Monday, February 1, 2016

Birding the Willie the Walleye Route

Big Year Day 28-31

Big Year Total:  405
Coded birds:  20
Cool animals: Bobcat, Harbor seal, gray whale, California sea lion, pronghorn, porcupine
Miles driven.  10,350
Flight Miles 14600
segments: 17
Hours at sea: 14
Miles walked 45.5
Miles biked 2
states/ prov. birded:12

Some people get their kicks driving route 66, others Scoop the Loop, or Cruise Rodeo Drive.  Occasionally people even drive Park Avenue or the Magnificent Mile, but Olaf likes nothing better than to bird the Willie the Walleye Route in the depth of winter.

 Now many of you will think to yourself, "where the heck is that?"  Willie the walleye?  Really?

It goes from NW Minnesota to Superior WI and loops through all the prime winter bird habitat.
The route starts with coffee in Thief River Falls, MN at first light.  Occasionally it makes sense to stay at the C'mon Inn in TRF, but today my birding daughter Lena, I and the intrepid bird dog Brighid took off at 4am from South Dakota.  The route goes from there to Roseau then across on Hwy 11 through Baudette to Little Fork, then down hwy 53 to the Bog, Sax-Zim, then to Duluth by way of the Superior National Forest via Two Harbors to the Canal Park, then onto Superior to Peavey Elevator, and Bong Airport.  It used to finish at the Superior Dump, but they have redone the dump and it isn't so good, there are a couple of optional extensions including Mary Lou's feeders and a couple of other locations, but they are generally the same deal.  I have done the route in 2 days, getting almost all of the possible birds but this year, but owls can be elusive so I'm doing it in three, I really need to get the owls. This path will yield an amazing completion of Minnesota's winter birds, with a little luck, you can get everything, but this is winter, something always can happen, and if the weather changes, what may be an easy drive can be just a brutal experience.  Snowpack and winds need to be watched closely.

On the 28th Day, Olaf rested but I had to go get #389  Wild Turkey up on top of the ridge at Summit, SD

I sent a note to Lena's school that she needed to be excused for Friday as we had to go to the Canadian border to see a man about an owl.  Probably the first time they had seen that excuse.  At 4 in the morning, we took off.  The first song on XM Radio was the birder's theme song "X's and Oh's" a good sign and I was thinking about the difficulty in getting owls while Lena snuggled in to sleep in the passenger seat and six miles from home, a probable great horned owl spooked from the ditch and I missed it by maybe an inch.  I say probable as it went right over the windshield by my face, and I had a arm over my face to protect from the impact.  I didn't get the best look. My small scream woke up Lena, "dad, if it isn't a snowy, don't bother me.  I'm tired.  You have a great horned already, so do I."

I had just removed my wife's Thule carrier to lower the wind profile as it was a very windy morning and if I hadn't I would have killed that owl.  I wondered "why"?  Owls are spiritual animals and foreboding, when you see an owl in an odd place it could mean something more than just seeing an owl.

Then for 150 miles I wondered about the significance, was that owl incident before going owling, a good or bad omen?  Then in the next 100 miles I was trying to determine if it was actually brown, maybe it was white?  No, it was brown, I think.  Why would I even still be thinking about this?  We had coffee and gas at daybreak in Thief and it was time to begin the route.

DAY 1:

Fields of the abandoned and the downtrodden

The birding tour begins here, at this abandoned farmhouse in the middle of nowhere (stock photo from my 2013 book Boobies Peckers and Tits) just west and South of Agassiz NWR, in some of the most productive locations for winter Sharp-tailed grouse, Greater prairie chicken, and occasionally even Gray partridge, but I don't look for them specifically.  It took me 1/2 of a mile this year to find the first flock of birds.  In 2013, 2 and 4 miles respectively, and this year two flocks were together.

#390  Sharp-tailed grouse

#391  Greater prairie chicken

Two lek stakeouts cancelled for April!!  Yea, it was a great opening double.  If anyone wants to go to a fun GPChix lek in NC Minnesota, let me know, I won't be there.  It is about a 1/2 mile walk.  I didn't bother to look for the Gray Partridge, the big score were the chickens so we drove back on the scary ice-covered road back to Marshall County 7 which is also a scary ice covered road.

