The Snowy Owl Fallout Continues

December was a record month for us for seeing owls. By the time we had come home from our trip Up North, we had seen 6 Great Gray Owls, 3 Northern Hawk Owls, and 4 Snowy Owls.  But the fun didn’t stop there.  Well, I should say that for my family it did.  I was still thrilled with reports of local Snowy Owls and went on to check them out.  The appeal had worn off for my family. My coworker, Bonnie, in Grove City texted me on New Year’s Eve that the owl she had seen around her place was now on a pole on her road.  Not only did she get her lifer Snowy, but it was a yard bird for her as well! Birders could only dream of claiming such a bird on their yard lists.

I went to go check it out.  My family wasn’t interested.  It’s hard for me to resist a Snowy Owl that is only 15 minutes away, though.  Plus I wanted to get a picture for Bonnie and for eBird.  Apparently this particular Snowy flushes at approaching cars, and the mailman had scared it off just minutes before I got there. I was undeterred and scanned the nearby fields and poles carefully.  My search paid off. Do you see the suspicisous white lump in the field below that caused me to grab my binoculars?

Bonnie's Snowy Owl near Grove City, Minnesota

Can you find Bonnie’s Snowy Owl in this field near Grove City, Minnesota?

They blend in so incredibly well.  I’m sure I’ve driven by several already this winter and not known it. It was quite a thrill to “discover” this one nearly a quarter mile from the road on the ground.  Here is a closer view.

IMG_6086IMG_6080I waited for a long time, and eventually it flew back to its perch on the road.

Bonnie's Snowy on the perch where she could watch it from her living room

Bonnie’s Snowy on the perch where she could watch it from the comfort of her warm house.

I crept the car closer for a better photo which I have vowed to stop doing because this bird flew off. I tried to get some flight images of this fast moving, powerful raptor, but it was too much of a challenge. I enjoy the backdrop of this image, so I included it in the post.



Can you find Bonnie’s Snowy Owl?

I tried to keep tabs on this bird for awhile, but I think my presence aggravated it enough to disappear from sight.  So, it was time to go home.  Besides, I had already missed enough of the New Year’s Eve fun that Melissa had planned for the kids.  I was worried that I had ruined the opportunity for some other coworkers that Bonnie had called out to come see her owl.  However, I was relieved to find out a couple days later that this bird was seen by them later that day.

I went back to work on January 2nd.  It was immediately clear to me that I should have checked my work email more often over the break.  I came back to find nearly half a dozen emails from coworkers who had seen Snowy Owls in the Litchfield/Grove City area! Wow!  The owl prowl continued! Much of the information was now a few days old which is a long time in the birding world.  However, a brand new report came in Thursday night. This one was from Kodi, our elementary principal.  She emailed me cell-phone pictures of a Snowy Owl she had seen on her way home from work that evening!  This was fresh information, so I planned to get out there at daybreak to see if I could find it. Because sunrise is so late, I literally had two minutes to search before I had to be at work.  I checked all the pole tops and didn’t have any luck.  I drove by there after work as well but struck out again.

Kodi’s Snowy Owl was significant because it was sighted in Kandiyohi County, which has been left out of the Snowy Owl fun all winter.  A couple of my friends have been waiting to add this bird to their Kandiyohi County list for quite some time.  One, in fact, has been waiting over a decade.  Kodi’s bird actually was the second Snowy Owl seen in our county that day as Randy found the first one – a bird that I was literally one mile away from the other day.  So the Kandiyohi birders were excited to go find one of these two owls.

It wasn’t until two days later that Joel rediscovered Kodi’s owl and finally got his Kandiyohi Snowy after more than ten years.  I got the call in the grocery store in Willmar when I was with the whole family.  They gracefully obliged me to go search for this owl, even with a car full of groceries, even driving on icy roads.  Steve and I arrived out there about the same time.  We drove and drove the roads and scanned the fields.  We could not locate it.  From reports we heard, the owl must have been there the whole time because it was seen just before and just after our search.  Frustrating.

I had to try again in the morning.  Though it was brutally cold and all the area churches were closed for cold and treacherous roads, I was out there.  I was about the only person dumb enough to be out and about.  But my search paid off as I located the owl on top of an irrigator over a quarter mile from the nearest road.

