Monday, January 6, 2014

Northern Owl Mania in Minnesota

You need to come to Minnesota in the middle of winter. Seriously.  You will see some incredible birds that only the toughest of birders ever get to see.  If you don't want to come here to see them for yourself, then sit back, grab a cup of coffee, and do your northern birding on the computer screen by reading this post.

Everyone in the birding world is well aware of the blizzard of Snowy Owls that has hit the northern half of the country.  Minnesota has been no exception to this Snowy storm with new sightings popping up each day. One of the hotspots has been just an hour or so north of my home in west-central Minnesota, so I've taken a couple trips to look at some of these great birds myself. Both my kids got their Snowy lifer with this young female.
Snowy Owl near Sauk Rapids, MN
Snowy Owl near Holdingford, MN
I've started taking some wide-angle shots when I photograph good birds. I think seeing them in the overall context of their surroundings is just as much fun as viewing a close-up.

Find the Snowy Owl!
I've been asking my coworkers to keep an eye out for Snowy Owls for me as this is an invasion year.  That request paid off as one coworker found me two!  Better than that was the fact that this casual birder got her Snowy lifer in her own yard!

Snowy Owl near Litchfield, MN
My friend's lifer and yard-bird Snowy Owl near Grove City, MN!
Another Shot of the Grove City Snowy Ow
It has been thrilling to see so many Snowy Owls.  I have, of course, eBirded all my sightings to help track this phenomenal invasion.

In addition to the Snowies, there have been many reports of Great Gray Owls and Northern Hawk Owls in the northern part of our state. Several reports came from one short stretch of county road in Aitkin County where birders had found anywhere from one to six Great Gray Owls!  It just so happens that my family was traveling over the holiday break and would be going right by this area.  Of course we had to check it out.

We pulled on to this quiet road after a fresh snowfall.  It was incredibly peaceful and seemed to be the perfect solitude for these phantoms of the forest. Had a couple of cars not already traveled the road, we would have been in trouble driving on it in our van. We only had to travel about three miles before my non-birding wife found us the first Great Gray.

Great Gray Owl No. 1
It wasn't long after that and my wife found another one!  This one as smaller and much closer to the road.  It was very actively moving about.

Great Gray Owl No. 2
We left this bird alone to do his hunting and we kept driving until we got to Hebron Cemetery where two owls had been reported.  Once again, my non-birding wife was the hero and spotted this guy inside the cemetery.
Great Gray Owl No. 3 in Hebron Cemetery or "Cemetary"
This one was fun to watch.  I stood on the road photographing it when it flew in closer and landed on the flagpole.  It did not care that I was there at all.

If there were auditions for a new national bird, Great Gray No. 3 wins hands-down.

This owl flew even closer to me, coming within 20 feet!  They are impressive birds and definitely not afraid. The truth is, I was getting nervous having him come so close.  I've heard of owls dive-bombing photographers before.  Anyhow it was time to move on and let him do his hunting in peace. 

Not long after the car started rolling again, my wife finds us Great Gray Owl No. 4!  This one was hilariously perched on the top of a very small tree.

Great Gray Owl No. 4

Wow, four Great Gray Owls!  We had seen reports of up to six, so we kept driving hoping for more. Conditions were just right today.  The fresh snowfall and overcast skies were the right conditions for the owls to be out hunting.

As we cruised along we came to an open area called the Willowsippi WMA.

Willowsippi WMA
Along this WMA was a power line, and we noticed a bigger bird on the wire.  It looked too small for an owl, but it didn't look like a crow or hawk either.  I pulled up the binoculars and discovered it was the Northern Hawk Owl!! This was a life bird, and it was our target bird for the trip.  I had planned to hunt for it in the Sax-Zim Bog, so finding it here was totally unexpected.  Better yet was that is was right by the road providing stellar views!

Northern Hawk Owl Lifer!

We kept moving along looking for more owls.  Finally it was time to turn around.  We saw a couple of the same birds still moving around where we saw them, but when we had gone over a mile past the first sighting, my wife finds a completely different Great Gray Owl - number 5!

Great Gray Owl No. 5
Wow. Wow. Wow. This was an epic little side-trip.  What was supposed to be a 15-minute search for owls turned into an adventure that lasted well over an hour.  The delay in our travel was well worth it.  Not only did we see all these owls, but we also saw a Northern Shrike and quite possibly a second Northern Hawk Owl!

