Everybody knows that January is the best time of year for a week-long birding extravaganza. As much as I love birding around Buffalo and cruising the shores of Lake Erie, lately I have been itching for something a little different. Something much, much colder.
Ohio native Ryan Steiner and I decided to travel up to Minnesota to meet up with Gunnar Kramer and subsequently bird the pants off of the Land of 10,000 Lakes. I had worked with Ryan and Gunnar this past fall banding Northern Saw-whet Owls in Pennsylvania, and it was inevitable that our paths would cross again due to our love of all owl species (and due to our affinity for the bluegrass song “Rocky Top”). We figured that Minnesota and Wisconsin would give us the best chance at finding northern specialities such as Snowy Owl, Northern Hawk Owl, Great Gray Owl, and the very rare Boreal Owl.
Ryan and I arrived at Gunnar’s residence in the late evening on the 21st, where it was a balmy -9 degrees Fahrenheit (little did we know it would get much colder). We spent the 22nd around Minneapolis chasing a few bonus birds for the trip and getting our bearings before heading out for a 3 day tour of duty up north at the Sax-Zim Bog, Duluth, Grand Marais, and Two Harbors. While we had come all of this way to brave the cold with dreams of Boreal Owls in our heads, we were excited to pick up any other interesting species that we could find. We began Tuesday in Anoka, MN to see a Varied Thrush that had been coming to a private feeder for a week. After about 30 minutes of getting quick looks at this finicky species that proved exceptionally uncooperative for photos, we decided to move on to the next target since everyone was just about frozen standing in the -18 degree weather. Another private residence had recently reported a Spotted Towhee on the outskirts of Faribault, MN, and this would be an excellent January bird in Minnesota. The owner of this particular residence was exceptionally kind, and his backyard was equipped with a small bird watching shack complete with Lazy-Boy recliners and a space heater. Nestled in the cozy comforts of this slice of backyard feeder paradise, the three of us enjoyed the antics of Brown Creepers, Downy Woodpeckers, and the targeted Spotted Towhee for a solid hour before heading home.
After picking up Rough-legged Hawk and Wild Turkey on the car ride back to Minneapolis, our trip list was off to a great start. However, this was all just a warm-up for the true winter birding action ahead of us. We were off early the next morning for the fabled Sax-Zim Bog in search of Pine Grosbeaks, Boreal Chickadee, and the majestic Great Gray Owl. Did Gunnar, Ryan, and Steve find success in their hunt for northern rarities? I guess you’ll just have to tune in for Part 2.