Sax-Zim Bog: an unlikely frozen ‘hot spot’


Mary Lee Hagert photo • Evening grosbeaks flock to Mary Lou’s feeding station before noon most days in Sax-Zim Bog. There’s even a photographer’s blind on the property for up-close looks at the colorful birds.

Mary Lee Hagert photo • At the picturesque Loretta’s feeding station, a variety of feeders are artfully placed in tree nooks and hanging from cedar branches along a winding trail in the woods.

Mary Lee Hagert photo • The Sax-Zim Bog Welcome Center, located on Owl Avenue, is a cozy place to thaw out and chat with the staff about the latest bird and mammal sightings.

Mary Lee Hagert photo • Bird feeding stations are sprinkled around Sax-Zim Bog and attract rare northern species, including grosbeaks, boreal chickadees and hoary redpolls.

Rare birds converge on this ‘Arctic Riveria’ each winter

 

Did you know that every year, thousands of people from across the U.S. travel to Minnesota, specifically to visit a remote locale that features desolate roads, eerie forests, bogs and miles of flat, scrubby land with few rest rooms, gas stations or places to grab a bite to eat?

Even more surprising, these visitors from California, Florida and Texas flock to this isolated location in the depths of winter, when the gravel roads are snow covered and frostbite is a risk whenever they step out of their cars.

But come they do to the Sax-Zim Bog, one of the premier winter birding spots in the Lower 48. To many folks, the name alone — Sax-Zim — seems surreal, but the place is well-known to nature lovers for its diverse habitats, and unique boreal birds and mammals.

Located about 45 minutes north of Cloquet, the Sax-Zim region is some 300 square miles, composed of a mixture of peat bogs, wet meadows, upland forests, pastures and hay fields, with the village of Meadowlands on its southern border. In the winter months, Sax-Zim is one of the most reliable places to see rare boreal (northern) birds from December to March, when daytime temperatures average in the teens and low 20s.  

Birders from around the globe make the winter pilgrimage to Sax-Zim in search of such specialties as great gray owls, hawk owls, black-backed woodpeckers, sharp-tailed grouse, boreal chickadees, Bohemian waxwings and a variety of northern finches. 

This January my husband and I spent a weekend in the Sax-Zim area, and spotted many bird species — evening grosbeaks, pine grosbeaks, red crossbills, black-billed magpies, gray jays and ravens — that we never see in the Twin Cities. 

 

Boreal ‘greatest hits’

Our quest to see these birds would have been much more difficult if it hadn’t been for the Friends of Sax-Zim Bog website, which directed us to the area’s public feeders. The website has a “Plan Your Visit” section that provided helpful birder maps and suggestions for planning our weekend itinerary. 

“We’ve got a driving route on the website that takes you to the ‘greatest hits’ areas to see the winter boreal bird species. It’s great for people who don’t know how to approach a place as massive as the bog,” explains Clinton Nienhaus, head naturalist for the Friends organization. 

After my husband and I watched evening grosbeaks mob Mary Lou’s feeders in the morning, we hiked in the woods at the picturesque Loretta’s feeding station, where a variety of feeders are artfully placed in tree nooks and hanging from spruce branches along a winding trail. 

Later, the Sax-Zim Bog Welcome Center, located on Owl Avenue, was a cozy place to thaw out and chat with the staff about the latest rare bird sightings. 

The center’s large windows overlook a wooded wetlands and well-stocked feeders, which this winter are attracting hoary redpolls. The building is open daily from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the winter months.

Nienhaus says, “Northern Minnesota is a challenge for people who are not used to the cold temperatures. The Welcome Center is a hub of information, and there’s hot cider and cocoa to help visitors warm up.”

When asked what birds are being seen regularly in the bog so far in 2018, he mentions great gray owls, northern hawk owls, pine grosbeaks, and sharp-tailed and ruffed grouse. 

Sax-Zim had large numbers of crossbills and pine siskins last winter, but they’re largely absent this year because of the poor production of small cones on conifers last summer. The small-cones’ seeds are a primary food source for these finches, and due to low food availability, they’ve moved elsewhere this winter. The same is true for red-breasted nuthatches, Nienhaus says.

 

Birding festival draws far-flung attendees

An annual winter highlight is the Sax-Zim Bog Birding Festival, which will be Feb. 16-18. 

Floodwood mayor and festival coordinator Jeff Kletscher explains that the event offers people of all birding skill levels a chance to see rare species during daytime field trips led by local ornithology experts. This year the evening talks will be about bog owl species, and how birds survive in sub-zero temperatures.

“The festival is limited to 150 people because of our facility’s size, staff and vendors. Registration closes on Feb. 1, but organizers do have a waiting list in case someone cancels and a spot opens up,” Kletscher says.

“We’ve got people registered from 19 states — Connecticut, New Jersey, Kentucky, Illinois, Arizona, Kentucky — to name a few,” Kletscher adds. “Most have a goal of adding one or two rare bird species to their life lists,” or to catch a glimpse of secretive bog mammals.

Nienhaus says some folks hope to see a moose or hear wolves howling in the woods. Elusive pine martens, fishers and gray foxes have been known to hang out around feeders for a short while and then disappear into the inky forest. 

 

Frictions 

occasionally erupt

While birds far outnumber the human inhabitants, Sax-Zim Bog is interspersed with homes and farmsteads. Niehaus says he always reminds visitors to be respectful of private properties, noting that not all the residents are thrilled to have carloads of birders interrupting their winter solitude. 

He cautions people not to focus their binoculars at bird feeders on private properties, in search of boreal species, as it makes the owners uncomfortable. 

“The public feeding stations are places where the homeowners really like birds and birders. They’re noted on the Friends’ map, and it’s OK to look at them” and even get out of vehicles for a closer look, Nienhaus says.

He also notes that Sax-Zim is a great place to visit year round. People from around the country go there in the summer months to see rare Connecticut and black-throated green warblers, and yellow-bellied flycatchers on their nesting territories. 

“We’ve recorded over 1,200 species of birds, plants, bugs and insects here,” Nienhaus says.

It would seem that Sax-Zim’s flora and fauna are as diverse as the people traveling thousands of miles to see them. 

 

To learn more about Sax-Zim Bog, go to www.saxzim.org. Information about the Sax-Zim Bog Birding Festival can be found at www.saxzimbirdingfestival.com.

 


– Mary Lee Hagert can be reached at roseville@lillienews.com

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