Picture this: The temperature is zero. I’m sitting in the front passenger side of an SUV parked behind a cement-block, rural, convenience store/gas station. Two women in the back are discussing quilting and viewing photos of same. The women are oblivious to our guide’s whereabouts. He is over between two dumpsters on all fours vomiting. * (The husband of one of the women is back at the hotel because he is sick and one of the women was sick later that day.) That was my Minnesota Hawk Owl trip in microcosm.
I did not get sick. I traveled home safely. Obviously, I wish I had not gone. This was the first time in my life I had engaged in a “chase” for a single bird. The Northern Hawk Owl is probably the only species for which I would expend so much effort. I missed it by a single day.
Seven years previous, I had also traveled to Sax-Zim Bog in hopes of seeing one. Sax-Zim Bog is famous among birders. Located approximately an hour north of Duluth, it is comprised of state and county land with interspersed private parcels. Birders know it because it can be the best place in the US to see hard-to-find arctic birds such as Northern Hawk Owl, Great-Gray Owl, and Boreal Owl. Snowy Owls, if not found in the bog itself, are regularly found in nearby fields, especially near airports.
Other species associated with the Arctic can also be found during winter: Snow Buntings, Bohemian Waxwings, Boreal Chickadees, Common Redpolls and Hoary Redpolls. Two uncommon woodpeckers occur, the American Three-toed and the rarer Black-backed. Three species of grouse, Ruffed, Spruce and Sharp-tailed, are also present. Finally, flocks of colorful Pine and Evening Grosbeaks can be abundant. All these birds attract Northern Goshawks. Duluth Harbor might have Glaucous, Glaucous-winged and Iceland Gulls. So much to see—sounds like Eden to a birder.
But there are drawbacks. These species are either irruptive, sparsely distributed, or both. The other problem is most are only present in winter and winter in Northern Minnesota is bitterly cold or is supposed to be.
I have extensive history with Northern Hawk Owl or, that is, the promise of one. When I visited January 9 and 10, 2016, temperatures were as expected: a high of 14 and low of -11 on my first day and a high of -1 and low of -18 on my second. Those were official temperatures in Duluth, -22 was reported further north where I spent most of my visit.
Birding on the first day, however, was excellent. I did not perceive until afterward how ridiculously lucky I was. We drove to Sax-Zim Bog and within thirty minutes, along one of the main roads, was a Great Gray Owl. It was watching and listening over a 10-meter-wide open space between the road and the woods. We watched its large disc face as it slowly rotated while scanning for the sound of a mouse or vole. We watched until we had to move on. No other birders passed. It was our own Great Gray.
Great Gray Owl in Sax-Zim-Bog
Living in Colorado with easy access to snowy and cold habitats, other than the owls, most of the birds found in the bog were not of interest. Indeed, it was humorous when my guide became excited, pointed, and then relaxed. That’s right. you don’t care about a magpie, he said. Right, I did not care that Northern Minnesota is the eastern edge of the Black-billed Magpie’s range where it is a highly desirable sighting for many. After a brief visit to the bog’s visitor center, we returned to Duluth, but we were on a mission.
The guide had told me there were two rarities at the lakefront: Gyrfalcon and the near-threatened Ivory Gull. The Ivory Gull is quite rare in the US, typically only found in the high Arctic, 1,500 miles farther north. Ivory Gulls are somewhat dependent on Polar Bears, their diet at times consisting of what they can scavenge from a kill after the bear has dined. Little is known about them. Never abundant, their long-term survival, considering climate change, is questionable.
Gyrfalcons are rarely seen in the lower 48. They are the largest, most powerful, and rarest North American falcon. Denizens of the Arctic; they hunt over vast expanses of tundra.
My guide knew I was mostly interested in owls, but he also knew the Ivory Gull and the Gyrfalcon were rarer birds. He feared one or both might leave, but they had not left yet. We found the Ivory Gull where it had been for days, and in the company of an Iceland Gull and Glaucous and Glaucous- winged Gulls. Thirty minutes later we found the Gyrfalcon perching on top of a lakefront grain elevator. In half of a day, I had already seen four species new to me. Ironically, the Ivory Gull disappeared the next day and none were seen again in Minnesota for six years.
As darkness fell, we drove to a shopping mall across the state border into Wisconsin. The shopping mall was adjacent to a large open field, perfect hunting territory for the Snowy Owl perched on one of the light poles in the parking lot. We were able to drive directly under it for excellent views. What a great day! I thought it must always be like this.
Then came the fateful question. What should we do tomorrow? I had one more day with the guide. Here is where I erred. The Northern Hawk Owl was now the only species of owl I had not seen in North America. What about a Northern Hawk Owl? I asked. The guide shook his head. It would be a four-hour drive each way. The chances of seeing it are only about 50-50. Then he went into a soliloquy about how boring the drive was. He mentioned how I had not yet seen a Boreal Chickadee. I had also asked about Spruce Grouse, another potentially new species. My guide enthusiastically talked up the beauty of driving in parts of the Superior National Forest north of the bog. Surely, we would see both. I returned to the discussion of the owl. We can leave at 6AM and have up to four hours to search before we need to return. The weather is frigid, but there are no storms in sight. Only 50:50, he reminded me while again bringing up the long, boring drive. He made it clear he did not want to go after a Hawk Owl. OK, I said, we’ll look for the chickadee and the grouse.
