeders to boot. Here we had Northern Harrier, Common Raven, White-breasted Nuthatch, White-throated Sparrow, and a couple Franklin’s Ground Squirrels.

Still with some time before having to check in to our hotel, we visited the Hartley Nature Center, which has a collection of trails traversing this productive park. Some new additions here included Bald Eagle, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Yellow-rumped Warbler, and several Wilson’s Warblers.

Day 3: After a good night’s sleep, we rose early and headed towards the renowned Sax-Zim Bog for a day of birding. Well-known for winter birding hosting winter finches, owls, and more, the bog also plays host to an incredible array of breeding birds and today we would get our first taste of its spring offerings. Along the way, sharp eyes picked out our first Belted Kingfisher and Broad-winged Hawk along the road.

Our first priority of the morning was to drive a loop several times in search of Great Gray Owl. Although rare, this majestic owl breeds in the bog and, if you’re lucky, you may spot them early morning. With chicks this time of year, they are often out later than normal to feed the extra beaks. No Great Grays this time but we did have an enjoyable down chorus comprising of Hermit Thrush, Winter Wren, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher along with Nashville, Blackburnian, Chestnut-sided, and Connecticut Warbler. The latter sang just yards off the main road in some thick spruce before quickly going quiet and disappearing. Also present were no fewer than eight Canada Jays, Blue-headed Vireo, Boreal Chickadee, and a calling American Bittern.

Palm Warblers breed in distinctive open bogs, so we stopped at one such sight and quickly found one along with a Golden-crowned Kinglet, Lincoln’s Sparrow, and yet another Boreal Chickadee. Slowly working our way towards the visitor center’s bathrooms, the open window alerted us to our first Magnolia Warbler.

Further south, we turned our focus to the open grasslands and farmlands around the town of Meadowlands. Here we picked up several Black-billed Magpies, flocks of Bobolinks making their best R2-D2 impressions, and Western Meadowlark.

After lunch, we tried our luck at finding LeConte’s Sparrow. Our luck played out and we ended up getting superb views of this gorgeous skulker. Before heading back to Duluth, we paid a visit to a series of bird feeders where we added a pair of Purple Finches and had great views of other expected birds.

After dinner, we tried our luck at dusk for Great Gray Owl, but only turned up an American Woodcock.

Day 4: The next morning, we headed north into Lake County and the Superior National Forest. This remote area of northern Minnesota is often void of people and offers a few species that can’t be found at Sax-Zim Bog. We arrived shortly after sunrise and slowly birded a forest road. Once again, we were greeted to a harmonious dawn chorus. Here Tennessee Warblers were the dominant species and we had around a couple dozen along the road. Other new additions included Swainson’s Thrush, Northern Waterthrush, Cape May Warbler, and Black-throated Green Warbler. Nearby, a bathroom stop at nearby forest service facilities provided our first Northern Parulas.

After a delectable lunch at a hidden gem of a coffee shop, we made a few stops along the Lake Superior shoreline on our way back south towards Duluth. First was Lighthouse Point in Two Harbors where it was pretty quiet, but we had Red-breasted Mergansers and mixed flocks of Ring-billed and Herring Gulls. Further south we had great views of an American Pipit working a bit of shoreline. Back in Duluth, we visited the Hartley Nature Center once again for a leisurely stroll enjoying the local breeders.

After dinner we tried another shot at Great Gray Owl, which sadly didn’t show. While thoroughly searching the area, we ran into another birding group who were having the same trouble after much searching. This season had been a really slow year for this species.

Day 5: We tried once more for the Great Gray Owl the following morning with no success. It’s a matter of luck. They are either sitting in view along the few roads, or deep within the spruce bogs. With that said, we did manage to pick up our first Brown Creeper and had a second Connecticut Warbler singing well off the road.

Afterwards, we began our long drive west towards North Dakota, enjoying the ever-changing landscape from spruce bogs through an interesting transition zone and eventually to the vast open Great Plains. The Minnesota/North Dakota border is the Red River and on the Minnesota side we visited a small park where we had Chimney Swifts, a flyover Merlin, and a Cooper’s Hawk sitting on a nest. After dinner, we ventured to a nearby damp grasslands where we started picking up species more typical to these open habitats including Sharp-tailed Grouse, Brewer’s Blackbird, Marbled Godwit, Grasshopper Sparrow, and several species of ducks including Gadwall, Northern Shoveler, and Wood Duck. At dusk we added Common Nighthawk, Short-eared Owl, and a bonus Henslow’s Sparrow singing after dark. This represents the first and only record in North Dakota since 2021.

