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Sax-Zim Bog and boreal birds

As seen in the previous post, a massive Great Gray Owl casts its baleful gaze on the photographer. I was glad indeed that I was not a vole.

While it is the allure of Great Gray Owls that lures many people to the Sax-Zim Bog of northern Minnesota, there are many other interesting birds to be found, as we shall see. I was up there for three solid days last week - my first visit - and was quite impressed with the place. January and February are obviously peak times for winter birding, but come prepared for icy cold. The first morning saw a low of minus 29 F, and the mercury was well below zero each of the following two mornings.

Sax-Zim is an interesting place. Its boundaries include black spruce bogs, cultivated fields, and mixed and deciduous woodlands. A wonderful organization, the Friends of Sax-Zim Bog, has built and staffs a new visitor's center. This building, contrary to many similar installations that see peak visitation in summer, is only open during the winter months.

This tiny Northern Saw-whet Owl was a real bonus. It was hunting from a prominent perch well before nightfall. Although this is normally a highly nocturnal species, the extreme cold and mixture of snow and ice cover may have forced it to temporarily shift its hunting habits in the quest for food.

Some years, other species of northern owls, most notably Great Gray Owl, Northern Hawk Owl and Boreal Owl, invade Sax-Zim in numbers during winter. This wasn't one of those years, but I hope to return when a full-fledged owl invasion is in progress.

It was nice to become reacquainted with Gray Jays again. This is a species of the far north, and not prone to wandering very far south, even during the toughest winters. One must go to their haunts to see them.

The most common songbird at Sax-Zim is also one of my favorites, the Black-capped Chickadee. I made innumerable photos of the tough little birds; I find them photographically irresistible. They are tough as nails, too - how they survive long winter nights when the mercury plunges well below zero is beyond me.

Evening Grosbeaks have nearly fallen off the radar screen in Ohio, so it was good to catch up with them once again. This resplendent male was one of a flock of 20 or so birds visiting publicly accessible feeders at a private residence. There are a number of local residents who feed birds, and welcome birders to visit.

This is a female Evening Grosbeak, and I might be tempted to argue that she is showier than the gaudy male!

A true finch of the north, the Pine Grosbeak. Males, like this one, are quite dashing. Flocks of these largish tame finches might be encountered anywhere in Sax-Zim Bog, but they are especially easy to observe at the visitor's center.

A female Pine Grosbeak. More subtly marked and colored than the male, but still quite showy.

A partridge in a willow tree. Ruffed Grouse can be quite arboreal, and we saw at least 25-30 of them high off the ground in trees and shrubs. They go aloft to snack on buds and catkins.

A grouse makes a big stretch to reach an especially tasty staminate catkin in a paper birch tree.

There are lots of spruce in Sax-Zim, and the white spruce were heavily bedecked with cones. Such fodder means crossbills.

A pair of White-winged Crossbills plunder the cones of a spruce. It was minus 25 F when I made this image! A flock of about 25 birds was working the tree over, and as is typical for crossbills, they were quite tame. The flock actually flew into the tree that I was standing near, making things easier, although I feared either my hands or equipment would give out in the extreme cold.

Crossbills act much like parrots, pulling themselves about with both feet and bill, often engaging in acrobatics to reach coveted cones. As I stood by this spruce, all one could hear was the snap and crackle of cone scales being popped off. A gentle rain of these scales misted from the tree as the industrious crossbills harvested the conifer seeds.

This little glutton decided to pull an entire cone from the tree. He deftly held it with one foot while making mincemeat of the cone with his bill. I have read where a hardworking crossbill can harvest several thousand seeds in a day. The bird either pops the scale completely off the cone, or pries them apart to reach the fruit (each scale subtends a seed). Using its long barbed tongue, the crossbill quickly snags the seed.

I would have dearly loved to have spent much more time with the crossbills, but circumstances did not permit it. They are highly fascinating birds, and vital to the ecology of the boreal forests in which they live.

I look forward to a return trip to Sax-Zim Bog to catch up with the owls, crossbills, and all of the other interesting avifauna.


Peter Kleinhenz said…
This is wild, but I was up there the same time you were and swear I recognized you when I drove by with some friends. But I thought that, surely, this birder from Ohio isn't randomly up there the same time that I am. I wish I would have said hey. Glad you got up there, though. It's truly an incredible place.

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