Guide Series: The Quest for the Great Gray Ghost in the Sax-Zim Bog

Over the years several gracious and talented birders have taken this novice birder into habitats and lands both near and far to help me see a new bird or two or twenty.  Recently I found myself in a bit of a role reversal for the first time, and the stakes couldn’t be higher.  My good Arizona birding friends Tommy DeBardeleben and Gordon Karre decided to take me up on an offer to show them around northern Minnesota in the wintertime to go after our impressive Owls, specifically the Great Gray Owl, Northern Hawk Owl, and Snowy Owl.  Not only is it nerve-wracking to produce the winter classics because of the fickle nature of these Owls, but it is even more so when the people I was leading have produced my top Arizona targets for me over…

Elegant Trogonand over…

Painted Redstartand over.

Rufous-capped Warbler

Was I feeling the pressure? You better believe it.  And with the driest year I have ever seen for the Big 3, my stress level was rising with everyday leading up to the trip.  Despite an abnormal October influx, Snowy Owls seemingly disappeared and numbers returned to pre-irruption year levels.  Great Grays were fairly abundant in the Sax-Zim Bog but very, very fickle about showing themselves.  The outlook for Northern Hawk Owls was even more depressing as there were only a couple reports out of northwest Minnesota.  I was feeling the squeeze.  But pressure aside, I really just wanted these guys to see these Owls.  These birds are simply just amazing, and I wanted to share them with my friends.  Now, I know Tommy and Gordon are classy guys who understand there are no guarantees in birding, but I had invited them to the home court and they had invested a lot of time and money to see the wonders of which I spoke.  I attempted to counteract my stress with the only antidote I knew: preparation. Sometime in late fall I began to drink from the fire hose that is the multiple streams of birding information out there: multiple FB groups, the MOU database, the MOU-net listserv, and eBird. Living far from the north, I was only able to do a tad bit of actual scouting over Christmas which is, like, ancient history and completely useless when it comes to a birding trip the end of January. So I reached out to my contacts who had much better, more recent intel than me.  Minnesota Nice is never more epitomized than it is in its birders as people like Clinton Nienhaus, Jason Mandich, and Jeff Grotte generously gave me their up-to-the-minute knowledge, and in some cases, their eyes to help this trip be a success. You take that expert info and put a crazy Owl hat on a crazy-good Owler and good things are bound to happen.


Our pursuit for the Owls would begin with the Great Gray in the Sax-Zim Bog at first light on January 29th. Clinton had advised us on the most probable bird, so that’s where we began our day. We had a plan B, C, and D if that one didn’t show, and Jason Mandich was even scoping out other sites that morning too. It turns out that when you have a pretty good plan A and a Tommy, that’s all you need. Tommy spotted his and Gordon’s Great Gray lifer from the gray woods at dawn and excitedly announced it to both of us.  It was a glorious moment; there were some very excited Arizona birders in the van–so much so that I had to remind them to keep their voices down so as not to spook it!


In an instant, months of stress left my body because this bird is a trip maker.  I knew that if they dipped on everything else, including the other two Owls, that this bird would still create great memories for them.  With the ice officially broken, the real fun could begin, like going crazy with Great Gray photos.

Gordon TommyNot only was it thrill to watch these guys get this incredible lifer, but I also enjoyed seeing a Great Gray in a new (to me) part of the Bog. It doesn’t matter where these guys are, though.  They are just plain cool.

Great Gray Owl

After some great looks and photos, I gave the guys the option of continuing to enjoy this bird or going after the other Great Grays while the time was still prime. Perhaps it was the hat or all that face time with the Owl, but they made a wise choice and decided to hang with this one.  Turns out that it would be our only one of the trip.

Great Gray Owl Great Gray Owl

I was in full-on relaxation mode at this point, though I did have to run a tight schedule in the short term–our only window for Sharp-tailed Grouse of this four-day birding odyssey was coming to a close quickly since they are tough to find after 9:30 AM. Somehow I managed to pull them away from the Great Gray and get to the Sharp-tail lek in time.

Sharp-tailed GrouseThe guys even got to see the males of this new lifer doing their courtship dances! That was topped off by the Grouse coming roadside to feast at a local resident’s feeders before retiring for the day.  It really couldn’t have been a better experience for viewing this bird.

After the time and big bird pressures out of the way, we had the rest of the day to just cruise around the Bog in pursuit of whatever, like checking out the Pine Grosbeaks at the Visitors Center.Pine GrosbeakThis is a bird I previously had terrible photos of, so this felt good to see a male up close.

Pine GrosbeakAnd of course, there were Common Redpolls which is a lifer for the guys.  There are always Redpolls. This one had some potential for…oh, who cares anymore?

Common Redpoll

“I don’t even know who I am.”

I am a huge fan of the potential lumping of the Common/Hoary Redpolls.  My list may go down, but so will my birding stress!

At every feeding station we stopped at, Black-capped Chickadees always made their presence known…as they should, they are awesome.

Black-capped Chickadee

But there is a cooler Chickadee that lurks in the shadow of its cousin and is much more shy.  Thankfully the stunning Boreal Chickadee overcame that shyness just in time for the guys’ visit.

