More Birding in Koochiching

Great Horned Owl
Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus), Gary M. Stoltz, USFWS

In my last article, I wrote about my adventures to Koochiching County in January. These adventures continued into March with the great anticipation of a county lister. Those of us that keep track of birds by county are an “interesting” group of birders. We chase after common birds in remote places and have much fun increasing our county list numbers. This may sound like a strange way to see birds but it really isn’t, it teaches us over and over again what the distribution of Minnesota birds is all about. My latest adventure took me again to Koochiching County, the Minnesota county where I’ve seen the fewest species.

Through a network of birders created by Al Meadows in International Falls I found out that there were Great Horned and Northern Saw-whet Owls being heard near the small town of Littlefork. I had to plan a trip there ASAP to see and/or hear those owls and add them to my Koochiching County list. The trip was postponed for many days because of high winds and bad weather in the area. Windy days are bad for finding owls. Finally on March 21, I headed north. There was lots of snow left on the ground and the temperature was 10 degrees when I reached Littlefork at 5:00 PM. There was no wind and the sky was clear, great for looking for owls.

I met Lori Dobbs at her home. She greeted me like I was an old friend. Aren’t birders the greatest people! She immediately said let’s go and I will show you where I heard the owls.
For the next hour we drove around numerous back roads around Littlefork. Lori explained to me the area and where she had heard and seen both species of owls that I was looking for. After this adventure she led me to the only motel in town and the fancy (only) restaurant in town. I rented a room and then told Lori I would call her later and inform her of my findings. I sat down to dinner and when the waitress came to my table she asked me if I was Bob. Surprised to say the least, I asked how did you know? She replied that Lori and Gordon Dobbs were providing my dinner. What a treat and again I said to myself aren’t birders the greatest?

The sun was setting and I was through with dinner so I set off to find the owls. I went down a deadend road where Lori had pointed out that other birders had heard Great Horned Owls a week or so ago. It was a perfect night for owls, calm, clear and cold. I stopped the car, opened the windows and listened. Within 20 seconds I heard a Great Horned Owl hooting its’ “heart out” loud and clear. I scanned the horizon in the fading light and there was the silhouette of the most beautiful Great Horned Owl I had ever seen, # 222 for Koochiching County and the # 87th county for me in Minnesota for Great Horned Owl!

Northern Saw-whet Owl
Northern Saw-whet Owl (Aegolius acadicus), Dave Darney, USFWS

I spent the next 3 hours traveling lonely back roads trying to hear a Northern Saw-whet Owl, all to no avail. It was well after 9:00 PM, I was tired after driving 300 + miles since morning. I decided for one last try, close to the motel that was near Lori’s home. It was near 10:00 PM, the stars and Milky Way were out brighter than ever. Before I got out of the car and turned off the engine I vaguely heard something that sounded a bit like a Saw-whet, I passed it off as my ears (brain) hearing what I wanted to hear. I stopped in the Dobbs’ driveway and got out of the car to enjoy the stars. Within 30 seconds there it was, the distinct low whistled “toots” of a Northern Saw-whet coming from some distance away. It was # 223 for Koochiching County, only 2 away from the coveted 225. Isn’t it great that county listers can count heard birds!

I slept well that night in Littlefork. I got up at 5:30 AM to drive to my next birding effort in Cook (St. Louis County), about 70 miles away, to look for an American Three-toed Woodpecker. I was to meet Julie Grahn, a local birder, and another birder named Jack (I never did get his last name) from Kansas City, who also wanted to see a Black-backed Woodpecker and the American Three-toed Woodpecker. We met at the McDonald’s in Cook at 8:00 AM and got into Julie’s car and spent the next 4 hours looking for my nemesis bird, the American Three-toed Woodpecker.

American Three-toed Woodpecker
American Three-toed Woodpecker (Picoides dorsalis), by pbonenfant – Flickr, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2483238

The definition of a nemesis bird is a bird that all your fellow listers have seen but no matter how hard you tried you have never seen one. Well to make a long story short, in spite of Julie’s great efforts and hospitality, the American Three-toed Woodpecker is still my nemesis bird. I did find two Black-backed Woodpeckers which made Jack happy. Julie and Jack went back to the spot after I left for home and saw the Three-toed. See what I mean by nemesis? So it is back to Cook in the near future to see what I can do about a nemesis. Maybe I will write a success story about it in a coming issue of the “Trumpeter”. I sure did meet some great birders on this trip which is always a neat experience.

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