Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Chasing Those Minnesota Owls

Janet Witzeman came to me with a passion of hers in mind, and that was to see Boreal and Snowy Owls in the winter.  She wanted to team up with me and attempt seeing these awesome birds.  After some talking, things worked out, and Janet and I teamed up with my great buddy Josh Wallestad and his family in Minnesota over a recent weekend.  That weekend spanned out over four days during February 16th through February 19th.  This winter in Minnesota has been great for owls, most notably Boreal Owls.  Every 4 to 5 years, there are Boreal Owl irruptions due to crashing vole and food populations in the far north.  These harsh winters cause Boreal Owls to come down into Minnesota in numbers.  What isn't a good situation for the owls themselves, turns out to be a memorable event for birders.  Otherwise, the elusive Boreal Owl is one of the toughest birds to find in North America.  Before this trip, Josh had very recently landed his Boreal Owl lifer, which was his 18th Owl for the United States and Canada.  And Josh wanted to see more and more, just like I did.  With Janet never seeing one, some fun stakes were on the line.  We had a very cold but eventful weekend ahead of us!

Janet is a legendary birder in Arizona, and to see how passionate she still is about birding and also to see how many dreams she still has, is inspiring.  She is a big reason I am as passionate about birding Maricopa County as I am.  We had fun from the get-go on Friday, February 16th.  Janet and I left early for the airport, waited, and flew to Minnesota.  You gotta love the views when you overpass those Colorado Rockies en route!

Once Janet and I arrived in Minneapolis and rented a Ford Escape, we met up with owling legend Jeff Grotte.  Jeff played a huge role in our trip more than once.  He kindly led us to a Snowy Owl near his home in Monticello on this opening first day of the trip.  This Snowy Owl was one that Jeff said was usually skittish.  Fortunately for us, the Owl gave us a few really close views.  My favorite sight about the Snowy Owl was when it flew from it's perch and continued by us, and carefully stared us in the eye as it flew past.  It was also a clutch find by Jeff because it was one of Janet's biggest targets of the trip, and her life bird at that.  The sighting immediately gave us more room and time to seek out other targets during the trip.  This is also the best chance I've had at photographing a Snowy Owl.  It's not a killer photograph like I hope to obtain someday, but it beats my other ones.

From Monticello and owling with Jeff, Janet and I continued west to Willmar, Minnesota where we would stay with Josh.  The Wallestad family welcomed us to their home, and it was great to see Josh, Melissa, Evan, and Marin.  We tried to turn up a red-morph Eastern Screech-Owl that Josh has seen without luck, but it was cool trying for it.  After dinner, we visited some and then went to sleep.  Josh presented Janet and I with an idea of leaving early to head to Duluth to get a head start on Boreal Owl searching before his family and him would arrive.  I asked Janet if she'd rather sleep in a little or if she'd wanna get up super early.  She said, "Tommy, we didn't come here to sleep!".  I loved it and agreed that that was the best approach.

Janet and I left for Duluth early, before 5 A.M.  It was a 3.5 hour drive from Willmar to Duluth.  Although it was rather long, Janet and I filled the time up with awesome stories.  We would arrive about an hour after dawn.  At this point of the trip, there was a lot of snow on the ground, but the weather was good and there weren't any storms.  Yet.  Once arriving in Duluth, we headed up to the north by Lake Superior along Scenic Highway 61, where many Boreal Owls were being seen.  I turned my phone on to connect with a Messenger group that Jeff had set up.  It was a great idea by Jeff.  He put many owlers in the group, and everyone could easily communicate with each other about where birds were being seen.  Owlers were everywhere in the area looking for Boreal Owls, but no one could find a Boreal Owl during the early hours.  Oddly, it was sunny outside and birders had previously noted that Boreal Owls liked to perch up in the sun.  Great Gray Owls were showing up in many places, but no Boreal Owls.  And even more oddly, Great Gray Owls don't usually like sunny weather as much, but usually prefer cloudy and overcast weather.  Josh, Melissa, Evan, and Marin got into Duluth mid-morning and checked into the cottage we would all stay in.  Janet and I went to pick up Josh, and the three of us teamed up for a search.  Reports still came into the Messenger group, but all of them were Great Gray Owls.  Truthfully, I was just as excited about seeing a Great Gray Owl as I was about seeing a Boreal Owl.  We decided to go after Great Gray Owls in the midst of either trying to find our own Boreal Owl or hoping that someone else would find a Boreal Owl to share with others.  And it turned out that Janet had only seen a Great Gray Owl briefly years ago, and she wanted her first ever GREAT look at one.

It didn't take us long to track down a reported Great Gray Owl.  This was only the second one I had ever seen in my life, it was a huge deal for me.  It had the sleepy look to it.  At times, it's eyes would open more.

