Visit the Sax-Zim Bog
The Sax-Zim Bog is prime habitat for bog specialists such as Great Gray Owl, Black-backed Woodpecker, Boreal Chickadee, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher and Connecticut Warbler. Bobcat, Lynx, Pine Marten, Fisher also use this habitat. Mature bogs are also important wintering habitat for Great Gray Owl, N Hawk Owl, White-winged Crossbill, Pine Grosbeak, Common Redpoll and Hoary Redpoll.
The best time for the winter specialties is mid December through late February. Migrant warblers move through the bog in the second half of May. Breeding birds are in full song during June and even first week in July.
Located an easy 50-minute drive north west of Duluth, Minnesota, the Bog is easily accessible by many dirt and paved roads (see maps below). Lodging is available in Duluth, Floodwood, Cloquet, Eveleth, Virginia and Hibbing. There are also several local B&Bs.
Winter Driving Tour (Suggested Route)
Starting from US 53, approximately 0.5 miles north of mile marker 32, turn west on LAKE NICHOLS ROAD (CR232). Watch for northern owls, shrikes, and Gray Jays in the spruce bog along this road. You also may want to stop and listen for Boreal Chickadees and Black-backed Woodpeckers along this bog stretch, but pull off on the shoulder as the road can be semi-busy). Continue 2.4 miles to the "T" junction and turn right.
After another 1.2 miles you will reach the public access to Nichols Lake on the left. If there is open water, check for lingering waterfowl. The road continues another 3 miles west through good bog habitat popular with Gray Jays, Great Gray Owls, winter finches and other bog specialties.
Turn left on Highway 7 and head south approximately one mile to the intersection with CR133. Watch for Great Gray Owls and other raptors on the power poles, but be very careful if you slow down or stop on this relatively busy road.
Drive west on CR133 for 2.9 miles, watching for owls and other raptors (again this is a busy road, and make sure to check your rearview mirror before slowing or stopping, and pull well off the road if you stop). Turn right (north) on Blue Spruce Road (CR211) and continue 1 mile to the MORSE’S FEEDERS at the intersection of Blue Spruce and Swensen Roads. These feeders are popular with redpolls, Pine Grosbeaks, Evening Grosbeaks (occasionally), nuthatches, woodpeckers (Downy and Hairy), and there are often Ruffed Grouse in the area as well.
Drive south from the Morse feeders back to CR133, and turn right (west). After about two miles you will pass Little Whiteface Road. The ABRAMSON’S FEEDERS are located a short distance north on Little Whiteface Road and are worth checking as well. South of this intersection, CR47 heads south and west adjacent to some excellent bog habitat and is worth checking for wintering owls and Ruffed Grouse if time allows later in the day.
Continuing west on CR133 another mile will bring you to Andrews Road (CR29). Turn right (north) here at the Jehovah Witness church and head north 2.7 miles. This route passes through open fields, worth checking for Rough-legged Hawks, Snow Buntings, Black-billed Magpies and rarely Snowy Owls. Sharp-tailed Grouse occur in this area as well, and can often be spotted at dawn or dusk perched in bare trees. Also check for Sharptails below the feeder at the last house on the right before Correction Line Road. Turn left on Correction Line Road at the T and continue a short distance to Owl Avenue, where you will turn right (north).
For the next two miles you will pass through good spruce bog habitat. Watch for owls, Gray Jays, Boreal Chickadees and woodpeckers. After 2 miles you will reach the intersection with Overton Road, and another 0.4 miles north of this intersection (where Owl Avenue veers to the right) you will find the FRIENDS OF SAX ZIM BOG WELCOME CENTER on the left.
At the Welcome Center you will find a variety of feeders popular with finches, jays, woodpeckers, nuthatches and other winter songbirds (the Center is open daily from 10am until 3pm mid December through mid March, but you can view the bird sighting information 24/7). The Center itself is a great place to warm up, buy souvenirs, get up to date bird sightings, and meet other birders and photographers, and there are hiking/snowshoe trails as well as primitive restroom facilities.
