Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Northern World of Birding

As a birder, I have set many goals for myself over the years.  Every year, there are different goals.  Most of these goals fall into the place of birding throughout my home state of Arizona in different ways, shapes, and forms.  The other side of this court is the most exciting, which takes me out of Arizona in an annual out of state birding trip.  This trip is one I have decided to treat myself to every year.  It will fall into place as to what birds I really want to see, and where I may get those birds in the best quantities or have the best chances of seeing those certain birds.  For the last two years, both of these out-of-state birding trips have come from San Diego, California and it's surrounding atmospheres.  Southern California is great, as one trip was geared towards a pelagic, while the other was focused on finding land birds throughout the region.  Both trips made my life list rise to seemingly towering levels. After all, I rarely leave Arizona, which results in me seeing many new birds and sights on these choice trips.  For this year's out of state treat, I had almost the exact opposite in mind of a birding trip.  This trip was opposite of Arizona, and completely opposite of a southern California.  This trip took me to the far far North of the Lower 48, where almost every inch of the ground was white.

This trip's idea came into play thanks to my buddy, Josh Wallestad.  Josh is an epic birder from Minnesota who, like me, likes to explore many underbirded areas throughout his state like I do in Arizona.  If you think you see Peyton Manning out in the field birding, it's probably Josh.  Last year, buddy Gordon Karre and I took Josh and his son, Evan, around southeastern Arizona twice to show them some of our key birds.  These birds included Josh and Evan's first ever Elegant Trogon, Rufous-capped Warbler, Painted Redstart, Northern Pygmy-Owl, Scott's Oriole, Western Screech-Owl, crushing looks at a Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, and many more.  The four of us: Josh, Gordon, Evan, and myself, made an awesome birding team.  Here's a picture as a reminder of those trips.

As you all know, I am obsessed with owls.  Ever since I opened my field guides, I've always dreamed about seeing Snowy Owl, Northern Hawk Owl, and more than anything else in North America, the Great Gray Owl.  This was the year I wanted to see those birds, and I was willing to go to extreme lengths in order to make that happen.  During these trips where Gordon and I showed Josh Arizona and it's birds, Josh had something in mind.  I'm sure you can figure out where this is going!  It was really quite simple, and Josh said, "Tommy and Gordon, you should come to Minnesota one of these near upcoming winters".  Gordon and I immediately said we wanted to, and we didn't want to wait another year for a shot at a trip like this.  This would result in birding northern Minnesota at the end of January, where frigid and freezing temperatures are dominant.  Such climates are ones that I have never been in, but I wanted to go for it.  With communications over email with Josh after our Arizona birding trips, Gordon, Josh, and I planned an epic birding trip to northern Minnesota this past January 28th through February 1st of 2016.  These owls that I've been dreaming of seeing for years were finally a possibility of crossing the same path as me.  With major thought and detailed itinerary planning, the epic Josh was determined to make this an incredible trip for Gordon and me.  And there was no doubt in my mind that it would be!

Minnesota is freezing during winter, well, most of the time.  Gordon and I bought our plane tickets through Delta Airlines late in October for a straight flight from Phoenix to Minneapolis for just over two hundred dollars apiece.  It is a steal-of-a-deal, but again, what idiots go to Minnesota at the end of January ;)  When we bought our tickets, the winter in the far north even further so than Minnesota seemed to be harsh early.  Snowy Owls started to come down on schedule as if there was to be an eruption.  We excitedly bought our tickets at this news, and then the eruption news...stopped.  The winter started to get more and more mild as time went by.  This wasn't necessarily bad news for those wanting to see guaranteed owls, but it wasn't good news either.  As for the owls, we would have to work harder for them.  A few Snowy Owls did come down, but nothing like the numbers Minnesota and much of the northeast United States saw during the previous year.  Northern Hawk Owls have been scarce this entire year in the Lower 48, which an individual showing up in Washington state and a few in northwestern Minnesota.  My most wanted Great Gray Owl is a resident throughout the area we were traveling to in northern Minnesota, but is much harder to find in non-eruption years.  With these owls, high eruptions obviously happen when food sources crash in the far north.  This winter didn't see much of that, and on a positive note, it's better for the birds.  And from a birding perspective and seeing first ever looks at these birds, what is more fun?:  Seeing these owls easily, or working hard for them and having that feeling of being rewarded for spotting one?  I would say the latter.  Because Josh is awesome, he did do careful research on all three of these owls and had locations of all three of them.  There were numerous Snowy and Great Gray Owls locations to search out where there were previous sightings, and there were a few spots far in northwestern Minnesota where several Northern Hawk Owls had been seen.  I honestly thought our chances were good going into the trip, and challenging aspects make things more exciting..

