This tweet appeared at random one night during my social media scrolling and made me literally laugh out loud. It’s timing could not have been better as our interest in birding seemingly erupted out of nowhere. Logan and I have been diving deeper and deeper into our photography and sure, taking pictures of birds is challenging and birds make pretty subjects. But only recently have we actually started to care about tracking species, rarity, etc.
As a “Solstice Santa” gift, Logan planned a long birding weekend, based in Duluth over Valentine’s Day weekend, but specifically to explore the Sax-Zim Bog. The Sax-Zim Bog is located about 45 minutes northwest of Duluth and “is a ‘magic mix’ of habitats that attracts a unique array of species not found in other parts of the United States.” The 300 square mile habitat is mostly boreal forest where “rare and rarely seen boreal species” spend their winter and is very often one of the coldest places in the lower 48 states. In other words, Canadian birds annually head south and spend their winter in the “warmer climes” of northern Minnesota.
There’s a visitor’s center and multiple locations with stocked bird feeders and Bog walks. Logan did his research and we had a game plan. We spent two days, dawn to dusk scouting the Bog hot spots for owls, winter finches, mammals, and more. The highlight sightings included a snowshoe hare and a ruffed grouse, both of whom Logan was fast enough to photograph. Otherwise we captured gorgeous photos of Pine and Evening Grosbeaks, Chickadees, and various woodpeckers, among others. It was a fantastic way to really practice photographing such fast moving subjects.
Ultimately, our goal was to find and photograph two elusive but regular visitors to the Bog: the Great Grey Owl and the Northern Hawk Owl. We didn’t find either one. Overall, we were told it was a “bad owl year.” Owls eat voles and this was a bad vole year. So, fewer voles equals fewer owls. It seems like sightings are fewer and farther between this year (we’re still keeping track), while other years owls are practically found wandering down the streets. This year was not meant to be for owl hunting, but we still had a wonderful time and took thousands of pictures of so many other beautiful birds. I guess we’ll just have to return in a “vole”-luminous year. (HA!)
If you’re planning to visit the Bog, here are some things to note:
- Do your research. This area is beloved to many people who have written a lot about their experiences online. The 5th edition of A Birder’s Guide to Minnesota has a large section devoted to the bog, but is only worth the investment if you plan to spend a lot of time looking for birds throughout the state.
- The Friends of Sax-Zim Bog website is full of great advice. The “Plan Your Visit” tab includes a seasonal map, information on guides, birding etiquette, and lodging.
- Several hotels in the region have discounts for birders, including the Duluth Radisson, where we stayed.
- There is a Telegram group to which birders post their sightings with locations. Download the app first and then click this link.
- Note that this group is for stating active sightings only. Do not get on and ask if anyone’s seen an owl today… your question will just be deleted by the diligent moderators so that those of us browsing sightings don’t also have to wade through random conversation.
- Be prepared for the weather. Extreme cold is very possible during the winter months, so don’t skimp on the clothing, layers, hand warmers, etc. that will allow you to still enjoy your trip.
We’ve written about Duluth before, and I’m positive this won’t be the last time. With Duluth as our “homebase,” when we weren’t at the Bog, we were primarily limited to eating and sleeping. On this trip, we found a couple of new gems and revisited one old favorite.
We had fancy Valentine’s Day dinner plans that were canceled at the last minute due to the unexpected closure of the restaurant. After lamenting to my mother, she scoured restaurant reviews and, knowing how much I love sushi, suggested we try Hanabi Japanese Cuisine. This was the absolute dark-horse surprise of this trip. Walking distance from our downtown hotel, Hanabi’s unassuming and, quite frankly, mildly unappealing location combined with my relatively low expectations of midwestern sushi had my expectations at a medium to low point. I was very pleasantly surprised. Daily happy hour specials allowed us to try multiple menu options at a reasonable price and we were incredibly impressed by almost everything. All of the sushi was fresh, flavorful, and artistically presented. Our standouts were the Duluth and Superior rolls, which we would highly recommend. If you’re a sushi nut like I am, this is a great spot to try if you’re in town.
The Wilbert Cafe, located conveniently just west of the Bog on Highway 53, was a delightful discovery of pure Minnesota aesthetic: big portions, comfort food, service like you’re part of the family, in a diner that seems as if it has been frozen in time. It gave us the fuel we needed to continue birding til past sunset. If you find yourself in the area and hungry, this is a must stop.
We typically research the highest rated local restaurants on Yelp when we travel to a new place, so that’s exactly how we found the OMC Smokehouse. (Short for “Oink, Moo, Cluck.”) Located in the Lincoln Park/Goat Hill neighborhood of Duluth, OMC delivered a fantastic and mouth watering array of smoked meats. We really appreciated how you can choose any of their homemade sauces to suit your individual tastes. Additionally, our amazing server suggested we visit Love Creamery, located just across the street, for dessert. With rotating, artisan flavors, we tried the Hot Honey. It was both hot and cold and burned the back of your throat in an unexpected and delightful way. Mostly, we just appreciated local businesses supporting one another.
You may remember that we first visited the Duluth Grill on my first-ever camping trip. Since that time, we had reminisced about it so much we just had to return. Again, our meals were nothing short of phenomenal. Word to the wise, the portions are enormous. (We should have remembered that from last time.) A couple could easily split a meal and still leave full and satisfied. The Duluth Grill is consistently one of the highest recommended restaurants in Duluth for a reason. It’s just that good and you won’t be disappointed.
Logan has gone full “bird nerd” and has planned to expand our backyard habitat to attract a larger variety of flying friends. We have also begun planning future bird centric excursions to popular migration locations. While my focus remains primarily on the photography aspect (and less about the species identification), it has been really fun and exciting to discover that your “pretty” photography subject may also be something really cool and rare. I have a few target species that I’m dying to photograph, but while I joke that “I don’t care about a boring brown bird,” it is also hilarious when you check your viewfinder and say, “damn, is that an American Tree Sparrow?” Perhaps I too could one day identify as a “bird nerd.”
Disclaimer: All opinions are entirely our own, and exactly that – opinions. We are not sponsored and have not been compensated in any way for a favorable review.