Once you have warmed up, head north again on Owl Avenue to ARKOLA ROAD (CR52). This stretch can be excellent for wintering Great Gray and Northern Hawk Owls, as well as other bog species. Turn right (east) on Arkola Road. The road passes through excellent bog habitat for the next 1.5 miles and you should watch for owls, finches, Gray Jays, Boreal Chickadees, and other typical bog species.
Arkola Road continues east through agricultural land, and the next few miles can be good for Rough-legged Hawks, Sharp-tailed Grouse, and rarely Snowy Owls. After 5.4 miles you will reach the intersection of Arkola Road and Highway 7, where you should turn right (south) and proceed one mile to Kelsey Whiteface Road.
Turn Left (east) on Kelsey Whiteface Road and proceed 0.5 miles to LORETTA’S FEEDERS on the right. Here you can park and walk along a short trail lined with a variety of feeding stations, popular with chickadees, nuthatches, redpolls, jays, grosbeaks and woodpeckers. Keep an eye out for Black-billed Magpies here and Ermine possibly at one of the rib cages.
After you have stretched your legs, continue another 0.5 miles east to Peary Road and turn left (north). After about 0.5 miles you will reach the FOSZB YELLOW-BELLIED BOG on the left. Feel free to explore this area on foot (or snowshoe) and check for boreal specialties. After 1 mile you will reach Arkola Road.
From this intersection it is a quick 4.7 mile drive east to the town of Cotton where you can find food (The Wilbert Cafe) and gas. If you are not ready for a break, you can proceed 1 mile west back to the intersection of Arkola Road and Highway 7. Turn right (north) and proceed north 8 miles to Stone Lake Road (CR319), watching for raptors (Roughlegs and rarely Snowy Owls) in the open country, Great Gray and Northern Hawk Owls in the spruce bog habitat), Sharp-tailed Grouse, Snow Buntings, Northern Shrikes, and Moose. Remember to watch for traffic on this birdy, but busy stretch of road!
Turn right on STONE LAKE ROAD and watch for owls and other raptors, Northern Shrikes, and waterfowl if there is open water at the inlet to Stone Lake itself. Though this is a dead end road, you can turn around at the Public Landing (where there is a seasonal outhouse). Retrace your route back to Highway 7 and turn right (north) and proceed another 1.5 miles to Zim Road (CR27) where you should turn left.
Proceed 1.2 miles to ADMIRAL ROAD and turn left again (south). After you pass a gravel pit you will enter excellent spruce bog habitat, popular with owls, Gray Jays, Moose (rarely), and other boreal species. A few miles south of Zim Road you will reach the famous Admiral Road feeders (perhaps THE best place in the country to see Boreal Chickadees and popular with finches, woodpeckers, nuthatches, redpolls and Gray Jays). Boreal Chickadees are especially fond of peanut butter, and often appear soon after this is smeared on the feeder frame and perches.
From the feeders head south another 3.4 miles to Kolu Road and turn right (west). Proceed 0.9 miles to McDAVITT ROAD (CR213) and turn right (north). After about 2 miles you will enter excellent spruce bog habitat (the "Magic Mile"), popular with Great Gray Owls, Black-backed Woodpeckers, Gray Jays and other boreal species. There are logging trails heading west and east from McDavitt road at the south end of this stretch of bog, and another heading west located 2.7 miles north of Kolu Rd. These are worth exploring on foot or snowshoe if you don't find any owls along the road itself.
Another worthwhile side trip if time allows (especially for Evening Grosbeaks): from the North end of McDavitt Road/CR83, head west 8.9 miles to CR444 (one mile west of Hwy 5). Turn right, and head north 1 mile to MARY LOU’S FEEDERS, the first house on the the right. You are welcome to enter her yard to view the feeders, but make sure to pull well off the road to park, and do not block any driveways or point any optics in the direction of the house across the street.
Many birders and photographers finish their day by slowly driving through the good bog habitat along Admiral and McDavitt Roads (or along Highway 7 to the east, or Lake Nichols Road). Great Gray Owls feed most actively at dawn and dusk, and this can be a good time for spotting other wildlife as well.
