#FloridaMan Slays Birds at Sax-Zim Bog Birding Festival

Fresh off my birding binge with Tommy and Gordon, the Northland was once again calling me back.  No rest for the weary as they say, or more accurately, no good birds for the well-rested.  This time I was headed back to work as a field trip leader at the annual Sax-
Zim Bog Birding Festival.  It would be my second time guiding in as many weeks, only this time would be so much different.  Instead of taking out a couple of hardcore listers, I’d be with a huge group of all ability levels.  To compensate for such disproportion, there was a great number of fellow guides, most of whom were more skilled at the art of bird and people wrangling than I.  Some I knew, many I did not. The camaraderie of this team was instant, though, and brought a bit of warmth to the air that flirted with 30 below. Of course, this is bound to happen when the guides are quartered in the wood-heated Ringhofer farm house where you are instantly welcomed by the hosts with smiles, handshakes, and multiple glasses of wine. Meadowlands truly does welcome birders.  We were, in many respects, in the heart of the Bog. Stories and laughs abounded. Little sleep was had. Anticipation was high.

Sax Zim Bog Sign

A key difference between this trip and my last was the food. Birding like madmen the last go-around did not lead to the best diet which was a strange mix of fast-food and hastily thrown-together, sometimes sketchy meals by us crazed birders who were always on the run. On the other hand, the good people of Meadowlands see to it that you eat like kings, giving us three squares a day that tasted like it was cooked with a grandma’s love.

Despite enjoying my hot breakfast that first morning, I was apprehensive about this new form of guiding. Where I once I had heated seats, defrosted glass, and vehicular independence, I now had the cold, hard bench seat of a school-bus that was slow to warm and a trademark SZ Festival ice scraper for keeping my pane clear of frozen condensation. What was the same between this trip and the last, though, were the birds and the high Great Gray hopes of those I was showing around.  Because of that I was grateful to be with experienced Festival guides, Alex Watson and Ben Harste.  Meeting Alex was a highlight for me–he was previously a mystery birder that has shown up occasionally in my home county and filed some reports that led me to my county Cerulean and Blue-winged Warblers.  Alex is not only good at finding good birds, but he was also at ease being the main tour guide on our bus.  So as Alex talked over the constant window-scraping, I was able to concentrate on trying to keep my feet warm while looking for birds and visiting with those around me.

Our first stop was the Sharp-tailed Grouse lek which did not pan out. From that point we were puttering along at 5 MPH, scraping windows and trying to spot one of several Grays known to inhabit the Bog.  Our route and plans were quickly abandoned when John Richardson on Bus #2 texted me that Frank Nicoletti had a Great Gray over ten miles to the north.  This bird is the main attraction, the kind that attracts birders to our frozen state in the winter.  Needless to say, we informed our group and told Amy, our bus driver, to kick it into high gear.  The nerves of the group were palpable.

As we were nearing the location, though still a bit out, fellow guide Ben Harste hollered “Stop!” from the back of the bus. I don’t know how he did it, but through the frosted, fogged up windows from the BACK of the bus, he spotted a Great Gray Owl DEEP (100 yds) in the Aspen stand of all forests and became a hero to a busload of overly excited birders, myself included.  The bus was nearly on two wheels as everyone piled on one side to get a peek.  Once they got their life look, I slipped out to get a scope set up so people could get a real good look.

Sax Zim Bog FestivalFumbling with the scope barehanded in 30 below caused me to climb back on the bus immediately after setting up the apparatus, but eventually I did get back out for a couple quick photos myself.

Great Gray Owl

Great Gray Owl

As we were watching this bird, it dawned on me that we hadn’t yet reached the bird Frank reported, which meant there was a second one! We loaded everybody on our bus back up and continued on down the road.  Minutes later one of our group members spotted the second Great Gray, only it was far more skittish and dove for the cover of the bog even before the bus could stop. Oh well, we got a good fix with the first one and it was bathroom break time at the McDavitt Fire Hall anyway.  Breaking gave us a chance to mingle more with the festival-goers.  I visited with a man who looked like he was dressed for a chilly October day in Minnesota, much less for sub-zero.  Sadly this made sense when I saw on his name tag that he was from Florida. But if he was cold, he wasn’t letting on.  I think the birding adrenaline was pumping hard in this one. Whenever we asked the group about wanting to see this bird or that bird, Mr. Florida would instantly pipe up to let us know those birds would be lifers.