On January 28th, I woke up and after a previous night of careful packing, I headed out the door early to Gordon's house.  The previous night actually wasn't the most careful.  With a lot on my mind, I chose a sixty dollar cash out option after paying for supplies at Walmart.  That money was to add to a stash of cash that I had set aside to pay Gordon for my half of expenses.  After I finalized the cash back option, I proceeded to leave Walmart without my sixty dollars.  That concludes that a lot was on my mind about this trip because.....I forgot sixty dollars!  After striking out at Walmart early on the 28th for the very-rare-in-Arizona honest person en route to Gordon's house, I got the money once again from a bank and laughed it off with Gordon.  We arranged everything and headed off to the airport.  And before we knew it, we were in the air and were off to Minnesota.  I haven't flown on a plane since I was a very little kid, over 20 years in the making.  Flying alone was a new experience for me, and Gordon was an awesome traveling mentor.  It may seem simple, but Gordon really helped me out in a situation that would seem very irritating if I was going alone.  The plane was pretty awesome, and was a very large aircraft.  There were even personnel TV's for each person.  That was taken advantage of by Gordon and me, and I found myself watching Will Ferrell's professional baseball debut to ten different teams, as well as that new Pixar movie, The Good Dinosaur.  Gordon watched Matt Damon's new movie, the Martian.  I always see planes flying over Mount Ord when I make visits there to the mountain.  Well, I guess I know what it looks like from way up there now..

After departing Phoenix at 12:30, a three hour flight of over 1,000 miles resulted in us landing in Minneapolis at 4:30-ish Minnesota time.  While looking out the plane window, barren ground turned into snow covered ground as we got closer to Minnesota and it's neighboring states.  After getting our luggage and everything in order, Josh was there at the airport to pick us up.  It was great to see Josh, and the adventure was underway.  As soon as we sat in Josh's van, one of the first words out of his mouth were, "You guys ready to go birding right now!??!".  It was epic, and yes, we were officially birding in Minnesota.

Josh had a nice warm coat for me to use, as well as some boots for me to use that he borrowed from one of his friends.  Aside from that, I came very prepared to endure the cold.  I went to Cabela's before the trip and purchased the thickest socks imaginable, $50 elkskin gloves that provide superior warmth, and a thick ninja winter hat.  These items would come in handy throughout the trip.  Yes, it was a bit of cash to spend, but being comfortable is more than worth it.  As Josh got us officially started, our first stop of the trip was to Fort Snelling State Park, which neighbors the airport.  Here we were checking on a pair of Barred Owls that are commonly found at this park.  We drove around and looked in leafless deciduous trees for about 20 minutes without any luck.  Aside from the three northern owls that I really wanted, the Barred Owl was another potential life bird, which of course, I also really wanted.  Immediately following that search, we looked for a Snowy Owl without luck that frequented the airport.  I wasn't worried at all.  It just amazed me that we were already looking for birds.  Three full days were ahead of us, and we were going to be searching hard those owls who were more prevalent further north.  From the start, the time I spent with Josh and Gordon was awesome.  Gordon and I learned a lot about Minnesota's birding from Josh right as the trip began.  From the airport, we had a 3.5 hour drive Josh's parent's house where we were staying at.  Their house was a beautiful place, and they were extremely kind to let us stay there, and Josh's wife Melissa was extremely kind to loan Josh to Gordon and I for these upcoming days.  The area we were staying in is called Angora, Minnesota, which is shortly north of Virginia, Minnesota. Virginia is roughly 70 miles northwest of Duluth, Minnesota, and Superior, Wisconsin.  This area lies in St. Louis County, the largest county in Minnesota.  At this house and around the house, the land and property is amazing.  Josh told me a story of seeing a pack of wolves walking around the property on an occasion.  I guess that's one thing I would have chosen over seeing a Great Gray Owl, but nothing else.  After making the three-and-a-half hour drive and arriving at the house, the plan on Josh's itinerary was to bird the famous Sax-Zim Bog for our first day.  I was pumped, and I was stoked to get out there.  Josh had plenty of locations for looking for Great Gray Owls staked out, and we were hoping for a least one of those birds.  The owls and other amazing birds have also been found right in Angora.  Although owls were top choice of birds during our trip, Gordon, Josh, and I were also excited to look for other birds during the trip's duration such as Ruffed, Sharp-tailed, and Spruce Grouse; Black-backed, Pileated, American Three-toed, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers; Gyrfalcons (!!!!), Snow Bunting, Common Redpoll, Boreal Chickadee, Black-billed Magpie, Gray Jay, Pine Grosbeak, Northern Shrike, Bohemian Waxwing, American Black Duck, Glaucous, Thayer's, Iceland, and Great Black-backed Gulls; and more.  At Canal Park in Duluth, there was recently a highly publicized, highly chased, and extremely-rare-in-Lower 48 Ivory Gull.  The bird most likely perished after being present for close to a month, and it was last seen 4 days before our arrival.  It would have been cool to still have the Ivory Gull around, but I was content with the bird potentials we had in front of us.  Before leaving Phoenix, Gordon told me that he had a surprise for me.  Once at the cabin, Gordon whipped out that surprise, which got me fired up for the Great Gray Owl search that Josh had planned at dawn in the morning.  How cool is this hat?!..thanks Gordon!

