Friday, December 6, 2013

Birding the Sax-Zim Bog



Chances are if you have birded long enough or have attempted to do a nationwide big year, then you've heard of Minnesota's famed Sax-Zim Bog.  The Bog, which is actually a collection of public and private lands, consists of boreal forests, large open meadows, and wet, boggy areas filled with scrubby stands of spruces, tamaracks, and willow thickets.  Northern Minnesota is known for its thousands of pristine lakes with rocky shores and towering pines.  The call of the Common Loon singing at night from these beautiful waters is ingrained in every Minnesotan's mind. No, you won't find that kind of beauty in the Sax-Zim Bog. Instead, this "wasteland" is dotted with abandoned farm sites and run-down homes.  It's the kind of place one goes to get off the grid. Yet despite all that, it's a birder's paradise.



Why?  The unique mix of habitat types makes this area a phenomenal spot to see birds that you will not see in other parts of the country.  Or if you can see them in other parts of the country, the roads through the Sax-Zim Bog will put you closer than you've ever been to many of these species.  The biggest draw to the Bog is the unique collection of owls that can be seen here in the winter: the Snowy Owl, the Boreal Owl, the Northern Hawk Owl, and the ever popular Great Gray Owl. Other great birds include Boreal Chickadees, Gray Jays, Northern Shrikes, Evening Grosbeaks, Pine Grosbeaks, Black-backed Woodpeckers, American Three-toed Woodpeckers, Common and Hoary Redpolls, Bohemian Waxwings, and both the White-winged and Red Crossbills. The Sax-Zim Bog also has three species of grouse: Ruffed, Sharp-tailed, and the elusive Spruce.  The raptors aren't to be outdone as it is a great place to see Rough-legged Hawks and Northern Goshawks. 

Hoary Redpoll (Photo taken in Feb. 2013 in west-central MN and not in the Sax-Zim Bog)
Ruffed Grouse 
Northern Shrike

 I grew up only 45 minutes from the Bog but didn't hear about it until I got into birding just over a year ago.  Now when I go home to visit my parents I pass through the Sax-Zim Bog every time to hopefully catch a glimpse of something really special.  This Thanksgiving was no exception, and I even got to spend a few hours in the Bog with my dad looking for those beautiful, elusive owls.

It is somewhat early for the winter owls.  Snowy Owls are just starting to move south.  A couple of the resident Great Gray Owls had been seen recently, but there has not been an influx of them from the north yet. Likewise, reports of Northern Hawk Owls have been few and far between so far, and the irruption of Boreal Owls last year is not likely to reoccur this year.  Nevertheless, my dad and I went to Sax-Zim to see what we could see.

One of the first birds we encountered was the Gray Jay.  There were several feeding off of one of the many deer carcasses that are set out for the birds.  After all, deer season did just wrap up a week ago.

Gray Jay
Gray Jay feeding on a deer carcass

The clouds and the early morning light were not conducive to pictures, so it was somewhat frustrating to find these cool birds and not get some great photos of them. Another good bird that we ran into was the Black-billed Magpie.  While this bird may be a common bird out west, Minnesota is at the very eastern fringes of its range and the Sax-Zim Bog is one of the few places in the state to see them. I got my magpie lifer in the Bog this past October.

One of 7 Black-billed Magpies

Bald Eagles are a staple in the Sax-Zim Bog and are always a pleasure to see.

Bald Eagle
Bald Eagle
As we cruised down the gravel roads scanning the treetops for Northern Hawk Owls and the forest edges for Great Gray Owls, we saw numerous Rough-legged Hawks.  These beautiful raptors are always a pleasure to see.  We ended up seeing 6 in the Sax-Zim Bog and 5 elsewhere throughout northern Minnesota. They are extremely skiddish and will take flight when you are over a quarter mile away.  The distance and the low-light conditions for the day made it extremely difficult to get a decent picture of one.  However, as we drove out of the Bog, we found a somewhat cooperative Rough-legged Hawk just as the clouds parted.

