Two birds in the bush…

…are better than a stupid Le Conte’s Sparrow in the grass.

It has been my mission this summer to mop up on the embarrassing holes in my life list. The source of this embarrassment lies in the fact that these birds live here and can be found here regularly, as in every single year. Other than the fact that some of these birds are skulkers, I really have no decent excuse for why I have not been a diligent birder in this regard.  While I did manage to take care of business with several of these buggers on Tommy D’s latest MN trip and on a failed rarity chase (blog posts to come), I tried to cross another one off the list a couple weeks ago when I was Up North over Memorial Day Weekend.

I was enticed to go after Le Conte’s Sparrow when the Warbler Wednesday crew of the Sax-Zim Bog turned up multiple Le Conte’s Sparrows in the sedge meadows along Stone Lake Road.  The crushing good looks and photos they posted were reason to hit up the Bog at dawn and preempted a search for Great Grays, a species which has been seen with surprising frequency this summer.

As I made my way to the Bog leaving the house around 5ish, I saw a good-looking blob in the middle of the road near my parents’ house. That good-looking blob flew up to a branch with an equally good-looking blob giving me a double dose of Barred Owls.

Barred OwlUnfortunately I did not pause long enough to enjoy these Owls as I was in a hurry to get down to the Le Conte’s spot.  I wanted to get that out of the way and did not want birding to consume much time since we were visiting family.  So I grabbed a couple quick photos of one of the birds in the dim, drippy forest and moved on.

Barred Owl Barred Owl Barred Owl

My hustle was all for naught. Despite a diligent Sparrow search where I walked up and down Stone Lake Road, I could not detect the bird.  Not even a Black-billed Cuckoo calling in the distance or an Alder Flycatcher offering me free beer made things better.  I should have hung out with the Barred Owls.  No beer, but they might have cooked for me.

TOBY’s MSP Touchdown

Obsession has put down deep roots here at ABWCH over finding Eastern Screech-Owls in anticipation of finding one for TOBY (Tommy’s Owl Big Year) in June.  The more I researched and chatted up the wise old birders, the more nervous I was getting about our prospects for this bird in June–sightings drop off dramatically in the summer months. Meanwhile, Tommy DeBardeleben had been blitzing toward his goal of seeing all 19 Owl species that can be found in the U.S., seeing 15 of them already by April 7th. Accomplishing this unique goal was no longer a pipe dream, but now a very realistic possibility.  TOBY could not fall apart over the relatively common ESOW.

Seeing as how we had a “bird in the hand” with the Lake Harriet Screech in Minneapolis, I got the crazy idea to explore the possibility of flying Tommy in for a lightning-fast trip to knock out this Owl. To my amazement, airfare was ridiculously cheap. I proposed my idea to Tommy and like the proverbial tossed spaghetti, it stuck.  After coordinating work schedules on both ends and shopping for airfare, Tommy was all set with a $127 plane ticket and a round-trip that would only take 21 hours from the time he walked into Phoenix Sky-Harbor Airport to the time he walked out. Tommy is likely the only birder to ever make a cross-country chase just to see an Eastern Screech-Owl.

Last Tuesday after I tucked the kids into bed, I drove to the Cities and crashed at my brother’s place for a few hours.  Tommy’s plane got in at midnight, and I was there to pick him up by 2:45 AM.  We would be Owling right away.  We traveled to Chimney Rock Scientific and Natural Area near Hastings to search for Screech-Owls in the dark.  Several had been reported here in the past.  However, as soon as we got to the location, we knew it was likely a lost cause–wind was gusting up to 20 mph.  There would be no way we could hear Screech-Owls vocalizing.  We Owled on regardless, hoping to get lucky.  The only bird we had any luck with was a Dark-eyed Junco that was equally stunned to see us.

Dark-eyed Junco

After an hour or so in the wind and spitting rain we gave up and decided to make our way to Minneapolis so we’d arrive at the location of the famous Lake Harriet Screech just before dawn.

