Birding Koochiching County In January

Male Varied Thrush
Male Varied Thrush (Ixoreus naevius), Dave Menke, USFWS

I leave my house at 3:40 A.M., it is a “beautiful” January morning in Minnesota, January 15, 2017 to be exact. I am off on my favorite winter birding adventure in Minnesota, the seeking of a Varied Thrush in a new county, this time in a very special county. Most of my Minnesota birders know me as a compulsive county list keeper, they are correct. I am addicted to finding new county birds in the state which helps me keep track of the distribution of Minnesota birds, another favorite activity of mine.

Now back to my adventure to find a Varied Thrush in a new Minnesota county. As I head north on I-35 the temperature is falling. By the time I reach Cloquet it is well below zero, 9 degrees below to be exact, but the skies are clear and there is little or no wind. Wind is one of the worst things for birding, in my opinion, so I am pleased with a windless day so far. I head north on Highway 53 through Virginia and reach one of my favorite towns in Minnesota, Cook. I get gas and see my first birds of the day a Common Raven and an American Crow looking for food (hand-outs?). I always try and use the full names of birds so people are aware of them. As I continue north on 53 the temperature is on the rise, unusual for this time of year. I reach the Koochiching County line at 8:45 A.M.

Koochiching CountyKoochiching County is special to me, it is Minnesota’s second largest county at 3,173 square miles. It is difficult to build a big bird list in “Kooch”, as many people call it, because the habitat is so uniform, cutover, second growth forests, lack of lakes and much of it inaccessible plus being 300 miles from the Twin Cities. It is my lowest county list-wise at 220 species so any time I might be able to add a species to the list is a special event for me and now to have the possibility of adding a special species, the Varied Thrush, is a county lister’s dream. It is 9:20 A.M. and I arrive, 293 miles later, at the MacDonald’s in International Falls where I am to meet Al Meadows who will take me to the Varied Thrush location. Al is one of Minnesota’s best bird photographers. The temperature is near 20 degrees, just great for the “ice-box” city in Minnesota.

Al seems somewhat upset when he arrives, we exchange greetings and he says he has found out that the man whose house we are going to has a bad case of the flu. My ‘heart” drops to my stomach, all this way and now we can’t go look for the thrush. Al relieves my anxiety when he says “I will take you to the home but I won’t go in because I don‘t want to get the flu, I am going to Panama in a couple of days and I don’t want to get sick”.

We drive through downtown International Falls and to a residential area along the Rainey River. I am prepared to wait for hours if necessary to see the thrush at the bird feeder. We drive in the driveway and I see a man in the window motioning for us to come in, Al says “I will stay in the car”. I go into the house and meet a gentleman who seems very healthy, there is no introduction. All he says is that “the thrush is in the tree”. He leads me to a big window overlooking the river and there in the tree is a beautiful female Varied Thrush. I watch the bird for 5-10 minutes as it feds at the feeder. I thank the gentleman and go back to my car and Al is just leaving, he doesn’t want to get any closer to the flu “bug”.

Curve-billed thrush
Curve-billed thrush (Toxostoma curvirostre), Gary Kramer, USFWS

I decide to head for Grand Rapids to look for a Curve-billed Thrasher that has been coming to a feeder in a residential area of Grand Rapids. It is shortly afternoon when I arrived after a neat ride through wild Koochiching County along Highway 6. I saw Gray Jays and White-winged Crossbills plus 22 Pine Grosbeaks feeding in a crab apple tree in Big Falls. Arriving at the spot in Grand Rapids, I find three of my favorite county listers present looking for the thrasher. Have they seen the bird I ask, “no and we have been here since sunrise”. To make a long story short we all wait another four hours and the bird never puts in an appearance. We had great “bird” conversation but no bird, the trials and tribulations of birding! I finally decide to leave, dejected but happy with the Varied Thrush.

I arrive back home 594 miles later, tired but thankful that the roads were in great condition and that I had no problems. The lack of a Curve-billed Thrasher, there are only four other records for the state, is disappointing but to “bat 500” on a birding trip isn’t all that bad.

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