The Great Gray Owl was actively hunting in a bog in the Superior National Forest as we watched it from the side of Minnesota Highway 2 north of Two Harbors. It sat in the tops of trees surveying the ground below in the early morning light. Every couple of minutes the owl flew to a different tree, always alert, but not seeming to care that we were watching. The fifteen minutes that we stood there in the serene beauty of the north woods was a wonderful start to the five-day trip. This owl was not in a known location, but Erik had found it simply by knowing the habitat and carefully watching. The Great Gray Owl is the tallest North American owl with a height of 24 to 33 inches. It has the largest wingspan of five feet, but it is just a big ball of fluff. It preys mostly on rodents with its small feet and talons. Both Great Horned and Snowy owls weigh half again as much and have larger feet and talons allowing them to capture lager prey.
Myrna Harris and I had flown to Minnesota the day before where we met our guide, Erik Bruhnke, and Gary Ludi from Atlanta, for the Partnership for International Birding trip. On the first day, we birded a little in Minneapolis and then headed north where we saw the first owls of the trip, two Snowies at the Superior airport in Wisconsin. We learned that it was definitely not an irruption year, but that owls were actually rather scarce. Still, we could not stop ourselves from teasing Erik that we expected an owl every day.
After our Great Gray Owl flew deeper into the woods and out of sight, we continued north. There were long stretches without any birds at all, but the ones that we did find were the northern specialties that had motivated us to travel to northern Minnesota in January when sane people were heading south.
In Grand Marais, we found a flock of Red Crossbills and Common Redpolls with one Hoary Redpoll and one White-winged Crossbill. Four finch species in one binocular view! An even more exciting find was a flock of about 30 Bohemian Waxwings.
They were close enough to see well with our naked eyes, but with bins and scopes we could see every feather. These are BIG birds! Bohemian Waxwings are only one inch longer than Cedar Waxwings, but they weigh almost twice as much (56 grams vs. 32 grams). Their breasts and bellies are gray rather than the gorgeous bronze of Cedar Waxwings, but their classic waxwing head and face, intricate markings on the wings, and Rufous undertail coverts make them just as beautiful.
Day three of the trip was spent entirely in Sax Zim Bog.
I recorded only 21 species that day, but three of them were lifers. Our owl for the day was an extremely cooperative Northern Hawk Owl who allowed us excellent looks.
A common bird in the bog, but exciting for me was Ruffed Grouse – seven of them! This grouse was close to becoming a nemesis bird, but I can now claim it as a lifer. Most of them were adeptly clambering around in the tops of shrubs or trees, foraging on buds. We also had a wonderful view of a Sharp-tailed Grouse.
One of my favorite new birds is Pine Grosbeak – big, lovely, easy to identify, and very cooperative.
Next it was time to look for gulls. But first we wanted one more look at a Snowy Owl, so we headed back to the Superior airport early on our fourth day. This time we found a Snowy perched in the top of a tree. This is not common behavior for a Snowy, but it allowed us to get the scope on it for a quality view. Crows harassed the poor bird and we could see the Snowy hiss at them.
Satisfied, with our Owl encounter of the day, we headed to the Superior landfill and Wisconsin Point to look for gulls. We found only Herring Gulls and fly-over Glaucous Gulls. But back at Canal Park in Duluth, we walked to the water’s edge and discovered a beautiful Iceland Gull right in front of us. This is the kind of gull that makes gull watching fun. Erik also found a Thayer’s Gull, another lifer for Gary, Myrna, and me.
We celebrated our life gulls with one last visit to Sax Zim Bog where we found Redpolls everywhere, including five Hoaries. We also saw Pine Grosbeaks, two Northern Shrikes, and other bog birds including Bald Eagles, which we saw four of our five days in Minnesota.
The last day of our trip came all too quickly, but we had seen most of the expected birds. The Boreal Owl just wasn’t meant to be for this trip. Ironically, they started showing up as soon as we returned home. So, our main target for the drive back to Minneapolis was Rough-legged Hawk. We finally found a distant dark morph Rough-legged Hawk at Crex Meadows in Wisconsin. The distance was too great to see detailed field marks, but we could see the characteristic hovering behavior. The Rough-legged Hawk is one of only two large raptors that hover regularly when hunting. The other large raptor that hovers is the Osprey. Although the bird was not close, it was exciting to see the special hunting behavior that makes it unique. On that last day, our owl for the day was this beautiful Barred Owl.
We boarded our plane for home with happy memories of winter in Minnesota and dreams of returning in the warmth of spring. This trip was January 16-20, 2013. Partnership for International Birding sponsored the trip and Erik Bruhnke of Naturally Avian was our guide. Many thanks for Erik for a wonderful trip and for granting permission to use his beautiful photos in this post.