Once we were at Beards Plaisance, a park on the southwest side of Lake Harriet, I immediately checked the famous roosting cavity with my flashlight.  Nothing. Then I checked a couple of White Pines where it can be found, and again did not find it.  It was somewhat discouraging, but Tommy and I were still confident the famous Screech was near us…somewhere.  I had given up on searching until it was daylight out when Tommy had called out that he had it! Lifer Owl #18 for Tommy, and #16 for TOBY! In the pre-dawn light Tommy caught a glimpse of it flying right by him as it was being chased by a Robin. From that point forward, we spent a great deal of time enjoying the Eastern Screech-Owl.  Prior to this I had only ever seen this species in a hole of some sort.  To see one out in the open and being very active felt like I was seeing this bird for the first time.

Eastern Screech-OwlThe Owl vocalized often and moved from perch to perch.  It was simply awesome.

Eastern Screech-OwlI was amazed by how hyperactive this Owl was–it pays to observe a nocturnal bird nocturnally!  Here’s a short video where you can see what I mean.

Watching and photographing this Screech-Owl alongside Tommy was incredibly fun.  We got to observe this Owl as few people do since most people come during the daylight hours and see a sleeping bird.

Eastern Screech-Owl

Eastern Screech-OwlThis bird called often with its monotonic trill.  Hearing it was a new thing for me and just as thrilling as seeing it.  Check it out.

The Screech continued to be active and vocalize even as it was getting more and more light out.

Eastern Screec-OwlEventually, though, it retired to one final perch and quieted down.

Eastern Screech-Owl

Eastern Screech-OwlIt was now to time to take celebratory photos.

Ten Arizonan Fingers for 10 Arizona TOBY Owls; 6 Minnesotan Fingers for 6 Minnesota TOBY Owls, sub-divided into two hands--a hand of 5 fingers for 5 Tommy Owl Lifers and 1 Thumb for a big thumbs up on Tommy's progress

Ten Arizonan fingers for 10 Arizona TOBY Owls (so far); 6 Minnesotan fingers for 6 Minnesota TOBY Owls, subdivided into two hands–a hand of 5 fingers for 5 Tommy Owl Lifers found in MN this year and 1 thumb for a big thumbs up on what Tommy is working so hard to accomplish

Tommy

18 Owl Lifers, 16 TOBY Owls, 1 Happy Tommy

We left the Screech to enjoy the rising sun over Lake Harriet before taking his daylong nap. It had put on quite a show for Tommy and me.

Eastern Screech-OwlWith the major trip goal of seeing an Eastern Screech-Owl all locked up by 7 AM, Tommy and I had a good 5 hours of free birding time before I had to drop him off at the airport.  I was thinking as a lister and giving Tommy options for some life birds he could get.  Tommy had his Owler hat on that day, though, and he instead opted to see Barred Owls again with this free time.  We went to Fort Snelling State Park to see the famous pair, but unfortunately they were a no-show. Fortunately, Tommy picked up his American Tree Sparrow lifer for a nice bonus on the day.

We next went to the Minnesota River National Wildlife Refuge Long Meadow Lake Unit to look for another famous pair of Barred Owls that are nesting there.  As we searched we came across many fun birds as migration is just getting underway.  My personal highlight was detecting a singing Winter Wren.  Their song is one of the best of the northwoods where it lives; I was surprised that it was singing in migration.

Winter WrenWinter WrenEventually Tommy spotted what we presume to be the male of the nesting pair of Barred Owls.  I was surprised when he pointed it out to me–I really wasn’t expecting a Barred Owl in this spot.  It was a reminder to be vigilant always.  Tommy never lets his guard down.

Barred Owl

Barred Owl

This Owl was not very photogenic and quite skittish.  After following it through the woods a couple times, we decided to leave it alone and go look for the nest.  Eventually we found it.  The Mrs. was much more photogenic.

Barred OwlBarred Owl

Barred owl

Barred OwlAfter enjoying these Owls and the other birds it was time to wrap up this flash of a visit.  Tommy and I enjoyed a hot meal of Swedish meatballs at IKEA in the shadow of the Mall of America before getting him to the airport at noon.  I told Tommy that perhaps there were some Arizonans who flew to MSP the same day as he did to do something just as frivolous–spend their time and money at that retail behemoth.  The difference, though, is that what Tommy came to get will not end up in a landfill some day.  Instead we created yet another fun memory that will always be with us.

