MEADOWLANDS - It's a quiet midweek afternoon in the Sax-Zim Bog, and Loretta Bickford clomps through a foot of snow in an oversized parka and snow pants. She carries a five-gallon pail of black-oil sunflower seeds.
Bickford, 50, is refilling some of the 41 birdfeeders she tends near the farm where she lives with her husband, Mark, in Kelsey Township. Her quarter-mile network of trails that weave among the feeders has become a regular stop for birders visiting the bog from around the country and around the world.
Over the past several years, through the efforts of the group Friends of Sax-Zim Bog and local residents like Bickford, the bog's popularity has increased dramatically. Most birders come in winter to add great gray owls, northern hawk owls, and an assortment of woodpeckers and northern songbirds to their "life lists."
The birds are here because of the unique bog habitat.
"It's the magic mix of large tamarack-spruce bogs interspersed with old hayfields, meadows, rivers, lakes and upland aspen and maple that these northern birds find irresistible," says Mark "Sparky" Stensaas of Wrenshall, founder and executive director of Friends of Sax-Zim Bog.
Birders, many bearing cameras and hefty telephoto lenses, converge on this otherwise sleepy country of small farms about 40 miles northwest of Duluth.
The bog gained popularity through the convergence of several events in the past 15 years, says Stensaas. The first event was natural - what birders call an "irruption" of great gray owls in the winter of 2004-05, when more than 5,000 of the hungry raptors descended from the north to Minnesota, many wintering in the bog. National Audubon Society members were astounded when in that winter's Christmas Bird Count, 10 birders counted 70 great gray owls and 42 hawk owls in a 15-mile-diameter circle - in a single day. Both are Christmas Bird Count records.
Soon after that, Duluth's Mike Hendrickson, along with people from the community of Meadowlands, launched the Sax-Zim Bog Birding Festival, a gathering of birders and local residents. The 11th annual festival was held a week ago.
The final factor?
"Facebook," Stensaas says.
Hendrickson manages the Sax-Zim Bog Facebook page. The page added another 2,000 followers this winter, driving the total to nearly 5,000, Hendrickson says.
"The growth of the Sax-Zim Bog is on same level as back in the day when people thought the place to go was Arizona or South Texas," Hendrickson says. "It's right there as a destination for all birders who need to see a great gray owl or a Connecticut warbler."
Making it official
Recognizing the potential of the bog for birders, and with a concern about losing the unique bog habitat, Stensaas formed Friends of Sax-Zim Bog in 2011. (The bog is named for two small towns in the area, Sax and Zim.) The group built a welcome center on Owl Avenue in 2013-14. Last winter, 2,670 birders visited the center, coming from 38 states and five foreign countries, Stensaas says.
The center's website, splashed liberally with Stensaas' stunning photos, is a source of information for visitors planning trips to the bog. Those who have seen the bog grow in popularity give much of the credit to Stensaas, an unassuming naturalist, photographer and book publisher.
"Everything you see there is 90 percent Sparky," says Duluth's Kim Eckert, a legendary Minnesota birder and birding guide. "He's just amazing."
Mark Dudek Johnson, a volunteer naturalist manning the Friends' welcome center this past week, agrees.
"There's a place in heaven for Sparky," Johnson says. "And it's a bog."
Under Stensaas' leadership, the Friends group has bought 383 acres of land in six different parcels in the bog. One of the group's goals is to preserve the mature stands of spruce and tamarack that are essential to owls and other northern species. This blend of bog and timber simply isn't found anywhere else, Stensaas says.
The Friends group has worked hard to embrace the local community, including people like Bickford whose feeders offer birders glimpses of birds they've never seen before - so-called "lifers."
"I've witnessed people out on my trail weeping because they've not only seen one 'lifer' but hundreds of the one lifer they saw," Bickford says. "I've seen more than one person cry out there. That is the blessing I wanted to give people."
At the opposite end of the bog, resident Mary Lou Ysen-Freyholtz, 65, tends 25 feeders and invites birders to enter her circle drive to observe them. She provides a heated porta-potty for the birders. On Wednesday afternoon, as she replenished the feeders, flocks of pine siskins, common redpolls, hairy woodpeckers, chickadees and a mourning dove flitted about. Earlier, about 100 evening grosbeaks had come to feed.
"It has changed my world quite a bit really," Ysen-Freyholtz says. "I wasn't real familiar with the Sax-Zim Bog thing."
