One of my favorite places to visit for winter birding is the area called Sax-Zim Bog about 30 miles or so northwest of Duluth, MN. From where I live, it is about a 2-hour trip. The 10th anniversary of my first official trip to the bog is coming up in November, so this is my 10th winter in a row visiting the bog.
My daughter is in 10th grade this year and, thanks to an amazing biology teacher, is becoming interested in birds, which thrills me to no end! We had planned to visit earlier this winter but all the snowstorms and sub-zero temps we’ve had has made us have to postpone our trip too many times! We finally had the opportunity to get there the first weekend of March.
We arrived at the bog about 10am, and I decided to reverse my usual route and start on the south end heading west so we could stop at the visitor center. There is a new area that the Friends of Sax-Zim Bog had recently opened to the public with a boardwalk that winds through a mature black spruce bog, and that was our first stop. What a neat addition to the area!
The entrance to the bog boardwalk had numerous feeders set up, and there were chickadees, downy and hairy woodpeckers and redpolls there to greet us. The redpolls flew off right away so we ventured down the boardwalk into the bog.There were a few woodpeckers and chickadees visiting the feeders along the walk, but nothing too exciting. We reached the back side of the woods where there were more feeders set up. We found our first of day Red-breasted Nuthatch and a few Hairy Woodpeckers, along with a very photogenic and well-fed Pine Squirrel. I picked up a lot of good ideas for feeders and it was nice to see deer carcasses being used.
Daughter was getting cold, so we turned back and retraced our steps back to the entrance, where we enjoyed watching dozens of Common Redpolls and several Black-capped Chickadees stuffing themselves with seed. The chickadees in particular were fun, as they were absolutely not afraid of us and allowed us to get quite close to them. We got pretty close to several Downy Woodpeckers too.
Just north of the bog boardwalk is a home with feeders out front that welcome visitors to pull in near the feeder to see what is visiting. There is almost always something interesting there. This time we saw European Starlings at the feeders, which seemed somewhat unusual, something I had never encountered in the past 10 years visiting the bog. I never realized how pretty their breeding plumage is.
Our next stop was the Friends of Sax-Zim Bog visitor center, where we found two pine siskins at a feeder near the parking lot, and our first of the day pine grosbeaks at feeders near the building.
When we left the visitor center and headed north along Owl Avenue, we spotted 8 more Pine grosbeaks fly over on their way to a visit to the feeders at the visitor center. I imagine that if a person spends several hours at one place in the bog they would likely see many or most of the birds that are known to be present there. But we felt the need to move on to try to find some owls.
Sax-Zim Bog is so popular in the winter because it is an accessible place to go with a pretty good chance of seeing boreal bird species. These boreal birds breed in spruce-fir forests in the boreal regions of North America, mostly in Canada. Some of these species can also be found in the northern reaches of Minnesota where the boreal forests dip southward. Some of the boreal species venture south in the winter months but move back north in the summer to breed. Some winters are better than others for sightings of these species. We were hoping to see Great Gray Owls and/or Northern Hawk Owls, but by the first weekend in March, these species are already on the nest and sightings become much more rare. If we had gotten to the bog in December, January or even into February, we would have had much better chances of seeing them. We did search, but to no avail. Owl sightings had become much scarcer in the past couple weeks. But I was sure we would still be able to find Canada Jays (gray jays) and was also hoping for Boreal Chickadees, which are just so darned cute.
We traveled up Owl Avenue and then headed eastward and a little northward to McDavitt Road. We kept our eyes pealed for whatever we might encounter, but the journey was uneventful. We went north up McDavitt Road, where we had the best chance of an owl encounter, but saw nothing. There were some people looking for black-backed woodpeckers, which are another fairly rare boreal species, but I did not want to take extra effort hiking through deep snow into the bogs to find them. Had I been with more adventurous folks, I may have brought snowshoes and tried to find some.
We turned back south onto Admiral Road and made our way to the feeding station. This feeding station has been supplied for many years now by locals and visitors with bird seed and peanut butter. The smears of peanut butter onto the branches and logs of the feeding structure attract a lot of birds and other animals. A pine marten had become pretty famous on facebook for its regular visits to this feeding station. I was hoping to be gifted with a visit. I was pretty sure this would be where my daughter would add Canada Jay and Boreal Chickadee to her life list at the very least. We were not disappointed, although I did not get a good photo of either of these species – they came and went at inopportune times for me to snap a decent pic. These are the best I came away with this time, but I had already gotten better photos in previous visits so I was not too disappointed.
If we had waited at these feeders the remainder of the day, we may have seen the Pine marten, but we were ready to head back home after this stop. I had one more place I wanted to check out, a road north of there that went along a stream that emptied into a lake, where I had seen Northern Hawk Owls on past visits. We did not find one this time, but we added a Ruffed Grouse to our bird list for the day.
All in all, it was a great visit to the bog. I learned early on not to expect to see ANY particular bird species on a visit. It took nine years to finally see a Great Gray Owl. It took two to see a Boreal Chickadee. I saw a few Northern Hawk Owls on my first and second visits to the bog, but none again until last year. I have never seen a Snowy Owl at the bog, but they are seen a lot by other visitors. Timing is everything with bird species. Some years are better than others for certain species. But every visit to the bog is special. If you want more information about the Sax-Zim Bog, visit the website http://www.saxzim.org. There you will find maps, photos, and information on events and how to plan your visit. I will end this blog with some photos of the owls we were hoping to see that I took last year when I visited the bog with my mom. Enjoy!