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2016 BRRRRDathon/Photothon


BRRRRdathon: World’s Coldest Birdathon

A birdathon in northern Minnesota in January? You’ve got to be kidding! The BRRRRdathon may be the world’s coldest birdathon but it can also be the most exhilarating with the possibility of many boreal specialties in the North Woods. Imagine tallying the likes of Great Gray Owl, Boreal Chickadee, Black-backed Woodpecker, PIne Grosbeak, Bohemian Waxwing, Hoary Redpoll, Gyrfalcon and Northern Hawk Owl in a two-day birding spree! And raising money for Friends of Sax-Zim Bog in the process. Win-win-win!

But the two-day event requires some serious strategizing to maximize your species list. And the playing field is large...all of northeastern Minnesota and northwest Wisconsin. Most species tallied in the two-days wins.

We also have a One-day BRRRRdathon category, and for the hardy (or just plain foolhardy) a Wintergreen event where all birding must be done via non-motorized travel modes (dogsled? snowshoe? bicycle?).

In conjunction with the BRRRRdathon we also hold a Photothon in which participants try  to assemble the best 10-image portfolio in a limited time frame (about two weeks)

All participants are invited to an awards and compilation dinner on Saturday evening where great food and surprising prizes are awarded. Winning teams and photographers get the honor of having their name memorialized on “Gary the Great Gray Owl,” a solid granite sculpture by Minnesota artist Keith Raivo.


BRRRRdathon Rules  

“Playing Field” Map

 Printable BRRRRdathon BIRD checklist



2015 BRRRRDathon/Photothon RESULTS

The only thing that seemed to elude birders taking part in the FIFTH ANNUAL BRRRRdathon were frigid temps!
Records were set in the 2-DAY BRRRRdathon and 1-DAY BRRRRdathon…and not just beaten by 1 or 2 species but SMASHED!

Team Benny and the Bensons (pictured above...Dave Benson, Ben Yokel, Lars Benson (not pictured)) amassed 57 species (including all 10 winter finches!) breaking the former record held by Wisconsin's Team Badger Irruption/Eagle Optics by THREE species.
Bohemian Waxwings were only found on West Knife River Road. They have been rare this winter.

The Coldfinches defended their 2014 title and smashed the old record by 16 species! (from left: Cindy Edwardson, Kim Eckert, Barb Akre (not pictured: Mary Gabrys)

Teams explored the wilds of Sax-Zim Bog, Lake County, MN, Duluth, Superior, WI, Carlton County and some ventured as far as Crow Wing County, MN and Burnett County, Wisconsin! Steve Millard did an adjunct BRRRRdathon in OtterTail County, Minnesota. It takes much strategy to find the most species over two days in such a large "playing field" (all of NE MN and NW WI)
Northern Pintail male (one of four...two males, two females) in Canal Park Duluth.

The female Common Eider was seen by most groups in Duluth's Canal Park.

Almost all groups tallied the Common Eider and Northern Pintails that linger at Duluth's Canal Park. Rare gulls included Iceland, Thayer's, Glaucous and Greater Black-backed found at Superior Landfill, WLSSD and Canal Park. Lakeside of Duluth and Leif Brush's yard yielded Juncos, Cardinals and a surprising Northern Flicker. In the same area, some teams found the Golden-crowned Sparrow that has been coming to a feeder for over a month.
Common Redpoll at Sax-Zim Bog Welcome Center

Big numbers of redpolls, siskins, Purple Finches were expected and they did not disappoint. The Yokel Boys had a TEN OWL DAY with 7 different Snowy Owls in Superior, WI and all 3 reported Hawk Owls in MN. Judd Brink had an impressive 5 Northern Shrikes in Crow Wing and Aitkin Counties…a bird that has been seen in lower than normal numbers in Sax-Zim Bog.
Red-bellied Woodpecker at Sparky's feeder in Carlton County, MN
Surprising misses included Great Gray Owl (though one was seen in Sax-Zim on Friday by non-competing birders), Spruce Grouse, and Black-backed Woodpecker.
WinterGreen Non-Motorized Teams: Left—Pat Kohlin & Sean Walsh; Right—Tim Bates, Shannon Walsh, Bryan French looking at a merganser on Lake Superior