I’ve known Tommy for just over a year now, and in that time we have gone on four major birding adventures together, each with its own major goal.  And each time we have succeeded in meeting our goal.  Here’s a quick recap:

April 2015 – Elegant Trogon – Madera Canyon, AZ

October 2015 – Rufous-capped Warbler – Hunter Canyon, AZ

January 2016 – Great Gray Owl, Northern Hawk Owl, Snowy Owl – Northern MN

April 2016 – Eastern Screech-Owl – Minneapolis, MN

Little did we know that the winter MN Owling trip would spark TOBY, making it a real possibility.  Tommy has just three Owls left to find for his Big Year: Flammulated, Short-eared, and Boreal.  Working on TOBY is not over for me yet, the focus is just shifting.  Tommy is counting on another trip to Minnesota as Plan A for one of these birds. Perhaps Minnesota will even have a remote, unlikely chance of being Plan C for another. Time will tell.

It was a thrill to be able to do this compact, high-adventure with Tommy.  I am looking forward to the next adventure. Congratulations, Tommy, on your new lifer Owl and getting Owl species #16 on the year!

 

Guide Series: Gravy Day–Redemption Birds and Bonus Lifers

Since Tommy DeBardeleben and Gordon Karre did not fly out of MSP until late in the evening on February 1st, we basically had most of the day to bird in the Northland and on our way south.  And since we had knocked out their Owl targets the previous three days….

Great Gray Owl

Snowy Owl

Northern Hawk Owl

Barred Owl

…we had a great deal of flexibility and freedom for how to bird on that final day.  We had succeeded in our goals which I still find hard to believe even as I sit down to write this. There was zero pressure for that final day.  Options on the table included going back for more Great Gray action in the Sax-Zim Bog, heading up to Lake County to try for Spruce Grouse, going to a birding friend’s yard to photograph Ruffed Grouse that frequent her feeders, or trying for a number of other Owls on our way south.  Ultimately, though, we decided to bird much closer to our base camp.  While we were on the Hawk Owl hunt in the Northwest the previous day, Evan had called me with a credible report of three Spruce Grouse seen on a road right near my parents’ house.  Since I have seen Sprucies there in the past, I had no reason to doubt it.  So that’s where we started our day. Evan was along with us as Marin and Melissa headed back home separately.

I was excited about birding around my parents’ house.  First, it meant we could sleep in for once which felt great after the breakneck pace we’d been keeping.  Second, and more important, I have tried for years for some really great birds that have been found on a road through a mature Black Spruce bog near the folks’ house.  I had secured a nice male Spruce Grouse in this spot the previous year, but I have never given up searching for the Great Gray Owl and Black-backed Woodpecker that Sparky Stensaas discovered there over two years ago.  I have lost track of how many times I have tried for these birds.  These birds are pretty special anywhere, but even more so when they are in the backyard.

When we got to the Spruce bog and made one unsuccessful pass down the road for Sprucies, Great Grays, Boreal Chickadees, and Black-backs, Tommy suggested getting out of the car in order to walk and listen.  It was a mild day, so I thought that was a good idea.  Rather than joining them and having all of us have to walk back to the vehicle, I decided to stay in the car and go pick them up.  Unannounced to them, I took off in a different direction in order to complete a large loop to cover more ground.  Gordon later told me that when he saw me leave he had flashbacks of Snipe hunts from his youth.  But I knew it wouldn’t be long and that they’d be okay. 🙂

Almost instantly on my solo tour I had a large gray and black raptor fly from a perch in the Pines on the right side of the road to a large stand of Pines on the left–adult Northern Goshawk!  I wish I could have had a longer look, but such is the way NOGO sightings go. I finally did make it back to a frigid Tommy and Gordon (my loop took me longer than I thought–oops!).  I asked the guys what they had seen, and Tommy told me they detected the drumming of a Black-backed Woodpecker.  I’ve birded with Tommy enough to know that he can be a kidder and try to get one over on somebody, so I laughed and told him I knew better than to believe his story….except he didn’t break into a smile.  He was serious! So I got out and we played the tape.  Almost instantly the Black-backed Woodpecker flew out of the bog and finally gave me the sighting I’ve been waiting on for years!  Even better was that this was a lifer for both Gordon and Evan!! It was a great moment that wouldn’t have been possible without Tommy and Gordon walking–thanks guys!  This one felt really, really good.