I decided to take a shot with the Great Gray in the background at a good distance.  Apparently, I have a Great Gray hair on top of that.  Wow...

This circus clown, I'll call him Clyde, got really close.

Owlers Kelly Raymond and Erik Berg communicated with us on the trip and helped us out a lot.  They helped us find our second Great Gray Owl of the day.  This one was along the Scenic Highway 61.  This one put on a show for us during it's hunting efforts.  Although it's hunt was empty during our time watching, it was awesome to see the pursuit.

Josh, Janet and I cruised for hours trying to find Boreal Owls.  Josh said they almost look like a lolly pop with the way they perch on the side of branches.  We didn't have any luck still on the Boreal search, and neither did dozens of other eager birders.  But we did cross paths with that second Great Gray Owl again...

On the final stretch of the night, we went off into a road near Knife Creek along the Highway 61 Bypass Route.  There was a Boreal Owl reported near here the day before.  We still couldn't turn up a Boreal Owl, but Josh's night was made when he spied our third Great Gray Owl of the day.  It was cool for Josh because this was his first officially self found Great Gray Owl.  Janet and I were stoked to see another one.

I was really concerned about the Boreal Owls after no one out of MANY could find ANY.  Janet, the Wallestads, and I had a pizza dinner once back at the cottage along the Lake Superior shore.  At this point and time, we were made well aware about a snowstorm on the following February 18th day that was practically guaranteed to take place  The area we were in was said it was going to get a lot of snow, maybe even up to a foot.  At first, I was a little irritated about the fact of a storm, but then I remembered that these storms often push owls closer into the road.  The more I thought about it, the more I became more hopeful about our Boreal Owl chances.  It wasn't a bad thought to sleep on.

The next day, Janet, Josh, and I woke up, ate breakfast, and headed out into that snow storm.  Snow was already falling in good quantity when we left, and driving in it was kinda awesome.  I had a feeling something good was going to happen.  At the least, that's what I was choosing to believe.  This was Janet's time to see a Boreal Owl!  We started driving and had planned to spend more and more hours cruising along Scenic 61 along Lake Superior, north of Duluth.  Josh had a look on his face as Messenger reports started to pile in.  After only a few minutes of being on the road, Josh said, "Guys!  A Boreal Owl!  It's in the Bog."

Josh was talking about the famous Sax-Sim Bog northwest of Duluth.  I was secretly wanting to visit the Bog on the trip, but I didn't think it would work out for us that we would be able to visit due to the fact that Boreal Owls were being seen more often along Scenic 61.  But a few have been in Sax-Sim Bog this winter, and most importantly, we had a Boreal Owl to go after.  On another had, the annual Sax-Sim Bog Birding Festival was taking place over the weekend, and we knew that dozens of birders participating in that festival would want to see this Boreal Owl.  Of course, in 2016, Josh, Gordon, and I spent a whole day in the Bog where I met my first Great Gray Owl.

We made our way in the direction of the Bog.  The Owl was being seen along Highway 7, which traverses through the middle of the Bog.  It was just over an hour away.  Once traveling on highways towards the bog, snow started to come down a lot harder.  It was a little freaky because I had never driven in snow, but it was good to get the experience.  Snowstorms have an epic feel to them, one I'd combo describe as a gloomy but incredibly beautiful setting.

The Boreal Owl chase made me anxious.  This was Janet Witzeman's lifer, epic and well-known Janet Witzeman.  It would be my first chance of getting to get a good photograph of an adult Boreal Owl.  (My only adult in Washington with Walker and Khanh only gave us a brief look and me a blurry but still cool photograph).  This would be a new owl for the Josh and Tommy owling expeditions.  It seemed to take forever to get to the spot, but we finally got on Highway 7 and closed to within miles of where folks were seeing the owl.  The snow was coming down a lot harder at this point.  It was hitting us sideways.  Visibility in front of us and behind us was limited.  I had to carefully drive and prepare myself in advance for any hazards.  But then something unexpected changed the moment for me, as well as the trip.

