On January 31st, 2016, Josh, Gordon, and I set our alarm clocks extremely early. Freakshow type of early. We had the longest and most intense birding day ahead of us, and it would take us a very long time to get to our destination. Only bird geeks and freaks would attempt a day like this by getting up at unholy hours, but to us, it was more than worth it. It's already something that's engraved into our lifestyles as birders, and it's something we are used to doing. Just after 3 A.M., the three of us were awake and were ready to leave the Angora area at 4 A.M. We were right on schedule, and we took a three-and-a-half hour drive of over two hundred miles from our base camp to Roseau, Minnesota. See the map above of our approximate route, it may look simple, but gosh, it's really long. Josh gave me the job duties of being the Deer Watcher. There are many deer in Minnesota, and I kept an extra eye out to see if any of those hundreds of thousands of deer would by any chance be standing out on Highway 53, Highway 11, or any other roads to Roseau. Something cool about the drive up was that along much of Highway 11's duration, we were just south of the Canadian border. As the road paralleled the Rainy River, the line of the United States and Canada were in the middle the river. We were looking straight north into Canada! The temperatures were much colder out on this morning than on our previous two mornings, and we also had an amount of fog to deal with. That's right...fog. Josh said it was rather weird to have fog at this time of year in Minnesota. The fog wasn't terrible and didn't make life miserable for driving on the roads, but it was enough for us to say, "What the heck?".
Roseau County is an owl's paradise in winter. There are sections in the County that Josh and I were reading about that are havens for Great Gray Owls in abundance as well as other birds. Josh was also explaining to us about the three main biospheres in Minnesota, which are plains/grasslands habitat as one, deciduous forest region as two, and coniferous region as the other. As we were mainly in the coniferous zone of our trip, driving into Roseau County gave us a mix of all three of those biospheres, which makes it a rich birding area. In the Minnesota birding world, Roseau County is one that birders open their eyes over, but because it is so far away from most of the birder's locations in the state, it is very underbirded. As it was Josh's first time exploring Roseau County, he was super stoked to see it. Just as stoked as Gordon and I were. With 3.5 hours of driving, we had a lot of storytelling and fun conversations on the way. One was how to say Roseau County, which is pronounced "Rose-o". Josh said the County's name time and time again the right way, but I had a hard time figuring it out. I made it sound like Ross-oo. Finally after I million times of saying it, a "Rose-o" came out of my mouth, followed by another "Rose-o". I was glad I figured it out, it was sure tough at first. Rose-o. Rose-o. Rose-o. We got into Roseau County at about 7:40 A.M., filled up on gas, and then started our bird search by taking Highway 310 straight up from the small town of Roseau. It was under 15 degrees outside, and I snapped some video of the area as we were driving.
Once we got back on MN 310, we headed north. Josh said, "Ok guys, keep your eyes peeled. This is where a Northern Hawk Owl has been seen". I was anxious for the third major time on this trip for our third and final owl target. As we drove slowly down the road, we looked and looked and looked. I wanted to see the Northern Hawk Owl bad, and so did Gordon, and so did Josh. For birds that I wanted on my life list more than others, the Northern Hawk Owl was in my top two before this trip and was barely behind my most wanted Great Gray. With the Great Gray being locked up on our first day, the Northern Hawk Owl had become my most wanted bird in North America. As we continued to cruise, the trees seemed barren and without any life. Was this Hawk Owl around still? Was he going to show up for us? Would we have to search for the other three owls? My mind was everywhere, but it was also at ease. As we were driving north on 310 that morning, we had literally drove into a scenic winter wonderland. Hoar frost on every tree as we were going provided one of the most beautiful scenes by Mother Nature that I have ever seen in my entire life...
God is sure creative in the scenes that he put on this earth for us. Another amazing thing about this road was that we were almost in Canada. We even drove up to the border checkpoint and were able to hardcore look right into Canada. Oh Canada!!!
Before we knew it, Josh has cruised 310 back and fourth several times in the area of where the Northern Hawk Owl had been seen. The habitat was perfect. There were tall perches everywhere for the owl, which are what Northern Hawk Owls like. A classic sighting of this owl means seeing it at the top of a conifer tree or any other tall snag or tree. As we headed south towards the town of Roseau, Josh asked us if we should continue looking for this particular Northern Hawk Owl or proceed further to search for the other ones that had been reported. I had a strong feeling to give it one more go around, and I suggested that. The three of us cruised up the 310 one more time and I'm sure glad we did. Minutes after Josh turned around, Josh looked up and spied that epic Northern Hawk Owl and said with a calm shout, "Here it is guys!". And in true Northern Hawk Owl form, there was our final major target of our trip, perched at the top of a tall tree!