Black-backed WoodpeckerSomething even more amazing happened while we tried to lure out this guy–a second Black-back showed up! There was a male and a female! Unfortunately I never did see that classic field mark of the yellow crown on the male, but Tommy and Gordon each got to see it.  I will continue to search for these birds until I finally see that and finally get good photos of this species.

Black-backed Woodpecker

We had a pretty tight schedule to keep for some more birding stops on the way to the Cities, so we had to leave this special bog by 9:30.  The rest of the day had various stops for various things as we ventured south.  We tried for a Northern Saw-whet Owl that would have been a lifer for me if we would have found it. We did not, however.  This was my second attempt, and I’ve since made an unsuccessful third attempt.  It is just not meant to be at this point in time.

As we traveled we did get to see a couple more Pileated Woodpeckers, including one close up on a power pole.  Getting photos of this bird was another story, but the sightings were still exciting for the guys.  Tommy was able to finally get a Blue Jay photo which was a photographic lifer for him.  We did bump into an unexpected but not surprising Red-bellied Woodpecker in a suburban neighborhood which was a lifer for Tommy!  No one was able to get photos of this striking bird.  The one pictured below is one I recently photographed in my yard.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

We had a couple of revenge stops to make right by the airport itself.  When I picked the guys up late in the afternoon on January 28th, we had about 20 minutes of daylight to search for the Ft. Snelling State Park Barred Owl which is a 5-minute drive from Terminal 1.  Not being successful there on that first night, we quickly got over to the aircraft viewing area on Cargo Road just as it was getting dark to look for a reported Snowy Owl.  No luck on that one either.  Even though Tommy and Gordon got their Snowy and Barred Owl lifers, we all wanted revenge on these particular Owls, especially the Barreds which NOBODY misses on.  Anyhow, we were all optimistic and relaxed on this second attempt.

As we were driving into Ft. Snelling State Park, Evan casually mentioned seeing some Trumpeter Swans. This immediately caught Gordon’s attention who informed us that would be a lifer for him!  Evan’s eagle-eye had come up with a lifer that wasn’t even on my radar. Tommy was also excited about this sighting as it was the first time he had seen adult birds and only his second time viewing the species.  Way to go, Evan!

We also redeemed our failure from the previous night when Tommy spotted the female Barred Owl.  The guys enjoyed getting another chance at photographing a more cooperative Barred Owl.

Barred Owl

Because we found the Barred in such short order, I told the guys I had enough time to make one quick check for the airport Snowy Owl before I had to hit the road.  When I asked them if they were interested in looking, they responded with an emphatic yes.

Driving down Cargo Road we did not spot the bird on any of the perches on which it had been seen recently, like the FedEx building.  It turns out that this bird does not play favorites, though, as I spotted it way in the distance on top of the UPS depot as we drove back out from the aircraft viewing area.

Snowy Owl MSP

Afterwards, we took the guys to the terminal, said a hasty goodbye, and vowed to go birding again together either here or in Arizona. It was a great last day of birding that added its own unique excitement to a truly epic trip.  Here is the summary of day 4’s life birds for Tommy and Gordon.

Black-backed Woodpecker – Gordon, Evan

Red-bellied Woodpecker – Tommy

Trumpeter Swan – Gordon

Trip Analysis

This trip was unforgettable, no unbelievable.  It was simply magic, even for me.  Though I have seen all of these birds many times, the fact that we saw so many good birds in such a short period of time makes this trip rival some of my out-of-state trips where I have gotten lifers.  I enjoy birding northern Minnesota more than anywhere, and I never get tired of its special birds, especially those Owls.  It was a thrill to be able to help Gordon and Tommy see them for the first time.  To end this trip series, I’d like to point out some fun factoids.

