Saturday, February 6, 2016

Superior Birding Around Duluth

It was the morning of January 30th.  It was day two of our Minnesota birding excursions.  It was bound to be another epic birding day.  It was the exact opposite of the first day at Sax-Zim Bog.  It was surprisingly warm on this second day.  It was time to bird the cities of Duluth, Minnesota and Superior, Wisconsin.  It was time to score..

I don't know how many times when Josh was telling me stories on this day that I thought to myself, "You have got to be kidding me".  To give a brief refresh of our trip before I get to the main ordeal, it was our second full day of birding.  The first day was spent in the heart of Sax-Zim Bog Birding Area where a Great Gray Owl, Sharp-tailed Grouse, and Boreal Chickadees were among the highlights (see previous blog).  And we went from that atmosphere, to industrial areas after crossing the Minnesota and Wisconsin state line to birding in Superior, Wisconsin.  After eating a McDonald's breakfast, it was all about birding, in an industrial city.  But if there are incredible birds around, I don't really care about the scenery.  After all, look at my patch at home, the Glendale Recharge Ponds.  Josh, Gordon, and I were targeting two raptors:  Snowy Owls and the rare Gyrfalcon.  We started off by looking for Snowies in Superior in the early morning hours in places that Josh was told about by others.  When Josh told me about where the Snowy Owls were being seen and what they were being seen perched on, that's when I kept thinking, "You have got to be kidding me".  When we went on the bridge that crosses from Duluth into Superior, Josh said, "The Snowy Owl will perch on top of this bridge at times".  When we drove past the airport and it's adjacent open fieldy areas, Josh said, "The Snowy Owl will perch on the buildings around here, in the field on the ground, or on any mound or pile of sticks". When we drove through town, Josh said, "The Snowy Owl will perch on any of these buildings, it has been seen throughout this stretch".  When we drove up to the store Menards, Josh said, "The Snowy Owl often perches on the store sign, in the parking lot, on the trucks, or anywhere in this area in general".  When we didn't find any Snowy Owls during our early morning search, Josh said, "It's pretty hard to find them in morning, evening is much better".  

Snowy Owl searching was crazy.  And there was more than one in the area that we drove through.  Yes I knew it is a bird of open areas, but I was surprised how they can get used to being in human dominated environments.  Rodents are abound in areas like this, who can blame the Snowy Owls for wanting to be around this?  After all, these areas are open, and Josh said that Snowy Owls are not picky.  As we drove around in the morning without finding any Snowy Owls, it only helped us better prepare ourselves for the search in the evening...

The Gyrfalcon is a mighty creature of the Arctic and far North.  It is found along rocky and barren tundra and it nests on cliffs along rivers and coasts.  With small population numbers and with it being an epic falcon, it is highly coveted by birders.  Gyrfalcons have a variety of look to their repertoire, with three main color morphs that can be seen.  Some of these falcons can be nearly white in the white morph.  The Gyrfalcon is the largest true falcon in the world, and this powerful predator hunts a variety of birds and mammals.  While some Gyrs are residents within their range in the high arctic, some of them move south during winter.  Some of these winter birds can be found in some of the northern Lower 48 states where they are found in a variety of open habitats.  Luckily, they are annual in Wisconsin and Minnesota in areas like Duluth and Superior.  When a Gyr shows up in an area, it is most often content with that area and will spend the winter.  Luckily in Superior, Wisconsin, where we were on January 30th, two Gyrfalcons were in the area.  And one of them used the Peavey company towers (photographed above) as it's base perch and roost.

I have a confession to make.  You can call me crazy, and you can call me a fool.  I was completely fixated on owls on this trip that going into this trip, the Gyrfalcon possibility seemed muted to me because I wanted owls so bad.  That's right, I said it.  The Gyrfalcon didn't even come close to the owls in my thought process.  As Josh, Gordon, and I waited for 15 minutes, I still wasn't overly pumped up about the Falcon.  But when I saw that Gyrfalcon fly in at 9:15 A.M., it was right up there with the Owls.  Only a mighty creature has the easiest time of changing a mind, and I was screaming my head off inside my mind at the sight of the Gyrfalcon...

