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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?

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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)…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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11 comments to Birding Sax Zim Bog

  • Neat post!

    I’ll consider me tweet about Northern Hawk Owls answered, or at least the one about their migratory patterns.

    Glad the new car worked out. There are certainly worse characteristics than extrememly beige and reliable. And if the heater also works well, then sounds like it’s a good deal for birding trips.

    The birds on the carcass do indeed provide interesting photographic contrast.

    I just looked up the D40 on Amazon. Looks neat, and not that terribly expensive either. The last P&S we bought (5 years ago, granted) wasn’t much more than that. (Our camera looks horribly outdated and clunky compared to anything you can buy now, but I’m loathe to replace something that works perfectly well).

  • Great pix & story for this City-bound boy. Thanks.

  • Nice post. Loved all the photos.

    What lens do you use on your D40 for digiscoping? You can tweet the answer if that’s easier.

  • These are some awesome winter birds, Sharon. I should be so lucky this winter!

  • Kirk

    Very nice to see some Minnesota specialties.

  • As a birder from overseas (Germany) Sax Zim is pretty high up on my list of must-visit places in North America.
    Interesting question: what lens do you use on your DSLR for digiscoping?

    And that’s a heck of an interesting BC Chickadee, never seen them with such lively coloured flanks.

  • Ditto what Mike said. Aside from the chickadees, which I love but are pretty common here, I’d be very excited to see any one of the birds you saw on your trip. What a great day list you compiled!

  • Definitely sounds like a great day trip. What’s the RT time from the cities to catch the first few good daylight hours?

  • I’m glad you liked it.

    Craig, I think another reason why they are called hawk owls is that they are diurnal and for an owl–pretty darned speedy. Even their wings come to a slight point.

    daveabirding, it took us about two and a half hours to get to the bog and that was going the speed limit and not hitting bad traffic. We left my place at 5:30am and got there about 8am. We left the bog at about 3:30pm and I was home by 6pm (and that included stopping for gas).

  • DaveG

    I love this post. It is like a perfect birding day with one surprise after another.

    Here in Switzerland we do one similar – except Hawk Owl & two barred Crossbill are only really seen in Fenno-scandinavia, and Bohemian Waxwings every 10 years or so.

    Beautiful.