The size, the shape, and the way the bird perched said Hawk Owl clearly with the naked eye. I looked through my binoculars. Yep, what a nice-looking Northern Hawk Owl!
The Hawk Owl sat there calmly on his high perch, watching for prey. I wondered if he had been down and was still resting when we drove by the first few times, had been eating something out of sight when we drove by those first few times, or if he had just gotten up from his nap and was barely starting his day.
We had three full days of Minnesota birding for the trip, with this being the start of that third full day. Each day had a mega-owl target of it's own. Each day was successful. The Northern Minnesota Big Three had been conquered. I still can't believe it as I write now. I practically went to Canada to see a Northern Hawk Owl!
Yes, Gordon, Josh, and I were standing on MN 310, staring at a Northern Hawk Owl, exactly two miles south of the Canadian border. And it was only the start of an hour's worth of time spent with this incredible bird. The Northern Hawk Owl is a fierce predator, and it gives condescending stares. I love the stripe-headed look it has on the backside of it's head, which is shown as it looks around.
What exactly is a Northern Hawk Owl? It's a question I'm sure comes to mind a bit when folks look at this oddly awesome bird. It's body reminds me of a mix between a small hawk, a falcon, and a shrike. Put those together, and paste the head of an owl on top of that. It behaves like a hawk, and looks shrike-like in flight.
For some factoids on Northern Hawk Owls, they are 15 to 17" in length, making them much smaller than our previous huge Great Gray and Snowy Owl targets. The Hawk Owl is the about same size as a Spotted Owl, a Long-eared Owl or a Short-eared Owl, or the size of an American Crow. For this owl, the preferred habitat choice are clearings in boreal coniferous forest or muskeg bogs. In these clearings, the Northern Hawk Owl is almost always seen perched on the top of a high tree, as mentioned before. Just like a hawk. Here, my first Northern Hawk Owl looks back at us in curiosity as Josh made some mouse-like squeaks in hopes of getting the owls attention.
Out of North America's 19 breeding owls, the Northern Hawk Owl is the most diurnal out of all of them. This is because the sun seldom sets during the summer in the northern half of this owl's range, and the owl is adapted to such conditions. The prey sources of this owl highly consist of rodents, but it will also take birds that are small to medium-sized.
Range wise, the Northern Hawk Owl lives throughout Alaska and Canada, and is typically scarce further south. It does breed in some of Minnesota's very northern reaches. Because the Hawk Owl has more of a varied diet than the other northern owls, invasions don't take place as much in such high numbers with this species. During our observation, I looked back to see Gordon and Josh enjoying the sighting just as much as I was.
The Owl continued to sit out in the open on it's perch for us, so I decided to go get my scope, set the scope up, and take some video of our bird. Check out the video!
The Hawk Owl then took flight and flew along the 310 a little further down where we quickly relocated it again. The flight of this bird was fast and direct, and it was amazing to see. It almost reminded me of a torpedo, which was a lot faster than any other owl I have ever seen in flight. Something amazing then happened. A bit of sunlight came out and shined down in a great way on the owl's perch, making the hoar frost shine beautifully. Wow, just wow!
Seeing the Hawk Owl was cool enough in itself, but seeing it perched in this incredible scenery is something that I'll never forget for the rest of my life. Times like this are what show birding at it's best, and this sighting with no doubt is one of the best I've had in my birding "career".
We spent over an hour watching the Northern Hawk Owl, and it was one of the fastest hours that I have ever lived. My buddy Kurt Radamaker summed up our sighting perfectly: "This is what birding is all about. When a group of buddies travel to a remote area at the far edge of the country to see an amazing bird and have a blast while doing it". And that is exactly what Josh, Gordon, and I did. What a sighting, and what a time...
