Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Friday, January 30, 2015

Birding in the Sax-Zim Bog

Great Gray Owl
Saving dessert till last!
On January 28, I went out to the Sax-Zim Bog with my friend Bruce Pomeroy. We both wanted to see some northern specialties for the new year, plus I was scouting out the area because I’ll be taking a friend from Florida there this weekend and want to find as many northern birds as I can for him. The temperature was mild—it stayed at exactly 27 degrees during the 5 hours we were there—but it was windy and murky all day. Except at or near the main bird feeding stations, we didn’t see all that many birds, but the ones we saw were wonderful and we had a splendid day.

Usually I drive into the bog via Highway 133—the road into Meadowlands—but you can’t drive very slowly because traffic is pretty steady. So this time I followed the winter driving tour route that my friend Ben Yokeldeveloped and posted on the Friends of Sax-Zim Bog website. That route brought me in via Lake Nichols Road, a mile or so north of Hwy. 133. Along that road we had a nice flock of Pine Grosbeaks and Purple Finches, and got into the spirit of winter bog birding.

Evening  Grosbeak and Purple Finch
Purple Finch and Evening Grosbeak
A few people who live in the bog have been maintaining splendid bird feeding stations open for public viewing, volunteers maintain a few roadside feeders, and there’s a fantastic station at the new Friends of the Sax-Zim Bog visitor center on Owl Avenue. Most of these are clearly marked on the map available for free at the visitor center. The feeding station there was the best we saw all day. We had at least 150 Common Redpolls and a pair of Gray Jays as well as the usual winter birds. We went inside to warm up and visit with Frank Nicoletti, who is the host on Tuesdays and Wednesdays through mid-March. Frank is a professional owl bander and bird guide, and is exceptionally generous with information, so he’s an amazing resource. Frank sat down with me and went over all the hotspots he’s been bringing people to this year. Since I’ve spent so little time in the bog in the past few years, his advice was especially welcome.

Common Redpoll
Common Redpoll
A few deer hunters donate rib cages to the Friends of the Sax-Zim Bog organization, and some of these were set up near the visitor center, to draw in special birds. Two Gray Jays spend a lot of time feeding on and even inside the ribcage closest to the windows. Some of the carcasses in the bog also have attracted ermines this year—these weasels in their pure white winter pelts are especially beautiful, but it takes patience and time to see and photograph one. I’m still waiting for that.

Looking out the windows from the center, we not only got great looks at those Gray Jays and Blue Jays, but also enjoyed a constant flurry of activity by redpolls at the feeders.
Evening Grosbeaks are far rarer than they were in the 1980s, but have been showing up in more places this winter than in the past few years. We didn’t get all the way to the area shown in the northwestern corner of the bog map, so missed what’s called “Mary Lou’s Feeders” which are supposed to be a grosbeak bonanza, but we’ll certainly get there this weekend.

In mid-afternoon, we headed down Admiral Road to check out the birds at the feeders along the road. It was quiet—I didn’t bring peanut butter, and the Boreal Chickadees and Gray Jays in the area only seem to come in for that—but our biggest treat of the entire day came on that stretch of road, even before we got to the feeders. A Great Gray Owl sat in a tree.

Great Gray Owl
Great Gray Owl

Three or four birders were photographing it when we got there, so we couldn’t have missed it, though it was sitting in some spruce branches at exactly the height I was searching trees as I drove, so we probably would have seen it even without them. The bird glanced our way a few times. A Great Gray’s glittering eyes make even the most casual glance seem far more intense and meaningful than it probably intends, and it was mostly looking this way and that, actively hunting. It moved down the road, and after a few final photos we left it to hunt in peace. Bog birding always provides a splendid feast, but the memories are somehow even more satisfying when we save the dessert for last.

Great Gray Owl
Final shot of Great Gray Owl