Wild Ghost Chase – Part 3: Two BIG Lifers

The call was, in fact, the property owner who had seen the Boreal Owl all day in her yard!  My heart was beating fast as she was talking.  While visions of a Boreal flooded my mind and I couldn’t believe our luck for the day, my brain started to comprehend what she was actually saying.  Unfortunately, there was no Boreal today, and the all-day sighting occurred on Tuesday, the 12th and not yesterday, the 13th, as I had interpreted the MOU posting.  It turns out this property owner was the mother of a classmate of mine, and in a Minnesota-nice way, she was just calling to give me an update and tell me I was welcome to look for the owl around their yard.  We visited some more about this special bird that showed up to visit her and about a Great Gray Owl that she had seen five times in her neighborhood, the last visit coming a week ago.  It was a slim chance on both birds, but it was only 15 minutes away and worth checking out.  Evan seemed to understand it wasn’t a for-sure thing, so he opted to hang out with Grandma while my dad and I checked it out.  It turns out he made the right choice; we didn’t see anything on this brief outing.

After we got back, we had lunch together and then I quickly packed up our few belongings – our time in the Sax-Zim Bog on the way home was running out.  We were southbound again a little after 1:00.  Before 2:00 we had reached the Bog.  The goal was to check out some places for the Northern Hawk Owl and the location of the Great Gray sighting by my classmate, Brett.

We ended up doing more exploring down side roads and stopping for more false Northern Hawk Owl sightings than I thought – those darn crows can fool you from a distance.  Northern Hawk Owls are so named because they look hawk-like.  Unlike other owls that perch vertically, these owls perch at an angle, looking very much like a hawk in posture. We also spotted some Northern Shrikes which we stopped for because they can look deceptively large when by themselves.  And Evan made me stop and back up for this picture:

The main road through the Bog is Co. Rd. 7, running north/south.  Our search for the Northern Hawk Owl had us stray from this road a couple times.  On one of our little excursions off this main route we discovered that not everyone in the Meadowlands area welcomes birders.

I didn’t think this property owner would appreciate me pointing out his spelling error, let alone getting out of the vehicle to take this picture, so we got out of this dead-end quickly.

We weren’t seeing much for birds, but neither of us were disappointed.  Evan said many times, “Well, at least we hit our target today.”  That was true.  It was classic birding to find the one we were after, the Great Gray Owl.

When we were traveling through the Bog down Co. Rd. 7 we again came by the site of all those Bald Eagles we saw last week.  There was not one eagle there today.  I did see what could have been a lone eagle, so I zoomed in to find out.  It was the Rough-legged Hawk!  This was a new life bird for us! This bird was a very long ways away, so the photo quality isn’t the best.  It was very elusive and moved often.  I couldn’t get any closer than a couple hundred yards away.

As I was tracking this bird while it flew around, Eagle-Eyes Evan hollered out, “Dad, we’ve got another one!”


“Right in front of us, look!”

It took me a while to find it, but it was really close and flew from its perch just as I caught sight of it.  I am not quick enough with this camera to zoom in and out and get it into sports mode in time, but it was painfully close.  I could have had some amazing shots if I weren’t all thumbs.  Here is a shot of the second Rough-legged Hawk soaring away from us.

This was quite a thrill on top of our monumental morning.  Two Rough-legged Hawks!  We thought we had the Rough-legged Hawk when we went through the Bog less than a week ago, but we were actually just viewing immature Bald Eagles.

The Bog didn’t hold much for us again this trip, but it didn’t fail to deliver something special either.  Melissa’s bird-expert co-worker, Randy, described the Bog to me as “A lot of nothing interspersed with pockets of wonderful.”  So far we have found that to be true.  We spent more time in the Bog than I would have liked, so I was relieved to get back out to the four-lane and start cruising south.

There was a lot to reflect on, and I could tell that Evan had a good day. He had two awesome life birds to dwell on.  Now I kept hearing from the backseat, “Well, we sure hit the jackpot with those Rough-legged Hawks.”  I don’t know where he comes up with some of the things he says, but I often forget he is just six.

By this time were booking it down I-35.  I was in the left lane passing all kinds of cars when I noticed a large bird in the snow just off the left shoulder.  As I got closer, I thought, ‘It’s a hawk.’  Split-seconds later I saw it was an owl!  It looked like the Great-Gray, but it was much smaller.  Then my studying paid off as I saw in the very last moment, while going 75 MPH, that it was the Barred Owl!

“Evan, I just saw the Barred Owl!”

“What?! I didn’t see it!  Can we go back, pleeeaase?!”