At first, the Gyrfalcon flew up to the highest perch of the tower possible before flying in much closer, and lower, thankfully!  Pigeon after pigeon was seen flying around the tower, probably one of the Gyr's many food sources in the area.  I started to set my scope up as the Gyrfalcon was perched up on the tall buildings.

Once I got my scope set up, oooohs and aaaahs were exclaimed by the three of us, and by several other birders who were driving up on the scene.  Because the Gyrfalcon was so distant, I decided to go back in time to my era of Digiscope photography by using my iPod.  And it the method worked well this time around too.  It actually worked better than my normal camera did!

Also for some fun, here is a video I took of the Gyrfalcon while using my iPod touch camera.

After enjoying the Gyrfalcon while it was perched in the open for us for about 10 minutes, the bird took off and flew low to the ground and about 100 yards past us.  Had we had been adjacent to the spot where it was flying to, we would have had incredible looks.  It was an enjoyable and incredible life bird to see, one that I always have wondered if I would ever see or not.

Up next Josh, Gordon, and I headed back into Duluth, Minnesota to go to Canal Park along Lake Superior to look for gulls, American Black Duck, and more.  Canal Park in Duluth was the site where the mega-rare Ivory Gull had spent a good amount of time.  As I mentioned in my previous post, the gull had likely died and it was last seen about four days before Gordon and my arrival into Minnesota.  I would have loved to see the Ivory Gull, as it is a very challenging bird to get in North America because it typically stays as far north as possible.  But there were other birds to look for, and many gulls favored the packs of ice that floated on the lake.  At Canal Park, Gordon and I had several potential gull life birds apiece which included Thayer's, Iceland, and the mighty Great Black-backed Gull as well as Gordon's first potential Glaucous Gull.  Out of all of these gulls, I really really really really really wanted to see the Great Black-backed Gull!  It's the largest gull in North America, and it would seem awesome to see it on Lake Superior, the largest lake in the United States.

Herring Gull is the most common gull in Minnesota.  We started to search through many Herring Gulls in search of any life gulls.  Located in the middle of the Herring Gull flock was Stumpy, an Iceland and Thayer's Gull hybrid.  It was an interesting bird, but is pointless at the end of the day because it can't be counted for anything, technically.  A hybrid lifer!  Can you find Stumpy?

After some scanning, we did find an adult Thayer's Gull floating on the ice with some Herring Gulls.  At this point, there weren't many gulls out on the water, but it was fun to lock up the Thayer's Gull as a life bird before we had to head off to pursue other birding locations.  There was also a Black-legged Kittiwake in the area, a rarity in Minnesota and a lifer for Josh.  The Kittiwake didn't make an appearance while we were there.  Here is the Thayer's Gull on the left of the Herring Gulls.

There were many birders on site of Canal Park in Duluth, and all of them knew Josh, and all of them really like Josh.  Gordon and I were with a Minnesota birding phenomenon as our guide!  Among those folks was Peder Svingen, Minnesota's top eBirder and one of the state's best birders.  He was helpful to us and he told me that a mature and pure Iceland Gull had been around at times.  I saw an interesting gull that I thought was that bird, and every time I got it in my scope and tried to show it to Peder for confirmation, it flew off every time Peder was about to study it.  I wasn't too happy with that gull.  After the gulls left the area, we tried looking over the area a little further in hopes of finding American Black Ducks without luck.  That miss was made up for by skipping rocks across Superior.  It was then time to head off to Two Harbors to look for Long-tailed Ducks and for Gordon and my potential lifer Bohemian Waxwings.  But before that, I had to snap a photograph of North America's three most Superior birders in front of that ginormous lake.

Lake Superior was beautiful, and as we made our way north to Two Harbors, I also had to take some video of the lake as we were driving along.