So after the break, it was time to hit the Bog hard looking for lifers for Mr. Florida et al. One of those was the Admiral Road staple, Boreal Chickadee.

Boreal Chickadee

I know I’ve posted photos of this bird already this year, but just like the Chickadee himself cursed with his own addictions, I just can’t stop…

Boreal ChickadeeAnother crowd favorite were both species of Grosbeaks, though on this day I only photographed the “yellow ones” as locals sometimes call them.

Evening GrosbeakI checked in with Mr. Florida a couple times throughout the day to see what his lifer tally was. Besides the Great Gray, both Grosbeaks, and the Chickadee, he also picked up Northern Shrike, Common Redpoll, and a surprisingly hard-to-find Gray Jay.  Despite missing on Ruffed and Sharp-tailed Grouse, Mr. Florida had the highest lifer total for our group. He was happy, especially because he told me he was not expecting the Great Gray.

In addition to the bird lifers, we got the folks their porcupine lifer.  People go crazy over porcupines when they visit, an infatuation I don’t understand.

porcupineAfter birding for some time, our day was truncated late afternoon and did not allow for more Owl searching during prime evening hours as we had to get back to Meadowlands for the dinner and program by Canadian Great Gray Owl researcher, Dr. James Duncan. Listening to an authority on Great Gray Owls give a captivating presentation in a Canadian accent is like a giant exclamation point on a day in which many got their coveted lifer.

Day 2–Lake County Field Trip

The second day of the Festival I was scheduled to be a guide on a far-flung field trip to Lake County.  The birds would be few even if we found them, but mighty birds they would be.  We were targeting Spruce Grouse, Black-backed Woodpeckers, and Bohemian Waxwings.  There was, of course, the potential for more Great Grays and Boreal Chickadees.  More impressive, though, was the fact that the Lake County team the previous day found the very-rare-for-Minnesota American Three-toed Woodpecker!  I was beyond stoked to go along on this trip with that news.

Even better than a Three-toed was that we were riding a cushy, warm coach bus for the long haul east and north. That was, unfortunately, about the most exciting the day would get as we failed to turn up any of those boreal greats. We would be going through several towns on the way home in the hopes of finding nomadic Bohemians feasting on decorative fruit trees in residential neighborhoods. When we were in Ely we stopped to look at some Pine Grosbeaks in a crabapple tree.

Pine Grosbeak

Then, as I watched the birds point-blank out those coach windows, I noticed one of them wasn’t very Grosbeak-like and was in fact the sought-after Bohemian! A bizarre, lone Bohemian! I alerted the group and finally felt like I earned some of my pay. It was an overdue sighting on a very slow field trip.  Georgia woman was very happy and by extension so was Georgia man.  We did later see a fly-by flock of about 30 Bohemians, but this was the only individual our group could photograph.

Bohemian WaxwingThese were photo upgrades for me, though much work still needs to be done with this species.  Considering I was sandwiched between a bus and a snowbank, I’ll take them though.Bohemian Waxwing

One of our other stops for this field trip was the Blue Heron B&B near Ely where we would eat our sack lunch and have coffee and cookies while watching their bird feeders. I was not excited to watch Redpolls, Chickadees, etc.  I was excited about my sandwich–so much so that I could have choked on it when someone shouted, “Boreal Chickadee!” This brought feeder-watching to a whole new level. I was not expecting this.

Boreal ChickadeeThen again, maybe I should have considering the address.

Borealis LaneOur group continued on from the B&B searching towns on the way back for the ever elusive Bohemians. A Snowshoe Hare, thought he was elusive and brought some excitement to the group when the birds were lacking.

