Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Sax-Zim Bog Winter Birding Festival

Last weekend was the Third Annual Sax-Zim Bog Winter Birding Festival in Meadowlands, Minnesota. Ruthie the Nature Knitter and I had been looking forward to it for a long time. Meadowlands is a small town with a big welcoming heart for birders from all over looking for the special northern birds that winter in the unique bog habitat surrounding the area. It was Ruthie's second time at the festival and my third. We came prepared with a copy of WildBird magazine to pose with in the woods.

On our way "up north" (as we Minnesotans call it) we had to make a stop at Hasty Brook. I wanted to fill my feeders and especially wanted Ruthie to see the progress we'd made since her last visit two years ago. Good Neighbor Mark had kindly plowed the driveway and yard area so we were able to drive right in. As soon as we stopped the car we could hear the birds. We heard an unfamiliar song, one neither of us had heard before. There were the regulars, Black-capped Chickadees, Red and White-breasted Nuthatches, Pine Siskins and just a handful of Common Redpolls. We heard the new song a few more times and then glanced up to see three Snow Buntings circling over our heads. I had never seen Snow Buntings on our property before and we were surprised to see them in such a wooded area. To watch them in flight circling just over our heads was joyous. Bright, pure white with black wing-tips against the blue sky- it was fabulous! I expected them to fly off but amazingly they landed high up in a maple. We got good long looks of them until they circled the clearing a few more times and then landed at the top of birch snag about ten feet away.

I took photo after photo knowing I would probably never have this kind of opportunity again.

The third Snow Bunting peeked its head out for just one photo.

I felt they put on a show just for Ruthie and I and I knew it was going to be a special weekend.

Our Saturday field trip took us to Duluth. We tried two different locations to spot a Snowy Owl but had no luck. I was really hoping for Bohemian Waxwings but unfortunately no luck with them either. The winds had blown the ice further into the harbor which made the waterbirds move farther north. Driving up toward Two Harbors we did get good looks at some Common Goldeneyes. We stopped for a tail-gate lunch at the Lester River park. It was a particularly lovely February day- low winds and temps reached thirty. We got some good looks at White-winged Crossbills while we ate. Mike Hendickson our trip leader for the day got a call about a Rough-legged Hawk near the harbor. It was being hassled by crows and finally gave up and sailed away.

We saw several Northern Shrikes over the weekend. This one actually put on a hunting show for us.
We spent the afternoon at the Superior landfill (on the Wisconsin side) looking at gulls. Peder Svingen, another Duluth area birder and a friend of Mike's was all ready there scouting the birds. I'll say it out loud: gulls are not my thing. They are lovely to watch in flight. I can appreciate that. I just don't have a good eye for identifying them. It's overwhelming. There is so much variation in appearance as they mature. I don't think I can learn it so I don't try. Enough excuses? We watched as flocks of them circled over our heads. With Mike's encouragement and Peder's help I was able to single out a Glaucous Gull. All white, no color on the wing tips. Larger than the rest. Wings wider where they meet the body. Got it. In the next flock that rose up from the hill I was able to spot the Glaucous myself. (eventually...) Next Peder spotted an Iceland Gull. Boy, that one was harder for me to pick out, but I did. Twice! Lifer! Maybe there's hope for me. I'm trying to talk Mike into doing a gull workshop up in Duluth. If he does, I'll be there. After our full day of birding we headed back to Meadowlands to get on the bus for the evening owl prowl looking for Great Gray and Northern Hawk Owls in the bog. There weren't any Great Gray Owls seen all weekend. I felt bad for the birders that needed this beautiful owl for their life lists but in birding, that's the way it goes. I believe everyone at the festival got to see Northern Hawk Owls. We saw one on the owl prowl but it was waaaaaay cross a field and my photo looks like a dot.
Back at the Meadowlands Community Center for a wonderful dinner of pasties, our evening speaker was humorist/birder and Hartland, Minnesota native Al Batt. I've been lucky to hear Al speak twice before. He has a gentle sense of humor and is honestly the best story teller I've ever heard. A fine human being.
The alarm rang at 430AM on Sunday morning. I had a momentary thought:
Why do we do this birding thing??
The question receded as thoughts of the coming day- the people, the birds, the experiences and the laughter got me shuffling off the the shower and then to the layers upon layers of every imaginable thermal garment I could find. It was going to be a cold one with sharp winds from the north. I checked to be sure I had the 24-count pack of hand warmers in my bag.
Ruthie and I were thrilled to find that Al and Judd Brink, another great birder and very nice guy, were our trip leaders in the bog on Sunday. Off we go!

