Digiscoping In Low Light

I mentioned in a previous post that I went up North to get a look at all the boreal owls that are showing up. The trip was originally intended for just Sax Zim Bog birding, but we spent some time in Duluth first to see some owls.  Speaking of which, there is some major public shaming going on with a few well-known photographers who are accused of baiting birds across busy highways or just being complete jerkwads and walking in front of large groups of people to get closer to the owls and causing the boreals to fly away. So anyone with a camera going to see owls, I encourage you to follow Wheaton's Law. Friends of Sax Zim Bog

We didn't have as much time for the bog as I'd like and we didn't get to see everything, but we saw some cool birds nonetheless. I may go back up again later on to try and get photos of the birds I missed photographing like black-backed woodpecker and boreal chickadee.  If it weren't for my Big Half Year Challenge, I would just say, "Ah, next year." But I'm really digging this challenge I've set for myself.  Our guide, Erik Bruhnke took us to the site where Friends of Sax Zim Bog hope to build their welcome center--this is the site I'm raising money for!  They already have some bird feeders (and a port-a-potty) set up but hopefully there will be a building there soon to help people find the best places to visit to see birds.

redpoll at feeder

By the time we got to the bog, I knew that light would be fading fast for photos.  So long as some of the specialty songbirds like common redpolls would hit feeders in sunshine, I knew I would be fine.

hoary redpoll and common

The redpolls were quite cooperative, except for one hoary redpoll who only allowed me blurry photos of it (the light colored redpoll with the smaller bill on the left in the above photo).  But I considered it a triumph that for once I was able to pick out a hoary redpoll on my own.

pine grosbeak


The pine grosbeaks were also very cooperative and readily perched in the sun...though they may also appreciate the little bit of warmth that comes with it.

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We had great views of boreal chickadee, but all my shots are too dark and blurry. That's one of the shots of the snowy road at the boreal chickadee spot...the chickadee photos are worse!  I even tried to experiment using my Nikon V1 in video mode while digiscoping to see if that would get a shot. Usually when it's lowlight conditions, video is a great way to document birds.  But the video on the Nikon v1 made them all too dark. I thought about trying the timer on the Nikon, but the boreal chickadee is not a bird that sits still very long...

Then we had an opportunity when two great gray owls appeared right at dusk along the road.  I HAD to try and digiscope that, even though the sun had set.  I played with the settings on my camera and used it as an opportunity to test out the timer features on the Nikon v1.  The upside about owls is that if they are not actively hunting (or pestered by people) they will stay in the same spot and not move too much. So here is what I came up with by using my timer:

great gray timer


Not too bad.  Don't get me wrong--there were several photos of the owl's head facing the other way or the head in mid spin, but I got about three photos leaving the camera attached to the scope and setting the timer to go off 10 seconds haver I pushed the shutter button. It does have the option to take a photo 2 seconds for 5 seconds later, but I wanted to give the camera enough time to stop shaking after I pressed the shutter.

Great Gray Owl iPhone

Since there were two owls and they were being stationary, I tried getting a photo or two with my iPhone 4s.  It actually did very well and this is with me HAND HOLDING the phone to the scope and not using a timer.  Not bad considering that it's dusk.  The 4s handles low light much better than the Nikon V1.

I even tried to video the encounter and realized that if the light is this low, get video with the iPhone and not the Nikon V1:


There is some hand shake because it was 12 degrees with a windchill of 6 degrees Fahrenheit. But still, not bad at all for a souvenir bird.

Sax Zim Bog


One last thing about visiting Sax Zim bog...make sure you have a high clearance vehicle that and drive gravel roads that are rarely (if ever) plowed. That's one of the perks of hiring a guide...they usually have vehicles that can handle it if you do not. Again, as far as guides go, I can't recommend Erik Bruhnke enough--he's enthusiastic, full of naturalist info and personal observations. After hearing about what he finds here in summer, I may have to brave the mosquitoes and hire him to take me birding up here in warm weather. Plus, I love supporting a young kid making his way in a birding career. Other guides that I've birded with and highly recommend include Sparky Stensaas (the guy who created the Big Half Year concept) and Frank Nicoletti.

