Ghosts of the Forest
"See the owl in swift silent flight, surfing the darkness of the night" Clive Blake
Full of mystery and grandeur, these night hunters have captured the attention of photographers from all over the world. Being in their presence leaves quite an inspiring imprint on one's view of the woods, and the creatures that roam there. It's not just their beauty that captivates, but their unwavering stillness that leaves even the most experienced birder in awe.
As the days grow shorter and the cold winter snow sets in, many people across the country get into the excitement of the season, looking forward to holiday cheer and a few more well-known winter activities. We get into the jolly mood of all things winter, of course, but none can compare to spending one on one time with owls.
For us, owls have become something of an addiction to find. For anyone who hasn't had the opportunity to see them up close and personal, don't be discouraged, as they can be easily overlooked. We often laugh about the many miles traveled and hours invested into seeking these beautiful majestic creatures out.
Picture this. You trek through a deep forest of tall pines. They are lined up like soldiers, steady and strong, their height and sturdy bark telling a story of the long life they’ve endured. The wind whispers on their top branches and besides the snow crunching beneath your feet, the silence lets you know you are in fact surrounded by wilderness. Suddenly, you get a strange feeling you're being watched and turn to see above you these big eyes staring you down.
His owl talons clutch the tiny branch his body is balancing on, but he is so still he may as well be a statue. His head turns swiftly so that he can gauge the sounds of his hunt, and suddenly makes a go of it, diving down into the depths of the snow in a stealth like fashion. His wings, his movement, his presence... all utterly silent.
These moments in the woods with these owls completely changed our winter habits and our perception of the season. Our first known sighting of an owl was at a rest stop traveling north from the Twin Cities to our home in Duluth, MN. We were exiting the rest area shortly after dark and saw one briefly on the side of the road staring at us with big black eyes. We looped back around for a second pass, peering out the window like Cruella De Vil in search of puppies, but it had already vanished like the ghosts of the forest they are. With our curiosity sparked that night, we were anxious to get an opportunity to see more of these secretive creatures of the night.
For years, we had lived in Duluth MN, a mere 50 minutes from the Sax-Zim Bog, an internationally recognized birding location largely known for northern owl species like the Great Gray Owl, Northern Hawk Owl, Snowy Owl, and Boreal Owl. The Bog is even referenced in one of our go-to films and birding inspirations, The Big Year. Known as a place for owls to reside and migrate on a 147,000 acre hub, it’s a bit surprising we’ve only visited it a handful of times and achieved only glimpses of them, but such is the life of a wildlife enthusiast. To have a passion for the wilderness, one must be willing to practice patience, and thus with each random encounter, our love for owls continues to grow.
Regardless of the Bog’s lack of triumphant sightings on our part, the help offered while visiting gave us reason to hope locating a Snowy owl closer to home. While heeding the advice given, we were overjoyed to spend a great many evenings with snowys and gain a new love for birds and raptors. If only these gorgeous white birds would choose more natural perches or backdrops! Typically seen on light posts, fences, and roofs (or hiding in the middle of snowy fields), they make it a bit of a challenge to photograph. :)
Great Gray Owls
Then, with luck on our side, we came across two Great Gray owls close to home that took our breath away. A male bearing gifts of voles in an attempt to woo his gal. As we watched silently from the road, we were able to watch this incredible courtship unfold and our close proximity didn't seem to bother them a bit. Without hesitation they would fly in front of us and catch the next perch. Lucky for us that week after week we would return to witness this loving relationship, and what would become a family of owls.
Later that spring then, we were happy to report two young Great Gray Owl fledglings, likely with their parents hunting further down the road. Young owls can take on an awkward and funny appearance with oodles of feathers sticking out in every direction, but they are a joy to behold! They sat atop small tree twigs waiting for mom and dad, slowly batting and winking their big eyes at us. In the weeks to come they would learn to be fierce hunters, but for now, they patiently waited to be fed. We watched them in delight and grateful to have had such a unique and special opportunity.
To date, we have seen six of the 12 owl species that can be found in Minnesota: the Barred Owl, Great Horned Owl, Great Gray Owl, Snowy Owl, Northern Hawk Owl, and Boreal Owl. While it is extremely difficult to pick favorites, one of our most treasured sightings is certainly finding a Boreal Owl. These owls are rare in Minnesota but can sometimes be more easily found during irruption years where greater numbers of the birds migrate south from Canada.
Hearing of a sighting on the North Shore we set out with high hopes. As primarily nocturnal birds that do a tremendous job at camouflaging themselves, they can be difficult to find. Certainly doesn’t count the miles of shoreline needed to cover or that the hundreds of square miles of the Superior National Forest for an owl to hideout that is little bigger than a coffee mug. However, by happenstance and a fortunate glance, our eyes caught one small owl perched on a small branch near the roadside. It was almost too coincidental to believe. This little boreal owl was braving the snow storm and high winds in search of food. We were able to take in the moment; watching him from the car window, overcome with gratitude that we were witnessing this elusive owl, and happy to capture a few pictures in the midst of our joy.
Of all the owls that can be found in Minnesota, the Barred Owl is not typically at the top of the list of the most sought-after. This is partly due to the fact that they are more common and can be found year-round throughout the state, but largely because Minnesota is one of the few states with the opportunity to find a Great Gray, Snowy, Northern Hawk, or Boreal Owl. Nevertheless, the Barred Owl is quite a charming creature.
We had woken up well before sunrise to explore a forest road, this time in search of a Great Gray Owl. We made it to the forest road shortly before sunrise with our eyes peeled and scanning the trees. Unfortunately, the GGO remained hidden. Since this area was over an hour from home and we wanted to make the most of the day, we stopped at Savanna Portage State Park for a hike.
As we began our hike, mere feet from our vehicle, we saw a large pair of wings swooping through the trees. This had to be an owl! We searched around the trails throughout the trees and sure enough, we found one, a stunning Barred Owl. These owls are typically 17-20 inches in length, with brown streaks or “bars” in their feathers. They are known to have a recognizable "Who cooks for you, who cooks for you all" call, as odd as it sounds. Once you hear it, you'll know.
As we send our last farewells to 2019, we join a new decade ready to embark on spending more time with owls and with wildlife. There is so much to be amazed at in our big world, and the season of winter, though dark and dim, has life filling up in the woods, you only just need to look closely as it bears a different form than foliage.
So with a New Year and new resolutions, we encourage you to fill your lungs up with fresh crisp air! Take a moment to seek out the parts of the wilderness that live in secret (away from busybodies) and please, look up! We promise you'll be rewarded.
A wise old owl sat in an oak,
The more he heard, the less he spoke;
The less he spoke, the more he heard;
Why aren't we all like that wise old bird?
Happy 2020 and may all your adventures be a hoot!