The Sax Zim Bog is well known as the place to see northern owl species in Minnesota in winter. Even when there isn't a spectacular owl irruption like in the winter of 2004-2005, great gray owls and northern hawk owls are regularly seen around the bog. Mike Hendrickson, organizer of the Winter Bird Festival, has been posting maps of owl sightings in Minnesota this winter on his blog, Colder By The Lake. Many of these sightings are concentrated in and around the Sax Zim bog. I'm not sure if that's because there are in fact more owls there, or if it's because that's where people tend to go to look for owls. Northern Minnesota has extensive areas of coniferous forests and open lowlands, where these owls like to hang out, so I suspect there are many more owls in remote areas that go unseen by humans.
On a cold winter day, however, it is nice to ride around in a school bus and see birds from the road. Lynne and I spent Saturday riding around the bog, occasionally stopping at feeding stations. We saw white winged crossbills, pine grosbeaks, evening grosbeaks, a bald eagle, common and hoary redpolls (see Lynne's post for some great photos!), gray jays, black capped chickadees, and at last, my first-ever boreal chickadee.
We stopped by this abandoned farmstead when someone spotted a speck in a treetop across the field. Spotting scopes were set up, and after much discussion it was decided the speck was definitely northern hawk owl-shaped. In the meantime, we saw a northern shrike. I stayed in the bus because my feet were freezing...long story. When you're birding in northern Minnesota in winter, it is never a good idea to wear athletic shoes, even if you do have wool socks. But I sacrificed my warm boots to Calvin so his feet wouldn't freeze when his class went ice fishing on Friday. Good mom, right?
The bus didn't get a quarter mile down the road when someone spotted a northern hawk owl in a tree very close to the road!
I was happy to get such a good look at this one. Before last weekend, I had only seen a northern hawk owl once before, in 2005, and I didn't get to see it close up. On this trip I got good looks at three northern hawk owls, including one near Hasty Brook. The great gray owls were being more secretive; not a one was spotted during the festival, although some individuals were seen that week. Oh well, birding is never a sure thing!