To see my most up to date tally of my birds for my Digiscoping Big Half Year, visit my Flickr set. If you are interested in pledging to the Big Half Year, either to for me or any of the other participants, please do.  It's a great cause for a great birding area and you can even pledge as low as $10.  Thank you to everyone who has donated so far.  I truly do appreciate it!





Boreal Birding & Digiscoping with an iPhone

I think I had the most fun at Sax Zim Bog last weekend since the great owl irruption of 2004/2005. An informal gathering of birders headed up and we started at Hasty Brook. I've known Lynne for some time and I've always wanted to visit. What a treat to start it off with her deck full of common redpolls. I wish we could have spent more time there, she's so lucky to have such a beautiful view to watch birds and animals go by--and incredibly sweet.  Our group birded the crap out of the little daylight we have up here in winter and when we went back to her place, her husband was heating up a huge kettle of wild rice soup.

As much as I miss the birds who sing in the summer, I truly do appreciate living in Minnesota where a few hours drive north gives me a different set of habitat and birds. Redpolls are in abundance this winter in northern MN, which was actually predicted in the Winter Finch Forecast.

Huge flocks of redpolls would descend onto the roads to chow down on either spilled grain or salt mixed with snow. When they would take off, you could actually hear their woosh of wings.

We had a bonus in the car with us when we went, a guide for the bog by the name of Erik Bruhnke came along with us--for fun. He's a young kid trying to earn a living in birding--it was fun to go out in the field with someone so young and excited about birds. There are a lot of great guides up at the bog but the area is so popular they book up quickly, so if you're ever looking for one, Erik is an enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide. Some in our group had been to the bog several times before and had an idea of where to go, but having someone along who birds the area on a regular basis really helped get all the bog specialties that are being seen.

I used the day to compare digiscoping with my iPhone 4s vs my Nikon D40.  I don't have an adapter yet for the phone so photos like the one above of evening and pine grosbeaks are taken by hand holding the iPhone up to my scope.  Not bad at all!  I've been playing with the camera app that comes with the phone but there's the Camera+ app, I like it because it has image stabilization and the ability to go into burst mode and take a crap ton of pictures all at once.  It's handy if you are doing this without an adapter.

One thing I did learn about my iPhone is that it's not ideal for cold weather digiscoping.  My fingers got so cold that the touch screen function ceased recognizing when something had been touched (it was about 10 degrees Fahrenheit when I took the above photo).  I do have a pair of gloves that is supposed to work with the touch screen, but I have a screen protector and it doesn't work with the gloves.  Also cold fingers can lead to shivering which also doesn't help image stabilization.

Can I say what a treat it was to get some quality time with evening grosbeaks (the above photo was taken with the D40, not the iPhone).  I haven't been around a good sized flock for a few years so it was fun to spend time with these birds who look like like a goldfinch on steroids...though Non Birding Bill thinks they look more like Ed Asner.  We're so lucky that the people who live on Blue Spruce Road just north of 133 in Meadowlands place feeders at the end of their driveway so people can enjoy a bunch of boreal feeder birds.

It's a great little spot to practice digiscoping.  Lots of great colorful winter birds to get shots of like the pine grosbeak.  They seem very used to the traffic.

White-winged crossbills were all over around the bog too.  This one was part of a flock that was in the road.  As we watched it, we picked up a tail of other cars. It's kind of a strange thing to bird around the bog.  You want to get all the specialties and there are plenty of maps to be found of it on the Internet describing where to go, but at the same time if you see someone pulled over, you tend to pull over too to see if they have something you don't.

This is especially true when it's dusk and close to great gray owl time.  One road had a recent report of great grays and around dusk there were almost 2 dozen vehicles slowly cruising back and forth, creeping along and watching, waiting for the elusive giant.  I watched but I'm so spoiled when it comes to great gray owls.  I remember driving and finding 50 in a day.

Fortunately a great gray owl was spotted and the birding paparazzi excitedly moved in to watch it.

It was far, lightly snowing and dusk but thanks to the timer on my Nikon D40 I was able to get an ok shot of it in the low light conditions.

