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

Monday, February 01, 2010

Crabby Chickadee

Check out the eyebrows on this Black-capped Chickadee!
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