Tommy and Gordon got their three main targets in this order: Great Gray Owl, Snowy Owl, Northern Hawk Owl.  For those who are not fans of permutations, there are exactly six orders that this could have happened.  Coincidentally I saw those same lifers in that same order.

The number of individuals we saw of these three Owl species made for a nice arithmetic sequence:

Great Gray Owl – 1

Northern Hawk Owl – 2

Snowy Owl – 3

Tommy and Gordon saw the Northern Big 3 on three consecutive days.  That is substantially faster than I did it (nearly a year), even after making several northern trips.  Here are the dates that I got my lifers.

Great Gray Owl — March 13, 2013

Snowy Owl — December 3, 2013

Northern Hawk Owl — December 26, 2013

Before this trip, I had (surprisingly) seen more Owl species than Tommy.  He had 13; I had 14. Now, though, Tommy has 17.  Of the 19 regularly occurring Owl species in North America, he is only missing Boreal Owl and Eastern-Screech Owl, both of which reside in Minnesota.  I’m trying to convince him that he should get them here, especially since I need one of those as well.  After all, how cool would it be to say you got all of North America’s Owls in just two states?

Speaking of Owl lifers, Tommy and I split the work of spotting their four lifers.  Never mind how many more Owls Tommy found overall!

Great Gray Owl – Tommy

Snowy Owl  – Tommy

Northern Hawk Owl – Josh

Barred Owl – Josh

Overall, Tommy ended the trip with 15 life birds and Gordon had 18.  That is a whopping number, especially when I have only seen 60 species total in Minnesota for 2016.

Tommy and Gordon saw a LOT of GOOD birds in a SHORT amount of time. Below I’ve listed the most difficult species they saw on this four-day trip along with the dates that I got my lifer for each to give some perspective as to how good of a trip they had.  As you will see, it’s taken me a long time to get these key birds after many, many trips to the north. I’ll start with my most recent lifers.

Great Black-backed Gull — November 28, 2015

Iceland Gull — November 28, 2015

Glaucous Gull — November 28, 2015

Black-backed Woodpecker — June 22, 2015

Gyrfalcon — March 8, 2015

Thayer’s Gull — November 8, 2014

Boreal Chickadee — December 28, 2013

Northern Hawk Owl — December 26, 2013

Snowy Owl — December 3, 2013

Great Gray Owl — March 13, 2013

Favorite Sighting of the Trip: Black-backed Woodpecker

Favorite Personal Find of the Trip: Barred Owl just south of the Canadian border

Best Overall Bird Experience: Hanging with the Northern Hawk Owl in the Beltrami Island State Forest

Biggest Relief of the Trip: Getting the Great Gray immediately

Biggest Stressor of the Trip: Driving in reverse for 3.6 miles on the Pitt Grade Road Snowmobile Trail in a mini-van

Biggest Miss of the Trip: American Black Duck

Thank You!

This trip’s success is only because so many great Minnesota birders and non-birders made it happen.  Therefore I’d like to acknowledge those folks.

Clinton Nienhaus – For all his Sax-Zim Bog advice on the Bog’s birds and their habits.  Additionally, Clinton spotted the guys’ Glaucous Gull lifer at Canal Park.

Jason Mandich – For his SZ Bog advice and extra set of eyes in the Bog.

Jeff Grotte – For his Owling advice that made for an incredible final day of Owling in the Twin Cities.

Peder Svingen – For his Gull identification counseling and superior Superior Snowy Owl tips.

Randy Frederickson – For giving us timely heads-up texts on the Iceland and Great Black-backed Gulls.

John Richardson – For being an extra set of eyes at Canal Park, wearing his trademark Union Jack stocking cap, and bringing his British cheer to the Canal Park Gull party.

Kim Risen – For pointing out a bonus Snowy Owl in Superior.

Sandy Aubol – For her Northern Hawk Owl advice in Roseau County.

Evan – For always having an eagle-eye that ended up getting Gordon a bonus, unexpected Trumpeter Swan lifer.

