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Terrible spring weather means historic Northland birdwatching opportunity

A migration “fallout” has stalled many birds' northward push across the region — and loons have been falling out of the sky in Wisconsin.

fox sparrow
Fox sparrows on their way to Canada and Alaska from the southeastern U.S. have stopped over in the Northland for the past week in the thousands, waiting for weather to improve before they continue their journey north.
Contributed / Brian E. Kushner / Cornell Lab of Ornithology

DULUTH — At first,it was the usual suspects showing up around the Northland: robins on their way north, cardinals returning to their spring nesting areas, red-winged blackbirds pausing their migration to grab a bite to eat.

But for the past week or more, it’s been obvious to anyone who notices birds that something bigger was going on.

As the snow fell and the winds raged and the temperature became more like March than April, the big northward push of migrating birds hit pause.

I have never witnessed anything of this magnitude ever before.
Jan Green, Duluth-based birding expert

Birds that normally don’t hang around Duluth very long, for example, have stopped to spend some time. And lots of them. Fox sparrows. Rusty blackbirds. Dark-eyed juncos by the hundreds.

Species you might see for a day or two in most springs, or not at all, have stayed for a week or more. Some have even turned around to hightail it south to find bare ground and warmer temperatures.


While the long-lingering effects of winter have been a bummer for many outdoor activities, the nasty weather has been a boon for Northland birders.

“The cold, snowy weather has caused what's called a fallout. A whole mess of birds are stuck here,” said Laura Erickson, Duluth-based birding expert. “Some are even heading back south. ... And weird rarities are showing up.”

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Erickson said fox sparrows have been the most obvious out-of-place visitor. But she said the number of juncos and robins lingering around the Twin Ports has been astonishing. The birds have been ravenously eating at bird feeders.

“We're also seeing way more rusty blackbirds than normal. I've had as many as 150 in my yard at one time,” Erickson said.

rusty blackbird
Rusty blackbirds have stooped over in the Northland by the thousands in recent days.
Contributed / Merv Cormier / Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Jerry Niemi, retired University of Minnesota Duluth researcher and longtime bird expert, said this year’s “backup” of migrating birds has been one of the largest he’s seen.

“In our area north of Duluth near the Island Lake Reservoir last Saturday morning, we encountered thousands of dark-eyed juncos along the roadways as they desperately searched the limited open ground for food,” Niemi said. “This was as many juncos as I have ever seen at one time.”

Dark-eyed juncos, sometimes in flocks of hundreds, have been hanging out across the Northland for the past week waiting for weather to improve to continue their migration north.
Contributed / Deborah Bifulco / Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Jan and John Green, also Duluth-based birding experts, witnessed an historic “reverse migration” of birds from their apartment along Lake Superior in Duluth. On April 16, they watched with their daughter as tens of thousands of birds flew southwest while avoiding flying over Lake Superior.

“We were mesmerized by how many birds we saw,” Jan Green said. “Our apartment is right along the lake, with a little bit of lawn between us and the water, so there isn’t much room … and they were all focused right in front of us.”


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The birds included rusty blackbirds, dark-eyed juncos, robins, sparrows, flickers and grackles.

Jan Green, who has decades of experience counting birds at Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve, said she didn’t try to count songbirds because they were moving so fast. But she and her daughter estimated it was easily 50,000-100,000 birds in just one day. (The previous day they saw a big reverse migration of warblers, too.)

“We get fallouts or reverse migrations around here fairly often, especially on Minnesota Point,” Jan noted. “But I have never witnessed anything of this magnitude ever before.”

Loons drop from the sky in Wisconsin

There have also been issues with loons falling out of the sky in places they would never go on purpose, like a cow pasture. Several loons were reported across north-central Wisconsin, according to the Raptor Education Group, a wildlife rescue organization.

loon in cow pasture
A loon was rescued from this cow pasture in Wisconsin last week during a loon "fallout," a phenomenon when weather conditions force migrating loons to the ground in places where they can't take off. Loons can't walk on land because their legs are too far back on their body.
Contributed / Raptor Education Group

During certain weather conditions loons are forced down pretty much wherever they are flying. And if that happens on small ponds or dry land — they sometimes even crash land on parking lots when they mistake them for water — it can mean death for the loon.

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These loon fallouts occur when atmospheric conditions are such that the migrating loons develop ice on their body as they fly at high altitude and crash land when they are no longer able to fly due to the weight of the ice on their body or the interference with their flight ability. Loons were found on land in Wisconsin last week near Wausau, Gleason, Stratford, Neva, Rice Lake and Antigo, as well as Drummond in Bayfield County.

rescued loon
This loon was rescued in Wisconsn last week after weather conditions forced it to land in a place where it couldn't take off.
Contributed / Raptor Education Group

The problem is that loons can’t walk on land and thus can’t take off from land because their legs are so far back on their body — great for swimming, but impossible to walk on. And even when they have water, they need hundreds of yards of “runway” to take off, so placing them on a small creek or pond doesn’t help. They need large bodies of open water.

Anyone who finds a loon anywhere but on a fairly large lake can call the National Loon Center in Crosslake, Minnesota, at 218-692-LOON or Loon Rescue in Wisconsin at 715-966-5415.


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John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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