All in all it was a great day of seeing some northern specialties (like the above rough-legged hawk).  If you haven't birded the bog and live within driving distance, grab some friends and head on up.  It's a doable day trip from the Twin Cities.  We left the the northern suburbs at 5:30am and stayed til dusk then stopped for dinner.  I got back to NBB by 9:30pm.

If you'd like to learn more, come to Birds and Beers on Monday.  Lots of people will be happy to share tips (and maybe you'll find a birding buddy to go up).  Also there is a Sax Zim Bog Bird Festival in Feburary which I haven't been to but I know lots of people who have gone and had a great time.  Bird festivals a great way to get to know an area you haven't birded before.




Spring In Sax Zim Bog

Boy!  I needed yesterday.  I got one last look at a rough-legged hawk before they head north to their breeding grounds.

When Non Birding Bill opened his show MacBeth: The Video Game Remix, we engaged in the traditional opening night party after wards.  When I woke up the following Monday morning, I wasn't sure if my body was having a bad reaction to my first long bike ride after winter, I was slightly hungover or coming down with a cold or flu.  By the afternoon, it was obvious that I was getting sick.  I hoped it would be mild, I had a busy weekend ahead with work and a friend from Michigan was coming to town and requested a Birds and Beers on Saturday night and a trip to Sax Zim Bog on Sunday.  I sensibly spent the rest of the week sleeping, watching movies and eating lots of spicy food.  Saturday I felt okay and had a terrific time at Merlin's Rest (so good that between it and Daylight Savings Time I managed only 3 hours sleep before leaving for the bog).

It was such a perfect day at the bog--mostly sunny, blue skies, a few colorful clouds, temperatures in the fifties and most of the snow melted.  The sun brought out the color of the bark on the dogwood, grasses and pussy willow.  I also had excellent company in the form of BlobbyBirdMan (aka Mark). I wondered if we'd see many sunny signs of spring and we did.  Above you might notice a dark lump in a distant bare tree.  That was Blobby's lifer porcupine.

I tried to digiscope it as a souvenir for him but the porcupine appeared to be rather lethargic or doing his best impersonation of a sloth.  We hoped we would hear ruffed grouse drumming and we did.  It was distant, so we walked into the bog a bit, we found a log and sat for a long stretch to listen.  About every ten minutes we would hear the tentative drum beating and then accelerate.  I've always thought it more of a sound that you feel inside your rather than hear.  Mark described it as more of a heart beat type sound.  After being sick all week, I treasure the time spent on a log with no talking and natural sounds (periodically broken up by the sound of a distant train or surprisingly close ATV).

I did get off with a rather dubious start.  The first bird I stopped our car for ended up being a starling.  But not long after that, I stopped at a spot that looked good for black-backed and three-toed woodpeckers.  As soon as I turned the engine off in my car, I heard soft tapping and it wasn't long before Mark got his lifer black-backed woodpecker.  We also had a small flock of boreal chickadees show up too.

One of Mark's target birds was a bohemian waxwing and we saw several flocks.  What was interesting was the very different attitude the birds had compared to last November when winter was just getting underway.  Back then they were in large flocks and the birds stayed close together calling with a bit of urgency.  The flocks we saw yesterday were very loose and calling but with an easy going frequency.

Some of them even appeared to be setting up pairs.  The really exciting thing was the the waxwings weren't eating berries but jumping out into the blue and catching insects!  It's warm enough for insects!  Whoot!  That was also confirmed on the drive home when several large bugs left tacky yellow smudges on my windshield.

There were still good numbers of pine siskins about but we didn't see much in the way of grosbeaks or redpolls.  Some of the feeders were coming down in the bog too.  The feeders on Blue Spruce road were missing.  The home owners said that the pole came down during the melt and broke all the feeders.  I asked if they needed some new ones.  I figured birders would be willing to donate some since so many of us enjoy the feeders.  They said that they get plenty of donations and that they would put them up again next fall.

