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!!!

(Not So) Great Backyard Bird Count 2017

Red-bellied Woodpecker (male)

The male Red-bellied Woodpecker who almost religiously comes to my suet feeders several times a day. Today? Not once did I see him. So went my first ever participatory day in the “Great Backyard Bird Count”, where the usuals didn’t show up, but the (global warming induced) goose migration made up for it.

If you know me at all, you know that I’m not the most social of birders.  In fact, I’m probably the least social birder you know, in that it’s extremely rare for me to go birding with another person, join in group events, or participate in group activities. That extends to things like the Christmas Bird Count, Breeding Bird Survey, or other yearly events.  No, for me, my birding is “me” time.  It’s my time to relish the outdoors, to relish the solitude, to enjoy it all on my own terms.

I’ve never participated in the Great Backyard Bird Count either. But today, I had a lazy day at home, with stuff I wanted to do on my office computer upstairs.  For the first time ever, I thus did an official count for the GBBC, seeing what I could from my 2nd floor window, and also occasionally checking the feeders in the backyard. The weather?  60+ degrees, and brilliantly sunny for most of the day!  That’s in South Dakota…in mid-February!  Not usual weather, and NOT the usual day for birds in my yard.

For one, most feeder birds weren’t around.  For a birder, winter in South Dakota might as well be known as “Junco Season”, as it sometimes seems like Dark-eyed Juncos are the only species that are around here in winter.  Today however, in the beautiful weather?  Not a single Junco to be found.  When it was colder in December and early January, the one thing I could count on at my feeders were hordes of American Goldfinches, sometimes with over 50 fighting for a spot at the thistle feeder, or waiting in a nearby tree.  Today?  6 Goldfinches.  Even House Sparrows, the ubiquitous little bastards that love to come in hordes and wipe out my sunflower feeder, were curiously absent. The only ones I saw were 5 hanging out and taking a sun bath on the bushes in the front yard this afternoon.

While it wasn’t a great day for feeder birds, and certainly not a typical WINTER day at my feeders, the sheer quantity of birds was likely much higher than I’d ever normally get during a GBBC, thanks to the warm weather and all the geese already moving through.  They usually say February 14th, right around Valentine’s Day, is the start of the Sandhill Crane and waterfowl migration down in Nebraska along the Platte in the spring, yet here we sit on February 19th, and scads of Snow Geese, Canada Geese, and Greater White-fronted Geese are migrating through the area already. If I were to have sat outside and counted all the geese flocks that went overhead, I’m positive I would have been well over 1,000 individuals.  As it was, I only counted flocks that went over this morning, when I could have my office window open and not be blinded by the afternoon sun.

Totals for the feeders and yard?  Just a little over 20 birds, of ALL kinds, and that’s even with me looking at the feeders at least 20 times during the course of the day.  Totals for geese flying overhead?  In the time I watched this morning, 275 was my best estimate.  Here’s the breakdown from the day:

  • Canada Goose — 150 — I would bet this is an underestimate, but I didn’t want to double-count those that hang out by the river across the street, so only counted the low-flying ones once, and kept the rest of the count to those high-flying flocks going overhead. I also avoided counting all the flocks I could see that were too far away for me to get a positive ID.
  • White-fronted Goose — 75 — Mostly in two flocks that went over, but also a scattered few in a flock of Canada Geese
  • Snow Goose — 50 — I saw several very large flocks of Snow Geese last Thursday, when I took a trip for work up to Brookings. Today? Just one flock of about 50 birds.
  • Downy Woodpecker – 3 — Again, not wanting to double-count, since the same ones keep coming back all day.  These 3 represent the one time I looked out and saw 3 Downy’s at once.
  • Hairy Woodpecker — 2 — I have a wonderful, usually pretty shy, male and female pair of Hairy Woodpeckers that often come to the feeders.  I remember how much I struggled with ID’s when I first started birding, including trying to distinguish Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers.  Now?  Hairy Woodpeckers always look MASSIVE to me, compared to the little Downy’s, with bills that are so much longer.
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker — 1 — We have both male and female Red-bellied Woodpeckers that come to the feeders, and usually I see them from my upstairs office as they fly across the street from the State Park over to my feeders.  Today, I just saw the female once, and no male.
  • American Crow — 4 — 1 fly-by over the house, 3 chattering on a roof across the street.
  • Blue Jay – 1 — Again, a species I normally get quite a bit in the winter, but on a slow, gorgeously warm February day, only one today.
  • Northern Cardinals — 2–  Dawn and dusk, particularly dusk, are the times I normally see both a male and female at my safflower feeder.  Always together, never just one of them, as least during the winter months.  They made an appearance this morning for a while.
  • American Goldfinch — 6 – Numbers have gone WAY down since the weather turned all “southern California” on us.  I used to have to fill my big tube feeder with thistle/niger seed at least every 2 days, but not lately.
  • House Sparrow — 5 — OK, this one I’m not too upset about. If I put out sunflower seeds, these guys LIVE in the bushes in my front yard, and then come back to the feeders to occasionally gorge.  I was getting rather sick of the horde of House Sparrows, so stopped putting out sunflower, and instead started using just safflower at that feeder.  Keeps the Cardinals, but the House Sparrows don’t like it and stay away.  Only ones I saw were in the front yard this morning, a far cry from the 40+ that would often flock to my feeders in December.
  • American Robin – 1 — A late entry!! I was starting the grill (yes, the GRILL, in FEBRUARY, in SOUTH DAKOTA) as I was preparing this blog post, and I heard and then saw a Robin chirping away.  Singing Robins! In South Dakota, in winter!!


