Owls and Winter Birding in the Boreal Forest of Minnesota
Dates and Costs:
13 – 18 January 2022
Price: US$2,350 / £1,785 / €2,069 per person sharing, assuming 4-8 participants
Single Supplement: US$370 / £281 / €326
* 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.
12 – 17 January 2023
Price: US$2,415 / £1,835 / €2,126 per person sharing, assuming 4-8 participants
Single Supplement: US$385 / £293 / €339
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
North American Porcupine
Great Black-backed Gull
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 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.
One of several species of owl on this tour, the massive Great Grey Owl.
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.
The gorgeous Red Crossbill can be very common in some years.
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 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.
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
It is always a treat to watch a Ruffed Grouse navigate its way through trees.
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 adorable and quizzical Canada Jay is always a fan favorite.
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 above 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.
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!