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 most-wanted Great Grey Owl will be searched for on this tour.
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
Northern Hawk-Owl 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 2023
12 – 17 JANUARY 2023
By Jacob Roalef
DOWNLOAD TRIP REPORT
The special American Three-toed Woodpecker treated us to amazing looks as it peeled bark!
This six-day set departure tour of Minnesota began in Duluth on the 12th of January 2023 and visited a variety of fantastic birding locations including Sax-Zim Bog, Lake Superior shoreline, Canal Park, Park Point, Winterberry Bog, Grand Marais Harbor, and the Gun Flint Trail. The group also enjoyed a few drives along the scenic North Shore Highway 61, multiple gorgeous sunsets, and an exploration of the Boreal Forest.
This tour connected with many of our target bird species, giving us a high-quality trip list for our six days in the region. Avian highlights included Great Grey and Snowy Owls, Northern Hawk-Owl, Evening and Pine Grosbeaks, Common Redpoll, Iceland and Glaucous Gulls, Canada Jay, Spruce Grouse, Great Grey Shrike, Bald Eagle, American Three-toed Woodpecker, Black-billed Magpie, and Bohemian Waxwing. In addition to these great species, we noted two rarities for the region, namely Trumpeter Swan and Townsend’s Solitaire.
A total of 40 bird species were seen, along with a few mammals including Red and Eastern Grey Squirrels and White-tailed Deer. Full bird and mammal checklists can be found at the end of the report.
An amazing sunset over the mighty Lake Superior.
Day 1, 12th January 2023. Arrival and birding Duluth and Lake Superior
All participants arrived in Duluth by midday and after checking into the hotel and lunch, we headed out for some afternoon birding in the cold. Our first stop was along Lake Superior at Canal Park. The water was open but not many birds were around. We checked off our first few species of the trip like Bald Eagle, American Crow, and American Herring Gull. A young Iceland Gull flew overhead for a moment, then we loaded back into the van to move on to Park Point. Birding was a bit slow until we came across fantastic views of a Great Grey (Northern) Shrike as it flew across the road and perched in a small tree. From here we headed off across the state line into Wisconsin where we drove some loops around the Richard Bong Airport. Our scanning paid off as we spotted a gorgeous Snowy Owl on top of a light fixture and had some excellent scope views. We still had some time before dinner, so we headed off to follow up on a recent rare bird report in Duluth close to the hotel. Amazingly, it took us about 30 seconds to spot the Townsend’s Solitaire feasting on berries. It had been hanging out in this neighborhood for a week or two. What an excellent pickup for the trip and it was a lifer for some. After an amazing first day we went for dinner and then a good night’s sleep.
This Townsend’s Solitaire was certainly an unexpected species for the trip!
Day 2, 13th January 2023. Sax-Zim Bog
We departed the hotel in the cold, pre-dawn darkness and headed north towards the fabulous birding of Sax-Zim Bog. The morning was spent cruising up and down various hotspots searching for owls that might still be out after a night of hunting. Unfortunately, this didn’t turn up much besides our first Northern (Common) Raven and Canada Jay. We pulled into the visitor center parking lot and enjoyed the feeders here, which held a large flock of Evening Grosbeaks, a cold-looking White-throated Sparrow, and a few American Goldfinches. There were also both Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers nearby which allowed us time to study the differences in size and proportion. From here we ventured down the snowy trail named Grey Jay Way. It was an incredibly peaceful and beautiful morning with the serenity of snow and evergreen trees. At the end of the trail, we came up to a few feeders where we enjoyed a Boreal Chickadee – a fantastic sighting and a lifer for some – amongst the numerous Black-capped Chickadees. We headed to lunch and thawed out a bit. Along the way, we picked up Wild Turkey and a roaming flock of Common Redpolls that just would not sit still.
After lunch, we slowly cruised up and down the many roads of the bog and kept our eyes peeled for anything good. Our route was mostly determined by the various feeding stations set up on the different roads and we enjoyed a few new species for the day which included Pine Grosbeak, Blue Jay, and Red-breasted Nuthatch. It was also fun to watch the Red Squirrels compete with the birds for any peanut butter and seeds they could get. As dusk approached, we looped back, searching for owls. Unfortunately, just like in the morning, we were again unsuccessful. This was nevertheless a fantastic day full of great birds and scenery. We headed back to Duluth for a tasty dinner and then the hotel to get some rest.
