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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Minnesota and North Dakota

North Woods to Prairies

2021 Narrative

IN BRIEF: It was great to be back in Minnesota and North Dakota for this productive Northwoods and Prairies tour! Beginning in Minneapolis, the deciduous forests played host to a number of eastern species that wouldn’t be possible during the rest of the tour. We then headed north towards Duluth and the boreal forests and bogs, which were teeming with breeding birds. Eventually we headed west into the vast open landscape of the North Dakota prairies and potholes region, which provided an entirely different mix of birds than we had had in Minnesota. Overall, it was an incredibly successful tour with many great sightings and perfect weather!

IN DETAILOur tour kicked off on the first evening near Minneapolis where we made introductions and discussed the upcoming tour over a tasty dinner.

On our first morning we headed northeast to William O’Brien State Park, which is a stone’s throw away from the St Croix River. Here we spent the whole morning birding a productive three-mile walking loop through rolling wooded areas, restored oak savannah, riparian zones, and several bogs. Right off the bat we ran into one of our main targets here, a Henslow’s Sparrow, which teed right up for us and sang, offering wonderful scope views. This area was predominately open grassland and scrub and also provided Olive-sided, Alder, Willow, and Least Flycatchers, Sedge Wren, Field Sparrow, Eastern Towhee, Blue-winged Warbler and Indigo Bunting to name a few. Many of these we wouldn’t see again during this tour. Up next, we passed through a bog and heard and saw at least five Virginia Rails and a Sora. Our views of the rails would be hard to beat as a couple of them fed directly in front of us in full view. We entered the forest and poked around a bit, picking up Eastern Wood-Pewee, Acadian Flycatcher, Yellow-throated Vireo, and Wood Thrush. The main focus here were warblers and they did not disappoint. We picked up Ovenbird, American Redstart, and no fewer than five Mourning Warblers, though they remained quite secretive. We did obtain a few brief views of one territorial male. Sadly, the Cerulean and Hooded Warblers I had the previous evening while scouting were not detected today.

It was time to hit the road and head north. After a lunch stop along the way, we eventually arrived in the port city of Duluth and headed straight for the local migration attraction: Park Point. Although the early morning hours are best, especially when conditions are favorable for a morning flight, we still had a productive visit where we picked up Brown Thrasher, a few warblers including Chestnut-sided and Yellow-rumped, and the continuing male Orchard Oriole, a locally rare bird for the Duluth area. The mowed recreational field surprised us with several Black-bellied Plovers and a Dunlin – nice additions for the day. On our way out we scanned the Superior Bay and had a half dozen Redhead, several Red-breasted Mergansers and a continuing Surf Scoter were present.

The following morning, we departed early and arrived at the Sax-Zim Bog by 6am. Very early starts are a common theme on this tour. This infamous birding location is renowned for its winter birding. However, the spring and summer offers a whole other incredible experience. The mixed Black Spruce forests, tamarack bogs, and hayfields offers a great diversity of boreal and other northern breeders and the whole area will be filled with the songs of neotropical migrants.

Our first goal of the morning was one of the most desirable species on this tour – Connecticut Warbler. We pulled up to one of the stake-out locations and sure enough a male was already singing before we got out of the van. Sax-Zim Bog, as the name suggests, is not an easy place to walk around after you leave the gravel roads. We were standing on the road and the bird was singing only 50 yards away on the other side of a very flooded ditch. For the next ten minutes a few of us built a makeshift bridge of logs and branches eventually allowing us to all cross without any substantially wet feet! We were soon face to face with a stunning male as he sang from the top of a tree. We silently celebrated before noticing other nearby species including a singing Palm Warbler, another bog specialist.

Starting off the morning on such a high mark does not always mean the rest of the day would be downhill from there. Just a short drive later we came upon a Great Gray Owl perched right along the road. We were in awe as it sat there unperturbed by our presence. Another big target in the bag!

