Deep in Minnesota’s Northwoods there is an impressive effort to provide feeders for wintering birds that migrate from Canada and the surrounding area, including some of the fabled northern finches. At the infamous Sax-Zim Bog, it is now possible to visit a variety of public-access feeding stations provided in local landowner’s yards, at the head of some hiking trails, and at the Sax-Zim Bog Welcome Center. Collectively, these feeding stations are attracting Evening Grosbeaks, Pine Grosbeaks, Common Redpolls, Red-breasted Nuthatches, and more.
Over Christmas and for a few days thereafter, blizzard conditions or severe below zero temperatures kept me all too close to home. But last Thursday, when a day of sunshine was predicted for the Pierre area in central South Dakota, I decided to brave the elements to monitor numbers of wintering eagles, hawks, and falcons along a transect I drive periodically from November through March each year. Of course, I kept track of all the birds I found along the way, and these day trips always provide exciting birding opportunities along the way.
The Canadian Migration Monitoring Network recently published a 20-year report describing the collective work of the 29 independently operated bird observatories participating in the Network from the Atlantic to Pacific across Canada. Member observatories study annual bird migration by conducting daily visual bird counts and bird banding activities during seasonal migrations. Overall, Network observatories have banded more than 2.5 million birds and contributed information to more than 150 original research publications about migration since 1998.
Narrated by Michael Keaton, the new 3D cinematic documentary Wings Over Water debuts at IMAX and other giant screen theaters in cities across North America. Wings Over Water celebrates the importance of the prairie and wetlands ecosystem that spans 270,000-square miles across south-central Canada and the Dakotas where 60 percent of our continent’s waterfowl originate. The film tells the story of the epic journeys of 3 bird species – Sandhill Cranes, Yellow Warblers, and Mallards – featuring extraordinary footage of each species. 
The new year in birding starts with a bang with birding festivals scheduled across the continent from Morro Bay, California to the Everglades in Florida. Winter birds and concentrations of wintering species are the focus, and while most of the festivals are located in the sunbelt, they still require cold weather clothing, at least in the mornings. All festivals are Covid-conscious, as are birders; field trips tend to emphasize smaller groups, but it’s encouraging to see more festivals continuing their years of sharing exceptional birding experiences.
My excitement level was high as I reached the fabled Sax-Zim Bog in the Northwoods of Minnesota at first light. The tall black spruce and tamarack woods provided a foreign landscape filled with some exciting birds that I almost never encounter, so I was on high alert as sunrise revealed my first bird of the day – and one of the most sought-after birds in North America – a Great Gray Owl. Perched stoically atop a roadside pole, the owl was on the hunt, looking this way and that, undoubtedly using its exceptional hearing to pinpoint potential prey.
The Bushnell Engage 8x42 ED Binoculars deliver top-notch performance for birders, optically and ergonomically, featuring lens and prism systems that yield exceptionally clear views using fully multi-coated ED (extra-low dispersion) lenses. The PC-3 phase-coated roof prisms help brighten your views and improve contrast. The wide 426 foot field of view at 1000 yards gives you a much larger view of the landscape than most 8x42 binoculars, and Bushnell’s proprietary EXO Barrier lens coating repels debris, water, and oils.
The Perky-Pet Antique Copper Finish Lantern Feeder has a copper powder-coated finish that provides an antique look, and features a transparent seed compartment that makes it easy for you to monitor seed levels – it holds up to 2½ pounds of seeds. This stylish bird feeder has 4 feeding ports with preferred U-shaped perches, and utilizes the Sure-Lock cap system that locks the lid in place to keep squirrels out. The charming rounded lid design and its attractive rust-resistant antique style will help improve the look of any feeding station coast to coast.
Buteo Books is an independent family-owned bookstore with one of the largest selections of books about birds and birding in the world. If you’re looking for a new bird book, field guide, or an antique collector’s volume, Buteo Books has been the go-to bookstore for birders for decades. Visiting the Buteo Books website is like walking through the stacks of a good ole bookstore, with easy to browse webpages – all with a birds and birding angle. And they have used bird books too. 
Over the holiday break, south Texas birders documented a remarkable First North American Record of a Bat Falcon! Birders also reported 6 First State Records that included the Steller’s Sea Eagle that has been sighted in Canadian provinces, but recently has been documented in Massachusetts and Maine. There were also Northern Lapwing sightings in Maryland, Connecticut, New York, and 2 in New Jersey. Also, a most interesting Fourth State Record Bullock’s Oriole was visiting feeders at a Wild Birds Unlimited store in Nashville, Tennessee!


Ducks are sometimes overlooked for their beauty, but without question among the most colorful and dramatically feathered birds in North America, and in the world, are drake Wood Ducks. If an artist conjured up such a bird it would be unbelievable if you hadn’t seen one before in the wild. But an artist’s oils, watercolors, and other media all fall short of capturing the true essence of a male Wood Duck’s iridescent plumage as sunlight plays its magic on individual elements of its feathers, showing remarkable depth and color quality. That’s where a camera’s image provides the ultimate reproduction of the reflective qualities and shining coloration of a Wood Ducks’ plumage.