Day 3, 14th January 2023. More Sax-Zim Bog birding and northern forests
This morning we ventured back into the bog to explore a few new areas. First, we entered via a different southern entrance along some farmlands which netted us a pair of Black-billed Magpies mixed in with American Crows. This was about the eastern-most extent of the magpies range, so it was really great to see them here. The rest of the morning was spent on the prowl for owls. We were delighted when we spotted a Northern Hawk-Owl atop a very distant pine tree! We spent the next 30-40 minutes finding different vantage points and eventually had a solid view through the scope. We then made a quick stop along a side street where a small creek was open with flowing water and a long-staying Trumpeter Swan had been hanging out. This was another unexpected species for the trip. It was now mid-morning and we headed off to the northwest corner of the bog to visit Mary Lou’s house and her special feeding station. While we didn’t spot anything too exciting besides some Wild Turkeys and Blue Jays, it was nice to visit this very important birding location. From Mary Lou’s we continued north, out of the bog and into some beautiful sections of the Boreal Forest. Early into our exploration, we nailed our target bird, a stunning male American Three-toed Woodpecker. We watched on as he quietly tapped and peeled the bark away in search of insects. As we watched, a Northern Goshawk zoomed by overhead, but unfortunately only a few of us managed a view and even that was mostly a glimpse.
After a delicious lunch in the city of Cook, we drove an hour south towards Sax-Zim Bog. We spent the afternoon just east of “the bog” at a quiet place with a lovely snow-covered boardwalk trail called Winterberry Bog. Here we took a few laps in this excellent woodland and saw plenty of Hairy Woodpeckers as well as some fabulous views of Pine Grosbeak. The dusk hours were spent in the van as we drove around in search of owls again but, like the previous evening, we had no luck. It was then time to head back to Duluth for another lovely dinner and a good night’s rest.
We enjoyed good views of the striking male Evening Grosbeak.
Day 4, 15th January 2023. Sax-Zim Bog and the North Shore
Today we decided to head back to Sax-Zim Bog for the morning in a last-ditch effort at a certain owl that we had some unfinished business with. As the sun rose we searched and searched, along with 50 other people. Time ticked by with no sign of any owls and then Jacob had a phone call from a local birder with a report. We hurried over to the location only to learn that the owl was out of sight for the moment. A few minutes went by and then, majestically, the Great Grey Owl appeared! This beautiful bird gave us some very fine views and even a flight or two. What a perfect morning! We returned to the hotel, packed our baggage and checked out, and then continued with some more epic birding on this gorgeous day.
Next stop was the Duluth WLSSD (or the dump, for short), because no birding trip would be complete without a visit to the local waste management facility! Since it was Sunday, we weren’t disturbed by large waste trucks coming and going. The place was loaded with birds foraging through the scraps so we spent some time here and picked through the gulls. We picked up excellent views of both Iceland and Glaucous Gulls in different plumage states amongst the many American Herring Gulls. In addition to the gulls, there were at least a half dozen Bald Eagles perched nearby as they watched over the dump, and a group of American Robins picking through some exposed ground. After a proper study, we loaded up and drove along the scenic Northshore Highway 61. A quick stop picked up Mallard for our list, before we made it to the town of Two Harbors for another tasty lunch. The next hour and a half were spent enjoying the scenery of the mighty Lake Superior before arriving at our destination, Grand Marais, in the mid-afternoon. Clouds had begun rolling in and the light was not ideal, but we were determined and we drove through the neighborhoods searching for our target species. Thankfully it didn’t take too long before we were enjoying a flock of about 25 Bohemian Waxwings! We still had time for a quick scan of Lake Superior, which resulted in Common Goldeneye and Long-tailed Duck, as well as a stunning sunset over the water. This was a great cap to a great day, finished off with a delicious dinner.
Everyone was ecstatic to finally see Great Grey Owl (photo Jim Sculetti).
Day 5, 16th January 2023. Gunflint Trail and Grand Marais
After a tasty breakfast at the hotel, we loaded up and ventured out to the Gunflint Trail, a 57-mile scenic roadway in far northern Minnesota. As the sun rose, we began our climb up the road, away from the lake and into pristine forests. Things were slow with a few Northern (Common) Ravens and a lone Canada Jay. After about an hour we pulled off, down a snow-covered side road, and adventured in the quietness of the trees and snow. We crept along slowly but no birds were to be seen. Eventually we found a good place to turn around, which was literally a group effort, and headed back out. As we approached the end, a grouse shot off the edge of the road into the trees. We approached, got out and managed to spot four Spruce Grouse! They were all female and were very calm, foraging and eating pine needles. We had amazing views of this very difficult-to-find species. A few Black-capped Chickadees called nearby while we watched the grouse. As we said goodbye to the grouse and made it back to the main road, we spotted a flock of Pine Siskins, another new species for the trip. They came down to the exposed road to pick for grit and any food they could find.
