Friday 17 December 2021

The Midwest - Logistics and Itinerary

The Midwest, 1st-12th December 2021

This is the first foreign birding trip I have been on since our lives all changed so dramatically back at the start of 2020. I have barely travelled since then, and with a huge stack of holiday to use up as 2021 drew to a close I had to do something. Initially I had planned to go with my Mum for a family event in Ohio in late October. As part of that trip I had also planned a short excursion north-west slightly before heading to the Cleveland area, but a few days before I was due to travel I caught Covid and had to cancel. Fortunately I was able to preserve my ticket cost and moved the flights by a month. And rather than a "there and back again" style trip from Chicago, I decided to really push the boat out and start in Denver, birding the the eastern Rockies for a few days before driving a huge loop eastwards taking in birding sites in several states, including the famous Sax Zim Bog in Minnesota, before dropping down to Illinois. To call this a marathon trip would be a huge understatement - the distances are vast, the landscapes enormous, and whilst I did not completely overextend myself it was extremely challenging. I am not getting any younger it appears.

My targets were threefold - some Rockies specialties I had never seen, some of the Great Plains grouse, and the boreal species that descend from further north for the 'easier' winter in the US. This latter group was the primary reason for travelling at this time of year - at no other point can you see these birds. But it came at a price - the birding was hard, the overall diversity was far lower everywhere, not just in North Dakota and Minnesota, and the weather was not only extremely cold but also fearsome, and towards the end of my trip I had to escape an incoming winter storm that could have seen me get stuck. And then of course the Omicron variant of Covid arrived just as I was leaving, adding somewhat to my logistical challenges and causing yet more changes in the plan. A trip in April or May would get a lot more birds, and would allow visiting leks for the Grouse, but this would come at the expense of most of the Owls and various other northern species.

I didn't see everything, I rarely do, but I had a really good go and came back with a relatively complete list versus my hoped for birds. It was also a pleasure to visit States I had never been to, including what I regard as my spiritual home of Minnesota, oh yah, and above all take in yet more of the majesty of the American interior which is infinitely spectacular. America gets a ton of bad press, a lot of it rightly so, but it is one of my favourite places to visit. 


  • Close to 11 full days of birding my way from Denver Colorado to Chicago Illinois, via Wyoming, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
  • Flights: I flew into Denver and returned from Chicago via New York using a combination of British Airways and American Airlines.
  • Covid logistics were a "Proof of Covid recovery" NHS QR code combined with a letter from a recognised health provider confirming I could not reliably take tests and was fit to fly. Otherwise a negative lateral flow would have been sufficient. Half way through my trip UK entry requirements changed due to the Omicron variant and I had to change my pre-booked day 2 lateral flow test to a more expensive PCR, as well as find a rapid fit-to-fly test in America before departing. Whilst I could have simply paid-up at O'Hare I managed to find a free observed rapid antigen test in Wisconsin 36 hours before I flew home.
  • Car Hire: I hired a small SUV from Avis for 11 days at vast expense as I felt having a 4x4 was the sensible thing to do given the winter conditions. I was instead upgraded to the largest "car" I have ever seen, a Chevy Suburban. It was unbelievably nice whilst also grotesquely inefficient. A 4x4 was probably not strictly necessary, but it easily could have been and I felt very confident for having it.
  • Driving: Easy. I did a lot of miles, 3184 to be precise, but they were mostly straight miles on wide roads and not exhausting as they would be here. The car had cruise control and heated seats. Although I had an itinerary that in theory avoided it I did a lot of long-distance driving after sunset - at this time of the year around 4pm in Denver and 5pm further east. I used Google Maps for all driving directions, being sure to download local maps each night as signal can be patchy on the Great Plains - I had no 4G from South Dakota to Wisconsin.
  • Accommodation: I resisted the temptation to sleep in the car due to the weather, although it could happily have accommodated my entire family. Instead I stayed in a variety of ubiquitous US roadside motels like America's Best Value Inn, Quality Inn, Best Western and so on. All of them were fine, but all shared the feeling of having been built in about 1975 and not having been updated since. Crap in other words, but clean and pretty cheap. Most were prebooked, but with flexibility in case plans changed, which was fortunate as change they did.
  • Food: The less said about this the better. It is heartbreaking to see how most Americans eat.
  • Literature: eBird, eBird and eBird, in the pre-planning stage and also "live" when I was there. It is brilliant. 

As you can see from all the stars, I birded more locations than is possible to mention in a brief itinerary.


