MEADOWLANDS, Minn. — Flittering around a bird feeder set along a gravel county road, in the middle of nowhere in the heart of the Sax-Zim Bog, ruddy pine grosbeaks were the stars of the moment.
They come this far south most winters, but they really inundated the bog in December, and on a 9-degree morning they were battling for landing zone space with Canada jays (whiskeyjacks), black-capped chickadees, a big blue jay, hairy woodpeckers and assorted red squirrels.
There was action aplenty along Admiral Road.
Rise and shine before the sun does and early winter mornings in the bog can be magical. On this day it was dead calm, with a rainbow-prismed sun dog in the sky and hoar frost on the brush.
By 8 a.m. four vehicles were parked on the side of the road at this bird feeder spot, one of several strategically located across the bog and maintained by volunteers. Bird fanciers, most with expensive cameras with long lenses, were snapping away from inside or outside their SUVs and trucks.
“What a beautiful morning,’’ said Rick Koziel of Chippewa Falls, Wis., during a break from taking photos.
Like so many others who love the outdoors and, and especially love birds, Koziel came to the Sax-Zim Bog, about 40 miles northwest of Duluth, to take in a big breath of nature in winter, well socially distanced from any crowd.
But like so many others, there was one family of birds that Koziel was especially hoping to see.
“Owls,’’ he said when asked why he made the trip. “We just don’t get these northern species as far down as us, or not very often.”
Earlier that morning, down a different road, Koziel and his birding buddy, Jim Backus of Eau Claire, Wis., had already spotted a couple great gray owls — which are coming here in big numbers this winter — and a rare-even-here northern hawk owl. Alas, their sighting came when it was still too dark to get good photos. But the guys were going to check back again.
“We make at least one trip every winter up here. It’s so different from what we see at home,’’ Koziel said, noting he was more of a birdwatcher than a photographer — sharing nature photos with friends and family — while Backus was there to get shots good enough to sell.
Trista Snapko of Arden Hills also was here for the owls. But on this day trip she was just happy to be in a wild place, outside, seeing any birds.
“It’s what my passion is. I get super-excited to see the birds, especially owls. I love it,’’ Snapko said at the trailhead to one of the three bog boardwalks erected by Friends of Sax-Zim Bog.
As birders so often do when they meet in the woods, she and Duluth’s Richard Hoeg, hit it off quickly. Hoeg was our guide for a morning tour of the bog and, being an owl expert and volunteer naturalist, he offered Snapko a chance to see her first northern hawk owl, a species on her most-wanted-to-see list.
“Let’s go now,’’ Hoeg said, and the two were off to a spot a few miles away where the hawk owl had been hanging out. Sure enough, the owl showed up.
“He wasn't there when we showed up but we waited patiently and he came flying in front of me and landed on a man-made tower,’ Snapko said. “He was smaller than I expected and adorable. Not a great spot for photos, but I was able to document him. I did watch him hunt from a tree and swoop down and catch something from a distance.”
Snapko called the addition to her birding life list “very exciting. It was worth driving three hours to see this little owl hunt. Amazing experience.”
A special place for birds, birders
Few places in North America offer a better opportunity than the Sax-Zim Bog to see so many boreal (northern forest) birds up close, not just great gray and hawk owls, but also boreal chickadees and northern finches. This winter Hoeg has even found a few snowy owls in the area. It isn't that boreal species are scarce elsewhere, but the habitat and network of roads in the bog allow birders close, easy access to the birds. Great grays, North America's largest owls at 24 to 33 inches in height, are a big draw. The bog has been designated an “Important Bird Area” by the National Audubon Society.
“After they logged this area off at the turn of the last century they tried to farm it. It turned out to be terrible farmland in most places. And most of the farms are long-gone… But they left behind a network of roads that make this area accessible,’’ Hoeg noted. “It’s remote but accessible at the same time.”
Similar species are found in the vast expanse of bogs north of Upper Red Lake in northwestern Minnesota, Hoeg noted, but that area has few roads and is hard to navigate.
The birds are here because of the unique bog habitat — a mix of large tamarack-spruce bogs interspersed with old hayfields, meadows, rivers, lakes and upland aspen and maple that these northern birds find irresistible. The owls especially like the area’s population of voles, small rodents that make tasty meals.
The Sax-Zim bog — named after two early 1900s farming communities that are now just spots on a map — has for decades been a popular spot for Northland birders who know their stuff. But the bog’s reputation erupted regionally, nationally and even globally in the birding world during a migration of great gray owls from Canada into the area during the winter of 2004-05.
The short-term, southward movement of owls during winter — called an irruption — brought an estimated 5,000 of the hungry raptors that usually live where no humans live. National Audubon Society members were astounded when in that winter's Christmas Bird Count, 10 birders counted 70 great gray owls and 42 hawk owls in a 15-mile-diameter circle in a single day. Both remain records.
