Birding the Sax-Zim Bog with Erik Bruhnke!
My first big adventure of 2024
(Listen to the radio version here.)
On Wednesday, January 3, for the first time since my surgery, I spent a full day birding in the Sax-Zim Bog with Erik Bruhnke.
At this point in my recovery, Erik is the only person I’d try this with. He knows the bog even better than I do, and hardly any birds get past him. My vision is as good as it was when I was in my twenties now that I’ve had my cataracts taken care of, making me a fine spotter, but I knew that if my brain wasn’t as engaged as it should be, we’d still see everything thanks to Erik. I didn’t know how long I’d last—most days since surgery I’ve still needed a nap—but if I drifted off, I knew Erik would wake me up for good birds but otherwise let me sleep. And if I started aching and needed to head home early, Erik would be cool about it. He and I are obviously hoping to see a bazillion birds in 2024, but we’re both pretty relaxed about it. Erik will be the guide for Russ’s and my Victor Emanuel birding tour to Hawaii next month, and before that he’ll be leading a tour up here in northern Minnesota and one down in Panama, so his year list is going to be growing by leaps and bounds regardless.
All my concerns turned out to be for naught—I stayed alert and comfortable the entire day. And what a great day it was! When we first got to the bog, about sunrise but with overcast skies, we quickly saw four Rough-legged Hawks, and that was the tip of the Rough-leg iceberg—in total we saw 12 in the bog and another 3 as we started for home. FIFTEEN of these delightful raptors! My photos didn’t turn out—the birds were all backlit in poor light—but it was thrilling to see so many. I think the last time I saw Rough-legs with Erik was on their breeding grounds in Alaska on the Victor Emanuel tour he guided in 2022, but we certainly didn’t see 15!
The usual suspects showed up here and there—Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers, Blue and Canada Jays, crows and ravens, Black-capped Chickadees, and both nuthatches. Winter finches were few and far between—best was a flock of at least 25 Evening Grosbeaks, but we also got a couple of quick looks at redpolls. We also spotted a few Bald Eagles, a Northern Shrike, and one distant magpie.
The day never brightened, and very light snow flurries seemed to come and go all day. A little after 11, when we drove down Admiral Road, we saw a huge clot of birders on the road ahead, spotting scopes, binoculars, and cameras all trained on the exact same spot, and we knew what that meant—a Great Gray Owl! Even before Erik pulled over to park, we got a quick glimpse of the bird, but it flew off before we were out of the car. Most of the people who’d been watching it instantly packed up their optics and drove off in search of new delights, but one of them told us that the bird had flown into the woods in a southwest direction. We walked down the road a bit, but then decided to go back to the spot where it had originally been seen, which according to reports seems to be pretty much where it centers its activities. Sure enough, a few minutes later we spotted it flying through the woods, and suddenly voila!
The owl was my favorite bird of the day, but not my favorite species—that was the snowshoe hare I found when we were on the boardwalk at the Warren Nelson Bog. I didn’t get a photo before it bounded off into the woods, but at least I saw it!
Before we went home, we checked out the Superior Airport just in case a Snowy Owl was there—no luck. And we rounded out the day with a couple of House Sparrows and some gulls in Canal Park and at the WLSSD sewage treatment plant. We finished the day a little before dark with 22 species, and I added one more when BB, my banded Pileated Woodpecker, came in for a late snack at the feeder.
I felt great all day, but paid for it the next couple of days, when I was terribly depleted. I’ll wait a week or two before trying another all-day adventure—slow and steady wins the race.