Sunday, January 16, 2011

Land of the Great Grey Ghost

The boreal forests, or the taiga, form a wreath on the world's land mass. They constitute 30% of the forests on the planet, and ensconced in snow and frost for 200 days in a year. In the winter, boreal forests are synonymous with bleakness and a harsh environment that few animals can tolerate. This blog recounts our encounters - in photos - with the boreal forests and some of its denizens in northern Minnesota (Jan 12-14 2011).

Stunted Black Spruce, deciduous Tamarack pine trees with most of their needles dropped, birches and various other deciduous species stood shrouded in fresh snow as we entered Sax Zim bog. Photographs taken in colour mode came out in black-and-white as the dry snow floated down sprinkling everything with fresh flakes.

Boughs bereft of leaves bowed under the weight of piled up fresh snow and ice stood silhouetted against the dull grey skies.

The sun attempted weakly at breaking through the clouds and snow, and lit up in ghostly light cattle farms and snow-covered hay meadows. Desolate was a word that sprang to mind, yet there was human activity almost everywhere.

A deer carcass on the roadside was flagged by dozens of ravens. And one Bald Eagle that laboriously took off and landed on a snag beside our vehicle.

Our hosts were residents of Hibbing - Linda and Larry Schmelzer - parents of our friend Sara (wife of Scott Loss - birder extraordinaire!), were wonderful hosts. Larry is an engineer at the Hull Rust mines - one of the largest open-pit iron ore mines in the world. This photo with a car and a person (if you can spot him), and drills, shows the extent of the mine.

Hibbing is also where the famous Greyhound buses started, but ironically do not stop there anymore. This sign at the mine overlook tries to lure visitors into the Greyhound museum.

The mine site itself had several birds including a large flock of Common Redpolls that foraged noisily on dry seeds.

But back to the boreal forests! We birded at the Sax Zim bog for two wonderful days. The snow did not stop, but neither did we. Below are photos of bird species - boreal and otherwise - that we were able to photograph.

The ubiquitous yet compelling Black-capped Chickadee barely left prints on the snow.

The more restricted northern Boreal Chickadee was much rarer, and frequently bullied by the previous chickadee. It seemed much more at home in the snow.

The cold weather and the snow did not dissuade the woodpeckers from actively foraging. This Downy Woodpecker seemed comfortable and was rather common.

The slightly bigger Hairy Woodpecker was also frequently encountered.

The Black-backed Woodpecker provided a real treat when this male, with its lovely yellow forehead, decided to try out the tree beside our vehicle for grubs. This is a boreal woodpecker species - one that was high on our wish list on this trip.

Flocks of Pine Grosbeaks were relatively common much to our delight. Female Grosbeaks
(above) were almost as common as their much-more-colourful male counterparts (below).

This lone female Purple Finch aided in lengthening our list, but we saw no males during this trip.

Ruffed Grouse appeared in the evenings in flocks on trees feeding on buds, and were on the roads hypnotized by cars that nearly ran them over. When found during the day, they sat still seemingly unperturbed by our curiosity. Made us wonder how apt the synonym "fool-hen" was!

And finally, the owls! We saw one individual of the Northern Hawk Owl several times, always atop a tree making for not-so-good photos.

The big bonus was the Great Grey Owl - called the great grey ghost with good reason. We were fortunate to see two individuals of this magnificent hunter. One of the owls set up a grand performance hunting a couple of voles in a snowed-up meadow as the sun disappeared over the horizon and as it began to snow again. Here are two photos of the ghost - this bird is truly a symbol of the untamed winterland that the Taiga is!

Our sincere gratitude to the Schmelzers for hosting us, to Scott for driving long hours sometimes in treacherous snow fall, and to Chih-Ming for allowing the use of this vehicle for this trip!


Adharshila said...

Beautiful, G and S.

Beej said...

Excellent stuff, Gopi! Are these birds residents or migrants?

Anonymous said...

These are residents Beej. In the brief spring/ summer, the area's bird list picks up considerably with the breeders.

Nupur said...

Gorgeous pictures- the birds seem to be posing just for you.