Agassiz NWR

 Agassiz is a very desolate place in the winter.  The goals here at black-billed magpie, occasionally northern shrike on trees, and the feeders at the visitor center.  I saw #392 Black-billed magpie in the first 300 yards of the refuge.  I can never photograph that bird and never tried.  I made the obligatory stop at the feeders at the visitor center.  Lena saw her year common redpoll and used the bathroom.  Note, the refuge visitor center is not open on weekends and if the wind is out of the south, like today, the birds get blown out of the feeders.  The poor lonely woman wanted to talk to Lena but she got scared and zipped out. I've even seen a hoard of bohemian waxwings over the years in the trees east of here, and a ruffed grouse and some other finches but this year it was just a dog stop and a bathroom break.

Hwy 81-Roseau-

The Minnesota elk herd is around Grygla, and there are good wires for rough-legged hawks but the hawks have moved on south this year.  Sometimes the roads off the main road can be scoured but many are closed right now, we drove on after causing concern we were casing a house.

Roseau has the second best birding bog in the state, it is either totally ignored, sandbagged or both.  I can point to many sandbagging here and it so infuriates me I'm starting to use the Subway as my new bird location.  Either we are helping other birders or we are selfish pricks, who just take my data and give nothing back.  No one has posted a Northern hawk-owl in Minnesota since January 3, one quite far south of town, not the usual spot,  IDK, so I go where I always go and I ALWAYS see hawk owls and I slowed down and pointed out the suspicious lump to Lena, bingo.  Why was I worrying?  It is in the same tree as December 2014, and Feb 2014, AND Feb 2013....this is a hawk-owl tree.

#393  Northern hawk-owl

We drove down Sprague Creek road which was in worse shape snow wise than usual, that is a good location for spruce grouse, but the road is narrow, and I got buried and abandoned there in 2013 during my BPT is a little trip down memory lane

This year we also got stuck but only slightly.  I tried to find a place to turn around and then did a 15 point turn and looked like Austin Powers in the International Man of Mystery, and at 90 degrees to the road, with only a foot on either side of my wife's car, the wheels spun, so Lena had to go push...
we got out of the tight spot and I didn't have to be ignored by the border patrol again this time.

We drove on the main road, and then I sped past 3 dark grouse on the side of the road.  I almost did a skidding u-turn and then they flew when I got heading north again, but only to a yard.  Then they spooked a second time before I could get a camera on them, and flew over the car...."spruce grouse!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"  I yelled.   Life is good, really good...bird #394.

I learned later people pay good money to see them.  The last time I saw them up here, there were seven, and a golden eagle and then there were six.........

It was good to see the three grouse in close proximity for Lena to compare and contrast....lucky bonus bird and my roll continues.

We found a northern shrike for Lena's year

and we went for lunch, all target birds accounted for so I skipped the park and the sewage treatment area north of town.  We needed to head east.

The route then takes you through Warroad which has good feeder birds.  Things got out of hand as I looked out my side window as a flock of birds flew along the car and they were Bohemian waxwings.  I slowed and then they flew over the car and then like a maniac, I chased them all over town, finding they never lit in a tree for more than an instant.  I ran stop signs, cut across school parking lots and caused a nuisance of myself but avoided the cops.  It would have been hard to explain, I was chasing a flock of birds.  Lena spotted birds in a tree, her year pine grosbeaks and then we calmly left town after being ditched by the waxwings. 

Every birder doing the route has to be photographed by Willie the Walleye in Baudette, it is is Lena in her lucky photo.

You need to go to bypass International Falls, there is nothing birdy up there, so you go south on hwy 71.  then cut across to Hwy 53 in Little Fork.  There are feeders on this road and some chances for grouse and other cool stuff.  Beware, many gas stations have closed in the past two years up this way, I do not understand what is up.  This brings you to another important landmark.

It is also mandatory to touch the chair of the Jackpine Savage, in Littlefork.  It brings luck, but if you touch the cant-hook (the thing on Jack's left, I grew up in a logging family), it is bad luck.

Day 2.  Sax-Zim Bog

Another early start as we had to scour the bog for a great gray owl.  We started on Nichols Lake road.  I came across a parked car with a birder in it, figuring she had something, I made a u-turn.  She got out, looked in the woods, and then like she had been "goosed"  hopped in and sped away.  We were left scratching out heads.  Whatever,...but no owl.  We drove around aimlessly until full daylight and owl.  Each time we passed locales for the other birds I needed so finally we just birded.

