Friday 31 December 2021

The Midwest - Day 8 - Minnesota - Sax Zim Bog

Sax Zim Bog. There's a What Three Words for you if ever I saw one. For nearly as long as I have been interested in birding abroad Sax Zim has been one trip away, the stuff of legend. The place you head to in deepest darkest winter for a birding experience like no other. Owls galore, like Finland but on steroids. I got there for first light.

It was not quite as I had imagined it, for a start it is far far bigger than I had thought, and whereas in my mind it was a rabbit warren of tiny back roads where the slightest slip-up would send your car irretrievably deep into an invisible ditch, in fact the roads are hugely wide, regularly ploughed and with easily enough space to stop and park safely pretty much wherever you want. I saw more cars in ditches on Shetland. I should have guessed a lot of this - a driving tour of Sax Zim featured on the Bog website is 70 miles long - you could probably just about do it twice in a day before the light faded. 

As I slowed down along Highway 7 I could see I was in the right place, a line of cars neatly along the shoulder, huge lenses on tripods.  It was 20 below, only Owls draw people in like this, in this case a Great Grey Owl, suppressed on eBird but freely advertised elsewhere. I've seen this species just once before, on a guided Finnature trip in 2013, and was very much looking forward to a repeat of the experience less the destitution. I popped my scope up and got ready. As it got lighter a shape became visible on a distant pine.... I took some photos but they are terrible. However believe me when I tell you that even on a dull day the views through my scope were magic. What a bird, a privilege to see. It didn't do much, it didn't need to, but as its head rotated and that huge disc seemed to look directly at me I shivered, and not because of the cold. Speaking to a few of the photographers it seemed random as to whether the Owl would hunt right next to the road or stay well out of range - the prior evening it had been mere feet away apparently. The light was decidedly average for photography so I decided against hanging around on the off chance of a repeat, and whilst these guys would likely camp out here all morning I wanted to remain ahead of both my schedule and any other birders as I checked out the myriad of birding spots in the bog - my annotated map had 17 pins on it. 

I didn't get far. Before I even reached my first turn-off west into the heart of the area I noticed a small group of cars pulled off the road. Atop a slender pine I could make out a small shape...... was I really this lucky? I was. Northern Hawk Owl, the first of the season, discovered only the previous evening and no doubt brought down by the fearsome weather of the past few days. This is also a species I've seen just once before, as long ago as 2012, and had not really been on my radar at all for this trip. It was of course brilliant, flying loops around the small group of admirers before heading off to survey the landscape from a more distant tree. I'd been birding for half an hour and already added two sensational birds to my trip list, and both new species for America. Whilst watching the Owl I got talking to a birder who at the time I did not realise was actually guiding a photography tour leader, who in turn had two clients with her. His name was Judd and he was finding the birds for the group to photograph -  very affable and extremely helpful, he gave me all sorts of gen for the surrounding area including a couple of spots to look for Boreal Chickadee.

Northern Hawk Owl

My next stop was the Sax Zim Welcome Centre a short distance away. I recorded both Pileated Woodpecker and Northern Shrike on the road down, and was pleased to then find feeders all over the place and lots of visiting birds. My hunt for the Boreal Chickadee took me away from these however, down a narrow path called Gray Jay Way that heads north into the bog for perhaps half a mile. I was the first person to walk this path for a while I think, and the further I went the deeper the snow became and the harder it got. Through my bins I could see where I was headed, some kind of manmade structure that when I got there turned out to a raised bench overlooking....empty feeders! At least the way back was easier as I could follow my own ploughed trail! 

Pine Grosbeak

Back at the cabin I could hear soft trilling, and it was not long before a group of Pine Grosbeak descended from the pines to the feeders. I had forgotten how chunky these birds are. Once again this is a species I've seen in Finland, plus a memorable long-distance twitch to Shetland. As I was watching them a group of Two-barred Crossbills flew over, another target bird, so despite no Chickadees (yet!), to say the day was going well at this stage was a huge understatement - this was everything I had hoped for and more!

At Warren Nelson Memorial Bog there is a short boardwalk - a good place from which to try and see Black-backed Woodpecker. No joy for me in a short visit, but once again there was a hive of activity at some feeders with upwards of a dozen Black-capped Chickadees, and both Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, White-breasted Nuthatches and Common Redpolls. Somewhere in the trees a Wild Turkey called, another unexpected bird that I saw a few more of in some more open areas to the north later in the day. 

