Among the forests of northern Minnesota is a birding mecca called Sax-Zim Bog. In the years that I have been birdwatching, I have repeatedly heard tales of and seen pictures from Sax-Zim, where other local birders go to see rare arctic species that have made their way down during the colder months. The biggest attraction that a lot of people hope to see is the Great Gray Owl, which we were hoping to see ourselves.
If you are planning a trip to Sax-Zim, be sure to visit the Friends of Sax-Zim Bog website at saxzim.org. From the site, you can access pretty much all the information you need to plan your trip, including where to sleep, eat, and the locations of the feeder stations in the area.
Winter birding at Sax-Zim Bog is largely car-based birding, especially if there is snow on the ground. Without snowshoes, we were restricted to plowed roads and any maintained trails that we could find. At Sax-Zim Bog, most of the wildlife will be centered around the many feeder stations that are set up at various points, which include a variety of bird feeders, and occasionally a deer ribcage that will hopefully attract animals that are into that sort of thing. Most of your time will be spent driving from station to station, all the while keeping an eye out for other birds that may be otherwise visible from the road.
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Day 1: We started our own journey by heading towards the Friends of Sax-Zim Bog Welcome Center in order to pick up a paper map of the area. Before arriving, we stumbled on our first feeder station, which manifested itself as a line of cars parked on the side of the road. Climbing out of the car, I immediately post-holed up to my thigh in snow, caking my socks in ice and my camera lens in about five inches of snow. Once I cleaned myself up, I found the more appropriate shoveled-out section in front of the feeders and joined the small group of other birders watching the action.
The “action” as it turned out, was a Friends of Sax-Zim Bog volunteer smearing peanut butter on the trees that were in front of the bird feeders, in order to hopefully bring back a visiting boreal chickadee. I had just gotten two lifers in as many minutes, but both were the direct result of a guy with an offset spatula. While I knew that the birding here would be like this, I still left the encounter feeling more like I was at the zoo, rather than spending time in a northern Minnesota forest.
The Sax-Zim Bog Welcome Center provides another series of feeders around their property with Evening Grosbeaks and American Goldfinches having the run of the place when we arrived. Immediately we found ourselves on a maintained trail behind the building that allowed us to stretch our legs and explore on foot for a while. As we poked along, a small flock of black-capped chickadees then started to beg for food, exhibiting the same hand-feeding behavior that I have seen in a park here in Michigan. The trail ended in another set of bird feeders, a deer carcass, and another set of birders waiting on another Boreal Chickadee.
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Miles from home to Airbnb: 783
Miles driven on day one of birding: 95
Miles walked on trails: 1.5
Total bird species: 14
Total lifers: 3
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Day 2: Our second day was cold and foggy, which led to the landscape turning pure white with frost. We continued our tour of the feeder stations, following the suggested winter birding tour map that is on the Friends of Sax-Zim Bog website. We were seeing more of the same species as the day before, until I spotted a bird at the very tip of a tall dead evergreen. I stomped on the brakes and hurried to bring my camera up before it could even think to fly away. As I expected, it was a northern shrike, a white whale of a species that I was desperately hoping to see on this trip.
Shortly after seeing the distant shrike, we came across a long line of parked cars on one side of the road with what felt like a crowd of tripods on the other side. Without even seeing what the commotion was, I knew we had stumbled across what the bog was famous for: the great gray owl. I could see the large, dark raptor from the car as it stood out against the silver-white backdrop of the forest. I climbed out to take a few pics, avoiding a maskless, coughing man that provided a soundtrack of hacking throughout the encounter. After about a minute or two, the bird dove on an unseen rodent in the field, ending up perched in a slightly closer tree behind the house in the field. The whole group of people shifted to regain their sightlines, and as they did, a tripod was set up directly next to me with a fervor that ignored any semblance of personal space. “I don’t see it, I don’t see it, where is it, do you have it!?” he exclaimed.
The rest of our day was spent driving into Duluth to visit the Great Lakes Aquarium, which we highly recommend to anyone who is visiting the area.
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Miles driven on day 2 (including trip to Duluth): 200
Miles walked on trails: 1
Total bird species: 10
Total lifers: 2
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Day 3: At this point we were getting tired of spending time in the car, so we decided to get up early to go sit on the feeder at the end of Gray Jay Way, mostly hoping for a pine martin or ermine to visit the deer carcass. When we arrived it was still the blue hour, and as we navigated the path, we were able to see fresh animal prints in the dusting of snow that had fallen overnight. We got ourselves set up on the wooden bench overlooking the feeders and watched as the world woke up.
The ever-present swarm of black-capped chickadees bustled around, and eventually we were able to pick out the coveted boreal chickadee that everyone was waiting for on the first day. Curiously, it was the only creature that interacted with the deer carcass while we were there. We also heard the overhead call of bohemian waxwings, though they would not make an appearance, much to our dismay.
The rest of the morning was spent driving around once again, finishing up our tour of all the feeders that we had not gotten to yet, as well as finding another bog boardwalk to try out. Once again we came across the great gray owl observed by another group of photographers.
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Miles driven on day 3 (including trip to Duluth): 200
Miles walked on trails: 1.5
Total bird species: 15
Total lifers: 1
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Conclusions: In the end, I think I think that Sax-Zim Bog was a little too far away for what I got to see, especially as most of the time was spent cramped in a car driving around. My suggestion is to try to do every maintained trail that you can, as well as finding other activities in the area to do, such as the Great Lakes Museum. It is not really feasible or fun to car-bird from sun up to sun down, unless it is really, really your thing. We got to see some new species, but for the most part only saw the same handful of birds throughout the entire time there, which admittingly got pretty old pretty quick.