The feeders on Admiral Road were still going only now instead of a big old hunk of deer carcass, there's an actual bird feeder and suet cages.  I heard that there had been some complaints from residents in the bog that the deer carcass would attract wolves.  I think wolves are in the bog whether deer carcasses are hung or not--I actually saw one there a few years ago crossing the railroad tracks.  But if the locals will allow feeders for public enjoyment as long as it's not a deer rib cage, that's a reasonable compromise. It's really nice that there are people willing to maintain public bird feeders in the bog.  I know some mornings I don't always want to fill the feeder out the window.

We saw mostly red-breasted nuthatches and black-capped chickadees at the feeder.  Some blue jays and some grays also flew in.  Red-breasted nuthatches were definitely pairing up.  Look at the female red-breasted nuthatch above.  By that swollen little cloaca, I'd say she's in them mood for some mating.

Speaking of mating, Mark spied a distant northern hawk owl and when we pulled over, we briefly saw a larger one beneath it mantling.  The larger hawk owl dove lower into the trees and I wondered if we caught the tail end of a food pass between a male and female northern hawk owl?  The smaller of the two continued his watch for prey from the tops of snags.  We heard a bit of vocalization which is called the "scree yip" on the Cornell Owl CD.  It can be used as either an alert to an intruder or during food pass.  We were way too far out on the road to be causing it, so perhaps it was related to food passing.  I hope they stay and raise a few chicks.

At another stop, we heard a woodpecker quietly working away at some bark and I hoped it would be a three-toed for Mark, I've seen them here before.  Alas, it ended up being a hairy woodpecker, but I loved that it gave an excuse to sneak and see the green of the bog.  When you look from the outside along the road, it looks like such a dark and foreboding place and inside the light filtered through the trees is a shady green.

The spongy green floor looked to tempting.  I wanted to take off my jacket and lay there for hours, feeling the cool of the green and enjoying the warm air.  It almost seemed to say, "Sharon, winter is over for sure, spring and summer is definite in its arrival." But I'm not falling for that siren's song.  It's too early in March for me to believe that we will have no more snow.  I thought I would take an alternate route on the way home to try for a few species we missed.  My navigational system and Google Maps took me to Great River Road.  When we were about 6 miles from our destination, we saw an orange sign that read road work was ahead and there was suddenly no pavement.  I went a few miles and felt the shifting mud from the melted snow get more unpredictable and said, "I'm not so confident about this road..."

Famous last words!  I swerved to the right side and was properly lodged into some mud.  DOH!  As I started to figure out how to explain my location to AAA, Mark walked to a neighbor who confirmed we were still on the Great River Road and that he's now so house bound, his neighbor down the way has to fetch his mail and drive him to town, his driveway is a mud trap.  Mark thought it would be faster to look for this neighbor.  We went about a quarter of a mile and their first sing of humans we passed was an old cemetery.  I was beginning to worry this was going into urban legend territory and learn that this man hasn't had any neighbors for 30 years.  Another half mile we found the neighbor who kindly offered to dislodge my Kia with his truck and gave us a route that would be on higher and drier ground. I owe him a big box of chocolates.

We made it out of the mud before sunset and on our way out we were rewarded with a very close northern hawk owl.  It was too dark for digiscoping, but I got a quick photo with my blackberry.  All and all it was a great adventure to cap off a week of being sick.

Birding Sax Zim Bog

I really hate car shopping. When we had to go through the process a few weeks ago, I heard through the MN birding grapevine that several northern hawk owls were reported in northern Minnesota, I decided a day up to Sax Zim Bog with my good friend Amber would be my reward. Besides, what better way to get to know our Kia Pet (the named dubbed to our very beige vehicle because it looks like a Chia Pet before the grass grows out) than by taking it on an all day birding trip? sax zim bog.jpg

Since daylight is short, Amber and I left the Twin Cities early to arrive at Sax Zim Bog just after sunrise and get some great photography light. Our plan seemed to work. The light was great when we arrived, and dark clouds in the distance only enhanced the bog's colorful landscape.

sax zim bog road.jpg

Alas, the sun was a total tease and soon hid behind clouds that brought light snow. On the upside, I got to really test out the Kia Pet's brakes and refamiliarize myself with driving on snow and a few patches of black ice. Whoopee, I stayed out of the ditches. I do laugh, we've had this vehicle for a couple weeks now and I still drive it like our old sensitive Saturn, like pausing before I press the gas to go in reverse. You had to give the Saturn a minute to think about it or she wouldn't reverse or would jerk violently into it. I forget with this car, I reverse without pause. Ah, the joy of driving a reliable car! But back to birding the bog...