Kodi's Snowy Owl near Atwater, Minnesota

Kodi’s Snowy Owl near Atwater, Minnesota


This is the best photo I could muster from a quarter mile away.

At least a half dozen birders besides myself got to see this owl. I am thankful for all the reports I’ve gotten from coworkers regarding Snowy Owls.  They have put Meeker and Kandiyohi Counties on the map in the birding world.  Without them these two counties would be very quiet during this Snowy Owl invasion that is playing out across the country.  Now the Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City area is one of the “hotbeds” of activity, sending all kinds of birders to our backroads to prowl for owls.  I personally have seen 4 of my 6 Snowy Owls, including my lifer, because the people I work with have let me know about their sightings. The best part, though, is watching their enthusiasm as they see one of these magnificent visitors for the first time.

Fun Feeder Birds, the Sax-Zim Bog, and Owling at 55 MPH

When there are all kinds of family members to visit Up North, it is very difficult to get away to do any serious birding. This is a tough truth to accept when there are so many incredible finds in the northwoods. One way to get in some good birding and visiting is to watch the feeder action at those relatives’ houses. One thing that was interesting this year was the concentration of American Goldfinches wherever we went. There was one bird that was considerably larger than the finches and required a bit of study. It turned out to be an immature White-crowned Sparrow. It doesn’t look like much, so big deal, right? Well, it is a big deal because these birds have migrated through Minnesota long ago. They aren’t suppposed to be in Minnesota right now, let alone the very northern part of it. It was a good find and one that I reported to

An Out-of-Season, Immature White-crowned Sparrow

An Out-of-Season, Immature White-crowned Sparrow

One day that we went to Melissa’s grandma’s house, I asked her grandma if she had any grosbeaks show up.  She told me that there were a half dozen or so Evening Grosbeaks, or the “yellow ones” as the locals say, that appeared just a few hours before we were there.  So I watched the feeders but never saw them.

I’ve been learning that the Evening Grosbeaks are somewhat of a prize even for us northern birders.  Apparently their numbers are way down. This was both sad and surprising to me as I remember both them and Pine Grosbeaks covering our feeders when I grew up.  They were practically pests.  Though I’ve seen this bird plenty in my life, I wanted to make sure I got a photo of one.  This trip Up North would be my last opportunity for the year, so I told Melissa’s grandma I was coming to see her the next morning.  I even brought Melissa along.  Grandma’s house was nice and cozy warm from her wood furnace on this sub-zero day, and there is always a hot pot of coffee and treats on the table.  That makes for some pretty good bird watching.

Black-capped Chickadee

The ever-present, friendly Black-capped Chickadee. I was 2 feet away from this bird for this picture.

Red-breasted Nuthatch - a year-round resident in northern Minnesota

Red-breasted Nuthatch – a year-round resident in northern Minnesota

As I watched the feeders I also kept an eye on the trees across the yard.  Eventually I saw a couple of bigger, yellowish birds moving around in the far-off tree.


It was a male Evening Grosbeak – the one I was after today.  He and a female companion eventually flew in to the feeders.

Evening Grosbeak male

Evening Grosbeak male


Evening Grosbeak femaleeeee

Evening Grosbeak female

It felt good to get a picture. The trip over to Grandma’s would have been worth it even if we struck out.  It’s always fun to see Grandma.  As we continued to munch on treats and sip coffee, more Evening Grosbeaks came in.  There ended up being 7 birds – 4 males and 3 females.

Evening Grosbeak males

Evening Grosbeak males

Eventually we left Melissa’s grandma and went back to our parents’ houses to see them again and get packed up for our trip home the next day.

That next day came, and it was cold!  But we had to get home.  We had already extended our trip one day because of the cold temps and a blizzard back home. It just so happens that the Sax-Zim Bog is on our way south.  We wouldn’t have time to explore the Bog since we were just passing through on County Road 7 that runs north-south.  Besides watching for birds, we kept watching the van thermometer drop. It bottomed up in the lowlands of the Bog at -33.



As we birded County Road 7 at 55 MPH I spotted a good bird – another Northern Hawk Owl.  It was only identifiable by sillhouette since it was so far from the road.

Northern Hawk Owl on County Road 7 in the Sax-Zim Bog

Northern Hawk Owl on County Road 7 in the Sax-Zim Bog

Sometimes it’s okay to not see the fine details of a bird.  Taking a step back and looking at the bigger scene playing out can be just as much fun.

