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IN SEARCH OF 'THE GHOST OF THE BOREAL FOREST'.


johnweir

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johnweir

Following the relaxation of travel restrictions to the USA from Europe we decided to join a small group of wildlife enthusiasts from the UK who would visit Minnesota mid November 2021 in search of 'The Ghost of the Boreal Forest', the Canada Lynx, with the hope of not only securing a sighting but also some images. This would be our first trip since the covid crisis began, our last being a month in India just before lockdown, during which time we recorded a significant number of mammals and birds. Prior to covid we had decided to concentrate our travels to locations where we were most likely to enjoy good wild cat sightings and hopefully observe some of the more rarely seen species. High up on our list was the Canada Lynx a very elusive species, not uncommon in Canada but very rare in the USA. In Canada sightings are best described as infrequent and in the USA as extremely rare. Some authorities would suggest that there are as few as only 100 Lynx currently in the USA and that many individuals recorded there have crossed 'The Slash' in search of their preferred prey the Snowshoe Hare, and are possibly transitory. However I am fairly sure they are breeding in small numbers in the USA and that a re-introduced population in The Rockies, Colorado is doing very well. The Canada Lynx is protected in the USA (with the exception of Alaska); However they are legally trapped in several states in Canada. In my eyes the Canada Lynx is on of the most beautiful of the felids and the opportunity to possibly observe this species in the wild was to say the least very appealing and a chance not to be missed, realising fully however that we would need to be lucky.

 

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The elusive Canada Lynx. A beautiful cat.

 

We flew from the UK to Duluth in Minnesota via Chicago. Covid testing proved an added cost but we returned prior to needing a PCR test 2 days after our return, British Airways Verifly App (designed to speed up cross border documentation checks) proved to be difficult to use as some documents required were not easily uploaded, and it proved to be easier and quicker just to proceed through normal check in, papers in hand. I would have to say the checking of our covid documents throughout the trip was not very thorough. The trip lasted 10 days and was centred around The Gunflint Trail which snakes inland towards the Canadian border, from Grand Marais on the shore of Lake Superior, this was our base. Half day birding trips in the Duluth area started and ended the trip. On our return journey to Duluth we spent several hours in the world-renowned Sax-Zim Bog, an area of significant importance with regard to 'bog-diversity'. In Grand Marais we enjoyed excellent warm accommodation in very comfortable cabins / apartments. We had never visited this area of the USA before it was truly beautiful. We left the lodge most days around 06.00 in the dark and returned around 19.00 also in the dark.

Whilst the trip was not physically demanding what was, was the long hours spent in the hides at very low temperatures. Two possible sighting locations had been chosen prior to our arrival and both had roadkill carcasses strategically positioned to attract in, hopefully Lynx, a practice some may question but I am personally totally comfortable with this as it only takes place for a very short period and the cats remain otherwise completely dependent on their own capacity to hunt naturally, this they clearly do.

Two and a half days went by slowly, 15 hours sat quietly on an upturned bucket in very cold temperatures, no sightings except for Blue Jays, Canada Jays, and American Red Squirrels, my wife and I were beginning to question the sanity of our quest. Despite two pairs of socks, snow boots, thermal underwear, quilted trousers, a fleece, two down jackets, an over jacket and trousers, two buffs, a hat and two pairs of gloves, the cold was starting to take its toll. The eventual use of heater pads in our boots and gloves made us considerably more comfortable. The temperature was daily below freezing around -5ºC, with one day down to -13ºC. A typical day in the field involved two observation / activity periods with a lunch break for hot food. During the visit we experienced strong winds, snow storms and beautiful calm sunny days in equal measure, but always it was cold.

 

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Lynx watching is just too exciting for some!

 

Camera trap clips indicated that at least 2 Lynx were in the area, a male and female and also a male and female Fisher. I was not familiar with a Fisher before this trip but it certainly is an impressive and interesting mammal, a member of the mustelid family, it is basically a very large, stocky weasel. The male we observed on camera was a very large individual, the female much smaller. Although we never saw them in real time both were captured on the camera trap daily, always at night. It was a big disappointment not to enjoy a Fisher sighting. The barbaric practice of trapping Fishers appears to be widespread in the northern USA and Canada.