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We got a northern hawk owl right away near the corner of 7 & 133 near Meadowlands. If you are interested, there's a google map of where northern hawk owls have been reported which members of the Minnesota Ornithologists' Union add sightings to help those who visit the bog. There appears to be a small irruption of hawk owls this year (perhaps a crash in the vole population on their breeding grounds, pushing quite a few owls south into Minnesota). It's not on the scale of the owl irruption of 2004/2005 but we will never see the likes of that again...or at least not in our lifetime.

hawk owl3.jpg

This bird put on quite a show for us, as it was actively hunting. It dove down into the grasses, we could see it scurry though and then fly back up. This spot is right next to some railroad tracks and is a road that's used quite a bit in the bog. I'm always fascinated by an owl's ability to hear any prey in a spot like that. I must say, I'm loving the Nikon D40 for digiscoping. This photo turned out way better than it should have considering how low the light conditions were. In the past I've used point and shoot cameras for digiscoping with my Swarovski scope and I would have gotten blogable photo, but nothing this clear on a cloudy day. We ended up seeing a second northern hawk owl as we meandered around the bog, but it was much further away from the road and flew off to parts unknown. I couldn't believe we got our target bird so early.

But the blog is not just about owls, there are so many great birds to find this time of year!


We used the MOU's Sax Zim Bog site maps (particularly the Birding Roads tab) and went looking for birds. Any time we saw a flock of birds land nearby, we pulled over to investigate. We found a small flock of white-winged crossbills working their way through.

rough legged hawk.jpg

We also saw about a dozen rough-legged hawks--each one different (we even saw a couple of dark morph birds). We saw many bald eagles as well but we did note that we did not see any red-tailed hawks, interesting change of buteos. The rough legs are very cagey and hard to get photos of. No matter how far away you park, as soon as the scope is trained on them, they poop (a sure sign they are about to fly)...

rough legged hawk flight.jpg

This is a different bird than the one perched above--very dark, almost a dark morph. It's cool to see them in so many different color variations. One of the things I love about living in Minnesota is that a day's drive at the right time of year can give you a completely different set of birds. In the Twin Cities, we're loaded with red-tailed hawks. A two and half hour drive north and we're surrounded by rough-legged hawks. Awesome to have a change of pace.

large flocks of bohemian waxwings.jpg

Speaking of a change of pace, Amber and I started following another large flock of birds. When they landed, I rolled down the car windows and was excited to hear the louder and deeper trills of bohemian waxwings.

bohemian waxwing.jpg

Here's a closer photo of them. Can you spot the differences between these and a cedar waxwing? If you follow this link, you'll see photos of cedars--they have white butts. The above bohemians have rusty butts. Bohemians also have a red and white patch on their wings. So, cool--a different type of waxwing too! I tried to get a video so you could hear the difference in their calls, but the wind blocks it a bit:

At Xeno Canto, you can also here the difference. This is the sound of cedar waxwings and then this is the bohemian waxwings.

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We drove down Admiral Road where a deer carcass is usually hung. In the past this has been a great spot for all sorts of birds. Amber and I found that a deer carcass was already up. Black-capped chickadees and down woodpeckers snuck it for bits of fat and meat.

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As did about five gray jays (who kind of look like a balding chickadee on steroids). I showed this video to Non Birding Bill and he said it reminded him of Hannibal Lecter which led to this photo caption. There ended up being about five gray jays who came in for the food source. It was interesting to watch the difference in these jays, the crept in quietly like the snow for the food. I'm so used to blue jays--or even green jays or Steller's jays who noisily announce their presence before coming into a feeding station. These birds swooped in secretively, very unjay-like.