Sunrise in the Sax-Zim Bog - Can you find the Northern Hawk Owl?

Sunrise in the Sax-Zim Bog – Can you find the Northern Hawk Owl?

As we motored along we flushed up a pair of reddish birds who were on the snowbank by the shoulder.  I recognized them as Pine Grosbeaks. Again, this was a bird I’ve seen plenty, but I have not yet photographed them.  It looks like I’m going to have to wait until next winter to get a good photo, but you can at least see what they look like here.

Pine Grosbeak male

Pine Grosbeak male

Sadly we exited the Bog and got back on the freeway.  Of course I had to make a quick detour in the town of Cloquet to look for a Snowy Owl that was reported on a Catholic church the night before.  No luck.

Another detour I had up my sleeve was to go by Grove City when we were very close to home.  A coworker had texted me the night before that a Snowy Owl showed up right near her house.  As we checked out the site and found nothing, I checked my messages.  This same coworker texted me that her husband had seen a Snowy about 7 miles away near Litchfield just a couple hours before! 7 miles is nothing, but we had just come to the end of a 265 mile trip.  Though the family was travel-weary, they obliged me by letting me go take a look.

We got out there, and the owl was still on top of a power pole! That made for a 12 owl trip! It was fun to hear Melissa and Evan say, “Yep, I see it!” after I initially spotted it. There is something exciting about owls to birders and non-birders alike.


Snowy Owl on Co. Rd. 11 near Litchfield, Minnesota

Sadly I tried to creep the car a little closer on the crunchy snow of the shoulder for a better picture of the owl, and it spooked. I never did refind it.  I was really mad at myself for being so foolish.  It’s not good to disturb these birds as they need to conserve their energy since they’ve just come from a very long journey from the Arctic.  Plus I may have disrupted it while it was hunting.  And, other birders now wouldn’t get to see it.  It was a bad choice on my part. I was happy to hear a few days later that one of my coworkers refound this same bird a mile to the north just an hour after we had seen it.

Seeing a Snowy Owl never gets old, and this was a fitting finish for an epic trip.  Though this trip was now over, the Snowy Owl fun has continued. Be sure to check it out in the next blog post.

Birding the Sax-Zim Bog with my Dad

Though it was a tremendous thrill to get our Northern Hawk Owl lifer on the epic Great Gray Owl outing, it kind of negated the need to go to the Sax-Zim Bog.  That is where we were supposeto see this bird.  But the Bog is the Bog, and its allure is just as strong even if you’ve seen all the birds in it.  And the truth is that we hadn’t.  We still needed a Boreal Chickadee, Northern Goshawk, Black-backed Woodpecker, and American Three-toed Woodpecker.  None of them felt as urgent as that Northern Hawk Owl, though.  Even with our owl sighting, we decided to continue on with our Bog plans.  Now, though, the priority shifted to finding the Boreal Chickadee, a reliable find in the past couple weeks at the feeders on Admiral Road. And since we’d seen all the “big-game” birds, Evan wasn’t interested in going along to the Bog.  Maybe that had more to do with the fact that he had cousins and a new iPad to play with.

So it was just my dad and me that ventured into the Sax-Zim Bog early one morning.  I should say that I dragged him along as he usually accompanies me on these northern birding trips.  Unfortunately we didn’t have a lot of time to go birding today because of family holiday plans, but we had enough time to get in some good birding.

Dad and I got down to the Bog before daylight and actually had to wait in the parking lot of the McDavitt Town Hall until it was light enough to see. It felt good to be in the right location knowing that we could start as soon as it was light. It was also nice to visit for a bit.  Dad told me all about a non-fiction book he’d been reading on the great Hinckley fire of 1894, a conversation that was triggered by the McDavitt Township sign indicating it was founded in that same year.  The details he told me were amazing and made me want to pick up this book myself – maybe when/if the birding ever slows down.

Finally it was daylight, and we crept south along Admiral Road, watching carefully for any Great Gray and Northern Hawk Owls. We got a few miles down the road when I spotted the first owl I had ever seen in the Sax-Zim Bog – a gorgeous Great Gray.