Now her feeding station, along with those of Bickford and other feeders, are marked on the maps handed out to visiting birders. Birders tour the bog on back roads, scanning the trees for owls and visiting feeding stations to see songbirds.
Ysen-Freyholtz's feeding station has become a destination.
"It became quite famous in a short time," she says. "At first, I had no idea what was going on - all these tire prints and footprints. I'd say, 'What are you doing here?' "
She soon embraced the visitors. Many leave donations for her and for Bickford, and the Friends group offers grants to help cover the cost of feeding birds.
All of the bog's newfound popularity has created a modest economic boom in the area. Several guides, most based in Duluth, stay busy in winter months guiding birders on day-long tours in the bog.
"Nationally and even internationally, it's got the reputation of being a place you can see not just birds but wildlife in general," says Duluth guide John Richardson. "You can see these birds really well, not just in winter for owls, but for lesser-known species that you can't find very easily anywhere else in the Lower 48 states."
The guides and their clients often have breakfast or lunch at the Wilbert Cafe in nearby Cotton. Sandy Simek bought the restaurant in 2004, the winter of the great gray owl irruption.
"I never expected anything like this," Simek says. "It was a godsend for me. Since then, it's been a little bit better every year. It's been a huge thing for us."
With the increased birding traffic has come - well, traffic - on roads throughout the bog. Birders - especially those with cameras - sometimes forget everything else when they spy a desirable species from their cars.
"One day, me and the kids were driving to Virginia, 55 or 60 miles per hour," Bickford says. "All of a sudden the car ahead of me came to a screeching halt. All four doors flew open. The trunk flew open. People came flying out of the car like a clown car."
Birders. Birders with cameras.
Digital photography has overtaken the simple act of watching birds, Stensaas says.
"Now, I'd say it's probably 80 percent photographers and 20 percent birders," he says. "A pure birder is an endangered species. One day, there was maybe a quarter-million dollars worth of equipment pointed at one bird."
The migration of birders to the bog has spawned spirited discussions about the ethics of birding and birding photography. Some guides are careful whom they notify about a fresh owl sighting for fear of attracting crowds. Photographers have heated discourse on Facebook about whether it's ethical to bait an owl with a pet-shop mouse tossed on the snow. Eckert is concerned that feeding owls may alter their natural feeding practices.
The Friends website reminds birders and photographers to park on one side of the road, not both sides. But local residents say owl-jams can be annoying for people using the same roads to commute to work on the Iron Range. And some residents simply don't appreciate the increased traffic, or strangers peering into their yards for birds.
A sign in black letters at a residence directly across from Ysen-Freyholtz's home reads: "This property is not birder friendly."
"There are people that don't like the birders coming," Ysen-Freyholtz says, "but as a rule, I think most people have no issues with it."
Bickford, with her dozens of feeders, welcomes the visitors who amble along the trail in her eight-acre woods. She keeps in touch with birders from Brazil. A birder from Chicago has come up to help with farm work.
"He actually helped me hay last year," she says. "I gave him a crash course on the tractor."
She is off down the trail now, pouring sunflower seeds into her eclectic collection of feeders - wicker baskets, old metal buckets, a rusty shovel blade, a wire minnow trap.
"I personally love meeting all the people," Bickford says. "My goal is to give people who don't live on the bog a wonderful, magical experience. I want them to experience what we get to see and what we've come to have this relationship with."
What is the Sax-Zim Bog?
The Sax-Zim Bog is about 300 square miles of bog and uplands, including farms and several small communities. It lies about 40 miles northwest of Duluth. The majority of the land belongs to the state of Minnesota or St. Louis County, or is part of the Lake Superior Wetlands Mitigation Bank. It's prime habitat for bog-loving birds such as great gray owls, black-backed woodpeckers, boreal chickadees, yellow-bellied flycatchers and Connecticut warblers. Owls hunt for prey in the open areas and retreat to the spruce and tamarack. The bog is easily accessible, with roads running through the entire area. For a map and more information, go to saxzim.org.
Friends of Sax-Zim Bog
Friends of Sax-Zim Bog was formed in 2011. The group is a network for birders visiting the bog, and raises funds to buy and protect land in the bog. Last winter, 2,670 people visited the Welcome Center. They came from 38 states and five foreign countries. The center is staffed from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily from mid-December through mid-March. For more information, go to saxzim.org.
Sax-Zim Bog Festival
The town of Meadowlands hosts the annual Sax-Zim Bog Birding Festival. About 115 birders gathered for this year's festival from Feb. 16-18. For more information, go to saxzimbirdingfestival.com.