Back in the day, birding the bog was a hobby of solitude.
Naturalist Mark “Sparky’’ Stensaas, founder of the nonprofit Friends of Sax-Zim Bog, said he rarely saw other people wearing binoculars in 1981 when he first started working the fringes of the classic black spruce and tamarack woods that his organization is now buying up, little by little, for preservation.
He recalled a moment in this winter’s high season of bird-watching when a single Great Gray Owl attracted more lookers than he thought possible.
“There was a quarter of a million dollars worth of camera gear pointed at this one owl,’’ Stensaas said. “Birders and photographers love the boreal species’’
So much so that the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is now striving to create the “Heart of the Bog Birding and Wildlife Trail.’’ The expansive Sax-Zim Bog, located an hour northwest of Duluth, would anchor a proposed corridor of at least six northern Minnesota communities. Together they would comprise a tourist-friendly stage for the rare Connecticut Warbler, climate-threatened Black-backed Woodpecker, Boreal Owl, Northern Hawk Owl, American Three-toed Woodpecker, Hoary Redpoll and other bog-dwelling bird species.
Initial funding for this pet project of the DNR’s Non-Game Wildlife Program will be voted on by the 2018 Legislature. Community planning meetings would start this fall in places like Warroad, Baudette, International Falls, Big Falls, Little Fork and Bemidji. Full development would require additional money and take six to eight years to complete.
“People will travel a long way to experience the bog,’’ Carrol Henderson of the DNR said. “It’s a fantastic wildlife area.’’
Henderson said the project would boost non-summer eco-tourism in northern Minnesota while playing to the biggest growth area in outdoor recreation.
In birding culture, a “trail’’ is a grouping of destinations traveled mostly by road, with sub-loops in each community. It’s not a hiking trail, and it wouldn’t require massive infrastructure, Henderson said. Visitors would access the habitat by driving mosaics of logging roads, township roads, forest roads and county roads. A few boardwalks and other select foot trails also could be utilized.
“We’ve got the market cornered on bogs,’’ Henderson said. “But we need community involvement to make things happen.’’
The resource is a magic mixture of coniferous trees, rodent-rich hay fields, random meadows, lakes and rivers. Minnesota bog country has been featured by Audubon magazine as a globally unique birding destination and the 2011 comedy film “The Big Year’’ highlighted the area when actors Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson ventured there to spot some of the rarest birds in North America.
International wildlife photographer Melissa Groo visited the bog in 2016 at the invitation of the DNR. She went away believing in Henderson’s vision for the region as a mecca for photographers and birders. Lynx, moose, fisher, marten and other critters add to the draw. So do the region’s aspen uplands, orchids, butterflies and dragon flies.
“I absolutely see it happening,’’ Groo said. “I think it’s a really spectacular, unique and beautiful area.’’
Stensaas calls Minnesota’s bog country the “Arctic Riviera’’ — an irresistible wintering area for raptors and other birds who otherwise live further north. His nonprofit group built a visitor center that drew 2,670 people in less than three months last winter. They came from 38 states and five foreign countries. And just this week, Stensaas finalized his group’s most recent land purchase: 40 acres of bogland for $24,000. The Friends group now owns 400 acres.
“We don’t have to restore any of this, and it will stay this way forever,’’ he said.
Sax-Zim is the model for other communities that would make up the “Heart of the Bog Birding and Wildlife Trail.’’ Sax-Zim is supported by professional guides, detailed mapping, signage, parking areas and artful social media. There’s a Facebook page and a SaxZim.Org website that provides timely birding reports.
“Loretta’s FORTY-ONE (!) feeders along Kelsey Whiteface Road have been hosting a regular flock of Pine Grosbeaks,’’ one recent report said.
If state lawmakers approve the project as recommended by the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources, the vote would unlock $130,000 in state lottery proceeds from Minnesota’s Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund.