American Tree Sparrow and Slate-colored Junco at Minnesota Valley NWR HQ Bald Eagle in Canal Park Common Redpoll in Sax Zim Red-breasted Nuthatch in Sax Zim Snowy Owl in Superior, WI
  • American Tree Sparrow and Slate-colored Junco at Minnesota Valley NWR HQ
  • Bald Eagle in Canal Park
  • Common Redpoll in Sax Zim
  • Red-breasted Nuthatch in Sax Zim
  • Snowy Owl in Superior, WI


Trip Report


Northern Minnesota Venture

February 14-19, 2016


Snowy Owl in Superior, WI

    After arriving on separate flights on Feb 19, our Northern Minnesota: Owls & Winter Finches venture began the next morning with a few stops around Minneapolis at the Minnesota Valley NWR. This gave us a chance to add several species to our list that we would not see in the northern reaches of the state, such as Red-bellied Woodpecker, American Robin, and American Tree Sparrow. Of course there were plenty of Black-capped Chickadees and Downy Woodpeckers around, and we would see a whole lot more throughout the trip! There were lots of Mallard on the partially frozen bass ponds, and we were delighted to find a few River Otters sitting on the ice as well. We managed to find a distant Northern Harrier before heading on. A brief stop at the feeders behind the NWR Headquarters yielded Hairy Woodpecker, Dark-eyed Junco, Blue Jay and White-breasted Nuthatch. Our drive up to Duluth was an enjoyable one and we made a few stops along the way, finding Red-tailed Hawk, Bald Eagle and American Kestrel. At a rest stop about 20 minutes from Duluth we found a beautiful Northern Shrike, which obliged us with wonderful views.


    The next morning was spent in the famous Sax Zim Bog, a ‘Mecca’ for winter birding in Minnesota. It Red-breasted Nuthatch in Sax Zimdidn’t take long for us to find Common Redpolls, truly a common bird in the boreal forests here! The birding festival had just wrapped up a few days before, and there were reports of Sharp-tailed Grouse already lekking. Unfortunately, we had no such luck on the lek, so we visited a few different feeding stations around the bog to wrap up our morning. Evening Grosbeaks were a sight to behold, their brilliant yellow contrasting beautifully with the surrounding snowy-tinged trees. Pine Grosbeaks were a favorite as well, and we watched them along the roadsides picking up grit to aid with digestion. Boreal Chickadee put on a show for us, and was easy to pick out amongst the hordes of Black-cappeds at the Admiral Road feeders. For the afternoon, we headed back to Duluth to look for the several Gyrfalcons that were hanging around. We didn’t find any Gyrs, but we enjoyed wonderful views of a banded female Snowy Owl – an excellent way to finish the day!


Bald Eagle in Canal Park    The pristine Superior National Forest was our destination early the next morning in hopes of finding Spruce Grouse. Luck wasn’t on our side, but we settled for close-up views of a pair of Black-backed Woodpeckers and a Gray Jay. A nice variety of ducks and gulls had been reported in Two Harbors the day before, and after a delicious lunch at Vanilla Bean we set out to find them. Burlington Bay was loaded with Common Goldeneyes, and as we watched a mixed flock of Red-breasted and Common Mergansers landed on the water in front of us. Gulls were frustratingly absent, with only a single Herring Gull being found. Heading back to Duluth along back roads we hit the jackpot with a flock of about 200 Bohemian Waxwings feeding in the buckthorn along the roadside. We watched for about 20 minutes until they all got up and flew north and out of sight.

    Common Redpoll in Sax Zim

     It was back to the bog the next day, hoping beyond hope for Great Gray Owl, among other things we had so far missed. After a brief, accidental foray into a snow-filled ditch (thankfully, we were pulled out by a helpful passerby in minutes), we found a flock of about 30 Snow Buntings along Hwy 7. A quick scan revealed a darker, browner bird in the flock – a Lapland Longspur! After lunch, we returned to the bog and visited a few more feeding stations. We were on the lookout for Hoary Redpolls, but all we found were commons. As the light began to fade, our attention turned back towards Great Gray. Unfortunately, the forecasted freezing rain began and the wind picked up, creating far from ideal owling conditions. We ran into another tour group who had also missed the owl, and with the increasingly poor weather we began the drive back to Duluth. On the way out, we had a few cooperative Ruffed Grouse right in the road, taking their time to cross, giving us excellent looks in the headlights.


American Tree Sparrow and Slate-colored Junco at Minnesota Valley NWR HQ

    The next morning was our final one, and we had time enough for a few hours of rarity searching in the Duluth area before the drive back to Minneapolis. The Golden-crowned Sparrow and Gyrfalcons were nowhere to be found, but a stop at the Superior, WI landfill added a couple more gulls to our list. Glaucous were easy to pick out, paler and larger than the surrounding Herrings, with all white wingtips. Even more obvious was the Great Black-backed Gull, towering over the Herring Gulls with a much darker coloration. We then said goodbye to the snowy north and drove back to Minneapolis.


    Though we enjoyed the warmer than average winter temperatures (lowest temp was -22F, highest was 37F), the northern owls were scarce compared to previous winters. Any winter birding trip to the northern reaches of Minnesota is not without its fair share of challenges, but we finished with a respectable 46 species, and our wonderful group thoroughly enjoyed the Duluth area, both for its birding and delicious food and beer.


Aaron Steed

Birds seen or heard on our Northern Minnesota Venture

February 14-19, 2016
(46 species)



Canada Goose
American Black Duck
Common Goldeneye
Common Merganser
Red-breasted Merganser
Ruffed Grouse
Wild Turkey
Bald Eagle
Northern Harrier
Red-tailed Hawk
American Kestrel
Peregrine Falcon
Herring Gull
Glaucous Gull


Great Black-backed Gull
Rock Pigeon
Snowy Owl
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Black-backed Woodpecker
Pileated Woodpecker
Northern Shrike
Gray Jay
Blue Jay
Black-billed Magpie
American Crow
Common Raven
Black-capped Chickadee



Boreal Chickadee
Red-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
American Robin
European Starling
Bohemian Waxwing
American Tree Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Lapland Longspur
Snow Bunting
Northern Cardinal
Pine Grosbeak
House Finch
Common Redpoll
Evening Grosbeak
House Sparrow