With photos of snowy owls on our memory cards, and sore necks from searching for the great gray owl, we turned onto a side road to a place we knew we’d find treasure.
As the Sax-Zim Bog northwest of Duluth gains fame for its unusual avian residents and visitors, human residents and visitors have added bird feeders here and there to increase viewing opportunities. Two other cars were already stopped across the road from the sunflower seed feeders nestled in a tiny clearing in the roadside swamp. Peanut butter residue covered many of the perches.
The treasure we sought at this station was much smaller than before. Weighing in at less than half an ounce, boreal chickadees seem an unlikely candidate for Arctic living. Although their normal range is farther north in Canada and Alaska, a pair seems to have taken up residence here. Word on the street is that they love peanut butter.
As we waited for the boreal chickadees to appear, a gregarious flock of our regular black-capped chickadees entertained us. After a bit, a troupe of soft-feathered gray jays (also known as Canada jays, whiskey jacks, and camp robbers) swooped in with no fear. Gray jays have some unique winter adaptations – like feathered nostrils – that allow them to spend their lives in the far north, even breeding during late winter when temperatures could fall to -20 degrees.
Gray jays need many calories to keep them going, and they store food to supplement their diet during lean times. These resourceful critters use sticky saliva to glue small food items to tree branches above the height of the snow line. Cold temperatures in their preferred habitats prevent cached food, even chunks of meat, from spoiling. Some boreal tree species may even contribute antibacterial compounds that help the food stored under their flaky bark stay fresh.
After observing the feeders for over 40 minutes, we wished we had more winter adaptations, and more food. Luckily, as we watched, a volunteer showed up with a huge bag of birdseed, and filled all the feeders. We thanked him profusely as the action picked up. In no time, we spotted the rusty sides and brown cap of the boreal chickadee as it came to visit the feeders.
After our three successful sightings of target birds, it was time to move on. We peered intently into the forest, still trying to catch a glimpse of the elusive great gray owl. The Phantom of the North had been spotted near the feeders in recent days.
“Stop! What’s that?” came the cry from the back of the van. We extricated ourselves from the van to get a closer look. As the first pair of binoculars focused in, the shape unwound itself from the tamarack branch and went scurrying down the trunk. Red squirrel. Back in the van, the rest of the great gray owl’s reported habitat streamed past our windows with no luck.
Soon we found ourselves on another long, straight stretch of road, thick with black spruce trees on either side. This time our treasure showed itself readily. The dark silhouette of a northern hawk owl stood out cleanly against the blue sky.
Although northern hawk owls tend to avoid dense spruce-fir forests in favor of more open hunting grounds, the road ditch here must provide enough space for hunting. Even swaying slightly in the rising wind, this owl could detect prey scurrying half a mile away--by sight. Like the snowy and the great gray, this little guy can also hear and hunt small mammals under the snow.
As we watched, the dark brown owl swooped several yards to a new perch. Its short, pointed wings, compact body, and long, tapered tail certainly gave the impression of a hawk, as did its daytime hunting. But it is a hawk in name only.
Enthused by the discovery of yet another treasure, we resumed our search. This time our destination was bird feeders outside a small wooden building accessorized by two purple porta potties. The brand-new, just-insulated welcome center is a project of Friends of the Sax-Zim Bog. Pine grosbeaks chattered at the feeders as we chatted with the full-time naturalist. She assured us that no one else had seen the great gray owl that day either.
Afternoon sunshine slanted across the road, and directly into our eyes, as we took one more drive past the great gray owl’s reported hunting grounds. Still, the Phantom of the North eluded us. We felt rich anyway, happy with nice views of two northern owls, several unique songbirds, and a beautiful winter day in the bog.
For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI, at 13470 County Highway M. The current exhibit, “Deer Camp: A Natural and Cultural History of White-tailed Deer,” opened in May 2013 and will remain open until April 2014.
Find us on the web at www.cablemuseum.org to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Discover us on Facebook, or at our blogspot, http://cablemuseumnaturalconnections.blogspot.com/.