Owls and Winter Birding in the Boreal Forest of Minnesota
Dates and Costs:
12 – 17 January 2023
Spaces Available: 7
Price: US$2,415 / £2,003 / €2,356 per person sharing, assuming 4-8 participants
Single Supplement: US$385 / £319 / €376
* Please note that currency conversion is calculated in real-time, therefore is subject to slight change. Please refer back to the base price when making final payments.
(Please also read our blogs about recommended field guides for the seven continents here)
Duration: 6 days
Group Size: 4 – 8
Tour Start: Duluth
Tour End: Duluth
Park entrance fees
Gratuities (please see our tipping guidelines blog)
Personal expenses such as gifts
Featured Guide:Jacob Roalef
Owls and Winter Birding in the Boreal Forest of Minnesota
In true winter wonderland fashion, Minnesota offers picturesque scenes of snow-covered evergreens and iced-over lakes. This short Minnesota birding tour focuses on a variety of birds that use Lake Superior and the boreal forest as their winter homes. The famous USA birding location, Sax-Zim Bog, offers an incredible variety of habitats and is undoubtably one of the best places for amazing owls like Great Grey Owl, Northern Hawk-Owl, and Boreal Owl. Of course, the bog features more than just owls with other incredible boreal bird species including Evening Grosbeak, Pine Grosbeak, Ruffed Grouse and Black-backed Woodpecker. After a few days focused at Sax-Zim Bog, the tour moves up the coast of the mighty Lake Superior towards the small town of Grand Marais, stopping at a few birding areas along the way. A run through Superior National Forest, and other nearby state parks on the way north, offers a good chance at spotting Spruce Grouse and Boreal Chickadee. Just north of Grand Marais, the Gunflint Trail is known to hold some irruptive finch species such as Common Redpoll and Red Crossbill, with luck together with less frequent species such as Two-barred (White-winged) Crossbill and tantalizing ones. After scoring these fantastic winter denizens and many more, the tour concludes back in Duluth where folks can thaw out and make their journeys home after another unforgettable experience.
Have a look at our tour video summary which discusses the route and many highlights of this tour.
Itinerary (6 days/5 nights)
Day 1. Arrival at Duluth International Airport
After arrival, if there is time, we will bird around the Duluth area until dinner. We’ll try Canal Park and Wisconsin Point landfill for Glaucous and Iceland Gulls. We might also see the giant Great Black-backed Gull. As the sun begins to set, we will begin our search for the breathtaking Snowy Owl in the Duluth-Superior Harbor. Dinner will taste so much sweeter after a hopefully successful owl search. Then off to our hotel for a good night’s rest before starting our first full day of birding.
Another of our owl targets will be the beautiful Snowy Owl.
Days 2-3. Birding the famous Sax-Zim Bog Important Bird Area (IBA)
These next two days will focus exclusively on birding the giant area of the Sax-Zim Bog IBA. With its combination of open meadows, aspen and thick evergreen stands, rivers, farmlands, and more, it is no wonder so many boreal species call “the bog” home in the winter. Due to the extremely cold conditions of Minnesota in the winter, we will do most of our birding along the roadsides, never straying too far from the vehicle. We will cruise the roads in the mornings hopeful for a Black-billed Magpie mixed in with the American Crows and Common Ravens.
The delightful Evening Grosbeak is often seen in Sax-Zim Bog.
The southern portion of the bog is home to a known Sharp-tailed Grouse lekking area and sometimes these sneaky birds will visit a nearby feeder in the winter. Using various feeder setups throughout the area will be key as several of our targets enjoy the free buffet including Pine and Evening Grosbeaks, Black-capped Chickadee, Canada Jay, and even a hungry Great Grey (Northern) Shrike, from time to time. While driving around this vast area, we will keep our eyes peeled for silhouettes in the empty branches as Ruffed Grouse and North American Porcupines feed and rest. The open meadows play host to a nice variety of diurnal raptors including Bald Eagle, Rough-legged Buzzard (Hawk) and Northern Hawk-Owl. As day turns into evening, the anticipation builds for an appearance of the amazing Great Grey Owl silently hunting the roadsides and snowbanks. We will spend two full days exploring this amazing area which will certainly yield us some fantastic birding.
The adorable and quizzical Canada Jay is always a fan favorite.