Boreal ChickadeeThe Boreal Chickadees had started to become a regular at the Admiral Road feeders not more than a week before the guys arrived.  Tommy and Gordon were truly spoiled with this lifer.  It appeared within a minute of us stopping at the feeders.  How many birders, myself included, have waited for an hour or more only to be skunked?  Additionally, it came out often, like every minute instead of every half hour. Like the Great Gray, this bird is not a given.  Also like the Great Gray, much face time is required with this bird.  I would estimate that we spent equal time with it as we did with the Owl.  For me this bird ranks just below a Great Gray Owl but definitely above a Snowy Owl. As such, I am on a never-ending quest to get a photo of a BOCH that I am happy with.

Boreal ChickadeeBoreal Chickadee

The first day in the Bog was as good as I could possibly hope for with the only notable miss being a Pileated Woodpecker for the guys. Otherwise, the guys cleaned house with the “good stuff” even picking up some additional lifers in the more common birds.  Here is the summary of their lifers:

Great Gray Owl – Tommy, Gordon

Sharp-tailed Grouse – Tommy, Gordon

Ruffed Grouse – Tommy, Gordon

Boreal Chickadee – Tommy, Gordon

Common Redpoll – Tommy, Gordon

Northern Shrike – Gordon

Each of the next two days would have its own Owl focus.  Could we be just as successful the next day in Duluth/Superior with the Snowy?

Once again, a huge shout-out and thank you to Clinton Nienhaus for his extensive Bog help on all kinds of birds and to Jason Mandich and Jeff Grotte for their owling advice. We couldn’t have done it without you guys.  There’s no “I” in Great Gray.

October Birds

October has been relatively light on birding as busy schedules and a mediocre fall migration have not provided a lot of exciting birding opportunities.  To drive this point home, the best birding moment was getting a county Snow Goose.

Snow Goose

October’s saving grace, though, is that the yard activity picks up tremendously.  With winter approaching, some of the more reclusive birds and even a couple of the northern birds are being drawn out of the woodwork. The window-birding at home has been quite entertaining lately.  Everyone in this house has been caught looking at some bird or another at least once in the last week. So here’s a photo-tour of some of our frequent visitors.

We’ve had a few Blue Jays show up regularly this past month.  The way these birds fly, show off their beauty, bully the others, and swallow sunflower seeds whole make this the bird to watch.

Blue Jay

Blue Jay

Though not as pretty as the Blue Jay, especially during the winter months, the American Goldfinch is always a fun bird to see.

American Goldfinch

American Goldfinch

I begrudgingly post this next photo of a northern visitor.  The first Dark-eyed Junco showed up in late September.  It is always symbolic of the cold winter months to follow. They spend a good half year with us, so their arrival is not always a welcome sight. Still, they are a constant part of the winter birding scene, and they come in fun, different flavors.

Dark-eyed Junco

Dark-eyed Junco

On the other hand, this friendly resident and its songs never, ever get old.  In fact, I even have it on my license plate.  Kudos to you, Maine and Massachusetts, for choosing it as your state bird.

Black-capped Chickadee

Black-capped Chickadee

Something about the colder months brings out the woodpeckers.  The Downy is a common sight, but it sure is dapper.

Downy Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker

You can’t quite fully appreciate this bird’s nape and awkward perching ability unless you view it from behind.

Downy Woodpecker

Though the Downy’s bigger cousin, the Hairy Woodpecker, wasn’t up for a photo shoot, the much-cooler, poorly named Red-bellied Woodpecker has been bellying up to the feeder quite regularly this fall.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Red-bellied Woodpecker – if you look real close you can see just a hint of red on his belly right between his two legs.

This has to be one of my favorite yard-birds.  It is a real stunning bird. Marin has even taken notice and is quite proud of herself for getting the name right.  The only reason this bird isn’t called a Red-headed Woodpecker is that a much more deserving species has already claimed that name.  Regardless, because it is so good-looking in its own right, it does deserve more than just one obligatory photo in this blog post.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Red-bellied Woodpecker

One of the more exciting yard birds – exciting because of its rarity and not because of its beauty, is the Purple Finch.  The females are not so purply, but given this was only their second appearance here ever, I was pretty thrilled to see these two girls from the north.

Purple Finch females and House Sparrow male

Purple Finch females and House Sparrow male

On par with the Purple Finch both for its geographical origins and its infrequency at our house is the Pine Siskin.

Pine Siskin

Pine Siskin

Prior to this fall we’d only ever had them here once before.  In fact, we’ve never seen a Pine Siskin anywhere outside of our yard.  This fall we’ve had 3-4 of them that have been showing up for a few days in a row now.  I hope they stick around.

Pine Siskin

Pine Siskin

We are burning through lots of seed right now, but it’s worth it.  They provide lots of entertainment.  The best part is that these birds are the birds that will be with us for the duration of the winter season.  Regular visitors that are not pictured include White-breasted Nuthatch, Eurasian-Collared Dove, Mourning Dove, Hairy Woodpecker, and our delightful pair of Northern Cardinals.  The cardinals tend to feed right at dawn and dusk which doesn’t allow for good photography.  They, too, are a family favorite.  Not only are all these birds around for the season, but we have more northern birds to look forward to! Though the Canadian winter finch forecast is a mixed bag, we are expected to get some Common Redpolls.  And if there’s enough of them, there’ll be a Hoary mixed in.  We certainly won’t have the Redpoll Mania like we had two years ago, but any day now they should show up.  I also am hoping that we will have a Northern Shrike in the yard for the third winter in a row.

Though the yard-birding has been pretty good, the itch to explore new turf and tally new birds is growing.  This weekend Evan and I will be gone on a two-night trip to check out the birds of Lake Superior’s north shore.  Double-digit life birds is a very real possibility. Stick around.