Canada Jay

A short while later, driving carefully along a snow-covered road I saw car parked up and a bird flying over the road - potentially a good sign. I was right - just next to gap in the trees were Judd and his clients, This was the other spot he had told me about for Boreal Chickadee and he beckoned me over. These were his feeders and perches, maintained specifically for his tours, so I had gotten very lucky. His role in the photography operation was to smear peanut-butter into crevices on trunks before it froze solid. The role of the Canada Jays was to fly in as often as possible to leverage out huge chunks of frozen peanut butter and fly off to cache them nearby. The role of the Boreal Chickadees was to try and nab some food when the Canada Jays were not looking, and the role of the photographers was to try and snap some of the frenetic action. I plopped myself into the snow where I would not be in the way of paying customers and joined in - briefly, as I did feel somewhat of an interloper. When I got home I found his contact details and sent him a note thanking him.

Boreal Chickadee

The rest of the day was spent exploring the vast expanse of Sax Zim, constantly looking for the missing Woodpecker as well as Ruffed Grouse. Despite several hours of trying the best spots of these there were no sign, in fact there were very few birds at all - the occasional flyover Raven and a couple of Northern Shrikes. The most birdy areas were always at feeders. There are quite a few of these maintained at various points around the bog - the best are on Admiral Road, McDavitt Road, and then also at the north-west corner at Mary Lou's house. She had unfortunately just had some kind of electrical fire which had burned down her garage and killed her chickens, but was still keen to welcome birders right next to the charred remains. I had just missed her regular Evening Grosbeaks, but I did manage to see the Red-bellied Woodpecker, quite a rare bird up here. She was very pleasant, I hope she can get it rebuilt in the spring and get some more chickens. 

Red-bellied Woodpecker

In the dying light I returned to check up on both Owls - they were both still there, along with plenty of company, but both still some distance away from the road. I had some more scope views and then drove the hour back to Grand Rapids where I dined unenthusiastically on microwaved leftover chicken wings.

An amazing day but I had a problem brewing - more weather. A large winter storm was incoming from the west, driving up the I-90 corridor and expected to severely disrupt travel. In a day and a half it would arrive in Minnesota, coinciding exactly with my planned itinerary. This would not only make birding impossible, but also risked seeing me get stuck on the wrong side of it for my flight home from Chicago. I spent the evening working out what to do. My original plan of Sax Zim again all morning followed by the Grand Marais area in the afternoon and next morning needed to be substituted with a long drive south east instead. I reluctantly cancelled my next two nights in Duluth and Saint Paul respectively, and found a hotel for the next night in mid Wisconsin. I left the following night open to see what would happen, and set the alarm for early. Also on my mind was the new requirement to test negative for Covid no more than 48 hours before my flight home, where exactly was I going to get a test?

Thursday 30 December 2021

The Midwest - Day 7 - North Dakota - Grand Forks

I woke up late in a winter wonderland. I had arrived the previous night in the dark, and whilst it had been obvious that there was snow on the ground I had not realised quite how much there was. It was in substantial drifts (well, substantial for someone who lives in a country where about an inch causes nationwide mayhem). My first stop was at Lincoln Park golf course on the east side of town next to the river, the other side of which I now realise was Minnesota. I drove gingerly over there on roads packed with snow and ice and simply parked in the club car park - December is not a big golfing month in North Dakota. As I got out of the car the temperature registered -24C, which officially makes Grand Forks the coldest place I have ever been. I had good core cold-weather gear, base layer thermals and a down gilet, but my hands and feet had a very hard time. Locally however this is nothing, winter is only really getting started!

Pileated Woodpecker

The course was deep in snow, although someone had thoughtfully cleared the footpath to the bridge. My goal here was Owls, Barred, Long-eared and Saw-Whet all reported very recently. There were no other birders who might know where they were and so I could not find any of them despite walking three miles, a lot of it thrashing through knee-high snow. I has far more success with Woodpeckers, especially Pileated which was a new species for the trip and is just a great bird. A few Redpoll flew over but I was confident of finding flocks of these later. Anyway, my two hour hike was a lot of fun but netted just 11 species, a reminded that birding in extremely cold places is very hard work. One of the Pileated Woodpeckers gave simply outstanding views, when it is this cold the birds are fixated on feeding and very often ignore everything else, including birders.

