While our winter boots made a solid crunch against the packed snow of the country road, we kept our eyes fixated upward on a Great Gray Owl, perched nearly invisible in a tree. It sat motionless, camouflaged with its silvery gray and brown feathers among the branches in the subzero weather.
It was early dawn and Daley and I were on our first birding expedition with our new friend, Rich Hoeg, local 365 Days of Birds blogger. When he learned that Daley, at 10 years old, was a bird of prey lover, he graciously offered to take us to Sax-Sim Bog, a well-known birding haven northwest of Duluth.
The 45-minute car ride was like a science lesson on wheels. Rich, who has been known to wade through ice shards on Lake Superior to save an ill Snowy Owl, shared his vast knowledge about owls, including their varying characteristics and habitats. He also talked about his birding adventures. Daley, who has read extensively on the subject, soaked up his stories.
Sight, Sound, and Swoop
When we entered the bog area, Rich took us directly to a spot he had scouted and we spotted the Great Gray immediately. We saw through our binoculars the owl swivel its head to look at us with penetrating yellow eyes. Rich explained these owls use their hearing, not eyes, to hunt, meaning they can pinpoint noise under the drifts of snow without ever seeing their prey.
It was a sight to see when the owl leaped from the branch, swooping broadly down with outstretched wings, and broke through the hard packed snow with its talons to try to snatch its prey.
Daley was mesmerized. He kept saying, “They are so cute!”
Back in the car, we slowly explored the bog roads for several more hours and saw a total of 5 Great Gray Owls. FIVE!
Our luck had much to do with Rich’s planning. Great Grays usually hunt at night and just before dawn and dusk, which is why Rich picked us up 6:30 a.m. He had been watching the forecast for a day with good owl-watching conditions: overcast and calm. The heavy gray cloud cover makes it more likely the owls will still be hunting in the morning hours and the calm wind allows them to hear the noises of their prey more easily.
From Big to Small Owls
At one point while our car was creeping along the road, Rich told us to move our gaze from the midline of the trees and blow down trunks to the tops of the trees to look for Northern Hawk Owls.
It was as if Rich said, “Cue the Hawk Owl!” There, perched at the top of tree, was the small owl. At first, my untrained eyes thought it looked like a “regular” bird, but through binoculars, I saw its distinctive swiveling head and curved bird of prey beak.
Rich told us that Northern Hawk Owls are day hunters, which is why we looked for them later in our outing.
Daley asked why it was named “hawk” owl and Rich explained that it resembles a hawk with its long tail and similar behaviors, such as quick flight. Indeed, the one in front of us flew quickly from the treetop into the woods and out of sight.
Northern Hawk Owls are now Daley’s third favorite owl after Boreal (which we learned we are not likely to see around Duluth) and Great Gray (which rose up on the list after seeing them in their natural habitat).
Another Lifer Bird (yes, we picked up the lingo)
As if 6 owls weren’t thrilling enough, Rich pointed out another interesting bird, the Northern Shrike. With a hooked beak but no talons, it is a predatory songbird that is gray and whitish with a black mask, fitting for a bird that kills other songbirds and caches them to eat later. Our viewing was fleeting, but impactful.
Another advantage of having a personal guide was learning about birding etiquette. Rich shared ways to promote the welfare of the birds and their environment, such as not using a camera flash, which can disrupt their hunting with the blinding light. Also, to always park on the same side of the road to not block traffic, drive slowly, and keep noise level down.
Through this first-hand experience, a birder was born; seeing owls in their natural habitat brought Daley’s book knowledge to life and his interest deepened.
Since our bog outing, I see Daley scanning the roadside as we run errands. He knows, thanks to Rich, to look for the right habitat for each type of bird. For example, Great Grays prefer 20-30 yards of cattails and long grasses in drainage ditches with lots of intact dead tree trunks for perches.
We couldn’t have asked for a better experience. THANK YOU, Rich, for sharing your love of birding with us!
Want to check out the Sax-Sim Bog? The Welcome Center offers information on where birds are hanging out in the area.
Want to see amazing photos of local birds, large boats, and Northern lights? Check out Rich’s 365 Days of Birds Blog, especially his section on Birding with Children.
Have you gone birding at Sax-Sim Bog? Share your experiences in the comment box below. Thanks!