The first time I saw a great gray owl (GGOW) was in Roseau, Minnesota in January of 2018. A small town close to the Canada border. That was definitely my first birding trip in the US. Interestingly enough, I had gotten both a northern hawk owl(NHOW) as well as a great gray during that trip. It was one of the most fascinating species of birds I had ever seen and for someone who loves owls, I sure ended up being an admirer of that owl. For the next year or so, I didn’t have a car so I wasn’t able to go look for the GGOW. But, by the winter of 2019 I was making multiple trips to the Sax Zim Bog in hopes of finding the owl. Sax Zim bog is one of the most famous and important birding hotspots in the US. The bog is home to few of the most elusive birds in North America. The attraction being the great gray and the northern hawk owl. For the last few years that I have been to the bog, it was only in the January of 2023 that I missed out on both of those birds. But before that, I had a great gray owl multiple times during my multiple visits to the bog. I think it took me at least 12-13 visits before I got the great gray. 13 failed visits to a place almost 5 and half hours away from me didn’t deter my desire to see the GGOW.
This past week, I was back in the bog with hopes of finding the first GGOW for the year. Based on the words out on the streets, I had heard that this was a great year for the GGOW. Hopes were high, but with an elusive species like a GGOW you can never be too sure. There was an extra amount of pressure to find the GGOW or the NHOW this time around since I had a friend visiting me from California who wanted to see the GGOW. On my recent trip to California, my friend, Rajesh got hooked into birding, especially owling. As per him, for someone who never paid attention to birds, his life took a mad turn during my trip to California as he got to explore the realms of birding and owling.
My friend Aubrey and her friends were driving into Duluth the same afternoon. Rajesh was flying into Minneapolis the morning of 13th (Saturday) at 5:54. That meant I had to be there to pick him up at 6 or so. That morning I woke up at 2 am and started driving to Minneapolis. Interestingly enough, the driving part was way more adventurous than I was expecting it to be. There was a ground blizzard and I barely saw anything on the road. It took me forever to get through the first 2 hours of the drive. Eventually it did get better and I reached the MSP airport almost an hour or so late.
I had promised Rajesh a bunch of owls (or promised that we will try to get it, not actually get it). The first on the list was a Long Eared Owl (LEOW). So we made our way to a park where I knew we had a chance of finding a LEOW. As we parked car outside the small park, Rajesh started having his doubts. It was brutally cold with wind pushing its way through whatever we were wearing.
“What did I get myself into?” he said out loud.
“It is what it is,” I replied.
We walked around that park for a good while, sadly no signs of owls. Got a few robins, nuthatches and chickadees but nothing else. The next owl on the list was an Eastern Screech owl. Interestingly, Rajesh already had a western screech owl during my trip to California. He needed an eastern screech. Based on the few locations that I had picked from ebird, I went to the one that had a screech recently. But one of the things, as I have realized in the last few years, is that when you’re in a place you don’t know much about, finding any bird is going to be hard, and finding an owl is going to be impossible. Such was the case with the ESOW as well, we went to this random park where we couldn’t even locate the entrance. It basically looked like a private residence with fences around.
Failing with the ESOW, we then headed to a park where the Northern Saw-Whet owl was sighted recently. But, again somehow it was a park in someone’s backyard which looked more like a private neighborhood park. By 11 am in the morning we had failed at finding 3 owls species. By that time, I was explaining to Rajesh how finding owls or even just any birds can be frustrating and tiring and somehow that ends up being fun in the long run. I don’t know how he felt at that time, but for me this was my routine. If I find an owl when I want to, that’s kind of boring. Not finding owls is as much fun as it is to see one after a hard day’s walk.
Eventually we had to make our way to the Bog, so we headed out north on I-35 towards Duluth. As is common anywhere else in the US, we saw a ton of red tailed hawks along the way. Which I think should most aptly be named the ‘actual roadside hawk’. Without much hope of seeing one, we were definitely looking out for a telephone wire owl or most commonly known as the snowy owl (SNOW). Sadly, that didn’t pan out as well. Before long we were in Duluth, and I knew of a place where NSOWs were sighted so we headed out to look for it and failed.
