Tales from Sax-Zim Bog, St. Louis County, Minnesota

An ermine, aka short-tailed weasel, emerges from its part-time residence inside a deer carcass at Sax-Zim Bog in northern Minnesota.

I just made it home from a wonderful road trip to northern Minnesota where my friend Bill and I spent three full days exploring the boreal forests and bogs of Sax Zim Bog about an hour north of Duluth. I was fascinated by both the landscape and the critters in this winter wonderland where temperatures often began at -25 F and never made it to zero. Snow pack during our stay was about 20″ but the roads on the area were beautifully graded and plowed thanks to county road crews.

The most exciting point of our visit occurred on the first morning we drove into the bog on County Road 133. It was about 30 minutes before sunrise when Bill said, “Whoa, stop — I think I saw something.” I stopped the 4Runner and backed up about 50 feet to obtain a view of a clearing in woods we had passed. We both grabbed our binoculars and dialed in three gray wolves, about 150 meters away, all looking at us! Wow! After about 15 seconds they began prancing around in a circle and suddenly faded into the tamaracks. Bill and I were simply stunned to see such icons of North America, a sight we never expected to see during our visit. We looked at each other and reveled at the possibilities ahead of us for the rest of our trip.

A little after sunrise on the same morning, we delayed our search for great grey owls, the signature species of Sax-Zim Bog, to pull a young man out of the snow-filled ditch along the road. When I asked him how he ended up in the snowbank he said he had been looking at a porcupine up in a tree and drove right off the road. I grabbed a tow strap from the back of the 4Runner and Bill graciously crawled under the fella’s car to wrap it around the rear axle. After we got the car back on the road, we all looked at the porcupine that appeared to be playing possum at first but actually turned out to be dead. I guess I’ll never know exactly how that porcupine turned up dead in the top of that tree.

The rest of the first day was spent searching for owls, mostly, and learning the lay of the land. Sax-Zim Bog is a huge area, about 300 square miles of bog, aspen uplands, rivers, lakes, meadows, farms and small towns. We knew we were taking a chance by not hiring a guide but my need to do things on my own exceeded my drive to obtain images of all of the charismatic critters of the bog. Bill and I would simply wing it and hope for the best!

By mid-morning, as we continued exploring the network of roads that crisscross the bog, we encountered another vehicle off the road in deep snow. We could see a woman frantically shoveling snow from the far side of the car but it was to no avail of course. When I approached her, I gave her a friendly tease, something to the effect of, “How the heck did you drive off the road?” She was of Asian descent and had a little trouble with English but she finally conveyed that she was looking up in a tree at what she thought might be an owl and simply drove right off the road!” We all three laughed for a while and then began an hour long process of digging and pulling her large SUV from the snow. The road was like a skating rink so it was tough getting purchase, even with the 4Runner. When we finally got her out, we continued on about a mile to our first visit to the “Friends of Sax-Zim Bog Visitor Center” for some hot coffee and fresh intel.

At the visitor’s center we noticed two or three deer carcasses strategically placed in the woods around the bird feeders. We learned that the carcasses, apparently from road kills, were used to provide food for birds and other critters such as the ermine in the featured photo. It was weird watching woodpeckers land and peck away at the frozen carcasses, or what I called deersicles, aka Minnesota suet.

The attendant at the center, a young man with a wealth of knowledge and formal education about birds, told us an ermine visited one of the carcasses every day around lunch time. We didn’t see it during our visit but I made a note to return each day around lunch to watch for it. On the second day, I found myself sitting in the snow in the bitter cold intently watching the carcass while Bill watched me from inside the center. Suddenly I heard a knock on the huge viewing window and looked back to see Bill pointing and gesturing toward something. I looked back at the carcass and saw the ermine poking its head out of hole in the meat. It was like it was coming out of a hollow log of venison — LOL. I was absolutely elated to see my first ever ermine in its snow-white winter coat.

An ermine emerges from a deersicle.

A nice look at its tail as it goes back in.

As I photographed the ermine I prayed that it would drop down onto the snow for a truly incredible image. Well, it finally did just that but disappeared into a tunnel about a half second after it hit the ground. Oh well, I still got some images of its deceptively cute little face.

While I was waiting for the ermine, I made some nice images of the little red squirrels and Canada jays that are found everywhere on the area. Below are some pics.

A red squirrel shows off its beautiful color against a snowy background.

A closer look. Check out the red between its ears.

We saw red squirrels everywhere. Bill loved their prominent eye rings.

Canada jays were ubiquitous. I had never seen one. We also saw blue jays to remind us of home.

Later on the first day, Bill and I had a highlight similar to our wolf sighting. We were driving down Yoki Road when we saw a rather large critter in the middle of the road, heading for the ditch. I slammed on the brakes and slid for a while, finally coming to a stop where we each got a nice look at what turned out to be a fisher! It appeared to be almost the size of an otter, larger and much darker than a marten, another weasel found on the area. By the end of the week we had only heard of one other fisher sighting so we patted ourselves on the back for doing so well with unique critters, especially considering our guideless wanderings.