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I loved the contrast of the ragged, bloody cage compared to the soft feathery gray of the jay. I took a ton of photos, but the wind picked up at this point and my eyes were watering, I could barely focus my scope.


We also came across several flocks of common redpolls feeding on birch seeds. It was great to see them eating on a natural food source and not a feeder (not that I won't take them at a feeder, but I read they eat birch seeds, I enjoy seeing a bird doing what a researcher tells me they do). We've already had pine siskins show up at Mr. Neil's. I wonder if we'll get redpolls too?

red breasted nuthatch.jpg We also stopped at one of the feeding stations open for public viewing at the bog (which was innundated with red-breasted nuthatches). One of the residents has been kind enough to put bird feeders at the end of their driveway and you can park across the street and stand at the end of the driveway and enjoy the birds. In the past, this has been chock full of birds. She came out to greet us and said they had just put the feeders up so the birds were just discovering it. There's normally a little box requesting donations for bird food, she hadn't even had time to put that out yet (so we put a few bucks in her mailbox as a thank you). All in all it was a GREAT day. We didn't see every bird possible--no boreal chickadee or great gray owl so Amber and I decided that we're going to have to take another day and bird the crap out of the bog.

Birding In Sax Zim Bog

Sunday was a much needed day--take in that common redpoll! At Thursday's Birds and Beer, people were talking about the Sax Zim Bog festival and Ecobirder was talking about his photos from the bog. (by the way, did you see his eagle release entry--very cool). My friend Amber was there and having been so sick and seeing the mountain of catch up work that I had coming, I desperately wanted a day in the bog. I had led a field trip there this year, but I just needed a day of just worrying about showing myself birds. I said, "Hey, Amber, do you want to do a day trip to the bog on Sunday?" There was only one answer to that question. And away we went! It was a blast. We used to bird quite a bit, but careers have changed our schedules and it had been awhile since it was just the two of us hanging out and birding. We ended up spending a good portion of the day talking in I Can Haz Cheezburger language--which will probably seep its way into this blog entry. Our first stop was at a residential feeding station open to the public on Blue Spruce Rd, about a mile north of 133. Someone asked in an earlier comment what the redpolls are eating. This is a mixture if Nyjer (thistle) and finely ground sunflower chips. There were also eating black oil sunflower seeds.

The pine grosbeaks were still hanging around. As we were getting photos a huge flock of evening grosbeaks flew overhead and landed in the surrounding trees--we froze, excited at the possibility of getting photos. But they chirped for about five minutes and flew away! We got totally rejected by evening grosbeaks. Jerks.

But the pine grosbeaks more than made up for the evening grosbeak dis. Look at those fluffy feathers under the chin--I could get lost in those pink floofy bits.

We just kept getting great bird after great bird at this feeding station. Some gray jays flew into the feeders as did some downy and hairy woodpeckers. And then a boreal chickadee flew in. That used to be a challenging bird to get in the bog--let alone get a photo. I aimed my digiscoping setup and prepared to get the best (and only) photo of a boreal chickadee I'd ever gotten in my entire life:

Even with a feeder, this is still a challenging bird to photograph. I could bore you with the twenty some odd photos I have of its butt, however, I did manage one photo of its head:

Digiscopin' Skillz - I has dem! This is just the best fun to me! I love living where I do. I love how I have great birds in my own neighborhood, but just a day trip away is completely different habitat with completely different feeder birds. I love how the community at Sax Zim, with the help of local birders and photographers has found away for people like me to safely enjoy the birds without irritating the crap out of them. What a treat to be able to stand in someone's driveway for awhile and just watch some of the coolest birds in the bog. This beats a few years ago with me stopping along the road watching for flocks of chickadees and pishing them out.

We drove around the bog a bit and headed to the deer ribs hanging in the tree on Admiral Rd. That had been a good spot for woodpeckers and jays this winter. The tree had changed a great deal in the weeks since I visited. Last time I was there, it was just one deer torso and now had become some strange looking bird feeding altar. It now had a deer rib cage, some store bought suet with a butt load of bird seed on the ground. It looked like some crap mix full of milo and then some all purpose mix with sunflowers. If you look at the ground in the above photo, you can see that I set the Wingscapes Camera in the seed.

