A series of old farm roads through the partially drained bogs of northern Minnesota doesn’t look like anyone’s idea of a warm winter getaway. But for dozens of boreal bird species, the meadows, rivers, and aspen uplands of Sax-Zim Bog are just the spot to spend the winter months.
“We call it the Arctic Riviera,” says naturalist Sparky Stensaas, head of Friends of Sax-Zim Bog, with a wry chuckle. He has photographed hundreds of wintering birds there, including the elusive Great Gray Owl. “This is a winter destination. It’s their Bahamas or Florida.”
Sax-Zim Bog is uniquely suited to the needs of many birds migrating from the far north. Part of the Lake Superior watershed, the Important Bird Area is a perfect mix of giant black spruce and tamarack bogs, with hay fields and meadows leftover from failed attempts to drain the bogs and establish a farming foothold in the early 1900s. Those fields are filled with the meadow voles that owls and other raptors come to feast on. And the mostly failed agricultural past also left behind a network of roads that make the area accessible to birders and photographers.
Stensaas’ group keeps a welcome center open from mid-December to mid-March (10 a.m.-3 p.m., 7 days a week) that serves as a gateway for many of the 2,050 seasonal visitors. The bog is a destination for photographers looking to snap boreal species without trekking through the taiga. “This is where you go to get all the northern species most efficiently,” Stensaas says. “Most are happy to do it.”
Today the area is thinly populated, with only a few residents remaining in the two ghost towns that the bog is named for. “In total, I think there’s two gas stations, one café, and one bar,” Stensaas says. “And a grand total of two outhouses. People kind of have to plan to get gas when they can and go to the bathroom when they can.” Most visitors stay about an hour away in Duluth, the closest city with major hotels.
Photographers will want to bring extra batteries, as frigid weather will quickly drain power and recharging is not an option in the bog. Tripods are also good to have for the low-light times when owls are most active. Shooting through a 200-millimeter lens will do the job on most days, but the 400- to 600-millimeter range is better.
Visitors are encouraged to bring their warmest clothing and boots for winter excursions as temperatures often drop to 20-below zero on the bog. Hand and foot warmers are recommended. Although most photography is done by car, heat shimmer can create a distortion in photos on bitter cold days. Plan accordingly. For the intrepid shutterbug, snowshoes are available for rent at the welcome center.
Although Sax-Zim Bog is known for its variety of boreal species, including a number of northern owls rarely seen in the United States, there are no guarantees. Those hoping for a specific species can monitor activity at the bog before they leave on one of several Facebook groups, where members share photos of recently sighted Boreal Chickadees, Red-Breasted Nuthatches, or Great Gray Owls.
“We have a whole different cast of characters every winter,” Stensaas says. He hopes this winter will bring another owl irruption, similar to the one in the winter of 2004 and 2005. “That year you could go out and see over a hundred Great Gray Owls,” he says. Such events are rare, but Stensaas thinks the bog is due for another big year.
Directions, a list of available tour guides, and an annotated map of the 300-square-mile area’s roads and birding hotspots can all be found on the Friends of Sax-Zim Bog website. There are also a limited number of spots for the 10th Annual Sax-Zim Bog Winter Birding Festival, which takes place from February 17-19, 2017. It features field trips, natural-history talks, and a photo workshop.