Freezing in Fargo

A Brambling in the Lower 48 is a nice sight, no matter the conditions. Birder Beau has made other birders welcome to park near his western Minnesota driveway and remain in unfrozen comfort waiting for the periodic arrival of the Brambling. Not a pretty way to score, but a tick’s a tick, and this is a great bird.

The way January has unfolded, I feel I was too often on the back foot, and my species count to date shows it. You know how you feel when you just miss a green light, and it seems as though that ‘miss’ set you on a course of sequential red lights, that doubles your travel time? I just missed a big green light on day 2 – second day of the year, when I was excluded from my Portland Maine flight to Calgary, due to rule changes concerning Australians needing a special travel visa to enter the country. So I went to Pennsylvania to arrive a day late for the otherwise regular Barnacle Goose. I spent three days missing the bird while hoping for a break on the Canadian visa application to chase the British Columbia Fieldfare. I got the bird, but couldn’t lose the sense of trying to run in quicksand.

The next most significant time-absorbing miscalculation was in choosing to head over to Adak at the start of the final week of the month, on the sniff of news about recent news about sightings of Whooper Swans and a possible Eurasian Hobby. Although the trip was quite an adventure (and I’m glad I did it), it chewed four days out of my schedule. I passed through Anchorage, and spent a half day birding, blissfully unaware that a Northern Hawk-owl was a sure bet somewhere in the area.

While looking unsuccessfully for Ptarmigan instead of the Hawk-owl in Anchorage, I learned of a Brambling coming to the front yard feeder of a birder in Minnesota, not far east of Fargo, ND. So  I dropped existing plans to head up to Nome, where I was planning on an early year tick for McKay’s Buntings, for which a winter Nome trip is the only option. So I headed to Fargo, stupidly unaware of an impending cold snap that brought the coldest temperatures to the region in 30 years. ‘Polar Vortex’ – fancy wording for the fact that a chunk of crazy-cold arctic air slipped southwards with the intent of screwing up both birding activities and flights outta Fargo.

The Brambling was cooperative, so I made the three additional hours drive east to famous birding spot Sax-Zim Bog. The name reflects the semi-protected area lying between Sax Rd and Zim Rd. I’d been to ‘the bog’ three times previously, and thought I had reason for optimism after getting some great intel on a range of birds from Minnesota birding guru Alex Sundvall.

Well, no fault of the intel, but my results in the bog, which extended from two half-days to three days, as my flights out of Fargo were cancelled one after another. Why? Because cold conditions throughout the midwest impacted upon the running of flights – winds were gusty, but not wild, and it was apparently too cold for precipitation. Chicago airport employees in particular decided to take a short holiday from runway duties, messing up all sorts of flights in the region.

I’m running out of time to write much more about the experience in Minnesota and North Dakota (although I must mention that I briefly caught up with my sister Terry, who lives in Fargo (???]), which was very nice. Although I’m not sure how she felt about the fact that I left her with a stack of paperwork to do on my behalf re contracts to do with the Reptile Park purchasing additional land for expansion.

So will hopefully give a bit of a story with photos:

That’s cold!


Arrived at ‘the bog’ in -23F with 30mph winds. The good news is the winds died down over the next two days; the bad news is the temperatures also went down – to a brutal -39F (and C!) on my final owl-less morning


I didn’t take long after arriving at the bog to screw up, as is my way. Good ole Mrs Mac towing service had me out of the ditch (hidden by snow!) within an hour.


The ‘trail’ into areas where the resident Northern Hawk Owl had been a regular – up til my arrival – or perhaps the wildly cold conditions. Hope it didn’t freeze in the manner that my toes, fingers, and seemingly lung-lining (I’m still coughing), and will be back on the job when I head back there with Robyn in the next few weeks. She’ll love it. Yeah.


Traditional American barn. Nothing like it in Australia. This one has seen better days.


Private property and trespassing on it is a huge deal in the US compared to Australia or England. The rule of thumb is “Trespassers will be violated”.


Roughed Grouse trying to stay warm.


Pine Grosbeak


Common Redpol




I didn’t know that iron was king in Minnesota. It is. Or at least it was.