The Wintergreen/non-motorized division boasted two teams this year. And both biked their entire route in the Duluth city limits (half on "fat bikes" and half on regular mountain bikes). Not only battling the elements and exhaustion, the pedalers have to navigate Duluth's icy roads and hills. "Guys Gone Fat" (Andrew Webster, Pat Kohlin, Sean Walsh) edged out the "Broken Chain Gang" (Tim Bates, Bryan French, Shannon Walsh) by ONE SPECIES with a total of 30 species.

All winning teams will have their names engraved on brass plates and attached to Gary the Granite Great Gray who is on permanent display at the Sax-Zim Bog Welcome Center.

Our compilation dinner at the Aspenwood Clubhouse was a relaxed affair with pans of lasagna, loaves of bread, salad and fantastic desserts! Thanks to Ben Yokel, Sarah Beaster, and Lori Williams for the yummy fare!

57 species—Benny & The Bensons (Dave Benson, Lars Benson, Ben Yokel)
50 species—Apter Raptors (John Ellis, Alex Ellis)
4? species—OtterTail Only (Steve Millard)
27 species—Team Dudley (David Dudley)
19 species—Brink of Greatness (Judd Brink)

46 species—Coldfinches (Cindy Edwardson, Barb Akre, Kim Eckert, Mary Gabrys)
?? species—Yokel Boys (Ben Yokel, Uri Yokel)

WinterGreen/Non-Motorized BRRRRdathon RESULTS
30 species—Guys Gone Fat (Andrew Webster, Pat Kohlin, Sean Walsh)
29 species—The Broken Chain Gang (Tim Bates, Bryan French, Shannon Walsh)


The PHOTOTHON was extremely close with excellent bird and mammal photos from Rich Hoeg and Jason Mandich ending in a virtual tie. Jason edged out Rich, scoring high points for his Mink and Flying Squirrel photos. Rich's excellent Snowy Owl photos also scored high marks.

Unlike the BRRRRdathon, the Photothon time frame (Dec 26-Jan 14) held some bitter cold conditions, with temps bottoming out at Minus 27 F air temperature!

2015 saw the additon of mammal photos as eligible in the 10-image portfolio. Jason Mandich's Flying Squirrel photo scored the most points. All images were judged on Execution, Creativity, and Rarity by a panel of judges (judges did not know who made what images).

Mallards at sunrise by Rich Hoeg

Northern Hawk Owl preening by Rich Hoeg

"Eeny, meany, miney, moe, which duck is next to go?" Immature Bald Eagle by Jason Mandich

Female Pintail by Jason Mandich titled "Shakin' her money maker"

Snowy Owl by Rich Hoeg

"Magnificent Mustelid" Mink by Jason Mandich

Please check out the photographers websites!

Jason Mandich Photography

Rich Hoeg's 365 Days of Birds

2014 BRRRRDathon

Frigid temperatures eluded The World's Coldest Birdathon again with highs in the 20s and NO below zero temps on either January 10th or 11th. Our composite total was only 61 species, second lowest in the event's history, but amazingly, the Grousing Twitchers team managed to find 87% of these species. Avian highlights included multiple Snowy Owls, Great Gray Owls and Northern Hawk Owls, singing Saw-whet Owl, adult male Harlequin Duck (Silver Bay Marina on Lk. Superior), Spruce Grouse in Lake County, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Thayer's, Glaucous & Greater Black-backed Gull (the latter near Lakewood Pumping Station), Black-backed Woodpeckers on Admiral Rd & McDavitt Rd in Sax-Zim Bog, N. Flicker in Lakeside Duluth, Horned Lark in Aitkin County, Bohemian Waxwings (Dunn Brothers Coffee in Duluth), Red Crossbill (Gooseberry…only 1), and a Townsend's Solitaire (50th Ave E & Oakely in Duluth). On the "bummer" side, gulls were rare with all the ice on Lk. Superior (no Iceland), also missed were  Sharp-tailed Grouse, N. Goshawk, White-winged Crossbill, or redpolls of any kind.