Rough-legged Hawk
So, I didn't get my lifer Northern Hawk Owl, Snowy Owl, or Boreal Owl on this trip.  Lucky for me I'll be heading home over Christmas and get another chance to find one of these scarce birds.  And I wouldn't mind bumping into another Great Gray Owl like I found last March. Despite the great owling to be had in the Sax-Zim Bog, I have not yet found any of the owl species there.  It's a good thing that I have family nearby as they are a great excuse to make the 230 mile trip to the Bog.  You can bet that my January post for Birding is Fun! will once again be all about the Sax-Zim Bog.  Let's face it, it's winter in Minnesota and this is where the birding action is, and it's some of the best birding action in the country at that.

Great Gray Owl seen last March in Tower, Minnesota


Epilogue

The day after I wrote this post I got a text message from a coworker that said he had just spotted a Snowy Owl 8 miles from the school where we both teach in west-central Minnesota. I couldn't believe it! It is not rare for Snowies to reach as far south as our location, but it certainly is uncommon.

We were in a dense fog advisory, and the school I teach at was delayed a couple hours.  I had a nice cushion of time to go out to this location to look for this owl.  I stopped by work on the way to pick up my coworker.  Actually I got out of the driver's seat and made him drive so I could be at the ready with my camera.  The fog was thick with a freezing mist, so we had trouble driving and seeing.  How were we going to find a white owl?  If it were in the fields, it would stick out easily since we don't have snow yet.  

We got to the spot my friend had seen it, and there was nothing. I was disheartened.  We turned around to head back to work.  On the way my friend pointed out a power pole with a large cowboy silhouette leaning against it and said his earlier sighting had been in the vicinity of that pole. I looked at the pole and gazed up. And there was the Snowy Owl!  This nearly all-white bird was incredibly camouflaged against the white sky in the thick fog.  We almost missed it, but thankfully we didn't.  Can you see how we almost missed this bird? We stopped for a few pictures and then got back to work with 10 minutes to spare.

My Snowy Owl lifer in my own "backyard"
I didn't get the Snowy in Sax-Zim, but finding an unexpected Snowy Owl lifer in your own area is even more special.


Josh Wallestad writes about his birding adventures with his dad and 6-year-old son at A Boy Who Cried Heron. Click this link to read about his Great Gray Owl chase last March

Josh has also created a website to help birders find cool birds, like the Great Gray Owl, wherever they travel in the United States. It's called Birding Across America

15 comments:

  1. You get the BEST opportunities and take great advantage of what is before you...just wonderful!

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    1. It's amazing what birding opportunities are around us when we pay attention.

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  2. Love the birds. It is amazing how they can survive in the snow. It looks pretty cold.

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    1. These cool birds are pretty hardy. As sick as it is, I now look forward to winter because of these owls and other great birds.

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  3. Very exciting birds you have posted. I've heard of this place and would love to visit one day. Extremely amazing finds! And congrats on the Snowy:)

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    1. Put it on your birding bucket list. The birds of the Bog are really cool, but you'll have to come in the dead if winter. Dress warmly.

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  4. So glad you got to see the Snowy Owl, love the white photo.
    Lillian

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    1. Thanks, Lillian! I'm glad I got to see it too!

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  5. Congratulations on finding the "hidden" Snowy. I bet it was hard to go back to work!

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  6. You are so lucky to spot these birds. I love owls. We have driven all over Minnesota during our vacation but didn't about all these great spots to watch birds. Too bad we missed it.

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    1. You'll have to come back to our great state and try again!

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  7. Wow, Sax-Zim bog sounds like a birders paradise! This destination will go on my birding bucket list. So glad you were able to spot a magnificent Snowy Owl. Love those yellow eyes! Superb photograph of the Great Gray Owl! I have my fingers crossed that I spot one in the near future.

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  8. I hope you can make it to the Bog, Julie. It's a pretty amazing place.

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  9. Great Pictures! Hoping to make to Sax-Zim next year!

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