Day 6: With many early mornings and late nights, we slept in with breakfast at 6:30 a.m. before heading to Kelley’s Slough National Wildlife Refuge. Along the way we picked up Nelson’s Sparrow, Marsh Wren, and another Sharp-tailed Grouse. The refuge is an important stopover site for waterfowl and shorebirds. Our main focus was scanning a couple large bodies of water which provided our first Northern Pintail, Green-winged Teal, Redhead, Franklin’s Gull, and an excellent variety of shorebirds. American Avocets and Black-bellied Plovers caught everyone’s eyes while careful scanning through the hundreds of Semipalmated Sandpipers yielded Baird’s and White-rumped Sandpipers, Dunlin, and Sanderling. Along the shorelines were a good number of Wilson’s Phalaropes and several lingering Red-necked Phalaropes along with a single Semipalmated Plover. The surrounding grasslands were rich with birdlife including flocks of the striking Yellow-headed Blackbird, a species that is symbolic of this region.

A quick visit back at the Red River provided us our first and only Olive-sided Flycatcher before we packed our bags and headed towards Jamestown. Much of the drive consisted of long, quiet, well-maintained backroads allowing for many stops along the way to check the numerous ‘potholes’, or water bodies, which were always loaded with birdlife. Along the way we added Canvasback, Ring-necked Duck, Lesser Scaup, Ruddy Duck, American Coot, Black Tern, White-faced Ibis, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Vesper Sparrow, and Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel.

Before reaching town, we stopped by the Arrowwood National Wildlife Refuge for a bathroom break and a scan of the reservoir. Western Grebes, Wilson’s Snipe, Common Tern, Double-crested Cormorant, American White Pelican, Western Kingbird, and Orchard Oriole were all new. A flock of Ring-billed Gulls had several California Gulls mixed in for great comparison. Soon the skies opened up with heavy downpour so it was time to call it a day.

Day 7: The main objective the next morning was one of the star birds of the Dakotas: Baird’s Sparrow. We headed straight to a promising remnant patch of native grasslands and had one singing immediately upon alighting from the van. We ventured out into the grasslands a bit closer and enjoyed great views of this localized sparrow. Historically one of the most common birds in the prairies, their numbers have declined severely due to incompatible farming practices. Chestnut-collared Longspurs were also well represented along with several Marbled Godwits calling overhead alerting to our presence. 

With Baird’s Sparrow under our belts, we headed to another patch of remnant prairie, which hosted good numbers of Chestnut-collared Longspurs, Grasshopper Sparrows, and Western Meadowlarks. A pair of Upland Sandpipers stole the show and we also added Willet, Swainson’s Hawk, Great Horned Owl, and Western Kingbird to our growing trip list. Nearby a slough hosted a breeding colony of Western Grebes where after careful scanning, we managed to pick out a single Clark’s Grebe and had a Cattle Egret feeding along the shoreline. On the mammal front, we had a Coyote and a few White-tailed Jackrabbits.

The openness of the prairies oftentimes leaves you with a feeling of seclusion; having lunch at a small restaurant in a town of just three dozen people just cements those feelings further. After delicious knoefla, a German soup, we headed over to Horsehead Lake for the afternoon. Among the usual mix of waterfowl and shorebirds, we picked out our first Ruddy Turnstone, Forester’s Tern, and both Great and Snowy Egrets along with a breeding pair of Piping Plovers. A nearby homestead continued to host a pair of Say’s Phoebes, which have been present for a good number of years now. Away from the lake we headed to a nest of a Ferruginous Hawk and observed the head of an adult sitting on the nest. Overhead a “Krider’s” Red-tailed Hawk made an appearance. Before returning to Jamestown for the night, we added a single Dickcissel, which was sitting on a barbed wire fence.

Day 8: We spent our final full day slowly working our way towards Minneapolis with plenty of stops in between to break up the drive. Before departing Jamestown, we visited the wastewater treatment plant which hosted a dozen species of waterfowl, no fewer than 75 Eared Grebes, the usual cast of shorebirds, and a good number of Black Terns hunting over the water for insects. A nearby river provided several Hooded Mergansers.

Near Fargo, we visited Bluestem Prairie to try our luck at Greater Prairie-Chicken. Despite being the wrong time of year for lekking birds, ultimately making it much more challenging at finding one, we ended up finding two individuals not far from their usual lekking site. Also present were no fewer than ten Upland Sandpipers, which is always a treat.

Back in Fargo, we drove around businesses and side streets finding a couple coveys of Gray Partridges, which make themselves right at home in suburban Fargo. After a tasty lunch at a popular coffee shop and nice views of a Lark Sparrow, we continued our journey back towards Minneapolis where a random rest area en-route gave us our final new species for the trip: a pair of nesting Eastern Bluebirds.

Ethan Kistler, 2023

Created: 15 September 2023