Owls and Winter Birding in the Boreal Forest of Minnesota
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: Set Departure Trip Report, January 2022
13 – 18 JANUARY 2022
By Jacob Roalef
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The regal Great Grey Owl is always a top highlight and target of this trip.
This six-day set departure tour of Minnesota commenced in Duluth, Minnesota on the 13th of January 2022 and concluded back there on the 18th of January 2022. One tour participant arrived early enough on the 12th of January to squeeze in a little pre-trip birding around Lake Superior. The tour visited several fantastic birding locations including Sax-Zim Bog, Canal Park, Park Point, Superior National Forest, and the Grand Marais Harbor.
This tour connected with amazing target birds giving us a list of high-quality species for our six days in the region. Avian highlights included Great Grey, Snowy, and Barred Owls, Evening and Pine Grosbeaks, Common Redpoll, Iceland and Glaucous Gulls, Long-tailed Duck, Canada Jay, Sharp-tailed Grouse, Black-billed Magpie, Pileated Woodpecker, Two-barred (White-winged) Crossbill, Snow Bunting, and a breathtaking experience with Bohemian and Cedar Waxwings. Gene and I were also lucky enough to score a mega rarity Ivory Gull during the day of pre-trip birding, but unfortunately it disappeared after that despite our extensive searching.
A total of 41 bird species were seen, along with a few great mammals including Moose, Ermine (Short-tailed Weasel), Coyote, and Snowshoe Hare. Full bird and mammal checklists can be found at the end of the report.
Pre-trip, 12th January 2022. Arrival in Duluth, Canal Park birding
Several participants were planning to arrive the evening before, but all were originally scheduled to land in Duluth after sunset with no plans for birding. However, due to the nature of flight scheduling and airlines these days, Gene’s flight was cancelled, and his new travel schedule had him arrive at 2pm. I picked him up, and then we checked into the hotel, put on a few more layers, and headed out for a little birding before dinner. We headed down to Canal Park, located right on the waters of Lake Superior, where a certain pure white gull had been seen on and off for the past week or so. We began scanning the ice and channel and were treated to about 200 Common Goldeneyes at close range. Common and Red-breasted Mergansers were far off on the lake and the ice chunks hosted a few American Herring Gulls. After about 40 min we started to head back to the vehicle to check somewhere else when I spotted a glowing white bird flying off in the distance. We tracked it for a while and eventually it began flying right towards us and landed on the wall of the channel. Ivory Gull! What a stunning bird, listed as Near Threatened by the IUCN, with an estimated 45,000 individuals remaining. We spent the next 40 minutes observing this small white gull, taking in the impact and luck we had to be in its presence. Eventually another birder showed up and we showed them the gull and moved on to celebrate at dinner.
This amazing Ivory Gull made a brief visit from the Arctic.
Day 1, 13th January 2022. Arrival and birding Duluth
The remainder of the clients arrived this afternoon and we headed back to Canal Park and Park Point areas in search of the little white gull. While unsuccessful here, we did manage to see Common Redpoll, Pine Grosbeak, Common Goldeneye, and Hairy Woodpecker. The sun sets early at this time of year in the north, so we headed off for a nice dinner and a chance to get to know each other a bit better.
Day 2, 14th January 2022. Sax-Zim Bog
This morning saw some snow flurries in the Duluth area, but as we traveled north to Sax-Zim Bog, conditions eventually cleared up for a nice sunrise. We spent the morning cruising along Route 7 in search of owls. It wasn’t long before we were on a beautiful Snowy Owl atop a pine! A little further up the road we got onto a flock of Two-barred (White-winged) Crossbills picking through the grit in the road. We managed to pull over and watch them for a bit when Patricia spotted a large bird behind us. Great Grey Owl! Amazing to score these two within our first hour at the bog. From here we headed off to the Friends of Sax-Zim Bog Visitor Center. The feeders here were full of great birds including Common Redpoll, Pine Grosbeak, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Black-capped Chickadee, and Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers. Continuing south a bit, in more farmland-type habitat, we managed to pick up Black-billed Magpie and Northern (Common) Raven, a few corvids which are always a treat to see. Next up was lunch but along the way we got onto a Northern (Great Grey) Shrike teed up nicely in a bush before flying off to several other perches along the road.
After lunch we began our ventures deeper into the bog area, mostly exploring up and down Admiral Road and McDavitt Road. Canada and Blue Jays along with American Crow helped us round out our corvid sightings for the day. The feeders along these roads were a bit quiet, with more of the same species we had seen earlier in the day. However, it is always nice to see Pine Grosbeak, Common Redpoll, and Black-capped Chickadee. As dusk began setting in, we headed back out to Route 7 where we managed to find another Great Grey Owl hunting along the railroad tracks! We were lucky enough to have the opportunity to observe this bird from a safe distance, so as to not disturb it. It was turning its head, looking down, sitting quietly, listening for prey. We even got to watch it fly from perch to perch a few times, always a breathtaking experience. Eventually a train came through and our time with the owl was over, so we headed off to dinner to celebrate an incredible day!
