2018: Minnesota – “The Phantom of the Great North.”

On January 12 at 4am, my friend Andrew drove from St. Louis, MO to Meadowlands, MN (St. Louis County) home of Sax-Zim Bog. What awaited us was a “Birder’s Life List or Species” new northern species, of raptors and birds that never make it down to St. Louis, Missouri.

So each bird I share on this blog, will be Lifers or Firsts (having never seen that species)

Day 1 – With gear packed and a good breakfast behind us, we loaded up our rental and headed out to the Bog with our guide Frank. The temperature on the first morning was -37°, you can’t even begin to imagine, what shooting in those temps feels like, but we were soon going to find out.

The first Boreal bird we saw, was the Northern Hawk-owl. He was basking atop a pine, soaking up the rays of the morning’s first light.

Northern Hawk-Owl (Surnia ulula)

Spent about 15 minutes or so on the Northern Hawk-Owl, we packed up our gear and moved further down into the Bog, to see what other goodies await.

As luck would have it, the sun as at a nice point above the horizon, to our backs and in front of was a group of songbirds, huddled up to conserve energy, so we waited them out, until it was their breakfast time and that plan paid off.

Female Evening Grosbeak (Coccothraustes vespertinus)
Male Evening Grosbeak (Coccothraustes vespertinus)
Female Pine Grosbeak (Pinicola enucleator)
Male Pine Grosbeak (Pinicola enucleator)
The Common Redpoll (Acanthis flammea)
Grey Jay (Perisoreus canadensis)

After spending the morning watching the songbirds forage for seeds, we drove over to Admiral Road, feeder in search of a reported “Pine Marten.” We spent about 30-45 minutes waiting for the star to arrive at the show, but that moment never came. Luckily I was able to see another species of a songbird; which was yet another first. I call them cuddle buddies, some species of songbirds will huddle, bunching together to share warmth.

A very late lunchtime, in the Bog, a must eat place for Bog travellers is “Wilbert Cafe.” Good food choices on the menu and breakfast available all day. As we were wrapping lunch we decided to seek out the location of our next life, the Northern Shrike, we were able to see it, but he/she wisely stayed out of my photographic range. My style of photography is not to cause any stress to the subject’s natural behaviour, so chasing or getting really close to the subject to get the perfect shot is a “no-go.”

Our guide, Frank got a tip, Boreal Owl, down near the Lakeshore Drive along Lake Superior. So we left the Bog and proceeded on the hour drive, down to the Lakeshore Drive.

When we arrived at Lakeshore Drive, there was already a small crowd gathered around the area were the normally nocturnal owl was sighted.

  • The Boreal Owl doesn’t have a very long life, living only to be 7 or 8 years old.
Boreal Owl (Aegolius funereus)

Boreal Owls are circumpolar, which simply means they are found near one of Earth’s poles. In this case, that pole is the North Pole. Boreal Owls make their home in the northern reaches of North America, including Alaska and Canada and the northern regions of Eurasia. This small owl can also be found in some mountain ranges further south, such as the Rocky Mountains in the western United States and northern Minnesota.

It prefers boreal or montane, deciduous forest habitats, which are carpeted with tall trees such as pine, birch and spruce. They enjoy roosting in dense coniferous trees that offer protection from inclement weather and make them harder for predators to see and capture. So we were all pretty stoked to see one.

Day 2 – was all about the “Phantom of the north” The Great Grey Owl.

The Great Grey owl can survive the cold winter in the northern forests due to its soft and dense plumage. It silently glides over the ground in search of prey, or expect it, crouching on a high branch, and reacts even to the very slight rustling in the grass.

Great Grey Owl (Strix nebulosa)

The Great Grey Owls are flying ghost-like through the wintry landscape, staring at the camera lens with their luminous yellow eyes.

We travelled up to the Superior National Forest to the town of Ely, MN a stone’s throw away from the Canadian border. Where we saw the Boreal Chickadee.

Boreal Chickadee (Poecile hudsonicus)

The Ruffed Grouse, populates a widespread area of southern and western Canada and the northern United States, common in low-elevation forests, but not always easy to see.

Ruffed Grouse
Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus)

In the winter Ruffed Grouse make a diet of seeds, buds, twigs, they can be found high in trees eating the buds of branches.

The last day in the Bog, sad to say, but our adventure was concluding. Before hitting the highway we decided to stop by the Sharp-tailed Grouse Lek. We weren’t disappointed.

Sharp-Tailed Grouse (Tympanuchus phasianellus)


Until the next adventure and thank you for stopping by!

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  1. I think a sharp tailed grouse ‘knee-deep’ in snow is my current favorite picture. Looks so adorable… as is the other grouse on the vegetation.

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