Talk about a long boring day! We drove through the snowy forest for more than nine hours. Except for a lunch stop where there were bird feeders, we recorded less than ten birds—not species—total birds! I did have the briefest glimpse of a Boreal Chickadee, but there were no grouse—nothing but cold, slow driving on back roads.
What I have omitted is I had another day on my own. Boreal Chickadees are uncommon and furtive, but as on my most recent trip, were being seen every day at one or more feeders within the bog. I could have, should have, hunted for Boreal Chickadees myself. Now with a day left and nothing new for me to see at the bog, I followed my guide’s advice to look for an unusual subspecies of Great Horned Owl near Minneapolis. That quest failed, and I have forever lamented missing the opportunity to search for the Hawk Owl.
Still bereft of a Northern Hawk Owl sighting, it was on my mind when my wife and sister conjured up a family trip to Alaska. I had never been and suspected I would never return. Consequently, I added on two days to search for Hawk Owls near Fairbanks.
At the same time, one of my birding magazines published an article written by someone from Fairbanks. I wrote and asked for advice. He was not going to be in the area but recommended a friend who might be persuaded to help. After an email exchange, the friend cheerfully offered his assistance and mentioned he would ask another friend to help. His name I recognized from a recent article in Birding. This was looking good.
I contacted Philip the evening I arrived. He said he, his wife, and his friend Jeff would pick me up before seven the next morning. He also had good news. Other friends had reported two Hawk Owls at a nearby hiking area. We would go there first.
The area where the owls had been seen had burned recently. All around, it was bright pink from fireweed, a primary pioneer plant after a burn. Hawk Owls prefer recent burns because the now opened area can be easy hunting. Our hike was interesting. It was new territory for me and there was added drama because my new friends supplied me with bear spray after a brief tutorial on how to use it.
There were acres of pink Fireweed north of Fairbanks.
The area was busy. Many locals were collecting wild blueberries—everyone watchful for bears. Singing Alder Flycatchers were a highlight, as were nesting Merlins, but we found no Hawk Owl.
There was nothing to do now but drive. There are two principal roads north of Fairbanks. One stops at the village of Circle on the Yukon River. The other is the famous oil road that crosses the Yukon on its way to Prudhoe Bay on the Beaufort Sea. Both were good gravel roads. We drove mile after mile.
If you have not been to Alaska, you might think only of towering mountains and majestic forests. Not so. Much of the famed Boreal Forest consists of stunted and emaciated Black Spruce. While my description sounds derogatory, Black Spruce is a survivor, being the only tree that can live in most of its range.
This terrain is of critical importance for many neotropical species because of the vast quantity of summer insects. Nonetheless, most of the drive was not scenic. All four of us the first day, and Jeff and I the second, scanned the treetops as the miles and hours passed. The first day we drove to Circle and back. The second day, Jeff and I crossed over the muddy Yukon for a couple of miles before returning.
The Northern Hawk-Owl is an apex predator, meaning they usually perch on treetops. They are diurnal. Finding one is the same as cruising roads wherever you might live looking for hawks. Unfortunately, many black spruces form a topknot resembling a bird’s shape. And, of course, the farther away this topknot is observed, the more bird-like it appears. We scanned these for 16 hours while driving several hundred miles on gravel roads for two days. No Hawk Owls.
We saw my first Spruce Grouse, as one ran across the road near Circle. We found a Sharp-shinned Hawk, which excited Jeff, being much rarer in this country than is a Hawk-Owl. At the end of the second day, Jeff was shaking his head in wonderment. Now I am concerned there is a problem with their population, he said. Oh well. I had basked in the company of wonderful people who entertained me with amazing stories of their lives in Alaska. I had seen moose, including a close-by cow and calf, and considerable Alaska landscape, but no Northern Hawk Owl.
Mary arrived late the second day of Hawk Owl driving; the rest of the family members were arriving the following afternoon. With most of the next day free, there was time for more birding. The most famous local spot is Creamer’s Fields Migratory Waterfowl Refuge. Chances of a Hawk Owl were probably non-existent, but I mention the area because it formerly had an expansive boardwalk through a wetland. Not anymore. The boardwalk was a twisted wreck because melting permafrost caused by rising temperatures has caused so much heaving of the surface soil.
