I have heard about the Sax-Zim Bog in northern Minnesota for years, decades even. During winter, it’s a birding mecca – home to many rare owls and other species that visit from the arctic when food and weather conditions get too dicey up there. Birding is good during summer, too. The bog is a place where birds can nest in their natural habitat, relatively undisturbed.
Russ and I had a chance to visit the bog over Labor Day weekend. I’m getting back into birding and was excited to finally be seeing this place I had heard so much about. It’s even mentioned twice in “The Big Year,” a 2011 movie that stars Rosamund Pike, Jack Black, Owen Wilson, and Steve Martin. However, no filming was done on-site, so viewers never get to see the bog. The closest is when Owen Wilson’s character spends Christmas at a Chinese restaurant in Duluth, which is about fifty miles away. I suspect even the restaurant was fictional because it didn’t look like any I’ve ever seen in my hometown.
Anyway, so I was psyched to visit the bog. I thought since migration season had started, we might have a good opportunity to see birds moving through the area. We pulled up to the visitor center (which is closed now, opens mid-December through mid-March) and hiked the trails that go out from it. There’s a loop trail that starts at the parking lot and a Gray Jay Way that begins at the visitor center.
After all these years of anticipation, maybe I was expecting too much. We only saw a thrush (probably a Swainson’s), blue jays, and the chickadees and nuthatches found everywhere in the north. I was disappointed.
But it was neat getting a close look at a bog and learning the history of the area from the interpretive signs near the welcome center. For instance, I never knew that Jeno Paulucci, famed creator of Pizza Rolls and Chung King foods had a celery farm near the bog.
Gray Jay Way ends with a viewing platform where visitors can see the remnants of ditches that were dug in the early 1900s to drain the bog land for farming. Russ and I pushed through the undergrowth for a better look at the ditch junction. The dark bog water lay acidic and still on the landscape, lending an eerie air to the place.
On our way home, we stopped at one of three boardwalks in the bog: The Warren Woessner walk. We marveled at all the work that must have gone into its construction. We had a pleasant walk but didn’t see any more birds.
When I got home, I asked the executive director of the Friends of the Sax-Zim Bog what was up with the lack of birds. Was this just a bad time to look? Sparky Stensaas said this is the worst time of the year for birding in the bog. Just my luck!
Sparky and I go way back to when we used to be on the board of the local Audubon Society chapter. He took over editing the chapter newsletter from me a loooong time ago. Or did I take over from him?
Sparky also said that the visitor center is only open during the winter because that’s when 90% of the visitors come, but that they probably won’t be open this winter due to COVID. Guess I’ll have to content myself with watching the videos Sparky made this spring and summer, which show there really ARE birds in the bog.
So, don’t be like me. Don’t go birding at the Sax-Zim Bog in September.