You can almost feel the cold as this colorful Wood Duck holds its head and neck close to its body, although it has its body feathers puffed up to hold a layer of body-heated air beneath them. The drake’s iridescent feathers are illuminated by full winter sunlight.

Only a camera can reproduce the true potential of the coloration of many ducks, and our digital media provides the best quality of reproduction available to date. But to create those inherent colors we need sunlight coming from our backside to illuminate the ducks before us.

Although I live in one of the best areas for migrating and nesting ducks in North America, during winter all ducks have vacated the frozen marshes save for a few open-water areas along the Missouri River. Farther south, a few more backwater bays stay open longer, attracting the hardiest of ducks that sometimes winter at the northern limit in the Great Plains in the Pierre, South Dakota area. I make periodic forays south to that area to photograph the concentration of wintering birds of prey, and I’ve found that it’s almost always productive to check a couple locations for cold-weather ducks.

The iridescent feathers that cover the Common Goldeneys’s head add bright color to the pied black and white body colors. Although the sunlight illuminated the duck well, the water remained gray due to the cloud cover directly overhead that reflected on the water surface.

During an especially cold blast of weather with temperatures below zero, but with promise of sunshine throughout the day in central South Dakota, last Thursday I drove south in search of photo opportunities – primarily for eagles, hawks, and falcons – and I made my requisite stop at the most productive “duck pond.” As I approached the east shore, it appeared it was fully ice-covered with Canada and Cackling Geese lying on the snow-covered ice. But as I rounded the south side, I could see 2 drake Common Mergansers and a throng of Mallards in open water along the west side of the pond.

To stop the action of the ducks, an ISO of 400 was used with an f8 aperture, which provided a 1/1250 shutter speed – fast enough to stop the action of the goldeneye’s sky-pointing display.

Although the temperature had warmed from –16 to +9, I knew I wouldn’t be outdoors for long. Walking cautiously to a vantage point where I could see a couple more Common Mergansers, and among the many Mallards on hand, I spotted a few distant Common Goldeneyes and Hooded Mergansers. I was most surprised to see the first 4 Canvasbacks I’ve ever seen in this wetland, and as I worked my way along the west side of the pond a male Ring-necked Duck materialized too, and that’s when a foursome of Wood Ducks slipped into view from behind some rocks on the shoreline. The 2 drakes and 2 females were huddled up with their heads pulled in against their backs to conserve heat generated from within.

Suddenly my cold fingers, even within my gloves, didn’t seem so cold anymore, warmed by the promise of photographing the Wood Ducks, the Ring-necked Duck, a Common Goldeneye, Hooded Mergansers, Common Mergansers, and an occasional Mallard. But suddenly I found myself fighting for sunlight as a long cloud materialized. Usually it’s easy enough to wait out a cloud or 2, but it was mighty cold on the water’s edge, and a momentary wisp of a breeze made the situation even colder. I headed back to my vehicle to warm up, hating to leave such great photo potential, but as soon as my face and hands warmed the sun broke through again, and I walked back to the wintering ducks with high hopes.

In a windless corner of the pond, an impressive Hooded Merganser cuts through the calm but cold water. In this case the gray background color seems to help to emphasize the colors of the duck and its reflection.

The following half-hour I reveled at the opportunity to photograph the eclectic group of colorful ducks, taking most photos when the birds turned to reflect the full brunt of the early afternoon sunlight, providing shimmering greens, violets, and blues, depending on the species of ducks before me. Although the winter sun was illuminating the ducks in top form, the overhead clouds still reflected gray on the water surface. Even so, the photos I took showing gray water seemed to help “pop” the sun-bright colors of the ducks.

The ducks appeared to be almost as cold as I was and seemed to be conserving their energy, so there wasn’t a lot of opportunities to take action photos; but as always, I worked with what the birds provided, and it was pretty exciting just to be in the presence of such impressive photo subjects. One Common Goldeneye drake was repeatedly performing a sky-pointing display, raising its bill high over its head. Too often though, the displaying goldeneye was facing away from me and the sunlight, making getting a good angle on it challenging, but I did eventually get a nice illustration of it. I was also able to document an interaction between 2 male Hooded Mergansers – always impressive birds to encounter.

The waterfowl were not very active in the extreme winter temperatures, but an interaction between 2 drake Hooded Mergansers adds some action to this image, which was likewise taken with a shutter speed of 1/1250 of a second.

Some of the most interesting ducks didn’t really provide adequate angles when the sunlight was available, like the Ring-necked Duck that was close at hand throughout most of the photo session, but the images I was able to take of it lacked luster and zest – you know what I mean. The same was true for the female Wood Ducks, which seemed like they were half-asleep most of the time – undoubtedly conserving energy in reaction to the cold. And the big Canvasbacks didn’t even provide an adequate documentary photo.

Even so, now that I know this impressive group of ducks is present, I’m anxious to return and spend more time photographing them – but hopefully it will be a lot warmer with some blue sky action. Where are the waterfowl spending time in your neighborhood, in your region, in your state? It’s always worth planning a winter photo outing, or a series of birding trips. Well, that’s how I finished off my photo exploits for 2021, which was a great year for birding, including photographing birds. I hope 2022 is a great year for you and your camera among a long series of exciting birds from season to season!

Article and photographs by Paul Konrad

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