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)|
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 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|
|Great Gray Owl seen last March in Tower, Minnesota|
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 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.