But the fun doesn't stop there.  The family members that we were visiting live near the famous Sax-Zim Bog, so I was able to break away for a couple hours to go birding down there with my dad. It didn't take us long to pick up a Great Gray Owl.

Great Gray Owl in the Sax-Zim Bog
After seeing this owl, we did a birding stake-out at the feeders on Admiral Road.  This is arguably the most-reliable place in the country to see a Boreal Chickadee.  We waited about 15 minutes before two of these elusive birds made an appearance.  Darn the fog and low-light conditions of the morning.  It's a bad photo, but a record shot of a life bird is nothing to sneeze at.

Boreal Chickadee at Admiral Road feeders in the Sax-Zim Bog
This was a life bird for both my dad and me.  We were also treated to great views of 5 Gray Jays who were feeding on suet at this feeding station. 

We didn't have much time to explore the Bog this morning, so we decided to go search for a reported Northern Hawk Owl.  We found it.  This was a life bird for my dad.

Northern Hawk Owl in the Sax-Zim Bog
Those were our highlights for the Bog.  We only got to spend two hours there this trip. The rest of my northern Minnesota birding would have to be spent at feeders at our relatives' houses, which was actually pretty decent.  For example, I found and reported a very lost, out-of-season White-crowned Sparrow.

A very lost, immature White-crowned Sparrow
And who doesn't love the ever-present, very friendly Black-capped Chickadee?

Black-capped Chickadee
It's also fun to see Red-breasted Nuthatches where they live year-round here.

Red-breasted Nuthatch
And a bird that used to be quite common, but is now a prize for even us northern birders - the Evening Grosbeak.

Evening Grosbeak Male
Evening Grosbeak Males (We saw 7 - 4 males and 3 females)
Finally our time Up North was over and we had to head back to the prairies of west-central Minnesota.  Luckily, though, the Sax-Zim Bog was on our way!  We hit it one last time cutting through the main road going 55 MPH.  We were still able to find a Northern Hawk Owl, though it wasn't close enough to photograph well.  See if you can find it in the picture below.

Can you find the Northern Hawk Owl in this picture from the Sax-Zim Bog?

While driving I also found a handful of Snow Buntings and a pair of Pine Grosbeaks on the side of the road.

Pine Grosbeak Male
So, as you can see, we have some incredible birds in Minnesota.  Forget about going to some sunny destination when it starts to get colder outside.  Instead, come to northern Minnesota in the dead of winter. Bundle up and grab a hot drink - you're going to need it. 

To read more birding adventures from Minnesota, check out my blog A Boy Who Cried Heron. To find northern birds, check out my birding site Birding Across America.


  1. Captivating pictures of these amazing owls. You spotted so many grey owls.

  2. Amazing area full of wonderful birds. Congrats!!!

    1. Thanks, Chris! You'll have to check it out someday.

  3. Owls make a hard winter bearable. Wonderful post, great photos.

    1. Isn't that the truth? I actually like Minnesota winters now.

  4. Great post, Josh! I can't imagine how amazing it must be to see so many Great Grey Owls! Beautiful photos!

    1. Thanks, Tammy! That means a lot coming from you. Great Grays are amazing. I never get tired of seeing them.

  5. wish to see these birds that many too, wonderful

  6. How wonderful to see all those owls. I hope they all survive the freezing weather we heard you're having. Well done to your wife too as a spotter!

    1. These birds are made for this weather, no worries. I'll pass on your compliment to my wife!

  7. Replies
    1. Thanks, Lillian! That means a lot coming from you.

  8. Fantastic! I can't tell you how many times I said "wow!" while reading this exciting post filled with awesome photographs! Those Great Gray Owls are certainly a sight to behold ... and to have seen so many of them. Lucky you. Terrific birding adventures documented in this wonderful post.

    1. Thanks, Julie! I said that word a lot myself this past month. We're still turning up new owls around here. Yes, to look into the eyes of a Great Gray is unforgettable. Their eyes and facial expressions are constantly changing, and interestingly my camera on auto mode displays the people icon when focused on one. I remember my first one last year stared hard straight at me - I felt like he was reading my soul.

  9. Awesome stuff JOsh, truly excellent photos of truly excellent birds. Stay warm!

    1. Thanks, Laurence! I'm counting down the days to our Arizona trip where we can warm up and see your cool birds.

  10. What a great birding trip! Great photos too!

  11. So love the owls! What wonderful captures :)