Kicking off the new year I went one a pilgrimage to the Sax Zim Bog, perhaps the most singular northern birding mecca in the continental U.S. This was unfamiliar territory for me, territory I did not have a lot of time to cover but territory that nonetheless held massive lifer potential.
I'll admit, I had also fallen away from the fold a bit, with work, social, and soccer demands substantially cutting into my birding time fall of 2015. The birding gods, they notice these things, and in their caprice they will make one pay for time not spent and homage not given. That is, of course, the only explanation as to why I didn't see the big owls. Also, look at the Gray Jay photo below. See something wrong with it? Exactly, that sky is blue, and no sensible boreal Owl will be perching out in that pleasantness, and it was super pleasant all of day one.
The Sax Zim Bog is also huge and necessitates vehicular birding for the most part, with a few areas and feeder stations being pedestrian friendly. Spending hours in 1st gear looking for perched owls can get somewhat tiresome if the Owls aren't around (and as I mentioned before, the two days we were there no one had any reported sightings), which made the brief excursions into the cold and snow, ironically, a welcome respite.
Black-capped Chickadees were exceedingly numerous, as one would expect, with their abhorrent cuteness masking their dynamic tungsten tonka toughness. Chuck Norris really has very little in terms of tough on a BCCH and their ilk. We also caught small flock of Pine Grosbeaks on the second day, giving me second looks at this species and a first experience with the males. It was too cold for my face to regular melt, but the intense coloration of these birds caused rapid sublimation and instead most of my face transitioned straight to a gaseous state and is still suspended somewhere over Lake Superior.
Also numerous were Common Redpolls, a belated lifer, including one pretty good candidate for the existentially crisised Hoary Redpoll. Knowing this bird was likely going to disappear from lists (which I totally agree with, btw), I didn't stress about it too much. Common is good enough for me.
Snow Buntings provided another nifty lifer, arguably cooler but also less accommodating than the COREs. Mud Buntings or Gravel Buntings might be more suiting monikers for their habitat preferences. Failing to capture closer shots or flight shots of these birds was a substantial point of sadness. Despite my preferences they did not allow for approach whatsoever. Snoots.
Since we weren't picking up the vibe from the SZ Bog by midday on day two, the Iowa Voice and I headed back to the Duluth suburbs in pursuit of Bohemian Waxwings. We struck out on those nomads, but while pausing to have consolidation beers that we had to open ingeniously with a tire iron, we were treated to a Sharp-tailed Grouse clumsily feeding on sapling buds.
I got out of the car to see if this bird would be approachable and sunk to my waste in snow, so that was the end of that.
We tried for White-winged Crossbills near the Park Point strip, where some pine barrens jut out into Superior. Picking up Northern Shrike was dandy, but the drive out onto this isthmus cost us more time than we anticipated.
We drove unconscionably fast back along the one-lane road, but no amount of hurry is worth passing a Pileated Woodpecker, even if it is simply getting friendly with a utility pole. This is, I am ashamed to say, the first photo I've obtained of this species.
As I mentioned in previous posts, fortified patience was lacking on my end during this trip. We resolved to wait out of the Gyrfalcon first, since Snowy-chasing was erratic. The Gyr was sighted consistently in this industrial area every day...at some point throughout the day. The distance and conditions worsened our circumstances in that we did not have a spotting scope, but after about an hour and a half we finally spied the menacing blob atop some grainery equipment.
Like Ivory Gull, this was not a bird I had been expecting to see during this trip or really in the near future at all. Maybe the universe was just keeping its equilibrium in denying us the Owls while providing these vagrants. Fortunately I can make my way back to this area with more regularity than a vagrant, and I shall have my sweet snowy satisfaction--and no I'm not exclusively talking about snow cones, but they will be a factor.
Gyrfalcon was an awesome lifer with which to wrap up this quick trip. With more time and patience, this is a trip I will make again, or one much like it. Watch your backs, boreal birds.