The birds of Sax-Zim Bog are well fed because the many wonderful volunteers there see to it that feeders are filled daily and the area is pristine, devoid of trash. Late one morning as we watched the Barred Owl, I noticed one of the Black-capped Chickadees grab something on the snow, then fly to a perch. It had found a small piece of plastic, a discarded wrapper in this otherwise pristine place. The wrapper appeared to have some residue that attracted the bird to it, peanut butter or candy perhaps. I was sorry to see that but the adorable Chickadee eventually dropped the piece of plastic and resumed foraging for something healthier.
The Barred Owl at Sax-Zim Bog seemed content to hang out on its perch without much movement until its attention was suddenly drawn to the snow bank beneath the tree. Apparently, the sounds of a small rodent caught its attention. It peered intently at the snow for a few minutes. Then suddenly, it plunged into the snow, peered around for a few seconds, and realized it had caught nothing. The owl returned to its perch and relaxed again waiting for the next opportunity to feast.
What’s in a name? When it comes to the Canada Jay, quite a lot, actually. The Canada Jay only recently reclaimed that name after losing it in 1957 when the American Ornithologists’ Union changed its common name to Gray Jay. And despite the fact that most of these birds live in every Canadian province, and only a few live in some of the United States, this organization bestowed the American spelling of “gray” instead of the Canadian spelling of “grey.” In 2018, the same organization, now called the American Ornithological Society restored the name to Canada Jay. There is an ongoing campaign in Canada now to designate the Canada Jay as Canada’s Official bird.
Despite its eponymous name, I photographed this Canada Jay in Minnesota at the Sax-Zim Bog. I have always loved jays and this jay is every bit as charming and gregarious as the Scrub Jays that I love and it is actually much more adorable.
One of the charms of Sax-Zim Bog is the dedication of the volunteers who maintain this 300 square mile “important bird area” located in the water-shed of Lake Superior. Lots of the birds that visit the area are drawn to the feeders that locals keep well stocked with seed and peanut butter. Lots of birds enjoy the lumps of peanut butter slathered on logs and sticks and tree trunks. We watched Canada Jays, Black-capped Chickadees, and both Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers peck at the frozen sticky lumps. This Hairy Woodpecker has a taste for peanut butter.
Next week, I’ll be visiting the Wind River Range in Wyoming which is home to the largest wintering Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep herd in North America. Instead of photographing birds, I’ll be photographing beasts. Last year when I was there, the minus sixteen degree temperatures were the coldest I’d ever experienced. That was eclipsed last week by the minus 31 degrees at Sax-Zim Bog in Minnesota. It won’t be as cold this year for which I am grateful and I’m looking forward to photographing some Rocky Mountain Bighorns. Last year, we watched a small band of four rams that seemed to stick together and went everywhere together. In this shot, the quartet had just descended the cliffs and were heading toward the ewes.
The light was beautiful on our first day at Winterberry Bog with the Barred Owl. And our subject was very cooperative. I was pleased to discover that the Barred Owl was very patient and didn’t seem to be bothered by people as long as they respected the owl’s space.
Sax-Zim Bog in the winter is home to lots of bird species, including the Black-capped Chickadee. The Friends of Sax-Zim Bog call the area the Arctic Riviera. I’m certain about the “Arctic” part, suspicious of the “Riviera” part but after experiencing minus 31 degrees there and a couple hours later actually feeling warmer when the tempertures rose to minus 17 degrees, maybe there’s something to that declaration. Many of the locals embrace the goal of the Friends of Sax-Zim Bog to protect the area for future generations of birds & birders. They put out feeders throughout the area, some at their homes. Others, like Loretta’s Feeders, are placed in a field along a pathway that disppears into the woods. Most of the birds we saw at Loretta’s Feeders were birds like Black-capped Chickadees, Red-Breasted Nuthatches, and Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers. The Chickadees move fast. It was a challenge to capture them on camera.
We went to Sax-Zim Bog in Minnesota to see owls. And, we saw owls—four new species of owl for me. During the first three days, we saw the Barred Owl and the Northern Hawk Owl a couple of times each and had time to photograph them. We saw a single Snowy Owl perched atop a distant hummock, too far away to photograph. But, the small Boreal Owl, which we knew had been sighted, eluded us until Friday morning when we stopped on the way to the Duluth Airport. We spent more than an hour and a half photographing the small, ten inch owl which was content to sit on a small branch overlooking a feeding station that drew other birds and rodents, potential meals for it. A Blue Jay screamed at it from a higher branch but most of the small birds and squirrels that visited the feeding station went about their business and ignored the owl.
The day started at minus 31 degrees. That is a mind-numbing temperature as well as finger-numbing, hand-numbing, whole-body numbing and as the thermometer dropped, we were at Winterberry Bog, part of the Sax-Zim Bog complex hoping to see the Barred Owl we’d photographed the day before. The Barred Owl did not make an appearance but I did get out of the vehicle and walked around so that I could experience that lung-freezing cold. It hurt to inhale! I didn’t expect to ever top last year’s minus 16 degrees in Dubois, Wyoming but the past couple of days at Sax-Zim Bog in Minnesota have much been colder than that. We stuck to our plan to search for other owls in the bog and an hour or so later, we saw the Northern Hawk Owl perched high atop a pine tree near a farm off Arkola Road. By this time, the outside temperature had risen to -17° and I managed to tolerate the sub-zero temperatures for about an hour before I had to retreat to the vehicle to get my beaver mittens. By 1PM, the temperature had risen to about 10° and by comparison with the earlier temperatures we were fairly comfortable. And, as if to reward our stamina, the Northern Hawk Owl had flown to a wire on the edge of the road and we were able to get much closer to photograph it.
This Barred Owl from Sax-Zim Bog in Northern Minnesota was a cooperative subject. I presume because it was the middle of the day and that’s when these diurnal creatures usually sleep, the owl was content to perch on the side of the road on a broken snag in an Aspen not bothered by the handful of birders and photographers gaping up at it. It dozed, it eyed the snow covered area beneath it for a potential meal, it stared directly into my lens. And, although we hoped it would grace us with its presence for as long as we wanted, it suddenly flew into the canopy of trees behind it and disappeared.