Sharp-tailed Grouse

I drove across to the west side of town to a wildlife area called Kelly's Slough, per eBird the best place for birding locally and it was everything I had hoped it would be. One of my main targets was Sharp-tailed Grouse and this fell easily with over 20 birds perched conspicuously in tall bare trees. I put up several coveys of Grey Partridge as I drove the loop, and both Short-eared Owls and Rough-legged Buzzards hunted alongside me. I found a single Snow Bunting near the viewing platform, and several flocks of Common Redpoll totalled over 100 birds with an Arctic Redpoll in the final group. It was not possible to bird outside the car as it was simply too cold, even five minutes with the scope on the viewing platform was agony and so I set up the tripod on the passenger seat instead which worked very well, though made it more difficult to photograph things out of that window.

Short-eared Owl

Rough-legged Buzzard

After this I spent a bit of time driving roads to the north east of Grand Forks, in Minnesota, looking for roving flocks of Buntings and Finches. Redpolls were the birds most often encountered, with quite a few large groups, but Snow Bunting won the numbers game with a super-flock of about 350 birds on the highway near the settlement of Euclid. 

Common Redpoll

Arctic Redpoll

Some of the large flock of Snow Buntings

And that was my day. I had seen almost everything that I had wanted to see, and I had another long drive ahead of me that I was determined not to do as late as the previous day, especially as the next day was planned to be at Sax Zim bog and I didn't want to be shattered for what I hoped would be one of the best days of the trip. I made it in good time and had another terrible meal at some crappy diner - chicken wings in a portion so grotesquely large I ate them for dinner the following night as well and still threw some away!

The Midwest - Day 6 - South Dakota - Pierre and the Grasslands

The wind had dropped significantly overnight thankfully, meaning birding normally was once again possible. I started birding at the catchily-named Oahe Downstream Recreational Area. This is the stretch of river just below the enormous Oahe Dam, and in summer looks like it would be a popular place for camping, fishing, swimming etc. In December however it was distinctly unpopular - just me! It was good birding, quite a few Bald Eagles, a good variety of wildfowl (including a dinky and presumably vagrant Ross's Goose in with c150 Canadas), and plenty of Woodpeckers and Nuthatches in the tall trees. I spent an hour here before moving on to the nearby Archery Range, kind of an assault course for people with bows and arrows - in summer I would not suggest birding here! This was excellent, with huge numbers of American Robins, a Townsend's Solitaire, and a flock of c80 Cedar Waxwing. At one stage a Cooper's Hawk made a pass through sending everything up and causing me to basically double my counts of pretty much everything! A small number of Purple Finches were here too, and a flock of distant Canadas flying east along the river were preceded by three Snow Geese. The odd Redpoll chupped overhead.

Cedar Waxwing

At about midday I returned back to Farm Island which per eBird had seemed the most productive area. As I pulled up I met a birder returning to his car and, as you do, started asking for gen. I was most interested in Northern Saw-Whet Owls, as these seemed to be recorded both here and back near the dam, and it turns out these were Kenny's special subject. He was on a bit of tight schedule, but very generously allowed me to follow him back to the dam area to check out for a roosting bird he had found a couple of days earlier. Amazingly it was in the second tree we checked, they seem quite site faithful - Kenny finds them by checking for whitewash underneath small pines of which there are thousands, and still gets a thrill each and every time. I could see what he meant! I would never have found one by myself, and it turns out I had actually been looking at trees that were far too large, the Owls seem to prefer smaller saplings. Their tactic for remaining 'hidden' is to sit perfectly still, to the point that you can walk within mere feet of them and they won't move despite the fact that this curious two-legged thing is looking right at them!

Northern Saw-Whet Owl

My next stop was the Pierre Grasslands south of the city. I had planned to bird them the day before but had skipped the area due to the wind. Kenny had not been there for ages so was unable to give me any recent gen, but I just picked a few good-looking gravel roads that criss-cross the area and gave it my best shot. As it happened this was pretty good. Almost the first bird I saw was a Prairie Falcon on a post, and at a spot I'd marked down called Richland Dam I found a huge flock of Lapland Bunting, and best of all 18 Greater Prairie Chickens, the main reason I was checking this area. I had a second spot in Wisconsin in my plan, so getting them here gave me some future flexibility.