Soon after that, Duluth's Mike Hendrickson, along with people from the community of Meadowlands, launched the Sax-Zim Bog Birding Festival, a gathering of birders and local residents. The festival was held annually until this year — canceled due to the pandemic.
But birders are still coming every day, some from long distances while others are Northland residents. Last winter some 5,559 visitors stopped at the Sax-Zim Bog Welcome Center, coming from 45 states and 14 foreign countries.
“We’re very fortunate to have this so close to home. I can be here in 45 minutes from my house’’ in eastern Duluth, said Hoeg. “And it’s only, what, less than three hours form the Twin Cities? A lot of people come up here and spend the day.”
Hoeg is up here often throughout the year and knows the back roads well. So far this winter is shaping up to be a banner year for great-gray owls, he says. Maybe not 2005 levels but definitely more than usual thanks to a budding owl population up north that may scatter more birds south to find food in our region.
“This winter may end up being known as an irruption year for great gray owls,’’ Hoeg said. “Numbers are high, and we may also see (great gray owls) pushing slightly south from Canada.”
'Friends' group focuses on land preservation
Friends of Sax-Zim Bog formed in 2010 when naturalist Sparky Stensaas of Wrenshall realized the biologically diverse habitat of bog was being threatened. Stensaas had been birding the Bog since the early 1980s and witnessed an increase in the logging of mature black spruce in the area. These mature, old-growth forests are the exact habitat boreal birds need for nesting and wintering. Stensaas, along with Northland birding experts Dave Benson and Kim Eckert, are the founders of the group that became a registered 501(c)(3) non-profit in the summer 2011.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has designated Sax-Zim Bog as an Important Bird Area. But that doesn’t impact land management, and logging for old spruce continues on state and county lands in the area. The Friends group is working to acquire more land to be left unharvested.
The group recently announced it had acquired 41 acres of older forest along the Whiteface River in the bog, bringing its total to over 524 acres of mature forest protected. Stensaas said more land acquisitions are in the works.
"At one of our board meetings a few years ago, one of our board members said (the group should) shoot for 2,000 acres by 2020 and I laughed. But we are definitely on track for reaching that goal in 2021,'' Stensaas said, noting the group continues to pay property tax on the land. "Bog preservation is the number one goal of Friends of Sax-Zim Bog. Education is a close second ... We are definitely not anti-logging, but a portion of this rare habitat needs to be preserved for future generations."
What is the Sax-Zim Bog?
The Sax-Zim Bog is about 300 square miles of forest, bog (semi-forested wetlands) and uplands, including farms and several small communities about 40 miles northwest of Duluth. Most farmland is privately owned, but the majority of the forested and bog land belongs to the state of Minnesota or St. Louis County, or is part of the Lake Superior Wetlands Mitigation Bank.
Updated bird reports
Great guide for beginners
Hardcore birders are recommending a free app called Merlin from the Cornell School of Ornithology for easy identification. This app not only provides basic bird information, but you can submit a photograph of the bird you see and the app will attempt an identification. It’s available for both iOS and Android. For a traditional book form, Stensaas recommends the Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America.
Welcome center closed, but still a good rest stop
Friends of Sax-Zim Bog in 2014 built their Welcome Center in the bog as a focal point for visitors to get their bearings, learn more about the local and visiting birds and maybe feel encouraged to join the group.
Unfortunately the one-room cabin is closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, but there are still well-stocked bird feeders at the site, drawing birds and birders. There are trails, including a snowshoe trail. There’s also a vault toilet if you need a pit stop and a bulletin board with updated sightings.
The Welcome Center is located west of Cotton and north of Meadowlands — at 8793 Owl Avenue, Toivola, Minnesota — about 1.75 miles south of the Arkola Road on Owl Avenue.
What to bring for birding the bog
A good map.
A bird guide.
Binoculars. Some of the birds will be easily visible up close, but for the best views bring binoculars to see them up close.
Warm clothes and good boots so you can get out and look, take boardwalk hikes.
A tank full of gas and snacks. The closest food and gas is available in Cotton.
Patience and curiosity: Not every bird shows up every day, even if they are nearby.
Be courteous, careful on county roads
Don’t block traffic, but don’t get stuck, either. Pull over whenever stopping so other vehicles can pass, but don’t pull over so far that you drive off the road into the ditch, which is often hidden under the plow hump. Only park on one side of the road. Do not stand in the middle of the road. Do not enter driveways or other private property.
Winter residents and visitors to the Sax-Zim bog
Of the 240 species of birds that can be found in the Sax-Zim Bog at one time of year or another, here are some you might see this winter:
- Great gray owls
- Northern hawk owls
- Snowy owls
- Rough-legged hawks
- Northern shrike
- Black-billed magpie
- Canada jay
- Black-backed woodpecker
- Boreal chickadee
- Black capped chickadee
- Pine grosbeaks
- Evening grosbeaks
- White-winged crossbills
- Red crossbills
- Common redpolls
- Hoary redpolls
- Wild turkeys
- Blue jays
- Ruffed grouse
- Sharptail grouse