What and Where?
“The December Owl” was photographed at the Sax-Zim Bog in north central Minnesota. Named for its proximity to the towns of Sax and Zim, “the Bog,” as it is known to birders, is a major hotspot for observing Boreal species. This long-time birding destination for Minnesotans has now become an integral part of national and international birding excursions for those seeking to add a few unique and hard to find species to their lists. Resident and migratory populations of great gray (Strix nebulosa), hawk (Surnia ulula), boreal (Aegolius funereus), and snowy owls (Bubo scandiaca) can be found throughout various times of the year. While owls may be the main attraction, they are not the only birds in town. Northern goshawks (Accipiter gentilis), northern shrike (Lanius borealis), spruce grouse (Canachites canadensis), boreal chickadee (Poecile hudsonicus), yellow-bellied flycatcher (Empidonax flaviventris), black-backed woodpecker (Picoides arcticus), and gray jay (Perisoreus canadensis), are just a few of the many northern birds that can be easily viewed from a vehicle or during a short walk. The bog is a wilderness treasure and offers Minnesotans an opportunity to observe a species richness that once defined the northern third of our state.
The great gray owl pictured here was one of three that we found on this day. This was not my first trip to the bog, nor was it my first opportunity to photograph this species; however it may have been my best great gray photographic opportunity to date. The day began at 4:00 a.m., the time I left the house to meet up with my long-time friend and photography companion Brian. We have have been chasing birds with cameras since1992 always in search of unique and interesting nature subjects. My first trip to the bog was with Brian in 1996, so it was fitting that he and I would experience this day’s owls together. By the time we were done, we observed and photographed three great gray and three hawk owls doing what they do. Seemingly oblivious to our existence, the owls hunted, perched, preened and slept in our presence. By the time the sun began to sink below the horizon, we etched the experience into memories coded by neurons as well as bits and bytes.
Why it Works?
After scanning the near 1400 images I made on this day, “The December Owl” immediately rose to the top of my take. While not one of the many flight shots captured, nor an owl with prey in beak and talons, this is the one photograph that really spoke to me. During our three hour drive to the bog, I claimed that I wanted to see the quintessential owl in its ecosystem. I wanted atmospherics, I wanted details, and I wanted to convey a sense of place. However, by the time we arrived to the miles of wilderness where slow driving and careful spotting replaced highway speeds, it looked like the day was a bust. The sun was rising, but the sky was thick with clouds. The overcast conditions were so oppressive that I sincerely believed I would be returning home with empty memory cards.
After passing on a hawk owl hunting in the distance, we headed to some familiar territory in and around the black spruce bog. Deflated by the light and the lack of owls, we decided to make one more pass and this was when we found “The December Owl.” The snow began to fall just as the tripods and lenses came out. Pictured here perched on a horizontal lichen covered branch, the photo is strong for three reasons. First, the owl appears to be making contact with the viewer with its bright yellow eyes and broad facial disk. Second, the animal is a strong element within the photograph, but not so strong that the habitat disappears. And finally, the falling snow and soft light conveys the sense of time and place that I was hoping to capture.
The great grey (or great gray) owl is the largest owl in length and girth, ranging between 61 to 84cm. All feathers and no meat, while great grays are the largest in size they are far lighter than other “large” owls. The great great has the largest facial disk of any raptor, and relies on the shape and size of the disk as it plunges into the snow to seize upon its prey. The asymmetric distribution of ears allows for the owl’s capacity to hear mice and voles scarring below a foot or more of snow. This visually blind hunt is a unique feature of the species and allows the owls to thrive in northern habitats where snow drifts are common.
Great gray owls have an expansive range that includes northern habitats throughout North America and Eurasia. Found from the Yosemite Valley in California to as far east as Quebec, the owl is rare but not endangered. One of the most exciting birds of the north woods, the rarity of great gray sightings is due to their tendency to live where people do not. With a strong preference for thick boreal habitats, the mottled pattern of brown and black feathers can be easily mistaken for the bark of pines and spruce that make up their habitat. Conservation and protection of this species is entirely linked to the preservation of their habitat. Like most non-humans on the planet today, the expansion of our species is what threatens this one the most.
Please check out the video link made by my buddy Brian during our day long adventure… it is totally worth two minutes of your time!
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