As we were about to leave MN 310 and head further south to explore more of Roseau County, I looked up to see a large black bird with white underwings flying across the road. I knew what it was right away, "Guys, Pileated Woodpecker!" It was Gordon and my second life bird of the day following the Northern Hawk Owl, and it was sure cool. Pileated Woodpeckers are huge, and Josh compared them to a pterodactyl in flight. The woodpecker flew across 310 and landed on a bare tree. I was able to get a few good binocular views but as soon as I whipped out my camera, away the woodpecker went. On a different note, Josh's parents let us use their van for the duration of our birding trip. It was very nice of Rick and Sandi Wallestad, as they loaned us both their van and their house during our stay. The van was the perfect vehicle that suited every aspect of birding. Curious about why? Watch the video as Josh explains so...
After leaving the town of Roseau and MN 310, the three of us headed further south into Roseau County as we headed towards the Beltrami Island State Forest. I can't say enough about how much I enjoyed the scenery that Minnesota had to offer. It probably gets old for the Minnesotans, but for me, it was exciting the entire trip!
Along the way, Josh practically guaranteed Gordon and I a third life bird for the day, which was the Snow Bunting. Josh said they are common in this part of the state, especially in the open habitat that we were covering, which is favored by the Snow Buntings. Before we knew it, Josh exclaimed, "Snow Buntings". And there they were!
I was pleasantly surprised at the sight of the Snow Bunting. Not only was it cool to see them in flight and feeding along the roads, but they were a lot bigger than I thought they would be. For some reason, I thought they were as small as Longspurs are, but I was wrong. They are noticeably bigger.
Snow Buntings breed in the very far North in North America on tundra, and in winter, they will cover the northern half of the Lower 48. Winter is the time when most birders get to observe this species, which are often seen feeding on seeds that are on the ground as we kept seeing them. At one point we heard them calling several times. They gave a rattling call note, which almost reminded me of a Smith's Longspur's call note. This was a bird that was enjoyable to see and get for the first time. Throughout our driving time, we would see several more flocks of these birds, and one flock that Gordon spied well out on open turf looked to have at least one hundred individuals.
Not before long, we had made our way into the Beltrami Island State Forest, and we had entered the turf of another Northern Hawk Owl that had been sighted a few weeks earlier. As people pointed out that it had been seen about two miles north of a tower, we were searching as we were on the road and were nearing that tower. Because the Hawk Owl perches up high and is kind'v hawk-like, kind'v falcon-like, and kind'v shrike-like, it really sticks out. As we drove through some thick timber we then came upon an open area at the edge of thick forest. There were dead trees everywhere in the clearings, with many of them being tall and to make them great Northern Hawk Owl perches. When we entered the area with clearings, Josh told us that it would be a great place to find one. Thankfully, I looked and saw a form at the very top of a tree...
This form was way out there, but it did look very Northern Hawk Owl-like. I got my scope out to scan the possible shape, and that answer was given before I got my scope set up. Josh took a very distant picture using his camera, and when he zoomed in on the picture, it clearly revealed our second Northern Hawk Owl of the day. The three of us then enjoyed some decent looks through my scope. Just like the first bird, the Northern Hawk Owl sat there calmly but with yet a very fierce look on it's face. This Owl then flew down below the level as to where we could see. As we were puzzled about the exact direction it is was in, it then flew in closer to half of the distance that it was when I first spied it.
Because Hawk Owls will sit on one perch for long periods of time and with little fear of humans on top of that, Josh and I decided to walk up to the bird through deep snow and thick trees and bushes. Gordon stayed back and enjoyed the Northern Hawk Owl through the scope. Josh and I then got our workout for the day in, as we hiked out to the Owl. The snow was deep, and it went up to my knees in places where we stepped. It took that and some bushwhacking in order to get closer to the worthwhile bird. And sure enough, it sat on it's perch for a good amount of time.
The Hawk Owl then choose to fly to a different perch, and when it did that, I managed a few poor flight shots of the bird. Despite the fact the shots aren't good, one can see how different the shape of this owl is compared to the shape of other owls.
This time, the Hawk Owl flew to a lower perch and started to survey the land again. And this time, Josh and I were having to do more bushwhacking in order to get closer to this bird. We came to a point where we decided we had gone far enough, and the looks of the Owl were also good enough.
As Josh and I made our way back, we still had to bushwhack through the dense thickets. I looked back from where we came from and the Owl was still sitting in it's exact same spot.
