Sax-Zim Bog: A Magic Mix
Long known among serious birders as THE place to find northern owls and finches in winter and warblers and other boreal birds in summer, the Sax-Zim Bog is a “magic mix” of habitats that attracts a unique array of species not found in other parts of the United States.
Encompassing an area of more than 300 square miles that spans from Zim in the north to nearly Floodwood in the south, and from the Toivola Swamp east to Stone Lake and US HWY 53, the land within these loose boundaries contains not only black spruce and tamarack bog, but upland aspen/maple forests, floodplain forest, sandy upland pine stands, rivers, lakes, farms, meadows, and towns. This is the magic mix that makes the area so attractive to so many different species. Great Gray Owls, for example, can find the large tracts of unbroken bog forest they require for nesting, but also the open meadows they need for hunting Meadow Voles in winter.
The Sax-Zim Bog is prime habitat for bog specialists including the aforementioned Great Gray Owl, Black-backed Woodpecker, Boreal Chickadee, Canada Jay, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, and Connecticut Warbler. On top of this you can find grassland species like LeConte’s Sparrow, Sharp-tailed Grouse, Sedge Wren, Bobolink, and Brewer’s Blackbird during the summer months, with Northern Shrikes, Rough-legged Hawks, and sometimes Snowy Owls using those same habitats during the winter. The riverine forests of the St. Louis and Whiteface Rivers may not hold much attention during the winter, but are home to hard to find species in northern Minnesota like Wood Thrush, Great Crested Flycatchers, Scarlet Tanagers, and increasing Yellow-throated Vireos during the summer months.
But it’s not just birds. Friends of Sax-Zim Bog Head Naturalist Clinton Dexter-Nienhaus has been compiling a master list of all species seen in the area, and the list is now over 2,400 species and is growing every year! We have recorded over 500 species of moth, around 360 species of wildflowers, over 120 species of grass and sedge, nearly 100 species of spider, 84 species of dragonfly and damselfly, 81 species of butterfly, almost 80 species of lichen, and 37 species of fish, just to name a few groups. That is what we call “BogDiversity”! Every year we get visitors that wish to experience some of this non-bird biodiversity, through specific visits or by attending field trips and education events like our BioBlitz!
Located an easy 50-minute drive north west of Duluth, Minnesota, the Sax-Zim Bog is easily accessible by many dirt and paved roads. Lodging is available in Duluth, Floodwood, Cloquet, Eveleth, Virginia and Hibbing. Birding in the Sax-Zim Bog is done primarily from the roadside (in both winter and summer), but there are options for those wishing to get off trail. The Friends of Sax-Zim Bog own approximately 524 acres of land through the Sax-Zim Bog and have recently made accessing the bog a little easier through the addition of rustic hiking trails and boardwalks on our properties.
A Brief History of the Sax-Zim Bog
Named for the towns of Sax and Zim, Minnesota, the Sax-Zim Bog was created following the last glacial retreat in Minnesota around 10,000 years ago. Glacial Lakes Upham and Aitkin (just southwest of Glacial Lake Upham) were created following the retreat of glaciers and the resulting melt water. These glacial lakes are responsible for the creation of the Cloquet, St. Louis, and the Upper Mississippi Rivers, as well as many of the bog habitats in southwestern St. Louis County and Aitkin County. Because of the low and relatively flat topography of the Glacial Lake Upham lakebed, the greater Sax-Zim Bog area remains a wet and poorly drained area today. This wetland characteristic has made the area challenging for agricultural development and settlement, but has created a unique habitat for certain plants and animals. Interestingly, Glacial Lake Upham is also responsible for the sandy upland forests and small lakes in the Sax-Zim Bog!
Fast-forward a few thousand years, to the visit of a traveling preacher to the area in June of 1963. He was zipping down CR7 when he saw a football-shaped bird perched atop a roadside snag. He hit the brakes and jumped out and couldn’t believe his eyes; not one, not two, but SIX owls. It was a family group of Northern Hawk Owls and one of the first documented nesting in the entire Lower 48! His discovery tuned the eyes and ears of birders toward the Sax-Zim Bog. Word spread to the Minnesota Ornithologist’s Union and a few folks came up each year to bird, mainly in winter (including our Executive Director Sparky, who first birded Sax-Zim Bog in 1983).
But what really put the Bog on the map was the great owl irruption of 2004-05 when hundreds of Great Gray Owls and Northern Hawk Owls descended on the area due to a nearly complete lack of voles farther north in Canada. Dozens of Great Grays could be seen in a single day. The unprecedented irruption was impetus for Duluth bird guide Mike Hendrickson and the town of Meadowlands to join up and create the Sax-Zim Bog Winter Bird Festival in 2008. It was a great success and continued through 2020. Then Facebook happened. All of a sudden it seemed to that there was a Great Gray on every other tree and photographers came in even larger numbers. Photographing a Great Gray is a bucket-list item for many, and seeing one for the first time is an emotional experience.
The Bog was designated an Important Bird Area (IBA) by Bird Life International and Audubon Minnesota, but this designation carries no protections. This is why Sparky Stensaas, Dave Benson, and Kim Eckert founded Friends of Sax-Zim Bog in 2011. The organization’s mission to “preserve and protect the Sax-Zim Bog for future generations” has led us to purchase over 500 acres of lowland Black Spruce bog in the area.