Day 1: I landed at 3pm and had just enough time to go birding for about half an hour before sunset just north of Denver airport.
Day 2: West and up into the Rockies for sunrise, followed by a variety of lower-lying sites towards Boulder, CO, where I stayed overnight. 
Day 3: Birded around Fort Collins and Lyons for most of the morning, and in the in the afternoon went up to Rocky Mountain National Park and Estes Lake. Overnight in Fort Collins, CO.
Day 4: More sites around Fort Collins in the morning, a few stops around Laramie, Wyoming, early afternoon, and then a long drive across to Nebraska and north into South Dakota after sunset. Overnight in Hot Springs, SD.
Day 5: Morning visit to Mount Rushmore, a bucket list destination, followed by a drive east across South Dakota taking in Badlands NP. Afternoon birding around Pierre in very difficult windy conditions. Overnight Pierre, SD.
Day 6: Birded around Pierre all morning and most of the afternoon, including the prairie grasslands south of the city. Then a long drive north east across the State and into North Dakota via Fargo. Overnight at Grand Forks, ND. 
Day 7: Birded sites around Grand Forks all day in glacial weather. Late afternoon continued east through Minnesota. Overnight Grand Rapids, MN.
Day 8: Birded Sax Zim Bog all day. Overnight Grand Rapids, MN. 
Day 9: Sax Zim early morning followed by birding around Duluth/Superior early afternoon More time had been planned here but I needed to get south of a huge winter storm arriving the following day. A quick pilgrimage to Minneapolis-St Paul at around dusk, and then I continued east towards Lake Michigan. Overnight somewhere non-descript in mid-Wisconsin. 
Day 10: Early morning in the Buena Vista grasslands, and then across to the lake shore at Manitowoc, birding a number of sites south towards Milwaukee. Overnight Racine, WI. 
Day 11: Early morning at Waukegan. Rest of the morning devoted to trying to get a rapid Covid test for my flight the next day. Afternoon birding the northern suburbs of Chicago. Overnight Chicago, IL.
Day 12: Morning birding Montrose Point, early afternoon flight home.


  1. omg That's a whirlwind trip for 11 days...I live here and Im jealous of some spots mentioned. Sax Zim had been on my list for a while and still has not happened. I was told by a lady who lives there you can find the Snowy Owl and the Great Grey year round no reason to freeze your buns. Look forward to what you checked off your wish list. I def would have slept in the suburban, that's what I do I sleep in my van, Of course winter rules are in play now. Minus 10 sleeping bag a must.

    1. Well the Suburban was an upgrade, so I did not plan for it. It was actually cheaper to book 10 nights in various hotels than to originally book a mega SUV!

  2. I spent two weeks at Fort Collins on a work trip in 1997, and another fortnight on a family holiday the following year. The Rockies were a stunning backdrop, and I have lovely memories of the Lory State Park, Estes Park and a slow jaunt up the Trail Ridge Road to the land of oxygen depletion. Though I did do a little birding, sadly I can remember very few species. The scenery though...that I will never forget.

    1. PS. Looking forward very much to reading about the birds you enjoyed, and seeing if any memories are jogged!

    2. There were some very cool birds, though the weather was so unseasonably warm (70F in December!) that a few of things I had been hoping to see simply had not bothered descending to altitudes where I could breathe.

  3. Seriously impressed by this. It looks like you came within a stone's throw of our house (NW Wisconsin, close to the Minnesota border) - pity, you could have stopped by for a cup of tea. I tend to take a break from birding in the winter - too few birds and fear of falling on the ice with the camera - so anyone who actively embraces it, especially with an overseas trip and the perils of Covid, wins my admiration. We traveled out to Yellowstone in the late fall and I can share your dismay at the difficulties finding palatable food. In Kadoka, South Dakota (near the Badlands) it was gas station pizza for dinner and gas station sandwich for breakfast. That was all that was available. For some people, these are their options much of the time, it really makes you think.

    Anyway, I'm looking forward to seeing your what you saw. It must have been an incredible trip.

    1. I had no idea, I crossed the border at Duluth/Superior, went down to Minneapolis, and then drove east to Manitowoc via Eau Clair. I did have some good food, but finding healthy options on the go was very hard indeed. Even a "green salad" comes smothered in cheese, croutons, and 500 calories of dressing.

  4. Wow, I didn’t even know that you could go to the US at present. Impressed

    1. That changed in November I think, for non-US Citizens. You don't know the half of it though - I had to go to the US again this weekend just gone, and it was even harder.