Great Gray Owl in Sax-Zim Bog – Daniel Mlodozeniec

Over Memorial Day weekend, Earth Spirit staffers Daniel Mlodozeniec and Jon Roth set out to the midwest on an epic adventure with some friends. The destination was the 300 square mile Sax-Zim Bog area in Minnesota. This patchwork of public and private lands possesses several different habitats making it a great area for birding and wildlife viewing.  The purpose of this adventure was to see perhaps the most enigmatic bird in the world, the Great Gray Owl.  The haunts of this owl lie in our northern boreal forest and bogs, and this particular spot in Minnesota boasts the highest concentration of these owls in the lower 48 states.  Although this place is known for inhabiting these owls, finding them is still tricky.  After all, they are nicknamed “The Phantom of the North.”  In the winter, many Great Gray Owls migrate south to avoid deeper snow and harsher conditions in search of prey.  During this time, more Great Gray Owls descend south from Canada into regions of the northern United States.  This is when you have the best chance at seeing one at Sax-Zim Bog.  During the spring, these winter migrants depart back to their northern breeding grounds.  Being May, the only owls left for us to find in this place were the year round residents, as all the winter visitors were definitely back up North.  When Daniel first ventured to the bog and found a Great Gray Owl, it was during December of 2021, the start of the “good season.”   

Our first full day involved a 13 hour search in vain.  Not only did we not manage to find any owls, but we were challenged by Dog Ticks.  We took the warnings lightly, and ventured down a path through an open spruce forest in hopes of finding the Phantom’s nest.  In the ten minute walk, nearly a hundred ticks were found crawling over our bodies.   The crew retreated back to the parking lot and spent the next half hour thoroughly inspecting for ticks.  Morale was low!

The next day lifted our spirits.  Within ten minutes of driving down the road, our friend Collin looked up in a spruce tree and met the gaze of the world’s tallest owl.  This giant bird, about 30 inches tall with a huge facial disk, was perched in a spruce tree eyeing his surroundings.  Collin was so excited he could barely get any words out!  We finally found our Great Gray Owl.  We spent a total of three hours gazing upon this bird in awe.  We watched the bird hunt, preen, and even sleep!  Daniel and Jon together took almost 1,000 photos.  Just as quickly as it appeared, the owl then vanished into the spruce forest.  It was the encounter of a lifetime.  Viewing a Great Gray Owl is like seeing a ghost, and it is an experience you will never forget.  

Interested in seeing this incredible place and its incredible birds?  We are currently assessing public interest in an Earth Spirit excursion to Sax-Zim Bog in February 2025.  Winter time is the best time here.  That is when you have the best chance to see Great Gray Owls, Hawk Owls, Snowy Owls, and more!  If you are interested in an excursion like this, let us known below!

Sax-Zim Bog Highlight Sightings by Jon and Daniel

  • Warblers:
    • Chestnut-Sided
    • Nashville
    • American Redstart 
    • Blackburnian 
  • SnowShoe Hare
  • Black-Backed Woodpecker
  • Great Gray Owl
  • Pink Lady’s Slipper Orchids 
  • Sandhill Cranes 
  • Barred Owls
  • Common Loons
The Phantom of the North

One thought on “The Phantom of the North

  • June 13, 2024 at 6:57 pm
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    Yes, I am interested in an excursion. Please inform me of details as they become available.

    Reply

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