Pagami Creek Wildfire / Tomahawk Rd. Winter Birding

Old Man Winter has been kind to us so far this year in northern Minnesota, and when the pre-dawn foretold a mild and sunny day, I decided to drive up near the Canadian border and visit the Pagami Creek Wild Fire region. Given the small amount of snow on the ground so far this winter, I knew that Tomahawk Road would still be driveable. Soon heavy snows will make the road impassable till spring.

My goal was to arrive at the entrance to Tomahawk Road around sunrise for two reasons. First, birds tend to be active at dawn after a cool night as they forage for food; and second, an early arrival would get me past the local logging operations before the HUGE trucks take over the initial miles of Tomahawk. As sunrise in the Ely area was at 7:42 am, I timed my arrival perfectly turning onto Tomahawk at 7:45 am.

There were two bird species I really wanted to see, Spruce Grouse and Black Backed Woodpeckers. Both birds are elusive and rare, and woodpecker would be a lifer for me. Please understand that black backed woodpeckers love large burnt out forest fire areas, and thus there are few areas available that have suitable habitat within a days’ drive of my home. Spruce grouse are also rare, and the best viewing opportunities generally  require one visit the deep wilderness of northeastern Minnesota.

After yesterday’s fantastic birding in Sax-Zim Bog where I volunteer at the Visitor Center and seeing both a Great Gray Owl and Sharp-Tailed Grouse, I should have been happy with a even a fair day of birding today. Well, I had a simply stupendous day of birding! Not only did I see one spruce grouse, but by the time I completed by roundtrip on Tomahawk Road back to Minnesota Route #1 three hours later my tally included well over 30 spruce grouse (unheard of numbers), and a couple of black-backed woodpeckers including one individual who let me watch and photograph / video him from distances often less than ten feet. Life is good … including a new lifer!

Birding Details:

  • Sunrise – 7:42 am
  • Arrival at Tomahawk Road: 7:45 am
  • Spruce Grouse Locations: mile 9.6 (just after Inga Creek) to Isabella Lake BWCA Entry Point parking lot at mile 18.3 … prior to mile 9.6 there are many stands of large pines planted in 1946 which do not seem to host as many birds.
  • Best Spruce Grouse Location: large flock at mile 9.9 (wetlands on NE side of road, small hill on SW side or road … scattered spruce trees.
  • Black-Backed Woodpeckers: near the Isabella Lake BWCA Entry Point parking lot and road … stop and listen for pecking sounds … 75% of the time the woodpeckers were on pine trees already laying upon the ground … make sure you get out of the car and walk \ listen.
  • Departure from Tomahawk Road: 10:30 am
  • Logging Notes: timber operations were only for the first 1/4 mile of Tomahawk Rd … upon arriving there were 5 large filled logging trucks parked but operations had not yet begun for the day
  • Traffic: I saw zero vehicles / people the entire time I was on Tomahawk Road, a period of approximately three hours.
  • Distance from Lester River Bridge in Duluth to the Isabella Lake BWCA Entry Point parking lot on Tomahawk Rd: 93.4 miles (note: it took me 1 & 3/4 hours to reach the turn off Hwy #1 to Tomahawk from Duluth)
  • Cell Phone Connection: Are you kidding?!!

View this project’s Flickr photo stream. (click upon images to view at full size)

Black-Backed Woodpecker Videos

Chowing Down on a Burnt Out Log

Walking Towards Me! Only a few feet away.

Black-Backed Woodpecker: Read & Aim, Fire, Eat!
Y2-M12-Pagami-Creek-Wildfire-Black-Backed-Woodpecker-A Y2-M12-Pagami-Creek-Wildfire-Black-Backed-Woodpecker-B Y2-M12-Pagami-Creek-Wildfire-Black-Backed-Woodpecker-C


Black-Backed Woodpecker


Spruce Grouse Duo! (female and male)
Y2-M12-Pagami-Creek-Wildfire-Spruce-Grouse-A Y2-M12-Pagami-Creek-Wildfire-Spruce-Grouse-B

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