As Josh and I got back to the van and we were loading everything up to hit the road again, we turned around to see that the Owl had flown even closer to the road, and about 100 yards away from where we were parked! This time, none of us couldn't resist the owl. Gordon made the first footsteps towards the bird. As Hawk Owls generally could care less about the presence of people, this one was the same. We kept inching closer and closer and closer...
The Northern Hawk Owl must have sensed that we were really wanting to see him and that we had driven close to 300 miles at this point and time of the day. That was shown when he did let us get right underneath his perch.
As we visited with the Owl for a good five minutes with these killer-point-blank-views, it then flew off to a much taller and more distant perch. Like I mentioned earlier, the Hawk Owl's flight is both shrike-like and almost accipiter-like in a way. During our time of observation and spending nearly another hour looking at this Hawk Owl, we didn't see any other form of life in the area. Josh pointed out how cool that was: "You know, it's awesome how in this entire big area we've been standing and walking in during this time, that the only thing that's around is a Hawk Owl". And it was true.
You gotta love the silhouette of the Northern Hawk Owl!
From there, we went further into Beltrami Island State Forest, which is a very beautiful place. As we drove along we detected Pine Grosbeaks and Black-capped Chickadees, and we were listening for another hopeful bird on the trip, which was the White-winged Crossbill. The scenery of this forest was covered with thick timber. I loved the views of it, and I had to capture a short video clip as we were driving along.
I needed to take some pictures of it too. If I take a summer trip to Minnesota sometime, this forest is one I would love to visit and spend a day or two birding the area extensively.
Things then got interesting when Josh spied a Bobcat eating a bone of meat along the side of the road. It was a lifer mammal for both Gordon and Josh. We pulled up to the Bobcat and thought of it as strange that it wasn't wary of us at all. The bone also seemed strange, almost as if someone had thrown it out to the Bobcat. It was exciting at first, but the more we watched this Bobcat, we concluded that it was in very poor health and was likely starving. Regardless, what a neat-looking animal.
Throughout the remainder of the drive through the Beltrami Forest, we didn't have a lot of activity bird wise. There was a narrow road that we decided to take that was dicey and it was starting to get worse. We then started to worry about getting stuck, and Josh continued along looking for a place to turn around. After we couldn't find a turn around spot, we decided to put the van in reverse. As we had already come 3.6 miles on this road, that meant we had another 3.6 driving in reverse. My hat went off to Josh Wallestad during that drive. It was epic, and I did feel bad for the neck pain Josh was experiencing. With being in a remote area in that forest, it would not have been good to get stuck with being three-plus hours away from home on top of that. As we got out of that road, we then drove through terrain where a Great Gray Owl had been seen and then yet another spot where a Northern Hawk Owl had been seen. It was that time of day when we wanted to start heading back home, and Josh had no doubt in his mind that if we would have had more time to cruise the road, we would've had a third Hawk Owl for the day. What an amazing day of birding it had been.
As we started to drive home, I got very tired and dozed off. I didn't want to sleep, I still wanted to look for things. Tiredness wins over continuously wanting to see things and continuously wanting to look for things in the long run on these trips. After all, my mind was at ease. We had specifically seen what we had come for, and each major owl target was seen on three different full birding excursions that we had taken. I was starting to think of the remainder of the trip that we had remaining. We had the following morning around the Wallestad's house for some birding, as well as some birding on the way back to the airport before Gordon and I would have to head back to Phoenix. I really really really wanted to see another Great Gray Owl. As I mentioned in my first post for this trip, we looked for a pair of Barred Owls that frequented Fort Snelling State Park, which is right by the airport. That was one of our stops on the way back, and I was really excited at the potential of adding a fourth owl to my life list on this trip. And on that fourth and final day, to add that bird would give me a new owl per day on the trip. I thought the idea was awesome, and I was grateful for everything on the trip. So I dozed off, because, we had won!
When I woke back up I was half awake. We were back on Highway 11 again, which cruises right along the Canadian border, which the Minnesota line and Canadian line are in the middle of the Rainy River. We could have parked, walked down to the river, and thrown a rock into Canada. I was continuing to doze off and look at my iPod. Every once-in-awhile, I would look out my window at the scenery. As I was about to doze off again, Josh shouted out, "Great Gray maybe!!". Josh slammed on the breaks and pointed out to us an owl that he had seen fly out of the surrounding forest and into a tree that was along the road. Right when I saw it, it didn't strike me as a Great Gray..