I did get some redpoll photos. I'm not sure if all that seed is a good idea, I'm not sure who is leaving it, maybe just visiting birders and photographers. It's fun to see the redpolls there too, however that much seed on the ground in melting snow mixed with a few hundred redpolls is the makings of a salmonella outbreak. There were also about three dozen black-capped chickadees popping in and out for seed and suet.

I love this photo. The redpoll looks like its gleaming the cube (yeah, I went there).

Here's another boreal chickadee. It's interesting to note that the birds preferred the complete meaty deer torso over just the rib cage with the fat attached. It could be that they are just more used to the meaty torso and will turn to the rib cage as its there longer.

Here's another back shot of the boreal chickadee. Look at that faded brown cap where a black-capped would be black. What a fun, different little bird. The fun thing about digiscoping is that these birds move so fast that you don't always get to appreciate all the little details of these birds. Just fun to sit at home and just look at all his little plumage differences.

We did have one freaky instance up there and really, a trip to the bog isn't complete without something weird happening--that's part of the charm of birding there. We didn't get photos of what happened, so I'm going to use some of my many redpoll photos to go along with it.

We drove back to the Blue Spruce feeding station. Blue Spruce is one of those roads that curves around a few times, changes names and then dumps back out onto 133. We were creeping along Blue Spruce looking for black-backed and three-toed woodpeckers and then just kind of kept going on the off chance we could see anything else on the back roads. When we got to the end of Aspen, where it curves and changes into Birch we could see about six large dogs shoulder to shoulder in the road. I've seen a couple of dogs on this road before but not this many. I slowed down because the road was icy and figured if I drove through slowly, the dogs would part and we could get through. The dogs didn't move, in fact, they charged the car and started barking.

We couldn't get through and stopped. I tried honking but that didn't do anything. I tried to creep forward and they would just run around on all sides and wouldn't let us through. I honestly didn't know how to get around them without hitting one.

Eventually, a woman came out and tried to call them in, but it did no good. She came over to the car and it explained that the dogs get dumped here. She said that at one point someone had dumped 50 some odd huskies at this corner. These dogs didn't look like huskies, more like some type of boxer. As she was talking to us, the dogs were jumping and bouncing off my car--they were jumping to the top of the window and we could see more dogs coming out of the woods. We could also see in her truck off the side that there were at least three more smaller dogs inside. All the dogs looked well fed and I was grateful I was at least driving down the road and not walking.

I told her that I didn't know how to get through without hitting one and she said if I went fast, the dogs would part ways. She said that they just want to race the car and if I hit one, it was no big deal. No big deal to her, but a big deal to me.

We pulled ahead and the pack followed us, still surrounding the car. Some kept running and stopping in front of the car and others continued to jump up to the side--one jumped up, I heard a bump and then yelping. They followed us around the corner for about a quarter of mile running in front of the car as soon as we would try to speed up seemingly aware that we would stop to not hit them. There were just so many coming from so many different directions that I was really in a panic that I would hit one or run it over. Amber was great with the encouragement and helping to keep me calm. I don't remember exactly what we said to each other, but I'm fairly certain it involved lost of words starting with the letter F. I don't know how I would have made it alone. Doggies, don't eatz meh car plz, ok, thx, bye.

We eventually made it through, but it was incredibly unnerving, the dogs seem to sense that you don't want to hit them and just run in front of you and bite your bumper. When I got home last night, I posted the experience on the Minnesota listservs and got six emails right away from people who had a similar experience and weren't sure about posting. About half of them told me that they also saw a 400 - 500 pound pig mixed in with the dogs!

Mike Hendrickson has been great about sending our experiences to local city officials and trying to contact animal shelters up there to maybe do something about the dogs. The mayor advised that if you have this experience that you call 911--stress that it's not an emergency, but describe the incident and where it's happening. The more calls, the more likely something can be done to control the dogs.

After our experience, I told Amber that I had to go back to the bird feeders and soak up some cleansing redpoll action. We soaked up the redpolls, cleansed ourselves of the scary not so lol dogs and headed back to the Twin Cities.

