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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!!!

Kilauea Lava Videos

I still haven’t had a lot of time to process all the Hawai’i photos and videos, but here are a few videos of some of the lava.  I’m not much of a videographer (doesn’t help that I absolutely hate tripods), but you get the feel for what it’s like.

Visiting a Muslim country, facing your “fear”

Terry - United Arab Emirates

A much younger version of myself, still hanging on to my old heavy-metal days and the long flowing hair. I couldn’t have looked, or acted, more differently than the local population when I spent a month in the United Arab Emirates. It didn’t matter. I was always treated with respect and warmth. People are people. We all want the same things in life.

20 years ago today I landed in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, to do a month’s worth of work in a cooperative exchange with the UAE government. I was young(er), had long flowing hair about a foot long in the back, and had never been overseas before. I was probably the definition of a hippie, obnoxious, clueless American overseas.

During my trip I also visited Oman, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, all countries that are overwhelmingly Muslim. Despite looking and acting MUCH different than the locals, I was treated with kindness, respect, and warmth throughout my trip. The people I dealt with were wonderful, warm, funny…in other words, they were normal human beings trying to live out their lives the best way they knew how. Not once did I feel threatened. Not once did I feel scared. At every opportunity, when I needed help making my way through a day in a strange land, a helping hand was offered.

These are the same people being targeted over the last month. These are the people so many Americans are scared of. They’re not criminals. They’re not terrorists. They’re people who may look a little different than you, may believe in different things than you. They want the same things you want in life…family…health…and happiness.

Put a human face on those you may be suspicious of. Put yourself in THEIR shoes. You may find you have a hell of a lot more in common than you realize.

Abu Dhabi - 7 EmiratesRub Al Khali Desert - United Arab EmiratesUnited Arab Emirates - CamelRub Al Khali Desert - United Arab Emirates

A few more Virgin Islands birds

Mangrove Cuckoo - Coccyzus minor

A Mangrove Cuckoo, one of several I saw and photographed. Nearly every one I came across on St. John’s was NOT in the mangroves, but was in the dry forest scrub that covers much of the island.

I’m just not in a photo processing mood.  Unfortunately, that’s not an uncommon situation.  It’s a bad combination to ALWAYS be in a photo SHOOTING mood, but to rarely be in a photo processing mood.  The result?  A huge backlog of unprocessed photos.  I typically make a directory on my computer where I put a day’s worth of photos, then delete that directory when they’re all processed and the good ones are on my website. Unfortunately right now I have many such directories worth of unprocessed photos!

That even includes a folder of “Virgin Islands birds” I made, from our recent vacation.  I have a number of “new” species” for me that I don’t have on my website, but I haven’t gotten around to processing the photos yet. Here are a few more new species I did this morning.  The highlight of this group for me is the Mangrove Cuckoo.  They’re around in the U.S. itself, with a few lurking in mangrove swamps of southern Florida. I find cuckoos in general to be SO incredibly difficult to try to see. I knew they were on St. John’s Island, the island where we spent our vacation, but I wasn’t really expecting much beyond maybe a brief glimpse, or just hearing them but not seeing them.

Gray Kingbird - Tyrannus dominicensis

A photo of a Gray Kingbird observing his domain from a natural perch. These guys were everywhere, but the problem was trying to get a photo of one that wasn’t hanging out on an electric line.

Fortunately the Mangrove Cuckoos on St. John’s were the most visible cuckoo population I’ve seen!  The first one I heard on the trip was in deed in the heart of a mangrove swamp, but their real stronghold on the island is in the dry scrubby forest that dominates much of the landscape.  They may be a well-named species in much of their range, but they were definitely more common in dry scrub on St. John’s than they were in the Mangrove swamps.  I was able to get wonderful views of a number of different cuckoos, and it seemed on nearly every drive across the island, at some point one would fly across the road.

Another highly visible species on the island were Gray Kingbirds.  If there was any kind of relatively decent-sized patch of open land on the island, you could almost guarantee there would be a Gray Kingbird or two looking out over the landscape from a high perch.  The most common sight was of a Gray Kingbird sitting on a telephone/electric wire, but towards the end of the trip I was able to get some really nice photos of Gray Kingbirds hanging out on natural vegetation.

Zenaida Dove - Zenaida aurita

Zenaida Doves were extremely common on the island. GIven their similarity to our own very common Mourning Doves, I almost forgot to try to grab a few photos before we left!

The third “new” species I processed today was the Zenaida Dove.  This one generally falls into the category of “missed opportunity” from a photographic standpoint!  They were extremely common on the island, basically the ecological equivalent of the ubiquitous Mourning Doves we have around here in the summer.  They were most common in around settlements, but were found in nearly every habitat on the island.  Because they were such a common sight, I kept passing on very easy photo opportunities, waiting instead for a chance at the more “exotic” hummingbird or other species.  Before I knew it, the trip was almost over and I had no Zenaida Dove photos!  I managed a few rather boring photos of Zenaida Doves walking across an open lot, but I definitely felt like I missed many chances to get some nicer photos of the species.

3 species processed…and now I’m no longer in the mood to process photos today!  The rest of the Virgin Islands photos will have to wait!

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