Mom and Dad – For the generous use of their home and vehicle for our epic birding odyssey.

Melissa – For her enthusiastic support of this trip that kept me away from the family for so long.

 Hungry For More?

Me too! This past weekend I worked as a guide at the annual Sax-Zim Bog Birding Festival.  Later this week look for a write-up and photos of more great northern Minnesota birds from that trip!

Guide Series: Let’s Go See Some Hawk Owls, Eh

Oh, Canada, how you grab our imagination, especially as birders.  Perhaps no other bird signifies the Far North and gets stuck on birders’ brains quite like the Northern Hawk Owl.  Though Hawk Owls occasionally breed in the boreal forests of northern Minnesota, they are most often seen in winter when birds decide to cross the border for the season.  They are a highly coveted bird for any birder.  Most birders get their Hawk Owl lifer in Minnesota.  That’s exactly what Arizona birding friends Tommy DeBardeleben and Gordon Karre were hoping to do.  One problem, though: Hawk Owl reports were virtually non-existent in Minnesota this winter.  There were only a couple of scattered reports from the under-birded, remote counties of northwestern Minnesota.  This bird failed to show up in the Arrowhead this year despite being fairly regular around the Sax-Zim Bog and Duluth in recent winters.

Of course, this reality, which was was not improving with each passing day, was weighing on me prior to Tommy and Gordon’s arrival.  It would mean that if we wanted to even TRY for this bird, we’d have to travel some 3.5 hours north and west of my parents’ place in northern Minnesota. We’d be going right to the Canadian border on the west side of that “bump” on Minnesota’s northern border.   All told, this is about 7 hours away from Minneapolis/St. Paul.  It’s up there, folks.  I’ve been up that way maybe only twice in my life, but never as a birder.  It was new turf, remote turf, that I’d be exploring in the winter.  I’d be lying if I said the thought of it didn’t make me nervous and give me pause.  Once I accepted the reality that we’d have to venture into the northwest, I began to devour any scrap of birding news out of that remote country.  The more I pored over maps and read up on Roseau and Lake of the Woods Counties in some old Minnesota birding books, the more excited I was getting.  Visions of Hawk Owls, gobs of Great Grays, two species of Crossbills, Black-backed Woodpeckers, and Spruce Grouse flooded my mind.  (Sometime if you’re bored, do an eBird query for Great Gray Owls and see the dozens upon dozens that Hawk Ridge’s Karl Bardon found around Roseau in February of 2013.)  The lack of Hawk Owls in northeast Minnesota was actually a good thing–it was getting me out of my comfort zone and getting me to explore an area that I’ve always wondered about. Birding is often as much about exploring as it is seeing birds.

So on January 31st, our third day of the big northern Minnesota birding adventure, Tommy, Gordon, and I left base camp in Angora at 4 AM to reach MN Highway 310 north of Roseau by first light.  This would be the furthest point from home we’d be exploring, so we’d be birding our way back home from the start of daylight.  It was surprisingly foggy on our way to Roseau.  Once we made it to MN 310, the 10-mile road to Canada, we first took a run up the Sprague Creek Road as this time of day was prime for Great Grays and Spruce Grouse.  The road was not what I expected though, as we went through a lot of Aspen and open areas.  We could see Black Spruce and Tamarack bogs, but never came close to them.  However, it was good to explore this road and see where many Great Grays have been seen in the past, including one earlier this winter.  Gordon did find us a Black-billed Magpie, but otherwise it was dead up that way.

