On Friday, February 3, 2023, we returned to beautiful Northern Minnesota for a weekend of winter birding in the famous Sax-Zim Bog and other nearby areas. A total of 9 young birders, parents, and supporters joined us for what turned out to be a fantastic two days of learning, friendship, and great birds!
Our group at the Sax-Zim Bog Welcome Center, February 4, 2023
We arrived in Duluth, Minnesota (our base camp) on Friday afternoon and, after a quick welcome and introductions, loaded our van to head north to Sax-Zim Bog. Our target - a Northern Hawk Owl that was being seen consistently along the eastern edge of the Bog. Approximately 45 minutes later, we were looking at a Northern Hawk Owl perched at the very top of a tree. Our spotting scopes provided great looks of this very cooperative bird. While admiring and photographing this bird, we learned that the Northern Hawk Owl is unique among other owls in the feather structure of their wings. Most owls, which hunt at night, have modified feathers on the front edge of their wings that alter the air flow over their wings and allow them to fly silently. The Northern Hawk Owl, however, does not have this modified feather structure because they hunt primarily during the day. After viewing the owl, we took a sunset drive through the Bog and found a Ruffed Grouse perched high in a tree eating buds at sunset. Two life birds for almost everyone in the van on the first day is not a bad start to our weekend!
Viewing the Northern Hawk Owl in Sax-Zim Bog, February 3, 2023
We had an ambitious agenda for Saturday with hopes of seeing many new species, so we arose early to head back to the Bog. We started our day shortly after sunrise at the feeders near Yellow-bellied Bog. Here, we were treated to fantastic views of several Evening Grosbeaks visiting the feeders, looking stunning in the morning sun. We also saw both Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers, offering a nice opportunity to observe the size difference between these two visually-similar species. After watching for about 10 minutes, a small group of Pine Grosbeaks arrived, another target species for our day. Several American Goldfinches were also visiting the feeders, which are always a treat to see. Our next stop was the feeders along Arkola Road, where we added Canada Jay (our third target species of the day) and Black-capped Chickadee to our list along with Red Squirrel, a life mammal for most in the van.
Sunrise in Sax-Zim Bog at the Yellow-bellied Bog feeders, February 4, 2023
The Sax-Zim Bog Welcome Center is usually a hub of bird activity, so we stopped there next. The highlights of this stop included a small group of Pine Siskins at the feeders behind the Welcome Center (a new species for our list) as well as a singing female Pine Grosbeak (female Pine Grosbeaks can and will sing occasionally, unlike many other songbirds). Also present at the feeders here were several Evening Grosbeaks, Canada Jays, American Goldfinches, Black-capped Chickadees, and Red Squirrels. Next, we took a leisurely drive through the Bog, searching for owls and other birds while en route to Mary Lou’s feeders. Common Ravens were present throughout the Bog and kept us interested on our drives from one stop to the next. We arrived at Mary Lou’s feeders to find a large flock of Wild Turkeys, an unexpected bird for our day. The turkeys were very entertaining as they hopped up to grab some seed from the hanging feeders and scoured the ground for any spilled waste seed. We also had a quick glimpse of a Pileated Woodpecker at a suet feeder before it retreated to the nearby woods. We departed Mary Lou’s feeders for lunch, but stopped along the way for not one but two Northern Shrikes, one of which was very cooperative and allowed everyone great looks through our spotting scopes.
Young birder photographing one of two Northern Shrikes, February 4, 2023
After lunch, we traveled back to the Welcome Center for the opportunity to purchase some souvenirs and to search for a Boreal Chickadee that was being consistently seen along the Gray Jay Way trail. While in the Welcome Center, we were treated to a great impromptu program on raptor wings and talons from naturalists Sarah and Jake. We were super grateful for their time and for sharing their knowledge with us! We then commenced our hike along the snowy Gray Jay Way back to the feeders where the Boreal Chickadee was last seen. Upon arriving, we waited only five minutes for the bird to arrive high in the tree, later flying down to eye level for a great view. We finished our day in search of another life mammal for most, the elusive Porcupine. Thanks to some hot intel from other young birder supporters in the Bog, we finally located snoozing Porcupine high in a tree near the Arkola Road feeders.
Naturalist Sarah Wood with Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory teaches us about raptor wings and talons at the Sax-Zim Bog Welcome Center, February 4, 2023
Having had such a great day in the Bog on Saturday, we decided to try our luck searching for Bohemian Waxwings and Spruce Grouse along the north shore of Lake Superior first thing Sunday morning. We ventured north towards the town of Two Harbors. Once there, we chased several large waxwing-looking flocks with no luck on Bohemian Waxwings. We did, however, find an extremely cooperative Pileated Woodpecker. We then drove north to Superior National Forest hoping for a Spruce Grouse. Although we didn’t have luck with a grouse, we did enjoy some fabulous scenery in the snowy forest and stumbled into a small flock of Common Redpolls on the drive back to Two Harbors. Once back in Duluth, we decided to try for a Snowy Owl that was being seen consistently at the Duluth airport. We had great looks of the owl (an apparent young female) and a bonus Northern Shrike. What a great way to end a great weekend!
Young birders excited about Common Redpolls! February 5, 2023
Many thanks to the young birders, parents, and supporters who joined us on this weekend adventure, especially young birder supporters Francis Moore and Tom Schilke who were great mentors to our young birders throughout the weekend. Thanks also to Associate Director Jayden Bowen for his leadership and coordination throughout the weekend. And lastly, thanks to Sarah Wood and Jake Behrens with Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory for staying late at the Welcome Center to teach us about raptor wings!
Click here to view more photos from our trip.