Nature Talk: Winter birding in Aitkin County

When the cold and snow comes in Minnesota and most birds have migrated you might wonder what birders do for fun?

Lapland longspur. Photo by Ron Taube
Lapland longspur. Photo by Ron Taube

One of the answers to that question is to go to Aitkin County. Last week my friends Russ and Gary and myself did just that.

Russ is a very good spotter and Gary is a naturalist for Anoka County who has been in the Aitkin County area many times and knows birds better than anyone we know.

Russ and I left the Twin Cities at 7:30 a.m. last Thursday morning and met with Gary on Highway 169 north of Highway 10.

By 9 a.m. we were driving slowly on the icy highway just west of Lake Mille Lacs and less than hour later we were up in the town of Aitkin scanning the skies and trees.

The prize birds in this area are great gray owls, snowy owls and rough legged hawks but there are many other good birds up there too.

Not long past Aitkin we saw a pileated woodpecker on a tree and while that is always a fun bird to see we wanted something more rare.

Soon Gary spotted some birds in the snow along the roadside near farmland that turned out to be Lapland longspurs which was a first for me and Russ for the year. It is a beautiful little bird with several shades of brown on its feathers.

Russ and I took our photos and soon we were on our way.

There had been several great grays reported in the northern part of the county even north of the little town of Palisades.

Eventually we were driving back and forth along one road near a cemetery where the grays had been reported.

We saw several other birders looking as well and talked to a few but none of us saw any great gray owls.

We were disappointed but we went on because seasoned birders know that birds move around a lot and if you don’t see one in a likely spot you might see one in an unlikely spot.

Having said this we drove on for two more hours without seeing much of anything until Gary suggested we try an area that he knew of between Aitkin and Palisades.

Eventually Gary had me stop the car for what turned out to be a rough legged hawk sitting atop of a thin branch on top of a tree. We watched him for several minutes before he took off.

As we watched him we saw several sharp tailed grouse fly by then the rough legged took off and was soon out of sight.

We  continued to drive slowly past snowy fields looking at everything and even  briefly saw a northern shrike on top of a power line until Gary called for me to stop the car.

Off in the distance sitting on top of some snow covered pipes was a snowy owl.

I couldn’t see it at first with my binoculars, but Russ and Gary were patient with me until I did see it.

Perhaps the reason why I couldn’t see it at first was that it wasn’t all white as I expected. It had lots of dark grayish spots on it and Gary told us that it was an immature bird.

The snowy sat there on those pipes slowly looking around then he took off for a nearby telephone pole.

I tried to get as close as I could to get a photo and managed to get within a couple of hundred yards before he took off and went after some prey.

The sightings of the rough legged hawk and the snowy owl made our day.

Later that weekend by coincidence the “Nature” program on PBS did a show on the snowy owl.

So if you were wondering what birders do in the winter, now you have one of the answers.

Editor’s note: Ron Taube is a member of the Coon Rapids Senior Center Creative Writers Group. 

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