Chapter 1: The Great Owls of the Far North
For years, my top two birds that I had wanted to see for my life list had been Great Gray Owl and Northern Hawk Owl. The Great Gray Owl was especially the one that I felt this strong about. I always dreamed about seeing one, and planning a trip to make that dream become a reality needed to come into place eventually. And it did. As I've gotten into birding over the years and have met many amazing people I'm glad to call my friends, one of the greatest friends I've made is Josh Wallestad, my buddy from Kandiyohi, Minnesota. Josh and I started reading each others blogs and then started birding together when he came to Arizona for family vacations. My other great friend, Gordon Karre, also met Josh over blogging and the three of us birded together throughout Arizona to help Josh find some of the most coveted birds he had wanted for his life list. Sometimes Josh's son Evan would join us. A few of those birds were Elegant Trogon, Painted Redstart, Rufous-capped Warbler, and several different owls. Josh went owling with me several times on his trips to Arizona, and he experienced first hand how much I enjoy this family of birds. Knowing how much Gordon and I would enjoy seeing some of Minnesota's birds in the frigid cold of January/February, Josh extended an invite out to Gordon and I to take a trip to Minnesota in the winter. It was impossible to say no to something that awesome, and plans were made.
People thought I was crazy to take a trip to such a cold environment-northern Minnesota in the winter. At that time of year in northern Minnesota, there isn't a speck of brown, black, green, or whatever non-white color to be found anywhere, because it is nothing but snow. On January 28th, Gordon and I flew out to Minnesota where we would spend the 29th through 31st of January birding all day before flying back home to Arizona on February 1st. It was to be an action packed trip that would last five days. As I mentioned at the beginning of the story, flying was something I hadn't done since I was little. Gordon became my traveling mentor during the preparation for the trip ahead of us, and before we knew it, we were in the air to Minnesota. I daydreamed a lot about the owls on the way there. With 19 owl species calling North America home, I knew that I had all of my owls in Arizona and every owl in Arizona to give me 13 species. The fun and exciting thing about Minnesota was that the remaining 6 owls that I would need for my lifelist could be possibilities on this trip. Great Gray, Northern Hawk, and Snowy Owls ran through my mind the most, but Boreal, Eastern Screech, and Barred Owls are found in the state too. Eastern Screech and Barred Owls are common, and Boreal Owl is a ghost of the north like Great Gray Owl, but much rarer, and who may sometimes be found in numbers on harsh winters. Josh hinted that he had possibilities for Barred Owls too, and Gordon and I were hoping for a trip with four owl lifers. Right as we got off of the plane at the Minneapolis airport, Josh was there to pick us up. The awesome thing about Josh was that he didn't waste any time. He was ready to start birding the second we sat down. Right at the airport was a Snowy Owl that was wintering there and right by the airport were a pair of Barred Owls at the local Ft. Snelling State Park. We looked for both and we missed both, but it was awesome to be attempting two different owl species in the early minutes of the trip ahead of us. It was right before dark before we looked for the owls, and we had a 3.5 hour drive ahead of us to the northeastern part of Minnesota. Josh's parents Rick and Sandi Wallestad, kindly offered up their home for us to stay in as a base camp for the length of our trip. As we drove further north into Minnesota, all I could see was snow. It was below 10 degrees when we arrived at the Wallestad's house in Angora, a small town in Minnesota. Josh had a nice warm coat for me to use, as well as some boots for me to use that he borrowed from one of his friends. Aside from that, I came very prepared to endure the cold. I went to Cabela's before the trip and purchased the thickest socks imaginable, $50 elkskin gloves that provide superior warmth, and a thick ninja winter hat. These items would come in handy throughout the trip.
Gordon, Josh, and I were all anxious about the day ahead of us on the 29th, and after eating dinner at a McDonald's and visiting for a long time on the road and at the house, we were then planning out our strategy for the first day of the trip. I was nervous too about missing Great Gray Owl because I wanted to see it more than anything else on the trip, but Josh worked relentlessly on finding out locations for birds and I could tell that he was going to be an awesome guide from the beginning of the trip to the end of the trip. Josh's knowledge of the area made me believe we were going to get all of our targets. Before settling down, Gordon gave me an owl hat as the gift of the year to fire me up for the owls. I looked great in the new hat, Gordon sure knew what he was doing when he purchased the cap. And Josh said, "Ok guys, tomorrow we will get up early and head for Sax-Sim Bog. The first thing we will be looking for are a few Great Gray Owls that have been sighted recently". I had a hard time getting to sleep..