Done, and entering now in eBird!  A semi-social birding contribution, by the biggest “loner” birder there is!

The return of Clyde

Cooper's Hawk - Accipiter cooperii

“Clyde” the Cooper’s Hawk, giving me the evil eye for daring to question his presence in my back yard. Perhaps it’s not me, perhaps he’s upset for another reason. He had just attempted to catch a House Sparrow at my feeders, and failed. Given the remains of feathers I’m increasingly finding in my yard this winter, it’s clear that he also succeeds quite a bit.

It almost seems like a horrible nightmare, looking back on our life one year ago.  We were living a happy, blissful life in the suburbs when he appeared.   “Clyde” terrorized our back yard, suddenly appearing when you least expected him, wreaking havoc and sewing fear. We had nightmares of a lifetime of Clyde appearances, fearing the phantom menace that would dominate our very existence.  However we were lucky (or so we thought).  We thought we had escaped the horrors of Clyde when he disappeared as suddenly he initially appeared, granting us many months of Clyde-free bliss. We thought we’d never again have to worry about Clyde.

We were wrong.

Clyde.  Is.  BACK.

Clyde made his reappearance on Thanksgiving Day.  A peaceful Thanksgiving dinner was interrupted by the sudden flurry of activity in the back yard, with songbirds scattering and fleeing for their lives while Clyde came roaring through the yard, looking for an easy meal.  Clyde (so named when he first appeared in our yard last year) is a Cooper’s Hawk, and he does what Cooper’s Hawks do…chase and eat birds.  We’ve had a bumper crop of House Sparrows this year (never a good thing), as well as a large number of American Goldfinches feeding on our big thistle feeder.  Throw in the ever-present Dark-eyed Juncos, the similarly common Black-capped Chickadees, and periodic visits by Downy Woodpeckers, Hairy Woodpeckers, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Blue Jays, and White-breasted Nuthatches, and Clyde has a veritable buffet of birds from which to choose.

On Thanksgiving day, it was a beautiful male Northern Cardinal that he appeared to key in on.  The first sighting was when a flash of red flew up from the feeders, hovered a moment by the sun room window as it desperately sought escape, and then bolted for cover in the trees in the back of the yard.  Clyde gave it a good try, darting towards the Cardinal by the window (and nearly crashing into it himself), but on that occasion, the prey was the winner.  That’s not always the case.  Clyde is a pretty damned good bird hunter.  Ever since Thanksgiving, there’s been plenty of evidence of his successes, with little piles of feathers generally all that’s left after he’s consumed his catch.

In reality, I like having Clyde around.  I know some people (my wife included) aren’t fond of attracting birds, only to see them serve as prey for predators that attracted to their presence. For me, it’s fascinating watching their interaction, and regardless of whether I have a bird feeder up or not, Clyde is going to hunt and eat birds, and the songbirds that serve as his prey are going to be hunted and eaten.  Circle of life, something which certainly adds to the birding experience in a dreadful, cold, snowy South Dakota winter.

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