Skip to navigation, or go to main content.

WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Minnesota in Winter

2022 Narrative

The expansive bog lands, boreal forests, and Lake Superior shorelines of Duluth, Minnesota and environs offer a uniquely accessible opportunity to see specialty birds of the northern climes in winter. Because of the nature of the boreal ecology, being comprised of relatively few species, the presence and abundance of northern birds such as owls and finches hinges on the presence and abundance of a few or even a single food source. The cyclical crops of spruce and fir cones, for example, or the fluctuating populations of voles, determine to a large extent the numbers and species of birds that are able to survive the winter in a given area. Rather than undergoing predictable migrations, these northern species are erratic - wandering the expanse of the boreal forest and settling where food is most abundant, or in some years, not moving at all. Occasionally, a number of factors line up and an area like northern Minnesota will experience a veritable bird “event”, a great irruption of birds otherwise scarce or absent.

Even in a year that could be said to be an “off” year for some of these northern nomads, we nevertheless enjoyed memorable encounters with many of the birds and mammals that make winter in the north so enticing to birders:  Great Gray Owl, Snowy Owl, Black-backed Woodpecker, Pine Grosbeak, Evening Grosbeak, and Bohemian Waxwings to name a few. In all, we encountered 46 species of birds and 7 species of mammals on our travels through Northeastern Minnesota and Northwestern Wisconsin. We even added two species to the all-time tour list: Horned Lark and Rusty Blackbird.

We started birding shortly after picking up the van on Day 1. We drove to Canal Park, Minnesota Point, and to Superior, Wisconsin. We looked for the Ivory Gull with no luck, and in fact the bird was not seen during our stay even with other birders searching for the gull. We were able to find four Snowy Owls including various ages and sex classes. We enjoyed them at roost and hunting. Also nice was watching a group of eight Horned Larks working the edges of the road and runways of the Bong Airport. We went to dinner at the Canal Park Brewery where we sampled some of Duluth’s finest microbrews and food. 

Our first full day of birding was spent at Sax-Zim Bog in search of Great Gray Owls and other bog specialties. We managed to find owls - one each of Great Gray and Snowy. We got great views of the Great Gray Owl before a train flushed it back into the tamarack bog. We also we had great views of most of the winter finches including Pine and Evening Grosbeak, Common Redpolls and Snow Buntings. 

The next day we decided to stay in Duluth and the North Shore going as far as up to Two Harbors. We wanted to stay near Duluth on the chance we or some of my cohorts would relocate the Ivory Gull. Unfortunately, that was not to be. We did end up going to Sax-Zim in the afternoon and were able to view Great Gray and Snowy Owl hunting through the scope. The following day we ventured north into the Grand Marais area including some back roads, which included the Superior National Forest. We saw little in the forest and back roads but saw some beautiful bogs and boreal forest habitat. I discussed the ecology of the area explaining that in spring and summer, these forests are teeming with breeding Neotropical songbirds and is a premier location normally to find some of the more elusive resident and irruptive birds of the boreal forest in winter. This past summer we experienced a severe draught and fire in our region, which may account for a change in the number of species. In Grand Marais we had some good birds around feeders in town, but without a doubt the highlight for many was the huge flocks of Bohemian Waxwings which appeared in a murmuration that descended from the fruiting Mountain Ash and crab apple trees. In all there were 2,200 plus!! Truly a sight to behold. 

For our last full day, we went back up to Sax-Zim to get better view of some of the species we didn’t get on the first round. We had a great morning of birding which included close view of Great Gray Owls, Boreal Chickadees, White-winged Crossbills and a male Black-backed Woodpecker. We ventured toward Duluth after having lunch. We didn’t add any new species in Duluth.  

On the last morning there was a nice snowstorm and everyone packed up early to fly or drive home. Thank you for visiting our beautiful neck of the woods.  I hope you all enjoyed the birds, ecology and mammals of the region. Come back and visit again soon!

- Frank Nicoletti

Created: 01 June 2022