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|
|Find the Snowy Owl!|
|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|
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|
|Great Gray Owl No. 2|
|Great Gray Owl No. 3 in Hebron Cemetery or "Cemetary"|
|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.
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?
It's also fun to see Red-breasted Nuthatches where they live year-round here.
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.