#395  Evening grosbeak

Mary Lou over in the NW corner of the bog has these gorgeous birds in spades.  I had a flock every winter to watch at grandmother Lucille's feeders but alas after 10 years they left never to return.

#396 Hoary redpoll

We also had an unexpected treat, but it remained unphotographed.  A nearly white redpoll showed up by itself at a feeder dead into the sun but the other birders at her feeders were walking about to try to take photos,  We remained in the car.  They kept scaring the birds.  I'm not sure they got it. IDK.  Sigh....light bird dead into morning sun and then flushed, we waited, it never came back.  We left the feeders to this foursome chasing birds more out of the yard than anything.  But...I had the hoary, now comes the problem eventually.  As of January 30th, 2016 this bird is safely on the ABA checklist, BUT, come summer it may be lumped with the common as one redpoll species so counts today but then what and what about Hayward's hoary?  Do I still get it, do all of us loose it, or just me or none of us?  IDK, I'm sure another way for those in charge to punish Olaf somehow.

We drove around and around the bog passing "Lazurus the Porcupine" 7 times in a tree in the course of the day

We did score two more year birds

#397  Gray Jay

#398 Boreal chickadee

but then the birds dried up.  We looked for black-backs, called black-backs, lost the speaker calling black-backs, then found it again, each time seeing Lazurus curled up in the same tree.  Lena was getting antsy.  We made a bathroom run to the visitor center and they didn't seem too helpful or even friendly, I had never been here when it was even open.  Lena was happy with the outhouse.

I met Julie Winter Zempel through a quirk of fate.  I had one of my paintings stuck in customs as it was originally mistakenly sent to Baltimore from Dusseldorf.  Baltimore, Minneapolis, nearby...correct?  When I and a shipper I knew finally turned it around, the US Customs people were suspicious and my 9am appointment to get it got delayed for 4 hours.  With nothing to do near the airport in Minneapolis last January, I searched for a local bird to see.  I found the Townsend's solitaire in a cemetery and also met Julie.

I posted my hawk-owl and then today Julie looking for a hawk owl saw I was in the area and now Facebook friends, she messaged me.  We never hooked up in the bog due to the lost speaker but we agreed to stay on separate sides of the bog and text each other if anything was spotted.  We spotted nothing and then I got a text.  Julie had the owl, and it was half dark and the owl and her were 19 miles away from us.  The next 15 minutes were a blur.  If I didn't get the owl, I would have to spend three days or at least two, coming back to get it.  On Hwy 9, I drove over 90 mph, Lena texted a farewell to her friends.  Luckily the moose remained in the woods.  As I neared her on Zim road, she texted me it flew and she couldnt relocate it.  I got depressed.  I came up behind a Toyota Rav4.  For some reason, I didn't pass him and about 1/2 mile away, I saw her headlights.  Then the Rav hit the brakes, instinctively I pulled inside him as he was stopped just past a driveway.  There, 40 feet away on top of a tree in low light was the elusive owl!!!!!!!!!!  Lena screamed in delight.  I sighed like the weight of another trip was lifted.

#399  Great gray owl

Wow!!  It doesn't get any better than this.  Eventually I left a happy Rav4 who were still photographing as it dove on a rodent.  I came up to Julie and we did an out of the window high 5.  GREAT BIRD!  "Thank you Julie!"  I told her and then we went to Wilbur's in Cotton for dinner and her lifer pie, for the Boreal chickadee.

We were stoked!  "Did I say, Thank you Julie!"
Who would have guessed that the idiot sending my painting to Baltimore, would have led me to the most elusive of all owls of the northern forest.  That and I had #399

Day 3

Superior National Forest, MN

I needed four hundred.  I had arranged to meet a man named JG Bennett at basically the corner of Forest and Woods in the middle of the Superior National Forest, near a place I had caught my largest walleye ice-fishing in Minnesota, hopefully not a relative of Willie the Walleye. There was no cell service, icy roads, nothing, just trees.
        I had met JG on-line as he desired to see a South Dakota Say's phoebe.  I have the eastern-most breeding colony of Say';s in North America at my cabin.  I have submitted an article on them to the SDOU publication but they didn't care about it, but JG did.  He agreed to swap info for it, and now here was my payback, a Say's phoebe for a black-backed woodpecker.  It could have been the best trade since the Babe Ruth trade a hundred years ago.

