Sax Zim Bog: a primordial winter retreat

Contrary to what most of my posts suggest, I do actually spend lots of time in Minnesota, exploring the outdoors mostly near home, but sometimes a fair jaunt away to the more remote reaches of the state. img_2457

This is the case with one of my latest ventures, which was coordinated with an effort to achieve three northern Minnesota Checkpoints in one day (for more about the Checkpoint challenge, see my post from last year.) But Mission One was to make a stop at one of the premiere wilderness areas in the state: Sax Zim Bog.

The bog is renowned by birders, especially during winter, for the number of boreal species that winter there, most notably the enormous and ghostly great gray owl, as well as sharp-tailed grouse, white-winged crossbills, pine grosbeaks, boreal chickadees, and a number of other rarely seen owl species. The mixture of woods and fields makes the location an attractive habitat for these birds, many of which have flown south from the far reaches of Canada and beyond. The area is also home to northern mammals such as moose, gray wolves, and pine martens.

Typically, a bog conjures images of a muddy wetland. I always envision dark fairy tales of lost wanderers stumbling blindly after malicious will-o’-the-wisps and meeting their demise in quicksand-like mud pits, or urban legends (based on truth!) about human remains that are found mummified and unnervingly well preserved by the acidic, oxygen-poor conditions of the surroundings. Really a bog is any wetland area where dead plant material is accumulated (mostly mosses), and in the case of Sax Zim it is populated by a mix of spruce, tamarack, and white cedar, in addition to nearby hayfields and sedge meadows. This offers a wide variety of terrain, which makes it perfect for the large number of species that reside there. img_2459

The bog is north of Cloquet, about a 2 1/2 hour drive from my home near the Twin Cities. We traveled into the tiny town of Cotton and went west a number of miles down a snow-packed country road to the heart of the nature preserve.


The drive took us through Cloquet, where we passed by the famous Frank Lloyd Wright gas station.

A tiny welcome center, heated with solar energy and lacking running water, sits on the property. Nevertheless, it is kept warm inside and several birders were sitting patiently with long lenses nearby, waiting for something interesting to visit the feeders. Each year, the organization Friends of the Sax Zim Bog hosts a winter birding festival, this year to take place Feb. 17-19.


Somehow I had a feeling this would be the only owl I’d be seeing on my visit.

Feeders containing seed and suet are placed in various places around the bog, and these are often the best spots to find bird activity. Most people simply drive slowly down the long, snow-encrusted roads, scanning for movement without ever leaving their cars. Others prefer to hike, ski, or snowshoe through the area. Our time was limited, so we asked the desk volunteer where we might spot the best activity from the warmth of the car.

She pointed out a loop slightly north of us following Admiral and McDermitt Roads. She described the area as quintessentially boggy, full of spruce trees, and recommended a drive through at dusk to look for owls. The day earlier, she said, a great gray had been spotted sitting directly on the feeder.


Squirrels were aplenty at the Sax Zim feeders.

On our drive through, we occasionally encountered other birders stopped on the road along the way, indicating a sighting nearby. In fact, small traffic jams started to build up this way. The first of these was a really fun encounter with a ruffed grouse, which was busy peeling the bark from a few thin branches and was twisting and turning this way and that, nonplussed by the observers in the nearby vehicles. Photography is challenging in this environment because if one chooses to stay in the car, the heat emitting into the cold air from the open window will cause a rippling wave effect which can blur the picture quality.


Ruffed grouse

Unfortunately, our drive did not result in any other species observations (other than the numerous black-capped chickadees and red squirrels that were common at the feeders.) Despite the lack of bird cooperation, we were treated to a magnificent sunset along the jagged edges of the spruce tree line; an idyllic northern Minnesota scene.

We had three other cities to get to that night, so we had to hit the road after only a few hours at Sax Zim. I hope to revisit the bog soon, to keep looking for those elusive northern species. img_2526


Birding for Lazy People


Barred owl spotted on the side of the road. I’m a big fan of seeing something weird out of the corner of my eye, turning around at the next intersection and pulling up on the side of the road to take pictures.

