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A Report from

Minnesota, 9-13 June 2005 ,

Andy and Ellen Stepniewski

On the spur-of the-moment we made a quick trip to the upper Midwest, at first thinking we would cover Minnesota, North Dakota, and eastern Montana. Given the great distances and shortage of time, this scheme soon proved far too ambitious, so we scaled down our plans to just Minnesota.

We took a midnight “low cost” flight, arrived at about six AM and were on our way in a rental Explorer by seven. Right on the outskirts of the Minneapolis Airport we blundered into Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge (NWR). As we did not have birding site guides to Minnesota, we chose to bird this large site first and return to the visitor center after it opened to obtain site resources. During our three-hour walk, to the Minnesota River, we walked through lush and beautiful “Maple-Basswood Ecosystem”, a western outlier community of the eastern deciduous forest. We also encountered floodplain forest with huge cottonwoods, rank sedge meadows, and the muddy and full Minnesota River on this walk. Oh, should we mention the bugs? The mosquitoes were the only downside and a bit of a rude reality check to birding at this season.

We purchased K.R. Eckerts A Birder’s Guide to Minnesota, the big site finding guide to the state, with a detailed county-by-county approach to the sites, and the smaller, “popular,” habitat-approach Falcon guide Birding Minnesota by J.M. Strangis. Both were invaluable aids to finding our way around the states’s birding and natural areas.

For Westerners, the birding was good and we started our “trip list” by chalking up typical Eastern bird species like Wild Turkey, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Eastern Wood-Pewee, Sedge Wren, American Redstart, Indigo Bunting, Swamp Sparrow, Northern Cardinal, and Baltimore Oriole.

Later in the day, we especially enjoyed Sherburne NWR which boasts a nice diversity of habitats, including oak savanna (receiving prescribed fire to perpetuate this rare community), maple-basswood forest, and wetlands. We spent the entire afternoon here, leaving reluctantly only at dusk. The grasslands held a nice selection of sparrows including Spotted Towhee, and Clay-colored, Field, Vesper, Lark, Savannah, lots of Grasshopper, one stakeout Henslow’s, and tons of Song Sparrows, as well as Eastern Meadowlarks.

The wetlands were dotted with a few species and individuals, but nothing in comparison to my visits to the prairie potholes farther west. We saw Common Loon, American White Pelicans, and Double-crested Cormorants, Trumpeter Swan, Blue-winged Teal, Red-breasted Merganser, and lovely Black Terns. Shorebirding was exciting. One drying pool had a flock of late migrants. We had very nice studies of the following sandpipers: Semipalmated (1), Least (15), Baird’s (1), and White-rumped (7). Most memorable was a pair of very rust-colored Sandhill Cranes with a half-grown chick following them.

The wet alder swamps provided a great view of Ellen’s life Golden-winged Warbler. We loved that “Bee-bzz-bzz” song! In the second growth oak forest, we enjoyed stunning views of a Chestnut-sided Warbler, always a treat.

On the 10th, we concentrated on the Prairie Ecosystem in the morning, remnants of which occur in the far western sections of Minnesota. We first visited the Rothsay Wildlife Management Area where we heard Yellow Rails and their strange ticking call note. Access to their habitat was limited by ditches with deep water, so we had to be content with their vocalizations. LeConte’s Sparrows were also common here, as were Bobolinks.  Greater Prairie Chickens, at least six of them, flushed in the distance

Later in the morning we visited Felton Prairie, a nice tract of native and restored prairie. Here we again flushed Greater Prairie Chickens in the distance; getting a close view of these whirring blobs proved impossible.  New here for Ellen were Chestnut-collared Longspurs, performing their beautiful flight song. I learned their distinctive two-syllables “kittle” call note, somewhat recognizable as a longspur, but distinctive from the other three species’ drier rattled calls. The most conspicuous and vocal birds here were a dozen or so Marbled Godwits. They were evidently breeding in the lush prairie, though the area held only a large stock pond, not at all a typical prairie pothole. The nearby gravel pit was good for a singing Rock Wren, a western species and of only casual occurrence in the state. We did encounter several typical western birds such as Western Kingbird, Loggerhead Shrike, and Western Meadowlark, however.

An abundance of gravel in the soils near the beachline of ancient Lake Agassiz has resulted in marginal farmland. The area, however, is great as wildlife habitat. The Nature Conservancy has been particularly successful in preserving a number of important prairie sites in this area and continues to consider more acquisitions. Our final prairie site was on Glacial Ridge in the Tympanuchus Wildlife Management Area. Notable here was a calling Upland Sandpiper, a lovely sound, indeed. In the distance, a Short-eared Owl flopped lazily over the lush grasslands.  

