Boreal Forest Bonanza

When I got up this morning I quickly decided to head north into the Superior National Forest. The brilliant sun was screaming at me to go and enjoy ice encrusted pine trees. The Boreal Forest did not disappoint. For those of you who know northern Minnesota, I traveled north towards the Canadian border with two stops in prime birding locations, the Sand River area and the Pagami Creek Wildfire area.

Sand River is approximately 40 miles north of Two Harbors, and known for being one of the best places in the state to see Spruce Grouse. The Pagami Creek Wildfire, which to some might look stark, is a great, extremely remote area, where one gains an understanding for how forest fires are actually beneficial to the forest ecosystem. This fire was the result of a lightning strike four years ago, and now hosts fantastic  wildlife, even in early winter.

I had a number of birds on my “hit list” which were:

#1 Target Birds: Black Backed Woodpeckers, Northern Hawk Owls, and Spruce Grouse
#2: Target Birds: Pine Grosbeaks and Red Crosbills
#3: Target Birds: Anything else!

Truth be told, maybe I should have added Great Grey Owls to list #1, but given I was arriving in the Sand River area one hour after sunrise (by design), it would be unlikely to see these nocturnal birds at that time of day. However, Northern Hawk Owls hunt during the day and therefore made send to be on list #1.

Here is where I am going to sound like a fisherman who tells of the “one that got away”. Remember, I am both a birder and a “photographer”. While parked next to the Isabella River in the Pagami Creek Wildfire area, and watching three otters play on the newly formed ice, a Black Backed Woodpecker landed in a tree not more than five feet from me. Please understand I have never seen a Black Backed Woodpecker in my life. Thus seeing this bird which prefers burned out regions was a treat, but my camera was laying on the seat next to me. By the time I grabbed said camera, raised it up, the woodpecker had flown across the river out of view. I DID, however, enjoy watching the otters play!  🙂

In addition to the Black Backed Woodpecker, while stopped at the Isabella River for about 30 minutes I saw bald eagles, a rough-legged hawk, my friendly otters, snow buntings, and grey jays. I did not however seen a Northern Hawk Owl.

Another treat was to see a very dumb bunny! While stopped to take photographs of Sand River early this morning, a snowshow hare ran right at me (hmmm … remember Jimmy Carter and the killer rabbit?!). This event is unusual as snowshoe hares are mainly nocturnal, and normally they do not run right at you when your camera is in your hands! I wish the Black Back Woodpecker understood how one should respond to wildlife photographers. Unfortunately, the local Spruce Grouse did not pose for me, or even let themselves be seen.

Finally, if you are interested in visiting the Pagami Creek Wildfire area, Tomahawk Road is still quite drivable, but I would recommend having 4 wheel or all wheel drive. The snow and gravel / muck while not overly deep could be a bit of a challenge otherwise for a two wheel drive car. I only saw two deer hunter’s trucks on Tomahawk Road (18 miles from hwy #2 to Isabella River). Just wear some bright red, and be intelligent about where you choose to hike.

Finally, some Pine Grosbeak’s posed for photographs near Sand River as I returned to Duluth. They like the otters understood the desires of photographers.

Sand River Approximately One Hour After Sunrise


The Killer Rabbit / Snowshoe Hare of Sand River!
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Isabella River & Friends (otters!)
Boreal-Forest-Isabella-River-Vista Boreal-Forest-Otters


Pine Grosbeaks
Boreal-Forest-Pine-Grosbeak-1 Boreal-Forest-Pine-Grosbeak-3


Gravel for the Gizzard!
Boreal-Forest-Pine-Grosbeak-5-Gravel-C Boreal-Forest-Pine-Grosbeak-5-Gravel-B Boreal-Forest-Pine-Grosbeak-5-Gravel-A

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