Common Redpolls were present throughout our trip, being seen daily this year.
Day 3, 15th January 2022. More Sax-Zim Bog birding
Sax-Zim Bog is a massive area with loads of places to explore making one day not nearly enough for proper exploration. As such we headed back this morning with temperatures reaching the lowest for the entire trip, a frosty -19 F (-28 C)! Our first stop of the day was at a grouse lek area but no luck there besides Black-capped Chickadee and Common Redpoll. We continued to the visitor center again and ventured out for a small hike in the cold temperatures. At the end of the trail we were rewarded with amazing close views of Boreal Chickadee! Well worth the cold and adventure of the short hike. After getting back to the van and thawing out a bit, we back tracked to the lek area and set up camp for a little while to continue warming up. Suddenly, Chelleye spotted a large bird flying in, Sharp-tailed Grouse! It perched nicely for us atop a birch before heading down to get some free food at the feeders. These birds have been in great decline in this region recently and each year they become more and more difficult to spot, so we were all extremely happy with our luck. On our way back into the bog we experienced a slight hiccup and delay, but it wasn’t long before we were on our way north to Mary Lou’s.
On our way we caught up again with the same Snowy Owl from yesterday but this time it is was closer and glowing in the sunshine! Eventually we made it to the northwest section of the bog area. We then spent time at Mary Lou’s (surely one of the sweetest people around) house and feeder station which has become a very popular birding destination while in Minnesota. We enjoyed the huge number of Wild Turkeys in the yard including a few smokey morphs. Eventually Mary Lou herself showed up and we were able to chat with her for a bit which can be just as enjoyable as the birds. After about 30 minutes of waiting, the real stars showed up, three Evening Grosbeaks. Other species here included Hairy Woodpecker, Red-breasted and White-breasted Nuthatches, and Blue Jay. The rest of the afternoon and evening was spent exploring back in the heart of the bog. More of the usual suspects, Common Redpoll, Black-capped Chickadee, Canada Jay, and Pine Grosbeak. We did encounter a few more highlights including a low perched Barred Owl doing a bit of hunting and a couple of us managed to spot a fast-moving Ermine at a feeder station. Another epic day spent at the incredible Sax-Zim Bog. We then headed back to Duluth to warm up and have dinner.
The group battled the cold for stellar looks at the adorable Boreal Chickadee.
Day 4, 16th January 2022. Duluth Harbor and birding the coast of Lake Superior
Today we decided to head back to Lake Superior in search of more gulls, ducks, and others. We started at Canal Park which seems to change daily with water currents and ice buildup. It was a lot of the same with Common Goldeneye, Common Merganser, and American Herring Gull making up most of the birds with a Canada Goose sighted way out on the Lake, an uncommon bird for the area and time of year. On our way out we were treated to a pair of Peregrine Falcons flying up the channel and perching on light poles. Next up was a “dump” area in hopes that more gulls were congregating. Certainly, more gulls but viewing access was difficult, however we had patience waiting for the birds to fly up and shuffle around their positions. Here we scored great Iceland and Glaucous Gulls, however the real highlight might have been seven Bald Eagles all perched in the same tree! From here we decided to dip over into Wisconsin to check a spot along the lake, however the snow build up around that road proved access too risky so we kept moving but did log two Wisconsin species, Rock Dove (Pigeon) and Bald Eagle.
We headed north along the shore until we reached the town of Two Harbors. We searched the neighborhoods for waxwings without much luck but did see a few more common species including Black-capped Chickadee and Downy Woodpecker. After lunch in town, we did a few more laps of the neighborhoods before continuing north to Grand Marais. Along the way, a giant Pileated Woodpecker flew across the road and we managed to safely pull over and re-find it for the whole group! Upon arrival we circled the quiet campgrounds before heading out to the neighborhoods. It didn’t take long before we saw one of the most incredible avian spectacles I have ever witnessed. The sky was covered in huge flocks of birds in every direction you turned and the trees all around us were loaded up like Christmas tree ornaments. Something you might see of starlings, but these were all waxwings and likely 95% Bohemian Waxwing and 5% Cedar Waxwing. The whole flock was pushing 1000 birds total. Eventually a few of these groups broke off and headed in the direction of the campground where we had seen a lot of berries, so we headed back over there and sure enough the berries were covered by Bohemian and Cedar Waxwings! We watched them feed and circle the skies. What an incredible ending to the day and what truly might be a once-in-a-lifetime bird experience!
This Bohemian Waxwing was feasting on Mountain Ash berries.
Day 5, 17th January 2022. Superior National Forest and Grand Marais Harbor
Today we headed off to explore Superior National Forest. We arrived early in the morning before the logging trucks started to take over the roads, but unfortunately the birds were not cooperating well this morning and things were slow. Today ended up being more about mammals than birds it seemed, with several great sightings including a Moose that disappeared into the woods and a Red Fox quickly crossing the road. Northern (Common) Ravens seemed to be the only birds up and active on this day until about mid-morning when we encountered a small flock of Common Redpolls feeding in the road. Huge snowflakes began falling hard so we pulled over for a bit to get out and enjoy the true winter wonderland of the Boreal Forest surrounding us. We continued onto Ely for lunch and crossed a river with two adult Bald Eagles feasting on what appeared to be a deer carcass that had washed down the river.
