By Skyler Vold
As the sun crept up further over the treetops, we stood in the grass clearing, staring in amazement at the show playing out in front of us. The world’s largest owl (lengthwise), the Great Gray, was hunting right before our eyes. We watched while it perched and scanned the ground below for any sign of movement, then dove down to grab an unsuspecting rodent from the snow. We watched the owl carry on in this manner for about thirty minutes before retreating back into the dense cover of trees.
This was the highlight of our trip up to the Sax Zim Bog, a birding hotspot located about half of an hour north of Duluth, in mid-February. I had been looking forward to the trip ever since I began planning for it last fall. Most birders have had the experience of planning a trip to a new location. We make up a list (mental or physical) of every possible species we might see, from common to rare. We break down the days of our trip and map out the area, designating in what habitat we may find each bird. One thing I enjoy so much about birding is that even with all this planning and mapping, nothing is guaranteed. You never know what you are going to come across, or on the other hand, what you might miss. Birding would be no fun if we were able to just go somewhere and see every species that was there. For me, I never really get disappointed if I miss a certain species because it is always something I expect. Quite often I find myself saying repeating the phrase, “Well, that’s birding,” when I fail to find what I set out to see. (If you can relate to any of my interpretations, or agree/disagree with any of my opinions, please feel free to comment.
This, however, was not the case on our trip to the Bog, as I didn’t have a single thing that could have provoked disappointment. Earlier that morning, just after it was light enough to see, we were treated to a performance by half a dozen Sharp-tailed Grouse. They would chase each other, gliding low back and forth over the grass, then scuttle around with their heads down as if they were trying to hide from each other. The whole show was really quite comical and we were sorry to have to move on, but we had a lot of ground to cover. Not even a mile down the road we came across another target bird, a Black-billed Magpie. Two lifers in the first half hour of daylight; not bad! Next we figured it was warm enough by that time (5 degrees F) to go for the Great Gray Owl, which had been seen previously at a spot that was open to public hiking. Upon our arrival, we met a group of birders who had seen our highly desired owl only five minutes earlier. We followed their advice and were rewarded with our first distant looks at the magnificent creature. Even from that distance, it was easy to see just how large this bird really appears to be, even though it is only a fraction of a Snowy or Great Horned owl’s weight. We were able to move up closer, next to a couple of other photographers, to get excellent looks and decent photos to top it off.
Once the owl had retreated back into the woods, we set out to explore the remainder of the area, picking up Black-backed Woodpecker, White-winged Crossbill, and Gray Jay. Next on the agenda was a stop at the feeders along Admiral Road, and then Blue Spruce Road. Both spots offered us new species, with the adorable Boreal Chickadee on Admiral Rd and Evening and Pine Grosbeaks on Blue Spruce Rd.
With an outstanding morning under our belt, we grabbed a well-deserved lunch and then made our way to the next stop. A trip to Duluth in the winter cannot be complete without a stop to check out the gulls at Canal Park. I am very glad we were able to meet up with Peder Svingen when it came to the gulls, as he is an expert in gull I.D., even down to the plumage cycle of each bird. With his help, we picked up six more species for our trip list: Herring, Ring-billed, Glaucous, Great Black-backed, Iceland, and Thayer’s gulls. After learning a few tips from Peder, I feel confident about my own ability to correctly identify each of these gull species on our trip next year.
The phrase “quality above quantity” usually doesn’t pertain to birding, as many birders are after the numbers. However, in reference to winter birding at the Sax Zim Bog, “quality above quantity” fits perfectly. The trip might not yield twenty to thirty lifers, but the birds that can be viewed here are more important than just a check mark on a list. Anyone who has witnessed the majesty of a Great Gray Owl in flight, with its silent but powerful wing beats, knows exactly what I mean by this.
About the author: Skyler Vold is a 17-year-old birder from Lamberton, Minnesota. He got hooked on birding in the summer of 2010 during a trip to Kansas with a good friend, who, he says, deserves a majority of the credit for turning him into a birder. The single bird that really provoked Skyler’s interest in birds was an American Avocet that was foraging in a cattle run-off pond right off of the highway. He said that when he was able to correctly identify it with field guide, it was one of those “ah-ha!” moments that made him want to find and identify more bird species. Another reinforcement of his newfound hobby (soon to be addiction) was a stop at the Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area in Central Kansas. “I can still remember how I felt when a Black-necked Stilt was circling ten feet above my head like a Rock Pigeon,” Skyler says. The multiple flocks of White-faced Ibises and shorebirds at the Bottoms also contributed to his early interest in birding and opened up a whole new world for Skyler. Ever since then, he has been trying to soak in as much knowledge about birds and birding as possible. Skyler’s other hobbies include nature photography, hiking, writing, and golfing. Skyler attended VENT’s Camp Chiricahua in the summer of 2011, where met thirteen other young birders who really amazed and inspired him with all they knew and shared with him.