It hadn’t been a good morning owl wise, but we were headed to the ‘Bog’ , the bog! That too in a year that had been really good for the GGOW. I am very well acquainted with the bog and the surrounding areas, having been there multiple times. I don’t know much about how GGOWs behave or where exactly to find them, but I do know what areas are good to look for. We still had few hours of daylight left so we headed towards the famous highway 7. During my trips to the bog in 2022 I had seen a few GGOW along highway 7 so it was definitely worth a shot. I know that the friends of Sax Zim Bog facebook page has updates on where the owls have been sighted, but I haven’t been on Facebook for a while now and I had no idea what locations have been good for the year.
Birding in the bog is like a wildlife safari trip. You drive around until you find an owl or something that looks like an owl or as I like to call it parasitic birding, look up to stopped cars along the side of the highways to figure out what people saw. And that’s what ended up happening. As we were driving up North on the 7, far into the distance I saw some tail lights and few cars on both sides of the roads.
“There has to be something here”, I told Rajesh.
He got excited hoping it was a GGOW.
That particular stretch of road was where the NHOW had been active during 2022 so I suspected if that’s what it was. And as we got closer to the parked cars, I saw a small dot on the top of the tree, too small to be a GGOW. But, good shape and size to be a NHOW. And, NHOW it was!!
Rajesh was very interested from inside the car, but as soon as we got outside, he realized where he was. It was insanely cold and the wind was bitter. Regardless, the excitement of seeing one of the most elusive owls was great and for a moment we forgot about the cold. The NHOW was at a distance, far enough to get a good photo or a good view through the binoculars, so I set up my spotting scope and started observing the owl. He was atop a small branch looking around, probably listening to voles/mice. He’d occasionally look around as if he had seen or heard something. It was wonderful staring at him. But eventually the cold got to us and we headed to the car. It was a good first owl for the day!!
It was time to head out to look for the great gray. Admiral road is one of the most famous roads in the bog area to look for the great gray so we headed that way. Along the way, I was explaining to Rajesh where I had seen the GGOW before and sharing all my fun stories from my previous trips. One of the famous phrases that I came up with during the trip and one that I used a lot was “If it’s around, we will see it”. It sounds more funny in Nepali. I guess it wasn’t around. We didn’t see it.
For most of my bog trips, I had always stayed in Duluth and made the 1 hr trip up north. But for my last bog trip, I had found a airbnb near the town of Hibbing, and when Aubrey was looking for airbnb I suggested that we look around Hibbing so that it’s close enough to the bog. Hibbing is a small town north of the Bog and interestingly as we found out that night, it’s Bob Dylan’s hometown. Sadly, it looks like he never sang a song about the great gray owl.
As we made our way to the Airbnb, I suggested that we watch the Big Year, as I do on my birding trips. It was the first time for Rajesh. By the time we were done with the Big Year, Aubrey and her friends made it to the airbnb as well, and not to my surprise Aubrey wanted to watch the Big year as well and we watched it again.
The plans were laid out for the next morning and we all went to bed. I hadn’t slept for hours, and I only slept for an hour the night before. The plan was to leave our airbnb at around 7:00. Great gray owls get active at the break of dawn and there’s a very short time frame where you can see them, especially on a sunny day. As I’ve heard and realized with my personal experiences, they prefer an overcast/cloudy day to a sunny day. Thankfully, it was a cloudy morning. We divided into groups and headed out to look for the great gray. I knew of few places where the GGOWs were likely, including one of my personal locations, where I have had GGOWs more than 5 times. I was pretty hopeful on finding at least one during the 2 days we were going to be there. But as the morning progressed and we started seeing the sun rising up behind the clouds, I had a feeling that we were not going to see one. By 10:30 it was certain that we had missed out. As I lost my hope with the GGOW, we went towards highway 7 where the NHOW was still around and Aubrey had texted me about it not long ago. They had the NHOW around the same location as we had the previous day. And, it was right there. Perched on the top of a tree in a small branch looking for its morning snack. The NHOW was still way out so we barely managed to get a good shot. And the day had to continue, especially with a possible GGOw still around.
