Goose-a-Palooza! FIVE species of goose migrating through western Minnesota—March 19-20

It was just like the old-timers talk about….Flocks of geese everywhere! I hit it right again this year (thanks to eBird reports, the Minnesota Birding Facebook Group and intel from my birding buddies, Kim Risen and Steve Millard. Thanks guys!

Definitely got my much-needed dose of mega-goose migration on the prairie. The cacophony of goose cackles and swan honks is definitely worth the 8 hour round trip. The 25-35 mph winds made video and sound recording challenging but I did my best.

North Ottawa Impoundment in Grant County, Minnesota was the hot spot. Five species of geese including tens of thousands of Snow Geese, thousands of Greater White-fronted Geese, and lesser amounts of Ross’s Geese, Canada Geese and Cackling Geese. But back roads in Grant and Ottertail and Traverse counties held numerous flocks. I’d see a smudge on the horizon, throw up my binoculars and the smudge would come to life as a massive flock of geese.

Tundra Swans were also moving in impressive numbers.

I also searched for Short-eared Owls in prairie areas (SNAs, WPAs, WMAs) and did flush one but did not see any hunting.

Three Ross’s Geese (note greenish base of the stubby bill that separates them from Snow Geese) [North Ottawa Impoundment; Grant County, Minnesota]
Snow Geese coming in to North Ottawa Impoundment, Grant County, Minnesota
Snow Geese and waxing moon [North Ottawa Impoundment; Grant County, Minnesota]
Goose flock, silo, setting sun [Ottertail County, Minnesota]
Greater White-fronted Goose [North Ottawa Impoundment; Grant County, Minnesota]
Northern Pintails [North Ottawa Impoundment; Grant County, Minnesota]
Snow Goose flock [North Ottawa Impoundment; Grant County, Minnesota]
Snow Geese and waxing moon [North Ottawa Impoundment; Grant County, Minnesota]
Ducks and rising sun [North Ottawa Impoundment; Grant County, Minnesota]
Greater White-fronted Geese [North Ottawa Impoundment; Grant County, Minnesota]

All photos and video shot with Canon R5 and Canon 100-500mm lens. Additional video shot with Panasonic GH5 and Sigma 50-500mm lens (“toy” miniature time lapse), and iPhone 7+

Nemesis No More: Lewis’s Woodpecker… in Minnesota!

Lewis’s Woodpecker; Morrison County, Minnesota; February 2021

It has been a standing joke with my Uncle Howard about my lack of luck with the Lewis’s Woodpecker. You see, Howard lives at elevation near Durango, Colorado, and the Lewis’s is practically a backyard bird for him. Even on a visit to Howard and Judy’s with the family a few years ago, my jinx aura followed me and we only had one distant and poor look at a Lewis’s.

And each holiday season Howard sends us a DVD of his beautiful wildlife and landscape videos set to music. We always look forward to it and watch it as a family. But it seemed to me that there was always a cameo of a Lewis’s Woodpecker amongst the videos. I’m sure he wouldn’t do that just to rub it in 🙂

Rewind to the 1990s and early 2000s: I was birding around the country quite a bit then (pre-wife, pre-kids) and searched in FIVE western states before finding two Lewis’s in Utah. But it was a distant and poor look…and I did not get any photos.

Lewis’s Woodpecker; Morrison County, Minnesota; February 2021

Now fast forward back to January 2021. A Lewis’s Woodpecker shows up at a lake cabin in Morrison County, Minnesota. This is only the SEVENTH record ever for Minnesota. It’s normal range is the Rocky Mountain West with an outpost in the Black Hills of South Dakota…so this is exciting bird news in Minnesota. The bird was “discovered” (by white people) by Lewis & Clark on their 1804 expedition. Its common name honors Meriwether Lewis.

It is a larger woodpecker that is bigger than a Hairy or Red-bellied Woodpecker, but smaller than a Flicker. the pinkish-red belly contrasts beautifully with the glossy green-blue-black back, blue-gray “scarf” and red face and throat.

Unbelievably, the Lewis’s was visiting the suet feeders of a friend of mine, a regular visitor and donor to the Sax-Zim Bog. He is a professor at a local college and brings his students to the Bog each year.

I have photographed over 500 species of birds in the U.S and only have one really bad image of a Lewis’s, but life is busy and I didn’t make the time to drive the 5-hour round trip to see this Minnesota bird. Bridget and my sons, Birk & Bjorn, kept urging me to go. I assumed it was gone already, but I emailed Dr. Bill and found out that it was still there! So on Tuesday of this week (Feb 23) I made the trek.

