Fan-tailed Warbler

Fan-tailed Warbler

Friday, February 5, 2016

The Call of the Wild: A Far North Birding Adventure - Sax-Zim Bog


Many non-birders will think I have lost all common sense by planning and taking a trip to Minnesota in January to go birding.  After all, January is probably the coldest month to visit this amazing state, but this is the place and time to find many birds that flourish in the cold of the winter can be found.  

This all started back in 2015 when excellent birding friend Tommy Debardeleben and I teamed up to assist a birder and his son from Minnesota find some birds in Arizona when they came to visit.  Josh Wallested and his son, Evan, now has a connection with Arizona since his parents now reside in Arizona for part of the year.  As we showed them some great life birds in southeastern Arizona, Josh extended an invitation to go to Minnesota for some winter birding.  It did not take Tommy and I long to make the decision to plan a trip, so we decided to take Josh up on his offer and we planned a trip in January 2016.  Having spent my youth in Nebraska, I had an idea of what was in store for us as far as the weather, but even colder.  Tommy had never been this far north and had not been on an airplane in about 20 years, so this was quite an experience for him.  But with his love of owls, he was as excited as a kid in a candy shop because this place offered some new species of owls for him to add to his life list.  

We arrived in the late afternoon with just a small window of daylight left, and Josh immediately took us to a couple of spots near the airport to look for a couple of owls.  Although we did not find them in this small window of daylight, we did manage to locate them on the day of our return.  But that will be covered in a later blog post.  We had a drive of about 3½ hours to arrive at Josh's parent house where we were to stay and use as our base camp.  We were up very early the next morning and visiting Sax-Zim Bog was going to be our first day objective.  Josh had diligently scouted the area and had made contacts with many of his excellent birding friends in Minnesota as to where Great Gray Owls had been spotted in the previous days.  With his acute knowledge, we headed to some of the spots where these magnificent birds had been reported.  It was dark at that hour and by riding in the back seat, I missed out on the first bird of Minnesota that Tommy had found which was the Common Raven. Having arrived the night before at sundown and starting out before daylight did not produce much in bird sightings for me.  At our second stop, we drove the road slowly and on the second pass, Tommy spotted a Great Gray Owl and we quickly came to a halt and what a stunning bird and a great first bird for me in Minnesota.  We spent almost 45 minutes with this awesome creature as it spent its time honing in on sounds under the snow where its prey might be hiding.  They have acute hearing and will plunge into the snow with its talons to capture any rodents that might be foraging under the snow.  In length, this is the largest owl in North America, but not the heaviest.  This was our first lifer of the day for both Tommy and myself. 

Great Gray Owl

We finally had to leave after this one flew deeper into the deep woods of the bog.  Josh had mentioned that timing was critical on our next stop and next new bird for us: Sharp-tailed Grouse.  On the way, we met up with a couple of tour buses that had stopped to admire a Porcupine napping in a tree.  It is always a treat to see one of these mammals, even if they are sleeping and fail to show themselves very well.


We arrived at our next destination right on time and as if on cue, the Sharp-tailed Grouse were far out in a snow covered field and strutting and dancing.  They eventually came in to a farm house that had feeders outside and we got to see them up close and personal.  This was a bird that I knew was possible, but really did not expect to see it as most game birds can be quite easily spooked.  At the same time, a large flock of Common Redpolls landed on a nearby house roof.  The combination of Sharp-tailed Grouse and Common Redpolls gave us life bird numbers 2 and 3.  More on the Redpolls later in the blog as they were by far the most common and numerous of all the birds we saw on that day.

 Sharp-tailed Grouse

Eventually we made our way to the Visitor's Center of Sax-Zim Bog.  For those that are unfamiliar with this place, this spot is well know for the birding opportunities and the locals are very pleased to see the birders.  Even some of their roads are named for the birds.  Every year there is a big birding festival held at Sax-Zim Bog.  

On the way to the Visitor's Center, I added my 4th new lifer to my list, a Northern Shrike, but it did not stay around for any photos.  At the Visitor's Center we had to purchase a couple of souvenirs and then spend time observing their feeders.  What a hopping place with lots of Common Redpolls, Black-capped Chickadees, a few Gray Jays and some awesome Pine Grosbeaks.

 Common Redpoll

 Black-capped Chickadee

 Gray Jay

 Pine Grosbeak - Male

 Pine Grosbeak and Common Redpoll-Interesting to compare the size of these birds!

 Pine Grosbeak - Female

Hairy Woodpecker - Female

Next stop was the feeders on Admiral Road.  The staff at the Visitor's Center mentioned that the peanut butter had already been placed out there and it was the major draw for the Boreal Chickadee.  Once we arrived, the feeders were constantly being used by the Black-capped Chickadees and a very obliging Red Squirrel.  After a few minutes, we heard the unique and different call notes of a Boreal Chickadee and shortly after that it came in to feed on the peanut butter.  Lifer number 5 for me and number 4 for Tommy. 

 Boreal Chickadee

 Red Squirrel

Gray Jays like peanut butter as well, even in the cold wind!

 Gray Jay

Finally as darkness approached, we had one more new bird to add in the fading light, Ruffed Grouse.  In the waning light of the day, plus the fact that this bird was well back in the trees, focusing and good photos were not meant to be, but adding a 6th life bird on the first day was quite impressive.

 Ruffed Grouse

Josh and Tommy

A cold, exhausting, but awesome first day of birding in the far north!  Much more to come with at least 3 more posts from this trip.


  1. Very nice Gordon. All excellent great birds. Looks like a wonderful place to bird. You gotta love birding in the Midwest. Those are some sweet birds:)

    1. Numbers of species were small compared to some of the outings in AZ, but even though small, the quality was over the top!

      Thanks Chris!

  2. Gordon, I love the title of this post--very fun and fitting.

    You got some great shots, but I particularly like the Gray Jay looking back. You mostly see frontal shots, but this photo showed off some striking contrast on this bird. And you know how I feel about those BOCH shots... That experience was a gift for all of us. Those Ruffed Grouse shots are amazing because I remember what horrible conditions we viewed it in. You can even see it's a beautiful red phase--my favorite!

    Congrats on seeing all these cool birds!

    1. Josh, We never would have gotten all these great birds without you! You are an awesome birder with some incredible contacts. The RUGR photos definitely needed a bit more exposure in processing, thanks to photoshop! Maybe next time, we will get something better.

      Thanks once again for all your time and effort and securing all these wonderful birds for us!

  3. Awesome post, Gordon! I really enjoyed reading it and you explained our first day and trip up very well. It was a fun day of birding with you and Josh and it was awesome for us to seemingly get lifer after lifer.

    You always capture the photographs so well Gordon and your an excellent photographer. You crushed all of the birds and you even made the Ruffed Grouse look amazing despite the lighting and circumstances we had in viewing that bird. I don't know how you pulled that off, but I'm very impressed!!

    1. Tommy,
      Thanks for the kudos, but without Photoshop, my photos would have been much worse. One of the benefits of shooting in RAW is that the image captured by the camera hold so much more detail and with a decent photo processing software, it give one a bit more to work with and bring out some of the details a bit more.

      Looking forward to all of your posts on this incredible trip.