Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Back to the Bog: Second trip to Sax Zim

Great gray owl

Sometimes I don't know what gets into me. Why would someone who hates the cold as much as I do decide to go to northern Minnesota in February not once, but twice? Well, as any North American birder probably knows, the reason is...rare northern species, like the one below.

Ooops!! Wrong photo!

Anyway, as I was saying...like the one below:

Gray jay

I had already been to the Sax Zim Bog Birding Festival once before, a couple of years ago, and I had such a good time that I decided to return this year. Once again, I invited my birding buddy, my mother "Sunwiggy," along with me. The real question is why she wanted to go again, as she lives in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and doubtless gets her fill of winter weather. Common redpolls are no thrill to her; they come right to her feeder. But once again, she was up for the adventure.

Everyone else I know thought I was crazy, but that's normal.

So I drove north, then more north, then even further north, picked up Sunwiggy in Michigan, and the two of us headed towards Duluth. We decided to go a day early to scope out the territory for ourselves before the actual festival began.

I had the same reaction as always: "Look at the piles of snow everywhere, glittering in the sun, hanging from the pines! Cool! Why don't I live somewhere like this? I want to buy a pair of snowshoes and jump around in it all day long!" Besides anticipation about the great birds we'd hopefully see, Sunwiggy, on the other hand, seemed to have no reaction at all.

First Day -- On Our Own

After arriving in Duluth, we headed north on Scenic Highway 61 along Lake Superior, hoping for boreal owl in particular, as a slew of them had been seen there recently. We drove past the spots where reports had been logged several times, enjoying the scenery, and finding a few species -- crows, ravens, one first year male common goldeneye, a pair of red-breasted mergansers, and a lone American tree sparrow -- but no owls, so we decided to go to Two Harbors and check the water for some water birds, like scoters, and the streets of the town for Bohemian waxwings.

In anticipation of a brisk winter walk, Sunwiggy got out her self-heating "hot hands" and shook them a few times to activate the warmth. I have no idea what's in those things, but soon became better acquainted with it, as one of the "hot hands" had a hole in it and when she shook it, some of the black, gritty material flew right into my eye.

You know that skit in Monty Python and the Holy Grail where the guy has his arm chopped off and, even as blood is spurting all over the place, he keeps insisting, "It's just a flesh wound?" Well, I am so the opposite of that. In fact, most of the next hour involved my rinsing my eye out with cold bottled water and insisting that I'd been blinded. Despite this set back, we did eventually make it to Two Harbors. There were a lot of herring gulls and one red-breasted merganser in the water, and a stroll along the streets revealed house sparrows, black-capped chickadees, one starling, and a sharp-shinned hawk.

Somewhere in all of this my husband called to see how we were getting on, and I announced bitterly, "It's cold as f@%k!" He said he had no sympathy for me. I was starting to agree with all the people who said that a winter trip to Minnesota was madness.

On the way back to Duluth, we spotted a large crowd of people clustered by the side of the road, cars parked willy-nilly along the shoulder. Since these people were equipped with binoculars and cameras, we joined them, creeping up and asking, "What do you have?"

Boreal owl!


This made up for the indignity suffered by my eyeball and the unproductive walk in the cold, and good spirits were once again restored as we admired the owl and then made our way back to Duluth and our hotel, eager to get to bed early in order to be well-rested for:

Day Two: The Pre-Festival Trip to Lake County

There was a bit of a hitch the next morning as we gathered at the Birding Festival rendez-vous point and discovered that the organizers had over-estimated the number of people who could squeeze into the van. Some people volunteered to follow behind in their own vehicles, thus allowing room for the rest of us in the vans, but it was still cramped quarters for the trip. (One of the festival organizers later announced that they would learn from this and not try to fit fifteen people into the vans again, so this problem should be cleared up in the future.)

My main goal for this trip was spruce grouse. I have been trying to get this species for years, every time I go up to visit my parents; and every time, they drive me around the countryside pointing out all the locations where they had seen a grouse at some point in the past. I would not say that the spruce grouse had quite reached nemesis status, but it was getting close. One more failed attempt and I'd have to put it on the nemesis list.

We saw several great gray owls, including one perching on a street sign, plus gray jays and pine grosbeaks, but it was looking like I'd have to go home grouse-less once again. Luckily, the guides decided to make one more pass along the highway where grouse were likely, and this time we had success!

Spruce grouse

I didn't get any good photos, but had great looks with the help of someone's spotting scope, and it was a happy moment all around. As I was admiring the grouse, another festival-goer asked if I'd seen any phalaropes lately. It took my brain a couple of moments to catch up, but I soon recognized a fellow central Illinois birder, who I'd last seen in early fall as we went in search of shorebirds, so I was definitely not the only one who'd decided to migrate north for a few days.

On the way back, someone called the tour guide with the news that several long-tailed ducks had been seen in Two Harbors, but as most of the birders were more interested in boreal owl, we skipped that bird to search for the owl instead. Since I'd just seen a boreal owl the day before, and long-tailed duck would be a "lifer," I was a bit disappointed, but as Mr. Spock said, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one, so owls it was.

The day summed up with the Great Gray Owl Trip in the evening (which produced no species at all for my van, but with two life birds under my belt already, I wasn't complaining), then dinner and a humorous presentation about an amorous spruce grouse.