There were two cars there when I pulled into his wooded oasis on a hill overlooking a lake…But the bird was there too, but flew off before I got my camera out. I only had an hour to watch the feeders before my appointment. The other folks left, and I got the prime spot. Dr. Bill asks that folks stay in their car since disturbing the bird would not be good.

I enjoyed the visiting Red-breasted Nuthatches, Hairy Woodpeckers, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Cardinals, Blue Jays and even a Pileated Woodpecker for about 45 minutes. But my meeting was coming up, so I was crossing my fingers that it would show up soon. Finally at the last possible moment it appeared in the huge oaks above. It gave me a really nice show, even stopping on a tree trunk at nearly eye-level (a much better photo than on a suet feeder or old deer rib cage!). I had kept the car turned off and the windows down to eliminate any “heat haze” created by shooting out of a warm car into 20 degree air. The Canon R5 and Canon RF 100-500mm lens did its job and I was thrilled!

Lewis’s Woodpecker jinx broken! Maybe I’ll make a holiday DVD for Howard and Judy this Christmas…and maybe, just maybe, there will be a short clip of this Lewis’s Woodpecker included 🙂

Lewis’s Woodpecker; Morrison County, Minnesota; February 2021

[Canon R5 with Canon 100-500mm lens]

Ice Eagles: Bald Eagles fishing a frozen Mississippi River: Canon R5 Wildlife Photography Shooting with Sparky

During the icy grip of the February 2021 Polar Vortex cold snap, Sparky travels to the mostly frozen Mississippi River of southeast Minnesota and southwest Wisconsin to photograph Bald Eagles fishing open spots close to shore. He also looks for Golden Eagles inland in Houston and Winona Counties in Minnesota.

Bitter windchills means frozen toes and fingers, but the Canon R5 does an amazing job of autofocus while shooting super slow motion (4K 120fps) video of the eagles.

A trip to Old Frontenac Cemetery nets Sparky’s first photos and videos of Tufted Titmouse in Minnesota.

The trip ends at Crex Meadows near Grantsburg Wisconsin where an unexpected Gray Fox and Red Fox make a dusk appearance.

Virtually Live 15 Polar Vortex & The Wolf: Birding Sax-Zim Bog Feb 2021

[**I apologize to all my subscribers…I sometimes forget to post to my thephotonaturalist.com blog. Lately I’ve been posting everything to Facebook, Instagram and other social media, but forget to post here! This is one example. The Polar Vortex has moved on (about TWELVE days being below zero…only a few hours above zero during that entire time!) but I’m just getting around to putting Virtually Live 15 up here. So I promise to pay more attention to this blog in the upcoming year. Thanks!]

Put another log on the fire and enjoy this bitterly cool “Polar Vortex” episode of Virtually Live from Sax-Zim Bog!

Filmed over several days including the morning of February 11 with a record cold Minus-46F start to the day. Yikes!

How do our boreal birds survive this brutal weather? Sparky shares some physiological tricks our feathered fluffballs employ.

Then we flashback to warmer days and snowshoe with Sparky in Yellow-bellied Bog where he discovers an avian excavation. He then flashesback within the flashback to tell the tale of his wolf encounter in the woods.

We also visit the Welcome Center, Admiral Road feeders, Auggie’s Bogwalk at Fringed Gentian to see what birds and mammals are out and about in the below zero temps. I think you will be pleasantly surprised!

Cameos by Boreal Chickadees, Pine Grosbeaks, Northern Hawk Owl, Evening Grosbeak, redpolls and even an Ermine.

Virtually Live 14 —BRRRRdathon 2021 Birding & Wildlife Photography Grand Marais Minnesota (Moose! )

The BRRRRdathon—World’s Coldest Birdathon episode of Virtually Live. The BRRRRdathon is an annual fundraiser for my non-profit, Friends of Sax-Zim Bog.

This week we are birding in Grand Marais, Minnesota on Lake Superior just south of the Canadian Border. Sparky is participating in the Wintergreen non-motorized division. We go along with his fat bike birding. But he takes an early morning detour inland into the Superior National Forest where he finds an amorous bull and cow Moose! During the BRRRRdathon we see Long-tailed Ducks, White-winged Crossbills and more. Find out who won this year’s event.