When we got to Two Harbors, we decided to check the harbors first to search for Long-tailed Ducks.  It was extremely windy there, making it extremely cold.  We weren't as keen as can be when it came to searching because of these weather aspects, but birder Jim Lind made things easy for us as he already had a drake Long-tailed Duck staked out in his scope.  Although the Long-tailed Duck was a distance out on the water, we had decent scope looks at this gorgeous duck.  And I managed a couple of very distant photos with my camera for the memory.

We then searched for Bohemian Waxwings in neighborhoods they had been found at in recent days that surrounded Two Harbors.  Bohemian Waxwings are nomadic birds of the North and they can be very hard to find at times.  They aren't rare, but they are constantly on the move.  To find them in a place where they were previously reported would mean that we would have to be pretty lucky.  In some regards, it's a bird you have to find on your own a lot of times.  We didn't find any Waxwings and my hungry stomach needing a Subway sandwich took twenty minutes away from our search.  Regardless, we spent time trying and that's what birding is all about.  We got an E for effort.  At this point and time of the day, it was about 1:30 P.M.  It didn't seem like it was that late into the day already.  Josh had two ideas before we would start our Snowy Owl search in the evening after 3 P.M.  One of those ideas was to look for the American Black Ducks near Duluth and the other idea was to give Canal Park a second visit just in case more gulls were visiting the park.  The second option seemed to be the better option, and we headed back to Canal Park to attempt more gulling.  When we pulled up to Canal Park, a few awesome things happened.  One was that we had that incredible view of Lake Superior again!

The second thing was that one of Josh's good friends, Randy Frederickson, came to Canal Park to study Thayer's Gulls.  When we arrived at the park, Josh got a timely text from Randy about two lifers for Gordon and I being present:  Iceland Gull and a Great Black-backed Gull!  We were thrilled and practically ran out of the van and up towards the lookout area.  As I got to the lookout, I could see that many more gulls were present.  Can you spy the Great Black-backed Gull?

I wanted the Great Black-backed Gull the most, and who could blame me.  It's awesome!  As I looked out on the ice, the well named bird stood out easily amongst the "other ones".  Wow.  

Despite the fact that I think the Great Black-backed Gull is awesome, and despite the fact that Josh and Gordon also think the Great Black-backed Gull is awesome, it doesn't necessarily mean that other birds feel the same way about it.  The Great Black-backed Gull size can range up to 30" and it is North America's largest gull.  It is also a very predatory creature, as it has quite the varied diet that can range from a cheerio to a cormorant.  It's also very moody, as it can be aggressive to almost any bird but can also come into gull flocks without any nasty intentions.  Although a Herring Gull could certainly become prey for this large gull, the Great Black-backed Gull is far more likely to steal the Herring Gull's fish scraps than take the Herring Gull itself.  This Great Black-backed Gull didn't seem to be much of the aggressive type, as this Herring Gull was chasing it around.  

At times, if seen poorly, I'm sure the Great Black-backed Gull has been confused with a Bald Eagle.

After all, both are huge.  Both pick on other birds.  And both...are beyond awesome!  Gosh I'm glad I got to see this bird!!!!!

And he went back to hanging out on ice with the Herring Gulls.

After I got my look at the Great Black-backed Gull (which I did look at time and time throughout our second time at Canal Park well after photos), I looked for the Iceland Gull.  Randy had joined Peder and they pointed the Iceland Gull out to us, which was a second-winter bird.  It was neat to see a pure bird of this species, which is mainly a North Atlantic gull.  And it was my second gull lifer in a minute.

Iceland Gulls are pretty scarce in North America.  This is a bird I was very happy to land for this trip and to get on my life list.

As I was up to three gull lifers on this day, this time around at Canal Park gave me much better looks at the Thayer's Gulls that were present, which was my first gull lifer of the day during our first pass in Canal Park.  I made sure to get the photographs I wanted of this bird when the opportunities presented themselves.

