Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Sax Zim Bog!

Last weekend Sunwiggy and I traveled to northern Minnesota for the fourth annual Sax Zim Bog birding festival, which is hosted by the small town of Meadowlands and involves several bus tours of the Sax Zim Bog and surrounding areas, as well as dinners and guest speakers (and a photography workshop, although we did not attend that). I had originally heard of the festival in an article in Bird Watcher's Digest, and thought that it sounded like a good way to clean up a bunch of frustrating winter migrants I can't seem to get here in central Illinois, plus a nice road trip to break up the winter monotony of February. And luckily I managed to convince Sunwiggy (my mother) that it sounded like a fun time as well, so I didn't have to attend the festival by my lonesome.

Going into the event, I had a few reservations, to whit:

One, the ferocious amount of driving involved in going from my hometown of Bloomington, IL to pick up Sunwiggy in Calumet in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, then zipping across northern Wisconsin to Minnesota, and back again;

Two, the frigid -- potentially sub-zero REAL temperatures -- that occur in northern Minnesota at this time of year;

and Three, would I, an admitted introvert and mostly solitary birder, enjoy a festival that attracts up to 150 people? How many of us would be on the bus? How would I see the birds in a crowd?

Despite being a solitary curmudgeon who hates long car trips and cold weather, I went crazy and decided to check out the Sax Zim Bog birding festival. The trip there was fine -- well, despite the fact that I tend to drive like a rabid wolverine hyped up on crystal meth (What? Road rage? Moi?)and I hit the world's thickest fog on the way north... Seriously, Big Foot could have been dancing naked on the side of the road anywhere through Wisconsin, and I wouldn't have seen him through the Pea Soup. Despite this, I managed to get to the U.P. safely, pick up Sunwiggy, and head to Minnesota the next day.

Our trip was uneventful until we got to Duluth. The city looks really cool and I wish I'd had an extra day or two to explore, but it is criss-crossed by some really massive bridges on the highway going through. Personally, I love bridges, but Sunwiggy suffers from gephyrophobia, and as we were approaching this one, a sign announced, "Caution-- High winds."

"Caution?" yelled Sunwiggy. "What kind of sign is that? How on earth can you be cautious of high winds?"

"Think heavy thoughts," I advised. So as we crossed the bridge we mentioned boulders, and concrete, and mountains....

Luckily we were not blown off the bridge, and managed to find our motel in Floodwood and then on to the community center of Meadowlands to register for the festival with only our normal amount of difficulty. Since Sunwiggy is the world's worst navigator and I am usually driving like Mario Andretti while demanding where the bleep is the thing, this can be a challenge for us. But we did find it, and then off on the great gray owl trip.

We were on "Bus A," bouncing and jouncing through the gloaming in search of great gray owls (a couple of times we hit bumps in the road that made me think I'd need to get my spine adjusted as soon as the trip was over), the birds were few and far between, although I did get a couple of "lifers," a northern shrike and a ruffed grouse...and then...a great gray owl! Not only did we see a great gray owl, but we had a terrifically long look at it, peering from side to side, occasionally flying from one perch to another. This sighting alone was worth the trip! When the guide announced that we were, in fact, the first group to actually find one of these owls on the Great Gray Owl trip, we burst into a triumphant chant, "Bus A! Bus A! Bus A!"
(Unfortunately, my photos, taken through the bus window, did not turn out...oh well, I saw it, and that's the important thing!)

With this great start, I was happy to be on Bus A once more the following morning, for the Sax Zim Bog tour. The first feeder we stopped at had great views of black-capped chickadees, pine siskins, and a life bird for me, pine grosbeaks, male and female shown below (the male is red).