On our way out of the forest, we had a close encounter with a Coyote along the roadside, posing for a few pictures and nice looks. Back in Grand Marais, we caught up with a portion of the huge waxwing flock again before scanning out from the harbor. Here we managed to pick up our final two species, a male, Red-breasted Merganser and a raft of Long-tailed Ducks all actively diving together! Stunning birds and a great way to watch the sunset.
The male Pine Grosbeak glows with its warm pinkish-red color.
Day 6, 18th January 2022. Departure day
After breakfast at the hotel, it was time to head off back to Duluth to catch flights home. We spent some of the drive and the dinner the previous evening discussing favorite moments and sightings of the trip. The group’s top five birds ended up being Bohemian Waxwing, Great Grey Owl, Boreal Chickadee, Snowy Owl, and Sharp-tailed Grouse. We made it safely to the airport after a snowy morning where we said our goodbyes to half the group. The other half ventured back out to Canal Park for one more gull search and managed views of American Herring, Glaucous and Iceland Gulls before it was time to load up and say our final goodbyes. We all left this trip with loads of great memories, lifers, and most importantly, new friends!
Bird List – Following IOC (12.1)
Species seen only on the pre-trip day of this trip are marked with (+) after the common name.
The following notation after species names is used to show conservation status following BirdLife International: CE = Critically Endangered, EN = Endangered, VU = Vulnerable, NT = Near Threatened.
|Common Name||Scientific Name|
|Ducks, Geese, and Waterfowl (Anatidae)|
|Canada Goose||Branta canadensis|
|Long-tailed Duck – VU||Clangula hyemalis|
|Common Goldeneye||Bucephala clangula|
|Common Merganser||Mergus merganser|
|Red-breasted Merganser||Mergus serrator|
|Pheasants, Grouse, and Allies (Phasianidae)|
|Sharp-tailed Grouse||Tympanuchus phasianellus|
|Wild Turkey||Meleagris gallopavo|
|Pigeons and Doves (Columbidae)|
|Rock Pigeon||Columba livia|
|Gulls, Terns, and Skimmers (Laridae)|
|American Herring Gull||Larus smithsonianus|
|Iceland Gull||Larus glaucoides|
|Glaucous Gull||Larus hyperboreus|
|Ivory Gull (+)||Pagophila eburnea|
|Hawks, Eagles, and Kites (Accipitridae)|
|Bald Eagle||Haliaeetus leucocephalus|
|Snowy Owl – VU||Bubo scandiacus|
|Barred Owl||Strix varia|
|Great Grey Owl||Strix nebulosa|
|Downy Woodpecker||Dryobates pubescens|
|Hairy Woodpecker||Dryobates villosus|
|Pileated Woodpecker||Dryocopus pileatus|
|Northern (Great Grey) Shrike||Lanius borealis|
|Falcons and Caracaras (Falconidae)|
|Peregrine Falcon||Falco peregrinus|
|Crows, Jays, and Magpies (Corvidae)|
|Canada Jay||Perisoreus canadensis|
|Blue Jay||Cyanocitta cristata|
|Black-billed Magpie||Pica hudsonia|
|American Crow||Corvus brachyrhynchos|
|Northern (Common) Raven||Corvus corax|
|Tits, Chickadees, and Titmice (Paridae)|
|Black-capped Chickadee||Poecile atricapillus|
|Boreal Chickadee||Poecile hudsonicus|
|Red-breasted Nuthatch||Sitta canadensis|
|White-breasted Nuthatch||Sitta carolinensis|
|European Starling||Sturnus vulgaris|
|Bohemian Waxwing||Bombycilla garrulus|
|Cedar Waxwing||Bombycilla cedrorum|
|Finches, Euphonias, and Allies (Fringillidae)|
|Evening Grosbeak – VU||Coccothraustes vespertinus|
|Pine Grosbeak||Pinicola enucleator|
|Common Redpoll||Acanthis flammea|
|Two-barred (White-winged) Crossbill||Loxia leucoptera|
|Old World Sparrows (Passeridae)|
|House Sparrow||Passer domesticus|
|Longspurs and Snow Buntings (Calcariidae)|
|Snow Bunting||Plectrophenax nivalis|
|Oropendolas, Orioles, Blackbirds (Icteridae)|
|Red-winged Blackbird||Agelaius phoeniceus|
|Common Name||Scientific Name|
|Sciuridae (Squirrels and Allies)|
|Eastern Grey Squirrel||Sciurus carolinensis|
|Red Squirrel||Tamiasciurus hudsonicus|
|Leporidae (Rabbits and Hares)|
|Snowshoe Hare||Lepus americanus|
|Red Fox||Vulpes vulpes|
|Mustelidae (Weasels and Allies)|
|White-tailed Deer||Odocoileus virginianus|
DOWNLOAD TRIP REPORT
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.’