Workcation (The Deep Freeze Edition)

1/29/2021 - 2/6/2021


I recently spent 9 days on a workcation. You know - where you travel to a place and try to squeeze in as much birding as you can while working your normal week? That is a workcation. I am lucky enough to have a job and a boss that is willing to let me do this on occasion. It is not easy; especially in the times of Covid. I am not going to Duluth, MN to see the town and meet its people, though. Nope, I am there for the birds.


I have been to Duluth before. My girlfriend loves the wild rice burgers, there. I think it is beautifully situated on Lake Superior, and I love that they get snow. Somehow, taking your girlfriend to stand on the frozen shores of Lake Superior does not count as a "beach vacation". So, I was alone on this trip.


I have been fortunate in years past to be there during a Boreal Owl irruption. My only regret is not having better equipment or the knowledge to use what equipment I had better. I have seen all the species that the area has to offer. To be honest, I just wanted to head up, see what I could see, and get the best photos of them that I could. Oh! Ermine. Ermine have been seen and heavily photographed at the Welcome Center for weeks. I wanted to see one and photograph it, too. I have never seen one, and they look so cute!


I actually took the 29th off work. Of course, this still meant attending a nearly 2 hour meeting followed by some emails. I was still on the road at a decent hour and was on the other side of Chicago by 2 or 3 PM. This is when I received the phone call that I had just driven past Indiana's first record of a Common Crane on my way out of the state.... Bad timing. There was no option to turn around. I would have arrived after dark. I pushed into Duluth and setup at the Days Inn on Cottonwood. They have a "birder rate". Just call and ask for it. It is cheaper than anything else you will find in town.


I birded in Sax-Zim Bog all day Saturday and most of Sunday. Saturday was good, but the roads were very slick. Lots of people in ditches; including me. Fresh snow fell gently all day. I started at the Welcome Center, because... ermine. No ermine. I did wander the short hike down Gray Jay (time for a name update) Trail to sit at the end for about an hour and a half. There was a nice selection of Canada Jay, Pine Grosbeak, and Black-capped Chickadee down there. I was alone most of the time, and it was pretty darn nice.

Why would I stand there so long? Well, a) I do not mind. It was snowing, and, again, no one else was around most of the time. b) Well, there were also a pair of Boreal Chickadee coming to the suet feeder down there about every 45 minutes.

From there, I headed to Warren-Nelson to look for another Boreal Chickadee. No luck. All I got was stuck and some pictures of Black-backed Chickadees. I also just missed a snowshoe hare.

A "quick" drive over to Winterberry proved a bit more fruitful. Although, photos were tough to obtain, I got a shot of a Black-backed Woodpecker. Look at all those larch beetle holes!

I had ticked a few of my desired species off the list in one day. I knew I could get better photos of them, though. I had time. Not to worry. A quick check of the Northern Hawk-Owl location had him perched on his favorite new perch - the cell tower. Well, I saw one....

With the waiting and driving, I had pretty much spent the day. The bog is not "a" place. It is a lot of small places spread out over an area that can take 15-30 minutes to drive between. Throw in another check or two at the Welcome Center (darn ermine....), and the day is over.


Sunday was much of the same. The snow eventually stopped falling. With the weather improved, the birding bombed. The feeders were nearly empty by midday. The ermine and I were still not connecting.

By Sunday afternoon, I still had not photographed an owl. I have never had much luck in the bog with Great Gray Owl. I had seen the Northern Hawk-Owl, but it was not cooperating for photos. The one Great Gray in the bog kept pulling a Houdini whenever I came around - chronic "just missed it"-itis. Counting down the minutes in the day, I bolted to the Two Harbors area, where I have had much better luck with finding Great Grays in the past. As I was waiting patiently for the dog sled race to clear the road, I wondered if I had made a mistake. Cresting the next hill, I saw a welcome sight. Three photographers parked at the side of the road with cameras pointed at a spruce tree.

One of them was Kyle Dropik. Kyle is a guy on the adventure many of us wish we could live, but few of us have the ability or courage to try. Granted, Kyle was sleeping in Northern Minnesota in his truck, but please refer to the courage part of the last sentence. More importantly, Kyle is an all-around nice guy, good photographer (check out his Instagram page), and self-proclaimed "owl nut". He is also very willing to help people and share information. We stayed in contact most of the time I was in the area. It was a pleasure to meet him.


Monday through Wednesday were long, tough, and depressing days. I was up in the mornings and driving the Two Harbors area looking for owls. This was my plan. Bird the bog on the weekends and hit Two Harbors through the week. I was out for 3-5 hours in the mornings and then working 9-10 hours at night. Lunch and dinner were sandwiches out of a cooler. In spite of the effort, no owls. Kyle and I arranged to meet on Wednesday and drive the area for a bit. We had one distant owl. The weather had changed, and the owls had moved.


Thursday started a new storm system. Snow all day on Thursday. I only had a few hours of work left to get in for the week. I decided to make a day of it on Thursday. When the car slid a bit on the interstate (I am pretty sure it is time for new tires) that morning, I thought about turning back. Instead, I slowed down and pushed on out to Two Harbors. I was heading up into Superior National Forest to look for Spruce Grouse. I wanted better photos of this species. I got distracted along the way. It was dark, and the snow was falling in sheets; so, the photo quality could be better, but I was just happy to find a Great Gray Owl perched along the road.

I am sure the plow drivers thought I was nuts, but I am sure I am not an unusual sight, either. I at least made sure I was parked way on the shoulder and out of everyone's way. I spent the next half hour watching as this owl flew from perch-to-perch. I was very happy he ended up in some birch trees. I love how they compliment each other. Finally, the owl disappeared, and I was on my way again, which is when I found my second one. This Great Gray was more distant. The snow was still rushing down. He was also very active. I got one series of him taking off and returning to his perch. I just caught him at launch...