I didn't get much sleep during the first night, but who would?  We awoke early on Friday, January 29th, ate breakfast, and started to make the drive down to Sax-Zim Bog.  In ironic terms, Gordon and I couldn't have picked a better time to come to Minnesota.  The weather forecast during our stay was going to be in the high 20's and varying levels in the 30's.  To us, that was still considered cold, and before we headed out, I bundled up in all of my gear.  For a state that is commonly well below zero at this time of year, that was considered to be warm.  Sounds like Gordon and I brought the heat with us...most likely.  After a drive that was close to an hour south of Angora, we arrived on the limits of the Sax-Zim Bog.  The birding day had officially begun.

The Common Raven became the first bird on our Minnesota list as several of them flew over the area.  Upon arriving in the area, the time was just after 7 A.M.  Josh had already gone to work on getting us to several key areas where Great Gray Owls had been seen.  The large owl was our first target of the trip and of the morning.  No words could describe the anxious desire of mine that wanted to cross paths with the owl, and as we made our way through the area I found myself looking on every possible perch, branch, or treetop.  Great Gray Owls utilize a lot of different perches during these limited hunting hours when most folks see them at dawn and dusk.  Josh was in contact with several birders who bird the Sax-Zim Bog daily, and they gave him some whereabouts of these owls.  I felt like we had plenty of options, but with the limited early morning time when Great Gray Owls are most active, I was praying that we would go down the right path at the right time to see an owl.  Josh first took Gordon and I into an area along the northwestern perimeter of the Bog.  As it was still pretty dark out, Josh parked the van and we waited for about ten minutes until we had a little more light.  And then the search for the Great Gray Owl was officially on.  Throughout the Bog, it's cool to have names relevant to the creatures that are being searched for.

As Josh was driving down the road, he said, "Ok, there have been two Great Gray Owls and they have been seen between this road and another road about two miles down from here".  We took a drive through the spot and the two mile duration without any luck on the first go around.  It helped us get a feel for what we were driving through.  We took another drive back in the same direction we came from without any luck.  The forest was neat that we were looking in, which consisted of aspen, spruce, and tamarack trees and spruce bog.  The bogs are extremely thick, so one would need a lot of luck finding an owl in the daytime when they roost in a dark area within a bog.  After we drove back into the area for a second time with increased lighting, my adrenaline continued to rise.  I wanted to see this particular owl at this particular spot to really get our trip off to a good start.  Josh was of course driving, I was in the passenger seat, and Gordon was in the seat behind me.  We were all scanning and scanning on both sides of the road.  I was focused on searching the right side of the road most of the time, but I happened to look on Josh's left side of the road to see that wanted shape perched on the top of a spruce tree at 7:30 A.M...

I knew instantly it was our Great Gray Owl!  I screamed out "right there!!".  Josh quickly put the van in reverse and backed up to the adjacent spot with the road as to where the owl was perched.  The bird sat up there on that spruce, calm as can be.  I was actually looking at a Great Gray Owl, and it still hasn't sunk in yet as I write.  Before Josh pulled a u-turn to turn the van around so Gordon and I could look at the bird from our side of the van, we enjoyed it for a minute from the view where I first spied it at.  It was incredible.

The Great Gray took a quick look at us and made three more tallies on his birder life list.  And he then started listening and watching for prey.  Great Gray Owls are spectacular hunters.  They listen and watch for prey moving underneath the surface of the snow, mainly rodents.  They will then dive into the snow and come up with what seems to be a seemingly miraculous catch.  This owl would move his head in short directions, and would pause and pay careful attention to the ground below between every head movement.

Both birders and non-birders admire the sight of this incredible bird.  The Great Gray Owl is often known as and called "Phantom, Gray Ghost, Spirit, Bird of Mystery", and I think that name suits this remarkable bird perfectly.  For me, I commonly think of the bird as a symbol of great far north.  And it really is!  As I looked through my binoculars, the Great Gray Owl locked eyes with us, and the sight of it was something that is difficult to describe in words.  The owl then left it's perch and started to fly off.  Lighting was low due to it being overcast and still early into the day, but the sight of the bird flying showed how big and massive this owl is.  This isn't a clear shot of the Great Gray Owl, but it does show the mysterious demeanor of the bird...