Great Gray Owl on Admiral Road in the Sax-Zim Bog

Great Gray Owl on Admiral Road in the Sax-Zim Bog

Here is a wide-angle shot of this bird.  My mom should appreciate that as she has always complained that movies rarely show wide-angle views.  I’ve started taking at least one picture like this when I find a good bird because I think seeing them in the overall context of their surroundings is just as much fun as a close-up.IMG_6007

This guy was about 20 feet up, and the only reason I was able to get a photograph of it was because he was against the light sky.  Down below in the “tunnel” through the trees, it was still quite dark, making photography pointless.  You can get a sense of that darkness in the photo above. We watched this owl for a bit and never got out of the car to photograph it.  As soon as we got a couple photos we got out of there for two reasons. One, it’s good to leave owls alone so they aren’t disturbed while they are hunting, which is critical in the winter when food is more scarce and they need to conserve energy.  Two, there were other birds we wanted to see in our limited two hours of Bog birding.

We didn’t have to travel long to our next stop which was the feeding station on Admiral Road which has been set up and maintained by birding guide, Mike Hendrickson.  This is arguably the best place in the country to find the elusive Boreal Chickadee. We’ve been by these feeders before, but we’ve only driven by them slowly.  This time I took my friend Steve’s advice to just sit and wait, even for a long time.  Eventually they will show. So we did that, and we were treated to 5 noisy Gray Jays and a few of the more common Black-capped Chickadees.  But then it happened. Not one, but two Boreal Chickadees showed up! This was a life bird for both my dad and me.  How I wish the light conditions were better as I always like to get a nice picture, especially of a life bird. Alas, this shot will have to do.

Boreal Chickadee

Boreal Chickadee

We were now down to about an hour left to explore the Bog.  We had barely covered much ground.  Now it was a matter of deciding what to go after.  Dad had never seen a Northern Hawk Owl, so I headed the direction of one that had been seen reliably recently. We got to the site on – get this – Owl Avenue, and we saw a promising scene. There were two parked cars with three men outside.  I pulled up and asked what they had seen.  They said they hadn’t seen anything but were just waiting in the location of where this owl had been reported. I was inclined to not believe them as birders can be very secretive and protective of their owls.  We scanned the trees all around them and couldn’t find anything, so we drove a bit further before turning around to go past them again.  This time, though, I saw a big bird at the top of a dead spruce directly across the road from these guys.  It was the Northern Hawk Owl!  Seeing it again was no less of a thrill than before, and it was cool that my dad got to add this owl to his life list.

Northern Hawk Owl

Northern Hawk Owl

Even though there was more daylight now, you can see how incredibly foggy it was, making photography impossible.


As I turned the van around to get in position to photograph this bird, I got stuck! It was a terrible feeling.  Not only was it embarassing, but the ruckus of trying to get a vehicle free could scare off this bird and ruin things for other birders. The three gentlemen came over right away and pushed.  We were out.  As I thanked the guys, the one told me the owl flew in just after we left them the first time. Oh, and that owl watched us the whole time, not bothered at all by what was happening below.

By now we’d used up our allotted time in the Bog, and we had to head back.  It was a very quick, productive trip with some big highlights.  Anytime you can see two northern owls, get a life bird (or two in my dad’s case), and share those experiences with your dad is a good day. I can’t wait for the next time we explore the Bog again together.

Great Gray Owl Wonderland

This winter has exploded with owl sightings.  Besides the invasion of the Snowy Owls, of which new sightings pop up every day, there have been numerous reports of Great Gray Owls and Northern Hawk Owls.  Like the Snowy, these two species are also winter owls. Occasionally they can be found in other seasons, but they are most common in winter when many migrate from the north.  One report of Great Grays was particularly fascinating: up to six owls had been seen on one road!  Many people followed up on this location and found at least one of these magnificent creatures themselves.

It just so happens that our holiday travel plans would take us right by this road near Aitkin, Minnesota. Though we had seen a Great Gray Owl last year, I was giddy to check it out.  Great Grays are one of those birds that you never get tired of seeing. Besides it was only about a 10-mile side-trip on our journey.  We could see a Great Gray real quick and not lose any time, or so I thought.