We continued along the road until we reached a general store and had a restroom break on Poplar Lake. The owners kindly allowed us to walk on the frozen lake and explore the property behind the store. It is always neat walking out onto the snow-covered ice, and we even managed a few birds including Pine Grosbeak, Common Redpoll, and Blue Jay. Snow began falling and the forecast was looking grim for the afternoon, so we decided to begin our descent of the Gunflint Trail and head back towards Grand Marais. Along the drive a Pileated Woodpecker flew out from the trees and flew in front of the van for a while before disappearing just as quickly. By the time we arrived back in town the snow and ice were falling hard so we decided to have lunch in town. Unfortunately, the weather didn’t clear and we decided that birding in these conditions would be miserable, so we agreed on an afternoon off to enjoy the fantastic views of Lake Superior from the hotel. Later we had a delicious local meal, our final dinner together. What an adventure we had experienced in the snowy wilderness of northern Minnesota.
We all enjoyed fantastic views of this Spruce Grouse foraging in the treetops.
Day 6, 17th January 2023. Departure day
On our final morning together we enjoyed a hearty breakfast together before loading up the van and driving south along the Lake Superior shoreline to Duluth. Along the way we discussed our favorite moments and species of the trip. Everyone agreed that the top five species of the trip were Great Grey Owl, American Three-toed Woodpecker, Spruce Grouse, Northern Hawk-Owl, and Snowy Owl. On arrival at the airport, we all said our goodbyes, wrapping up another amazing trip to the winter wonderland of Minnesota.
Bird List – Following IOC (13.1)
Birds ‘heard only’ are marked with (H) after the common name, all other species were seen. 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)|
|Trumpeter Swan||Cygnus buccinator|
|Long-tailed Duck – VU||Clangula hyemalis|
|Common Goldeneye||Bucephala clangula|
|Pheasants, Grouse, and Allies (Phasianidae)|
|Spruce Grouse||Falcipennis canadensis|
|Wild Turkey||Meleagris gallopavo|
|Pigeons and Doves (Columbidae)|
|Rock Pigeon||Columba livia|
|Mourning Dove||Zenaida macroura|
|Gulls, Terns, and Skimmers (Laridae)|
|American Herring Gull||Larus smithsonianus|
|Iceland Gull||Larus glaucoides|
|Glaucous Gull||Larus hyperboreus|
|Hawks, Eagles, and Kites (Accipitridae)|
|Northern Goshawk||Accipiter gentilis|
|Bald Eagle||Haliaeetus leucocephalus|
|Snowy Owl – VU||Bubo scandiacus|
|Northern Hawk-Owl||Surnia ulula|
|Great Grey Owl||Strix nebulosa|
|American Three-toed Woodpecker||Picoides dorsalis|
|Downy Woodpecker||Dryobates pubescens|
|Hairy Woodpecker||Dryobates villosus|
|Pileated Woodpecker||Dryocopus pileatus|
|Great Grey (Northern) Shrike||Lanius borealis|
|Crows, Jays, and Magpies (Corvidae)|
|Canada Jay||Perisoreus canadensis|
|Blue Jay||Cyanocitta cristata|
|American (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|
|European Starling||Sturnus vulgaris|
|Thrushes and Allies (Turdidae)|
|American Robin||Turdus migratorius|
|Townsend’s Solitaire||Myadestes townsendi|
|Bohemian Waxwing||Bombycilla garrulus|
|Finches, Euphonias, and Allies (Fringillidae)|
|Evening Grosbeak – VU||Coccothraustes vespertinus|
|Pine Grosbeak||Pinicola enucleator|
|Common Redpoll||Acanthis flammea|
|Pine Siskin||Spinus pinus|
|American Goldfinch||Spinus tristis|
|Old World Sparrows (Passeridae)|
|House Sparrow||Passer domesticus|
|New World Sparrows (Passerellidae)|
|White-throated Sparrow||Zonotrichia albicollis|
|Common Name||Scientific Name|
|Sciuridae (Squirrels and Allies)|
|Eastern Grey Squirrel||Sciurus carolinensis|
|Red Squirrel||Tamiasciurus hudsonicus|
|White-tailed Deer||Odocoileus virginianus|
DOWNLOAD TRIP REPORT
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.’