Luckily, the owl didn't go far, and landed on a bare tree even closer to the road.  The three of us made our way to the owl slowly as it continued to hunt.  Something that is cool about this bird is it's side profile and head shape.  In David Sibley's guide, he describes the head of a Great Gray Owl as, "flat faced and half domed".

As we watched the bird, Josh mentioned how incredible it is how Great Gray Owls perch.  For such a large bird lengthwise, some of these perches it uses seem a bit small.

The Great Gray Owl then got very active and started to move around a lot more.  We followed it and enjoyed it, as it was unfazed by our presence.  I of course was walking in front of Josh and Gordon due to my excitement.  I turned around and said to them that I couldn't believe this sighting was actually right in front of us.

It was cold of course, but I didn't notice the cold.  I threw my gloves back in the vehicle to make it easier to look at the bird through my binoculars and to snap hundreds of pictures.

The Great Gray Owl is a very elusive bird that can be very hard to find.  People can drive through Sax-Zim Bog for hours and miss this bird despite looking in the right habitat and right times of day.  It can really be about being in the right place at the right time with this bird.  Josh picked a spot that isn't traveled as much on by other birders, and we only had one other birder join us during the time that we watched our owl.  Despite the fact that the Great Gray Owl is elusive, it can be very fearless of people once it is found.  By looking at this bird, I don't think it has a fear of anything.

The Owl then let us get extremely close as it hunted in a stand of aspen with scattered small spruce trees.  At one point, it plunged and dove into the snow without luck.  A tiny tree sticking out of the ground prevented us from having a clear view of this spectacular sight, but the owl landed near us once again, unfazed by our presence.  

The sighting seemed to get gradually better as time went on and as Great Gray flew from perch to perch in pursuit of it's rodent breakfast.

For obvious reasons, the Great Gray Owl is a highly wanted bird in North America, it's not just me.  For some factoids on this bird, it prefers dense boreal forests and muskeg bogs within it's range, and black spruce bogs where we were in Minnesota.  The range for this bird is found in Alaska, stretches throughout Canada, and smaller scattered populations are found in northern states such as Minnesota, Wisconsin, Washington, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and northern California.  When rodent populations crash in harsh winters in the far north, invasions take place in the northern states, especially Minnesota.  Lengthwise, the Great Gray Owl is the largest owl in North America.  At 27'' in length, the second largest owl in length is the Snowy Owl at 23'' and the third is the Great Horned Owl at 22''.  Weight wise, the Great Gray Owl is much lighter and it's bulk is really about it's fluff.  Out of these three owls I mentioned, it is the lightest, weighing in at 2.4 pounds (Sibley).  The Great Horned Owl weighs in at 3.1 ponds and the fat Snowy Owl weighs in at 4 pounds.  To go along with these facts, my favorite picture of the Great Gray Owl that I took during my time of observation is shown below.

Ever since I saw my first Northern Goshawk, the Great Gray Owl was my most wanted bird in North America during that time span since 2008.  And it was hard to believe I was finally hanging out with one!  Josh asked Gordon and I if we wanted to leave this owl and try to find others while the time of day was still prime.  We both wanted to stay with this owl, as it was as accommodating as can be!

It really amazed me how many different perches that the Great Gray Owl used.  Josh even told me that they will occasionally perch on the thin power lines.  Imagine that!

If I were a mouse, vole, rabbit, or any small creature, peeking out of the snow and seeing this would feel like a classic horror movie.

In winter, Josh told me that Ruffed Grouse will sometimes build ground burrows for refuge when times and conditions get very harsh.  With that story, he concluded with telling me that Great Gray Owls have been seen grabbing the Grouse out of their burrows, despite the fact the owl can't see the Grouse but can detect their movement in the snow by sound.

Looking at a Great Gray Owl brings out many thoughts.  As I said earlier, this owl symbolizes the great far north.  I think a crown can be placed on this owl's head.  The look of this owl when it locks eyes with it's admirers is almost overbearing and intimidating in a way.  Sometimes it's hard to take the look of this owl completely in.  It's imposing, commanding, imperious, and seems to be quite arrogant.  Why else would it be so fearless of people?  It is way cooler than we are, and it knows it.

Before the owl flew back away from the road and into thick timber and completely out of sight, we left the spot after spending 45 minutes with this incredible bird.  It didn't seem like 45 minutes, and to be honest, it seems like a blur to me.  Spending time with this bird was surreal.  A huge thanks to Josh for putting me in position to add Great Gray Owl to my lifelist, the first lifebird of our early Minnesota trip and only the second bird of the trip overall!