Sax-Sim Bog is a birder's holy grail for winter birding. It's a great place to see northern species such as Common Redpoll, Boreal Chickadee, Black-backed Woodpecker, Great Gray Owl, and much more. On January 29th, Josh, Gordon and I woke up, ate breakfast, and drove south from Angora to Sax-Sim Bog. It was freezing of course, snow was everywhere of course, and we were in immediate pursuit of the Great Gray Owl once we arrived, of course. The weather was overcast, cloudy, and somewhat gloomy feeling-perfect Great Gray weather.
A Common Raven was our first bird for Minnesota to start the trip off. Once it got light out, Josh started to drive slowly down a road where a Great Gray Owl had been seen. We made one pass without any luck and Josh decided to try the pass again. It was great to be in the tamarack bog habitat that the Great Gray Owl thrives in, and I was already getting a live feel for the bird. Sometimes some things are just meant to be. As we were driving, I looked over Josh's shoulder and on his side of the window to see that coveted shape on a spruce tree. I yelled it out loud.
It was a Great Gray Owl alright, and Josh had to tell me to be quiet so I wouldn't scare the owl away. Both birders and non-birders admire the sight of this incredible bird. According to the book, "America's 100 Most Wanted Birds", The Great Gray Owl is often known as and called "Phantom, Gray Ghost, Spirit, Bird of Mystery", and I think that name suits this remarkable bird perfectly. For me, I commonly think of the bird as a symbol of great far north. And it really is! As I looked through my binoculars, the Great Gray Owl locked eyes with us, and the sight of it was something that is difficult to describe in words.
The Great Gray would take quick looks at us, and he then started listening and watching for prey. Great Gray Owls are spectacular hunters. They listen for prey moving underneath the surface of the snow, mainly rodents. They will then dive into the snow and come up with what seems to be a miraculous catch. This owl would move his head in short directions, and would pause and pay careful attention to the ground below between every head movement.
The Great Gray Owl is a very elusive bird that can be very hard to find. People can drive through Sax-Zim Bog for hours and miss this bird despite looking in the right habitat and right times of day. It can really be about being in the right place at the right time with this bird. Josh picked a spot that isn't traveled as much on by other birders, and we only had one other birder join us during the time that we watched our owl. Despite the fact that the Great Gray Owl is elusive, it can be very fearless of people once it is found. By looking at this bird, I don't think it has a fear of anything.
For obvious reasons, the Great Gray Owl is a highly wanted bird in North America, it's not just me. For some factoids on this bird, it prefers dense boreal forests and muskeg bogs within it's range, and black spruce bogs where we were in Minnesota. The range for this bird is found in Alaska, stretches throughout Canada, and smaller scattered populations are found in northern states such as Minnesota, Wisconsin, Washington, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and northern California. When rodent populations crash in harsh winters in the far north, invasions take place in the northern states, especially Minnesota. Lengthwise, the Great Gray Owl is the largest owl in North America. At 27'' in length, the second largest owl in length is the Snowy Owl at 23'' and the third is the Great Horned Owl at 22''. Weight wise, the Great Gray Owl is much lighter and it's bulk is really about it's fluff. Out of these three owls I mentioned, it is the lightest, weighing in at 2.4 pounds (Sibley). The Great Horned Owl weighs in at 3.1 ponds and the fat Snowy Owl weighs in at 4 pounds.
Before the owl flew back away from the road and into thick timber and completely out of sight, we left the spot after spending 45 minutes with this incredible bird. It didn't seem like 45 minutes, and to be honest, it seems like a blur to me. Spending time with this bird was surreal. Josh came through and gave Gordon and me both our life Great Gray. After about ten minutes of observing this owl, Josh asked if we wanted to leave and look for any more Great Grays while the time was still prime for them. Gordon and I gave a quick no, as we were content with this one Great Gray.
