Who doesn’t love owls?
Well, that could be a generalization too…because I’ve met or I know someone who doesn’t like owls or is scared of owls. Me on the other hand, I am not that person. I just love owls. It would be fair to say that I am obsessed with owls.
Back in the winter of 2018, my lab mates asked me if I wanted to go birding in Northern Minnesota. It was in the middle of the winter, January is definitely the coldest month up North. And, Roseau (click on the link to read about that birding trip), the town we were going to is one of the coldest places around. Unlike most people I don’t hate the cold weather, I actually love it. And, traveling is something I never say no to. So, I decided to head North with them. That trip turned out to be awesome, because I got to see one of the most elusive owls. And, when I mean elusive, don’t think of it as a pigeon sized owl. It’s huge, the wingspan of this owl is 5 feet and could be up to 84 cm in length. But, the size doesn’t make it much easier to see.
At that time, I didn’t know about the Great Gray owl. When I saw it, I realized that I had watched a documentary about that owl. I didn’t remember a lot of it, but I knew that I was fascinated by the owl for sure. The first time I saw it, it was far for naked eye. I did get a good view from a binocular, but it was still cloudy and foggy. So my view was basically compromised. Later I realized I hadn’t seen it in a proper way. But that would take me another 3 years.
This is the photo I got from that trip.
After the winter of 2018, I was meaning to go back to find the owl but for most of the year I didn’t have a car so traveling was hard. It was only summer of 2019 when I bought the car, so after that I was very mobile. Which meant I could go look for the great gray owl. That winter, without any proper research, I headed back to Roseau by myself. Roseau is about a 4 hours drive from here. I woke up early and drove there before the break of dawn so I could see the owl. It was a very sunny day without a single cloud in the sky which meant very bright shiny snow. I thought, the more light the better, I can get a good shot. Little did I know back then. I basically didn’t see anything during that trip.
So I thought, I should try to find a different place where I can get the great gray. I googled “Where to find Great Gray owls in Minnesota”.
The first thing that came on the hit was Sax Zim Bog. Apparently, it was this place north of Duluth, Minnesota which turns out to be one of the best birding destinations in the US. (Which I also realized later has been featured in the birding movie ‘The big year’. Though I had watched that movie previously, Duluth or Sax Zim Bog had never meant anything to me until I came to the US.) So I decided to head there. The Bog is around 4 hours and 30 minutes of drive from Fargo, but during summer the days are long, so I thought I could just do it in a day. So, I drove early, went there and returned back without seeing a single owl. Forget the Great Gray, I didn’t see anything (just regular birds).
Nothing happened that year..life was getting busy. I had to take my PhD comprehensive exam soon, and summer fieldwork was about to start. So, it basically was a year without any owls.
But in 2020, I decided to hit the Bog a few times, 5 times to be exact. And, guess how many times I saw the GGO.
I did get a few Northern Saw Whet owls in 2020, but just a few. Northern Saw Whet owls are neat birds, the first time I saw one, I didn’t believe that an owl could be that small.
Here’s a photo:
So that brings us to the winter of 2021. I was hellbent on finding and taking a good shot of a GGO. Though it was already on my life list, the photo that I got was, as you saw above, not the best. So I wanted something that I could be happy with or at least frame it. The first two times I went to the bog in 2021, I failed miserably. Not a single sign of it. 3 years and multiple times later, there I was still failing hard to find one. But, on the third attempt for that year, I went to the bog again. I was staying at a friend’s house (Niraj Dai), and he wanted to go birding with me as well. As usual, we set out super early to go look for the owl, by the time it was 8:30 ish we had seen nothing. We saw a few people running to a place where the owl was sighted the day before and spent considerable time there (more than 2 hours for sure), but saw nothing. I had one more place to visit, which is a regular hotspot to see the GGO. So we decided to head there, 1 hour later, we still hadn’t had an eye on it. It was getting late and we were losing hope, and we decided to head back. I was still going to come the next day and look for it. So we decided to head out. We were getting out of the bog area. And, I saw a bunch of people parked on the side of the road. I knew something was happening there, because there were a bunch of people pointing their camera in the possible direction of the bird. We hurried and parked next to one of the cars, and by the time I was out of my car, I had already seen the beautiful GGO perched on the power lines. It was huge and BEAUTIFUL!!
Here’s the photo:
I was spellbound, fascinated, just in awe at the sight of that beautiful owl. Big eyes, foraging and listening to any rodents that move underneath the snow. It wasn’t bothered by all the paparazzis. Of all the beautiful things I’ve seen in my life so far, GGO is definitely one of them. I stayed there and took as many photos as I could.
Happy and satisfied, we decided to leave the bog. Only to find another GGO, right on the side of the road, which posed even better for me to get a shot, I finally framed and was still in my room.
Here’s the photo:
It took 3 years, but it was all worth it. And, next year, I will try to go back and get more photos, even better photos. One in flight and may be catching prey or eating one…
Thanks to the Great Gray for posing for me and making me happy. That photo is in my wall and every time I look at it when I stressed or feeling low, it helps me.