Once back at MN 310, we turned north and the countryside changed from open fields to Tamarack/Spruce bog.  This is one of the most reliable places to see Great Gray Owls in all of Minnesota, and this was the area that a Hawk Owl had been discovered by Sandy Aubol over a month prior to our trip.  Yes, we had made a 3.5 hour trek on information that was over a month old! However, Hawk Owls tend to be pretty loyal to their winter territory, so I thought we had a pretty decent chance.  Needless to say, we were all on high alert for northern Owls! But all we were seeing was the incredible hoarfrost that developed from the fog.

hoarfrost MN 310

We drove up to the checkpoint at the border and turned around there, having to pass right through the car portal at the guard shack, and nobody was home… So, so weird.  The dumpster on this property was enclosed in a chain link fence topped with concertina wire, yet nobody was there to stop wackos coming in to the United States?!? Such a different experience than when I crossed into New York a decade ago and got grilled by our own border patrol for why I was returning to the country where I…live. I guess things are just a little more laid back here in the north.  To be fair, some Minnesotans have to travel through Canada to get to where they live in Angle Inlet (the bump).  That “bump” is composed mostly of water, so the only way to get to Angle Inlet without going into Canada is by boat or snowmobile.

Back to the birding story, we still hadn’t seen Sandy’s Hawk Owl despite a couple passes on 310.  I had other Hawk Owl prospects lined up, so I asked the guys if they wanted to make another run up and down the highway for this one or if they were ready to go after a different one.  They opted for another try at this first bird.  It was another wise decision because once I turned the car around to go north one more time, I spotted their third main target of the trip. It felt good to finally beat Tommy at spotting an Owl because he’s really, really good at it!  Of course, this is the only kind of Owling I excel at–finding blobs on tops of bare trees right next to the road.

Northern Hawk OwlBrakes were deployed, and doors were flung open.  It was a happy moment indeed.  If you look, you can even see a big smile on Tommy’s face in this pic.

Tommy GordonI’ve seen plenty of Hawk Owls, so it was fun to watch these guys enjoy the moment.  For this pic below I actually laid on the cold 310.  Tommy GordonA nice bonus occurred when we were observing the Hawk Owl–Tommy spied their lifer Pileated Woodpecker fly across the road!  I had told Gordon all along that if we see a Pileated, that’s exactly how it would happen.

Tommy Gordon

As Canadian cars approached from the north, I wondered what they thought of this scene of the three of us gawkers and imagined their conversations went something like this:

“What are those hosers looking at, eh?”

“Looks like a hawkowl, eh.”

“What’s so special ‘boot a hawkowl, eh?”

“Dunno, eh, saw like 50 on the drive down this morning, eh.  It’s not polite to stare, though eh.”

“You’re right, eh, sorry, eh.”

“No problem, eh. Stop the car, eh.”

“Why, eh?”

“There’s a piece of litter we need to pick up, eh.”

The longer we lingered, the more the sun began to burn off the fog and illuminate the incredible hoarfrost. What a site it was, all the better that we were looking at a Hawk Owl in the hoarfrost.

MN 310 Hawk Owl

Many Owl photographers could only dream of this perfect set-up.  It did not go unappreciated by us.

Northern Hawk Owl Northern Hawk Owl

Check out the blood on the Hawk Owl’s bill.  Perhaps it was feasting on a mouse somewhere when we made our first pass.

Northern Hawk Owl

Northern Hawk Owl

A little while later, the Hawk Owl was on a different frosty perch, only this time the sun was even brighter and the blood was all gone.

Northern Hawk OwlNorthern Hawk Owl

This experience was a lot of fun, even for me.  I really, really like Hawk Owls too.  There’s just something fun and engaging about them.

We spent some time eating a picnic lunch in the van and started to make plans to head home and look for what would now be bonus Hawk Owls.  Our next stop was the Beltrami Island State Forest where a Hawk Owl had been reported on the Roosevelt Road a couple miles north of the Norris Fire Tower.  On the way, though, I opted to drive some gravel roads through the open farmland south of MN 11; I had a strong hunch I could get the guys their Snow Bunting lifer if we did.  Sure enough, we found a few flocks.

Snow BuntingOnce we got on the Roosevelt Road, I was very excited.  This was a desolate forest we were entering, and I wondered at the possibilities it held for us.  There wasn’t a lot of bird life except for some Pine Grosbeaks.  Once we got in the vicinity of the reported Hawk Owl, the habitat looked perfect–large open areas surrounded by Tamaracks.  It practically screamed Hawk Owl.  I mean, it must have, because Tommy heard the message and spotted a super distant, tiny blob in the MIDDLE of a tree that turned out to be…another Hawk Owl!! We were on Cloud 9.