I recently went on my first guided bird hike at Lake Elmo Park Reserve, along with a friend I’d manage to rope into the deal. On a blustery, lifeless gray day in January, our small group, outfitted with binoculars and heavy boots, hiked about a mile in the raw winter wind. Our reward for this exercise: a handful of chickadees and two ring-necked pheasants.

Even while we shivered back into the car, my friend and I agreed that sighting so few birds during the outing was hardly discouraging. Birding takes hours upon hours worth of observation–but there’s no reason you have to do it all at once.


The species might not always be rare and unusual, but cities are also a great place to spot birds, such as this house sparrow near Rice Park, downtown St. Paul.

“You don’t even have to go out of your way to do it,” I said as we cruised down the freeway on the way home, watching a flock of crows harassing a bald eagle. You see them on light posts above the roadways, at feeders in your neighbors yards, outside your office window. If you’re watching, you start to know their habits: these chickadees live in the decorative spruce next door, the ducks visit the feeders at the dentist’s office across the street.

Birding is a recreational activity that doesn’t even require you to leave the house–but it certainly can if you’re really into it. I’ve had a background interest in birds and identification since I was a kid–I adored Stan Tekiela’s Minnesota bird guide–but until now, I never called myself a birder. This New Years, I jokingly announced my intent to do a “Minnesota Big Year.” I later heard my Dad brag about this to a woman who worked for a nature preserve, who was instantly alarmed by this news.

Crows Jan. 2016

Spotted these crows in my backyard before I left for work. I always take a good look around the yard before I get in the car; I can never tell if I might see something interesting.

Far from a “Big Year,” my interest in birding is more casual (if you’d refer to frequent visits to a rural pioneer cemetery in search of a rumored, rare varied thrush as casual.) Thanks to my job as a journalist, I spend increasing amounts of time traveling across landscape that is excellent territory for all manner of birds. Over the past month or so, it has become a major pursuit of mine, and I’m loving every minute of it.


Cedar waxwings spotted at a local wildlife area.

Observing and learning about birds has even fed into my job at the newspaper. One of things that got me started birding was the unusual arrival of a trumpeter swan at a lake near my house on Christmas Eve. A neighbor I spoke to said that he planned to catch the swan and bring it into the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center because he suspected it had lead poisoning. I learned less than a week later that he had done so, and that the swan was being treated at the WRC. The event turned into an article about the danger and frequency of lead poisoning for local wildlife.


The Christmas Eve swan brought the community’s attention to the danger of lead poisoning.

So clearly, I am not the laziest of birders, but my point is that anyone can do it at most any time, provided there’s a window nearby. You might also get some delightful photos, and maybe a reason to get out of the house and take a walk (and may I point out for those, like me, who are recent college grads, this is an activity that is completely and blessedly free.)

The annual Christmas Bird Count, which took place during the end of December, really drew my attention to thriving birding community in the area. The annual Great Backyard Bird Count is coming up, set to take place Feb. 12-15, and anyone can sign up to participate. I’ve been on the list for more than a month.

I recently had the opportunity to hear a presentation by National Geographic photographer and Minnesota native Jim Brandenburg, who is famous for his photographs of wild wolves near his home in Ely. Since I had recently learned about the Christmas Bird Count, he said something that reminded me of the way the Audubon Society had repurposed traditional Christmas Day bird hunts into a merely observational bird census, to reduce the harm to bird populations.

Quoting loosely, Brandenburg said that he had grown up in rural Laverne, Minnesota hunting throughout his youth. His transition to photography presented almost exactly the same principle as his days hunting wild game, except at the end, the animal lived and he got to keep the photo as a token of the experience.

As someone who also comes from a hunting family, I find the process of searching for, locating and photographing these birds significantly more rewarding. And as I said before, it’s a heck of a lot less expensive. There’s no need to photograph birds in order to go birding, but in case you do, the average iPhone is all you need to capture a half-decent image. A spunky Twin Cities birder named Sharon “Birdchick” Stiteler even teaches methods of digiscoping, or enhancing cameras with scopes explicitly for birding. She also hosts a monthly bird-focused social event called Birds and Beers. I’ve been trying to get to one for almost a year and a half–maybe one day soon.

Red tailed hawk Jan. 2016

Red tailed hawk near Barron, Wisconsin.