We booked into a motel in Thief River Falls and hurried off to do some evening exploration of nearby Agassiz NWR, “arguably Minnesota’s finest refuge “(Eckert).  This is a very big refuge, comprised of aspen and parkland, tall grass prairie, and huge prairie pothole lakes. Failed drainage schemes during the early 20th century eventually led to these lands being turned over to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

A highlight of our visit here was our best views ever of a “pumper-lunking” American Bittern, which was calling right out in the open. We also added a number of species, mostly water birds, to our trip list, including nice views of Red-necked, Eared, and Western Grebes, Black-crowned Night-Heron, six types of ducks, Franklin’s Gulls, and Forster’s Terns.  This is a big and impressive refuge! It invites close exploration sometime in the future.

We left Thief River Falls early on the 11th. and headed north to areas around Roseau. We missed the dawn window for Great Gray Owls along Highway 310, but very much-enjoyed birding along this quiet road (before the Port of Entry opens at 8 AM). Nashville and Mourning Warblers were both common.

Later in the morning, we headed west to the south side of the Roseau River Wildlife Area, encountering a roadside sharp-tailed Grouse. In the sedge marsh 4.6 miles west of the 90-degree bend of County Road 7, we stopped to peer over the expansive sedge marshes. I heard a Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrow in the distance. With the aid of a taped call, we soon brought the sparrow closer and thoroughly enjoyed outstanding scope views of this beautiful bird. I always seek to understand the microhabitat needs of birds. This singing bird was occupying the vast sedge marsh, fairly near the wetland edge, where scattered, dead-appearing (burned) willows provide singing perches.

A tour along the Thompson Road in Beltrami Island State Forest gave us an opportunity to study a managed forest (deciduous alternating with coniferous advertised as good for Spruce Grouse and Connecticut Warblers. We saw neither, but did have good views of Pine Warbler, appropriately, in the pines.

An observation tower in Warroad overlooking vast Lake of the Woods later in the day revealed what many locals do to recreate: go fishing! Though it was windy, showery, and cool, small boats dotted the waters out in this huge lake. Birds were sparse as expected; we added only Herring Gull and Common Tern here.

From here, we headed east into the Boreal Forest Ecosystem and northern lake country. We passed turnoffs to famous Voyageurs National Park, but stopped only to photograph very colorful granites in the Laurentian “Shield” rocks by the side of the road. We found accommodation in Eveleth.

We awoke early on the 12th. I peered out the motel window to note stiff winds. Discouraged, we went back to sleep for a couple hours, much needed, I might add.

We headed out into Saks-Zim Bog by mid-morning, the wind still blowing. This is a much-heralded birding site in Minnesota, known for boreal specialties such as Great Gray Owl, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, and Connecticut Warbler. On our first foray here, we easily we added Gray Jay and Boreal Chickadee and singing Connecticut’s to our list. Viewing the warbler in the wind proved difficult, though. Much easier was Palm Warbler, which provided very good studies. The blustery weather gave us a chance to study the Black Spruce bog landscape. Quite soon it became clear to us the bogs showed a distinct zonation, with taller spruce and birch towards the edges, with progressively more stunted and acid-loving spruce and other plants toward the center. This was a great opportunity to study microhabitats. We did wonder, however, if the extensive drainage schemes and dikes that now criss-cross most bogs have altered drainage enough to alter the described patterns. We donned our knee boots and headed into one bog on a track worn by ATV’s, or so it appeared. Unfortunately, these vehicles have scarred the landscape; we hope this not a widespread problem. We admired some beautiful Ladyslipper Orchids in the bog and Ellen took time to take some photographs.  

In the afternoon, we headed east on County Road 16, poking about the mixedwood forest. We tried for woodpeckers along the road in the area with snags, both west and east of County Road 110, but found nothing. We did walk a trail in the “Ruffed Grouse and Woodcock” Management Area, finding neither grouse nor woodcock, but having close views of Magnolia Warbler. For the first time, I heard its “Call note unique and un-warbler-like: hollow and false-sounding, suggesting a thrush, goldfinch, or Bobolink” (Eckert). A Black-throated Green Warbler sang in this forest, too.

We raced back to Eveleth, picked up a Subway sandwich for dinner and promptly headed out into the field for to search for Great Gray Owl. Soon we bumped into a family with parents we had met earlier in the day also searching for the owl. I had advised they return near dusk, not thinking they were committed to spotting an owl.  Well, these folks really wanted to see a Great Gray! I was astonished. We had heard Stickney Road at its north was a good area to search, so we began here. Ellen spotted the owl as soon as we got out of the car! It was a life bird for several in the Bob and Kristin Reilly family whose parents had traveled from their home in Florida with this wonderful bird as a main target. They had not ventured north during last winters historic irruption, when Great Gray Owls, and, to a lesser degree, Northern Hawk Owls, graced most every big field in Minnesota. We felt privileged to help them find their target species. Their excitement was lessened only a little by the “this looks like Alaska” swarm of mosquitoes targeting lots of bare skin on their summer outfits! 

