Northern Minnesota Tour a Soaring Success!

After a lengthy hold placed on HMANA tours due to the pandemic, the first tour since January 2020 kicked off in March 2022 based out of Duluth, Minnesota, with seven hardy participants eager to experience northern boreal specialty species.

Snowy Owl, (c) Jan Lewis

The tour, run in partnership with the Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory, started with crisp temperatures and sunny skies late in the day of arrivals as we experienced gulls, eagles and corvids feeding near shore at the local compost and disposal yard.  We thought the day would end at the well-known Aerial Lift Bridge where we enjoyed a raft of Goldeneye. But during a short drive later into Superior, Wisconsin in search of our first owl, two migrant buteos made our list in the form of Rough-legged and Red-tailed Hawks.  Shortly thereafter, we were standing in awe of our target for the evening – a perched Snowy Owl which provided excellent viewing and photographs.  With several quality species already tallied we enjoyed a great dinner getting to know one another before the first full day of the tour.

The first two full days were dedicated to the Sax-Zim Bog where area expert and tour co-leader, Frank Nicoletti, worked tirelessly to find participants the owls that brought this group to the area.  Extreme winds and bright skies would make connecting with Great Grays difficult at the start, but an early Northern Hawk-Owl provided enough excitement to keep the group going.  With high winds making open land birds difficult, we chose to spend time in the forest after northern passerines such as redpolls, grosbeaks, Canada Jays, and Boreal Chickadees.  A big focus for me was to work perching birds onto pleasing perches for photographers so they could learn techniques for adding pleasing elements and artistic flair to their bird photography.  The extreme weather had these birds feeding in large numbers, and with vigor, which made for some great photography.  A big highlight on day two was a side trip to an area known for Spruce Grouse.  We slowly drove the road looking for “football birds” when one of our participants yelled “Stop!”  Sure enough, buried in the brush was not only one Sprucer, but two – a great find!

Northern Hawk Owl, (c) Andrew Sturgess
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Bald Eagle, (c) Andrew Sturgess

Day three’s focus was to venture north into the Superior National Forest and search for more grouse as well as Black-backed and American Three-toed Woodpeckers.  Luck would not be on our side for these elusive woodpeckers; however, the drive was stunning with calm winds and fluffy snow falling.  The birds were slow, but the scenery was breathtaking.  After a warm lunch and a drive back to Duluth, Frank was excited to share the well-known West Skyline Hawkwatch, one he founded many years ago.  The flight wasn’t big but we were lucky enough to see several Bald Eagles making the journey north using the ridges for free lift.  Despite another excellent full day, there was still something special in store.

That evening, with winds calm and clouds expected, we made the trek back to Sax-Zim in hopes of a Great Gray encounter.  Approaching an area where we had distant views of one the day prior, I noticed an owl was perched not too far from the road.  Frank positioned the group for great views and cameras were clicking away, and the birders in the group enjoyed stunning scope views of a Great Gray.  As light began to fade, the bird became very active.  I worked with the photographers to watch the bird’s hunting, and we positioned ourselves in an area hoping the bird might hunt along a ditch running parallel to the road.  Luck was on our side and the bird successfully hunted in front of us for about 10 minutes, 100% by sound!  As a photographer, it was one of those experiences you only dream of.  As a tour leader, experiencing participants losing their ability to breathe or find words in the onset of one of nature’s most deliberate examples of adaptation, power and beauty, it was truly awe-inspiring.  One of our participants said it best when she said “We are so privileged to have experienced this.”

Great Gray Owl, (c) Jan Lewis
Great Gray Owl with Red-backed Vole, (c) Jan Lewis

Our last full day began at Sax-Zim once again to ensure all participants had an extended view of owls as well as time at the feeders waiting for the secretive Boreal Chickadee.  Calm winds and sunny skies made for an enjoyable last day in the field with all target species secured for the day before ending the tour with a group dinner and talk by Hawk Ridge researcher, Hannah Toutonghi, who spoke about the fascinating Northern Hawk-Owl research she is doing for her Master’s program.

Common Redpoll, (c) Mark Hummel
Boreal Chickadee, (c) Andrew Sturgess

Another successful HMANA tour with a combined focus on birding and photography is complete, and all participants raved of the many once-in-a-lifetime experiences together in the field.  Frank and I were honored to have spent this time with such a great group of people and look forward to collaborating again in the future.

Great Gray Owl at Sunrise, (c) Josh Haas
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