We found this county road with no problem and pulled onto it.  We could see that there was a fresh snowfall of a few inches that hadn’t yet been plowed.  Thankfully there were some tire tracks to drive in since we were in our van.  There was an instant peace being on this road – it was absolutely quiet. Not a house, not another car, nothing.  It was the perfect hangout for an elusive owl.  With the fresh, fluffy snow, it truly was a winter wonderland.  Melissa got caught up in the search, even putting down her knitting to look for birds.  I am so glad she did.  About 3 miles down the road, she found our first Great Gray of the excursion on her side of the car.

Great Gray Owl No. 1

Great Gray Owl No. 1

It was about a minute or so before Melissa found a second one just a little ways down the road!  This guy was a lot smaller and very actively moving around.  He was very close to the road, whereas the first one was about a hundred yards away.

Great Gray Owl No. 2

Great Gray Owl No. 2


Great Gray Owl No. 2 Hunting

We left this owl alone to continue his hunting in peace.  When we got near the postage-stamp sized Hebron Cemetery, I told Melissa that two Great Gray owls had been found on either side of the cemetery.  The cemetery was on Melissa’s side and tucked away a little bit in the woods, so she craned her neck to look back in the cemetery, and said, “Oh, Josh, look.”  At the top of a very tall pine in the middle of the cemetery was a Great Gray Owl looking for any rodent activity in the open area below.

Great Gray Owl No. 3 in Hebron Cemetery

Great Gray Owl No. 3 in Hebron Cemetery or “Cemetary”

Great Gray Owl No. 3

Great Gray Owl No. 3

While I stood on the road and photographed his owl, he flew in closer to pose! He ended up landing on the cemetery’s flagpole.


If there were auditions for a new national bird, I think Great Gray Owl No. 3 wins.


Great Gray Owl No. 3 Hunting


Great Gray Owl No. 3 Hunting


Great Gray Owl No. 3 posing for his profile shot

This owl was very active and paid no attention to me.  He flew from his flagpole perch even closer to me and landed right by the road.  To see a bird of that magnitude flying so close to you is a really cool experience.  We decided to leave this owl be and continue our hunt for more.  We didn’t have to wait long because once again Melissa found us a new one just beyond the cemetery.  It was hilariously perched at the top of a small pine.

Great Gray Owl No. 4

Great Gray Owl No. 4

It wasn’t long after this that we were out of the woods and entering a wide open area called the Willowsippi Wildlife Management Area.

Willowsippi Wildlife Management Area

Willowsippi Wildlife Management Area

There was a power line running along the road and we noticed a bird on the wire.  It looked too small to be an owl but it didn’t look crow-like either.  I pulled up the binoculars and saw that it was our Northern Hawk Owl lifer!! This was a major target for this winter and one I had hoped to see while visiting relatives up north.

Northern Hawk Owl Lifer!

Northern Hawk Owl Lifer!

Northern Hawk Owl ignoring us

Northern Hawk Owl ignoring us

Northern Hawk Owl fluffing up

Northern Hawk Owl fluffing up

Wow, if seeing all those Great Gray Owls wasn’t exciting enough, this sighting made for an epic birding day that will likely be unmatched.  Seeing any owl is always a thrill, but you can never repeat the first time you see a species like this. It is a heart-pounding, hand-shaking experience.

We continued on to a road to the south to follow up on another reported location of a Great Gray just a couple miles a way.  We didn’t have any luck, so we turned around and made our way back to the highway through the “owl zone.”  Going back we only saw two of the four we saw coming in.  One was even perched on the cemetery’s sign itself.  As we drove I was reading the odometer carefully to mark where we had seen each bird as others would likely be interested to know.  We had gone nearly a mile past the first owl location when Melissa found yet another Great Gray Owl!  Because of the great distance from the others, we were confident this was a new owl.  Besides, some birders had reported finding 5 or 6 on this road.

Great Gray Owl No. 5

Great Gray Owl No. 5


Great Gray Owl No. 5 giving us a parting look

Melissa was clearly the hero of the trip finding all five Great Gray Owls.  As fun as it was to see all these great birds, watching her get in to the “hunt” was just as much fun.  Our little side trip that was only supposed to add 15 minutes to our trip ended up taking over an hour.  The birding was just too good.  In addition to the owls, I also spotted a Northern Shrike and what very well could have been a second Northern Hawk Owl flying across the road behind our car.  Epic is almost too small of a word to describe this trip. It was a birder’s dream to see such cool owls in such abundance and in close proximity. For once we were in the right place at the right time.