My friends had advised me to watch the road from Fairbanks to Denali, saying Hawk Owls are often seen. I inspired my family members with promises of drinks and other rewards if anyone spotted one for me. We had two vehicles and once the one in front, driven by my brother-in-law, screeched to a stop, and pulled over. Back there, a Hawk Owl, he said. We turned around and there in the distance was a raptor. Unfortunately, my binoculars proved it to be a Red-tailed Hawk. It was a good spot, everyone in my car had missed it, but it was not the right bird. That sighting was the closest I came in and around Denali. I assumed I would never see a Hawk Owl having no plans to return to either Alaska or Minnesota.
But then, two years later, another guide of my acquaintance, announced he and his partner were doing winter trips to Sax-Zim Bog. This gave me a good contact. His guided trips were already full. Check with me in December, he said. I can let you know if Hawk Owls are being seen. I checked. There had been a Hawk Owl in the bog. He suggested I accompany he and his partner for a day while they were scouting prior to their guided trips.
Chasing a single bird so long, so far, and so expensively is not something I do, but this was a Northern Hawk Owl. And, we had been looking for an excuse to visit family in Illinois. Why not combine a family trip with a quick side-jaunt to Minnesota for the owl? Then it became complicated. Both my sister and brother had planned travel making it difficult to see both and have time for the Minnesota trip. That’s when my guide friend contacted me again, saying there was a last-minute cancellation on his final guided trip of the season. The timing seemed perfect. We could fly to Illinois for family and have enough time before they departed and before I needed to fly to Minnesota. I wish I had done more homework.
The year 2023 became unseasonably warm on February 8 with a high in Duluth of 46. An all-time daily record of 43 occurred on February 11. I watched these alarming temperatures from the homes of my relatives hundreds of miles directly south in Illinois. I arrived in Minnesota on the 13th. I wore a light jacket. Rain was in the forecast. Indeed, it rained for a day before changing to snow. That was enough for the Northern Hawk Owl.
My guide was confident when we departed Duluth the morning of the 14th. He was genuinely surprised the owl was not on its favorite perch. I was to learn the owl had hunted a small area for approximately two months and was seen every day. It was tame. Photographers had beaten down a path by walking under it for closeups. The last day it was seen was the day I arrived in Duluth, February 13.
Recall that on my earlier visit, I had easily seen both Great Gray and Snowy Owls, not this year. Both were present but rarely seen. In fact, this was my guide’s third group this winter season and the only owl the first two groups had seen was the Hawk Owl. We heard most other guided groups also failed to see Great Gray and Snowy Owls.
What about my group? Well, we found a Snowy Owl—in the pouring rain and were criticized for it. Rain made looking for other species in the bog too difficult, so we drove onto the Duluth airport property. From an employee parking area, we found a flock of Snow Buntings and then a Snowy Owl. The problem was, we viewed the owl from a road replete with no parking and no stopping signs. There was no traffic. We were on a parking lot entry road, but birding etiquette in and near the bog is taken seriously. Our guide was admonished for reporting the sighting and it was removed from the local list serve.
Much is made of having proper “etiquette” in and around the bog. First-time visitors are discouraged from birding alone. One reason is to be courteous to other birders by knowing which side of the road to park on, but the overriding issue is to keep the anti-visitor portion of the populace from reacting. Residents of the area are anything but homogenous socially and politically. For example, the birding map for the bog shows a large X in one area where you are asked not to drive. Though the road is public, a landowner is so hostile; it has been deemed best to stay far away.
At another location, the landowners are so welcoming; a port-a-potty has been installed in conjunction with well-maintained feeders. We were warned, however, that when photographing birds at this location, to be sure and not point cameras at the property across the road as those owners sometimes emerge and protest to birders about their loss of privacy.
Once we encountered a flock of Common Redpolls near where there had been a report of the rare Hoary Redpoll. We were out of our vehicle scanning for birds and photographing one about which we were hopeful. A large pick-up pulled up and stopped. It was odd because drivers in the area must be accustomed to birders, although we were not at one of the usual birding stops. A large, bearded man said, what are you up to? When we told him we were birding, he grimaced, shook his head, and stomped on his accelerator.
This is a rural area, and the public land is scrambled with private land—plenty of opportunities for certain types of people to become exorcised about strangers who park on the shoulder and look about. But again, most residents were welcoming. Most poignant was Augie’s Bog. Here there is a short boardwalk and a collection of feeders. At the end of the boardwalk is a small box enclosing tiny carved owls. An explanatory note says the area was set aside to honor Augie, who had died as an infant a few years previously. His grandfather carves the small owls in his honor and requests birders take one as a remembrance. That was touching, and because I have a collection of owl memorabilia, Augie is commemorated on a shelf in my office.
As for the Hawk Owl, what about the homework I might have done? Once home, I looked up Northern Hawk Owls sightings in Sax-Zim Bog. The steepness of their departure curve was startling. When present, they are seen until about February 10; a few days later, they are gone. Had I known those details, I either would have found a way to go earlier or canceled. No Hawk Owl for me!
*My companions on the “failed” trip were lovely people that I would happily go birding with again. Our guide was conscientious and knowledgeable. I would recommend him to others and hire him again.