In 2022 we spent a month at the Sax-Zim Bog in Northern Minnesota. This 300+ sq mile area is home to a wide variety of winter birds and animals including great gray owls. We were incredibly fortunate with our sightings that month with 25 great grays, 8 barred owls, 4 snowy owls, one northern hawk owl, 8 bald eagles, two pine martens, multiple porcupines, a bobcat, a red fox, and many of the regular winter birds.
We knew we could never top our 2022 trip and debated whether to include a stop on our way home this year. But since we were practically driving right by, we booked a week at an Airbnb in Hibbing. Kalen’s place was perfect: roomy and comfortable with everything we needed, plus conveniently located to both downtown Hibbing and the Sax-Zim Bog.
You can find Kalen’s Airbnb listing here: Lovely 2 bedroom ground level rental unit – Apartments for Rent in Hibbing, Minnesota, United States – Airbnb
According to everyone we spoke to, great gray owl sightings were down this year. The resident owls were all seasoned hunters, snow totals less than half of what they should be in January, and temperatures warmer than normal.
This combination allowed the owls to catch their voles at the night, with no need to hunt alongside the road in the daytime. Owls were seen sporadically pre-dawn or at dusk, in extremely low light conditions. Of course, I was optimistic that we would see at least one before our week was over.
On our first day, we did see a northern hawk owl, so far away it was only an owl-shaped outline even with my fully zoomed Nikon P900. Some people had blazed a trail through the snow to get closer and in doing so flushed her even further from view.
As fortunate as we were in 2022, we kept coming up owl-less on this visit. Not to be discouraged, we focused on some of the smaller bird species that had eluded us last year or that we wanted to improve upon.
There was a lovely flock of snow buntings at the gravel pits on Admiral Road and we caught them one morning in the bright sunshine.
TG was able to capture some beautiful images of a boreal chickadee at the Arkola Road feeders – another species that eluded him last year.
He also managed to catch a Canada Jay stretching a glob of peanut butter like saltwater taffy.
I was able to spy both male and female evening grosbeaks together at the feeders on Admiral Road.
That was three new bird species for TG and two for me: not bad for a week with “not much happening!”
It snowed all day on Monday, January 16, and we woke up to six inches of new snow on Tuesday morning. We followed the snowplows through the bog,
And accidentally flushed a barred owl in the pre-dawn light.
The fresh snow seemed to have picked up sightings and we caught several of the winter birds at the feeders around the Bog:
Evening and pine grosbeaks,
Multiple species of woodpeckers,
And much to our delight the return of the northern hawk owl!
After spending some time with the hawk owl, we decided to head home but first detoured past the spot where we saw the barred owl earlier that morning. Imagine our surprise when she returned while we were chatting with two other men who happened to stop by at that same time.
It was just the four of us, and she stayed long enough for us to snap a few photos before once again disappearing into the woods.
We decided to leave Hibbing a day early to shave a few hours off our drive on Friday. Wednesday the 18th was our last full day in the Bog. We were headed towards the Admiral Road snow buntings when something big caught our eye: no sooner had we grabbed our cameras when she nose-dived into the snow and disappeared. It was a great gray owl. No photos but a thrill nonetheless!
With that encouraging spy we agreed that, if we could get packed and ready, we would make one last run out to the Bog early Thursday morning. We left the house at 7 am, feeling drawn towards Overton Road where GGOs had recently been spotted. Overton Road is in the western section of the Bog, not heavily trafficked, and a long drive from most of the areas we had frequented over the week.
No sooner had we turned down the road when we got a message: “GGO on Overton. Look for the blue SUV.” We were at the spot within ten minutes, the first car behind the ladies who had spied her.
We spent almost an hour with this magnificent creature, and I left crying tears of joy. A huge, heartfelt Thank You to Beth and Debbie who so kindly shared this sighting with us and the handful of folks who happened to be out that early — and close by!
Great grays, also called Phantoms of the North, are the largest owls in the US, and one of the most elusive. They tend to avoid areas with people and even in places like the Sax-Zim Bog it is a treat to see one. We feel fortunate that on this short trip we were able to spy two.
Final tally for the week: two sightings of a barred owl, two sightings of the northern hawk owl, a quick look at a great gray on Admiral Road, an hour-long visit with a great gray on Overton, and multiple winter birds around the Bog.
“There are few guarantees in the world of birds, but if you keep an open mind and an open heart, a winter day in the Sax-Zim Bog may be frozen, but like ice cream, it’s guaranteed to be sweet.” (Laura Erickson)
You can view all of our photos from this visit at our Flickr links below:
Coming Soon: Westward Ho(ly Cow)! Episode 7: Eastward Home!