Birding: A Philadelphian looking for owls

Special to the Gazette

I was the only Philadelphian on the Minneapolis-bound flight who was not planning on attending the Super Bowl. When I told them I was going to see owls, these Eagles fans were even more confused. I did watch the big game, but I was in a Birder’s Bed & Breakfast in the tiny town of Meadowlands in central Minnesota. At dawn, the thermometer read -29 degrees Fahrenheit, a sight I hope never to see again.

The Sax-Zim Bog is one of the more easily accessible boreal black spruce peatlands in the U.S., and a favorite destination for birders seeking far northern birds. This is the most southerly location for many birds that nest more commonly in Alaska, so the frigid depths of February are the best time for a visit. My sister and I mostly birded from the car, keeping our hikes to less than 30 minutes to avoid frostbite on our exposed faces.

Vast stretches of the bog are devoid of birds in the winter, but local residents place bird feeders in visible locations and erect big signs inviting birders to park in their driveways to enjoy the feathered feast. The first feeder we visited had dozens of evening grosbeaks, a spectacular species once regular in Virginia but rapidly disappearing with climate warming. The next feeder hosted more than a thousand common redpolls. Then came one with 50 pine grosbeaks and a black-billed magpie. Volunteers even fill feeders at random places along the back roads to allow photographers better access to scenic shots. Imagine my surprise at finding a log covered in peanut butter more than 10 miles from the nearest house.

But the owls were our main quarry. Northern owls hunt at all times of day and night, sometimes using sound to pinpoint rodents moving under the snow. While the fields and woods looked empty to me, the owls felt otherwise, as we located four great gray owls, a northern hawk-owl, and a snowy owl, all actively hunting in broad daylight from the sides of roads.

Surprisingly, the most common bird in the bog was the black-capped chickadee. These sprites have very little mass to store heat, and so must eat constantly and drop into torpor each night. Rather than struggling to survive in sub-zero temperatures, they actually began singing for mates as soon as the temperature reached a balmy -2 degrees.

We closed out our short visit with a huge flock of snow buntings, a black-backed woodpecker, gray jays, and a gorgeous hoary redpoll. While birds were actually few and far between, almost every one was something I haven’t seen in many years, and it was inspiring to see a community working together to promote birding as an economic force.

Cristol teaches in the Biology Department at the College of William and Mary. Send email to To discover local birding opportunities visit

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