In a Minnesota Bog, a Festival of Birds

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ON an early winter's evening in northern Minnesota, a convoy of five snappy yellow school buses rolled out into the dusk. From the windows, the distant horizon of pointy evergreens and wide-open expanses of frosted wetlands looked like a frozen dead zone. But we were on a tour to see life -- bird life.

"Welcome to the Sax-Zim Bog," said our guide, Steve Weston. "Tonight we'll be going through the towns of Sax and Zim, population nothing." Moments later we drove by a snow-dusted, abandoned trailer, the front door hanging off one hinge. This was downtown Sax. Zim, a few miles to the north, wasn't much more. Both are remnants of failed attempts to farm the bog that date back to the early 20th century. Now they are ghost towns surrounded by 200 square miles of wetlands.

Sax-Zim is no winter wonderland. But I and the 120 other birders -- some from California and Texas -- who had signed up for the Fifth Annual Sax-Zim Winter Birding Festival on a February weekend last year didn't care about scenery. We were here to glimpse hard-to-spot boreal bird species -- birds from Canada's Great White North that fly down to Sax-Zim from December to March. Owls are a main attraction, including the majestic great gray owl, which, at nearly three feet, is North America's tallest. In fact, in these first hours of the festival, we were en route to see one. An advance scout had found an owl in the bog and was keeping an eye on it, waiting for the buses to arrive.

The three-day festival consists mostly of tours like this, with breakfasts and dinners and bird talks served at the community center in the town of Meadowlands, just south of the bog. Birding guides from Duluth (about 60 miles to the southeast) lead the tours. Most festivalgoers also make the hour's commute from Duluth each morning, since that's where the hotels are.

On my first outing, I was overjoyed at the prospect of nailing down a great gray. "Stop!" squawked a middle-aged woman from the back of our bus. We had been instructed to yell out if we saw a bird. Mr. Weston peered though his binoculars. "Yup, ruffed grouse. Right there, in the willows," he said. Ruffed grouse? They're about as rare in Minnesota's North Woods as a chicken in a barnyard, I thought. But some folks from Arizona wanted to get a good look. The other buses rumbled off down the road. Impatience rumbled in my belly.

Ten minutes later, we joined a crowd of beaming, bundled-up birders at the edge of a clearing. "Sorry, you just missed it," said a woman, grinning. She was referring to the great gray owl, and she wasn't gloating. She was just happy. But it still stung.

On the bright side, it was only Friday. I still had the rest of the weekend. And Sax-Zim, while notorious for fierce windchills that dip to 40 below, is a hot spot for great grays, which come to hunt the area's abundant moles and voles. "It's certainly one of the top spots in the nation for boreal species," Mark Martell told me weeks later. Mr. Martell is bird conservation director for Audubon Minnesota, which classifies Sax-Zim as an Audubon Important Bird Area, a designation reserved for the best bird habitats in the world. "I can't think of any other place that combines the numbers of boreal birds with the access by car," he said. "I mean, sure, you could go bushwhacking up into remote roadless peatlands in Canada to find these birds. But who the hell wants to do that?"

Birders have traveled here from as far away as Norway, Ireland, Belgium and China. Sax-Zim got a reputation as one of birding's holy grounds in Mark Obmascik's 2004 book "The Big Year," which became a movie starring Steve Martin, Owen Wilson and Jack Black in 2011. In the book, two birders, Al Levantin of Colorado and Sandy Komito of New Jersey, made pilgrimages to the bog in their quest to spot the most bird species in a single calendar year. Mr. Komito, who set the big year record, failed to get his owl at Sax-Zim. I was hoping for better luck.

The next morning at 6 a.m., after spending the night at Fitger's Inn in Duluth, I stepped into the Meadowlands Community Center. Groggy birders poured coffee from an urn and sat down to a breakfast of pastries, slapping their binoculars down on folding tables like gunslingers at a saloon. Meadowlands, population 134, at last count, isn't much more than a cluster of homes, plus a nursing home and a bar. But it's friendly. "Meadowlands Welcomes Birders" reads a sign in town.

When the call came to board the buses, we filed outside into the early morning darkness and 6-degree cold. "Are you going after a great gray today?" I asked Alex Stark, a guide in his 20s. "Yeah, man, first bird we'll go get," he replied coolly. I decided to ditch Mr. Weston and go with this guide. As the bus throttled into the bog, the dawn filtered through spruce tops. Frost formed on the windows, and birders pulled out credit cards to scrape it away. "Stop!" a call rang out from the back. This time, it wasn't for a grouse. The large, round-headed silhouette of a great gray owl was tucked into a thicket of alder and birch. Sixty eyeballs jostled for a view through 10 bus windows. Had we been in a boat, it would have tipped. Then we went outside for a better look, and the owl glided across the road -- the Gray Ghost of the North stretching out its five-foot wingspan -- and disappeared into the woods.

