My New Book


Nemesis Birds


UPDATE: The Duluth News Tribune joined us for part of the day and you can see our birding posse and learn more about Minnesota’s boreal owl irruption here.

snowed port a potty

Nothing says winter in Minnesota like snow drifting into a port-a-potty.

I can’t really do my Big Half Year fundraiser for the Friends of Sax Zim Bog without at least one trip to the bog. I knew I would get up there at some point this winter and I had made some plans with friends and then last week, things went a little nuts. A tiny owl called a boreal owl showed up in spades. One report from Chris Wood counted seven! Granted that this not on the scale with the great gray owl irruption of 2004/2005 but it’s significant none the less…especially since this is somewhat of a nemesis bird for me (a bird I always seem to miss). I finally got to the point of not even chasing one since every effort to do so ended up with the classic phrase, “Oh it was just hear yesterday (or 15 minutes ago)…”

I figured one day I’d get one.  Well, as plans solidified for my friends and I to head to Duluth and pay for the daily guiding services of Erik Bruhnke (a GREAT guide and worth every penny of his guiding fee, this is the second time we’ve used him). The reports of boreal owls were just too much and everyone in our group needed one for their list. The owls are mostly being seen between Duluth and Two Harbors, MN (and some right in Two Harbors). We asked Erik what our chances would be to go boreal. He said doable, but it would cut into our time for the bog.  I thought to myself, “Do I want to get as many birds as possible for my Big Half Year or do I want to risk that number and get a lifer (and hopefully a photo of it) and have fewer birds for the day. We went for the boreal.

Erik Bruhnke


Erik told us that we would have to drive along Scenic Highway 61 which is usually a pretty, scenic highway right along Lake Superior…thanks to some snow and lack of plows, it was a bit slow going, which is great if you have eyes desperate for spotting an owl that’s about 10 inches long tucked in the thick brush the same color it is. Also, note Erik in the above photo.  It was 18 degrees and there he is, sweet as you please standing outside with out a coat and his sleeves rolled up. Northern Minnesota show off.

North Shore


We creeped along slowly on the highway. As the minutes passed, our vehicle became more quiet–would we miss the owl? Were we wasting valuable bog time by going for a bird we wouldn’t see? Was I jinxing everyone in the group by making an attempt for my nemesis bird? You know, the typical things that go through your mind when you decided to chase a bird.

Boreal Owl

Then blammo! We got one! The bird was actively hunting along the highway, not paying any attention to us at all while it flitted from perch to perch. And those of us with cameras were able to get photos.



I don’t often get a chance to celebrate a life bird–especially in Minnesota, but when I do, I do it with 16 year old scotch!

boreal owl 1


What a treat to see this bird, we got to watch it fly, bob it’s head trying to listen for something small an furry tunneling beneath the fluffy snow, posing in fabulous light, I felt 15 years of searching ease right off my shoulders.  Whatever would happen the rest of the day was just gravy.

We did pursue a few more birds in and around the Duluth area before heading over to the bog.  Of note was a snowy owl which was the weirdest snowy owl I’ve ever seen.

Hitler the Snowy Owl

Is it me or does this snowy owl bear a resemblance to Hitler? This bird has been banded as well as marked with spray paint. As I understand it, banders have used spray paint to make sure they don’t keep retrapping the same owl, because of the feathers on the toes and the bird’s tendency to keep its feet hidden, it’s hard to tell if a bird is banded. The spray paint can act as a sort of marker. But here is what I do not understand–note the number “8″ on the wing? That’s a patagial tag, a marker that allows you to know that the bird is already banded but you can actually id individual birds easily with a pair of binoculars. They are used on California condors, pelicans, old world vultures and turkey vultures.  It seems to me that the patagial tag and the spray paint is a bit of overkill as far as trying to make sure you’re not pestering the same owl.

The other thing that bothers me about this is that snowy owls use camouflage to hide form predators as well as prey.  Does this muck it up? I normally side with banders on things, but fiddling around with a bird’s camouflage makes me uneasy. Perhaps I would feel better if I could find some published information on this, but I can’t seem to.  I found one article from the 1960s about captive snowy owls that were spray painted to id some molt  and then whole bunch of links about Martha Stewart spray painted owl stencils.

I’m currently at 56 birds for my Big Half Year, though that will change a bit in a few days. Thanks again to everyone who has pledged money to the effort to build a visitor center in the bog!


8 comments to Nemesis Birds

  • Great post! I love the owls, very cool sightings. The Boreal Owl is cute! I did have a laugh over your Hitler Snowy! Great photos! Happy Birding and Good luck on your “Big Half year”

  • Congrats on slaying a worthy nemesis, I have no idea when I will even get to look for one, let alone see one.

    I have wondered the same thing myself about bands. Metal USFWS bands are fairly inconspicuous but any color band makes a bird more obvious to predators…although I am positive brightly marked birds are more at risk of being predated, I havent heard of any studies on it either.

    Snowy Owls essentially have no predators (except dumbasses with guns), although the tags might make the bird more obvious to aerial nest predators.

  • Jen Olson

    1. Congrats on the Boreal! I’ve been enjoying the sudden influx of fun owl pictures from all my MN facebook friends (I used to live up there and I worked at HRBO in ’04 and ’05).
    2. The Snowy looks like a Dave Evans bird (or whoever took over that study–not sure if he’s fully retired or what)–if so, the black is shoe polish. I don’t really want to comment on whether the marking is excessive since I don’t know much about the study design. I’m not sure why the shoe polish is necessary when you’ve got that big patagial tag, but I’ve never trapped owls the way he does so maybe it really is useful. But omg he is hilariously Hitler-like.
    3. (This is in response to Steve’s comment): The “do bands and auxilary markers have a negative effect on birds?” is a question near and dear to my heart, since I’ve spent the better part of the last 8 or so years affixing such things to birds…it’s a tough question to answer broadly since there are such a range of species and markers involved, but this document (go to pages 63 and 64) references many studies which have addressed the issue. Please note that the “horror stories” of terrible leg injuries are the exception and not the rule, and that there is a lot of trial and error involved in any new study (for example, finding out how species with different leg morphology deal with different markers). I had always wondered if the extra “bling” made certain birds MORE attractive to mates (in species where there is a high level of sexual selection based on certain plumage characteristics) but I guess there isn’t much conclusive evidence to support that the color bands have an impact on individuals one way or another. Anyway, it’s interesting stuff. A lot of the papers referenced are available online if you do a Google Scholar search.

    Cheers and happy owling!

  • Wonderful photos and what a cute little owl. So happy to hear you finally got see and photograph it.

  • Chloe

    I would also wonder if the patagial tag would cause him to not fly silently. I have heard of male birds (I think fairy wrens)being more or less likely to mate depending on the color of band they had on, red got more lady wrens than blue or something along those lines. Can’t seem to find the article though.

  • Congrats on getting the Boreal Owl at last, Sharon! One of my favorites, as a matter of fact. Big surprise, right?

  • Thanks, Jan! I had a hunch that bird was one of your favorites ;)