Snowshoe HareWith one major bird lifer and one mammal lifer for the group, it was a long, sleepy day.  We did have a slight pick-me-up when we were coming back into the Sax-Zim Bog and spotted a very out-of-season Common Grackle.   But still, it’s a Grackle and doesn’t come close to filling the Sprucie void.  There’s always next year.  After all, it gives the festival-goers and guides a reason to return. As if they need another reason…

Great Gray Owl

Guide Series: The Quest for the Great Gray Ghost in the Sax-Zim Bog

Over the years several gracious and talented birders have taken this novice birder into habitats and lands both near and far to help me see a new bird or two or twenty.  Recently I found myself in a bit of a role reversal for the first time, and the stakes couldn’t be higher.  My good Arizona birding friends Tommy DeBardeleben and Gordon Karre decided to take me up on an offer to show them around northern Minnesota in the wintertime to go after our impressive Owls, specifically the Great Gray Owl, Northern Hawk Owl, and Snowy Owl.  Not only is it nerve-wracking to produce the winter classics because of the fickle nature of these Owls, but it is even more so when the people I was leading have produced my top Arizona targets for me over…

Elegant Trogonand over…

Painted Redstartand over.

Rufous-capped Warbler

Was I feeling the pressure? You better believe it.  And with the driest year I have ever seen for the Big 3, my stress level was rising with everyday leading up to the trip.  Despite an abnormal October influx, Snowy Owls seemingly disappeared and numbers returned to pre-irruption year levels.  Great Grays were fairly abundant in the Sax-Zim Bog but very, very fickle about showing themselves.  The outlook for Northern Hawk Owls was even more depressing as there were only a couple reports out of northwest Minnesota.  I was feeling the squeeze.  But pressure aside, I really just wanted these guys to see these Owls.  These birds are simply just amazing, and I wanted to share them with my friends.  Now, I know Tommy and Gordon are classy guys who understand there are no guarantees in birding, but I had invited them to the home court and they had invested a lot of time and money to see the wonders of which I spoke.  I attempted to counteract my stress with the only antidote I knew: preparation. Sometime in late fall I began to drink from the fire hose that is the multiple streams of birding information out there: multiple FB groups, the MOU database, the MOU-net listserv, and eBird. Living far from the north, I was only able to do a tad bit of actual scouting over Christmas which is, like, ancient history and completely useless when it comes to a birding trip the end of January. So I reached out to my contacts who had much better, more recent intel than me.  Minnesota Nice is never more epitomized than it is in its birders as people like Clinton Nienhaus, Jason Mandich, and Jeff Grotte generously gave me their up-to-the-minute knowledge, and in some cases, their eyes to help this trip be a success. You take that expert info and put a crazy Owl hat on a crazy-good Owler and good things are bound to happen.

tommy

Our pursuit for the Owls would begin with the Great Gray in the Sax-Zim Bog at first light on January 29th. Clinton had advised us on the most probable bird, so that’s where we began our day. We had a plan B, C, and D if that one didn’t show, and Jason Mandich was even scoping out other sites that morning too. It turns out that when you have a pretty good plan A and a Tommy, that’s all you need. Tommy spotted his and Gordon’s Great Gray lifer from the gray woods at dawn and excitedly announced it to both of us.  It was a glorious moment; there were some very excited Arizona birders in the van–so much so that I had to remind them to keep their voices down so as not to spook it!

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In an instant, months of stress left my body because this bird is a trip maker.  I knew that if they dipped on everything else, including the other two Owls, that this bird would still create great memories for them.  With the ice officially broken, the real fun could begin, like going crazy with Great Gray photos.

Gordon TommyNot only was it thrill to watch these guys get this incredible lifer, but I also enjoyed seeing a Great Gray in a new (to me) part of the Bog. It doesn’t matter where these guys are, though.  They are just plain cool.

Great Gray Owl

After some great looks and photos, I gave the guys the option of continuing to enjoy this bird or going after the other Great Grays while the time was still prime. Perhaps it was the hat or all that face time with the Owl, but they made a wise choice and decided to hang with this one.  Turns out that it would be our only one of the trip.

Great Gray Owl Great Gray Owl

I was in full-on relaxation mode at this point, though I did have to run a tight schedule in the short term–our only window for Sharp-tailed Grouse of this four-day birding odyssey was coming to a close quickly since they are tough to find after 9:30 AM. Somehow I managed to pull them away from the Great Gray and get to the Sharp-tail lek in time.

Sharp-tailed GrouseThe guys even got to see the males of this new lifer doing their courtship dances! That was topped off by the Grouse coming roadside to feast at a local resident’s feeders before retiring for the day.  It really couldn’t have been a better experience for viewing this bird.