Frank Nicoletti email@example.com
Sparky Stensaas firstname.lastname@example.org 218.341.3350 (Dec-March, mid May-June) www.ThePhotoNaturalist.com
Erik Bruhnke [January only in 2015] email@example.com (http://www.naturallyavian.com/)
Kim Risen firstname.lastname@example.org (Not available until late Feb 2015)
Chris West email@example.com
Kim Eckert firstname.lastname@example.org (www.mbwbirds.com)
Mike Hendrickson email@example.com 218.348.5124 (weekends/holidays only)
Judd Brink firstname.lastname@example.org (Aitkin County and Brainerd Lakes area only)
**WELCOME CENTER IS ONLY OPEN MID DECEMBER THROUGH MID MARCH**
FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions
1. IS IT COLD IN WINTER?
Yes, it is cold in winter. But temps can range from 40 above (rare) to 50 below (rare). Average December high is +20, low +4; January avg high is +17, low -2, February avg high is +23, low +3.
2. WHAT CLOTHES SHOULD I BRING FOR WINTER BIRDING?
The warmest stuff you can get. Insulated boots are a must. Dress in layers. Long underwear works great. Hats and gloves. Some folks swear by hand warmers and even place in their boots. Remember though, much birding is done from the car.
3. ARE THE ROADS PLOWED?
Yes, but not always right away. If in doubt, stay off unplowed roads.
4. DO I NEED AN S.U.V OR 4X4?
No, but it doesn't hurt either! Many of us bird in all-wheel drive or front-wheel drive vehicles. Snow tires help immensely on 2-wheel drive cars. Remember, this is FLAT country...No hills to contend with.
5. WHAT IS THE BIGGEST DANGER IN WINTER?
The biggest hazard is probably pulling over too far and getting your wheels stuck in the ditch. Many folks have had to be pulled out by 4x4s or tow trucks (which are scarce and expensive). And you may not be found for quite a while. And though cell phone reception is good over most of the bog, it is not complete coverage for all carriers.
6. IS THERE CELL PHONE COVERAGE?
Cell phone reception is okay to good over most of the bog, but it is not complete coverage for all carriers. It can even be spotty for AT&T and Verizon customers.
7. HOW DO I FIND THE WINTER BIRDS?
First thing to do is to download our Birding Map. This shows all the best roads to drive and feeder locations. Secondly, check our Facebook page and the Sax-Zim Bog group for the latest sightings. Also check the MN Ornithologist's Union listserv (www.moumn.org). When you arrive, stop by our Sax-Zim Bog Welcome Center on Owl Avenue and talk to the host to see what's been seen lately (OPEN DAILY from mid December to mid March, 10am-3pm)
8. ARE THERE RESTROOMS IN THE BOG?
There are several but they are few and far between. Our Welcome Center on Owl Avenue has one that is available 24/7. There is an outhouse at the Stone Lake public landing. Otherwise, you'd need to go to Cotton, MN where there are 2 gas stations and a cafe. Outhouses/Restrooms are marked on our birding map. Plan accordingly!
9. WHERE CAN I EAT?
There is the Wilbert Cafe in Cotton that is open daily. In Meadowlands, there is the Trailside Bar & Grill which opens at 3pm on weekdays but before lunch on weekends. You can also get food at the gas stations in Cotton.
10. WHERE CAN I GET GAS?
The only nearby gas stations are the two in Cotton, MN. Plan accordingly!
11. DO YOU GUYS RUN THE FESTIVAL?
Friends of Sax-Zim Bog organizes the field trips for the festival. The Sax-Zim Winter Bird Festival was started by guide Mike Hendrickson but is now run by the Toivola-Meadowlands Development Board. We support this fantastic event and help however we can.
12. ARE THERE ANY PLACES I SHOULD AVOID?
Yes, please avoid birding the very north end of Stickney Road just south of Sax Rd (CR 28). If at all possible, use CR7 to get from the south part of the Bog (Arkola/CR52) to the north part (Sax Rd/CR28).