On our third full day, in the afternoon our luck changed very much for the better, it was judged as it turned out quite rightly that a cat which had been caught feeding overnight by a camera trap would return mid afternoon for more. That is exactly what happened. I was sat outside the hide on my bucket when out of the corner of my eye to my right partly obscured by shrubs I saw 'the ghost of the forest' slowly, silently pass by, I had a further glimpse of the Lynx as it passed in front of us at distance, before it settled down to my left barely in view at a distance of about 50 metres, still partly obscured by trees and shrubs. If that was it I had at least now seen a Canada Lynx, 20 minutes passed by, nothing, then the cat suddenly approached directly in front of us, it was about 10m or less away, it inspected the immediate area and began to feed. No cameras at this stage. The Lynx was magnificent, bigger than I expected, its coat was very thick and its paws were huge. The cold seemed to vanish immediately, we observed him for about an hour both on the carcass and moving around the surrounding area, he visited the carcass twice. He was still feeding when we decided to slowly depart, he was totally unfazed by our intrusion which I found amazing, Canada Lynx have a reputation of being quite tolerant to human presence when they are occasionally spotted.

 

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Canada Lynx. Gunflint Trail, near Grand Marais, Minnesota. Friday 19/11/2021. 14.30, 14ºF (-10ºC). Male 5+ years old.

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The cat had previously been seen 2 years earlier and was identified by the spot in his right eye below the pupil.

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A very impressive individual.

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The Lynx spent some time investigating what appeared to be a burrow just below where he is sat, presumably for a hare or rodents. 

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Last shot before we left him in peace. (All the images are of the same cat taken throughout the one hour sighting, the light conditions were poor to medium).

 

This was to be our only Lynx sighting, but it had been a very high quality one, it was a wildlife encounter I will never forget and one of our best so far. The female Lynx seen on the camera trap earlier in the trip visited the other site on our last day, a democratic group decision put us at the wrong site at the right time. Another 7.5 hours were spent at the hides after the successful sighting, making a total time spent in the hides of 22.5 hours.

Other mammals we observed during the visit were White-tailed Deer, Eastern Grey Squirrel, Plains Grey Wolf (very briefly), Northern Plains Red Fox and Snowshoe Hare. My wife also recorded an American Marten from the hides, I clearly had lost concentration at the time. It would have been nice to have seen a Moose but regrettably despite searching, not on this trip. We certainly had seen what we came to see.

Birds were not commonly seen in the boreal forest with the exception of small numbers of Redpoll, Raven, American Crow, Blue Jay, Canada Jay, Black-capped Chickadee and Ruffed Grouse.

 

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A Northern Plains Red Fox was briefly seen at the side of the main Gunflint Trail one evening, just as it was getting dark as we drove to the lodge for our meal. It appeared very healthy and was possibly more impressive than the European version, thicker coat.

 

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American Red Squirrel, taken at Gunflint Lodge. I think the European version has the edge here despite the white eyeliner, body colour rather drab and ear tufts not as impressive! 

 

 

To follow: Some Birding Highlights.

 

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Tom Kellie

~ @johnweir:

 

The informative text enhances the superlative images.

 

Many thanks for the exceptional post.

 

Such quality burnishes Safaritalk's already glowing reputation for quality.

 

With much appreciation,

 

      Tom K.

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Kitsafari

what a stunning, stunning cat! the images are of excellent quality, even if you say lighting conditions were sub-par. Love the fox as well and the squirrel. may i ask what sort of a hide is it, and why did you have to wait outside the hide? 

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kittykat23uk

Ooh what a beautiful cat! I would appreciate more details of the tour company please 😁😻

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Zim Girl

What a great sighting of a very beautiful cat!!

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What a beautiful lynx @johnweir

Very, very occasionally you see them in my Province (Alberta) just wandering about, but like everywhere, they are quite elusive.  Their "cousins", the bobcat, sometimes will pop up in people's backyards https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/bobcat-family-in-inglewood-backyard-gives-calgary-naturalist-a-show-1.6284067

 

Not to detract from John's wonderful experience, but being Canadian, I will certainly toot Canada's horn for wildlife adventures.  @kittykat23ukwould you consider a Boreal Safari to Canada?  I'm not promoting any particular tour company, but lynx are widespread throughout Canada, and a particularly good area is supposedly northern Ontario.  For a fantastic trip, combine this area with the next province over, Manitoba, and visit Churchill Wild Polar Bear Tours (okay this is a company, and it is highly regarded for it's eco-tours).  I follow them on Facebook and their lodges look amazing!  There you can walk with polar bears, and there are frequent sightings of arctic fox, belugas, moose, black bears, ptarmigan, and many other boreal/tundra species (although I'm not sure about the lynx), depending on the time of year you visit.  I can't vouch for these experiences firsthand as I have not yet done them, but this is a trip definitely on my radar (preliminary research done).  Just sayin...

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kittykat23uk

@MMMimdefinitely if the chances are reasonably good! 😁

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Atravelynn
On 12/13/2021 at 6:16 PM, johnweir said:

The Lynx was magnificent

Yes, it was.  Wow!

