I took advantage of a free day on Monday to spend sometime tooling about the Sax-Zim Bog.
Birders come to the bog from all over the country and even from other countries. It’s the only Minnesota birding destination mentioned in both the book and the movie “The Big Year.” The kind of extreme birders who might get lost on the way to their neighborhood drug store know exactly where the best spots are on Admiral Road in the bog.
Yet neither private nor public entities have done much to call attention to it. The town of Cotton could have a sign proclaiming it “Gateway to the Sax-Zim Bog,” but it doesn’t. There aren’t any “birding route” signs, not even an indication of when you’re actually in the bog. As far as I’ve been able to discover, there are no public foot trails in the bog.
Except for the part about foot trails, this is not a complaint. I like that it’s almost a secret; the kind of place that you only know about if … you know about it.
Even though it’s close — under an hour’s drive from Duluth — I seldom visit the bog, and I drive around pretty much at random when I do go.
On Monday, I took U.S. 53 north from Duluth, then turned left on county Highway 52 (once you’re off 53, they’re all county highways) at Cotton. I took the first right turn — Reynolds Road, I think it is — and ended up back on U.S. 53, then took that back to 52 and started over. This time, I turned right on Highway 7, which seems like kind of the main drag of the bog — the road is paved and even has shoulders. I took a left on the road that purportedly leads to the Zim Town Hall, and another left on Highway 5, and then again on Highway 52, most of which is a dirt road. On Monday, it was covered with a thin layer of snow and ice in the shady spots. During that section of the drive, I stopped briefly at Owl Avenue just because it’s called Owl Avenue.
When I got back to Highway 53, I stopped for a slice of pie and a cuppa tea at the Wilbert Cafe in Cotton. I wondered how many real birders had stopped at that cafe, which has been existence since 1922 and has gone through several fires and changes of ownership.
As for birds, I didn’t see much. The thrill was a raptor along Highway 7. It posed for me twice, close to the road, and I managed to get a blurry photo:
It was not blurry in real life, but when you have the camera at maximum zoom and hold it with an unsteady hand, blur is what you get.
I think it is a first-year red-tailed hawk, but I’m willing to be corrected.
I just discovered a birder-oriented map of the bog that I wish I had found before my drive. You can view it here:
One more note regarding a red-tailed hawk, and it’s a sad one. The New York Times reported that the matriarch of a red-tailed hawk family known through a New York City bird cam has a serious leg injury and is in danger of losing her right leg.
The hawk, known as Violet, is shown in video with her leg dangling uselessly, her foot gray from lack of blood flow. It’s not clear what cased the injury, the Times reported. The hawk cam is down for this season.
Your bird pictures and stories welcome at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pileated woodpeckers are a rare sight for me, but not for Jeannette Lang, who lives in the Lake Ahmeek area of Bayfield County, Wis. She sent these lovely, snowy pictures of a pileated that’s a regular visitor to their feeders:
And as to the question Todd Fedora raised about whether the bears are still out to pillage birdfeeders, Lang said most bears have been in the den for a month and some for two months. She suggests bear.org for daily updates on bear whereabouts.
All things about birds, including your pictures, welcomed with thanksgiving at: email@example.com.
Selected short subjects:
My best bird moment of the past week was on Monday while I was raking leaves. I looked up and saw a pileated woodpecker on a neighbor’s tree. It saw me at the same moment, I think, and quickly flew off in the other direction. I haven’t seen it since then, unfortunately. But it had been quite a while since I had seen any pileated at all, and a quick look is better than no look at all.
And here’s something for parents who homeschool their children, although perhaps it would be of interest to other parents as well. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has developed BirdSleuth, a curriculum for homeschoolers. It comes with a multitude of resources, and Cornell Lab even offers a homeschooler’s blog. It looks like so much fun I almost wish I could be homeschooled. The link is here:
The question of the week comes from Todd Fedora: Is it safe to put birdfeeders out? In other words, have the bears hibernated? If it’s true that bears hibernate when snow first covers the ground, perhaps most of the Northland is bear-free for now. It’s not an issue at the Wannabe ranch, where the biggest animals seen are the occasional deer and raccoon.
Questions, answers, pictures and stories about birds earnestly accepted here: firstname.lastname@example.org.
It’s almost time for Christmas … Bird Counts.
The annual opportunity to spend a day counting every bird you see and turning your results in to the Audubon Society occurs at various locales during the last couple of weeks in December.
In Minnesota, the big day is Dec. 17, when there are 14 Christmas Bird Counts, including Duluth and Grand Marais. Two Harbors, Grand Rapids and Carlton-Cloquet all have Christmas Bird Counts on Dec. 18, Ely on Dec. 23 and Pine County on Dec. 26.
You might not be thinking about this yet, but birders are. They’re already commenting on The Big Day on the Minnesota Ornithological Union’s listserv. Carl Greiner, who lives in Chatfield, Minn., and is the state’s Christmas Bird Count coordinator, recently had some fun offering his predictions for this year’s sightings. Here are a few of them:
* Warmer statewide temperatures and less snow than last year.
* Harlequin ducks in Hastings and on the North Shore.
* A wolf will be seen in Beltrami State Forest.
* Six species of gulls will be recorded.
* Duluth will have a rarity, my crystal ball is fuzzy but it could be a gray-crowned rosy finch.
* An eastern bluebird north of the Cities.
Remember, those are Mr. Greiner’s predictions, not mine. My prediction is that I’ll at least see a pigeon and a chickadee. Probably.
Your predictions, pictures and stories about birds gleefully welcomed at: email@example.com.
I finally saw “The Big Year,” the movie about three birders competing to see the most species of birds in North America in a single year. It’s loosely based on the entertaining book “The Big Year,” which is about three real birders who engaged in the competition.
The movie stars Jack Black, Steve Martin and Owen Wilson as the obsessed birders. It has gotten tepid reviews. For what it’s worth, I enjoyed it. It was better than the trailer, which made the movie appear to be all slapstick. The movie has more depth than that suggests. It strangely reminded me of one of the few other Steve Martin movies I’ve seen, the remake of “Father of the Bride.” Most of the shots of birds go by too fast, but the camera dwells on bald eagles in a courting ritual, a pink-footed goose and a great gray owl. I don’t think you’d have to be a bird-watcher to be captivated by those shots, but perhaps I’m wrong.
As for local connections, Sax-Zim Bog is mentioned twice in the movie, Duluth once. That’s when the character Wilson portrays — the most obsessed, least likable of the three — is depicted in a Chinese restaurant in Duluth on Christmas Eve, having been up to the bog in hoping of adding a snowy owl to his list for the year. That’s a scene right out of the real-life birder’s big year. But the restaurant in the movie doesn’t look remotely like any Chinese restaurant in Duluth.
Someone else pointed out that none of the three birders in the movie uses a spotting scope. That’s not credible. No hard-core birder in real life would rely only on binoculars. Can’t say that it bothered me, though. It’s only a movie, after all, and its intent is to entertain.
In real-life birding, it has been fun to see the fall migrants come through, particularly juncos. Sparrows have been moving in and out, as well, and last week I saw my first white-breasted nuthatch of the fall.
Sadly, I also found a cedar waxwing dead on my front sidewalk. Although I see cedar waxwings frequently, I hadn’t see one near my house for several years. But apparently they come around.
The only good thing about it being dead was that I got to study it up close. It’s a beautiful bird, exquisitely colored.
Your “Big Year” reviews, observations and pictures welcome at: firstname.lastname@example.org.