After the time and big bird pressures out of the way, we had the rest of the day to just cruise around the Bog in pursuit of whatever, like checking out the Pine Grosbeaks at the Visitors Center.Pine GrosbeakThis is a bird I previously had terrible photos of, so this felt good to see a male up close.

Pine GrosbeakAnd of course, there were Common Redpolls which is a lifer for the guys.  There are always Redpolls. This one had some potential for…oh, who cares anymore?

Common Redpoll

“I don’t even know who I am.”

I am a huge fan of the potential lumping of the Common/Hoary Redpolls.  My list may go down, but so will my birding stress!

At every feeding station we stopped at, Black-capped Chickadees always made their presence known…as they should, they are awesome.

Black-capped Chickadee

But there is a cooler Chickadee that lurks in the shadow of its cousin and is much more shy.  Thankfully the stunning Boreal Chickadee overcame that shyness just in time for the guys’ visit.

Boreal ChickadeeThe Boreal Chickadees had started to become a regular at the Admiral Road feeders not more than a week before the guys arrived.  Tommy and Gordon were truly spoiled with this lifer.  It appeared within a minute of us stopping at the feeders.  How many birders, myself included, have waited for an hour or more only to be skunked?  Additionally, it came out often, like every minute instead of every half hour. Like the Great Gray, this bird is not a given.  Also like the Great Gray, much face time is required with this bird.  I would estimate that we spent equal time with it as we did with the Owl.  For me this bird ranks just below a Great Gray Owl but definitely above a Snowy Owl. As such, I am on a never-ending quest to get a photo of a BOCH that I am happy with.

Boreal ChickadeeBoreal Chickadee

The first day in the Bog was as good as I could possibly hope for with the only notable miss being a Pileated Woodpecker for the guys. Otherwise, the guys cleaned house with the “good stuff” even picking up some additional lifers in the more common birds.  Here is the summary of their lifers:

Great Gray Owl – Tommy, Gordon

Sharp-tailed Grouse – Tommy, Gordon

Ruffed Grouse – Tommy, Gordon

Boreal Chickadee – Tommy, Gordon

Common Redpoll – Tommy, Gordon

Northern Shrike – Gordon

Each of the next two days would have its own Owl focus.  Could we be just as successful the next day in Duluth/Superior with the Snowy?

Once again, a huge shout-out and thank you to Clinton Nienhaus for his extensive Bog help on all kinds of birds and to Jason Mandich and Jeff Grotte for their owling advice. We couldn’t have done it without you guys.  There’s no “I” in Great Gray.

Pokin’ Around the Northwoods

Tamarack BogNorthern Minnesota is home.  Every season offers up something special in terms of wildlife and scenery.  I was able to get out and do some birding in the forests, bogs, and open country on the same recent trip that included the Blackburnian Warbler.  Cool stuff abounds everywhere here. It was good to be home.

Pink Lady Slipper

Pink Lady Slipper (Not MN’s State Flower, the Showy Lady Slipper)

Tamarack bogs like the one pictured above get a lot of attention from birders in the winter because of the Owls and some other boreal specialties.  In the summer, though, they are not visited by birders as much.  It’s too bad because they are quite lush and beautiful and the polar opposite of the forests of the seemingly dead Tamaracks.  I say seemingly because Tamaracks drop their needles after turning a beautiful golden yellow in the fall, leaving dead-looking trunks and branches.

This particular bog was home to the Blackburnian Warbler I showcased in the last post, but there were also some other fun birds in this area.  The Blackburnian was a happy accident; I had actually gone to this spot to look for some Boreal Chickadees that local birder Julie Grahn had told me about.  I found them, and they were literally sharing turf with the Blackburnian.  They were not as cooperative though, refusing to come out of the Spruce tops.

Boreal ChickadeeJudging from my picture, it appears that this was a family group with a couple fledglings!  This Chickadee is so cool.  Most MN birders only see them in the dead of winter when they come out to the remote feeding station on Admiral Road in the Sax-Zim Bog.   I was very pleased to see BOCH in the summer and much closer to home than SZ.

Sharing space with the Boreal Chickadees and Blackburnian Warbler were numerous Nashville Warblers whose song I just learned.  I am now just starting to learn the songs of the more common Warblers that I see during migration. I tend to photograph common birds last too, so on this day I finally got some shots of the Nashville.