It took maybe 5 minutes in the early morning gloom to spot the woodpeckers, two females, Lena spotted them first.

#400  Black-backed woodpecker

They are sharp looking buggers, and it was a big moment in the history of this big year!  400 for a month!  JG hugged me.

JG was great help.  Then two vans from a VENT birding tour pulled up and we gave them our woodpecker spot as the horde pilled out after scouring the roads for Spruce grouse.  We saw a nice male on the side of the road too, but to pay top dollar to sit in the backseat of a van to road bird for grouse?  Really?  Why would you not just do the eastern part of the Willie Route on your own?  Were these people that lazy?  What a miserable deal, we were a hundred miles from Duluth and who knows where they started this day, the guide was actually from Tucson.....I will use guides where I need the lodging (Gambell) or local intel or feel unsafe, but here?  Those vans looked like vomit comets to me...

Thanks JG debt repaid plus interest.

Two Harbors is a good duck location and a place to find Bohemians but not needing any we by-passed it.  They were having a sled-dog race and so it was a bit of a zoo, so it was good to get safely out of town.

Canal Park, Duluth MN

Duluth has a surprising diversity of gull life in the winter.  Canal park is also a fun place.  I lived the dream just across the lift bridge for a period of my life and was a ship watcher, now a bird watcher...but the place is still cool.
The gulls usually disperse by mid-day but not today, they were in a loafing sort of mood, or were waiting for Olaf to sort them.

#401  Greater Black Backed Gull, adult, way out on a piece of ice
#402  Iceland Gull, a few around, one adult just right of the GBBG, and a juve nearby.  My daughter was hoping the Ivory really wasn't dead, and when the glaucous gull sat down, she said, there is a white one.  I corrected her, and it was truly sad, but oh well, nature.
#403  Glaucous Gull

I thought I could ID the black ducks seen with the mallards in the canal but they were tight to the wall on my side and way out by the lighthouse on some ice, heads tucked in, and I could not be certain so I didn't count them, oh well, just black ducks.  We ate at an old favorite, Taste of Saigon in the DeWitt-Sietz building nearby, still open from when we were medical students up here and the egg rolls were still the best, my daughter even agreed.  We came back out and she tallied a Thayer's Gull, I had photographed it before it put its head out and flew away but that gave Lena four gulls for the stop.

There was a really good adult on the opposite wall which I was showing off to everyone in my scope.  Lena went and enjoyed the feeling of being under the liftbridge with cars going over you and then we left.  We still had a stop left.

Superior WI

The Willie the Walleye Route ends in Superior like the Gandy Dancer Line that went near my home ended in Superior, here at the depot

There is no kissing or touching or anything that needs to be done here, you are just finished.
There are two key species I needed to look for in Superior.  I didn't go to the dump and the Superior entrance into the harbor which is a good spot for ducks and gulls.  To be concise I have all the ducks and all of the gulls already. 

I lived just east of here for seven years and grew up 80- miles south of Superior, so this is home turf.  The marquis species is the propensity of snowy owls to hang out around town, near the airport, Menards, the old Gateway Food Warehouse area, and a couple of schools.  So we went looking but as can be seen by the depot picture, it was high sky.  No owls, they were in a ditch somewhere hunkered down.  The second key bird is to go looking for gyrfalcons at the Peavey Elevator, undoubtedly the guilty party in the demise of the ivory gull, which had disappeared on Tuesday, death by falcon assumed.  Gyrs have been coming in recent years although I have always dipped out.  We ran back into the VENT tour people who were watching a hawk, no falcon. I'd get one in Nome so I did not want to waste effort on it.

JG went home and we drove around endlessly waiting for evening and a hope that an owl would show sooner.  Then I saw something on a powerpole, I got out my scope.  It was a female gyrfalcon, way east and where it had never been seen before as if, it flew over only to be seen by me.  

#404  Gyrfalcon

After I photographed it, it left and was never seen again, oddity upon oddity...?  It was like my blessed state was so obvious only I couldn't see it.  I take gift birds especially rare ones but where was the snowy? 

It was near 5 pm and after playing "Ex's and Oh's" or however it is spelled, sorry Ms. King, twice, the theme song of this Big Year and I went past a mound, turned into a tower access road and turned around and then on a post, there one was, a snowy owl, but where had it came from?  Did I miss it?  Lena was shooting photos out the window in her stocking feet, she had been napping since 330

#405  Snowy Owl

JG came over and saw it, gave me an out the window fist bump.  It was good getting the third owl off.