As the morning and the bus rolled on, we racked up more sightings: streaky brown pine siskins flitting around balsam firs; a charcoal gray timber jay swooping through black spruce; a black-masked northern shrike (a bird reputed to impale rodents on barbed wire fences) perched on a power line looking for its next victim; a soaring rough-legged hawk from the high Arctic.

Around 11 a.m. we were walking through the snow toward a grove of bare-branched trees -- a graveyard of tamarack skeletons, victims of an Eastern larch beetle infestation. Here we listened for the sound of bark being flaked, not pecked, the telltale behavior of a black-backed woodpecker. Mr. Stark found one working over a stump, a midnight-black bird with a yellow cap. "Oooohs" rippled down the line of birders.

Then up above we heard the wink-wink calls of white-winged crossbills foraging on spruce cones. Smiles appeared on the faces of the couple beside me. Blake and Holly Wright of Houston were on their own big-year quest. A month earlier they had birded the California coast, and in a couple of weeks they'd bird the Louisiana bayou, but at this moment they were content to be wrapped in scarves, stamping their feet to stay warm. "This is spectacular," Mr. Wright exclaimed.

Back on the bus, birders tore into ham and cheese sandwiches and baggies of Cheez-Its. Nobody complained. A gentleman from St. Paul, Minn., sitting behind me entered his new life-list birds on his iPhone. Most barely noticed the umpteenth deserted dwelling we passed, a shack with shattered windows that was half-sunk in the bog. One could easily get the impression that this is a God-forsaken place. Locals dump their dead horses in the bog. One of the few occupied homes has a warning sign spray-painted on the garage door: "Trespassers, you will be violated by U.S. Marine sniper."

But see Sax-Zim through birders' eyes, and it's Shangri-La. Alongside Admiral Road, in the middle of the bog, we disembarked near bird feeders that had been erected in a hot spot for boreal chickadees, a rarity in the lower 48. After several minutes of watching clouds of siskins, jays, nuthatches and black-capped chickadees swarm around sunflower seeds, a chickadee with a buffy splotch on its white belly landed on a suet bag. "That's a boreal!" a guide declared. "Yes!" responded a dozen birders with a seemingly choreographed fist pump.

Back on the bus, Mr. Stark was high-fiving his clients. "Dudes, we slammed the bog today!" The Wrights tallied up their day list -- 22 species, a far cry from the 100-plus birds in a day they could have racked up back in Texas, they said. "But these are the toughest 20," Mr. Wright said.

By late afternoon we were back at the Meadowlands Community Center for a chicken dinner and a presentation by a bird photographer. But I knew there was a chance that great gray owl I missed last night would be back in the same spot tonight. So I drove my own car back into the bog.

I wasn't the only one playing hooky. I bumped into George Wood, a birder from Philadelphia. We exchanged pleasantries as we walked, then we hit the mother lode -- a great gray! And another! And another! And another! One of the owls landed on a branch in the full light of the setting sun. We admired the gray concentric circles on its massive head, its fiery yellow eyes, and the white bow tie plumage below its chin. Another owl dived into the grasses and pounced on a rodent. A Discovery Channel live performance.

"Got it!" whispered Mr. Wood as he admired the images on his digital camera. "Oh man, I'm going to print and enlarge these babies. They're going up on the wall at home."

Behind us, more festival escapees trundled down the snowy path. A small crowd formed.

Over the course of the weekend, people from 22 states had toured this desolate barrens in northern Minnesota. A strange occurrence, but then again strange things happen in the Sax-Zim Bog -- like a congregation of four great gray owls.

​IF YOU GO​

THE BIRDING FESTIVAL WEEKEND

The 2013 Sax-Zim Winter Birding Festival will be held on Feb. 15 to 17. The cost ranges from $105 for two days to $175 for the entire three-day weekend; sack lunches, field trips, dinners and presentations are included. For more information, visit sax-zimbog.com/birding-festival.

GUIDES

Guides from Duluth offer birding excursions into the Sax-Zim Bog year-round. They include: Sparky Stensaas (thephotonaturalist.com/bird-guiding-in-northern-minnesota; 218-341-3350; $150 per day for one to two people), Mike Hendrickson (mikehendricksonguiding.com; from $15 per hour for individuals) and Erik Bruhnke (naturallyavian.com; 262-408-8892; $150 per day for up to four people).

WHERE TO STAY AND EAT

Fitger's Inn (600 East Superior Street, Duluth, Minn.; 218-722-8826; fitgers.com) occupies a renovated 1885 brewery in the Duluth Harbor on Lake Superior, with a brew pub, restaurants and shops within the hotel complex. From $135 a night.

The best food choices are in Duluth, but there are a few spots closer to the bog. In Meadowlands, the Trailside Lounge & Grill (9994 Spruce Street; 218-427-2773) serves up burgers beginning at 3 p.m. Just to the east of the bog, the Wilbert Cafe (9105 Highway 53; 218-482-3318) serves diner fare.

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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