Here's a photograph that Josh snapped of Gordon and me photographing the Great Gray Owl in Sax-Zim Bog. If you look, you can see that I am not wearing any gloves in the frigid temperature. And neither is Gordon. When something this exciting is in front of you, it's hard to notice anything else.
Gordon snapped this photo of Josh and me. Boy oh boy do I look crazy...
The 45 minutes spent with my first Great Gray Owl was something that will never be forgotten.
After a day's worth of birding in Sax-Zim Bog with a handful of life birds for Gordon and me including that awesome owl, we were all three officially Great Gray Groupies. Melissa Wallestad, Josh's wife, snapped this photograph! Josh's family came up to the cabin to join us too and would hang out with us every night of the trip after we got done birding.
January 30th was a completely different story than the previous day and it covered completely different habitats and birding grounds. Our main target was Snowy Owl in the cities of Duluth, Minnesota and Superior, Wisconsin. It was determined to be a day of some Superior birding around Duluth. While we drove through stands of conifers, trees, and thick bogs on our first day, our second day of the trip was to fill it up with Snowy Owl searching along with some other epic avian targets in industrial and city habitats.
I don't know how many times when Josh was telling me stories on this day that I thought to myself, "You have got to be kidding me". When Josh told me about where the Snowy Owls were being seen and what they were being seen perched on, that's when I kept thinking, "You have got to be kidding me". When we went on the bridge that crosses from Duluth into Superior, Josh said, "The Snowy Owl will perch on top of this bridge at times". When we drove past the airport and it's adjacent open fieldy areas, Josh said, "The Snowy Owl will perch on the buildings around here, in the field on the ground, or on any mound or pile of sticks". When we drove through town, Josh said, "The Snowy Owl will perch on any of these buildings, it has been seen throughout this stretch". When we drove up to the store Menards, Josh said, "The Snowy Owl often perches on the store sign, in the parking lot, on the trucks, or anywhere in this area in general". When we didn't find any Snowy Owls during our early morning search, Josh said, "It's pretty hard to find them in morning, evening is much better". Snowy Owl searching was crazy. And there was more than one in the area that we drove through. Yes I knew it is a bird of open areas, but I was surprised how they can get used to being in human dominated environments. Rodents are abound in areas like this, who can blame the Snowy Owls for wanting to be around this? After all, these areas are open, and Josh said that Snowy Owls are not picky. As we drove around in the morning without finding any Snowy Owls, it only helped us better prepare ourselves for the search in the evening. Plus, Josh got Gordon and me a handful of lifers between the morning Snowy Owl search and the evening Snowy Owl search, which included this stunning Gyrfalcon.
Once the evening came about, the three of us drove and searched around the industrial Superior in fields, shopping lots, trash piles, light posts, and more. There were many Snowy Owls found in this area, some of which were reliably seen time and time again by birders. Most of the Snowy Owls in this area don't go undetected due to a researcher who captures them and marks them with a wing tag that has a number on it as well as rubbing black shoe polish over the head of the owl in order to study them further. While the wing tag isn't the biggest deal on earth, I wasn't fond when I heard about the shoe polish on the head. Either way, a Snowy Owl is a Snowy Owl. Thanks to Minnesota birding legend Peder Svingen, who we talked to earlier in the day, he pointed us out to a location that he found to be very productive for a few Snowy Owls. After what seemed to be hours of searching, we drove up to a FedEx building. And I spied a whitish blob on top of a light post. It was a Snowy Owl!
This Snowy Owl was an immature bird, as it has dark barring throughout it's body. As you can see, it has a tag on it as well as a "black cap".
Getting the Snowy Owl late in the day as we did felt very rewarding after missing it in the morning. Snowy Owls can be found in many places in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and other states in the winter. They breed in the tundra of far northern climates in North America. These owls are fierce predators and eat a variety of prey. Although smaller than the Great Gray Owl lengthwise, the Snowy Owl is North America's bulkiest and heaviest owl, weighing in at four pounds. After this Snowy Owl became my second owl lifer in two days, Josh, Gordon, and I were alerted to another and more white Snowy Owl just down the street on top of a pole. We went to go see it, and it was a beautiful sight, despite the black polish on the bird. While watching this bird, a noisy train passed by us to give the sighting an extra Superior feel.