By the end of the first day, we hadn’t seen a single owl but we held out until dark and finally headed back to Duluth for supper and some guitar playing in the motel. Speaking of motels, we stayed at a renovated Day’s Inn on the northern edge of Duluth which had a birders discount if you can believe that. We got a two-bedroom suite for $75 a night and each morning we pulled out of the parking lot onto Highway 53 which proceeded straight to the bog with no traffic whatsoever.

We started the second day with some intel from other visitors and the visitor’s center. Our focus was on Zim Road where several great gray owls had been spotted each morning. We arrived a little after daylight and ran into the lady we had pulled from the ditch the day earlier. She had already watched a great grey owl take a vole from the snow in an open field and fly up into a tree. She even showed me a video of her observation. We had only missed the action by a few minutes!

We spent the rest of morning in the northwest corner of the area looking for great grey owls to no avail. Later we drove around looking for northern hawk owls which hunt during the day. As we drove the area we saw ruffed grouse everywhere feeding on buds in trees right along the roads.

A grouse feeding on buds in a tree along the roadside. We saw them everywhere.

A closer look at a ruffed grouse.

We saw grouse feeding along the roadsides each day during our visits to the bog. They were always in the vegetative clutter but I wasn’t annoyed too much because that is the habitat in which they thrive. Somehow I got a few nice images with an open view of their heads and faces. A bonus was the snowfall on the second day which greatly enhanced the grouse images. We looked for sharp-tailed grouse each day at locations where they have been spotted before but never saw one.

By the end of the second day, we were back in the northwest corner of the bog looking for great grey owls again. As darkness fell, we were still shut out from seeing any owls. We reluctantly headed back to Duluth.

We started the third day, our last visit to the bog, back on Zim Road. The temperature was -24 F. It was still dark when we began our search for the elusive great grey. About 15 minutes after sunrise, we saw our first great grey owl as it soared right across the road, wings locked, and landed about 50 feet away on a branch about 15 feet off the ground. After a few whoo-hoos and high fives, I told Bill there wasn’t a shot because the owl was directly in the path of the sunrise and deep in the shadows. We had to settle for the experience alone. I explained to Bill that I could have made an image but it wouldn’t have been anything worth contributing to the world’s portfolio of great grey owls. It wasn’t to be. As it turned out, that was not only the first, but the last great grey we saw on the bog.

Later that morning, we headed to the visitor’s center to check out the ermine situation. It had already made its appearance and I was happy to hear that it hadn’t spent any time in the snow so I hadn’t missed anything new. I would have to settle for the ermine images I already had in the bag.

We began the afternoon with a search for sharp-tailed grouse to no avail. After that we focused all our energy in a search for northern hawk owls as we knew they would be at the peak of their hunting activity after lunch. As we drove closer to a location where a hawk owl had been hunting the previous day, we saw a car parked along the road. We eased over to the shoulder to see our first northern hawk owl flying from treetop to treetop not unlike a sharpie or Cooper’s hawk. When it finally settled atop a spruce, I began to capture images of the stunning creature, typically a resident of northern Canada and beyond,

A northern hawk owl scans the bog from atop a spruce tree.

I was glad had packed my 2x converter to add to my 500 mm lens because the little, artic owl, about the size of a crow, was a fer piece away from my camera. When I dialed in the focus on my 1000 mm combo, I immediately saw that I would be getting some nice shots of the compelling creature of the great white north.

Later that afternoon we searched for black-backed woodpeckers and three-toed woodpeckers. We ended up walking in knee-deep snow at Winterberry Blog where three-toed woodpeckers had been sighted before. We only found the black-backed species and none of my images turned out nice enough to share. It was interesting walking among the tamaracks in the deep snow at 10 below. We were only in our hiking shoes but we weren’t in there long enough to get too cold, even though it was still well below zero. Finally, I told Bill we needed to skedaddle because our plan was to look for a snowy owl that had been sighted the day before near sunset.

When we finally made it to the location where the snowy had been spotted the day before, we saw it perched atop a spruce tree far away in the middle of a snow-covered field. It was a gorgeous sight, the last of our encounters at Sax-Zim Bog, as the sun retreated one last time. Funny, I never even reached for my camera as our adventure came to an end. It was enough just to watch the snowy glowing atop the spruce in the middle of the snow-covered landscape.

Looking back on our adventure at Sax-Zim Bog, I can’t say enough about how gracious I found the people I met in Duluth, including motel staff, restaurant staff, fellow birders and photographers, and everybody else we met. I even got a free cappuccino at a gas station when my receipt failed to appear at the pump. Now that’s never happened before! If you’ve ever thought about heading to the bog but had reservations about how to approach such a huge area, I recommend you just go there, stop at the Visitor’s Center for a map and start driving. It’s really easy, and virtually impossible to get lost. Don’t worry about hiking in the snow or cold if you aren’t up for that. You can see all of the birds and critters from your vehicle. One word of advice though, try not to drive off the road when your are looking up in the trees. There might not be a Missouri boy around with a 4Runner and a tow strap.

Happy Naturing,


Plan your Visit

Email:  Natureframes@Rocketmail.Com

Gallery of Images:  Danny’s Website

America is beautiful. I vote to keep it that way.




4 comments on “Tales from Sax-Zim Bog, St. Louis County, Minnesota”

  1. Danny,
    UNBELIEVABLE pictures as usual!!!

  2. Awesome adventure, Danny! Love the images and stories shared.

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