When I told one of the people I work with that I was taking a weekend off in February to go to a birding festival, he said, “Isn’t February an odd time of year for that?” Well, sure, normally. But not if you’re talking about Sax-Zim Bog. Then it’s the perfect time of year for it.
I first heard about Sax-Zim Bog back when I was in college, when I started reading the blog of “Birdchick” Sharon Stiteler. It was also in college that I first read the book The Big Year, in which the area is mentioned prominently as one of the characters criss-crosses it again and again, searching in vain for his Great Gray Owl. (In the movie adaptation this nemesis bird is switched to the Snowy Owl, probably because the Snowy is more familiar to the non-birding public, but they still slipped a quick mention of Sax-Zim into the script.) This out-of-the way patch of rural northern Minnesota, named for two all-but-abandoned settlements on its edge called Sax and Zim, is known as one of the best places in the country to see boreal birds. This winter, with the bog only a four-hour drive away, I couldn’t resist signing up for their annual birding festival and going to explore it for myself.
So I spent this past weekend being driven around on a yellow school bus with a bunch of other birders from around the country and a couple guides familiar with the area, hunting for interesting birds in the bog and in nearby Duluth. The festival itself was fascinating – this was the sixth year they’ve been doing it, and it’s put together by locals who are mostly not birders themselves but who are clearly thrilled that people from all over the country believe this place is special and want to come see it for themselves. The buses were driven by regular school bus drivers, giving up their weekend to ferry us around and show off their home turf, and our Saturday driver told us how much he loves seeing how excited the festival attendees get when they see new birds. It was a fun dynamic.
And oh yeah, we did see some really good birds… more on that later.
Further reading – Birders add to life lists during Sax-Zim Bog Festival, from Sunday’s Duluth News Tribune. The reporter was on my bus, but I wasn’t interviewed and somehow didn’t end up in any of the photos he took, either. Which is fine with me.