After experiencing a Great Gray Owl, I have to say that I think it might be tied with the Northern Goshawk for first place for my favorite bird.  It is quite fitting, as both raptors are often called The Gray Ghost.

After the Great Gray Owl phenomenon, it was time to go further into Sax-Zim Bog.  Sax-Zim Bog is a mecca of a birding location and is famed for it's winter birding.  It's an easy way for folks to see some of the hardiest species of the north, which makes this location a Top 10 birding hotspot in North America.  Thousands of birders come here to get life birds such as Great Gray and Northern Hawk Owls, Sharp-tailed Grouse, Black-backed Woodpecker, Boreal Chickadee, White-winged Crossbill, and more.  Sax-Zim Bog covers a large area, and folks fight to save the habitat to preserve the land and the birds.  Mature Black Spruce and Tamarack bogs make up this area and they are crucial for such species as Great Gray Owl, Black-backed Woodpecker, and Boreal Chickadee.  Not only is the Bog great for these winter specialties, but it is also a great place year round.  Breeding birds in summer include Black-billed Cuckoo, Connecticut Warbler, Sedge Wren, Le Conte's Sparrow, and more.  Great Gray Owl is resident, and Northern Hawk Owl has bred before.  Josh had a potential target list for us at the Bog which included Barred Owl, Ruffed Grouse, Sharp-tailed Grouse, Black-backed and Pileated Woodpeckers, Snow Bunting, Common Redpoll, and Boreal Chickadee.  We were also looking for some other birds that included Gray Jay, Pine Grosbeak, Evening Grosbeak, and Northern Shrike.  The Bog also has three wanted mammals of mine:  Moose, Canadian Lynx, and my favorite, the Gray Wolf.  As our journey further into the Bog continued, I was looking forward to what was ahead of us.  Would we see a good amount of these birds?  Would we see another Great Gray?  Would we find a surprise of our own?

Josh started heading in the direction of a Sharp-tailed Grouse lek and on the way to that spot, there was another Great Gray Owl location that was rather reliable.  It was stated by Josh that the Sharp-tailed Grouse time frame is shorter for observation, like the owls.  We were in a bit of a hurry to get to that location before the Grouse would venture into cover for the remainder of the day.  As we were about halfway to the Sharp-tailed Grouse spot, Josh noted parked vehicles in the area where the Great Gray Owl was being seen.  "That's a good sign", Josh said.  I started to get excited, and as we pulled up to the vehicles, it was a two tour bus load of birders.  They weren't looking at an owl or even a bird for that matter, but they had spied a mammal sitting up high and sleeping in a tree.  It turned out to be the first Porcupine of my life.  A lifer mammal!  Gordon and I took some time to look at the Porcupine.

From the Porcupine location, Josh wanted to get to the Grouse location before we ran out of time.  We started to get into open areas, which is a preferred habitat choice of the Sharp-tailed Grouse.  Right when we drove up to the spot, Josh spied seven Sharp-tailed Grouse walking around in the distance, but in the open.  I knew this would be the time to utilize my scope.

As I looked through my scope, I could see that these Sharp-tailed Grouse were doing their impressive display dances!  It was something I wasn't expecting to see happen, and when it did, it was sure cool!  The Sharp-tailed Grouse was already my second life bird of the trip, as well as Gordon's.  It was something that wasn't on my radar before the start of this trip, but Josh was confident in us landing the Grouse all along.

As Josh said, the window for seeing the Sharp-tailed Grouse would most likely end around 9:30 A.M.  Right about that time, the Grouse made their way out of the open and into cover.  But luckily, they started to head straight in our direction.  Some of them continued to dance.  What a sight!

And then the Sharp-tailed Grouse came seemingly roadside to investigate feeders that were on someone's property.

Sharp-tailed Grouse favor prairie habitat throughout their range.  Forming large groups known as "leks", these grouse are very gregarious.  As shown in my photographs somewhat, male Sharp-tailed Grouse displays during breeding season by "dancing" with it's tail spread, tail making rattling sounds, and a purple sac on it's neck exposed.  Seeing a hint of that dance through high powered optics and somewhat through photographs was something neat to remember.

While we watched the Sharp-tailed Grouse, Josh spied our third life bird of the day and what would be the most numerous bird in the Bog and in Minnesota for the remainder of the trip-the Common Redpoll.  The Redpolls were in a big flock of close to a hundred birds on a house roof as we pulled into the area.  Excited about the Grouse, Gordon and I didn't really give the Redpoll flock much attention.  Josh then said that they will be all over, and he wasn't kidding.  When we went to the Visitor Center within the Bog, Common Redpolls dotted almost every section of that immediate area.  They were there because of the many bird feeders that were around the visitor center.  

