With high hopes, birders flock to Sax-Zim Bog festivalOn one weekend in mid-February each year, this quiet country buzzes with activity. Big yellow school buses crawl along the gravel roads. Inside the buses, with faces pressed to windows, ride dedicated birders bearing binoculars, spotting scopes and telephoto lenses.
By: Sam Cook, Duluth News Tribune
At first glance, the Sax-Zim Bog seems nondescript, empty and drab, especially on a cold day in February.
It is bog country, after all, low and damp. Abandoned hayfields are bordered by islands of spruce, tamarack and aspen. Tidy rural dwellings share the landscape with abandoned double-wide mobile homes.
But on one weekend in mid-February each year, this quiet country buzzes with activity. Big yellow school buses crawl along the gravel roads. Inside the buses, with faces pressed to windows, ride dedicated birders bearing binoculars, spotting scopes and telephoto lenses.
The birders come from across the country for the annual Sax-Zim Bog Winter Birding Festival. This year’s sixth annual festival runs from Friday through Sunday, with headquarters at the community center in Meadowlands, population 134.
With recent exposure in the New York Times and a mention in the birding movie “The Big Year,” the festival filled quickly to its maximum 153 participants, said founder Mike Hendrickson, a Duluth birder and birding guide.
“That New York Times story blew things up,” Hendrickson said. “It’s just crazy.”
He had to turn away at least 20 people, he said.
The festival provides a mid-winter boost to the few local businesses in Meadowlands and a motel in nearby Floodwood.
Participants pay from $110 to $175 depending on how many field trips and meals they want. With some of the money earned in the previous five years, the local development board bought bird-related banners for the town’s streets, Hendrickson said.
Best boreal birding
Few places in North America offer a better opportunity than the Sax-Zim Bog to see boreal birds such as great gray owls, northern hawk owls, boreal chickadees and northern finches. It isn’t that boreal species are scarce elsewhere, but the habitat and the lattice-work of rural roads in the bog allow birders close access to the birds.
Great grays, North America’s largest owls at 24 to 33 inches in height, are a big draw.
“It’s always that hope of seeing the phantom of the north,” says Mark “Sparky” Stensaas of Wrenshall, who is executive director of Friends of Sax-Zim Bog.
The bog has been designated an “Important Bird Area” by the National Audubon Society.
Some years, thousands of great grays move down from Canada to feast on meadow voles and red-backed voles in the bog’s meadows. Such events, called “irruptions,” are amazing. In the winter of 2004-05, about 5,200 great grays were estimated to winter in northern Minnesota, and birders flocked to the bog to see them.
This year, Stensaas said, is not such a year, but there are always a few resident owls around. They find the habitat perfect for hunting.
“They have places to roost and places to hunt,” Stensaas said.
Serious birders chase hard-to-find birds the way surfers chase big waves. Many birders keep detailed lists of birds they’ve seen. Boreal species such as owls, boreal chickadees, gray jays, black-backed woodpeckers, pine grosbeaks and white-winged crossbills are sought-after birds.
People like Hendrickson and others, including some rural residents, maintain feeder stations along roads, which draw and concentrate the birds. The buses stop. The birders pile out. The cameras click.
“Those boreal chickadees on Admiral Road are probably the most photographed boreal chickadees in North America,” Stensaas said.
Hendrickson conceived the idea for the festival the year after the big irruption of great gray owls. Meadowlands resident Helen Abramson called Hendrickson that year wondering why birders hadn’t returned. At a meeting with the local development board, Hendrickson said a festival might help draw birders on an annual basis, not just in irruption years.
“Originally, I thought we’d have everything in Duluth and just bus up there,” Hendrickson said. “They said, ‘No, we want it here.’ ”
The Toivola-Meadowlands Development Board rents the buses from the school district, organizes meals at the community center and takes care of registration. Hendrickson sets up the field trips and arranges birding guides. Birders from 35 states and two foreign countries have attended the festival over the years.
“The bottom line is, it has made the residents proud to have the birders in the area,” Hendrickson said.
In the irruption year of 2004-05, some birders would just stop in the middle of the road and set up a spotting scope if they saw a desirable bird. That annoyed local residents who were trying to use the roads. Now, in part because of the festival, most birders have improved their habits.
“People in the community are being more accepting of the birders,” said David Abramson, Helen’s husband.
Local residents mix with the birders at evening meals during the festival, he said.
Hendrickson said community residents aren’t interested in increasing the size of the festival, and that’s fine with him.
“They want to keep it this size,” he said. “I have such a strong love and fondness for the people up there. They put me on their development board. I’m going to stick with them.”