13. WHAT ELSE CAN I DO TO BE A GOOD BIRDING NEIGHBOR?
The Sax-Zim Bog is home to many residents, good folks who live there year-round. Please respect them by doing the following:
a.) Don't stare into someones front yard or house with binoculars.
b.) Watch your rear view mirror! Folks need to get to work or home and can be frustrated by us birders/photographers driving slowly as we look for birds. Move over when you see someone coming up behind you.
c.) Respect private property and only leave the road in areas that are public lands and not posted as private.
14. WHERE ARE GOOD PLACES FOR BIRD PHOTOGRAPHY?
The feeding stations are great places to start...Try the Welcome Center feeders, Admiral Road feeders, and others. Occasionally interesting mammals may come to the feeders too...Ermine, Gray Fox, Red Squirrels, Pine Marten.
15. WHERE CAN I GO SNOWSHOEING?
You can go snowshoeing/hiking on any county/state lands in the Sax-Zim Bog. If you don't have a plat book, you may want to stick to the obvious locations: Welcome Center has snowshoe trails and the McDavitt/Admiral Road corridors are all public lands in the bog sections.
16. ARE THE MOSQUITOS BAD IN MAY/JUNE?
They can be, but often late May and early June birding is early when cool temps may keep them down. They are MUCH WORSE off the roads and back in the bog. Bring bug dope! The best bug dope is one with a percentage of DEET.
17. IS IT WORTH VISITING THE BOG OUTSIDE OF WINTER?
Most winter birds head back north in the first two weeks in March...So what is a birder to do?
April—Melting snow banks, lakes thawing, spring blizzards, eagles overhead—Good time to go up on a quiet calm night and listen for singing Saw-whet Owls and frogs (Boreal Chorus, Wood, and Spring Peepers). Highlight may be Sharp-tailed Grouse leks where they may be dancing at dawn...sometimes on top of the snow.
May—Warblers start showing up in mid May, but late May is best for warbler variety. Look for waves of warblers and then park yourself in one spot and see what comes by.
June—Breeding time! Fantastic birding from half hour before dawn until about 10am. Mid-day siesta or check out Stone Lake for waterbirds. Don't forget the bug dope! See our birding map for the best roads to see summer specialties.
July—Not as good as June but first half of the month many breeders are still singing. Late month is amazing for butterflies. Drive dirt roads to find congregations of butterflies.
August—Quiet! Literally...as birds are done singing. Practice identifying "confusing fall warblers." BUT bugs are mostly done and wonderful roadside wildflowers, insects, butterflies, spiders.
September—Congregations of swallows on wires, hawks begin migrating, harriers hunt meadows. Also aspen, birch, and maple leaves begin turning.
October—Peak of fall color. Tamaracks golden yellow by mid month to third week. During irruption years, the first Great Grays, N Hawk Owls begin showing up.
November—Best to stay away from Sax-Zim Bog during first half of the month. Leave the area to the deer hunters. Let's stay out of their way. Late month is usually the first staying snow of the winter. Northern owls, crossbills, redpolls, shrikes begin showing up.
December through first week of March—Buy your plane tickets! THE time to visit the Bog for birding!
Why Care about Bogs and Peatlands?
Great Gray Owls are symbols of the bogs of northern Minnesota. Birders, photographers and videographers travel from all corners of the globe to our boreal forests to find, watch and photograph our bog birds. But most residents of our state are unaware of the quantity of life in the peatlands and the international attention its resident critters draw.
And the best ambassador of bogs has to be the “Phantom of the North”—the Great Gray Owl—which needs bogs for all aspects of its life. But Black Spruce bogs—and peatlands in general— are unknown, ignored, or scary places for most folks. And because of this, most think of bogs as dark, dank, mosquito-ridden swamps. But the reality is that they are places of light, delicate wildflowers, rare orchids, fascinating mammals and of course, home to millions of breeding birds—owls, warblers, flycatchers (and, yes, mosquitos). But even the hated mosquito has its place—it is the foundation of the northern forest food pyramid.
Bogs cover millions of acres across northern Minnesota, Canada and Alaska in North America and they are under increasing pressure due to logging, especially for pulp and paper. This environmental factor does make an educational film even more timely and important. We protect and care for what we know.