The excellent weather that prevailed over the first two Christmas Bird Counts in northern Minnesota disappeared beginning on the evening of January 2nd as continuous light snow began falling and temperatures dropped to a low of -20 F overnight, with 15-20 mph winds picking up throughout the night and well into the morning, gusting to between 20-30 mph causing near-blizzard conditions in the early morning hours. At one point Sheryl and I decided it wasn’t worth going out, as we had a sixty mile drive west just to get into the count circle and with the winds, the snow already on the ground, and the snow falling, would the roads even be passable to get to Roseau, or could we even drive the country roads once we got there?
A white-out on a previous Roseau CBC. Luckily we didn’t have to experience this on this years CBC!
Photo by Dan Williams.
Finally, even Dan and Martin conceded there would probably be no birds to count in these conditions, even if we could make it to Roseau… but, gradually throughout the morning, the wind died down a bit, the snow stopped and the skies cleared… and it even warmed up with the sunshine to a toasty +10 degrees! So with Martin’s encouragement, we arrived within the count circle and began counting what birds we were out and about in the still less than ideal conditions, by a little past 10:30 AM…pretty late to just be getting started on a CBC. However, we eventually did begin to see a few good birds, at least for this count. Surprisingly, probably one of the best species we spotted was one of the most common birds of the corn & soybean desert of Central Illinois where I’m from, the Horned Lark. We had three of them, but only a single Horned Lark had ever been tallied in the previous 26 year history of this CBC! Since much of our coverage area was large, open agricultural fields, we also had two of the barely more common Lapland Longspur and 178 Snow Buntings, the common open field bird in the winter in Northern Minnesota.
Snow Buntings, a common sight on this Christmas Bird Count. Photo by Carl Greiner.
Of the paltry 13 species that we were able to muster in the 4 ½ hours that we had to look for birds on this abbreviated CBC day, the predatory birds stole the show. Although we had a quick, flyover Northern Goshawk, it wasn’t much of a look for me but we did have a nice long look at a close, perched Northern Shrike, one of my favorite winter birds back home.
Northern Shrike with his prey, an impaled vole. Photo by Steve Huggins.
And by now, you can likely tell that the owls… just about any owl, are probably my favorite family of birds. So, as we neared the Canadian border on Highway 310 north of Roseau, Martin pulled over to what appeared to be a long, somewhat narrow area of rather low vegetation stretching off between two large areas of boreal forest on either side. Not long after Martin said, “this will probably be the area where we will get a Hawk-Owl if we are going to get one”… sure enough, we shortly spotted not one, but two NORTHERN HAWK-OWLS perched atop a couple of dead tree stubs on either side of Hwy 310, hunting the open edge of the woods!
A heavily-cropped shot of our first Northern Hawk-Owl. Photo by Steve Bailey.
Soon after we spotted these owls, a call from Dan & Barbara relayed the information that they had just spotted two SNOWY OWLS within a mile or so of one another, not far away! Within a matter of moments, our day on this CBC had improved considerably!
The two Snowy Owls found by Dan & Barbara, re-found by us a few minutes later. Photos by Steve Bailey.
To complete the owl trifecta, this was a Great Gray Owl (on an apropos perch!) found on the Roseau CBC a few years earlier, a short distance north of the three No. Hawk-Owls that we found on this year’s CBC. Photo by Martin Kehoe.
A return trip back to the area where we had located the 2 Hawk-Owls netted us yet a THIRD No. Hawk-Owl!
The rest of the few other species that we tallied on the day were 9 Common Redpolls, 4 Black-capped Chickadees, 2 Blue Jays and flocks of the three introduced species, Rock Pigeon, European Starling and House Sparrow. Not a bad day considering the extremely late start, very short birding day, and virtually all of our birding was from the inside of our vehicle. Definitely worth making a return visit to see the true character of this CBC another year. I would especially like to hike back into the one large chunk of remaining boreal forest left in the CBC circle off of Highway 310 near the Canada border where we saw the Hawk-Owls. I know there will be Three-toed Woodpeckers, Pine Grosbeaks and Boreal Chickadees waiting there for me in the coming years!
Total species for the day: 13
Total species for the three Minnesota CBCs: 30
Illinois & Minnesota 10-CBC Species Total : 120
As we headed south for home, but still in Beltrami County, I spotted yet another No. Hawk-Owl for a quick but much closer look of a favorite bird.
Northern Hawk-Owl. Photo by John Kelsey.
Hopefully many of you will get a chance to see some of these enchanting and often very beautiful birds of the North Woods someday! I will return soon, as big pink birds are hard if not impossible to find in Illinois, so I will journey north even if there is three feet of snow and the temperature is – 30F to see birds like this…
as often as I can.