Birding the Bog! Sax-Zim in Minnesota

It’s been a relatively “birdy” winter in South Dakota. We’ve had really high numbers of winter finches. I’ve certainly never had more Pine Siskins at my Feeders, and I’ve also had Common Redpolls in my yard for only the third time ever. Both White-winged and Red Crossbills have also been around in select locations (always a rarity). It’s been a GREAT year for Snowy Owls across the northern U.S., and while normally I have to travel to the central or northern parts of South Dakota to see them, I came across three different Snowy Owls within 15 miles of home this winter!

A pretty good winter, given how bleak birding can be in South Dakota at this time of year, but I still had the birding itch to see “more”.  All winter long, I had pondered making the long trip to Sax-Zim Bog in northern Minnesota to look for owls and other boreal “goodies”, but kept putting it off. It IS a long jaunt and requires a hefty time commitment…a six+ hour drive from home.  This weekend was going to be my last chance to make the trip before the winter ended, so I finally pulled the trigger on a trip. It’s SUCH a special birding location and one where I want to get the most of my few chances to visit, so much to the bewilderment of my wife, I decided to leave a 2:00 AM Saturday to maximize the my birding time in the area.  The forecast called for a gloomy, gray Saturday…PERFECT for owling.

The forecast was wrong. Saturday was gorgeous and sunny, with temperatures over 40 degrees.  Not great for the owls who seem to be less active on such days. After getting up so early and driving so far, I was a bit disheartened after birding the entire day Saturday. The only owl I had seen was a Northern Hawk Owl from a very long distance. I’ll never complain about seeing a Northern Hawk Owl, given how few and far opportunities are to see the species in the lower 48 states, but it was a slow and overall disappointing day nonetheless.

Sunday made up for it. A gloomy, gray day, it certainly did seem to bring out the owls, and I had decent luck with other species as well.  Great Gray Owls are one of the big draws for birders in the Bog, and I was able to see three on Sunday, including one at very close range. Two more Northern  Hawk Owls (none very close), plenty of Gray Jays, Ruffed Grouse and Sharp-tailed Grouse, Evening and Pine Grosbeaks, and even a glimpse of a Pine Marten that had been visiting a feeder complex in the area…it ended up being a wonderful day of birding!  I struck out on a couple of target birds…Three-toed and Black-backed Woodpecker…but that just gives me an excuse to make the trip again next winter!  Below are a few photos from the day.

Great Gray Owl - Strix nebulosa

The best photo opportunity of the day was this Great Gray Owl. Evidently he had been actively feeding for a few days alongside “Owl Avenue” (aptly named!). It was about 10 o’clock in the morning when I found him, and while I didn’t get to see him catch or eat anything, I was able to get some nice photos and video. Another photographer who was there told me that he had already caught 4 voles that morning! The same photographer said he was watching the Great Gray the evening before, and it surprisingly went after a muskrat! That’s a VERY large prey item for a Great Gray, but evidently he was able to catch it and somehow swallow it whole.

Great Gray Owl - Strix nebulosa

A Great Gray Owl relaxing at the back of a forest clearing. I ended up watching him for over an hour, and he never left this perch. He spent most of that time preening, not actively looking for prey.

Northern Hawk Owl - Surnia ulula

Not the greatest photo in the world, but it does convey what all of my Northern Hawk Owl sightings were like on this trip! I came across three different Northern Hawk Owls, but alas, all of them were some distance away. Given the rarity of a Northern Hawk Owl in the lower 48 states, I will DEFINITELY take it though!

Gray Jay - Perisoreus canadensis

Photo of a Gray Jay, one of my favorite species to watch.  It seemed like every time I came across the species, it was a pair of birds, and one pair was clearly collecting nesting material as I watched them.  

Hairy Woodpecker -  Leuconotopicus villosus

Not the woodpecker I was after, but I’ll take it. I was looking for Black-backed and Three-toed Woodpeckers, two species that were supposedly around in decent numbers this winter, but I struck out on both. One of the things that’s really changed about Sax-Zim Bog since I first went there 14 years ago is the number of feeder complexes that local residents have set up. This guy was on a long-established feeder complex along Admiral Road, but there are now at least a dozen such areas scattered throughout the bog. Given the warm, pleasant weather when I was there, activity at the feeders was pretty slow, but I still was able to see Evening Grosbeaks, Pine Grosbeaks, Common Redpoll, Gray Jays, and several other species.