An animal figure quickly appeared ahead of us in the limited visibility.  I was concentrating on driving, and I couldn't see it well.  At this more distant point, all I could tell was that it was a pretty tall animal.  The closer we got, I said, "Guys, we've got a deer ahead of us on the left side of the road".  Josh quickly chimed in, "Hey Tommy, I don't think that's a deer, it looks like a Wolf".  My eyes opened to see that it was indeed a WOLF.  As we approached, we could see the Wolf more clearly, and it had started to slowly trot from the highway and towards a thick stand of spruce trees.  I started to break the car.  Even though Josh said it wasn't a good idea to stop, for some reason, I couldn't understand him.  I had to see this Wolf well.  Janet handed me my camera.  Right when the car stopped the Wolf stopped and starred at us.  I made sure to get a good glance at it as this would be the closest we would be to it.  When I got my hands on my binoculars and camera, the Wolf left and slipped back into the thick woods.  It was incredible to see this animal, although I really wish I could have snapped a photo.  Ever since I have been a little kid, it's had been a huge dream of mine to see a Wolf.  In fact, I have wanted that experience to see a Wolf more than any other species of wildlife.  And the fact I suddenly encountered a Gray Wolf during a Minnesota snowstorm was unexpected and, a dream come true.

And then there was still that Boreal Owl chase.  That's right, a Boreal Owl.  It seemed wrong to think of it this way, but a lifer Gray Wolf is spellbinding and has the power to offset anything.  We pulled up to see many many birders on the side of Highway 7.  Before we got out of the car, I spied the Boreal Owl sitting in the shrubby willow habitat it was hunting in.  It wasn't long before we had great looks at this owl.  While the wolf was dominating my mind at first, it didn't take me too long to get back into the Boreal Owl spirit.  Looking and seeing the smile on Janet's face in celebration really got me back to focus on the owl 100%.

Boreal Owl is one that birders go crazy over.  Josh described seeing them as being "dramatic", and he's certainly right.  Boreal Owl is a tough bird to see in North America.  They are most vocal from March through May when there are high snow volumes on the ground where they breed.  Once the snow melts, so do the Boreal Owl vocalizations.  Finding them when they aren't as vocal is very challenging and requires tons of luck and patience.  This makes them a coveted bird.  One lady did a snow angel after she got her binocular look.  A school bus full of birders that was part of the birding festival pulled up.  Tons of birders piled out of the bus in a fast single file long to look at the bird.  It was freezing outside, and it didn't take long for my hands to get miserable.  After all, I couldn't wear gloves if I wanted to get good photographs.

The three of us would look at the bird for awhile, take a warm car break, and then go back into the cold to enjoy the owl more.  Snow piled up on the Ford Escape, our rental car, very quickly.

After the Boreal Owl, we searched for a few Northern Hawk Owls within the Bog without any luck before heading back to Duluth.  Successfully planning a trip and succeeding with Boreal Owl called for celebration.

On the way towards Duluth, Kelly and Erik informed us of a Boreal Owl they found along the Lake Superior shore along Scenic Highway 61.  We decided to chase that one too, and I'm glad we did.  It was the second time of the trip Kelly and Erik helped us find an owl.  We pulled up and saw our second Boreal of the trip rather easily.  It sat there motionless and didn't hunt at all, perhaps it recently had a satisfying meal.  The location was right along the shore of Superior and made for a not only a great sighting, but also, a great view.

Later in the day, Janet and I went back to enjoy more of the second Boreal Owl until it got dark out while Josh spent time with his family at the cottage.  We just had to go back.  How often are we gonna see a Boreal Owl?!

The day was capped off at a great restaurant as the six of us ate and had a fun final night of the trip.  What was fun about the owl chasing was that we only saw one species of owl per day.  The first day was Snowy Owl, the second day resulted in three Great Gray Owls, and the third day scored two Boreal Owls.  On the third day, it was funny because birders were finding Northern Hawk Owls, Barred Owl, and Great Gray Owls close to where we were, but we couldn't find anything other than the Boreals.  We got exactly what we needed on each day of the trip.  The only United States/Canada owl that Janet has remaining for her life list is Eastern Screech-Owl.  She has a family reunion in her home state of Ohio this upcoming summer.  How awesome would it be if she could find one there?

And, oh yeah, before I forget, I also got my lifer American Black-Duck somewhere along there in the trip.  I completely forgot about it till now.

Monday was all about the trip home.  The snow storms got even worse on the drive back to the airport as Janet and I said "See you next time" to the Wallestads.  Before that, we took a picture of the six of us outside of a gas station.  Janet and I went straight to Minneapolis and Josh and Melissa went on a different route to Willmar.  Thank you Josh, Melissa, Evan, and Marin!

After some testy road conditions and storms, Janet and I survived and got to the Minneapolis and Saint Paul Airport.  What a trip it was, and we certainly have some great stories to tell from this trip.

Owls are my favorite family of birds.  Seeing them is always fun.  Ever since our trip, Boreal Owls have continued to put on a show.  Jeff has gotten incredible views and photographs of them since.  I don't know when my next epic owl trip will be, but hopefully, it won't be too far down the road.  I wanna see another Wolf, too.  Huge thanks to Janet, Josh, Jeff, and Melissa for this fun trip!