For many years, the Thayer's Gull was considered to be conspecific with Herring Gull until the two were split in the 70's.  Thayer's is smaller and has a more delicate look to it, visually wise.  Iceland Gull is very similar to Thayer's Gull, and some ornithologists consider Thayer's Gull to be a subspecies of Iceland Gull, while others obviously feel like Thayer's Gull is a different species.  Either way, gull identification is birding's biggest puzzle and quite obviously, Herring, Thayer's, and Iceland Gulls are very closely related.

This shot I found to be pretty cool as Herring Gulls fought over food while the Thayer's Gull was watching from the outskirts of the flock, thinking perhaps of a way to grab a bite from those who were fighting so hard.

The gull fun got more exciting when the large Glaucous Gull flew into the area and joined the flock of gulls that we were looking at up close. Glaucous Gull is one of the larger gulls in North America, and it is one I've seen only once in my life prior to the Canal Park bird.  It was a life bird for Gordon, something that he was happy about.  I ended up with three gull lifers at Canal Park and Gordon topped me with four.  In the pictures below, the Glaucous Gull is the brown-colored bird with the whitish head, behind the Herring Gull.

As I just mentioned a little bit ago in the text, the Great Black-backed Gull is one that I couldn't stop looking back at.  Although distant, here is another shot of the spectacular gull, and a great memory for me. 

As we left Canal Park in Duluth, it was then after 3 P.M. and that meant that our main search of the day and one of our most hopeful targets of the day was now being searched for.  We were now looking for the highly desired Snowy Owl, which was for me, one of my most wanted for the trip.  After missing them in the morning, I was anxious and eager as we made our way back down into the industrial areas of Superior to search airport fields, any open areas, piles of sticks, grocery store signs, building tops, billboards, and a variety of other perches.  Now, there were two Snowy Owls that we were seeking out.  The first one was one that we mainly looked for during our morning searches.  This individual liked to hang out at the store, Menard's, a lot, as well as hang out in the vicinity of the nearby Richard/Bong Airport.  We cruised along roads throughout this area several times while carefully checking the previously mentioned perches.  Despite our searches, we could not find this particular owl.  However, we did cross paths with this Northern Shrike.

The Northern Shrike is incredibly hardy, and it endures northern climates like this throughout the entire winter.  I have a lot of respect for shrikes, as they are a predatory songbird that perhaps should be considered a raptor.  Osprey, Eagles, Kites, Hawks, Falcons, Owls, Shrikes.........I like the idea.

Luckily, while we were at Canal Park and when Josh was talking to Peder, Peder gave Josh the location of another Snowy Owl who was a few miles north of the one we were looking for.  Luckily, this Snowy Owl was in a more condensed area and would hopefully be the easier owl to find.  As it was being seen in more of the open and industrial habitat like the other one was, we started to scan buildings, open grassy areas, and any other perch.  As we came up upon a big FedEx building, I spied that wanted big blob on top of a light post!  And there it was, my first ever Snowy Owl...

In a similar tone as to when I spied the previous day's Great Gray Owl, I said, "Right here guys!".  Josh slammed on the breaks and Gordon and I jumped out of the vehicle to get better binocular views and photographs.  There were tall fences surrounding the FedEx building, and Gordon and I had to shoot through that fence.  The Snowy Owl calmly perched on the light post, rather oblivious to us rambling on about it's highly wanted presence.

If you look on the bird's wing, it has a tag on it that reads, "24".  That tag is on there because there is someone who monitors the Snowy Owl population in the area.  He captures the owls and puts the tag on them to study the habits of these creatures and probably to get a general census of Snowy Owls in the specific area.  

As you can see, this Snowy Owl is very dark because it is a younger owl.  As adults have mostly white on them with some adult males being nearby pure white, young birds are the quite opposite.  This one looks very dark and barred overall.  I didn't care though, heck, it was a SNOWY OWL!

With this owl, we were now two-for-two on attempts at the Northern Big Three!