Gray Jays are one of my favorite birds. I got my lifer Gray Jay last year at this festival. They are total personality with feathers. Someone had put out dry dog food at one of the feeding stations and the Gray Jays loved it. These birds are fearless of people and have actually been known to follow campers looking for handouts.

A photographer watching at this feeding station had placed peanuts on the branches of this tree. Look at how this bird is prying the bark up looking for a nut. Unfortunately, our group wasn't able to find any Boreal Chickadees. I got my lifer here last year.
Here is a trip list (incomplete) for the weekend:
Snow Bunting
Red-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
Black-capped Chickadee
Purple Finch
Common Redpoll
Pine Siskin
Bald Eagle
Common Raven
Ruffed Grouse (many)
Rough-legged Hawk
Northern Shrike
Common Goldeneye
Common Merganser
White-winged Crossbill
Northern Hawk Owl
Pine Grosbeak
Glaucous Gull
Iceland Gull - LIFER!
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Pileated Woodpecker
American Robin
I got to add another blogger to my Blogger Life List!
Dee from the Crane Lake Nature Blog was at the festival. I've been reading her blog for quite a while and I was delighted to finally meet her. Be sure to check out this post and read about her MOOSE sighting in the bog!
Thank you Ruthie for traveling up north to the bog with me again.
You are such a good friend.
Thank you Mike for all of you hard work in putting this festival together.
Your love for the Sax-Zim bog is a wonderful thing to see.
Thank you to the fine townspeople of Meadowlands.
Your warmth and hospitality made us all feel welcome.

Northern Hawk Owl
Taken last year 2/14/2009 in the Sax-Zim Bog.

Great Gray Owl
Taken during the irruption year 1/29/2005


JKoenig said...

My, what an adventure! Those snow buntings looked almost too perfect--like they were figurines--and that beautiful blue sky in the background. It must have been lots of fun!

Mary said...


FABULOUS - all of it, just fabulous. I can't imagine how many laughs I missed...

The Snow Buntings are SWEET!


Marsha said...

What a wonderful time this must have been! I am so in love with your snow bunting photos - they are just so wonderful with the lighting and blue skies.

Jayme said last night the ice was all blown out and it was open water again.

possumlady said...

Gorgeous bird photos as usual, Lynne! I remember seeing all these little birds pecking mud behind our tundra buggies when I was up in Churchill, Manitoba. I asked our guide and, you guessed it, Snow Buntings!! Your photos put mine to shame though.

Glad you are having such a good time. Hey, is that all the snow you got up there??!!

Ruth's Photo Blog said...

I am almost tired just from reading about all this activity,mind you,it's a good tired.Sounds like sooo much fun.Love,love,love those Snow BUnting shots. This is certainly a chance of a life time.Glad you were able to capture such gorgeous images.

Lynne at Hasty Brook said...

Janice- Thank you. The sky was so very blue that day.

May- I love the Snow Buntings too. Ruthie and I laughed LOTS. Your name came up a few times....

Marsha- Your name came up too! Ruthie and I were talking about paying you a visit this summer. I had no idea that the lake ice up there moved back and forth.

Christine- You got WAAAAY more snow than we did. (hanging my Minnesota head in shame...)

Ruth- We went non-stop! It sure was fun though.

Carolyn H said...

Lynne: Wow! what an excellent road trip you had. That is unusual about the snow buntings. i've only ever seen them in fields or dirt roads--never near a tree, let alone in one. What a super weekend!

Carolyn H

Montanagirl said...

Lynn, your photos are fabulous. My goodness! And the Snow Buntings are just gorgeous. How I'd love to see one of those. Guess I'll have to settle for TV's! lol. Wonderful post, loved it.

The Early Birder said...

Hi Lynne. What a fabulous trip you had...if only it wasn't so far, far away!
I've never seen Snow Buntings in a tree (only on the ground). Great pics. FAB.

Tina said...

This was a fun post to read...sounds like you had a very nice time birding, spending time with friends and enjoying the out of doors...altho it sounded like the temps were rather chilly! I just love those snow buntings..you really captured some nice photos of them..such sweet looking birds. How I would like to see the great gray owl...I'm feeling just a tad jealous right now..but I am really glad you had such a fun time!!

RuthieJ said...

What a great post Lynne! I can't believe we went through the entire weekend together and still never ran out of stuff to talk and laugh about!
I love that hawk photo. I missed it flying away and you captured the action perfectly

dAwN said...