I was the first person to raise my binoculars to look at the Owl. "Guys, it's a BARRED OWL!!!" The overbearing excitement was already back and it came out of the blue. Josh had spied an incredible bird, and it was Gordon and my fourth owl lifer of the trip. And it couldn't have come at a better time. We were looking at our first Barred Owl, and it was one that Josh had discovered. There's something awesome about finding your own things on trips. I knew that we had the Fort Snelling Barred Owls to go after on the following day, but this was much better. The Fort Snelling Barreds were bubblegum compared to this Josh-discovered Barred!
This Barred Owl had emerged from the forest with just enough light left in the day for us to capture photographs. It seemed to be very active, and most importantly, it sat there for a good two minutes to give the three of us outstanding views.
Barred Owls are large owls that live in a variety of climates and habitats. Their classic hooting that birders often refer to as, "Who-cooks-for-you? Who-cooks-for-you?", often echoes in swampy forests where they inhabit. This owl's North American range covers almost all of eastern North America, much of Canada, and it is expanding it's range more into the northwestern United States. Barred Owls are about 21" in length and they especially prefer wet woods and swampy forests as their primary habitat choice. They are skilled hunters and will take prey that includes rodents, birds, frogs, and crayfish. Something awesome about this bird are the big black eyes that they have.
The Spotted Owl is very closely related to the Barred Owl. As Spotted Owl is 17" in length and the Barred is as I mentioned 21" in length, there is quite a size difference between the two. Interestingly, the two species will sometimes interbreed where their ranges meet in the northwest. It isn't good news for Spotted Owls, as they have a much smaller North American range than the Barred Owl does. The Spotted Owl isn't an aggressive bird, but vise versa, the Barred Owl is a very aggressive bird. Both of this birds belong to the owl genus Strix, which is also shared with them by the magnificent Great Gray Owl. Seeing a Barred Owl unexpected like this really gave this sighting a high ranking for the trip.
Interestingly, the Barred Owl is has the barred look on it's back and is streaked on it's front. Spotted Owls look similar, but have a spotted look on their back and a barred look on their front. As the three of us enjoyed the Barred Owl, it started to become more alert and look around a lot more.
At the start of the trip, the Barred Owl was overshadowed by the three northern owls. In the long run, this is a much more common owl. But I will say, seeing this for the first time was right up there with the other owls. In the surprising way that we encountered this Barred Owl is another thing that makes the hobby of birding a great thing. What a way to get my lifer, along a highway!
The Barred Owl didn't seem too concerned about us watching it, but as we were about to move closer, it decided to switch perches.
This time, the Barred Owl didn't stay at this second perch very long, and flew back into the woods that were almost in Canada. I said to Gordon and Josh that I was going to go after it. I saw where the owl had landed. As I made my way towards the woods and the Barred Owl's general landing spot, the snow was very deep, the weather was getting to be much colder than it already was, and the light was fading quickly. As soon as I started wading through the snow to chase the Barred further, I just as quickly said, "Never mind" and that was it. Gosh, what a sighting. Gosh, we got lucky. Gosh, Josh is awesome! As we made our way back with barely any light, I did manage to add a little more to the fun by spying a Great Horned Owl sitting on the top of a conifer, our fifth owl of the trip.
The three full days of birding had gone by very fast. Time sure flies when your having fun, and this trip is the best birding trip that I have ever been on in my life to date. The night concluded with us going to a nice local restaurant. We picked up Melissa and the four of us ate a nice dinner. It was my first ever time of eating Walleye, and that meal was a perfect way to celebrate being in Minnesota and having a great first-time Minnesota birding trip. With hours and hours and miles and miles of driving on this third day, the trip to northwestern Minnesota was worth the time and drive. It was amazing to get off the beaten path where most birders see their first Northern Hawk Owls to go on a path where birders don't see much of to get our Northern Hawk Owls. I'm lucky to have seen this part of the state, and I'm craving a return already. There is still one more blog post coming from this trip, which will summarize our last day in Minnesota before having to return to the Airport to fly back in to Phoenix. The last day will have some fun stories too. With everything that Josh had done for Gordon and I on the trip, we were hoping to help him out by finding him something that would really make his trip. Stay tuned to find out how we would fare with that search in my next blog post. As a concluding statement for this third day, my life list went up by four, thanks to the Northern Hawk Owl, Pileated Woodpecker, Snow Bunting, and Barred Owl.