The Pierre Grasslands

Greater Prairie Chicken

They don't kid around with wide loads in the Midwest

By now it was either 1pm or 2pm, or maybe 3pm, I wasn't sure, I think there is a time change near Pierre somewhere - when I tried to add an eBird list I had forgotten about it would not let me saying that the time was in the future. Anyway, the sun was going to set in the same number of hours so I had to get going. I had a 430 mile drive ahead of me that would take 7 hours, destination Grand Forks, North Dakota. It was much colder than prior days and the roads were noticeably icier, probably due to the weather out of the north-west, and I did not fancy doing all of the smaller roads in the dark. I made it of course, but it was really hard and I wished I had left a lot earlier. On the plus side I hit a place called Cottonwood Lake near Redfield at around dusk, and was treated to the spectacle of thousands upon thousands of Snow Geese flying south-west. The sky was filled for at least 20 minutes, I estimated 25,000 birds but who knows the true number. I could hear Ross's Geese in with them but had no way of counting them. It was simply sensational.

From there it was about another hour to Interstate 29 (which runs all the way from Kansas City, Missouri, to the Canadian border and then onwards to Winnipeg), a further two hours to Fargo, and then a final stretch of an hour and half to Grand Forks. To say this was very tiring is rather an understatement. In Grand Forks it was -15C and there seemed to be a fair bit of snow, and I was very cautious indeed despite the amazing traction of the Chevy.

Wednesday 29 December 2021

The Midwest - Day 5 - South Dakota - Mount Rushmore and the Badlands

The Great Plains

A big day today, and one that would start with a bucket-list moment at Mount Rushmore. As regular followers of these pages will have come to realise (if you have not, what is wrong with you?) one my life goals is to photograph a small panther in front of as many recognisable vistas, cityscapes, monuments and various other backdrops as possible. Mount Rushmore ticked all these boxes. Many people when they travel take along a small inanimate companion; I am definitely not alone in this, and even I were I doubt I would feel embarrassed about it whatsoever. It is just what I - we - do. I have had Snuffi for over 20 years and he has been to a huge number of places. Anywhere I go, he goes. And he wants to go to more so Covid is a real pain.

Plenty of room for Trump, can't believe they didn't go for it.

Small panther, big mountain

It was about an hour or so north of Hot Springs where I had spent the night in an effort to spread out the driving a little bit, and this being such an exciting moment I set off quite early. I was the second person there and was thus able to piss about taking photos without any distraction, other than a vicious wind which threatened to blow Snuffi to Iowa. Stupid photographs aside, I have to say that is an impressive place, but I am still confused as to how this idea came about in the first place - it is in such a remote location, why would you spend years doing this? Unfortunately the whole place was shut, automatic machines and barriers took my money but I was unable to visit any of the interpretative bits or buy any tat - I had so been hoping for a fridge magnet. When it began to snow I decided I'd had enough, and pointed the car east in an ever-strengthening wind. The forecast had said to expect a breezy day, with gusts of 50mph lasting from first light to the following morning the whole way across the plains. And coming from the north-west it was glacial.

I stocked up on water and snacks at a Walmart in Rapid City, all the while adding to my new South Dakota list. Hundreds of Starlings, a Red-tailed Hawk and an American Kestrel all seen from the car park. My next destination was Badlands Natioal Park, which I entered from the bottom near a small settlement called Scenic. The wind by this stage was in full-on battering mode and I had to be very careful opening the car doors lest they get irretrievably bent. I wound my way through the park on gravel roads, stopping frequently for birds or vistas. Golden Eagle and Bald Eagle were seen within minutes of each other, and a small party of Shore Larks were near a Prairie Dog 'village'. Lots of big mammals too - Buffalo! It was the landscape that was so impressive though, crazy rock formations and wind-sculpted bluffs in all manner of colours. Today had not been much of a birding day anyway, and I suspected that my plans in the Pierre Grasslands would not amount to much given the wind, so I spent quite a long time here even the light was dire before moving on.

The drive across to Pierre (pronounced Pier) took about three hours on dead-straight roads, and I arrived at about two in the afternoon, so with ample time for birding. The area was bleak, with small bird activity practically non-existent. I found a few bits at Discovery Island, and a feeder at one end of Farm Island had Juncos, American Goldfinches, Cardinals, Nuthatches, Chickadees and Woodpeckers, but anywhere else I looked had nothing of interest at all. Canada Geese and for some reason an extraordinary number of Collared Doves. The wind was so intense that I birded from the car which rather limited my options, but I was able to scope the Missouri River inland of the island, which is known as Hipple Lake - lots of Goosanders. On my flight to Denver the weather had been clear and I had been able to clearly see the enormous tree root-like squiggle of the river from high above, including the main bridge south of the Oahe Dam, so it was a bit surreal to be now driving around it. 