David Benson, Lars Benson and John Ellis—the Grousing Twitchers (photo above)—regained the BRRRRdathon crown with a near-record performance in the 4th annual event. They tied their previous best of 53 species, one shy of the all-time record set last year by the Badger Irruption.

53 species—Grousing Twitchers (David Benson, Lars Benson and John Ellis)

42 species—Otter Tail Only (Steve & Diane Millard)

35 species—Modest Grouse (Chris West, Alex Stark, Luke Dahlberg)

34 species—Luther Seminary (Luke and friends)

29 species—Naturally Avian (Erik Bruhnke, Ami Sheffield)

27 species—Team Cox (Cara & Steven Cox)



After a 3-year run,  Egretsy (formerly The Egretables) were dethroned by the upstart Coldfinches (Barb Akre, Cindy Edwardson, Al & Kimberly Loken). The margin was 2 species….The Coldfinches tallying 29 species (one short of the record) and Egretsy (their new name) with 27 species.

29 species—Coldfinches (Cindy Edwardson, Barb Akre, Al & Kimberly Loken)

27 species—Egretsy (Abigail Kritzer, Anne Marie Geniusz, Stephen Bockhold)


WINTERGREEN (non-motorized)

Undefeated in 4 years, Tim Bates (pictured above) and Andrew Webster (Slush Cyclers), rolled again with 23 species found in 20 miles of bicycling and hiking in Duluth's city limits. Nice job guys!

23 species—Slush Cyclers (Tim Bates, Andrew Webster)

13 species—The Red Lantern (Bryan French) 



Photothon 2014

Four Photothon photographers braved temperatures as low as FORTY BELOW ZERO air temps and Wind Chills much lower in order to compete in the 4th Annual Friends of Sax-Zim Bog Photothon Dec. 28, 2013-Jan. 8, 2014. Each photographer submitted their 10 best bird photos from the 12-day event. All bird photos had to be taken in the "playing field" of northeastern Minnesota and northwestern Wisconsin.


Topping the field for the second time was Duluth's Erik Bruhnke (pictured above with Gary the Granite Great Gray Owl) who's 10 submitted bird images garnered the most points from all 3 judges (based on Creativity, Rarity of species, Execution). Second place finisher was last year's winner Jan Killian. The top rated photo was taken by Spooner, Wisconsin's Jason Rizzo. It is a very cool photo of a deer quizzically looking at a passing line of three turkeys. Here are some of the favorites from the competition:


 Jason Rizzo's shot of a befuddled deer and three turkeys was the highest scoring individual photo.

Overall winner, Erik Bruhnke's Snowy Owl at sunset shot was second in overall score for an individual image. The contest values creativity as highly as rarity of the species and execution of the shot (exposure, sharpness, etc).

This fluffed up Blue Jay exemplified the weather the photographers had to deal with...Bitter cold! Photo by Matthew Moses.

The tundra of northern Canada? Nope. Duluth, Minnesota in January. Snowy Owl flying by Erik Bruhnke.

 Frosty eyelashes Gray Jay on a Minus 40 F morning in the Sax-Zim Bog. Photo by Jan Killian.

Boreal Chickadee in a mid-air leap. "Look, Ma! No feet!" Photo by Jan Killian.