Further down the road, after a few views of rough-legged hawks, common ravens, and ruffed grouse eating buds from the trees, we stopped at another feeder, where we saw an adorable gray jay coming in to collect peanut butter, probably to "cache" it for his or her young, as gray jays nest very early and need a large larder to prepare for their family. I'd seen gray jays once before (see my previous post, "Gray Jays and not much else"), but this was an extra special view:

I also got a few more life birds, including common redpolls:

And a boreal chickadee:

Several old favorites also showed up at the feeders, including a red-breasted nuthatch:

And a hairy woodpecker. I especially love how she is using her tail as a prop while she is feeding:

You can tell males and females apart because the males have a red patch on the back of the head.

I love one of the terms used to describe these northern birds--enigmatic. An enigma is, of course, a mystery, something unknown, and the irruptive patterns of these irregular migrants of the north are, indeed, a bit of a mystery. More than that, the word "enigmatic" captures so beautifully my whole image of the north: rugged, snow-covered landscapes, vast lakes and boreal forests, an immense empty landscape, the sky above huge and studded with stars. It is an archetypal image, conjuring up not only personal memories but also something much vaster.

I am not sure where this image comes from, but I certainly touched upon in on my Minnesota adventure. There was an emptiness, a spaciousness, about the landscape I traveled through, an absolute quality to the darkness, that I have not experienced in a very long time. And make no mistake about it, I fell in love....

Meanwhile, the Sax Zim Bog trip continued, and I got another couple of life birds, including a black blacked woodpecker and a northern hawk owl. After brief glimpses of each, the group walked down a logging road, where longer looks at both species were to be had.

The next day, Sunwiggy and I boarded Bus A for the Aikin County bus tour. We saw sharp-tailed grouse dancing on their lek, not only a life bird but a precious sight, as the males puffed themselves out, raising their tails and charging at each other. This was lovely to see just for itself, and also reminded me of the prairie chickens that Sunwiggy and I saw last year (see previous posts Who Put the F in Effingham and "Sunrise on the prairie chickens").

Another exciting moment was crossing the Mississippi River, hardly anything to speak of this far north. It was, in fact, completely iced over, and in use as a snow mobile trail. It has been a dream of mine for several years to follow the Mississippi from its source to the delta, to do a travel piece involving experience, history and birds--and this was the closest I've ever gotten to the source. Since I wasn't expecting it, crossing the Mississippi was quite a pleasant surprise.

Other than these moments, the Aitkin County trip was just a lot of jostling along with nothing to show for it. We dipped out on the two species I was hoping for, black-billed magpie and bohemian waxwing, and nobody has seen evening grosbeaks this year. Well, you can't force the birds to appear.

Overall, I would definitely recommend the Sax Zim Bog birding festival, with the following caveats: yes, it is cold (and we never hit sub-zero on this trip), and there is a lack of flexibility--and a certain amount of putting up with annoying people--on any group tour--but overall, the guides were enthusiastic, knowledgeable and friendly, I got eleven life birds, and I really enjoyed the austere beauty of the North. If you really know your birds and feel comfortable finding them on your own, go for it... Otherwise, if you are intrigued by the enigma of the North, this festival is worth checking out.


  1. I love the photo series of the gray jay taking the peanut butter, and all of the photos. The Sax-Zim bog is certainly the opposite of: "there is no there, there." It has such a strong presence, and I like knowing it is home to wolves, coyotes, lynx, and weasels, as well as all of the lovely birds. I'm scheming about how to get back there. Sunwiggy

  2. That festival was a fun one. I was there two years ago. I guess it shouldn't be surprising given the irruptive nature of northern winter birds, but the birds we saw were slightly different. I didn't see a Rough-legged or Great Gray (I think only one was seen all weekend, and not on a festival trip). But I did get my first Evening Grosbeaks and Hoary Redpoll.

    I guess that just means we need to go back!

    And while it was cold, it really wasn't that unbearable, and that's coming from a southerner who can't stand the cold.

  3. Yeah, I agree--totally need to go back! I'll be dwelling on those evening grosbeaks, bohemian waxwings, and black-billed magpies I didn't see until I do. For me (I have some thyroid issues and am especially susceptible to cold) I did suffer a bit but the beautiful landscape and wonderful birds made it completely worthwhile!