Northern Hawk Owl - Surnia ulula

NOT from this trip, but a better representation of a Northern Hawk Owl from Sax-Zim Bog. This was from my very first trip to Sax-Zim Bog during the famed owl irruption of the winter of 2004/2005. My introduction to the Bog came through a friend at work, who had heard about incredible numbers of northern owls being found in the bog. As someone who had only started birding a few years before, in 2000, I had never seen a Great Gray Owl or Northern Hawk Owl. I was torn about whether to go or not, as I didn’t know what my chances actually were to see an owl, and it IS a hefty time commitment to drive 6 hours there and back. I did decide to spend 2 days there though in December 2004, and it remains the greatest birding trip of my life! On that first day, I saw over THIRTY Great Gray Owls, and nearly the same number of Northern Hawk Owls! This was one of the first Northern Hawk Owls I found, and the first photos of the species that I’d ever taken. It definitely remains the best series of Northern Hawk Owl photos I have! This guy was sitting at eye level in a low bush, RIGHT next to the road. He was incredibly tolerant of my presence, and I had him to myself for well over an hour as I watched (and photographed) him from extremely close range. How close? I was in my car, not wanting to get out and disturb him, and found that I was actually too close for my camera lens to focus! My Canon 400 mm lens has a minimum focusing distance of about 12 feet, and I was only about 10 feet away as I watched him! To capture the photos I actually scooted over to the passenger seat, before returning to the driver’s seat and watching him preen, sleep, and generally ignore me over the next hour. One of the most magical birding moments of my life, and this photo more than other shows why I’ve continued to return to the Bog every few years since 2004!!!

The Ultimate “Yard Bird” for New Mexico Birder

Hoary Redpoll - Acanthis hornemanni

My best yard bird, a Hoary Redpoll that showed up 2 years ago and stuck around for several weeks. A great yard bird, but it doesn’t top Joe Fitzgibbon’s new bird.

Do you have a yard list?  A lot of birders keep a yard list, a tally of the different species they’ve seen or heard in their yard.  With the advent of eBird and the ease of entering bird sightings on my iPhone, iPad, or desktop, it’s awfully easy to keep track of a yard list, or other area list. I really didn’t ever formally keep ANY list, until I started entering bird reports in eBird.  Now I not only know how many species I’ve seen in my yard, but I also know how many I’ve seen in Minnehaha County, South Dakota, and the U.S. as a whole.  A handy tool that made a “lister”  out of a non-lister in myself!

My yard list isn’t all that fantastic. I only have 52 species.  We’ve lived in our house for 8 years now, so 52 species isn’t all that impressive.  It’s a new house, with landscaping I myself put in 8 years ago when we built the house. Without mature landscaping and bigger trees, you do limit the species you can find!  I do have a few nice “yard birds” though.  There’s an active Bald Eagle nest just a mile from my house, and it’s not rare to see one of them soaring overhead. When we first built the house and moved in, it was an incredibly rainy September and there were no other houses built around us yet.  there was a Lesser Yellowlegs in the muddy pools in the backyard.  Nice to get a shorebird in a suburban backyard!  The best yard bird was from 2 winters ago though.  I’d never had Common Redpolls in the yard, and it was a tremendous winter for Redpolls across the region.  I had a group of about a dozen Redpolls regularly visiting when one day, my young son looked out at the feeder and said “what’s the white one”?  It was a Hoary Redpoll, a real rarity, and a bird that really stood out from his “common” cousins. A great yard bird, and one that several folks came over to see.

An even better yard bird happened to land in the back yard of a good birding friend from work.  Alas, it happened before I became a birder and I never saw it, but he had birders flock to his yard from across the region to see the mega-rarity.  A lifetime birder who had never seen a Great Grey Owl, my friend looked out one winter, and lo-and-behold, a Great Grey Owl was perched in his backyard.  Why is this better than my very rare Hoary Redpoll?  Up until my friend’s backyard visitor, the ONLY Great Grey Owl ever seen in South Dakota was a dead one that was found.  His was the first live bird ever seen in the state, and to this day it remains the only Great Grey Owl seen in South Dakota.

The Hoary Redpoll was a nice addition to my yard list, and the Great Grey Owl certainly was a highlight for my friend, but neither can touch the new yard bird from Joe Fitzgibbon in New Mexico.  An avid birder, he had recently made a trip to the Grand Canyon in Arizona to try and spot a California Condor.  He didn’t have any luck.  A little while later, while at home, he saw a very large bird land in his backyard.  It was…you guessed it…a California Condor!! It was the first Condor seen in New Mexico in likely over a century. Not a bad yard bird!  In the pecking order of great yard birds, I’d say Fitzgibbon’s Condor trumps my Hoary Redpoll and my friend’s Great Grey Owl!!

That’s part of the excitement of birding.  You never know what you may find when you venture out on a birding trip.  And on occasion, just a casual glance out the kitchen window might yield the surprise of a lifetime.

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