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!!!

2018 SuperB Owl Winners – Top 10

It was a long year of hard work and dedication, with participants from across the country vying to win the ultimate prize on SuperB Owl Sunday. Would it be the established veteran, winning yet another title? Or perhaps a young, local upstart?  Fans from across the country enjoyed a heck of a competition, but a winner was finally crowned.

With that, here are the final rankings in this year’s SuperB Owl competition!  The young underdog scored upset after upset in the final playoffs, winning the title in a closely contested match. Congrats to this year’s SuperB Owl winner…a winking Northern Saw-whet Owl, taken at Newton Hills State Park in South Dakota!!

Northern Saw-whet Owl - Aegolius acadicus

Northern Saw-whet Owl – Newton Hills, South Dakota – 41 (quite arbitrary) points

Snowy Owl - Bubo scandiacus

2nd place – Yawning Snowy Owl – Near Sioux Falls, South Dakota – 33 points

Long-eared Owl - Asio otus

3rd Place – Long-eared Owl – Big Sioux Recreation Area, South Dakota – 30 points

Northern Hawk Owl - Surnia ulula

4th place – Northern Hawk Owl – Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota – 28 points

Elf Owl - Micrathene whitneyi

5th place – Elf Owl – Near Tucson, Arizona – 25 points

Short-eared Owl - Asio flammeus

6th place – Short-eared Owl – Minnehaha County, South Dakota – 20 points

Burrowing Owl - Athene cunicularia

7th Place – Burrowing Owl – Near Brandon, South Dakota – 15 points

Great Grey Owl - Strix nebulosa

8th place – Great Grey Owl – Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota – 12 points

Eastern Screech Owl - Megascops asio

9th place – Eastern Screech Owl – Sioux Falls, South Dakota – 10 points

Barred Owl - Strix varia

10th place – Barred Owl – Newton Hills State Park, South Dakota – 7 points

SuperB owl Sunday!!

I hear there was a football game today.  I don’t really care about the NFL, but that was the rumor.  What I HAVE been made aware of is that this is SuperB Owl Sunday.  I love owls. Many of my most memorable photos over the years have been of owls.  So with that…some of my favorite owl photos in honor of SuperB Owl Sunday!

Snowy Owl - Bubo scandiacus

This photo of a yawning Snowy Owl was a surprisingly easy “catch”. I’ve seen Snowy Owls on a number of occasions in the central part of the state, but only a couple of times near home. This one hung out in a busy area on the west side of Sioux Falls a few winters ago.

Northern Saw-whet Owl - Aegolius acadicus

As opposed to the Snowy Owl above, an “easy” catch, this is one I had to really work for. People always suspected there were Northern Saw-whet Owls around Sioux Falls in winter. They’re hard to find though, given that they like to roost in thick evergreen stands during the day. 2 years ago I spent many winter days looking through thick stands of cedar trees. After about a month of looking, I finally started finding some, including this beauty that gave me a uncharacteristically uncluttered view.

Elf Owl - Micrathene whitneyi

We LOVE Arizona. We’ve visited a number of times, and one species I always wanted to see was an Elf Owl, the smallest owl in North America. There was a massive saguaro cactus at our favorite B&B outside of Tucson, one where Elf Owls were known to nest. One morning on vacation, I got up before dawn, and was rewarded with an incredible opportunity when this little guy flew in and landed in a bush at the base of the nest saguaro. He stared at me from incredibly close range for about a minute, before fluttering up into the nest hole.

Northern Hawk Owl - Surnia ulula

One of the most wonderful bird or wildlife experiences I’ve ever had. About 10 years ago, northern Minnesota saw an unprecedented “irruption” of northern owls moving into the are in the winter. I made the long drive to Sax-Zim Bog northwest of Duluth to find them. This is a Northern Hawk Owl, a very rare find in the lower 48 states, but on this trip I saw over 30. This one was sitting in a bush next to a gravel road. I watched him from 10 feet away for half an hour, with him even nodding off and falling asleep at times. Wonderful experience, and still the only place I’ve ever seen Northern Hawk Owls.

Great Gray Owl - Strix nebulosa

From the same trip as the Northern Hawk Owl above, a Great Grey Owl resting on a snowy tree branch. Beautiful, massive owls, I saw over 30 of these guys as well on that trip. Sax-Zim Bog also remains the only place I’ve ever seen this species.

Long-eared Owl - Asio otus

10 years ago in November, my young son and I were taking a walk in the Big Sioux Recreation Area, a State Park across the street from where we live. As we were walking through park, suddenly a pair of large owls flushed from the cover of a cedar tree along the side of the road. We continued walking, and we found more…and more…and more. They were Long-eared Owls, and at times during the November and December, there were up to 18 individuals roosting in the cedar trees in one small part of the park. I’ve seen the species on occasion outside of that winter, but in every case, they’ve been very “spooky” and shy. What made this large group of owls so remarkable is how incredibly tame they were. They allowed very close approach and photographs for two months, before slowly disappearing as the heart of winter hit.

Short-eared Owl - Asio flammeus

It always pays to have your camera with you, even during short trips as mundane as the drive to and from work. One winter day I was driving home from work, taking gravel roads as I often do, and I came across this lone Short-eared Owl sitting on a fence post. It’s a species I have seen many times on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands and elsewhere in the central and western part of South Dakota, but I’d never seen one around Sioux Falls.

Eastern Screech Owl - Megascops asio

Our most common owl in southeastern South Dakota is the Eastern Screech Owl, a species that is often found right in the heart of urban areas, provided large trees and nesting cavities are available. The vast majority in our part of South Dakota are the “Gray morph”, but on one birding trip east of my home town of Brandon, I ran into this gorgeous red morph. There’s obviously a little genetic pool of red-morph Eastern Screech Owls in that area, because since this day I have seen several other red-morph owls.

Burrowing Owl - Athene cunicularia

This is the cover photo on my blog, so of course I must include it! This inquisitive yet shy little guy is a Burrowing Owl. I found him on Antelope Island, near the Great Salt Lake outside of Salt Lake City. One of my favorite photos of all time.

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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