Today was a day devoted to birding the world-famous Sax-Zim Bog of northern Minnesota to experience boreal avian species and to gain many possible life birds, including my nemesis bird, the Great Gray Owl.
After a breakfast at our little motel near Duluth, my uncle, Bruce, and I departed for the bog just shy of 8am, violently shivering under the -9 degree temperature and wind chills around -30. It was a frigid day, with temperatures ranging from -9 to 4 degrees and wind chills from -30 to -5. Today was so cold that I wore seven layers of clothing and was still shivering throughout the day!
We arrived at the bog approximately an hour after our departure from the motel and headed straight for the two roads on which we were most likely to find Great Gray Owls; Admiral and McDavitt Roads. After a couple of thorough searches down each of the roads, no owls were seen, but I did gain one life bird that was seen perched alongside McDavitt Road; it was this beautiful NORTHERN SHRIKE:
Then, we drove for the opposite corner of the bog to visit the famous Mary Lou Feeders for rare grosbeaks. The Sax-Zim Bog is laid out in a very large square-like shape, so large that it takes at least twenty minutes to get from point to point on the bog. After a twenty-five minute ride, we arrived at the feeders, which were hopping with passerines (songbirds):
Male PURPLE FINCH:
Female PURPLE FINCH:
Male COMMON REDPOLL, FOY (first of the year):
The highlight of this stop was definitely about thirty beautiful EVENING GROSBEAKS (life bird!), a declining species, one of which posed for a great photo:
After nearly freezing our fingers off (it had "warmed" up from -9 to a balmy -7 degrees at this point), we retired to the car and drove back towards Admiral Road.
Next, we arrived at Admiral Road where we saw a car stopped, so we investigated the situation just in time to see two PINE GROSBEAKS, a life bird for me, fly up from the road to a bare tree next to the car. Here is one of the individuals:
Then, we continued to the feeders along Admiral Road to see if there were any rare Boreal Chickadees present. Alas, none were found, but this inquisitive GRAY JAY nearly made up for the loss:
There was also a RED-BREASTED NUTHATCH in attendance; I haven't seen this species since last summer in Idaho:
Next, we drove down a road where more Pine Grosbeaks had been reported, but they had all left by the time we arrived. By this point, we were all getting hungry, so we continued to the only restaurant near the bog, Wilbert's Cafe. The food was pretty good and the service was acceptable, and we immediately headed back towards the bog after eating.
Along the drive, we found at least six BLACK-BILLED MAGPIES, an uncommon bird for Minnesota. These birds are much more common in the Rocky Mountains (I see them when I go out to Idaho every year), and the Sax-Zim Bog is the easternmost point of their range. Sadly, they weren't overly cooperative for photography, so I only managed this distant photo of one individual:
Our next stop was at the Warming Center and bird feeding station, where we saw some nice avian species and our suspicions about Admiral and McDavitt Roads being best for Great Gray Owls were confirmed by other birders.
Male PURPLE FINCH, a life bird for Bruce and maybe my uncle as well:
Male COMMON REDPOLL:
A RED CROSSBILL, a bird I haven't encountered since I visited the Tetons in summer 2013, was heard in the vicinity of the feeders at this location, but sadly we couldn't locate it.
Then, from 2:15pm-5:00pm, we cruised up and down Admiral, and to a lesser extent, McDavitt Roads, in hopes of sighting the main target of my Minnesota/Wisconsin trip: the Great Gray Owl. Along McDavitt Road, we quickly spotted my life bird ROUGH-LEGGED HAWK, a nice find even though it flew away too quickly for decent photos. We crawled along the roads, talked with other birders along the way, and combed every branch and twig in sight with our eyes tirelessly for hours, but alas, my nemesis bird remained enigmatic. What an annoyance; I have looked for this darn owl in 4 states including 3 national parks, 2 national forests, and countless other preserves! My next chance to find the Great Gray Owl will be a much less likely prospect of finding it next August in the mountains of central Idaho. Anyway, four other life birds for the day is still very good. To end the day, we drove the long, ~5 hour drive back to my aunt and uncle's house near La Crosse, Wisconsin.
Bird-of-the-day to my life bird EVENING GROSBEAK which was also the most beautiful bird seen today. Runners-up to my three other life birds: NORTHERN SHRIKE, PINE GROSBEAK, and ROUGH-LEGGED HAWK.
A special thanks to my uncle for driving the entire time; we spent a LOT of time in the car the last few days!
Tomorrow will be a day of birding in the vicinity of La Crosse, Wisconsin that might involve searching for resident Barred Owls, and then Thursday I will bird the Buena Vista Grasslands of Wisconsin in search of Greater Prairie-Chickens, Snowy Owls, and other rarities. Stay tuned!
World Life List: 708 Species (4 life birds today)
20 avian species today:
ROUGH-LEGGED HAWK (LIFE BIRD)
NORTHERN SHRIKE (LIFE BIRD)
PINE GROSBEAK (LIFE BIRD)
EVENING GROSBEAK (LIFE BIRD)