Westward Ho(ly Cow)! Episode 6: Sax-Zim Bog-Golly We’re Back!

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. 

pine marten (February 2022)

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.

our Home Sweet Home for the week

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.

much less snow and warmer temps than normal for January

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.

cars waiting for a GGO along Hwy 7 at sunset

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.

nothing more than an owl-shaped outline!

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.

snow buntings

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.

snow buntings

TG was able to capture some beautiful images of a boreal chickadee at the Arkola Road feeders – another species that eluded him last year.

boreal chickadee

He also managed to catch a Canada Jay stretching a glob of peanut butter like saltwater taffy.

Canada jay with peanut butter!

I was able to spy both male and female evening grosbeaks together at the feeders on Admiral Road.

male and female evening grosbeaks

That was three new bird species for TG and two for me:  not bad for a week with “not much happening!”

freight train on Hwy 7

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,

following behind a snowplow

And accidentally flushed a barred owl in the pre-dawn light.

barred owl in flight

The fresh snow seemed to have picked up sightings and we caught several of the winter birds at the feeders around the Bog:

Black-capped chickadees,

black-capped chickadee

Evening and pine grosbeaks,

female pine grosbeak & male evening grosbeak

Multiple species of woodpeckers,

hairy woodpecker

And much to our delight the return of the northern hawk owl!

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.

barred owl

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.

she patiently sat while we snapped a few pics and then disappeared 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.

white-tailed deer on Overton Road

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.

great gray owl on Overton Road, January 19, 2023

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!

January 19, 2023

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.

January 19, 2023

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.

pine grosbeaks (male & female)

“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)

January 19, 2023

You can view all of our photos from this visit at our Flickr links below:


snow buntings-DeNoiseAI-low-light-gigapixel-standard-scale-2_00x
hover on photo to arrow through the set or click on any to open a new tab in Flickr


Sax-Zim Bog
hover on photo to arrow through the set or click on any to open a new tab in Flickr

Coming Soon:  Westward Ho(ly Cow)! Episode 7:  Eastward Home!

heading home to sunny, warm Florida!