Another great day in the bog.

Northern Birding Trip

Today, we got a small taste of the fun that participants will have at the Sax Zim Bog Bird Festival in the coming weeks! Stan Tekiela and I took a group up for a day birding around the bog and had a great time.

We started at a resident named Derek Morse, who has a feeding station set up one mile north of Co Rd 133 on the Blue Spruce Rd. If you go here on your own, everyone is warning peopl to park in the parking lot and not in the driveway! Above are some common redpolls draining a feeder filled with Nyjer thistle and sunflower chips.

Our group even had a chance to glimpse a hoary redpoll in the above blurry photo. That was the first time I had seen one and there was no question whatsoever to its id. Because this resident is so generous to allow birders from all over to come and watch and photograph birds, a donation box has been set up for donations to contribute to the seed supply. We were happy to contribute to the cause. I remember from when I worked at the bird store--we loved it when redpolls showed up, they can go through see like there's no tomorrow.

Our groups also got to see loads of pine grosbeaks like this female and male above. Depending on the time of day, people are also seeing boreal chickadees and gray jays at this feeding station. We saw those birds at the bog, but did not see them at this particular feeding station--oh, and early in the morning, you can also have a chance to see evening grosbeaks too. I love how just three hours where I live, you can see just completely different birds at feeding stations--all part of the magic of living in this area of the country.

Our group really enjoyed all the birds and had a great time, but hands down the highlight for me was getting a lifer mammal--a wolf! I have never seen one in the wild, and one loped across the road in front of our van. Above is a very blurry photo that I sadly attempted well after the wolf crossed the road--it's that blur behind the shrubbery. So, so cool.

We continued our adventure down the bog's remote roads. We passed many ruffed grouse and white-tailed deer. I watched a grouse take a total nose dive (or would that be a beak dive?). The bird was scooting near the road, when our van came to stop, it froze among the trees, trying to hide, then it tried to do that slow stealthy walk, before finally breaking into an all out run. The ruffed grouse took three strides, then one foot got caught in the snow and it fell face forward--you just don't see wildlife take a spill like Charlie Chaplin and I felt amused and sorry for the bird all at once.

We continued to Admiral Rd where Mike Hendrickson has been gracious enough to hang some deer rib cages on trees as a sort of industrial sized suet feeder. There was quite a bit of activity near this cage, and someone had also scattered some bird seed near the road to the delight of the area chickadees.

Gray jays also called Whiskey Jacks (and look kind of like a chickadee on steroids) love the the hunk a deer fat on the trees.

This bird almost looked like it was smiling like it was king of the fat as it perched on the deer ribs.

There were also just some deer carcasses on the side of the road. Chickadees were flitting over it, as was this red squirrel who came over for a nibble on the meat. This spot was also full of signs of woodpecker activity. A black-backed woodpecker showed up near the deer rib cage and then flew away.

There was still quite a bit of quiet tapping and very low on the trunks we found a male three-toed woodpecker--who had n incredible knack of positioning itself around a trunk or tucked behind branches.

For a mere few seconds it appeared unobstructed and I did manage on photo of this very cool woodpecker. Incidentally, the weather was perfect--in the twenties and I found myself quite comfortable without gloves and ear muffs--the one advantage of sub zero temperatures, it fools you into thinking that twenty degrees is a reasonable temperature.

We watched the cooperative gray jays for a few more minutes and then pressed on to look for a few more species including northern hawk owl and boreal chickadee.

We headed out to look for the hawk owl and found it, thanks to some birder's pulled over. Here it is in the distance being mobbed by a couple of gray jays.

It flew in a little closer, but it was getting dark and it's not the best photo. When we found this bird, it was time for us to head back in order for us to be home by the time scheduled on my itinerary. We still had not seen the boreal chickadee and Stan said he knew of a friend's house and we could get one but we would be returning late. I had plans for the evening, but we asked the group and no one apart from Stan and myself had ever seen one before and were happy to return late to get one. Well, how could I be the spoil sport, so we went for the boreal chickadee and saw it right away and I'm glad I delayed my evening plans.