Nashville WarblerNashville WarblerAnother fun bird to see even if it couldn’t be seen well was the Lincoln’s Sparrow.

Lincoln's SparrowThe varied habitats in northern MN offer up some unique opportunities for viewing wildlife.  While looking for an American Bittern lifer in a marsh near my parents’ house, I found this gal looking for a place to lay her eggs.

Snapping TurtleIt was not the biggest Snapper I’ve seen.  This one’s shell was the size of a dinner plate. I’ve seen them twice as big before.

Snapping TurtleI didn’t spend a lot of time in the mature, upland woods other than just passing through.  That was enough to nab my FOY Blue-headed Vireo that I missed during migration.

Blue-headed VireoThis bird has never been good to me.  It was once a nemesis and continues to be a photographic nemesis. By the time I figured out its rhythm of jumping to a new perch each time after it sang, the bird disappeared from sight.

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In the area of the Iron Range we call home, there is a substantial amount of open farm country, mostly hay fields and no crops.  Still, the grasslands and horse farms are great for some good non-forest birds, the best of which was a pair of Black-billed Magpies.  Julie Grahn had told me about these, and I’ve been seeing this species more and more every time I go up north.  It’s been stated that the Sax-Zim Bog is the furthest east this species breeds.  Well, this location was even further east yet, so it’s a pretty exciting find!

Black-billed MagpieAlso found in an open area was a bird that I have seen so many times this year and never before in the Northland, the Brown Thrasher.

Brown ThrasherOne bird that favors the open grassy fields that intersperse the Northwoods are the showy, and unique-sounding Bobolinks.  They must be having a good year because I saw so many.

Bobolink

They were also more cooperative than I’ve ever seen them before.  It felt good to finally photograph a BOBO properly.

Bobolink

Bobolink

BobolinkOne bird that I was absolutely surprised to find in the open fields were Brewer’s Blackbirds! I had no idea they were in the area.  Honestly, I often just dismiss most blackbirds I see as Red-winged Blackbirds or Common Grackles.  Needless to say I was pleasantly surprised when I saw the Brewer’s.  Like the Bobolink, it was nice to finally be able to get some decent photos of this bird too.

Brewer's Blackbird

This dad was busy feeding a fledgling.  I was scolded often during this photo shoot.

Brewer's Blackbird

Brewer's Blackbird

Brewer's BlackbirdBrewer's BlackbirdI had some really fun birding on this trip up north.  I was not lifer hunting as there really are so few lifers I can still get.  And none of them are easy. Or so I thought. In the next post I’ll tell you about a three-generation lifer that was delivered right to the doorstep.

Gyr!

Just as with beer, cheese, and processed meats, occasionally one must step foot in next-door Wisconsin for the finer things in life, and birds are no exception.  Last spring their state-record Garganey just over the border drove Minnesota and Wisconsin birders wild. This winter a slightly less cool bird-which by no means diminishes its status!-showed up in the twin-port city of Superior, Wisconsin.  This large bird, figuratively and literally speaking, that chose to take up winter residence on the Wisconsin side of the Blatnik Bridge also had Minnesota birders worked up into a frenzy.  Yes, we are talking about the Gyrfalcon, a falcon so superior in size and awesomeness to its lesser brethren that seasoned northern birders drop the “falcon” altogether when uttering its name.  Gyr (pronounced “jeer”-trust me, I heard it spoken by the state’s top birder) was first caught by raptor bander, Dave Evans, in Superior and word slowly got out that this arctic predator was in town. Better yet is that it had taken up residence at the Peavey grain elevators on Connors Point where it spends much time loafing and enjoying spectacular views of Lake Superior when not feeding on pigeons in the harbor.

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I, too, had Gyr fever.  I had many false-starts and set-backs for getting up north the past month, but I finally made it happen.  It took much planning, namely sending the kids home with Grandma and Grandpa after a double birthday celebration, sending Melissa home to a quiet house, and sending myself solo to Duluth/Superior and beyond.  It was win-win-win. Though with some atrocious dog diarhhea episodes at home while 3/4 of us were away, that conclusion may have to be settled far from now by the bird-blogging historians.

But, anyhow, I felt free as a bird as I drove north, much like this Rough-legged Hawk I saw along the way.

