Sunday, February 7, 2016
The Call of the Wild: A Far North Birding Adventure - Northwest Minnesota
MINNESOTA - THE FAR NORTHWEST
Day 3 began at 4:00 AM, as we had a lot of miles to traverse for our destination on this third day. Our target for this 3rd day was the Northern Hawk Owl, an owl that is fairly rare in the United States, as its normal breeding and resident range is in Canada and extending into Alaska. This year there have only been a couple of reliable sightings; one in Washington State and a couple in Minnesota. However those sightings in Minnesota are few and far between as they have been n the far northwestern part of the state where it is much more rural and less inhabited by humans and a bit distant and remote for too many birders to check out this area. It was a 3½ hour drive from our base camp to the small community of Roseau and Josh had never been here in the past. With the ever changing weather in Minnesota, this is not a place to get stranded in a snowstorm. Luckily, snow was not in the forecast for us. We timed our arrival for around sunrise. What we got at sunrise was fog; not great for birding, but was totally awesome as the hoar frost had covered all the trees and when the pockets of sunshine appeared, it was stunning.
Highway looking north to the Canadian border about 2 miles away.
We actually drove to the border check point of Canada, but did not cross over into Canada since we failed to bring our passports. As we drove back south on the highway, Josh spied our target bird, a Northern Hawk Owl! It was perched on one of the hoar frost covered trees which created quite an interesting photo setting. These owls are so different in appearance than most owls with their long tail and falcon-like profile. It is a relatively small owl at only 16" which is much smaller than the Great Gray and Snowy Owls that we had seen on the first two days. They weigh less than a pound. They have little fear of humans and will allow a fairly close approach. If they are nesting, they are fearless and will attach humans if they feel their nest is threatened. This owl was probably my most favorite bird of the entire trip. I have seen the photos and illustrations of them in all the birds guides and was always intrigued by them; they have such a fierce look. There were no guarantees that we were going to find this bird due to it being fairly rare in the US, so this was a time of triumph!
Northern Hawk Owl
While we were standing there admiring this beauty, we also had a Pileated Woodpecker fly over the road, but it did not land anywhere close for photos. Josh had mentioned that if we see a Pilated Woodpecker, it would most likely be one flying across the road as we were driving and he was spot on. The Northern Hawk Owl was the first new life bird of the day and the Pileated Woodpecker was number 2 for both Tommy and myself.
After zeroing in on our target bird, we knew that we could now relax and enjoy the trip home by taking some back roads instead of the highways. There were some other awesome areas to explore. As we started traveling these back roads, Josh pointed out another new life bird for both of us; Snow Bunting. This bird is more closely related to the longspurs than the sparrows to be quite honest, they are a good looking bird. They are quite stunning in their winter plumage and I think it would be awesome to see them in their breeding plumage. However, they are quite shy and were quite skittish. We could not even approach them very easily even in our vehicle. Life bird number 3 for the day for both Tommy and myself.
We eventually reached the Beltrami Island area and pretty much had the roads to ourselves. All were snow covered, but most had been cleared, but some were not and had only been used by snow mobiles. We got on one of those roads and finally decided it was not in our best interest, so we backed up all the way to our turn off as it was not wide enough to turn around. But another surprise awaited us on one of those roads. Tommy spied a bird far off in the distance near the top of a tree and once we stopped and got our binoculars on it, it turned out to be another Northern Hawk Owl! How cool is that? A hard bird to find in the lower 48 and lo and behold, we found 2 of them. It took flight from its far off perch and came a little closer, but still out of range for decent photos, but good looks with the spotting scope. Tommy and Josh decided to try wading through the snow to get closer to it while I wimped out and decided to stay on the road and watch the car and the scope. They got lost in the trees and I could still see the bird and at one time if flew once again to the right, but still a long way off. Finally I saw the two of them heading back to the car.
Once they reached the road and we started watching the owl once again. It must have sensed that we were admiring it, as it then flew into a tree fairly close to us and not far off the road. This time I did not hesitate to wade out in the snow to see this one up close and personal.
Northern Hawk Owl
What a treat to see 2 of these feisty looking birds!
Also while we were traversing these snow covered roads, we happened upon a Bobcat chewing on a bone of some sort. I had never seen a Bobcat before so I was totally stoked. It was on the side of the road and we drove right up along side of it and took photos out the windows. Since I was on the wrong side, I got out and walked around the back and shot a couple more photos of it. It was totally unconcerned with us and showed no fear as it kept gnawing on its bone. We finally decided that it was not well and maybe a bit emancipated so we drove on and left it alone.
We still had a long drive home and had one more surprise along the highway at dusk. While Josh was driving he caught sight of another owl that had flown out of the trees. This one turned out to be a Barred Owl, and was our fourth lifer of the day for Tommy and myself. What an incredible trip with 4 new owl species in 3 days.
In only 3 days of birding I had acquired 16 new life birds. I had originally thought I might get anywhere from 10 to 15 new species and I had already exceeded that number. I believe Tommy had 14 new life birds at this point. Thanks to a great guide and some keen sets of eyes, we were definitely making the most of this trip. One more post will be forthcoming which covers our trip back to the airport in Minneapolis/St Paul.