Common Redpolls are small finches that breed in the far north of Alaska and Canada on tundra and in forests.  In the winter, they make it to most of the duration of the very northern stretches of the lower 48.  During winter, Common Redpolls form large flocks and are most commonly observed by birders during this time frame.  These finches are tame and allow close approach, and the birds at the Bog's feeders were nothing short of that.  

The sound that the Common Redpoll makes often Josh pointed out to as sounding like a laser, and he was sure right!

The Visitor Center at Sax-Zim Bog was very awesome.  There were things to buy, bird mountings to look at, and information to get.  Josh knew some of the people in there, and one of them gave him some tips for a few of the birds we were going to look for during the day.  In the meantime, there were more neat birds who were coming in to visit the feeders.  One of those was a Black-capped Chickadee.  This is a bird I have seen in South Dakota and Colorado.  Despite the fact that it is a very common bird, I don't get into it's range very often to be treated by it's presence.

Even though the weather was much warmer than typical Minnesota weather, it was sure cold to Gordon and I.  While we were watching the feeders, it was in the 20's.  Then several strong winds started to come through the area and the day had suddenly become windy.  That's when I thought to myself, "Yep, I'm in Minnesota....".  But we still kept watching and enduring the weather anyways.

A few Gray Jays came in!  This was a sighting that I really enjoyed.  I do get to see Gray Jays in Arizona almost every year in the White Mountains, but this is a different race of Gray Jay than what we have in Arizona.  The black cap on this bird is quite striking, where in Arizona our Gray Jay is a solid gray color on it's head.

Another awesome bird that came into the feeders while we were there was the Pine Grosbeak.  This is another species that I have seen in Arizona several times (where it is very rare) and many individuals in Colorado.  There are several races of Pine Grosbeaks in their range, and the birds in Minnesota were far more bright and were more colorful than any Arizona or Colorado birds.  Truly, an awesome bird!

After the bird feeder search at the Welcome Center, Josh, Gordon, and I continued searching throughout the Bog by driving along it's many roads.  We continued to look for Great Grays and any other birds that would cross our paths.  At one point, Josh stopped at a trail that went along a clearing between tamarack and spruce stands.  It had been a known spot for Black-backed Woodpecker and the three of us walked down the path in hopes of finding one.  Winter is a time in Minnesota where birds are found in pockets.  One of Josh's friends described the Sax-Zim Bog as, "Lots of nothing interspersed with pockets of wonderful".  I guess that quote proves true about the Bog.  Throughout much of the day, we found ourselves searching for long periods of time without luck.  An exciting point in the day came when Gordon got his fourth life bird of the trip as a Northern Shrike flew across the road in front of us.  The witty Shrike didn't stay long and never perched up for us, but one can be sure that no Loggerhead Shrikes are in Minnesota then or right now!  Getting back to the Black-backed Woodpecker, we didn't find them on our walk.  It was one Josh really wanted to see.  It was one Gordon really wanted to see, because it was a life bird for him.  It was also one that I really wanted to see, because it was ironically in the first 15 birds that I ever saw.  While hiking in the Black Hills of South Dakota in 2000 when I was a little kid, I crossed paths with a woodpecker in a fir stand that had a very black back...but none since.

The cool thing about Sax-Zim Bog is that it makes it really easy for folks to enjoy birding from a car.  This car birding caters to many people who are weather wimps.  Throughout the Bog, there are feeders set up along the different roads for people to stop at.  Because it was my first time being in this sort of weather, I was happy to be in a vehicle.  However, as I got used to the weather during the trip, I think I could see myself parking and walking a quarter-of-a-mile down roads listening for action and then simply returning to the vehicle to proceed further.  I'm a weather wimp too, but I'm willing to be in this weather to see epic birds.  As we continued to drove through a whole lot of nothing birdwise, we then found that pocket of wonderful at some feeders that were placed along Admiral Road.  Admiral Road is a popular road in the Bog for seeing owls, a variety of birds, and most famously, a feeder that brings in the Boreal Chickadee.  As Josh talked to one of his buddies at the Bog, he was informed that the Boreal Chickadees were heavily feeding on peanut butter that was placed at the feeders.  When our trio arrived at the feeders, we used that time to eat our lunches, which consisted of salami sandwiches (made by a sloppy sandwich maker) and chips.  True to what Josh's friend was saying, there was peanut butter there, and within minutes, in came Gordon's and my lifer Boreal Chickadee to that peanut butter.

The Chickadee came in several times within a few minutes, giving the three of us good binocular views and mediocre photos.  Because the feeders were a very popular location, there were other people there.  And the chickadees continued to come and impress.