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johnweir

@Tom KellieThank you for the kind feedback on my report.

@Kitsafari Two sites were used for possible Lynx sightings, they were relatively close together, which one we used at each session was based on camera trap activity, they were checked in the main, early morning and after lunch. At both sites the hides were installed just for the duration of our visit. Very much in line with keeping our disturbance to a minimum, which we endorsed fully. Site 1 had 3 two man hides, site 2 had one two man hide and a rustic barrier in front of the expected viewing area. The barrier was made from forest debris. As there were 7 clients, the use of the hides was rotational (excluding guides), I preferred not to be in a hide as they were cramped, I was concerned initially that this would keep the Lynx at bay but our highly experienced guides were adamant this would not be the case. I use the term hide very loosely, they were really fairly flimsy nylon (camo) tents, which did in all fairness dull the wind and keep the snow off, they did nothing however for temperature, we sat on upturned buckets with a foam pad which afforded a degree of comfort.

@kittykat23ukI will post operator details for you at the end of the final report.

@MMMimI am fairly sure if you want a Canada Lynx sighting this is possibly the most reliable trip to do at the moment. I am aware of other operators currently developing Canada Lynx tours to areas in Canada. However the meticulous work that was put in during the developmental stages of this tour have clearly paid off, resulting in very impressive sightings' statistics over the last few years. Places on the trip are taken up well in advance, for example 2022 I believe is already fully booked with limited availability for 2023.  

 

SOME BIRDING HIGHLIGHTS

The title of the tour we signed up for was MINNESOTA: Canada Lynx and Northern Owls, so as well as a Lynx we were hopeful of recording some interesting bird species during the trip. The boreal forest as previously mentioned was rather sparsely populated with birds but at Gunflint Lodge at the top of the trail, virtually on the Canadian border, some well stocked feeders regularly attract in several species, the most impressive of which is probably the Pine Grosbeak. 

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Male Pine Grosbeak.

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Female Pine Grosbeak. Sexual dimorphism is well defined in this species.

 

During one of our lunch breaks in Grand Marais reports were received that an unusual duck had been spotted with a group of Goldeneyes in the harbour.

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This was investigated and eventually the ducks were spotted at a considerable distance. The 'hard core' birders were getting very excited.

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There were 15 Goldeneyes (not all on the image due to cropping) and the mystery duck.

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The unusual duck turned out to be a male Harlequin Duck in resplendent plumage. (This image has been heavily cropped, it was taken handheld from a about 200 metres, it would appear that my newly acquired Canon RF 100-500mm, will prove to be money well spent).

 

At the end of the trip we enjoyed an afternoon at Sax-Zim Bog a world renowned birding site particularly for Owls. Every one who visits the area calls in at Mary Lou's feeders to enjoy 'her' Evening Grosbeaks. 

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Male Evening Grosbeak.

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Female Evening Grosbeak.

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Male and female Evening Grosbeak at one of the many feeders.

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Also nearby a White-breasted Nuthatch was spotted.

 

At various points around 'The Bog' volunteers hang 'deer rib cages' which are predominantly intended to feed the American Martens and Weasels, however they inevitably attract birds also.

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Hairy Woodpecker.

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Canada Jay.

 

I think I will leave it there for now as I have been experiencing some repeated problems posting this report, so a part 3 will appear soon, concentrating on Owls.

 

 

 

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Tom Kellie
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“The unusual duck turned out to be a male Harlequin Duck in resplendent plumage. (This image has been heavily cropped, it was taken handheld from a about 200 metres, it would appear that my newly acquired Canon RF 100-500mm, will prove to be money well spent).”

 

~ @johnweir:

 

Judging by your images, your new lens is a stellar photographic tool.

 

Impressive and informative, your latest post exceeds all expectations.

 

Heartiest thanks for preparing this post at year's end.

 

      Tom K.

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Kitsafari

Beautiful images of the birds, but what a stunning fowl the harlequin duck is. 

 

veery much looking forward to the Owls. 

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@johnweir  - thank you for the splendid pictures!  The company you toured with certainly did provide an impressive opportunity for lynx sightings, and you provided us with impressive photographs of your lynx sighting!  Well done!  I have really enjoyed the photographs of all the boreal creatures - bring on the owls!!

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johnweir

This wonderful camera trap clip of a male Fisher appears courtesy of Chris Townend. (©Wise Birding). The clip was captured at Lynx observation site 1 during our visit, this male is a particularly impressive specimen and on other occasions was accompanied by a much smaller female. Unfortunately we did not manage a sighting of either in real time. 

