Sharptails provide winter photo opps

The cold weather that has descended with a vengeance the past few days has wildlife scrambling to consume enough calories to keep warm.

That can present some great opportunities for wildlife watchers.

A sharp-tailed grouse feeds on frozen berries in the yard of Gary and Phyllis Lund, who live near Roseau, Minn.

Gary and Phyllis Lund of rural Roseau, Minn., have sent me several photos the past couple of days of sharp-tailed grouse in their backyard — and sometimes right on their deck.

The prairie grouse, which can be notoriously skittish, don’t seem to mind the human company and have been feeding on frozen high-bush cranberries and other foodstuffs that have been set out for the birds.

This sharptail definitely rules the roost.

Gary Lund said the photos have been taken out the house windows, anywhere from 50 feet to farther out, using a Pentax with a 12- to 48-mm zoom lens. They’re fun shots that are worth sharing.

A plump sharptail roosts on the deck of Gary and Phyllis Lund’s resident near Roseau, Minn., on a cold Tuesday morning.

It’s not common for the sharptails to perch on the deck.

“We’ve had them land on top of our other bird feeder,” as well, Lund writes. “Quite comical.”

Roseau and other parts of northwest Minnesota are situated in a unique region between the prairie and boreal forest, which provides the opportunity to see not only prairie grouse such as sharptails, but woodland species such as ruffed grouse and spruce grouse, as well. The abundant snow that’s fallen to date is a boon for all three species, which burrow into the snow to escape the cold. All three are able to withstand cold northern winters providing they’ve got enough food and places to roost. The sharptails obviously have found the Lunds’ yard to their liking.

New book tells the story of Polaris racing team heydays

A new book about the glory days of snowmobile racing is scheduled to make its debut Aug. 3 with a book signing and vintage snowmobile show in Roseau, Minn., birthplace of Polaris.

Titled “Starfire Kids Midnight Blue Express,” the book by author Larry Preston tells the story of the racers who rose to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s as members of the Polaris racing team. They were household names in snowmobile racing circles, men such as Bob Eastman, Larry Rugland, Leroy Lindblad, Jim Bernat and Don Omdahl, and Preston tells their stories through interviews, press accounts and photos he collected over a period of about five years.

Growing up in Roseau during that time, I remember all of the racers Preston includes in his book. As grade school kids, we’d bring radios to school during the annual Winnipeg to St. Paul 500 cross-country snowmobile race so we could sneak in updates on the race proceedings.

I also remember crowds packing the grandstand at the Roseau County Fairgrounds on cold winter days to catch the annual “Sno Mo Cade” oval races and Polaris Thrill Team exhibitions.

This was big stuff back in the day. But as Preston mentions in his book, a tragic accident in the winter of 1978 ended the era of the Polaris racing team.

The official unveiling of “Starfire Kids Midnight Blue Express” will be held Aug. 3 at the Polaris Experience Center, located at 205 Fifth Ave. S.W. in Roseau. A vintage snowmobile show is scheduled for 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and several of the former Polaris racers will be signing autographs from 10 a.m. to noon.

I’ve only had a chance to read the first chapter of Preston’s book, but his passion for snowmobile racing in its heyday is obvious from the get-go. That’s not by coincidence, perhaps, because Preston’s grandfather, Herb Borah, was the original CEO of Polaris.

Preston, a software executive and founder of the website vintagesleds.com, said he wrote the book for a number of reasons.

“I was a huge fan as a kid,” he told me in an email, “and when I got to interview all these people all these years later, what emerged was a really great story that I think will have some appeal beyond snowmobile fans.”

More information on “Starfire Kids Midnight Blue Express” is available here.

Great gray owls take center stage in Sunday’s Northland Outdoors

If you’re a fan of great gray owls — and it’s hard to not be fascinated by these magnificent birds from the north — you’re going to want to check out Sunday’s section of Northland Outdoors in the Grand Forks Herald or the photo gallery that will appear on the Herald’s website.

Josh James, a student at the University of Minnesota-Crookston, took this striking close-up photo of a great gray owl recently during an excursion to trap and band the birds near Roseau, Minn.

Tim Driscoll, director of the Grand Forks-based Urban Raptor Research Project, and a group of students from the University of Minnesota-Crookston made half a dozen trips to northwest Minnesota this winter to capture and band great gray owls.

Driscoll also teaches a course in raptor ecology at UMC.

The owls, which normally spend their winters in Canada, converged on northwest Minnesota in big bunches this winter after their food supplies ran low farther north. This “irruption,” as it’s known in scientific terms, occurs every few years.

The influx of owls provided an opportunity for Driscoll, who has a federal permit to trap and band owls and other raptors, and his students to catch and band several great grays, along with two northern hawk owls, at a site north of Roseau, Minn., that is a traditional hotspot for the birds, especially during irruptive years such as this.

The banding work also allowed the students to take up-close-and-personal photos of the owls — an opportunity most photographers rarely get — and Driscoll’s students generously agreed to share several of their images with the Herald.

Here’s just one of the photos you’ll see in Sunday’s two-page spread on the owls.