February 16th, 2019: Sax-Zim Bog is amazing!
I was really excited to get up to Sax-Zim Bog one more time during the winter! Since I’ll be moving out of Minnesota for good in May, it’s hard to know when (if ever) I’ll get back here. This time around I wanted to maximize my time at “the bog,” so I found an Airbnb in Duluth for Friday night to get lots of the driving out of the way. This way I could be at the bog for sunrise and I’d have a chance to visit Duluth Cider.
I hear some of you thinking, “Yeah, but could you have birded on Friday too?” The awesome is of course, “yes” and I did. I was in luck too because a Varied Thrush (a decidedly uncommon bird for MN) had been reported for several day at a residential feeder in Minneapolis. It was only about 5 minutes out of my way and the thrush was there right when arrived! Having heard of many people “dipping” on the thrush in the past few day, I felt pretty lucky. And I only saw it for about a minute before it vanished.
After the quick stop in Minneapolis, there weren’t really any great spot until Duluth, where I was excited to scope some of the open water of Lake Superior. This time of year, however, there is rarely much open water, so I went to a few spots where I’d seen reports of diving ducks in the past few days. My first stop was Duluth’s Canal Park, but it was all iced up except for a small channel which supported only 3 Common Goldeneye. Drat.
Then I thought I’d head up to Two Harbors, another bit of a drive, but I was hoping to turn up some of the Long-tailed Ducks and other fowl that had been reported. No such luck. It was all iced up too and, while a quaint little town, I felt I’d wasted some driving time/gas heading up there. I drove some nearby roads looking for Spruce Grouse that are in the area, also with no luck. Okay then. I guess I’ll check into my Airbnb and try some local cider.
The next morning I was psyched to head to the bog, now a much shorter drive that it would have been. I was also anxious to escape the cat that had snuck into my Airbnb bedroom and left a present on the floor. No hard feelings against the owner, just cats. Well, I’m a birder after all. ; )
Less than a minute after I “entered” the bog (by which I mean “crossed into the huge area that’s demarcated between Sax and Zim roads) I started seeing Pine Grosbeaks high in the trees. This was going to be a good day!
My targets were, in no particular order, Pine Grosbeak (check), Common and Hoary Redpoll, Ruffed Grouse, Sharp-tailed Grouse, Evening Grosbeak, Boreal Chickadee, Black-backed Woodpecker, Black-billed Magpie, White-winged Crossbill, Great Gray Owl, Northern Hawk Owl, and the recently renamed Canada Jay (formerly “Gray Jay”).
In addition to Sax-Zim’s weekly sighting reports, they suggest a pretty great winter driving route for the area. Not knowing the area particularly well, and seeing that this route took me past all my target spots, I decided to follow it more-or-less (didn’t do the eastern parts of 52 or 319).
The first sets of feeders were pretty good with Red-breasted Nuthatch, Pine Siskin, Common Redpoll, Black-capped Chickadee, Hairy Woodpecker, among others. And right away I was excited to walk the boardwalk and Warren Nelson Memorial Bog area (it’s on the south side of the bog just off of Blue Spruce Road). I was excited because this is the best Black-backed Woodpecker habitat in the bog and an individual had been reported several days in a row. No luck for me though…I’d plan to come back later.
Next was one of my favourite spots in the bog, the famously boisterous Sharp-tailed Grouse lek and feeders along Racek Road (the southernmost grouse silhouette on the map above). Sure enough these energetic birds were around and the feeder area was loaded with passerines too.
I love watching these birds display and communicate with each other. It’s very uncommon for lekking behaviours like these so early in the year, but this particular lek is known for it.
After taking in my fill of Sharp-tailed Grouse up close, I headed to the visitor center. It’s feeders were LOADED with birds, especially Pine Grosbeak and Common Redpoll! I’ve never had such great photo ops for Pine Grosbeak (nor had many other people evidently).
One of the feeders out back was really hopping…
After snapping some photos (obviously), I hit the road again for some longer driving stretches and mostly looking for owls. I first came across some feeders with a lone Evening Grosbeak: a nice surprise (and the only one I’d see all day). Then passed the best spot for Black-billed Magpie with no luck, before coming across another parked vehicle and a beautiful Great Gray Owl. He appeared to be actively hunting and looking (by which I mean listening) down into the snow for prey.
After the owl I was thrilled to come across a very exciting mammal: a North American Porcupine feeding high in a tree! I got great views through the scope and digiscoped the image below.
Next stop was the best known Admiral Road feeders. I was hoping to see a Boreal Chickadee here and was not disappointed. That plus a quick flyover of White-winged Crossbills made this stop an excellent one!
I was anxious to get moving again to walk the logging road trail that had great Northern Hawk Owl habitat and where one had regularly been seen. Sure enough, he was perched atop a very tall dead tree in the distance. I was really happy to share my scope with other people who’d not had a chance for good views of this boreal species.
Having soaked up the great views of this owl I wasn’t likely to see again for many years, I headed to my last feeder stop for the day: the Mary Lou’s famous feeders. I’d already seen most of the species that could be there, but was hoping for a Ruffed Grouse or better looks at Evening Grosbeak. Neither turned out for me, but there were some other strange things…
Now done with the feeder stops and the winter driving route, I headed back south for another walk at the Warren Nelson Memorial Bog area to look for the as-yet-elusive Black-backed Woodpecker. This was one of those birds that I’d looked for many times in different places and never seen one, but surely this time! As soon as I arrived in the best area I heard some erratic pecking/hacking on a tree. Erratic pecking is good because Black-backed Woodpeckers forage, not by boring into trees, but by hacked in at an angle to peel back bark. There was lots of fallen bark in the area as strong evidence for their presence here.
I had to go off-trail and up to my thighs in snow to try to find the bird. I knew I was looking at roughly the right tree about 50 feet away, but couldn’t find the bird I was almost certain would be a lifer. Finally, it came into view! A Downy Woodpecker. Well, crap. I mean, Downies are great and all, but it didn’t even sound like a Downy foraging. Disappointing to be sure, but, well, it’s not like a didn’t try…for about an hour and a half. After a total of over two hours of Black-backed Woodpecker searching today in this one “reliable” area, I was going to have to call it a day to drive home. Oh well.
I saw all of my targets today except for Hoary Redpoll (not a good year for them at this latitude anyway), Ruffed Grouse, Black-billed Magpie, and Black-backed Woodpecker. I’d call that a success. As I hit the road for the 4.5-hour drive back to Northfield, I was saddened to think that I had know idea when or if I’d get to see this winter birding wonderland again. I hope you do though! Seriously, why are you planning a trip now? : )