Day Two: The Sax Zim Bog Tour

My last trip to Sax Zim Bog had netted me eleven life birds. I wasn't expecting that sort of tally on a second trip, but was really hoping for two species that had eluded me before, evening grosbeak and black-billed magpie.

The evening grosbeak was found right away, as a lone male was enjoying the Friends of Sax Zim Bog feeders, in the company of many pine grosbeaks, black-capped chickadees and common redpolls. Unfortunately, he was all the way in the back and took off shortly after we arrived, but I got a satisfactory look.

The other target species, the magpie, also did not disappoint, as we saw three individuals flying around the bog area. Once again, I was unable to obtain a photo, but it was turning out to be a good day indeed. Other birds seen around the bog were northern shrike, snow bunting (perching in a tree, which everyone agreed was unusual behavior), gray jay, hairy and downy woodpecker, boreal chickadee, rough-legged hawk, bald eagle, common raven, and brown creeper. As at my previous trip to the bog, the best photo opportunities were to be had at the Admiral Road feeders, where the birds seemed completely oblivious to the large crowd of admirers.

pine grosbeak
snow buntings
Two black capped chickadees share a perch with a common redpoll
Brown creeper is on the tree to the right
Although no great gray owls were seen on this trip, to the disappointment of those who had missed the Lake County excursion the day before, we did get another look at a boreal.

another boreal owl
Despite all the great birds we were seeing, Sunwiggy was getting testy by the end of the day since her long hair kept rubbing against her jacket collar and getting massive tangles. After she'd been complaining about it for a while, I asked, "Well, what do you want me to do about it, cut it off?"

"Would you?" she asked.

"Sure, but you are aware that I'm not a stylist, right? I mean, I've never even cut anyone's hair before, but if you really want me to, I'll do it."

This disclaimer did not faze her in the slightest, and so I grabbed the scissors and, right by the feeders as we went back on our own before dinner, I chopped off her hair. Later, in the hotel room, I evened it all out around her neck, and I will say that, while by no means a professional job, her impromptu hair cut did not turn out half bad. At any rate, she is still speaking to me.

As we drove back to the community center for dinner, we went through patches of fog hanging in sheets over the bog. As the sun began to set, with the layers of fog over the road, the atmosphere of the bog became secretive. It really is an intriguing landscape, and one I would love to spend more time in (especially when it's a bit warmer).

Day Three: the Duluth Trip

For the final day of the festival, we had picked the tour of Duluth and the surrounding areas, which included another ride up to Two Harbors. I really wanted long-tailed ducks, but since ice had formed all along the lake in the two days since we'd been here last, I wasn't feeling very hopeful.

On the way up, we encountered not one, but three, great gray owls, which was an especial treat to the birders who had yet to see one.

Great gray owl
I enjoyed the great looks at these beautiful birds, but am embarrassed to admit, since it was the last day of the festival, I was developing a bit of a hard-core lister's mentality. I wanted life birds and I wanted them now! In particular, I was starting to feel bitter about missing out on the long-tailed ducks, as it appeared that the area they'd been found was encased in ice now.

Luckily, a stop at the harbor revealed a large pool of open water, and in it was a flock of about twelve long-tailed ducks. I joined the brave souls who slid out over the ice-covered navigation wall to get a closer look, where I not only got to see them up close and personal, I also heard them vocalizing to each other. Unfortunately, I didn't take the camera, but I can still remember them as well as if I'd shot a dozen photos. In fact, I think that this was probably my favorite moment from the whole festival.

We headed back to Duluth, getting a view of a northern hawk owl along the way.

Northern hawk owl

This was the first day that it was overcast and windy, so I actually took that photo from the bus window. As per usual when I visit the north in winter, my initial wonderment over the snow had been replaced by the conviction that it's a nice place to visit but there is no way I could live somewhere where it is so cold for so long. In fact, as the bus headed for Canal Park, the local people I saw on the sidewalks all looked pretty cold and miserable.

Canal Park gave us a large flock of common goldeneyes. No amount of searching would reveal a Barrow's in the mix, so we soon boarded back up to head for Superior, WI.

Common goldeneyes
In Superior, we found one snowy owl by the airport, and another perched on the roof of a building in an industrial park.

Head of a snowy owl
Up till now, we'd been birding in very picturesque, natural areas. The coastline along Lake Superior is worthy of a postcard photo, and the bog is also quite lovely in its own way. But when birds are looking for suitable habitat to hang out in, pretty scenery isn't one of their requirements, so this trip provided a contrast by taking us to some more gritty-looking areas.

The last stop was downright stinky, as we crossed the river back into Duluth and pulled up at the sewage plant to look for gulls, where I got two more life birds, glaucous gull and great black-backed gull.

All in all, a very satisfactory trip, and the only bird I'd really been hoping for that I'd missed was the bohemian waxwing. I reassured myself that I had one more day to look for them, as originally I'd planned to spend an extra day with my parents in Michigan.

We got back to their house in Calumet safely, and I rose the next morning ready for one last day in the north, only to have my plans dashed by the weather report. The forecast was calling for snow and wind starting in the evening an on into the next day (my day to drive back), so with regret, I decided to head back early.

The return trip involved getting sidetracked in Wisconsin after missing one of my turns, hitting Madison right at rush hour, and then suffering through sheets of freezing rain starting at the Illinois state line. It was one of those trips from hell where I didn't think I would ever get home safely, but through it all, the memory of long-tailed ducks, calling to each other in the icy harbor, made me glad that I had done it.