... there was a moment as I panicked and then regained my senses; catching the last bit of the swoop before he got below some bushes...

... and finally a slow arc back around to his perch.

Realizing it was getting late, I bailed on a perched owl (yeah, I know...) and headed for the Spruce Grouse. No dice. I passed a plow on my way there and back. I knew I was about 5-10 minutes ahead of the plow as I was coming back to the owl location. I crested a hill and immediately spotted a car parked dead in the middle of the road; right where the owl would be visible from. Luckily, I was driving slow. A lot of people out that way do not; even in a storm like this. Also, the plow was coming. It took a few seconds for the driver to realize I was there and to pull his car over a foot or two; just enough for me to squeeze by. I parked next to him and signaled to roll down his window. Reluctantly, he did. I am sure he expected me to yell at him. I simply told him a plow was coming. He thanked me, edged his car over minimally, and then got out to photograph the owl. I parked way to the edge of the road, watched, and waited. It played out exactly as I expected. The plow came and the guy made no attempt to get his car over any further. He had a good 4 feet left before the edged of the road. The plow driver squeezed by and stopped. A shouting match ensued, where the photographer proceeded to further the stereotype that all bird photographers are uncourteous idiots. I watched the owl a little while longer and gave the plow driver a good head start before I left. I did not want to have to follow or pass him, again.


I pretty much assumed that my owling was over, but I was making a day of this. With that in mind, I braved snow-covered roads and headed to the bog. There are ermine in that bog... at least that is what I am told. The Welcome Center ermine must have been fired. Or, it should be. It was not there to greet me any of the times I visited. I made the rounds through the day. Grosbeaks, Hairy Woodpeckers, Black-capped Chickadees, mostly. Canada Jays must have been off having a laugh with the errant weasel (ermine and short-tailed weasel are different names for the same animal). I did not see any of them, either.

That is okay, though (not really). I got my best shots of Boreal Chickadee this day.


I woke up Friday morning to 4 degree Fahrenheit temps with 15-20mph sustained winds; gusting up to 40mph. Perfect birding conditions, right? I went out anyway. I packed up some sandwiches and headed to the bog. What was I looking for? If you did not say ermine (or weasel), you have not been paying attention. With the bad weather and high winds. I was the only person at the Welcome Center that morning. It stayed that way for a while. Even when people showed up, it was one car for a bit and then I was alone again. I stood at the feeders and patiently waited. An hour or so later, my feet had went numb, and I could not feel two of my fingers. Not the smartest thing I have done. The grosbeaks had acclimated to me, though, and I did not want to pass that up.

When I finally gave up and headed out, my tires were stuck to the ground. It was kind of funny. I pressed the gas lightly, and the car did not move. I pressed a little harder, and there was this popping sound as the tires broke free. I drove around a bit; looking for the usual suspects. By midday, things were not moving much. The winds were still bad. It was still cold. But it did not seem to be driving the birds to feed. I headed to Admiral Road and found a few Canada Jay to shoot.

A female Hoary Redpoll stopped by, but I did not manage very good photos. I had really not planned this stop well. In an effort to get feeling back in all my extremities, I had turned the heat on in the car. If you are winter birding with me, this is a luxury. Heat causes heat distortion. Heat distortion makes it impossible to shoot out of your car. Even with rolling two of the windows down and letting the wind blow through, it took a good 15-20 minutes to cool the car down enough to shoot. So, good photos were limited.


Leaving there, I called home to check-in while I drove back to Winterberry. As I was driving down Arkola Road, a long, small tatter of white skittered out of a ditch and across the road. And then it stopped and looked at me with two beady, feral eyes before dashing off into the ditch on the other side of the road. I may have cried out in excitement into the phone. I may have lost control of the English language as I explained to my girlfriend that I had just seen an ermine. It was so tiny. Just this long bouncing bit of white with a little black-tipped tail. It was every bit as cute as I had hoped. I just wish I could have gotten pictures. Somehow, after that, I knew that this trip was pretty much over. Photos or not - I had seen the errant weasel. I headed on into Winterberry, and I got the best darn look at Black-backed Woodpecker I will probably ever get.

This male was excavating a nesting cavity. Whether it was a real one or a dummy cavity; someone else will have to figure out. It is something they do. It was an amazing experience.


Saturday, I got up to -16 Fahrenheit temps with the same 15mph winds. I made a stab at Spruce Grouse, again. No luck, but the car behind me had one. I had passed them heading north and flagged them down on my way back south. I had met them the day before at the Black-backed Woodpecker location. I guess it came out between me moving through and them arriving. That is the way it goes with these birds. Shortly after talking with them, I reached down to grab my drink and swallowed a mouth full of slushy Dr. Pepper. Yep, the heat was off in anticipation of shooting from inside the car. I guess it had gotten a bit colder than I realized in there.


At this point, I knew the trip was done. The weather for Sunday was exactly the same as Saturday; more achingly cold temps with high winds. It was a bit much for even me. I headed back to the room, packed up, and checked-out a day early. Throughout the week, I had been keeping tabs on a Gyrfalcon that had been spotted north of Chicago. Word leaked out on my first weekend in Duluth. I was hoping to get in a pass at it on the way home, but the word was that the bird had disappeared. It was a long drive home. I hit a snow storm at Chicago, and it lasted all the way to Indianapolis. Lots of wrecks and slide-offs. I made it home without incident.


The following morning, I slept in a bit and then went birding. Snow Bunting and Lapland Longspurs are pretty cool, too.


Thanks for reading,

Mike




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