Thinking like a Wolf… or just lucky (photos & video)

December 30, 2020

As Executive Director of Friends of Sax-Zim Bog, I sometimes have to run supplies up to the Welcome Center, and on today’s early afternoon jaunt I spotted a Coyote crossing the road a long ways ahead. I pulled over and waited, but I wasn’t too excited since on every trip to Yellowstone we seem to get our fill of “yote photos.”

Timber Wolf in Minnesota’s Sax-Zim Bog: December 30, 2020

I squeaked to try and get it to come back out of the woods. It did, and to my surprise the “Coyote” turned out to be a Timber Wolf! 

I knew from previous experience that they will sometimes parallel roads while hunting, so I pulled ahead slowly and stopped at a game trail that gave me a bit of a window towards the bog. And sure enough, I saw just the back of a wolf quickly move across the trail.

Timber Wolf in Minnesota’s Sax-Zim Bog: December 30, 2020

Now I was getting a bit more confident that I could intercept one of the rarest (or at least rarely seen) of Minnesota’s abundant wildlife. About a half mile up I found a trail I figured it would cross. It was about 15 feet wide and I quietly got out of my van. The woods were silent under the still of last nights 6 inches of snow. 

I walked about a hundred yards in and waited. Sure enough a couple minutes later the wolf appeared! But instead of simply crossing the trail and vanishing, it turned and took a few steps toward me. It couldn’t figure out what I was, which enabled me to get a minute of video and photos. I imagine it was 50 yards away. Amazing experience! Magical experience! You never know what is around any bend in Sax-Zim!

Timber Wolf in Minnesota’s Sax-Zim Bog: December 30, 2020

[Canon R5 with Canon 100-500mm RF lens at 500mm; 1/500 second at f7.1; ISO 1000; handheld]

Video of Timber Wolf Sax-Zim Bog Minnesota

[Canon R5 with Canon 100-500mm RF lens; 1/500 second at f8; ISO 1000; handheld

Timber Wolf in Minnesota’s Sax-Zim Bog: December 30, 2020

[Canon R5 with Canon 100-500mm RF lens at 270mm; 1/500 second at f5.6; ISO 800; handheld]

Timber Wolf in Minnesota’s Sax-Zim Bog: December 30, 2020
Timber Wolf in Minnesota’s Sax-Zim Bog: December 30, 2020

[Canon R5 with Canon 100-500mm RF lens at 270mm; 1/500 second at f7.1; ISO 1000; handheld]

Ghostly Great Horned Owl: Visitor from the Subarctic (video & photos)

December 27, 2020

A few days ago I went to see this pale beauty! Its been on my “owl bucket list” for a long time. Especially gratifying since I searched three times for the subarctic at Springbrook Nature Center in Fridley, Minnesota a few years ago.

Subarctic Great Horned Owl (or west taiga subspecies) along Red River of the North, Clay County, Minnesota: December 27, 2020

[Canon F5 with Canon 100-500mm RF lens at 500mm; 1/640 second at f8; ISO 5000; +1.0ev; tripod]

After a 4 hour drive from our homestead on the Wisconsin border of Minnesota, I arrived on the complete opposite side of the state on the North Dakota border. I had just about an hour before the sun set.

A wildlife photography friend had tipped me off to the location of this stunner. It had been seen on and off for a couple months. But as I began searching the numbers trees in the woods along the Red River of the North I started wondering if I would really find it.

Subarctic Great Horned Owl (or west taiga subspecies) along Red River of the North, Clay County, Minnesota: December 27, 2020

But then there it was! On a tree I thought I had looked at on my way in. Wow! What a pale beauty! The Subarctic (or Western Taiga) subspecies of Great Horned Owl is very pale or even white with black markings. But the disc around the eyes almost always shows some color. They can be mistaken for Snowy Owls if it weren’t for this trait (and of course their feather “horns” which on Snowies are tiny and usually hidden).

Subarctic Great Horned Owl (or west taiga subspecies) along Red River of the North, Clay County, Minnesota: December 27, 2020

[Canon F5 with Canon 100-500mm RF lens at 343mm; 1/400 second at f5.6; ISO 12,800; +0.0ev; tripod]

This boreal subspecies occasionally may mate and nest in northwestern Minnesota. This bird appeared to be a male since it seemed smaller in size. Females are significantly larger than males.

Thanks again to Matt Sorum who found this in Clay County a couple months ago!