Larry, Curly & Mo? Three Gray Jays in the Sax-Zim Bog. Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

2013 BRRRRDathon/Photothon Results

 2013 Was a record year for the BRRRRDathon...Record dollars raised ($3,800!), High # species found by one team (54)...Record # of participants (25)...and sadly, Record rainfall! Once again the temps were anything but BRRRR! But with a new trophy (Gary the Granite Great Gray) and an gregarious gaggle of bird chasers at the evening dinner/compilation, the event was a great success! A total of 67 species were seen including Great Gray Owl, Northern Hawk Owl, Eastern Bluebird, Mute Swan, Hooded Merganser, Eurasian Collared Dove, Varied Thrush, 7 species of gulls including Greater Black-backed, Lesser Black-backed, Iceland, Glaucous, and Thayers. Misses included Black-backed Woodpecker, Spruce Grouse, Goshawk, Purple Finch. Some recent birds did not show up for the teams, including Barrow's Goldeneye and Slaty-backed Gull. Teams ranged from Itasca County to Sax-Zim Bog to Grand Marais to Ashland and Mellon Wisconsin. Thanks to all!

The Winning Team! Eagle Optic's Badger Irruption (from L to R...Tom Prestby, Max Henschell, Eric Wood, Jessica Gorzo, David LaPuma) The Madison-Green Bay, Wisconsin team was sponsored by Eagle Optics and they did their homework by scouting for four days prior to the event. Despite the icy roads and windy Saturday conditions, they found 54 species including the only Mute Swan. Despite much searching, they missed Pileated Woodpecker. Their efforts raised a whopping $1800 for Friends of Sax-Zim Bog! In second place was Team Spread Eagle, Chris West and Alex Stark, who turned up an awesome 49 species. 3rd place was defending champs, the Grousing Twitchers (David Benson, John Ellis, Alex Ellis)who turned up 43 species. 4th place was Lagopus consisting of Erik Bruhnke and Jacky Ramsey (35 species). And Shawn Conrad pulled off a heroic Itasca-County-only birdathon and found 30 species including the event's only Eurasian Collared Dove and Bohemian Waxwings. The Egreatables defended their 1-day BRRRRDathon title in 2013 (L to R...Abi Kritzer, AnnMarie Geniusz, Stephen Bockhold). They tallied an impressive FOUR SPECIES OF OWLS in one day!...Including a Great Gray Owl in a new location. Their total for the day was 29 species. Congrats! A winter birdathon done without a car? Team Cold and Green did just that and repeated as Wintergreen division champs! (Tim Bates, team captain with Gary the Great Gray...Not pictured, Pat Kohlin, Andrew Webster and Tom Beery) This year they did it all on bikes within the city limits of Duluth...A very cold and exhausting day! BUT they managed an impressive 25 species including the competitions only EASTERN BLUEBIRD! Some of the prizes donated by our prize sponsors...Frost River (, Bemidji Woolen Mills (, Kollath-Stensaas Publishing (, Stone Ridge Press (, BirdNerdz ( and The PhotoNaturalist ( THANKS TO ALL! And a big thanks to the Minnesota Power Foundation whose contribution helped to make this event happen.

2013 Photothon Results

Three intrepid photographers participated in the 2013 Photothon which spanned a full 12 days this year. Most could only get out a few days, but their results were impressive! Jan Killian of the Spooner, Wisconsin-based Northern Lights Camera Club edged out her fellow club member, Jason Rizzo and Cloquet, Minnesota photographer Matthew Moses to win the event. Her amazing photo of two battling Bald Eagles scored the highest # of points based on EXECUTION, CREATIVITY, and DIFFICULTY.


