Fan-tailed Warbler

Fan-tailed Warbler

Saturday, February 6, 2016

The Call of the Wild: A Far North Birding Adventure - Duluth & Superior


For our second day, Josh had decided to take us to the Duluth area, which included nearby Superior, Wisconsin.  This was located about 75 miles from our base near Virginia, Minnesota, but encompasses a vastly different array of habitat and birds as these twin cities are located on the western point of Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake in the world by surface area.  So this day meant looking for gulls instead of owls, and gulls are probably one of my weakest strengths when it comes to bird identification.  There are a couple of reasons for the tough identification of these birds.  First they are notoriously known for hybridizing which adds to the confusion of field marks.  Secondly, gulls do not mature until they are anywhere from 2 years in age to 4 years in age and each year they appear a bit different.  And on top of this, residing in Arizona, adds to the difficulty in learning ID gulls.  After all, Arizona is not considered a gull mecca by any stretch of the imagination.  Yes, we do see gulls, but not in large numbers and in large variety of species.  Earlier in January, a couple of Ivory Gulls paid a visit to this area, which is a mega rarity and it drew birders from far and wide.  Unfortunately, at least one of them perished and most likely the second did as well and we were to miss out on this specialty do to some unfortunate timing.

Gulls were not the only birds on the slate for this day.  Some other keys birds were being reported in Superior; Snowy Owl and Gyrfalcon.  And both of these birds were targets for us as well.  We started out early in the morning attempting to find Snowy Owls.  They had been reported at several different spots in Superior.  After spending an hour or more and not being able to locate any, we decided to look for the Gyrfalcon that seemed to call the Peavey grain elevators his home.  Excellent choice by this bird as the number of Rock Pigeons in this area is extremely high and a great food source from day to day.  Josh had seen a report that it had been seen a short ½ hour before we arrived and as we scrutinized and scoped the top of the grain elevator we were not having any luck, but suddenly we spied it flying in and landing on the corner of the highest point and a long distance away.  It did not stay long and it took us while to relocate it and then it actually flew towards us and landed on a roof  where we could observe it well, but still far away for great photos.  But in this case one has to take what one can get as this bird is not an easy bird to find in the lower 48.  Not only did I take photos with my camera, I also attempted to take my first digiscope photo by holding my iPhone up to Tommy's spotting scope.   The first life bird of the day for Tommy and I.

 Gyrfalcon - Digiscoped photo


As we were observing this bird a couple other vehicles pulled up and started watching as well and it was not long until the Gyrfalcon took flight and flew over the road behind us.  It happened so fast, but I attempted one in-flight shot as it torpedoed across the road.


After this we headed to Canal Park in Duluth where we spent some time on the shores of Lake Superior and had to skip a few rocks across the water. 

After a short trip to Two Harbors and seeing a male Long-tailed Duck and also having lunch, we headed back to Canal Park to start observing the gulls.  Just was we pulled in, Josh received a text from one of his birding friends, Randy, and he mentioned that the Great Black-backed Gull had just showed up at Canal Park.  We rushed over as quickly as possible to see the world's largest gull and it stood out from all the others due to its size and its very dark black back and wings.  Although it stayed far out on the ice flows, we got great looks and some distant photos.  Our second life bird for the day.

 Great Black-backed Gull

 Great Black-backed Gull - Note size difference with the gull on the right.

By this time, a fairly large crowd of gull watchers had accumulated on the pier and we were treated to all of their expertise and experience, probably more for me than Tommy and Josh.  Seeing the Great Black-backed gull and then within a 30 minute time span I added 3 more new life birds, (all gulls), to my list very quickly;  Iceland Gull, Thayer's Gull, and Glaucous Gull.  Four lifers in 30 minutes is rather incredible.  Although my experience with gulls is limited, it is times like these with the experts on these birds that add to my knowledge.  Obtaining photos of them will only help me with the identification process and hopefully in the future I will learn to understand this group of birds a bit better.

 Iceland Gull

 Thayer's Gull

 Glaucous Gull

Since our search for the Snowy Owl did not do so well in the early morning, we once again headed back to the airport area in Superior and as we were driving around, Tommy spied another Northern Shrike.  This was a bird that I had seen the day before, but disappeared far too soon to get any photos.  Even though it was approaching darkness, this time I was able to at least get a photo or two for identification purposes.  

 Northern Shrike

Now we could really focus on the Snowy Owl hunt as daylight was waning.  The search for the one that had been frequenting the airport area did not make it easy, so we headed to a different area where one or two had been reported and it was not long before Josh spied one on a light pole near a Fedex building.

  Snowy Owl - Number 1

While we were attempting to get a little closer to this owl, we met another vehicle of birders and they advised us of a second Snowy Owl not too far away and about the same time, this one flew to the ground so we decided to chase the second bird and found it about ¼ mile away on a power pole.  This second bird had more white in its plumage.

 Snowy Owl - Number 2

Finally, we had seen not 1, but 2 Snowy Owls in a fairly short time span.  This is probably one of the most iconic and sought after owls in the United States by birders and non-birders.  After enjoying this second bird for some time, we did one more drive back to the vicinity of the first owl that we spied and found it on a business sign about 100 yards from its first perch on a light pole.  This time we were able to drive into the lot and get much closer to it with better looks and a bit better photos.

 Snowy Owl - Number 1 again

What another awesome day by adding 6 more new life birds, 4 of them were gulls.  Josh once again exceeded all expectations for us and day 2 was in the books as we headed back to home base.  The next day was going to be a big adventure to a part of the state that even Josh had not yet been to for birding and all of us were very excited to explore with him, but it was going to be an early start.

 Kayak on Lake Superior

 Lake Superior

Lighthouse on Lake Superior


  1. You guys really hit the jackpot again--SNOW and GYRF plus the Gull Grand Slam. I guess we really can't complain about those Black Ducks, but still, I'm complaining about those Black Ducks. Where were they anyway?!

    Nice shot on the Gyr flying across the road!

  2. Black Ducks, who needs them anyway? HaHa! GYRF shot was just luck. Wish it could have been better in focus, but liked it better than my other photos of this magnificent bird.

    Thanks Josh!

  3. Simply awesome photos, Gordon. Especially liked the "torpedo" GYRF ! What a great trip. Looking forward to your next post!

    1. Already working on the next post and it is so different than the last post and in a totally different area, almost into Canada.

      Thanks Babs!

  4. Awesome post and pictures, Gordon!

    Wow, you really did get a good shot of Gyr in flight! That shot almost seems miraculous, that bird was far from us and it was high-tailing it out of there fast.

    1. Thanks Tommy,
      I saw it heading our way and it came in so fast that I had trouble getting it in focus, but fired off a couple of shots anyway. This photo was the best of the two, but even though it was not in focus, I liked the profile of this falcon, you can see how powerful it must be.