One of my favorite places to bird in the Bog area is the Warren Woessner Bog Boardwalk (Warren Nelson Bog). The snowcovered boardwalk is always a fun place to bird and also to find the cute snowshoe hare. Previously, I have had a boreal chickadee and a black-backed woodpecker there. However, this time around it was pretty slow with only black-capped chickadees. From there we headed to the visitor center and I got my FOY (First of the year) evening grosbeaks and the Canada jays. The evening grosbeaks used to be in huge numbers at the bog but this time around it seems like they have enough food up north that they didn’t bother migrating down south. By the time we were done birding and shopping at the visitor center, both us and our cars were hungry for fuel, so we decided to head back to Hibbing. We found a small local bar which had really good food. While waiting for the food, I was scanning through ebird to see if we could find a cool or a rare bird in and around the bog or even Duluth. Interestingly, I saw a checklist with a long tailed duck in it. A lifer that I had been chasing for almost 5 years now. It was worth a shot, it had been reported a day ago. So we decided to head to the canal park with hopes of finding the duck.
As we reached the park, I could see a small flock of ducks on the lake. None of those looked like the long tailed duck. That flock was mostly scaups. I was looking around to see if there’s another flock towards the north side. There wasn’t! What I didn’t realize is that there was another flock on the south side right under the famous aerial lift bridge in Duluth. The light from the sun was reflecting off the water where the ducks were so I ran towards the other end to scan for the duck. As soon as I got to a good spot, I set up my spotting scope and it barely took me a minute- it was right there!
“Hey!!!” I yelled out.
Someone (not from our group) looked and said “What?”
Not you, I replied and waved at my group.
“I found it!” I yelled at the top of my lungs!
Right around that time, Aubrey had already seen it as well through her binos. We kept turns looking at the beautiful long tailed duck. It was far enough to take a good photo through the camera and we were trying hard to fix the scope and get a photo through the scope, the fact that the duck kept on diving didn’t make it easier for us to take a decent shot. But, we surely looked at that duck for a long time. I was really happy to have finally gotten the long tailed duck and it was a lifer for everyone in the group including Aubrey (She had been chasing it for a while now as well).
After we had spent enough time watching the duck, we wanted to try a trail that had a Saw whet owl a few weeks ago (It was worth a shot). So we headed towards the park, but as soon as we got into the park the hope was gone. Barely any conifers around and a park with mostly birch trees. We walked it anyway. At the end of the trails, when hope was all but gone and we were about to return back, I was talking about how the NSOW sound and especially their screaming call. As soon as that call happened, well me screaming, a great horned owl flew out of one of the trees in front of us and landed on a small island on the lake. Not the owl we wanted but an owl is an owl! We all went towards the trail and looked at the great horned for a while. We had a long way back to our airbnb and a lifer momo and lifer pie to prepare.
The next morning we repeated the same route, hoping to pull out a GGOW. 2 hours into the drive in the morning, it was evident that the GGOW was not going to be on the list of birds that day. Plus, we all had to return back home as well. Aubrey, Molly and Elise had to go back to Chicago and Madison and Rajesh and me to Minneapolis first to drop him off at the airport and for me to return back to Fargo. But, since we had to drive south to Duluth, I thought I’d drive down on Admiral instead of doing Highway 7. It endedup being a good decision. Right on the north Admiral feeder, a boreal chickadee was actively feeding and putting up a show. What a bird to get for a year! I called Aubrey, who was already on her way home. She came back for it and got the chickadee. And for us, on the way back, we saw a beautiful magpie flying over the road and landing on a tree. Another good bird for the year. We did plan to hit a few spots in Minneapolis to look for owls, but based on how big the park was it failed.
As the sun was fading into the horizon our journey came to an end as well. I dropped Rajesh off at the MSP airport and headed home.
Rajesh didn’t get all the owls I promised but I’m pretty sure he had a good time. And, now he knows how hard it is to find owls and I won’t be surprised if he is back in the bog next year. For Aubrey, I know she will be back to the bog next year and the year after that and the year after that.
For me, I am going back to bog in a few weeks time. Let’s hope that I get the GGOW then.