#1 scoring photo. Jan Killian discovered these squabbling eagles along the road in northwest Wisconsin. They were battling over a road-killed deer. The judges loved the drama, blood on the face (deer's blood) and sharpness and light. #2 Jan Killian. #3. Jason Rizzo's Goldeneye in flight. The judges loved Jason's creative composition, the action, and the monochromatic feel of the image. #4 Jan Killian's Bald Eagle portrait but with an edge and an intensity. #5. Matthew Moses portrait of a male Pine Grosbeak is not your everyday boring portrait...Judges loved the muted colors, the creative composition, and shallow depth of field. Very nice! In addition to the Top Five, here are a few more high-scoring images that were favorites of the judges: Matthew Moses's unique Common Redpoll image. Matthew Moses's Red-bellied Woodpecker on snag. This image really places the bird in its habitat, and gives the craggy stump equal billing. Jason Rizzo's very nice Redpoll images is made even better by the nicely-contrasting oak leaves.


2012 BRRRRDathon Wrap-Up and Winning Photos

The World's Coldest Birdathon, the BRRRRDathon did not live up to its name with temps in the 30s. But, all had a great time!

An amazing 73 species were found by 21 folks in 8 teams during the January 6-7th event.
Highlights included:
Greater and Lesser Scaup in Washburn, WI
Spruce Grouse (Lake Co, MN Hwy2, 2 mi N of Sand River)
2 Sharp-shinned Hawks
8 species of gulls (including the Glaucous-winged Gull in Duluth)
4 Great Gray Owls (3 in Sax-Zim and 1 in Koochiching County)
Am. 3-toed Woodpecker (Lake County)
Varied Thrush (Duluth)
Bohemian Waxwing (only 2! Big Falls, MN)
2 Hoary Redpolls
and 2 Yellow-rumped Warblers! (one on Northland College campus Ashland, WI and on at Boy Scout Landing in Duluth)

2-day event: Dave Benson, Lars Benson, John Ellis (53 species)
1-day event: Stephen Bockhold, Annmarie Geniusz, Karen Stubenvoll (30 species)
Non-motorized "wintergreen" event: Tim Bates & Andrew Webster (bicycle!) 33 species in Duluth



1st place—Shawn Zierman of Duluth, MN

2nd place—Erik Bruhnke of Duluth, MN

Teams birded from Koochiching County Minnesota on the Canadian Border all the way to Washburn, Ashland WI and Crex Meadows. Of course, Duluth, Aitkin County and Sax-Zim were also heavily birded.


Hope you can join us next year!


WINNERS OF THE 2-DAY & 1-DAY 2012 BRRRRDATHON2-Day BRRRRDathon Winners: Lars & Dave Benson (not pictured: John Ellis) 53 species!

1-Day BRRRRDathon Winners: Stephen Bockhold, Annmarie Geniusz (not pictured, Karen Stubenvoll) 30 species!



1st Place overall: Shawn Zierman's Gray Jay

2nd Place Overall: Shawn Zierman's Downy Woodpecker

3rd Place Overall: Shawn Zierman

4th Place Overall: Erik Bruhnke's Common Goldeneye

5th Place Overall: Erik Bruhnke's Thayer's Gull



2011 BRRRRDathon Wrap-Up and Winning Photos

Eighteen intrepid souls birded and basked in balmy January temps (above zero anyway) to compete in the innaugarul BRRRRDathon/Photothon. This fundraiser for Friends of Sax-Zim Bog (old name BirdNation!) raised over $1500 to go towards their mission.


Two-Day BRRRRDathon

Dave Benson, Lars Benson, John Ellis and Alex Ellis birded from Ely to Sax-Zim to Duluth to rack up 46 species…an impressive mid-winter total. They missed waxwings and Ruffed Grouse but found Northern Goshawk, Long-tailed Duck (Stoney Point), American Robin, Horned Lark and five species of gulls, including the Iceland Gull that hadn’t been seen in ten days. In second place was Myron and Holly Peterson of Minneapolis.


**Dave (left) and Lars Benson—winners of the 2-Day BRRRRDathon—hold the Boreal Owl trophy. Their teammates, John and Alex Ellis were not able to attend the brunch.


