Owl Irruption!

Here are a list of people who are guides to see owls (and other species) in the northern half of the state.  I'm sure there are more, but these are people I have either gone on trips with myself or know personally.

Kim Eckert 218-525-6930 (Kim leads trips for Victor Emmanuel Tours as well)
Frank Nicoletti 218-724-0758 (one of the best guys I know, and a legend when it comes to hawk watching)
Sparky Stensaas 218-384-9856 (Cell-218-341-0181)

We are having an owl irruption year in Minnesota. Records are being smashed, and great gray owls are practically dripping from the trees in St. Louis County. The owl irruption of 2004 is sure to turn into a mythical tale at birding festivals down the years as old birders relive these glory days. To give you an idea, in an hour and a half period I was with a group that saw 18 owls of three different species, most within a five mile area.

Though great gray and northern hawk owls are showing up around the state in unusual places like a suburban neighborhood in St. Paul, the best place to visit is the area known as Sax Zim Bog in St. Louis County. You can find excellent maps in either "A Birder's Guide to Minnesota" by Kim Eckert or "A Traveler's Guide to Wildlife" by Carrol Henderson of the Minnesota DNR.

Here's the link for maps for the Sax Zim area, and this map (with marks of where owls were sighted) was created by photographer Chris Fagyal.

Even though this area is referred to as Sax Zim Bog, the surrounding towns are excellent for owl viewing (keep your eyes open for other specialties like bald eagles, northern shrikes, black-billed magpies, rough-legged hawks, gray jays and sharp-tailed grouse).

When visit this area, please patronize local gas stations and eateries and let them know that you are there for birding. I highly recommend Wilbert's Café on 53 and 52 in Cotton--very tasty inexpensive food. Also, the locals are seeing the owls on their way to work and can give you the latest reports.

Here are some tips for viewing northern owls:

  1. If you stay in your vehicle you can get relatively close without scaring the owls. You really don't need to do any hiking in the bog, the birding can all be done from the comfort of your vehicle!
  2. Watch for northern hawk owls on the tops of trees. They fly much faster than other birds and their wings have a sort of falcon shape as they large long and somewhat pointed like a falcon. They can look about crow size or a little smaller when perched on top of a tree or telephone pole.
  3. Watch for great gray owls (which are just HUGE) about eye level in areas with lots of trees. We found several near the road sitting on old snags but it is possible to sometimes find them on top of spruce trees or fence posts in the open.
  4. Roads can be either numbered or named. For example, 202 is also Owl Avenue (not so good for owls this year, but great for boreal chickadees)
  5. Watch for other vehicles that are slowing or stopped on the side of the road, chances are it's another birder who has spotted an owl.
  6. Avoid stopping in the middle of roads, make sure to pull completely off the road. Avoid stopping on roads with no shoulders like 52 or 133, they are well used by the locals and have no shoulder--owls are everywhere you will see even more on the quieter less used roads.
  7. Great gray and northern hawk owls are active during the day, but the best viewing times appear to be first thing in the morning or late afternoon. If it is overcast or foggy, viewing is good all day.

If you are remotely interested in owls you must come here. If you have always thought that you wanted to visit this area, this is the year to do it. We always have a few in the area, but nothing like this. Do what you have to do (take a sick day, borrow money) but it's worth it to see so many owls in one day.

If you are looking for a place to stay in Duluth which is near the Sax Zim Bog area, I always stay at the Inn on Gitche Gumee.

Northern hawk owls and great gray owls are also being seen in Aitkin County and Pine County--especially around Hinckley which is much closer to the Twin Cities than Sax Zim Bog. There has even been a report of a boreal owl in Pine County.

Areas to drive around in Pine County:
CR 14 between CR 15 and CR 9
Hwy 48 between CR 22 and 24
CR 30 between CR 22 and CR 30

Areas to drive around in Aitkin County:
CR 16 south of the town of Tamarack
CR 4 west of state highway 65
CR 27 between 65 and Moose Lake

For the latest information either join or read the archives of MOU-net (the Minnesota Ornithologists' Union Listserv)