Day 4. Heading north and Superior National Forest
Today we will start our journey north to the small town of Grand Marais with a birding stop in Superior National Forest first. An early morning start will have us slowly patrolling the roadsides, searching for Spruce Grouse, which pick at the roadside grit and salt. As the sun continues to rise, finch flocks of American Goldfinches and Pine Siskins begin their sporadic flights, searching for seed pods. We will continue our birding of the great forest listening and looking for Boreal Chickadees and American Three-toed and Black-backed Woodpeckers. After a nice morning and afternoon of birding, we will arrive in Grand Marais. With our last few hours of light, we will scan the harbor for a potential Long-tailed Duck, Red-breasted Merganser, or Common Goldeneye.
Overnight: Grand Marais
Day 5. The Gunflint Trail and Grand Marais
A National Scenic Byway, the Gunflint Trail, curves its way north through the hills of Superior National Forest and along the edge of the US/Canadian Border. We will enjoy several scenic views along this 57-mile (92-kilometer) road this morning, stopping occasionally at safe pull offs. The far-reaching white pines combined with a bit of altitude make for a finch hotspot including species like Purple Finch, House Finch, Red Crossbill, Two-barred (White-winged) Crossbill and Pine Siskin. The cute Red-breasted Nuthatch and occasional Hairy Woodpecker can be found mixed in with these foraging finch flocks along the trail. The afternoon will be spent birding around the town and campgrounds of Grand Marais for roaming flocks of Cedar and Bohemian Waxwings feeding on the prevalent berries in the area. We will take one last check of the harbor and lake for any waterfowl or gulls we might be missing before calling it a day.
Overnight: Grand Marais
The gorgeous Bohemian Waxwing will hopefully be another delight in Minnesota.
Day 6. Back to Duluth and departure home.
On our final day, we will make the trip south along the Lake Superior shoreline, back to Duluth, to catch our flights home. We recommend getting an afternoon or evening flight if possible. Depending on timing, we may be able to make one or two more birding stops along the way. The tour will conclude with a drop off at the Duluth International Airport.
Please note that the itinerary cannot be guaranteed as it is only a rough guide and can be changed (usually slightly) due to factors such as availability of accommodation, updated information on the state of accommodation, roads, or birding sites, the discretion of the guides and other factors. In addition, we sometimes have to use a different international guide from the one advertised due to tour scheduling.Download Itinerary
Minnesota: Winter Owls and Sax-Zim Bog Trip Report, January 2020
11 – 16 January 2020
By Jacob Roalef
The warm glow of an Evening Grosbeak is always a highlight of the tour.
Minnesota in January is the picture-perfect winter wonderland with snow piled high, ice covering every lake (including some of Lake Superior), and evergreen trees surrounding you. On this tour four amazing clients (Judy, Michael, Karen, and Diane) and I spent time birding at Duluth, Grand Marais, the Gunflint Trail, Lake Superior, and of course the amazing Sax-Zim Bog. The weather was pleasant with rather mild temperatures (for Minnesota winter standards) and no major snowstorms. Unfortunately the seed crop further north had had a fantastic year, so finches were difficult to come by, but we managed to find a few!
This area does not produce an amazing number of bird species; however, almost everything we saw was a real highlight. The specialty birds, mammals, and scenic views of the boreal forest are unmatched. Bird highlights for the group included Great Grey Owl, Northern Hawk-Owl, Snowy Owl, Barred Owl, American Three-toed Woodpecker, Black-backed Woodpecker, Spruce Grouse, Sharp-tailed Grouse, Northern Shrike, Red Crossbill, Two-barred (White-winged) Crossbill, Canada Jay, Northern Goshawk, and Evening Grosbeak.
A total of 44 species of birds were seen during the trip as well as a few mammals and amazing scenes, including the boreal forest in the snow and the vastness of Lake Superior. Species lists can be found at the end of the report.
The mystical Great Grey Owl was the top highlight of the trip.
Day 1, 11 January 2020. Pickup and Sax-Zim Bog
The tour began around 11a.m. with a pickup from the Duluth airport. It didn’t take long for us to score the first nice bird of the trip, a pair of Ruffed Grouse two minutes from the airport! We left Duluth behind and went straight for the amazing Sax-Zim Bog. Upon arrival we spotted a beautiful adult Bald Eagle soaring by and a herd of White-tailed Deer. We continued cruising the roads and were treated to a major highlight, a juvenile Northern Goshawk! This individual started chasing a group of Rock Doves right along the road for an amazing aerial display for the group. From here we saw an incredibly tame Northern Hawk-Owl perched at the top of a spruce a mere foot from the road. What an incredible bird. The evening was approaching as we began searching for owls to come out. We scored an incredibly distant Great Grey Owl, which left us all happy but hungry for more. The sun set over the beautiful bog and we headed back to Duluth for the evening.