Rough-legged Hawk

Duluth birder, JG Bennett, knew I was coming and graciously agreed to help me locate Gyr – not necessarily an easy task as many birders have dipped on seeing it.  In exchange I’ll be helping him find his Blue Grosbeak lifer this summer–I think I’m getting the better end of this deal.  JG called me when I was about an hour from Duluth to tell me that the Gyr was present.  Nice guy that he is, he babysat the thing for over an hour until I showed up. Considering the distance from the viewing area and the massive gridiron structure, I was glad he did.

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Even in this next photo you can get a sense of the size of the Gyr (look for the bump near the top right).

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At times like this I’m thankful for the zoom capabilities of my camera.  Quality leaves a lot to be desired, but, hey, no one’s getting killer shots or even great views of this raptor.

Gyrfalcon

GyrfalconSome fun history on Gyr is that this same individual was caught and banded in 2003 in the Duluth/Superior area.  At the time it was a third-year bird.  It ended up returning every winter for four years and then did not return until this year!  Given when it was banded, the age of this male Gyrfalcon is estimated to be 14 years 8 months–the oldest Gyrfalcon on record!

I spent about a half hour or so with the bird who never, ever moved off his perch, even when pigeons flew right by his head.  By seeing the main target right away, my time was then free to fritter away as I pleased.  I had northern gulls to pick up (Glaucous, Iceland, Great Black-backed), but the Duluth shipping canal was froze over, so there went any hopes for gulls or sea ducks.  Instead I decided to try to track down one of three Northern Hawk Owls in the Duluth area as it had been over a year since I had seen this cool bird. The strong winds were keeping the owls hidden though.  I couldn’t find a single one.  Duluth birds in general were giving me the snub, including this Pine Grosbeak.

Pine Grosbeak

I had one last hope for the Hawk Owl (“Northern” is a bit superfluous and is often dropped by northern birders).  One had been hanging out just south of the Sax-Zim Bog near Canyon.  Specifically this bird could be reliably found right at mile marker 29 at Hellwig Creek.  I decided that the Duluth Hawk Owls were a lost cause, so I might as well try for Hellwig and then use up my remaining daylight hours in the Bog.  Hellwig was also a no-show, so it was on to the Bog for me.

I have several unfinished birding projects of sorts for the Sax-Zim Bog–a lifer or two, better photo ops of some, officially getting another on my state eBird list, and so on. Anyhow, one of my top goals was to get a good photo of a Boreal Chickadee, so I made a bee-line to the Admiral Road feeding station.  There were the usual suspects around. Gregarious Gray Jays are always up for a photo-shoot.

Gray Jay

Common Redpolls were everywhere.  A couple looked whiter and plumper than the rest.  I’m thinking this one looks good for Hoary based on the small, conical bill and faint streaking on the flanks.  It had the overall frosty appearance of a Hoary.

Hoary Redpoll

The Boreal Chickadees can be quite finicky.  Often birders will have to wait up to a half hour or more for just a flash appearance.  That was my experience last year.  This year was a different story as two of them were coming out from the Spruce bog constantly in the last hour of daylight to feed on their favorite winter food–peanut butter smeared on branches.  Visitors to Sax-Zim are encouraged to slather up some branches with the creamy stuff (and donate their fair share of PB) at the Admiral Road feeders when they visit.  It’s crazy, but it works.

This Boreal Chickadee momentarily, and perhaps regretfully, chose suet over PB.

Boreal Chickadee

Admittedly I’m a bit smitten with this bird.  I’ve never really been able to answer the question of “What’s your favorite bird?”, but this one has to be right up there.  I may be a bit biased, but this, in my opinion, is the best Chickadee.  Perhaps that’s because it leads a secretive life in the deep, mysterious Spruce bogs alongside Great Gray Owls and Spruce Grouse and is rarely seen or perhaps because it is so visually stunning.

Boreal Chickadee

I’m finally at peace with the Boreal Chickadee as I got the photo I wanted–even if it does have a little peanut butter in it.

Boreal Chickadee

After hanging out with the Boreal Chickadees, who, by the way, are just as tame as their Black-capped cousins, I headed to Grandma and Grandpa’s to spend the night with the kids and prepare for the next day of birding which is arguably the best day I’ve ever had in the Sax-Zim Bog.  Stay tuned…there will be videos!