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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Minnesota and North Dakota

Tour Narrative

In Brief: June in Minnesota and North Dakota is among the best kept secrets in birding. Bird song comes from every bog, woodlot, prairie, grassland, and wetland … and there is always the unexpected. The most unforgettable event this year was pulling over to listen to a Connecticut Warbler and immediately find a Great Gray Owl sitting quietly along the roadside. As we watched the Great Gray Owl, the Connecticut Warbler flew in and landed completely in the open and sang for some twenty minutes. Has anyone before ever watched a Great Gray Owl in one scope and a Connecticut through another—let alone for over twenty minutes?! Add to that 17 species of sparrows including such standouts as Henslow’s, LeConte’s and Nelson’s Sparrows and over two-dozen warblers including Canada, Cerulean, Golden-winged Warblers. And Moose. And Badger. Wow!

In Detail:The Twin Cities makes for a great place to start our visit to Minnesota. The area lies at the northwestern limit of several species and this year we had great fortune finding many of them while enjoying the wonderful habitats at a leisurely pace. We spent the morning birding some of the remaining grasslands and woodlots. Henslow’s, Lark and Vesper Sparrows, Bobolink and Dickcissel were in remnant patches of grasslands, while shrubby patches hosted Bell’s Vireo, Field Sparrows and Willow Flycatchers. Just down the road were a variety warblers including stunning singing male Cerulean Warbler, Yellow-throated Vireo and Blue-winged Warbler—all near the northern edge of their range. From here we headed up to Duluth and Park Point, which hosted late migrant Red-throated Loons in full breeding plumage and a Whimbrel.

Our time around Duluth was simply wonderful. Splendid flute-like songs of Hermit Thrush, Swainson’s Thrush and Veery filled the air, while Lincoln’s, White-throated Sparrow and Winter Wren competed for the title for best musician. It was an exceptional year for warblers including local and often difficult to find Cape May, Tennessee and Wilson’s. We had walk-away scope views of so many Chestnut-sided, Nashville and Blackburnian Warblers that it was almost impossible to count. Rice Lake NWR hosted our first concentrations of waterfowl including Trumpeter Swan, Ring-necked Duck, Wood Duck as well as our first Red-necked Grebe and Black Tern, but it was the pair of calling Barred Owls that came in and stole the show. Yellow Rails were rather quiet this year, but we were able to hear at least two calling from the marsh while Nelson’s and LeConte’s Sparrows competed for our attention.

After the amazing Great Gray Owl and Connecticut Warbler experience, we tore ourselves away from the wonderful diversity of northeastern Minnesota and for the prairie potholes and grasslands to the west. Two and a half days isn’t really sufficient to explore the diversity of birds of the Prairie Potholes of western Minnesota and North Dakota, but was enough time to get a wonderful introduction to this beautiful part of America—even the Visitor Center offered memorable goodies. Who could forget the amazing walk through the prairie with skylarking Chestnut-collared Longspurs, subtle but beautiful Grasshopper and Clay-colored Sparrows and TWO different Ferruginous Hawk nests. Or the amazing diversity of ducks, which appeared to be everywhere this year. Or the Sora and Virginia Rails that walked through the cattails near the edge of close focus! Or the Black Terns including a nest with eggs! Or the crippling and views of Sedge Wren. Or the completely unexpected Tricolored Heron—very rare in North Dakota.

Then, all too soon it was time to return to the Twin Cities and our final meal together.

- Chris Wood

Updated: July 2011