Video shows it coughing up a pellet, stretching, fluffing, watching a couple woodpeckers and silhouetted against the full moon.

Subarctic Great Horned Owl (or west taiga subspecies) along Red River of the North, Clay County, Minnesota: December 27, 2020

[Canon F5 with Canon 100-500mm RF lens at 428mm; 1/640 second at f7.1; ISO 4000; +1.0ev; tripod]

Subarctic Great Horned Owl (or west taiga subspecies) along Red River of the North, Clay County, Minnesota: December 27, 2020

[Canon F5 with Canon 100-500mm RF lens at 363mm; 1/640 second at f6.3; ISO 1250; +0.3ev; tripod]

Subarctic Great Horned Owl (or west taiga subspecies) along Red River of the North, Clay County, Minnesota: December 27, 2020

[Canon F5 with Canon 100-500mm RF lens at 500mm; 1/640 second at f7.1; ISO 6400; +1.66ev; tripod]

Subarctic Great Horned Owl (or west taiga subspecies) along Red River of the North, Clay County, Minnesota: December 27, 2020

[Canon F5 with Canon 100-500mm RF lens at 254mm; 1/640 second at f5.6; ISO 5000; +1.66ev; tripod]

Subarctic Great Horned Owl (or west taiga subspecies) along Red River of the North, Clay County, Minnesota: December 27, 2020

[Canon F5 with Canon 100-500mm RF lens at 500mm; 1/320 second at f7.1; ISO 4000; +2.0ev; tripod]

Subarctic Great Horned Owl (or west taiga subspecies) along Red River of the North, Clay County, Minnesota: December 27, 2020

[Canon F5 with Canon 100-500mm RF lens at 500mm; SINGLE FRAME EXTRACTED FROM VIDEO]

Subarctic Great Horned Owl (or west taiga subspecies) along Red River of the North, Clay County, Minnesota: December 27, 2020

[Canon F5 with Canon 100-500mm RF lens at 500mm; SINGLE FRAME EXTRACTED FROM VIDEO]

Subarctic Great Horned Owl (or west taiga subspecies) along Red River of the North, Clay County, Minnesota: December 27, 2020

[Canon F5 with Canon 100-500mm RF lens at 500mm; 1/125 second at f7.1; ISO 12,800; +3.0ev; tripod]

Subarctic Great Horned Owl (or west taiga subspecies) along Red River of the North, Clay County, Minnesota: December 27, 2020

[Canon F5 with Canon 100-500mm RF lens at 500mm; 1/250 second at f7.1; ISO 12,800; +3.0ev; tripod]

HD Video of Subarctic Great Horned Owl

Video shows it coughing up a pellet, stretching, fluffing, watching a couple woodpeckers and silhouetted against the full moon.

Virtually Live 13 Christmas Bird Count Sax-Zim Bog: Great Gray Owl, Fisher, Short-eared Owl Dec 2020

My 35th year as compiler of the Sax-Zim Christmas Bird Count turned out to be a record-breaker despite teams having to social distance. 13 hardy participants brave -10 below zero F windchills in northern Minnesota’s Sax-Zim Bog to turn up 39 species!

We also find a species NEVER recorded on the count before (revealed in the video). And I find several owls and gets some crazy cool images of a Great Gray Owl plummeting and pouncing on suspected vole victims.

We find Boreal Chickadees, accidentally film some Black-billed Magpies at the “Bison Farm,” make a visit to Loretta’s grosbeak-rich feeders and have a yummy lunch at the Wilbert Cafe.

I also share some exciting recent sightings of a Fisher chasing Snowshoe Hare and a Short-eared Owl on Stone Lake Road.

Thanks to all CBC Participants: Bill Tefft, Lori Williams, Frank Nicoletti, Abbie Valine, Dave David Benson, Lars Benson, John Ellis, Sparky Stensaas, Sarah Beaster, Clinton Dexter-Nienhaus, Kristina Dexter-Nienhaus, Tony Anthony Hertzel, Tommy Hertzel

Virtually Live 12: November Birding in Sax-Zim Bog

A frosty cold morning in Sax-Zim Bog turns up a few goodies…including a dawn Ruffed Grouse, a flock of Pine Grosbeaks (away from a feeder!), a Black-billed Magpie on a deer carcass and cooperative Rough-legged Hawk. We hike Auggie’s Bogwalk at Fringed Gentian and find an unexpected critter! Sparky also shares what your donation on today’s Give to the Max Day campaign goes to.

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