Northern Hawk Owl

The bird flew to a more classic perch, doing his duty of acting Hawk Owlish for these Arizona guests.  Tommy and I actually bushwhacked through the knee-deep snow to get some photos. Gordon stayed back on the road to watch the Hawk Owl through Tommy’s scope.

Northern Hawk OwlTurns out we needn’t have bushwhacked because this accommodating little fellow must have felt sorry for Gordon and flew practically right up to him.  Even Gordon couldn’t resist wading into the snow for this new perch. Get ‘im Gordon!

GordonGet ‘im Tommy!

TommyEven though the blue skies and the hoarfrost were gone, this was my favorite Hawk Owl experience of the day.  We were totally alone in the middle of the remote Beltrami Island State Forest with this Owl.  There was not even another bird around.  Truly, it was an idyllic setting.

Northern Hawk Owl

Northern Hawk OwlNorthern Hawk Owl

The rest of the drive through the Beltrami Island State Forest was uneventful birdwise.  However, I did spy my lifer Bobcat!

BobcatUpon closer inspection, though, it looked very sickly.  It did not move even as we pulled up alongside it. While we watched, it made feeble attempts at gnawing on this slab of meat which came from where? Clearly this cat could not eat what was in front of it, let alone kill something.  Sad.

Continuing our journey, though, we drove the road north of the Faunce Fire Tower and looked for a reported Great Gray.  The habitat was perfect, but the time of day was not, so we kept rolling.  I decided to drive down the Pitt Grade Road where Black-backed Woodpeckers and Crossbills had been reported a month earlier.  There was some snow on the road, but I thought the van could handle it.  The more I drove, though, the more I realized that I was driving on a snowmobile trail! As the soft snow on either side of the skinny road was trying to pull me in, I realized I had to get us out of this situation.  We could A) Keep driving, not knowing when or if we’d be able to get off this road, B) attempt a 99-point turn to get us turned around, or C) drive in reverse the entire 3.6 miles we had come.  After much debate, we decided on the reverse option.  I’ll never forget the look on Gordon’s face as I drove in reverse (trust me, I got a good look as I craned myself around to drive the stressful, painful, 3.6 mile, 15-minute trip all the way back).  Thankfully, the reverse attempt was successful, and we were birding once again!

We made one pass for yet a third Hawk Owl south of Baudette on MN 72 a few miles.  The habitat was again perfect, but we did not strike gold for the third time of the day.  I’m sure if we would have made more passes, we eventually would have spotted it.  Instead, it was time to finish the long drive back to Angora.

Somewhere west of International Falls as Tommy and Gordon were fading in and out of sleep, I caught sight of a large, gray Owl fly out from the Aspen stand on the north side of MN 11!  I hollered, “Great Gray!” but as we got glass on it, we saw it was something even better! It was the guys’ lifer Barred Owl, their 4th Owl lifer of the trip!!!! Woo-hoo!!

Barred OwlTalk about a way to wake up the guys up and get the birding juices flowing again! This was personally exciting for me as it was only my 2nd personally found Barred and 4th one ever.  That’s right, I’ve seen more of the “special” northern Owls than I have of this common, resident bird.  It was a real treat indeed.

This encounter must have brought a jolt of life back into Tommy because somewhere just south of Ray on U.S. Highway 53, Tommy spotted us our 5th Owl species of the trip, a Great Horned Owl! What a day! What a trip!

Great Horned OwlIt was an incredible trip to the Northwest and one I won’t forget anytime soon.  The day was capped off with a hot meal at the Wooden Table in Angora and the relaxation of knowing that we could “sleep in” the next day even though we had another exciting birding itinerary for the day of Tommy and Gordon’s departure.

Here is a recap of the day’s lifers:

Northern Hawk Owl – Tommy, Gordon

Pileated Woodpecker – Tommy, Gordon

Snow Bunting – Tommy, Gordon

Barred Owl – Tommy, Gordon

A huge shout-out and thanks to Sandy Aubol for her Hawk Owl find and for her tips on relocating it! Thanks Sandy!