I explained to Evan that you can’t stop or turn around on the interstate.  There was nothing I could do.  I should have kept my mouth shut.  Melissa has trained me to not holler out to the kids when I see wildlife at the last second because they can never see it and then get upset.  Apparently I forgot my training. Time was of the essence and we needed to get home.  We couldn’t go back.  My excitement over a new life bird for myself was quickly extinguished by Evan’s inability to add it to his list too.

But I’ve hunted birds enough to be trained to mark locations quickly, and I did for this one too even though I was determined to head straight home.  The bird was just north of mile marker 187.  Then I saw that the Hinckley exit was just three miles away.  Suddenly, at the last minute, I found myself going up the exit ramp, across the freeway, and back on to the entrance ramp headed north again.  Then it occurred to me that I did not consider how far I would have to go north before I could exit again to return south.  Well, it didn’t matter now because there was nothing I could do.  Shortly after getting back on the freeway I saw that my exit was 7 miles away.  Not bad.  But each mile marker seemed hundreds of miles apart, especially once we went past 187.

Finally, we were southbound again. 190.  189.  188 – time to start watching!  Time to go at a slow, safe sped. There was a chance that this owl would be gone.  I figured he was eating something in the snow when I first saw it.  Then I saw that my eyes didn’t fool me before – there it was in the same spot!  I was able to pull over to the right directly across from it.  I pulled way over and put on the hazards.  We opened the windows and started snapping pictures in between bursts of cars and semis screaming through the space that separated us from the owl.

Do you see it?  Look in the snow just off the shoulder in the center of the picture.

Here’s a better view.

And then we got this shot.  Pretty cute.

While it looks like I caught him winking, this eye stayed shut the whole time.  I think there was something wrong with this bird for him to be in the spot it was  during the middle of the afternoon.  Maybe he’d been clipped by a car, or perhaps it was starving like so many owls are.

What a thrilling day.  Three major life birds! Two owls!  We were elated.  Maybe it was the enormity of the day or the exhaustion from this whirl-wind trip, but I made a mental driving error about a half hour after this owl that could have cost Evan and me our lives.  I really don’t want to go into the details, but I thank God nothing happened.  It rattled me bad. Birds didn’t matter any more.  I was both relieved and angry at myself.  There is nothing more important than the safety of my kids, and I’ve always prided myself on being a cautious driver.  Now I had two hours of driving before I made it to the place I just wanted to be – home.  In that time I drove, I resolved to take care of myself – managing stress better, getting sleep, hydrating, etc.  I was determined to be present in whatever situation I found myself in – whether that was helping a student with math, visiting with another person, or driving a car.  This cannot will not happen again.

It would have been easy to say that birding is done.  How could I let a hobby become a disaster?  But as I drove, I reflected on why I do the birding with Evan.  It was his passion that also became mine.  Life needs to be lived to the fullest.  Part of that is pursuing passions and sharing in life with loved ones.  Our birding combines both of those.  No, I couldn’t stop on account of a bad moment on the road.  There will be adventures ahead.  The blog will keep telling our stories.

Since 2011 when we lost three people who were very dear to us, I have seen life differently.  It is extremely short.  I want to spend my time with those I love  doing what makes them tick.  Sometimes you need to go on spur-of-the-moment adventures to have a lasting memory.  As proof of how fast life goes, I received this email from Steve Wilson last night.  Steve had asked me for information on my sightings of the Great Gray, and I had given him a summary along with a reference to this blog for the more detailed account.  Here is what Steve wrote:

Thanks Josh, I enjoyed the blog story. However, now for the bad news. Friday a great gray owl, very possibly the one you observed, was struck and killed by a car along that little stretch of Hwy 135 between Hwy 169 and the road past Powerain, There is still a great gray hanging out at the DNR office a short distance away, but since the other bird was killed none have been reported in the triangle. In addition, the boreal owl outside of Cook was found dead on the 14th, frozen hard, so it was probably already dead when you were looking for it. Sorry to be the bearer of what I’m sure is terrible news. I suppose the glass-half-full attitude is that you were lucky to see the great gray while still alive.

It was sad.  I’ve killed my fair share of animals and had pets die, but there was something special about that Great Gray that made it sting a little.  You can’t stare into the eyes of a creature like that and not be affected by its passing.  How fortunate we were to be able to see this bird while it was still alive.  Thanks for the memories, Ghost.

We finally made it home from this epic journey.  25.5 hours.  Nearly 600 miles. 3 monumental lifers. We were the Jack Bauers of birding.  Actually, Jack would have done it in exactly 24 hours and got the Boreal and Northern Hawk Owls.  This was a birding and life experience that we won’t forget.  I don’t know what or when our next adventure is, but you can bet we’ll be out there birding it up.

To read Wild Ghost Chase – Part 2, click here.

To read Wild Ghost Chase – Part 1, click here.

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