The rest of the morning we traveled around the bog getting out at key places to walk around. Warblers were plentiful and we had no fewer than fourteen species including Golden-winged, Black-and-white, Nashville, and the gorgeous Blackburnian. Other species around the bog include Broad-winged Hawk, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Blue-headed Vireo, Veery, Hermit Thrush, Lincoln’s and Clay-colored Sparrows, and a surprise flyover White-winged Crossbill. On the mammal front, a Black Bear was a nice addition to the day.

After lunch at a local café, we stopped at a wastewater treatment plant which had a few shorebirds including two each of White-rumped Sandpiper, Wilson’s Phalarope, and Spotted Sandpiper, but the real surprise was a locally rare Red-necked Phalarope. Before venturing back towards Duluth, we birded the Lake Nichols area where we had a flyover Canada Jay, a Northern Waterthrush that teed up well for us, and another Olive-sided Flycatcher.

The following morning, we headed north into the remote Superior National Forest. This area offers extensive boreal forest and a few species typically not seen further south. We spent the morning birding slowly along a quiet forest road. Tennessee and Cape May Warblers were singing all over along with a few Magnolias, and a single Canada Warbler. The main target in this area is Bay-breasted, which typically breeds further north in Canada. After a lot of effort, we finally found a singing male which gave fantastic views as it hopped around and sang on the tops of some short spruce trees. We kept an ear out for Yellow-bellied Flycatcher when we were in their habitat and were treated to point blank views of a bird right along the edge of the road. Other highlights include Ruffed Grouse, Boreal Chickadee, Winter Wren, Swainson’s Thrush, and a Purple Finch.

We continued towards lunch, where we picked up takeout from a local restaurant in order to enjoy the beautiful weather and eat outside where birds could be enjoyed simultaneously. We worked our way south along Lake Superior for the rest of the afternoon, making several stops along the way. It was quiet, but we still managed to see a few new birds including Common Loon, Whimbrel, and a Red-necked Grebe. Just as we were arriving back in town, we were alerted to the news of an Arctic Loon in Wisconsin. I plugged in the location into my phone… 1.5 hours way. The group unanimously voted to skip a formal dinner and race over to see the mega rarity! It was well worth the drive as it continued along with a Common Loon for great comparison… though quite far offshore by the time we arrived. We eventually made it back to Duluth, picked up some carry out and had dinner in the hotel lobby.

Today was a clean-up day for any species we may have missed at Sax-Zim Bog or desired better views. We enjoyed the dawn chorus near Lake Nichols and had great views of Golden-winged Warbler, Scarlet Tanager, and Northern Parula along with an American Bittern giving its low gulping calls. Nearby we picked up a calling Brown Creeper and a flyover Black-billed Cuckoo. Next stop was a Bobolink-filled hayfield that looked promising for LeConte’s Sparrow. We had only heard them prior to this excursion. We ended up getting views better than I have ever had in my life as one entertained us right in front of our eyes. The icing on the cake was a nearby Sharp-tailed Grouse someone spotted. There is a small lek in this area, but in recent years their numbers plummeted to only a couple individuals, likely due to fox depredation. Leaving Sax-Zim Bog for points northwest, the last bird we had was a second Great Gray Owl teed up on a dead stump as an appropriate ending to this famous birding area.

Before our lunch stop, we made a stop at a stand of trees, a stakeout for Black-backed and sometimes American Three-toed Woodpeckers. With a little bit of effort, we found a Black-backed Woodpecker along with a nesting hole. This location also provided more looks at a Boreal Chickadee as well as both kinglets together.

The rest of the day was spent traversing the stunning landscape as it changed from boreal forest to prairies and potholes. This part of northern Minnesota is rarely visited and truly felt remote and wild.
Now in Grand Forks, North Dakota, we had an optional night excursion out of town in search of the elusive Yellow Rail. We arrived before sunset and had excellent views of Nelson’s Sparrow, one of the most abundant birds at this location. After nightfall we searched several sights very thoroughly but sadly no Yellow Rails were seen or heard. North Dakota has experienced a couple years of severe drought and this site has completely dried up making me think they have moved on.