One-Day BRRRRDathon

In a closer competition, Duluth’s Bruce Munson and Peter Gravett edged out Duluth’s Laura Erickson and Erik Bruhnke with 27 species. Bruce and Peter found a very unexpected drake Northern Pintail along open water on Miller Creek near the WLSSSD compost yard in Duluth. Four teams competed in this division.


Non-Motorized BRRRRDathon

Diana Doyle was the only brave birder in this hard core category. Diana parked in Meadowlands and WALKED between 12 and 14 miles in the Sax-Zim area to compile a very respectable 16 species. She even found an out-of-place American Robin near Meadowlands, a flock of 30 Evening Grosbeaks and Brown Creeper. Diana also raised over $300 in pledges with her ‘buck-a-bird’ pitch.


**A total of 50 species were recorded by all the groups...Not bad for mid winter in the North Woods! 



Three photographers entered the unique Photothon. In this event, birder/photographers got out and take as many bird photos as possible in the two days and then choose the 10 best images to submit for judging. Jeff Fisher (, Erik Bruhnke ( and Laura Erickson ( were the competitors. See the gallery here. Images were scored on Execution and Creativity by three volunteer judges. It was a close competition with all three coming in within 22 points of each other (out of a 300 point maximum). But Erik Bruhnke edged out the others with his portfolio. One of my favorites is his image of a Rock Pigeon and the moon…Very creative image. Jeff had an amazingly close Black-backed Woodpecker all fluffed out. And check out Laura’s cute Gray Jay...It looks like it’s almost smiling!


**Erik Bruhnke, winner of the Photothon. The Black-capped Chickadee trophy symbolizes one of the most photographed northern birds...and also camera lenses have 'black caps.'!!



We followed the event with a Sunday brunch at Hartley Nature Center in Duluth. Bridget Stensaas made a yummy egg & spinach bake and blueberry crumble muffins…Thanks Bridget! After socializing, compiling the sightings and sharing stories, we awarded the prizes. Each division winner will get their name on a brass plate on a resident trophy. The trophies are unique ceramic bird sculptures by Duluth artist and former Duluth News Tribune Outdoor columnist Ray Naddy. The 2-day trophy sports a Boreal Owl, the 1-day a Snowy Owl and the Photothon trophy is a Black-capped Chickadee (because camera lenses come with “black caps.” Groan!)


**Cut flowers, homemade egg/spinach bake and blueberry crumble muffins...Hope you can join us next year!



**Weary but happy participants...From L to R: Holly and Myron Peterson, Diana Doyle, Jeff Fisher.

Prizes were donated by Frost River of Duluth, Minnesota, Bemidji Woolen Mills of Bemidji Minnesota, Kollath-Stensaas Publishing, Stone Ridge Press, Raven Press of Ely and Laura Erickson donated her latest book. A BIG THANKS TO ALL OUR PRIZE DONORS!  


We hope you can join us next year!


Here are some of my (Sparky) favorite photos from our Photothon participants:


**Erik Bruhnke's Rock Pigeon and moon, not surprisingly, scored the highest in the "Creativity" portion of the judging. A fun image of a common bird. [Duluth, MN]


**Jeff Fisher's male Black-backed Woodpecker is a fantastic image of a rarely seen bird. Extremely sharp image. This bird is flaking bark off a Tamarack to get at the beetle grubs underneath. [Sax-Zim Bog, MN]


**What a fantastic bird! Laura Erickson's image of a curious Northern Hawk Owl captures this birds personality. [Sax-Zim Bog, MN]


**This cool Bald Eagle image scored the highest of all images in the 2011 Photothon. It was taken by Erik Bruhnke at just the right moment. [Sax-Zim Bog, MN]


**Laura Erickson's adorable Gray Jay. [Sax-Zim Bog, MN]


**It is amazing to see Hawk Owls landing on such tiny branches. Jeff Fisher captured the decisive moment. [Sax-Zim Bog, MN]


 2014 BRRRRDathon/Photothon