I’m a die hard wolf/predator photographer who ventures out into the wilds of Yellowstone nearly every day of the year, to document the lives of the wild animals that cross my path. So, recently, when I made an impromptu trip to the Minnesota Northlands, in search of birds to photograph, it was quite a change from the snorting, snow-covered bull bison trudging through deep snow, the coyote daring to steal food from a wolf, a fox jumping head first into the snow, or a white weasel diving under the snow and coming up with a vole half its size. I’m so accustomed to searching with my ears, for the howls of the wolves, the food fights of the ravens and the sound of an otter’s tail as it hits the water, but everything was different.
At Sax-Zim Bog in Northern Minnesota, I encountered thick deciduous forest mostly made of soft woods, interspersed with pines, firs and spruce, or thick red willows in the more boggy areas. This transition was eased, somewhat, by the knowledge that wolves were there, somewhere in those trees and there was always a slim possibility to see one, but there were ravens and black birds everywhere, making it nearly impossible to pinpoint possible carcass areas where predators might be hanging out. Some of the ravens love to harass the great gray owls, or steal the farmer’s grain. Very little of what I know to be true in Yellowstone, is true in Sax-Zim Bog.
For one thing, people are allowed to hunt in many of the adjoining areas, putting the lives of the wolves, foxes, coyotes, weasels, pine martens, deer, mink, and other animals in jeopardy. One photographer knew someone who had trapped three pine martens. And, so I was forced to remember what prompted me to keep my wildlife photography in the national parks. The decision came after I had been photographing big horns in Thompson Falls, MT and saw in the local paper, the next week, a very proud woman with a big smile, cradling the trophy ram she had taken. I nearly cried at that image and told my friends that I didn’t go out to photograph wild animals, only to see them killed. The thought of photographing wildlife when a hunter arrived on scene and shot the animal, terrified me.
There are no rules or regulations, but birders and photographers rely on people to police themselves and to be ethical towards the birds and the other humans. I was shocked the first time someone walked up under an owl for a cell phone pic but the owl didn’t care and no one berated the person. And, I was reminded that being an ethical photographer has nothing to do with staying 25 yards from an animal but has everything to do with their comfort level and making sure you aren’t stepping in front of other people. So deeply engrained in me to keep my distance, I found it difficult to adjust my attitude and let myself enjoy the moments. We were allowed to park on the roads and residents kindly asked that people keep a lane free, rather than cussing and being abusive.
No trespassing signs were everywhere and I assume that some of the residents had gotten tired of people going onto their land, either to hunt or take photos. One guy had a big yellow sign that said that his property was paroled by Ruger, so stay the F##K out. Another guy hung a sign that said that we weren’t allowed to watch the birds in his yard, right across the road from a place where we were treated to dozens of full feeders, a shooting blind, an outhouse, turkeys, chickens and plenty of wild birds and squirrels. What a delight Lou’s Feeders were and I gladly put some dollars in the donation box because she must spend a fortune to keep those birds fed and to plow areas for us to park. Throughout the bog there were several private feeding areas that we were allowed to view and I was thankful for each one. Along with that, feeding stations have been erected on land that belongs to Friends of Sax-Zim Bog. The feeders are always full, despite all of the birds coming in, and I caught onto this too late, but we were encouraged to bring peanut butter to slather on the limbs and trunks. As you can imagine, peanut butter was a favorite of the woodpeckers and jays. It was at these feeding stations that we had owls on patrol and what an amazing opportunity!
I’d never thought about the relationship of fed birds bringing in the raptors but these owls sat above the feeders and listened for voles under the snow. The boreal owl was often harassed by the squirrels, woodpeckers and grey (Canda) jays, while none of them dared hassle the much larger barred owl. Well, there was a tenacious pileated woodpecker that was in total control of everything and that owl kept a good eye on her.
And, so, when I realized that the owls we were photographing were there because the birds were being fed, I had to question my own ethics on this topic. In the end, birds need to have their food supplies supplemented and feeding them during the winter is not considered to be unethical. And, naturally, their predators will come in. I have a sharp-shinned hawk in my yard, and great horned owls nearby, that is just the way it goes. A neighbor cat visits every night, looking for the voles that are eating the food. Although some people do bait the owls in the bog, that was not going on while I was there, and once again I relaxed and enjoyed myself. I am so well trained to not disturb wild animals to get a photo, I did get upset at those who were making noises in order to get the owl to look their way. Really, it was none of my business but just a natural reaction from someone who has to spend the majority of their life worrying about rules.
