Wolf emerging from the forest near Sax-Zim Bog in northern Minnesota. Certainly much larger than all of the many coyotes I've seen, I still couldn't convince myself for sure that I'd seen and photographed a wolf, until getting confirmation after showing the photos to Minnesota DNR folks who work in the area. Highlight of the trip, and it doesn't have feathers! Click for a larger view.
Eight years ago, I had one of the most memorable birding trips of my life. Birders in northern Minnesota were seeing unprecedented numbers of “winter” owls, particularly Great Gray Owls and Northern Hawk Owls. Both species are quite hard to find in the lower 48 states, and I had never seen either, so did the 6-hour drive to Duluth and ended up seeing a lifetime’s worth of owls in 1 day, with 30+ Great Grays and Northern Hawk Owls. This winter, they’ve reported a large number of Boreal Owls, another species I’ve never seen, so I decided to take a trip to the Duluth area again.
Wonderful look at a Northern Hawk Owl, curious as I first walked up, but then very relaxed. When you see these guys up there, they seem to show little fear of humans, making you wonder how much, if any, experience they've ever had in seeing and dealing with a human being.
I left Saturday afternoon and arrived that evening, intent on birding all of Sunday and until about noon on Monday before driving back. Sunday morning I left before dawn and was nearing the famed Sax-Zim Bog area, when I decided to start taking small gravel roads up instead of the main highway. I got on a gravel road right around dawn and started driving very slowly, scanning the trees on either side of the road for owls. Only a few minutes into it, I noticed a bit of motion in the forest to my right. Given how thick the trees were, I couldn’t see what it was, but I could see motion every once in awhile, and could tell something was paralleling the road, and me, as I slowly drove along. It seemed like whatever the creature was, it was looking for a chance to cross the road, so I stopped, hoping it would cross the road in front of me. I got out, crouched down beside my car, and got my camera ready to shoot.
With the rich chestnut sides and the grayish-brown cap, Boreal Chickadees really stand out from the much more common Black-capped Chickadees in the area. A nice species to find in the lower 48!
About a minute after I stopped, the creature stepped out of the forest and onto the snowy side of the road about 20 yards in front of me, and turned his head and stared in my direction. One glance and I knew this was a creature I’d never seen in the wild before…a wolf!! I’ve seen plenty of coyotes before, and this animal certainly was much larger than any coyote I’ve seen. I only ended up seeing him for about 10 seconds, as he paused briefly to stare at me before crossing the road and disappearing into the thick forest on the other side. With the camera ready, I was able to grab a handful of shots before he slipped into the forest, including the photo at the top. I may be a “bird” guy, but seeing my first wolf in the wild, at close range? Definitely the highlight of the trip, and a moment I won’t soon forget.
See the rather relaxed Northern Hawk Owl in the first photo? THIS is what happens when a jackass "nature" photographer decides to intentionally piss off a rare, wild owl, just so he can get a "better pose".
The trip was off to a rousing success! Unfortunately, I had a little bit less luck searching for birds over the next day and a half. The Boreal Owls I was searching for? The prior day, two Boreal Owls were spotted in the Bog area, treating several birders who were able to enjoy them. Despite talking to every birder I came across on Sunday and Monday, nobody I talked to had seen any Boreal Owls or Great Gray Owls on those days. However, someone had reported a Northern Hawk Owl on “Big Stone Lake Road” at the northeastern edge of the bog, so I headed in that direction to try my luck.
As I arrived, the Northern Hawk Owl was easy to spot, sitting on a branch in a taller tree overlooking an area of scattered shrubs. The Owl was about 200 yards out from the road, but after a short hike through the snow, I arrived at a reasonable distance and started to shoot. What a gorgeous bird! Big Stone Lake Road was also where I saw my first Northern Hawk Owl, 8 years before, so it was a real treat to see one again in the same area. He gave me a few quick looks before resuming his normal hunting, searching the ground around him for signs of prey. I snapped a number of photos and left him as I had found him.
Later that day, I found another Northern Hawk Owl on Big Stone Lake road. This one was closer to the road, but just as relaxed, acting normally as I snapped photos of him on his perch. Another photographer arrived and approached with a tripod and camera. He plopped his gear down, set up the camera, snapped a few quick shots, and then said “Are you ready”? I had no idea what he meant, but he immediately started playing a Northern Hawk Owl call on his iPod! I am NOT a fan of people using digital calls to lure in birds, but in this case, the owl was sitting right there in front of us! There was no need to lure the bird in! Rather startled by what this guy was doing, he said he “wanted a better pose”.
What WAS a very relaxed, calm owl was now one pissed-off, not very happy owl. He immediately started fluffing his feathers up, spreading his wings and tail, and even started calling back. I’m rarely amazed any more at the lengths some “nature” photographers will go to in order to get a shot, but the owl wasn’t the only one pissed off in this situation. One of the rarest birds to find in the lower 48 states, a bird that could very well be in a stressed state to begin with, and now this “nature” photographer decides he needs a “better pose”, so he PURPOSELY irritates the bird to get it to change poses. Sometimes it seems the rare birds bring out the worst in some birders and some photographers. It was 8 years ago, in Sax-Zim bog, that I personally witnessed multiple photographers trying to lure the stressed birds closer by using live pet mice.
And you wonder why I’m cynical? Argh.
The rest of the trip was nice, but no more owls of any kind were found. I did find Boreal Chickadees, Pine Grosbeaks, Gray Jays, and other nice “northern” species, and had a wonderful trip in general. I’m hoping to get up to Sax-Zim bog again next year, as even without the wolf, even without the owls, it’s a very nice birding and wildlife experience.