Day 2, 12 January 2020. Sax-Zim Bog birding
We started the day with the 45-minute drive to the bog. Our hope was to find an early-morning owl still hunting. A bit of luck was on our side this morning, with another amazing Great Grey Owl sitting only a few rows of trees back from the road! We had much better (but brief) views than last night as we watched it fly across the road into the depths of the forest to sleep. The morning continued with some pitiful looks at a American Barn Owl that was causing quite a stir, as it is very rare for the state. Unfortunately this individual was in rather poor shape, and attempts to save it were unsuccessful. Next stop was Mary Lou’s feeding station, where we enjoyed a beautiful flock of Evening Grosbeaks as well as Black-capped Chickadees, Hairy Woodpeckers, Wild Turkey, and Blue Jays. A visit to Winterberry Bog in the afternoon resulted in some fun hiking through the snow, until we eventually found both American Three-toed and Black-backed Woodpeckers plus Red-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper, and an adult Northern Goshawk bursting through the trees. Evening came, and we managed to catch up with another tame owl, this time Barred Owl, which sat in the open over a road. A great cap on a beautiful day!
Day 3, 13 January 2020. Sax-Zim Bog and Duluth area
The first stop of the day was the southern section of the Sax-Zim Bog. We cruised the roads again and stumbled upon a large group of American Crows, nothing unusual; however, there were a few Black-billed Magpies mixed in. A great start to the day! Next we waited by a feeder near a known grouse lek to see if we would get lucky. After 30 minutes and a few White-breasted Nuthatches the chicken-like Sharp-tailed Grouse appeared, walking around the snow and feeding on seeds. We swung by Mary Lou’s feeding station again to enjoy the flock of Evening Grosbeaks one more time before heading back to Duluth for some Lake Superior birding in the early evening. The temperature had dropped significantly overnight, and the open water vanished, as did our hopes for finding several gulls. Instead we made our way into Wisconsin near the old airport area to scan the hundreds of perches until we finally landed on a beautiful female Snowy Owl. The power and beauty of these birds never cease to amaze. Another amazing owl to cap another amazing day!
This Northern Hawk-Owl loved to perch on this dead tree snag.
Day 4, 14 January 2020. More Sax-Zim Bog and north to Grand Marais
A quick morning stop at the Sax-Zim Bog visitor center was our final time spent in this amazing region. Canada Jays were plentiful as were Dark-eyed Juncos, Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, and Black-capped Chickadees. From here we headed north, deeper into the boreal forest region. Snow began to fall for the first time as we cruised roads just south of a small town called Cook. It took a few small flocks in some freezing cold temperatures and wind before we finally laid eyes on the target Boreal Chickadee! Immediately after this a faint tapping could be heard, and we spotted a gorgeous male Black-backed Woodpecker. We finished the day with some last-minute birding along U.S. Highway 2 before it got dark. Right before dusk and before our spot to turn around Mike got very excited and couldn’t even spit the words out. Another (our 3rd) Great Grey Owl flew in and perched on top of a tree! This definitely was the best and longest view we managed all trip, and it will certainly be a top memory. We couldn’t have asked for a better moment.
Day 5, 15 January 2020. U.S. Highway 2 and Grand Marais
Today we started early on a quest for finches and the last remaining grouse species. We arrived at U.S. Highway 2 and were immediately treated to a nice flock of Pine Siskins and American Goldfinches. We drove along slowly, carefully scanning the roadside with no luck. Luckily Diane was looking up while we were looking down as she spotted a terrific Northern Hawk-Owl only a few hundred yards from the location of the owl we had seen last night. The grouse search wasn’t looking too hot until we received a tip from fellow birders of where one had flown into the tree line a few minutes prior, and off we went. A bit of a cold hike into almost thigh-deep snow resulted in a cute female Spruce Grouse napping on a branch. On our way back we caught up with a spectacular male Spruce Grouse in the middle of the road that we managed to flush away before the oncoming traffic could get there. We stumbled across several more flocks before finally arriving back in Grand Marais to search the city for waxwings. We spent a few hours before dusk searching the residential area and berry trees but only managed to turn up a large flock of American Robins and Cedar Waxwings, no bohemians in the group. Lake Superior held some open water this far north and hosted a few nice species like Long-tailed Duck, Red-breasted Merganser, Common Goldeneye, and American Herring Gull. The sun set and we headed for dinner and warmth.
