Temperatures were in the negative digits and the sun was still below the horizon when we left the Bed & Breakfast in Hibbing, Minnesota. It was nearly 6am as we pointed our car towards Sax-Zim Bog, a layer of ice coated the rear window and we had every inch of skin covered in anticipation of the winds whipping the snowy landscape – but we wanted to see a Great Gray Owl.
Nestled in a remote part of the Iron Range of northern Minnesota, Sax-Zim Bog is a birder’s paradise. Classified as an Audubon Important Bird Area, this is considered one of the best bird habitats in the world. A mixture of bog, upland woods and hay fields, birders that brave the extreme temperatures of the frozen tundra have an opportunity to see birds that have migrated from northern Canada, something not possible anywhere else in the lower 48 states.
Named for two largely abandoned towns in the vicinity, Sax and Zim, the railroad arrived in 1906 and opened the area for development. The first settlers were largely Germans, Swedes, Fins and Czechoslovakians who were primarily loggers and truck farmers producing large quantities of crops to ship to distant markets. With such seemingly rich land untapped, by 1913 an ambitious project was set in motion: drain some of the bogs and convert them to farmland. For a period of time, this was a huge success and crops were shipped as far as California.
When one drives through the area now, only remnants of homes and farm buildings remain. Falling into decay, they are becoming a distant memory of the failed attempt to drain and farm the land that made up the bog. Now action is underway to preserve the area and it is thanks to a small owl that weighs less than a pound.
In 1963, a traveling pastor spotted a Northern Hawk Owl and mentioned it to a Minnesota Ornithologist’s Union member. When investigated further, they found not one hawk but a family group of six – until that time, no Hawk Owl nest had ever been discovered in Minnesota. With that fateful sighting, binoculars began pointing to the remote northern landscape.
In 2008, the area was designated an IBA or “Important Bird Area” by Audubon Minnesota and the first Sax-Zim Bog Winter Bird Festival was held. Now an annual event, approximately 150 birders from all over the country flock to the area each February; attendees have arrived from as far as Norway, Ireland, Belgium, and China. 40 acres of pristine Black Spruce and Tamarack bog has been purchased by Friends of Sax-Zim Bog with help from the Minnesota DNR Conservation Partners Legacy Grant and is now the protected “Yellow-bellied Bog.”
Once a basin of a great glacial lake, the bog is more than four times the size of Minneapolis. Its low topography attracts birds all year long, in fact, more than 240 species of migrant and breeding birds have been spotted in the area.