COMMUNITY: Lure for birders tugs northward

JR Ogden
Published: March 23 2014 | 5:00 am - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 10:02 am in

Editor’s note: Rick Hollis of rural North Liberty is past president and newsletter editor for the Iowa City Bird Club.

By Rick Hollis, community contributor

On Feb. 28 at 5:30 a.m., Barry Buschelmann, Sharon Sommers and I met some birders from Des Moines for a trip to the north woods.

You might wonder if we had lost our minds? Wasn’t it cold enough for us here this winter? We were headed to Sax-Zim Bog in northern Minnesota, named after two communities with a combined population of around 30.

It started to snow before we crossed the border, but that was the last falling snow we saw. The snow already on the ground was a different story, some around 3 feet deep where we were going. And the temperature, well, made Iowa feel like Miami.

When we left Eveleth for the bog, air temperatures were near minus-30, which had wind chills approaching minus-50. The entire time we were at the bog, the warmest we saw was minus-4.

We had great bunch of 40 people. There were grandmothers, a ninth-grader and everything between. There were so many big lenses, it looked like the end of the basketball court at Carver-Hawkeye Arena during an Iowa basketball game.

We had a super bus driver who put up with birders’ eccentricities. Bird-watchers constantly think they see something. We would yell, “Stop! Back up, I think I saw something. Back up some more, pull up some, sorry, never mind, it is just a black spruce lump.”

Although we had some problems, everyone rolled with the punches.

Sax-Zim Bog has a mix of spruce, tamarack and northern white cedar bogs, plus alder swamps, a few assorted deciduous woodlands, isolated hayfields and sedge meadows.

We had a chance to see bird species we do not see often or at all in Iowa. Many of us saw numerous species we had never seen. Our trip list had 35 only species (only 22 from the bog), which is probably low for two days in Iowa during winter. But what wonderful birds.

Many saw as many as five or even seven “life birds,” species they had never seen. The best birds of the trip were snowy owl, northern hawk owl, great gray owl, gray jay, black-billed magpie, common raven, boreal chickadee, snow bunting, pine grosbeak and evening grosbeak. I had three “life birds” — the great gray owl (a magnificent 27-inch long bird), gray jays, gray, black and white puffballs (at least at minus-20, they are puffy) with no sign of the blue that characterizes most other jays.

Over the years, I have had a number of amusing things happen to me. On this trip, an older gentlemen who lived in the area got out of his truck to take a picture of our bus “so the kids will believe me” about the big bus, he told us.

Perhaps the neatest thing we saw was a snowy owl flying from one perch to another. As we turned our scopes and cameras to the new perch, we saw a common raven come from some distance away to dive at the snowy. The snowy returned to its original perch and, a few minutes later, a raven flew toward the scene of the disturbance carrying nesting material. It might have been cold, but with the increasing day length and higher sun, Ravens in the area were messing with their nests.

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