After breakfast the next morning, we ventured out of town towards Kelly’s Slough National Wildlife Refuge for our first taste of birding the prairies. The open water was filled with hundreds of waterfowl with Blue-winged Teal, Gadwall, Mallard, and Northern Pintail dominating the scene with lesser numbers of Northern Shoveler and Green-winged Teal. Shorebirds didn’t disappoint and we had more than we normally get on this tour – perhaps they were running late this spring? The resident American Avocets, Wilson’s Phalarope and Willet were joined by flocks of White-rumped and Semipalmated Sandpipers and singletons of Dunlin, Baird’s, Least, and Pectoral Sandpipers. However, it was the three Hudsonian and four Marbled Godwits that stole the show offering excellent comparison of the two. Other highlights at the refuge include Black Tern, Marsh Wren, large flocks of Yellow-headed Blackbirds, Western Meadowlarks (replacing the Eastern we had in Minnesota), and several species of swallows. Not a bad start to the day!

As if we hadn’t had enough of Minnesota, we hopped across town and back over the Red River to a stakeout tree where a family of Red-headed Woodpeckers were nesting. Sure enough they were still around and offered great views as these vocal birds flew around and called from the dead trees. We also had great views of a Common Nighthawk perched up on a large branch in a cottonwood which goes to show just how keen of eyes birders have.

The rest of the day we slowly worked our way west towards Jamestown where we would spend the next two nights. Along the way we stopped at Arrowwood National Wildlife Refuge for a quick stop for bathrooms and the overlook. Some of our new species include American Wigeon, Hooded Merganser, Ruddy Duck, Western Grebe, and Western Kingbird. A single American Golden Plover sitting on an island in the lake was a nice surprise as was the single Snow Goose mixed in with several hundred Canada Geese.

Another early start allowed us to arrive at a section of protected prairie, which is scarce in this region, where we hoped for Baird’s Sparrow and Spraque’s Pipit. Both of these are the local celebrities in this area. Again, the effects of the drought were clear as all of the usual spots for Baird’s yielded none! Later on, I spoke to a local biologist who said that he and others have not seen a single one in their traditional spots and think they remained much further west due to the drought. Nonetheless, we pushed on and did find ourselves a displaying Sprague’s Pipit. However, the real show was made by the countless Chestnut-collared Longspurs that were all over the place in full song. This beautiful spectacle was joined by Grasshopper and Savannah Sparrows, Marbled Godwits, and a Sharp-tailed Grouse lek. We tried another spot for the non-existent Baird’s and had a Vesper Sparrow consolation prize.

Much of the remaining part of the day was spent at Horsehead Lake, which has been expanding rapidly over the last year or two and has now flooded out several local roads. With the lack of rain, it must be spring-fed. In a birder’s mind, this means more birds! Plenty of waterfowl was around and we picked up Canvasback and Lesser Scaup. Grebes were in no short supply with Pied-billed, Eared, and at least four hundred Western at an extensive breeding colony. On the shorebird front, the only new one we picked up was a small flock of Stilt Sandpipers in their dazzling breeding plumage. We also paid a visit to the local Say’s Phoebe pair, which are a bit out of range, but were content staying in a random homestead’s yard.

Our final full day we decided to head back west towards the Baird’s Sparrow area to try out luck once more before heading east back to Minnesota. After a while we called it quits as it was clear there were none in the area. However, we still enjoyed a peaceful morning in the prairies. We visited a Ferruginous Hawk nest, with one adult sitting inside, picked up a Lark Sparrow, which can be scarce in this region and worked our way back east visiting a traditional Upland Sandpiper spot. Sure enough we had a pair right where I was expecting. One individual sat on top of a fence post right off the road for an extended amount of time allowing for good photos.

We headed back to the hotel to pack our bags opting to do this during the day instead of early morning and continued east picking up an excellent take-out lunch from a local coffee shop. We had our lunch in a Fargo city park and then drove around town until we found one of the urban Gray Partridges that live all over the city. It was then a long drive to Minneapolis during the heat of the day. Before arriving at our hotel, we stopped at a stakeout Long-eared Owl nest, but they had fledged and dispersed. Regardless, it was nice being back in deciduous forests again.

                                                                                                                                                                             - Ethan Kistler 2021

Created: 27 July 2021