A logged stand of Black Spruce bog takes 80 to 120 years to reach full maturity. That is basically a lifetime, and our goal is to ensure these rare and rarely seen boreal species have a permanent home in Sax-Zim. Many of the species listed above depend on large tracts of undisturbed bog: Great Gray Owl, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Long-eared Owl, Northern Hawk Owl, Black-backed Woodpecker, Canada Jay, Boreal Chickadee, White-winged Crossbill, Connecticut Warbler, Cape May Warbler, Pine Marten, Fisher, Bobcat and Moose.
The Friends of Sax-Zim Bog built the Welcome Center on Owl Avenue completely with local labor and materials in the winter of 2013-14. The involvement of local folks has been very gratifying to the development of our organization. With their help, not only have we built the Welcome Center, but have now completed three bog boardwalks. Area residents and visitors alike have really enjoyed the boardwalks and trails.
Because of this rich diversity Sax-Zim Bog draws thousands of birders, photographers, and naturalists annually from the U.S. and across the globe. 5,559 folks from 45 states and 14 countries (Estonia, Australia, Russia, India and more) stopped by the Welcome Center during the winter of 2019-20. Most come to see and photograph the unique bog birds, mammals and orchids, but the Great Gray Owl is high on almost everybody’s list. Fortunately, the Sax-Zim Bog is easily accessed from Minneapolis or Duluth and, unlike many remote peatlands, it has roads allow access to this special habitat. Fifteen percent of all Minnesota visitors come from the Iron Range (17 percent from Duluth, 24 percent from greater Minnesota and 44 percent from the Twin Cities).
And these tourists spend money in the area. A survey of visitors from 2018 to 2020 found that the average birder/photographer was here for 2.6 days and spent $473 dollars in the Sax-Zim/Duluth area during their trip. This extrapolates to $1.18 million pumped into the local/regional economy over a single winter!
Other local projects that Friends of Sax-Zim Bog participates in include providing “Good Neighbor Grants” to those local projects that are open to visiting birders (such as bird feeding stations), field trips that are open to all, and providing boardwalks and trails for hiking.
Bogs are often dismissed as just useless “swamps,” but they are much more. They are home to an amazing and surprising biodiversity. From rare orchids, moose and wolves, owls, and the myriad of the “winged jewels” we call warblers, bogs are incredibly important. Peatlands (the encompassing term for bogs, fens) are found around the globe in northern latitudes…from Alaska to Scandinavia to Siberia and are globally important carbon sinks and pockets of biodiversity. Bogs in the Lower 48 are most abundant in Minnesota (6 million acres!) and extend south to Illinois. Sax-Zim Bog and lowland spruce forests that extend south into Aitkin County are probably the largest bog habitat at the southern end of the boreal forest. Cotton, Minnesota has a treasure in its backyard and we thank you for sharing it with the world.
Friends of Sax-Zim Bog Welcome Center
ADDRESS: The address is Sax-Zim Bog Welcome Center 8793 Owl Avenue, Toivola, MN 55765
[NOTE: THIS IS NOT A MAILING ADDRESS…but put this address into Google Maps or Apple Maps.]
Directions from Cotton, MN on US HWY 53:
*Go West from Cotton on CR52/Arkola for 11 miles
*Turn South (left) on Owl Avenue
*Go 1.75 miles (second curve) to Welcome Center
Directions from Meadowlands, on CR133…
*Go East on CR133 to CR229/29
*Turn North (left) on CR229/29
*Go North to T at Correction Line Rd
*Turn West (left) on Correction Line Rd
*Road curves North and becomes Owl Ave
*Go North on Owl Avenue for 2.5 miles to Welcome Center
SUMMER SEASON: The Welcome Center is open daily 10 am – 3 pm June through August.
WINTER SEASON: The Welcome Center is open daily 10 am – 3 pm early December through mid-March.
Activities at this tract: Stop in to the Welcome Center in winter to see Pine Grosbeaks, Redpolls, Canada Jays, nuthatches, and even ermine that visit nearly two dozen bird feeders maintained by staff. Two snowshoe/hiking trails can be found at the Welcome Center. More information for these trails can be found here. During the summer months bird feeders are not maintained (due to bears!), but the pollinator garden draws hummingbirds, butterflies, bumble bees and is soon to be expanded.
Outhouse: OPEN YEAR-ROUND!
Species of Interest: Many exciting species have been recorded at this location…I guess it is the “Patagonia Rest Area Effect.”…when many talented birders and naturalists come to a nondescript spot in the midst of a huge habitat, many cool species are found.
Parking: There is a 15-car parking lot.
Signage: A large sign along Owl Avenue marks the spot of the Welcome Center. (There are no signs directing folks to this site though)
Location: The Welcome Center is located about 1.5 miles south of Arkola/CR52 on Owl Avenue
**If you see something cool at or near the Welcome Center, please email Head Naturalist Clinton at email@example.com**
GALLERY OF WELCOME CENTER CRITTER & PEOPLE PHOTOS HERE
For more information about our Land Tracts, follow the link below to our website pages featuring all of the Friends of Sax-Zim Bog properties: Sax-Zim Bog Land Tracts