During my first few hours in the bog, I saw a great gray owl, a barred owl and a northern hawk owl, along with many woodpeckers and small birds. This bit of luck was unexpected and for a moment, I wondered what I was going to do with my remaining time. Well, turns out that I was lucky to see that great grey because no others showed themselves to me. And, the next day I saw the snowy owl and the boreal owl. Five owls, two days! Unheard of luck for me. I decided to stay and observe the birds as much as possible – get to know them as I have the wolves. And, photograph as many birds as possible.
In Yellowstone we have what is called the “wolf radio,” which is used by certain wolf watchers to advise others of sightings. In Sax-Zim Bog, they have the telegraph app where sightings are recorded and everyone is allowed to join, as long as they give their first and last names. In Yellowstone, the wolf radios were just for an exclusive group and others were told that they were not allowed to have one. So soured was I by the whole wolf radio exclusivity, I didn’t look into the telegraph app for several days and just explored on my own. But, as some photographers were quick to point out, many folks were traveling long distances to see the birds and so the telegraph gives them better odds. I joined up, which was not easy due to my lack of being tech savvy, and was grateful for the information, even though I still went out looking on my own.
Most visitors were at the bog in hopes of capturing a great grey, until the elusive boreal owl came on the scene, making quite a splash. This owl required a lot of patience, especially when you could see his outline on the limb of a dead tree, with a squirrel giving him hell, but there were too many limbs to get a clear view. If you want to find a boreal owl in thick forest, good luck, since they blend in so well while sitting up against the tree trunk. Only movement, or an agitated woodpecker, squirrel or jay would give the owl away.
Within seconds of the owl flying into the open, people began to arrive and before long there was 50 cars lining the roads, and photographers lying on the snow covered road, or standing shoulder to shoulder. What impressed me the most was people’s excitement at seeing the owl, and their sort of live and let live attitudes. This was the first time in years of being around crowds of people photographing wildlife, where I was allowed to just concentrate on my subject, without interference. I lucked out and got the boreal owl early on, in the open with sunshine (rare in Minnesota) and so was able to stay away as the crowds grew. I wanted to be there, enjoying that owl some more, but everyone deserved their turn.
In Meadowlands, MN, where Sax-Zim Bog is located, services are far and few between. Friends of Sax-Zim Bog has been able to preserve 483 acres of the bog land and boreal forests that is so critical for these birds and our environment. They have a wonderful welcome center that is open every day during the winter, with full feeders, deer carcasses, an outhouse and trails, along with a white board about sightings and helpful staff that are anxious to help you find the birds. Check out their website before visiting the bog and either download the birding map or get one at the center: https://saxzim.org. From the website, you will find numerous other sources and links, including places to stay and where to eat. There is one restaurant/bar in Meadowlands that doesn’t open until three and no gas stations.
I lucked out and was able to stay at Alesche’s Accommodations, which is in the bog, at the southern end, and quite comfortable with many different options. Can’t recommend this place enough, but be sure and plan ahead: https://www.alesches.com. I stayed longer than planned and was running out of food when I found the Thirsty Moose in Hibbing, which has the best wings and sauces I’ve ever had! Also, I ordered a burger without the bun, due to gluten problems, and did not experience any illness. Everything was good. This bar and grill is about 30 minutes from the bog but you will have to drive somewhere for gas and Hibbing is the best option for food. While leaving town I stopped at Boontown in Hibbing and got some chicken in plum sauce for the road. Boontown is a brewery so if you are a micro brew person, this might be a good option.
While in Minnesota, I did make it to Duluth and saw Lake Superior, and had planned to visit the International Wolf Center in Ely, about 2 hours northeast of the bog, but couldn’t tear myself away from the birds. For this wolf photographer from Yellowstone, I found Sax-Zim Bog to be welcoming, fun, challenging, interesting and full of things to do. Just a good old fashioned walk in the woods was nice. The lack of sunshine didn’t bother me but it did get a bit cold at times so take winter clothes. More of a wet cold than we get in WY. And, I did get to photograph a few mammals, white tailed deer and my biggest thrill, a mink! It was tough to leave the mink but now I’m back at Yellowstone, looking forward to seeing the wolves again.