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michael-ibk

Wow, what a magnificent Lynx sighting. I‘m glad your patience was rewarded, I can imagine that sitting there in the cold cannot have been fun. Beautiful animal, greyer and less spots than our European Lynx it seems to me. Great bird pictures as well, I am looking forward to seeing the Owls.

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  • 2 weeks later...
johnweir

OWLS

Apologies for the delay in completing this report. I wish all Safaritalkers a very Happy and Healthy New Year, let's hope travel becomes safer and easier in 2022.

 

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Whilst searching for the species this area (Sax- Zim Bog) is famed for, a Rough-legged Hawk (Buzzard) was spotted in the distance.

 

Most birders visit the area hoping to see one of the world's largest Owls, the aptly named Great Grey Owl.This enigmatic species is not only big but has a wonderful face characterised by its concentric circle pattern. The birders in the group were just as keen to enjoy a sighting of this Owl as we were about the Lynx, we drove several of the quiet roads in the area without luck, before returning to a quite busy road, County Road 7 which along with a railroad bisects the main birding area. Eventually what we hoped to see was spotted about 300 metres away as it settled in a bush, it was clearly hunting, eventually it changed vantage points and landed on a telegraph pole.

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Great Gray Owl. This was the first of 3 individuals we were privileged to observe in a 90 minute period, starting around 14.30.

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After a short period it swooped from the pole and caught a rodent which it consumed on the ground swallowing it whole in seconds.

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After feeding it took up position at another vantage point. Further down the road another Great Gray Owl was sighted landing in a bush before also making a successful kill.

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Both these sightings were from quite a distance, however we then moved down an ungraded track which gave us our best sighting, as our third Owl decided to cooperate and remained close to the track for about 20 minutes although the light was fading fast.

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There can be little doubt, The Great Gray Owl is a very impressive bird. The above 3 images are all of the same bird.

 

On our final morning before flying to Chicago and home the resident naturalist from Sax-Zin Bog took us out in the hope of a sighting of a species for which the Duluth area in winter is renowned. This element of the trip is usually done first but on this occasion had been moved to the very end as it was deemed too early for a sighting of the species on our arrival, as it turned out this was a very shrewd and wise decision. We drove into Wisconsin across the St. Louis River and started to scour the area around The Richard Bong (International) Airport for any large white birds, initially all we found were Gulls. Then one sharp-eyed member of our group spotted an interesting white bird flying low close to the perimeter of the airport. Subsequent investigations revealed what we had come to see, a Snowy Owl. Eventually over a 40 minute period we identified 3 individuals, they were the first recorded in the Duluth / Superior area this year. (How lucky?). A significant number of this beautiful Owl overwinter in the area every year and appear to thrive around the airport and in the surrounding urban areas. It was deemed the Owls we had observed had only just arrived.

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Snowy Owl, just arrived to overwinter in the Duluth area. Unfortunately they remained at distance but these shots do record memorable sightings. The following 2 images are of a different Owl.

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This Owl was deemed to be a male and this may well have been his first flight south. The group debated which of the two Owls we had seen was the most impressive, I go with the Snowy Owl.

 

What a fantastic end to a unique trip. I hope that earlier I didn't given the impression that the cold impacted on our enjoyment of the trip, in fact it was the opposite, it was an experience we will never forget and I'm a desert sort of guy, however you do need the right clothing which we had. This trip usually takes place in February when the weather is even colder, but apparently Lynx hide time is kept to 2 hours per session.

Lets not forget the main focus of the trip. This sighting goes into my top ten wildlife sightings ever.

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We wish to thank Chris Townend (Wise Birding, www.wisebirding.co.uk) for developing such a unique trip and guiding it so professionally, everything ran like clockwork, the expedition was highly successful. We would also thank Andy Stanbury (RSPB) for his significant contribution to the success of the trip and the 5 other tour participants who made this trip so meaningful at this very difficult time.

What next?, hopefully a 3 week tailor-made trip to Sri Lanka, deferred from 2021, with a particular emphasis on securing sightings of the islands 5 Cat sp/ssp. We are also interested in trying for sightings of as many of the species as possible that have adapted to the differing demands of the wet and dry zones. We will be doing a significant number of 'proper' night drives in areas away from the main tourist hotspots and also have secured the services of a guide who comes highly recommended and will stay with us for the whole trip. Fingers crossed that we are still able to travel by the end of January.

 

 

 

 

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Atravelynn

Great Gray Owl and Linx.  What a trip!

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Zim Girl

Stunning pictures of the Great Gray Owl!

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adamt123

WOW! the owls are stunning but that lynx sighting is just beyond words

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