We visited the bog landscape of Saks-Zim again early on the 13th. Thankfully, it was calm and the birding much, much easier. Yellow-bellied Flycatcher proved easy to see, a life bird for Ellen. In addition, it was straightforward to pick up the beautiful Blackburnian Warbler in the Larch forests and the Lincoln’s Sparrow, in a habitat of willow bog with scattered spruce.

En route to McGregor Marsh and Rice Lakes NWR, we detoured to the “Raybey Tree Farm” six miles west of Jacobsen. Cape May Warblers, south a ways from their usual breeding haunts, and Blackburnian Warblers sang from the tops of the dense spruce groves. Each passing year I can still hear the sibilant “seet…seet…seet” song of this species pleases me!

McGregor Marsh, famous for its Yellow Rails, was our next venue. We donned our knee boots and plunged out into the sedge marsh. I half expected to flush a rail, but our main find here was a Bobolink nest on surprisingly wet ground. There was actually standing water around the nest. Is this a normal site for a Bobolink nest? Or, has 21 straight days with precipitation made for wetter conditions in the region than normal? Interesting birds we did encounter included Sedge Wren, LeConte’s and Swamp Sparrows.

Our final main birding site was lovely Rice Lakes NWR. Once again, the varied habitats we encountered made it easy to chalk up a nice species list (55) during the course of a short visit. We added to our trip list American Wigeon, Virginia Rail, Osprey (with 500 pairs in the state, we felt deficient in missing this one to the end), Scarlet Tanager, and flyover Red Crossbills.

As we approached the airport, we noted a huge and ominous band of clouds on the western horizon, a classic prairie thunderstorm, thankfully without any tornados. It delayed flights a few hours, no big deal, really.

We ended our whirlwind five-day tour with more than 165 species, including a number of upper Midwest “specialties.” We also left with wonderful memories of the three main biomes we encountered: eastern deciduous forest, prairie, and the myriad of lakes and bogs set amidst the boreal forest. We discovered Minnesota has lots to offer the naturalist. We will return!

Species list:

Canada Goose
Trumpeter Swan
Wood Duck
American Wigeon
Blue-winged Teal
Northern Shoveler
Ring-necked Duck
Lesser Scaup
Common Goldeneye
Red-breasted Merganser
Ruddy Duck
Ring-necked Pheasant
Ruffed Grouse
Sharp-tailed Grouse
Greater Prairie Chicken
Wild Turkey
Common Loon
Pied-billed Grebe
Red-necked Grebe
Eared Grebe
Western Grebe
American White Pelican
Double-crested Cormorant
American Bittern
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Green Heron
Black-crowned Night-Heron
Turkey Vulture
Bald Eagle
Northern Harrier
Red-tailed Hawk
American Kestrel
Yellow Rail
Virginia Rail
American Coot
Sandhill Crane
Spotted Sandpiper
Marbled Godwit
Semipalmated Sandpiper
Least Sandpiper
White-rumped Sandpiper
Baird’s Sandpiper
Wilson’s Snipe
Wilson’s Phalarope
Franklln’s Gull
Ring-billed Gull
Herring Gull
Common Tern
Forster’s Tern
Black Tern
Rock Dove
Mourning Dove
Black-billed Cuckoo
Great Gray Owl
Short-eared Owl
Common Nighthawk
Chimney Swift
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Belted Kingfisher
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Pileated Woodpecker
Olive-sided Flycatcher
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Yellow-bellied Flycatcher
Alder Flycatcher
Willow Flycatcher
Least Flycatcher
Eastern Phoebe
Great Crested Flycatcher
Western Kingbird
Eastern Kingbird
Loggerhead Shrike
Yellow-throated Vireo
Warbling Vireo
Red-eyed Vireo
Gray Jay
Blue Jay
Black-billed Magpie
American Crow
Common Raven
Horned Lark
Tree Swallow
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Bank Swallow
Cliff Swallow
Barn Swallow
Black-capped Chickadee
Boreal Chickadee
Red-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
House Wren
Sedge Wren
Marsh Wren
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Eastern Bluebird
Swainson’s Thrush
Hermit Thrush
American Robin
Gray Catbird
Brown Thrasher
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
Golden-winged Warbler
Nashville Warbler
Yellow Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Magnolia Warbler
Cape May Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Blackburnian Warbler
Pine Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler
American Redstart
Connecticut Warbler
Mourning Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Scarlet Tanager
Rufous-sided Towhee
Chipping Sparrow
Clay-colored Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Vesper Sparrow
Lark Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
Grasshopper Sparrow
Henslow’s Sparrow
LeConte’s Sparrow
Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Lincoln’s Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Chestnut-collared Longspur
Northern Cardinal
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Indigo Bunting
Red-winged Blackbird
Eastern Meadowlark
Western Meadowlark
Yellow-headed Blackbird
Brewer’s Blackbird
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
Baltimore Oriole
Purple Finch
House Finch
Red Crossbill
Pine Siskin
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

Andy and Ellen Stepniewski
Wapato WA


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