A northern Minnesota hidden gem for birders
WRITTEN AND PHOTOGRAPHED BY RICH HOEG
“His true destination was forty-five miles northwest of Duluth. Officially, this place had no name, even the roads had only numbers … Levantin would be on cherished ground … the place birders called Sax-Zim Bog.”
–The Big Year, 20th Century Fox (2011) starring Steve Martin
A Gray Jay / Canada Jay on McDavitt Road
Yes, Sax-Zim Bog is famous among birders having received nationwide accolades via the New York Times and Audubon, but for most Minnesotans this winter birding Mecca is unknown. After all, who would want to explore frozen wilderness bogs in the dead of winter when overnight temperatures may reach 30 degrees below zero? Yet it is the combination of failed farms, bog and black spruce forest which makes for this a birding gem. The roads which now give birders access to wilderness areas were built by railroads and lumber companies in the early 1900’s to lure settlers to their unwanted land, but the bog was not farm friendly. The growing season was too short, and the ground too wet.
The primary birding target in Sax-Zim Bog is the great gray owl. The bog is the only reliable location in the Lower 48 where this owl may be found year round. If you hope to see a great gray owl, Heather-Marie Bloom, a naturalist at the Friends of Sax-Zim Bog Welcome Center, recommends arriving by daybreak. Not just owls, but all birds feed more heavily during early morning hours and thus are easier to find. Although owls are nocturnal, on low light, calm, winter days great gray owls may hunt until mid-morning.
The best time of the year to see great grays hunt is December 1 through early winter; young owls have not yet perfected their hunting skills. Hunger is a great motivator. Great grays hear mice and voles running beneath the snow. After triangulating their prey’s location the owls dive, punching their talons through the snow. Other tips for finding owls include driving very slowly (10 miles per hour) while scanning dead trees and Tamarack pines. If you see other cars stopped, especially on owl “hot spots,” Admiral and McDavitt roads, pull over and stop. Scan the trees ahead and you will often see an owl.
Another great resource for first time visitors is the Sax-Zim Bog Facebook group. This group is administered by Bog area resident Jason Mandich, and Duluth “BogFather” birder, Mike Hendrickson. Mike has birded Sax-Zim since the early 80s when seeing another car in the Bog constituted a traffic jam. The web and social media has changed that equation. The Facebook group allows one to ask questions, find out latest sightings, and keep aware of other Bog happenings.
A Black-Backed Woodpecker flakes off bark in search of insects
There are many other unusual winter birds in the bog including: black-backed woodpeckers, boreal chickadees (they love peanut butter!), gray jays, common redpolls, evening grosbeaks, magpies, northern hawk owls, pine grosbeaks, rough-legged hawks, and the occasional snowy owl.
A Snowy Owl hunts from a telephone pole next Hwy #53 near Cotton
Hendrickson, founder of the Sax-Zim Bog Birding Festival held in mid-February each year, has worked with many area residents to create bird feeding stations. These families often allow visitors access to their land to view the feeders. If you find the food sources in the winter, you will find birds.
Folks who arrive by dawn, or stay until dusk may be rewarded with the sighting of an ermine, mink, moose, pine marten, or timber wolf. Remember, this is a wilderness area. You are the visitor, not the animals.
A Northern Hawk Owl on the South Logging Road trail
Mark “Sparky” Stensaas, executive director of the Friends of Sax-Zim Bog (FOSZB), reminds folks that while cruising the Bog looking for owls, “get out of the car.” FOSZB, whose main missions are to support, promote, and protect the Bog, has purchased over 475 acres of sensitive Bog land including the Warren Nelson and Winterberry Bogs. Both bogs and the South Logging Road have tracked trails in the winter which allow the visitor to hike into black spruce habitats and sometimes find rare American three-toed and black-backed woodpeckers. The Warren Nelson Bog has a boardwalk accessible year round.
If you plan a visit, check the FOSZB web site (saxzim.org) to read food and lodging recommendations, review a Frequently Asked Questions list, and download a birding road map including the locations of bird feeder stations and hikes. The Welcome Center with its many feeders, located on Owl Avenue north of Meadowlands, is open from early December to early March, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily. When the Welcome Center building is closed, you are still welcome to walk the grounds, read a whiteboard listing current sightings, and use the outhouse. Thus, get out there and enjoy our northern winter in this unique habitat.
Evening Grosbeak in the Bog