As we were enjoying this Snowy Owl, another car full of birders pulled up.  That group was led by Kim Risen, and Kim told us about another Snowy Owl that was whiter and was only blocks down the road.  After talking with Kim for a few minutes, we sped off to find the second Snowy Owl.  It didn't take us very long to spy it on top of a pole.  It was much lighter than our first, and wow, it was a cool sight!

From these two owls that are photographed so far, it is very evident that by these pictures, the Snowy Owl is a very big and round-headed owl.  At 24" in length, it is North America's second largest owl lengthwise behind the Gray Gray Owl.  The Snowy Owl is very robust and is a skilled hunter.  Out of the North American Owls, it is by far the heaviest, weighing in at four pounds.  It is on average about a pound heavier than the second heaviest owl, the Great Horned Owl.  

Like the Gyrfalcon, the Snowy Owl is an Arctic creature that loves the open tundra in the far North.  In winter, Snowy Owls will move south depending on lemming populations.  When the lemming populations really crash, there can be an abundance of Snowy Owls seeking out places for food in the northern half of the Lower 48.  As I've mentioned many times, any open areas with convenient perches and rodent food source can have a Snowy Owl nearby, especially in states like Minnesota and Wisconsin.  Snowy Owls may prey on a variety of prey in southern latitudes that will also include rabbits and waterfowl.

Between the two Snowy Owls combined, we probably spent about thirty to forty minutes observing them.  It was sure fun!

 At one point, I decided to get my spotting scope out and set up that scope to obtain some digiscope video of the Snowy Owl through my iPod.  It was pretty fun in doing this, and I took two videos of the owl.  Here is the first one, as Gordon and I were trying to get the Owl's attention:

The second video shows the owl at it's same perch, as it looked downward in my direction a lot more than in the first video.  A loud train going by didn't phase the owl.  I actually like the train noise in the background.  It really adds to the video and gives a feel about where these Snowy Owls like to reside in their winter homes.

When we stopped looking at our second Snowy Owl, we went back to enjoy more of our first.  This time, the first was on top of a billboard that overlooked a truck lot.

After leaving this Snowy Owl, Josh was wanting revenge on the Airport and Menard's Snowy Owl.  Despite trying for that bird a third time, we missed it again.  Ah, oh well!  Getting two was great, and it was a memorable time in doing so.  Josh even heard from Randy and Peder (who stopped by briefly as we were looking at our second Snowy) that during their Snowy Owl run in the same area, they found an astonishing seven Snowy Owls.  As Josh said, evening is the time to find these birds and morning isn't nearly as productive.  With another owl lifer, a falcon lifer, and three gull lifers to add to my birding list, the second day of our Minnesota trip with a hint of Wisconsin was another epic day to follow the first day.  Superior birding was found around Duluth on January 30th, 2016!

On the way home, I bought us a lot of groceries for the following day, which would take us to the extreme limits of northwestern Minnesota.  We prepared wisely, as this upcoming day would be another key one to our trip's overall success and explorations.  The three of us got to sleep earlier than on previous nights, because such an epic outing would require a very early start.  Before the night was over and after pizza and other good foods, Josh said, "Plan to leave here at 4 A.M. tomorrow morning".  Stay tuned folks!  Another good story is right around the corner in my next blog post.


  1. Another great detailed post with some great photos and some really cool video. Looking forward to your future posts as well.

    1. Thanks Gordon! What a Superior day of birding it was!

  2. Nice!!!

    It's kind of wrird to think that we are all now familiar with that same dirty FedEX shipping depot...but your time there paid dividends!
    You guys absolutely killed it on this trip!

    1. Thanks for stopping by Laurence! It is strange where these birds decide to hang out, huh?!

  3. Your post title is brilliant. Love the word play. Congrats on another major target achieved along with the Gyr and all those Gulls. You guys really cleaned house--again! I'm glad you got to see the best Duluth/Superior has to offer, both in birds and birders.

    1. Thanks Josh, I"m glad you like the title! Thanks for everything you did for us, Gordon and I would never have pulled this day off if we did this alone. Duluth and Superior have awesome birds and birders, that's for sure!