I was amazed at the winter homes these Snowy Owls stay at. Here is a neat picture that Josh snapped. If you look closely, it has me, Gordon, and the Snowy Owl all in it.
After seeing the whiter Snowy Owl, we went back and had one more look at our first. The first moved from the FedEx building over to a sign by a truck parking area.
After it SNOWed, we headed back to our base camp in Angora where we had dinner with Melissa, Evan, and Marin Wallestad. We went to bed extra early, because we had a crazy day and drive ahead of us...
Roseau County in extreme northwest Minnesota was a 3.5 hour drive northwest of our base in Angora. The county itself was just barely shy of the United States and Canadian border. It was where our last major target of the trip was though, the Northern Hawk Owl. While Northern Hawk Owls show up in Minnesota in good numbers during certain years as other owls do, this year was not an exception. Sax-Sim Bog has had good Hawk Owl years with one being sighted earlier before we went, but it wasn't seen more than once. However, three Hawk Owls were reported in this northwestern and uncovered part of Minnesota, and that was where we were headed. As the three of us wanted to start early, we departed our Angora base at 4 A.M. on January 31st and traveled on our way to Roseau County. Once arriving in Roseau, we took this road, Highway 310, towards the Canadian Border. It was amazing to me that I was this far north..
Roseau County was a warm seven degrees outside. Mother Nature gave us something mind blowing too. Hoar frost was on every tree, which was one of the most incredible and beautiful things I have ever seen in my life.
Highway 310 and Sprague Creek Road were what we were exploring, and 310 is said to be one of the best locations to see Great Gray Owl in Minnesota. As we were hoping to see another Gray, our souls were fixated on Northern Hawk Owl. Birder Sandy Aubol had seen one earlier along this road before we made our trip. Josh drove up to the border more than once, which oddly wasn't even being patrolled. We made several up-and-down runs in search for the owl without any luck. Josh asked if we wanted to take off and look for two other Hawk Owls that had been reported, or to give this one one last run. Gordon and I opted to give this particular bird one last run, and good thing we did. Josh beat me to the punch this time and was the first one of to notice the Northern Hawk Owl calmly perching along the road.
As I had daydreamed about Great Gray Owl and Northern Hawk Owl for years and with the two of them being my two most wanted birds in North America prior to this trip, it was crazy to have both of them under my belt in only three days. The Northern Hawk Owl was just as phenomenal. And here Josh, Gordon, and I were, looking at a Hawk Owl almost on the Canadian Border.
What exactly is a Northern Hawk Owl? It's a question I'm sure comes to mind a bit when folks look at this oddly awesome bird. It's body reminds me of a mix between a small hawk, a falcon, and a shrike. Put those together, and paste the head of an owl on top of that. It behaves like a hawk, and looks shrike-like in flight. For some factoids on Northern Hawk Owls, they are 15 to 17" in length, making them much smaller than our previous huge Great Gray and Snowy Owl targets. The Hawk Owl is the about same size as a Spotted Owl, a Long-eared Owl or a Short-eared Owl, or the size of an American Crow. For this owl, the preferred habitat choice are clearings in boreal coniferous forest or muskeg bogs. In these clearings, the Northern Hawk Owl is almost always seen perched on the top of a high tree, as mentioned before. Just like a hawk. Out of North America's 19 breeding owls, the Northern Hawk Owl is the most diurnal out of all of them. This is because the sun seldom sets during the summer in the northern half of this owl's range, and the owl is adapted to such conditions. The prey sources of this owl highly consist of rodents, but it will also take birds that are small to medium-sized. Range wise, the Northern Hawk Owl lives throughout Alaska and Canada, and is typically scarce further south. It does breed in some of Minnesota's very northern reaches. Because the Hawk Owl has more of a varied diet than the other northern owls, invasions don't take place as much in such high numbers with this species. During our observation, I looked back to see Gordon and Josh enjoying the sighting just as much as I was.
Josh delivered for us again to complete our three major targets of the trip, and each of the three days now had an epic owl of it's own. This Northern Hawk Owl was extreme, but you know what else was extreme about it? How it mixed in with that hoar frost scene...