White-breasted Nuthatch. Someone has been ringing/banding them .

I turned in early. Although Pierre is the State Capitol of South Dakota I did not feel it had a huge amount going for it, I suspect Sioux Falls would have been a lot more fun. 

Tuesday 28 December 2021

The Midwest - Day 4 - Fort Collins and into Wyoming

I was up early and birding from first light. With the sun setting around 4pm every minute counts! I started off at yet another reservoir, Fossil Creek, and the first bird seen was a low-flying Golden Eagle overhead. There were also five Bald Eagles dotted in a small row of trees. In addition to the Eagles my first Western Meadowlark and a large flock of Great-tailed Grackles on the way down the water's edge. The water held tons of ducks, thousands of Cackling Geese and a single Slavonian Grebe. Overall this was a a decent stop, with over 20 species recorded, but once again however the place was immense, and it is hard to think I covered it properly from my vantage point - scoping huge water bodies isn't my favourite type of birding really, you're just not close enough to the action. The rest of the day would be very different.

My next stop was the park and nearly adjacent cemetery in the centre of Fort Collins. The pond here held my first Wood Ducks of the trip, with the tall pines close by occupied by several tooting Red-breasted Nuthatch. I met a local birder called EJ in the cemetery who was super helpful and showed me a few nearby birdy spots nearby, including a highly unseasonal Hermit Thrush hanging around behind his house, and a large flock of Bushtit over the road. A Northern Shrike also flew through the cemetery, a species I would eventually see many more of further east but that was so far missing from my achieved targets.

I had two final stops before I left Colorado. The first was close by, Lions Open Space, essentially a cycle path alongside a river. Here I found American Dipper, and finally a Winter Wren that had helpfully been pinned down by another birder. The second was further west on the far side of Horsetooth Reservoir, the Well Gulch Nature Trail. Here I finally connected with Pygmy Nuthatch and another Townsend's Solitaire, my 10th of the trip.


Now for a bit of a drive. Leaving Colorado behind I crossed the northern border into Wyoming. This had not been on the original plan, and meant I would need to skip a planned afternoon birding site in Nebraska that was supposed to have broken up the journey, but per eBird a private residence near Laramie seemed to have the only reliable sightings of Grey-crowned Rosy Finch. I was a little nervous at simply showing up at somebody's house, but per the map it seemed to be in the middle of nowhere and I was pretty certain that a fellow eBirder wouldn't mind. Brian wasn't in when I arrived, but I was in the process of writing him a note saying Thank You when he came back. Initially a little sceptical of a large black government issue car parked opposite his drive, we ended up having a nice chat. He doesn't know quite why these birds are regular here or why in such large numbers, occasionally including small numbers of the the other two species, but he is a birder through and through and keeps lots of feeders well-stocked and this is the result. I was delighted to have seen at least one of them - at least 40 were visiting his feeders on the day of my visit and the views were brilliant. I thanked him profusely 

I spent a short amount of time trying to scrape together the semblance of a Wyoming list at a couple of site around Laramie, and then east around the town of Cheyenne, but I had done little research and needed to make tracks. I calculated that I could just about make Nebraska by dusk and might have a few minutes birding a new State, but would then have to drive up to South Dakota entirely in the dark. Ultimately I was too slow, a poorly chosen stop at a duck-hunting lake did get me some Canvasbacks, but a guy with a gun then told me to get lost and went off to try and shoot them. Brilliant. I arrived at Oliver Reservoir in Nebraska after the sun had set and birding was impossible. Some distant and invisible quacking. I was thus expecting my Nebraska list to have one bird on it - Mallard

Here be Mallards

However the day was not yet done. 150 miles and two and a half hours later I was approaching the South Dakota border when I drove past a white blob on the grassy verge of NE71. Whoa! Was that what I thought it was? I slowed the car down, did a u-turn and headed back slowly. Oooof. I had been confident of finding this species in Minnesota or Wisconsin, but out here in the middle of nowhere? Anyway, my Nebraska list has two species on it. Heard-only Mallard and ....Snowy Owl! The final hour of the journey was completed in high spirits!