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'Arctic Riviera': Global birders flock to northeast Minnesota bog

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Sparky Stensaas searches the trees for birds
Sparky Stensaas searches the trees for birds on Monday at Loretta's Feeders inside the Sax-Zim Bog. Stensaas is a bird guide and executive director of the Friends of Sax-Zim Bog.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

It doesn't look like much, this out-of-the-way, oddly-named patch of peat bogs, abandoned homesteads, forests, rivers, lakes and farms between Duluth and the Iron Range.

But for dedicated birders, those avian aficionados who travel the country and even the world to spy hard-to-find birds, the Sax-Zim Bog has become a northwoods mecca, a global destination where bird buffs travel to scratch birds off their must-see lists. 

Here, they'll find pine grosbeaks, redpolls and — if they're lucky — the elusive great gray owl.

Pine Grosbeak
Many come here to the Sax-Zim Bog to check birds like this Pine Grosbeak off their lists. The bog is uniquely positioned for these people since it attracts many hard-to-find species in a small area.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

"We get all these birds coming down from Canada that many birders and photographers rarely ever see," explained Sparky Stensaas, executive director of Friends of Sax-Zim Bog, which helps put on a winter birding festival.

"We call it the 'Arctic Riviera' because these birds are coming south in the fall, they love this habitat, and this is about as far south as they get in the lower 48."

The Sax-Zim bog is named after two largely deserted old towns, Sax and Zim, that were left behind after mostly failed attempts to drain and farm the area a century ago.

The birds are drawn here by that "magic mix" of habitat, as Stensaas described it, and the food it provides, like tiny rodents called voles that make up virtually all of a great gray owl's diet.

Stensaas started birding the bog in 1981 as a student at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Back then, he said, he hardly ever saw anyone with the telltale birder tools, binoculars and a camera. And if he did, he probably knew them.

But that all changed after the winter of 2004-2005, when hundreds of giant owls descended on the bog from Canada in search of food — a phenomenon called an "irruption."

Dave Freriks sets up his tripod
Dave Freriks of West Bend, Wis., sets up his tripod and camera outside the Friends of Sax-Zim Bog Welcome Center.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

"Several friends and I counted 70 great grays in one morning; 42 hawk owls," recalled Stensaas. "That word spread, and people were coming from all over the country."

Last winter, 2,600 people visited the bog, from four countries and 38 states. This weekend, some 150 people will be in the field to celebrate the festival's 10th anniversary. 

"It is definitely a world famous birding area, which is one of those things that makes me shake my head," said Amy Johnson, a naturalist with Friends of Sax-Zim Bog who lives in Virginia, Minn., on the Iron Range. "It's not really anything to look at."

Meadowlands, Minn.
Meadowlands, Minn., sits right on the border of the Sax-Zim Bog and has seen a big influx of birding tourists in recent years.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Unless, of course, you're looking for birds, especially the "king of the bog," the great gray owl. 

When locals realized the number of birders the bog attracted following the owl irruption of 2004-05, they organized a winter festival, where guides drive visitors up and down the bog's roads in yellow school buses.

At first not everyone was happy about all the traffic from birders, said 80-year old Helen Abramson, who grew up on a dairy farm in the area and helped spearhead the first festival 10 years ago.

"Locals did not like the birders," she recalled. "They would be driving along, and stop in the middle of the road, jump out with their binoculars, or their huge cameras. And these people were on their way to work in Duluth, they'd have to go around them. So they were irritated with them."

Helen Abramson
Helen Abramson talks about her role in helping to found the Sax-Zim Bog Birding Festival.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Amy Johnson, the naturalist who also works at the bog's visitor center, said she has to remind visitors the bog is not like a state park, where you drive through a gate, buy a pass, and can go anywhere you want. The bog is a patchwork of state, county, and private land.

"People need to be aware that there are private homeowners here," she said. "Not all of them enjoy having binoculars and spotting scopes and big cameras with long lenses, pointed at their house — or what appears to be at their house — even if it's a bird in a tree beyond their house."

But most locals, like Helen Abramson, have welcomed birders. She said the festival has helped ease tensions by bringing locals and visitors together for evening meals and speakers.

Now she's become friends and stays in close contact with birders who have visited from as far away as Germany. She's one of seven local residents who stock bird feeding stations on their land that are marked on a map for visitors.  

Birders congregate at a visitor center Friends of Sax-Zim Bog built last year, where they gather to photograph birds at feeders, learn when and where to see birds, and share what they've seen. 

"I think I've seen four new species for me: life birds," said Noah McNeill, a student from Iowa who's hoping to get accepted to a Ph.D. program in ornithology.

A "life bird," in birder speak, is the first time you see a certain species of birds. 

McNeill said some birders maintain several lists, in addition to their life lists of birds — county or state lists, the number of birds seen in a month, or, in a year, which birders often describe as a "big year," how many bird species they can count in one calendar year.

"Anybody doing that kind of big year has to come to the Sax-Zim Bog," said Stensaas, "because people can get a dozen species they won't get anywhere else, easily."

Friends of the Sax-Zim Welcome Center
Sparky Stensaas (top left) and Amy Johnson (top right) speak to Noah McNeill (bottom left) and Karl Schmidt (bottom right) on Monday at the Friends of Sax-Zim Welcome Center.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

But the species that brought McNeill and many other people to the bog is the great gray owl. 

At more than 2 feet tall, it's the largest owl in North America. Stensaas said the quest to see and photograph the elusive owl has been fueled by social media.

"Facebook can be a blessing and a curse," he said "It looks like there's a great grey on every fence post when you look at Facebook, but that is not the case usually."

Amy Johnson said some birders come to the bog 10 times before they see their first great gray.

Nancy Jahnel of New Prague, Minn., though, was lucky. She spotted a great gray on a telephone pole just before dawn.

"I had just gotten here," she said, "the sun wasn't even up yet this morning. Your heart starts pumping, and yeah, they're gorgeous."

But the moment was fleeting. The owl soared away after just 10 seconds. But those magical moments have kept Jahnel and many other birders coming back to the bog, and sharing their stories, said Amy Johnson.

"They come in, and they are still in awe of what they've seen and experienced," Johnson said. "They don't' always have words for it. It's the fulfillment of a big journey, a big search."