Excellent photos Lynne! A life bird..Excellent!
Looks like you and Ruthie had a great time together!

Anonymous said...

Hi Lynne,
Great post with wonderful photos
as usual! Submit that photo of
you and Ruthie to WILDBIRD and
maybe get it published in the
"on the fly" segment. Create even
more publicity for SAX-ZIM.

Hap in New Hope

Jayne said...

Sounds like it was such a great weekend! Glad you all had such a good time and were able to see so many birds. LOVE those Snow Buntings! The photos are just perfect Lynne!!!

Richard said...

Great weekend and even greater pictures.

cindyzlogic said...

Great post and photos, Lynne!! The Snowbunting is beautiful! How wonderful to get to see one and have the opportunity for photos! I really liked the Hawk Owl pic, too!

Beth said...

Great pictures, Lynnie. I am jealous of the snow buntings - they have been a target bird for me for quite some time. Sounds like a wonderful trip despite the cold. Miss you!

word verification: propso - as in props-on getting your gull lifer!

Shelley said...

What a great adventure! I didn't want these birdy photos to end! That snow bunting was extra fabulous!

Felicia said...

What great birds! Those Snow Buntings are adorable and must have been a real treat to see. That Great Gray Owl is also pretty impressive—you have some really neat birds up there!

NCmountainwoman said...

What an excellent good time. Wonderful photographs. Sorry you got so cold taking them for us.

jalynn01 said...

Makes me so homesick for a birding festival!!! Remembering WVA all over again.. Loved those buntings. I saw them only once and not even as close up and beautiful as yours are. Wow! The shot of the Northern Hawk Owl is wonderful too. Love it.
What with selling my dad's property...still doin that, and my husband having knee replacement the beginning of Feb....which makes me a nurse and a real estate agent... I have so very little time for birding and blogging...
Soon... soon when the weather breaks and things return to normal..:-)

Ruth said...

Your Snow Bunting pictures are amazing. I have never seen them anywhere but the side of the road or perched high on a wire. Love your Gray Jays...my most recent lifer. I looked for Boreal Chickadees too but likely would need help locating them.

Cathy said...


Glorious photos and such a lovely experience.

Those Minnesota winters may be harsh, but oh my - the beauty to be had.

Lynne, your photos are spectacular.
What camera are you using?

Kathiesbirds said...

Lynne, so much fun! How I wish I was there! Maybe I can do that next year for my birthday! I'm going to pose that question to Gus now, but I am only going if You are! The snow buntings are awesome. I saw my only ones when I lived in Maine. Found them in the school yard when I was picking up my kids! Many of the birds on your list would be lifers for me: Northern shrike for one, and of course the owls.

Kyle said...

Lynne, those snow buntings are absolutely beautiful! What great pics you got of them! The gray jays and those owls are pretty nice, too. Sounds like y'all had a great time at Sax-Zim.

KaHolly said...

What a fabulous day! And the pictures are astounding, esp. the buntings. I'm envious! ~karen

Larry said...

We have Snow Buntings in Connecticut but they are always on the ground blending in with the dirt.They never look so beautiful as they do in your photos.You are fortunate to have habitat that attracts the Boreal species to your area.I've only seen Gray Jays twice but I can see how you would put them near the top of your list.

Q said...

Dear Lynne,
I so enjoyed reading about your birding weekend and seeing your amazing photographs. It is one thing to spot the birds and another to get these wonderful photographs. Very nice! It looks as if it was worth the early morning rise and the cold!
Spring is awakening at my house so I am looking for the beginning of migration. A very exciting bird time in my backyard.

Dee said...

Hey Lynn, I finally figured it out! It was great meeting you up at Sax-Zim. What a great way to spend a cold wintery weekend - out in the beautiful bog!

ksdoolittle said...

I've awarded you a Sunshine Award. Check the details on my blog and feel free to pass it on. ~ks

Mel said...

Oh Lynne!
What a list!!! Beautiful pics too, I love that Woodpecker :)
Seems like Ruthie and you had an awesome time together!

dguzman said...

Wow wow wow wow!

Leedra said...

It looks like you had a wonderful time. And the Snow Buntings are gorgeous.

BTW - it is in the mail!

Laurie said...

Wow, wow, wow...what amazing pictures...and yes, I'm still alive and kickin!

Bill S. said...

What an amazing experience you had. Great pictures - Happy Easter.

Richard said...

I think it may be time for some spring pictures. I'm tired of looking at your snow ones....lol