Sax-Zim Bog: A Magic Mix
Sparky Stensaas for the Cotton Chronicle
Long known among serious birders as THE place to find northern owls and rare 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 roughly 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 US53, the land within these loose boundaries contains not only black spruce and tamarack bog, but upland aspen, floodplain forest, pine stands, rivers, lakes, farms, meadows and towns. This is the magic mix that makes the area so attractive to so many different bird 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 has a bird list of over 240 species including northern rarities such as Great Gray Owl, Boreal Owl, Snowy Owl and Northern Hawk Owl. Over 70 Great Grays and 42 Hawk Owls were counted on a single day in Sax-Zim in December 2004! Rough-legged Hawks and Northern Shrikes also come down from the arctic to spend the winter with us. Winter finches are also a big draw with folks clamoring to see and photograph Evening Grosbeaks, Pine Grosbeaks, Common Redpoll, Hoary Redpoll and White-winged Crossbill.
Breeding birds that are rare or rarely seen in the Lower 48 but fairly common in Sax-Zim include Connecticut Warbler, Black-backed Woodpecker, LeConte’s Sparrow, Black-billed Cuckoo, Sedge Wren, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Sharp-tailed Grouse, Canada Jay and Boreal Chickadee.
But it’s not just birds. Friends of Sax-Zim Bog Head Naturalist Clinton Nienhaus-Dexter has been compiling a master list of all species seen in the area, and the list stands at 2,369 Species and is growing every year. We have recorded 511 moth species, 362 wildflowers, 123 species of grasses and sedges, 98 spiders, 84 dragonflies, 81 butterflies, 78 lichens and 37 fish species to name just a few groups. That is what I call “bogdiversity”! We’ve even had a visitor from Arizona who flew up here simply to find and photograph three rare dragonflies!
A traveling preacher first “discovered” this area as a unique birding destination 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! Word spread to the Minnesota Ornithologist’s Union and a few folks came up each year to bird, mainly in winter (including myself…I first birded Sax-Zim in 1983).
But what really put the Bog on the map was the great owl irruption of 2004-05 when hundreds of Great Grays and 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 has continued to this year (canceled for 2021 due to Covid-19). 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 myself along with 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 cutover 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 below 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.
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 stopped by the Welcome Center last winter (Estonia, Australia, Russia, India and more). 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 Sax-Zim is easily accessed from Minneapolis or Duluth and, unlike many remote peatlands, it has roads running through the bog.
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!
Friends of Sax-Zim Bog built the Welcome Center on Owl Avenue completely with local labor and materials in the winter of 2013-14. And have now completed three bog boardwalks. What has been very gratifying is the involvement of so many local folks in our organization. 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). Area residents have really enjoyed the boardwalks and trails.
Other local projects that Friends of Sax-Zim Bog participates in include helping with the Festival in Meadowlands, 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. Bogs are home to rare orchids, moose and wolves, huge owls, carnivorous wildflowers, and a myriad of the “winged jewels” we call warblers. Peatlands (the encompassing term for bogs, fens) are found around the globe in northern latitudes…from Alaska to Scandinavia to Sibera. Bogs in the Lower 48 are most abundant in Minnesota (6 million acres!) but 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.
For more info about the Bog and Friends of Sax-Zim Bog please go to www.saxzim.org