Day 6, 16 January 2020. Gunflint Trail and airport transfer
Today was our final day in Minnesota, but we had all morning and most of the afternoon to bird before we needed to be back at the airport. We spent several hours searching diligently for the Bohemian Waxbill again to no avail. Finally we called it quits and decided to head to the Gunflint Trail, which proved to be an excellent decision (good call, Karen!). It wasn’t long before we came across another group of Pine Siskins, only this time they had their Purple Finch buddies mixed in. Continuing we scored even more finches with the real stars, both Red Crossbill and Two-barred (White-winged) Crossbills! Some of them were even singing on this sunny January morning. But then it was time to make the drive back to Duluth and board our flights home. A great conclusion to a fantastic trip in the winter wonderland of Minnesota. Thanks to our four wonderful clients for making this tour so great and memorable!
An adorable Canada Jay pausing for a moment to investigate
Please see the downloadable PDF above with the full species lists included. This is a sample trip report. Please email us ([email protected]) for more trip reports from this destination.
PREPARING FOR MINNESOTA IN WINTER
A Great Grey Owl descends silently upon an open field to catch a vole hidden in the deep snow. Flocks of colorful winter finches noisily visit a feeder, rivaling even the tanagers of the tropics in color. Grouse strut along an open field with their amazing snowshoe-like feet, perfectly adapted in both form and color to the depths of winter. These are the images that come to mind when one thinks of a birding trip to Minnesota in winter.
Although visiting this frigid state in winter may seem like madness to the uninitiated, the birds that occur in northeastern Minnesota are among some of the most special and charismatic in the world, such as Northern Hawk-Owl, Great Grey Owl, and Snowy Owl. Sitting on the southern edge of the vast boreal forest biome, northeastern Minnesota is the southern limit of distribution for many other boreal forest species that do not regularly occur further south, such as Boreal Chickadee and Grey Jay. However, one must keep in mind that a trip list to this state in January will only include about 40 or so hardy species, with few individuals overall. It will definitely be a case of quality over quantity.
Another factor to consider is the weather. Average high temperatures in Duluth in January range between 15 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit (-9 to -6 degrees Celsius), but it can potentially never go above 0 degrees Fahrenheit (-17 degrees Celsius) on some days. Although it will be very cold by most standards, most of our birding will be done along roadsides, either near or within the warmth of our vehicle. There may be a few very short walks of a couple of hundred meters/yards or less. Notwithstanding these details, please dress in multiple warm layers!
‘I thoroughly enjoyed my Minnesota birding tour with Jacob Roalef of Birding Ecotours in January of 2022. The tour was very easy to book, and the ongoing communication with the corporate office and with our guide, Jacob was exceptional. I always got a prompt response to email questions, which was important and reassuring. Jacob was extremely knowledgeable of the local area and the various birding hotspots in order to give us the best opportunity of locating the various species we had all come to see. I would highly recommend this tour!’
‘Jacob was patient, funny, talked to all the participants, and made sure all members got on the birds. Jacob gave me good looks at and information on two life birds, Glaucous and Iceland Gulls. He was also an excellent driver, especially on the last day when we drove from Grand Marais in a snowstorm.’
‘I had even more fun than I expected on this wonderful winter tour. The bird highlights were varied from chickadees to grouse to owls and the winter scenery along the lake was breathtaking. Jacob is an excellent guide and very knowledgeable about both the area in general and the birds. We had birders of various levels of experience in the group and everyone enjoyed the experience.’
‘It was a trip that I liked very much and highly recommended. Jacob’s experience in birds and in the organization of everything made the trip run smoothly. The birds, many of them were new to me which was a delight.’
‘A great overview of Minnesota winter birding. Although the list of potential birds is somewhat limited because of the weather, the quality of what we did see more than made up for lack of quantity. Eleven of the 44 birds I saw were lifers, including Great Grey Owl, Boreal Chickadee, Pine Grosbeak, Sharp-tailed Grouse and more. Most spectacular was I saw my first Bohemian Waxwing and then about 1,000 more as part of a massive flock, feeding on berries throughout the town of Grand Marais. We were able to experience that over two straight days.’