 Luck then happened as the other birders cleared out and we had the feeders to ourselves.  As Josh was parked on the opposite side of the road as the feeders were on, he then decided to park directly by the feeders since no one else was there.  He had this brilliant idea: "Guys, let's crush the Boreal Chickadee".  Josh didn't mean step on the Chickadee, he meant capturing it photo wise.  As the Chickadee was coming in a lot before Josh made this maneuver, it suddenly stopped coming in.  But several other birds made things interesting.  Our first White-breasted Nuthatch of the trip was one of those such birds.  Heck, I made sure to photograph this bird and listen to it.  It may become a life bird if a split indeed happens because the White-breasted Nuthatch family apparently has such incredible diversity...

Of course, many more Black-capped Chickadees came into the feeders...

There was also this creature there the entire time.  At times it made things harder for the birds to feed on.  The entire time it was there, it annoyed me.

Things really got fun when a few Gray Jays flew in to these feeders.  As we had decent looks at them back at the Welcome Center, we had killer looks at them for several minutes this time around.  They were cooperative by perching on natural perches as well as feeder perches.  Gosh, Gray Jays are cool.  They almost resemble a big chickadee in many ways..

We were starting to wait and wait for the Boreal Chickadee.  During that wait, many other carloads showed up.  As we were parked almost along the feeder, we moved on to searching the Bog further so others could enjoy the feeders.  Josh drove a short distance down Admiral before pulling a u-turn.  As we headed back along the feeders again on our way out, the Boreal Chickadee flew in.  Right after we left.  We laughed it off, but it was somewhat frustrating too.  Later in the day, we went back to the Admiral Road feeders and waited for the Chickadee again.  This time, we had the feeders all to ourselves.  It didn't take us very long to hear the bird, which had a horse Chick-a-dee vocal.  That vocal was very neat to hear, and I enjoyed hearing it.  It sounded much different than the Black-capped Chickadees vocalizations.  Whenever a Boreal was near, the three of us certainly knew about it.  As I saw the bird coming in, I started to snap pictures of it.

We then hit the jackpot as it landed at the feeders and right by us.  As Josh was wanting to do, we crushed the Boreal Chickadee!

Cool looking bird, huh?!  This bird was my fourth lifer of the day, and one that is a resident of the North.  Boreal Chickadees are fairly common throughout their range of Alaska and Canada in dense coniferous forests that are highly made up of spruce.  In the southern ends of their range, they are found in spruce bogs (such as Minnesota's Bog) in the east, and high mountain forests in the west.  Because of it's northern range, many birders come to see this species in Sax-Zim Bog, which is perhaps the most convenient location to observe it in North America.  The colors of the Boreal Chickadee are outstanding, and one can easily pick it out from highly outnumbering Black-capped Chickadees.

Josh mentioned to me that the Boreal Chickadee in ways resembles a male House Sparrow.  I thought the same thing too.

After barely missing an up close chance at photographing this bird, the second time around of trying sure was awesome!

After enjoying the Boreal Chickadee, it was starting to get much later into the day.  Time sure flies by when your having fun birding, that's for sure!  That statement is especially made true when your exploring a new state for the first time, and when there are incredible birds to be sought after.  Once we left the chickadee, things got interesting.  One was the fact that Josh's wife Melissa, of course their well known son Evan, and their daughter, Marin, were deciding to come up to where we were to spend a few nights.  Melissa's family lives nearby to Josh's parents, and they were going to spend some time with us and her family.  It was going to be fun to have them around.  Things got scary as they had a five hour drive ahead of them and a statewide storm was taking place.  The weather didn't seem very bad throughout the day, but all of a sudden around the time frame of 4 P.M., it started raining hard.  Not snowing in the high 20's, but raining!  This really concerned us about them making this long trip, because that rain quickly turned to ice shortly after hitting the van windows.  Secondly, the display panel in Josh's van went completely out.  We weren't able to see how fast Josh was going, how much gas was in the vehicle, what his mileage was, any of that stuff.  The van was still running fine however, and the lights were working.  But being in this weather and wilderness and having plans to go on more remote trips during our stay made this a little scary.  As this all happened at once, it was intimidating.  We started to head back.  After Josh made phone calls, we concluded that it might have been a more simple problem with the van.  With all of the driving we were doing in thick snow, it was likely that some of that snow and ice went up into the vehicle to cause the problem.  As we were heading back, Josh felt like it wasn't a huge problem to be concerned about.  It was kind've hilarious.  As Gordon and I thought we were going straight back home, Josh didn't.  Josh then said out of the blue, "Lets go back and try for Ruffed Grouse and more Great Grays".  And we went straight back.  We got word from Melissa that she was going to attempt the long drive up to Angora.  By the end of the night, the conditions were improving.  And all of a sudden, the display panel in the van turned back on again, almost as if nothing ever happened!  We then made our way to the southern area of the Bog to drive down Lake Nichols Road.  This road is an excellent place to see Ruffed Grouse and Great Grays.  Right after Josh turned onto this road, we got lucky and spied a few Ruffed Grouse.  It was my fifth lifer of the day and Gordon's sixth!  Because it was getting dark out, photographic success with these birds was very minimal.  Although these photographs are terrible, it shows the silhouette and tree bud feeding behavior of the Ruffed Grouse.