The trail was over, and we took off for the airport to pick up my wife in Minneapolis.  It was unreal, we had seen everything, we had seen it all.  Black duck aside which I had probably seen but not counted, I had cleaned up the owls, the grouse, the finches, everything, I had no need to return in winter to the north country.  Here I was, sundown on January 31st, and I had 405 birds. I had seen a new year bird on every day in the month. It was probably a record, but...

John Puschock, a birding guru from Washington who on day four of my Big Year, emailed me if I had broken the record yet.  I was crooning about being like at 160.  He was right then and he would be correct now.  I had done nothing.  Seeing 405 species in the month of January, was like proclaiming yourself as the toughest muppet....yea, okay but so what.  I had passed 400 five times and nobody was going to care about this if I didn't go out and put up a good year total.  Neil Hayward wasn't loosing sleep over this, Sandy Komito wouldn't call a man like me and congratulate me, Greg Miller wouldn't friend me on was really and truly nothing.  One of my "coaches" Chris Feeney put it succinctly, yea, "405.  February starts tomorrow and you are going to Alaska and you need more, more, more!"  At least that is how I read it.  I needed to put the hammer down, I left birds on the table in January.  For the year prize (there really isn't a prize), while the other dogs were napping, I had streaked out to a 97 bird lead to my closest competitor, Roger Clark unless there was a sandbagger out there, but the dogs had woken up and were in pursuit..

We had the powerful owl omen to start.  We used the picture of Willie for luck and added the luck of Jack the Pine Savage.  
The owls definitely had it on this trek.  Would there be any luck left for Alaska?  
Am I really going to Alaska in the winter?

Willie the walleye rules!



  1. Olaf: Not only did you find a bunch of traditionally difficult birds in one fell swoop, you might have completed the most hazardous road trip of your year, ( small plane rides in Alaska excluded ), and you came out unscathed. Bring on February.
    Finally figured out my g mail account, so can comment directly on your blog. Thor

    Thor Manson
    Gallagher Lake, B.C.

    1. Thanks, yea, it was unseasonably warm, I remember sitting in front of that abandoned house and saw the thermometer at -26 once. I've had to bail out up there as the weather turned too, so luck on the bad weather, i guess, or it is waiting to really REALLY get me

  2. Good luck.. I have been enjoying your updates. you can friend me on Facebook. I'll accept. haha.

    1. we'll see, friend request sent. Not intentionally throwing any stones, I'm no one from no-where, I built a company being that....same thing in Medicine, none of the big wigs would ever give me the time of day either, just the way it is, so I don't usually bother. I did send Greg Miller a Facebook friend request though and still here a couple of months out it hasn't been accepted.

  3. Olaf the large,
    Keep up the great work.
    Wow... over 400 in the first month.
    That usually takes me a year!
    David Chapman

    1. Even a blind dog occasionally finds a bone or in this case a fat Swede finds a bird

  4. Replies
    1. That was good coaching, I think I quoted you.......

  5. Incredible month! Keep up the good work and thanks for sharing your adventure. Do you or any of your readers know if the other folks doing Big Years are keeping blogs? Entertaining reading. -Mark

    1. I don't know, no one has made me aware

    2. Someone is doing a big year. Thought I posted to you. I'm rooting for you the guy who's doing the big year but keeping his list secret is BRANDON REO, he's a noob from NJ with ALOT of money. I tried to coach and help him in the past 2 years but his ID skills and truthfulness are appalling! He counted a dead Sooty Grouse once bc he couldn't find a live one. He paid a kid in Cuba to set free some birds so he can count them. The guy is a ticker and has no real love for birding! He has a lot of money and can chase other people's birds. He's not a good person. His name is shot in NJ.
      -Larry Scacchetti

  6. Awesome three days! What's a sandbagger? Nancy M

    1. Someone who doesn't post all of their birds or if they do, posts them at phantom sites

  7. I like that lavender color behind the pic of the Snowy Owl!

  8. Can you fly from Alaska to South Dakota by way of McAllen (Blue Bunting) and Ft Lauderdale (Smooth-billed Ani)? So many decisions in a Big Year. Safe travels. -Mark


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