The main targets, for many of the birders who venture up to the Sax Zim area, are the winter owl species. I have made quite a few trips up there, over the years, searching for great grey, northern hawk, and boreal owls. Most years there are a few resident owls to find but every 4 or 5 years there is an irruption/invasion and the numbers go up. The best known example of an owl irruption/invasion was in 2004/2005 when over 5000 great gray owls were counted in the state as well as significant numbers of northern hawk and boreal owls. Even when there is not an owl irruption/invasion there are other unique species of birds. This year was not a great owl or winter finch year but it was a very good year for woodpeckers. I have read a lot of reports, on the list servers, about people spotting black-backed and three-toed woodpeckers and I have even made several trips to the Duluth and Two Harbors area to try and get some pics but so far I had not had any luck. All that I had been able to find were downy and hairy woodpeckers.
So I left early Friday morning and pulled into the Sax Zim area around 9am. The skies where clear and blue, which in Minnesota during the winter time usually means that it is pretty cold. Since the festival registration did not begin until 4pm I had about 7 hours to do some birding on my own. So I went and checked out the feeding stations that some of the local residents had set up in order to encourage birds, and thus birders, to visit. Then I headed off to the bog to check out some of the better birding spots that I have found in past years. I took a lot of pictures of many cool birds but the only woodpeckers that I found were downies or hairies.
I was not worried though because I still had a couple of days of birding left and there were still quite a few sightings in the area. The next morning I was on a bus with about 30 people touring the bog in search of cool birds. That morning I got quite a few more pictures but I still had not seen a black-backed or three-toed. In the afternoon our group leaders decided to head out to the Hedbom Logging Road after talking with Kim Eckert who had lead a trip there in the morning and had spotted both types of woodpeckers. When we got out to Hedbom we got off the bus and followed a trail through the snow into the woods, I was really glad that I had decided to change into my Sorels. We went back a little ways looking for trees that had been stripped of their bark. This is the best sign that there are black-backed or three-toed woodpeckers around. After a few minutes we spotted a female black-backed wood pecker in the trees.
I took a couple of pics and then was heartbroken when I found that my CF card was full. I had shot through my whole 8gb card between Friday and Saturday. I deleted a couple of files that I decided that I could do with out so that I could get a couple more pics. When we got back to the bus I exchanged cards and put my spares in my pocket so that I would be ready the next time we saw a woodpecker but it was getting late and so we headed back to the community center for dinner. I decided to turn in early that night because I needed to get up early for my field trip the next morning and my hotel was 45 minutes away. The field trip on Sunday we had even better luck finding northern woodpeckers. First we found this female black back down the road from the main feeding station in the meadowlands. She was really close to the road and did not seem to care that we were there.
The black-backed and three-toed woodpeckers peel the bark off of the trees looking for insects which are good yummy protein. In the picture above you can see her tongue darting under the bark to collect her prey. I was happy because I got to add the black-backed woodpecker to my list but I was still hoping to see a three-toed also. After leaving Blue Spruce Road our filed trip moved back into the bog and our leaders decided to drive down Admiral Road. Mike, and several other residents, had hung suet feeders and parts of deer carcasses on some of the trees along Admiral. There were also quite a few trees that had their bark peeled lining the road. We stopped the bus near a group of these peeled trees and it did not take very long for our guides to locate a male three-toed woodpecker.It took a while but I finally got both the clouds and woodpecker to cooperate and got a nice pic in descent light. I was very happy because in the 3 days of the festival I saw both of the northern woodpeckers that had eluded me. I also photographed quite a few other birds, 18gb worth, but instead of one really really long post I am going to break it up into a few smaller ones. So if you want to see more from the Sax Zim Winter Birding Festival, including redpolls, grosbeak, jays, chickadees, eagles, owls and more, then come back and visit again during the next few days.