As it got dark out, our first full day of Minnesota birding in the Sax-Zim Bog was officially wrapped up.  What a first day it was.  After having dinner at Village Inn, the three of us went back to the house.  As it was concerning about the road conditions after the rain, work trucks were driving down the road to maintain the conditions, and it was a good sign in regards to Josh's family making the long trip up.  Once back at the house, we had planning to do for the next few days of our trip.  I stayed up late and helped Josh plan some of Sunday's expedition into northwestern Minnesota.  I was on the edge of my seat during the whole conversation about the possibilities of that area.  It would be a 3.5 hour drive for us to get there, and it was a part of the state Josh was wanting to explore, and it was also the only area we would have a chance at one of our biggest targets of the trip.  But between our first night on Friday and our epic excursion on Sunday, we had the middle day of Saturday first.  I guess it wasn't as drastic of a trip as Sunday, but it was bound to be an epic day as well.  Stay tuned for my next post, which will feature our birding trip to Duluth, Minnesota, and Superior, Wisconsin.  More good stuff is on the way!  Later that first day on January 29th, Melissa, Evan, and Marin made it safely to Angora and joined us.  To close this post, I can't say enough about how much I enjoyed Minnesota birding for my first day of doing it.  For a recap on the day that we spent entirely at Sax-Zim Bog, we drove 140 miles combined in our searches.  We recorded 18 species of birds, which is a lot for the Bog at this time of year.  Most of those birds were epic, and I got 5 life birds out of those 18:  Great Gray Owl, Sharp-tailed Grouse, Common Redpoll, Boreal Chickadee, and Ruffed Grouse.  Also add to that a Bald Eagle, Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, my second ever Northern Shrike (Gordon's first), Gray Jays, Blue Jay (my second ever), Crows and Ravens, Black-capped Chickadees, Red and White-breasted Nuthatches, and outstanding and up close looks at Pine Grosbeaks.  This trip was obviously led off in epic fashion with Great Gray, and Josh was a great guide for us.  The looks at and time spent with the Great Gray Owl officially made the three of us Great Gray Groupies.  

Thanks Melissa Wallestad for taking our picture!


  1. Thanks for the memory refresher! It seems so long ago now, but all the details came back quickly with your brilliant narrative and photos.

    1. Thanks Gordon! What a fun first day of our trip, and at that point it was crazy to think that it was only the start of it!

  2. What a fantastic trip, Tommy! And, you're so good at telling it! Envious of your sightings!!

    1. Thank you Babs! I consider myself very lucky that I was able to go on this trip, yet alone get to see all of these amazing birds!

  3. DUDE! Nice job and congrats on the Great Gray Owl! I'm looking forward to see your other birds you got on your epic trip!

    1. Thanks Caleb! The Great Gray Owl is the coolest bird, I am still speechless in regards to the experience with it. There are more good posts coming too, at least three more!

  4. Great write-up of our GREAT, gray Great Gray day! You captured a lot of fun details from our adventures and misadventures together. I'm so glad you got to see the Ghost and kudos to you and your amazing owl spotting skills for finding it! Trust me, seeing them never gets old. This one was especially fun because I got to see the excitement of you and Gordon as you got this highly coveted, magnificent lifer.

    We don't have a lot of birds here in the winter, but the ones we do have are a lot of fun--quality over quantity, and you got to see most! Congratulations!

    1. Thanks Josh! It was a Great gray Great gray day, both bird wise and sky wise, and weather wise. I can't say how glad I am that I spied that bird. When I look back, what if I wouldn't have spied it?! I'm sure in the future if I see more Great Grays, I'll never grow tired of seeing them either. You are right, birding MN in winter is quality over quantity. Thanks for being an excellent guide, Josh!

  5. Brother, I am not a birder but a bird photographer. Have lived in the Phx area for over 20 yrs, but only got into bird photography within the past 5 yrs. Lived in Duluth, MN before moving down here. Love your post and your continuing information about where to find birds.

    1. Thanks Anonymous Brother! Perhaps you'll have to take a trip to Duluth sometime soon to see some of these birds?! I'm glad you enjoyed my post.