Fairfield Ledger

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Neighbors Growing Together | Nov 20, 2017

Becoming ‘birder’ on avian adventure

By Julie Johnston | Mar 27, 2014
Photo by: JULIE JOHNSTON Julie Johnston photographed this great gray owl during her recent trip to Minnesota.

Since I last wrote for The Ledger, I have done a bit of driving; Texas (twice), Florida, South Dakota, Nebraska, Illinois, and British Columbia and of course many spots between.

Most recently I let someone else drive and took a bus trip to Minnesota with former Fairfielder Matt Wetrich, who is serving as Carroll County’s naturalist. Helping Matt coordinate the adventure for 40 bird lovers was Warren County naturalist Missy Smith.

The trip began with many of us boarding the bus in West Des Moines at 7 a.m. on Friday with the rest of the group joining us in Ames. As we crossed into Minnesota it began to snow, just a little at first, and then it was nearly white-out. The bus sits higher than a car and we could just see the top of big trucks – cars were nearly invisible. I was certainly glad I left the driving to someone else!

The snow finally stopped and we had lunch near the north side of St. Paul. All climbed aboard again with our destination around 4 p.m. at Sax-Zim Bog near Evelith, Minn., with the hope of seeing a Great Gray Owl.

We all know about “Best laid plans….” We hadn’t been on the road for more than a few minutes when the driver stopped on an entrance ramp of I-35 and got out of the bus. Moments later he got back on, then off again. A couple of the guys got off with him. Phone calls were made and Matt got on the microphone and told us we had a broken hose. Help was on the way. Three plus hours later we were back on the road again. Apparently the old hose was very difficult to remove before it could be replaced. Did I mention that it was very cold? Just a few degrees above zero. The heroes of the day were the ones on the cold ground under the bus making repairs, one of whom was Missy’s husband, Jake.

Our plan was to hunt for a great gray owl at the bog when we arrived as evening and early morning are the best times to see them. It was dark when we arrived in Evelith so we just wanted supper and a bed.

That plan went awry as well since the restaurant where we had planned dinner had closed, permanantly, the week before. Subs and pizza were all that was available so we made do.

It was frigid, with the thermometer reading minus 28 degrees as we boarded the bus at 6 a.m. High for the day was minus 13 degrees. Sunday was no better with a low of minus 30 degrees and a high of minus 8 if memory serves. When it is that cold, what is a couple of degrees? Our dauntless group paid no heed to the cold beyond dressing really warmly as we wanted to find the birds and were on and off the bus many times.

Sax-Zim Bog habitat consists of a mix of spruce, tamarack, and northern white cedar bogs, plus alder swamps and upland deciduous woodlands. There are also lowland hardwood species such as black ash, as well as isolated hayfields and sedge meadows and a mixture of private and public lands. The bird list includes about 240 different birds.

There was no great gray owl Saturday morning nor Saturday evening, but we did see three Snowy owls and two northern hawk owls.

Of course I wanted photos, but true birders mostly just want to see the birds. The trip yielded 30 different birds, with many of us seeing five or six life birds. A life bird is a bird you see for the first time in your life.

Birding has its own set of terms and ‘life bird’ is one of them. Birders also keep lists of what they see, and learn to identify birds by size, flight patterns, color, shape and their calls, etc. I am not yet a birder; I just enjoy them and enjoy taking their photos.

Our driver cooperated well, as we would yell “STOP” when someone spotted a bird, then, “back up a little,” or “go forward a bit, STOP!” Sometimes it was only a tree branch, not a bird, but he didn’t seem to mind.

Lunch Saturday was at a cozy family owned café in Cotton, then back to the bog and some bird feeders to see a Boreal Chickadee, Gray Jay and Evening Grosbeaks. There were others as well, but most of them we can see here. It was an interesting stop as the house across the road had a barricade in their driveway and the gentleman came out to take photos of the cars and our bus as we watched and took photos of the birds. He was NOT friendly!

Dinner was in Virginia then back to the motel for an early night to board the bus early again on Sunday. The original plan was to head to Two Harbors, Split Rock Lighthouse and Gooseberry Falls, but since we missed our chance to see the Great Gray on Friday evening, our leaders decided we would take one more look at the Bog in search of the elusive owl.

That turned out to be a great decision as we did see the big fellow, North America’s largest owl, standing 24-33 inches tall. The Great Horned Owl, by comparison, is only 18-25 inches.

Birds we thought we might see but didn’t were the American Three-toed woodpecker, black-backed woodpecker, northern shrike, grouse, boreal owl and others I don’t remember. In summer, the Bog is home to a large variety of warblers. Maybe I will have to go back this summer.

After spotting the owl we headed for Two Harbors and had lunch at the Vanilla Bean, then Split Rock Lighthouse and Gooseberry Falls. It was on to Duluth for the evening meal and overnight before heading home on Monday.

Our final stop before heading home was the Northwoods Audubon Center, another great place to put on your agenda if you go up north.

Personally, I had never seen a snowy owl, great gray owl, northern hawk owl, pine grosbeak, snow bunting, gray Jay or the Boreal chickadee, so it was a great trip for me. We also saw a snowshoe hare, a real treat.

In addition to the birds and the scenery, I met a busload of nice folks. I roomed with Sharon from North Liberty. One couple was from Tucson, Ariz., but most were Iowans. The youngest was a 13-year-old boy from Ames, making the trip with his mom and grandma. Everyone adapted well to changed plans and the cold, and had a great time. Missy gave us snacks and soft drinks while Matt told jokes and trivia questions. This is one trip I would recommend to anyone who likes birds.

I may even become a “birder,” and not just a photographer of birds.


– Julie Johnston is a former Ledger photographer. She resides in rural Packwood.

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