The world does not lack boreal forest. Canada alone has 170 million acres of this special landscape.
Minnesota has far less, but one 483-acre piece called the Sax-Zim Bog is known to birders around the world.
The boreal bird species to be seen are one reason to visit. Access to these birds is another.
Mature black spruce-tamarack bogs are wilderness. They are difficult to navigate, good places to get lost, but alive with hundreds of species of plants and animals.
Sax-Zim stands out because it is crisscrossed with county and township roads. It has a visitor center, maps and 1,260 feet of boardwalk offering easy bog access. North America offers no better look at a tamarack/spruce bog.
The acreage is owned by the nonprofit organization Friends of Sax-Zim Bog (Friends of Sax-Zim Bog — Facebook). It is located about 45 miles north of Duluth via Hwy. 53. The town of Meadowlands, to the west, is on the southern edge of the bog. It is a good place to begin a visit.
Birds of winter include great gray, barred and boreal owls, northern hawk-owl, red and white-winged crossbill, black-backed and three-toed woodpecker, gray jay, boreal chickadee, red-breasted nuthatch, hoary redpoll, sharp-tailed and ruffed grouse, and pine grosbeak.
Many of these birds are easily seen from the comfort of your car thanks to roadside feeders maintained by generous local residents (find maps and more info at saxzim.org).
Last winter the bog was visited by people from 45 states and five foreign countries. Many came for the annual Sax-Zim winter birding festival, hosted in Meadowlands.
Dates this year are Feb. 14-16 (saxzimbirdingfestival.com). Participants tour tamarack-spruce forest, bog and snow-covered meadow in warm buses. They look for birds enjoying what Mark (Sparky) Stensaas, executive director of the Friends, calls the “Boreal Riviera.”
The bog, boardwalk, visitor center and many bog-based activities are supported by donors.
Stensaas said donations large and small are helped by grants from foundations.
“We get gifts from people who believe in land preservation. That’s our purpose,” he said, adding, “Women by far make the largest contributions to fund us.”
What lives in a bog beside birds? Once a year the Friends conduct what is called a bioblitz. Every species of floral and fauna that can be identified is counted. To date the lists include 1,733 different species.
Searchers have found 316 species of moth, 289 wildflowers and plants, 234 birds, 159 insects, 109 fungi, 102 grasses and sedges, 84 trees and shrubs, 78 butterflies, 65 lichens, 37 ferns and mosses, 36 bees and wasps, 32 mammals, 24 fish, and 14 amphibians and reptiles.
Overall, the bog covers 300 square miles of mostly tax-forfeited land. The area is open to logging. The Friends group is buying land to preserve it, hopeful of adding 1,000 acres.
“Tamarack takes 90 to 120 years to reach climax forest [which includes black spruce],” Stensaas told me by phone.
“We’re buying climax forest,” he said, “good for centuries if we leave it alone. We have old forest untouched since the last ice age.”
Tamarack trees in northern Minnesota are under attack by an insect formerly kept in check by a colder climate.
I asked Stensaas if the insects or warming climate concerned him.
“We’re not seeing any obvious climate-related changes in the bog, but then again, we’re not a research-based organization,” he told me.
“We’re a land preservation group, and if the black spruce and tamarack bogs of Sax-Zim disappear in 200 years or 2,000 years, whatever replaces them will still be habitat for wildlife and native plants.
“And that’s a very good thing,” he said. “Habitat is habitat.”
Sax and Zim, by the way, once bog towns entitled to post offices, have faded.
Lifelong birder Jim Williams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Join his conversation about birds at startribune.com/wingnut.
When: Feb. 14-16.
What: Three-day festival includes bog trips, field trips to the North Shore and Duluth, a bird photography workshop, a program with live owls and a presentation on “The Secret Lives of Sax-Zim’s Sexiest Critters.”
More info: Cost depends on which of the many program options you select. Prices range from $75 for just the pre-festival trip to the bog to $240 for a three-day package including trips and meals. Register at saxzimbirdingfestival.com.