NEAR MEADOWLANDS, MINN. – I’m not sure I ever believe fishermen who proclaim, after a slow day in the boat, “It’s just great being out on the water.”
I want to catch fish when I go fishing, and to be truthful, it stinks when I don’t. It’s the same when I go out to photograph wildlife. On those occasions I come up empty, I can’t honestly say, “It’s just great being out in the woods.”
Here’s a case in point.
I recently had a couple of days open on my schedule, so I headed to the Sax-Zim Bog, a 200-square-mile area northwest of Duluth that is prime habitat for all kinds of wildlife and one of the premier destinations in the state for birders and wildlife photographers.
The bog’s most sought-after resident is the great gray owl, which particularly favors this kind of black spruce/tamarack peatland. And that is the bird that was the object of my affection on this trip, my first to the bog to pursue the magnificent creature.
I knew it would be difficult to find one. In December and early January, great grays had been spotted in a number of locations in the bog, spurring a rash of visitors. But in the week or so before my trip, great gray sightings had been virtually nonexistent. Local birders say that owl appearances in general (including snowy and northern hawk owls) have been down this year in the bog.
But I was undeterred.
I really do like a challenge, and if I can find a bird when no one else does, all the better. Besides, I’m not one of those photographers who likes to drop everything and rush off somewhere when a rare bird is sighted. Standing in a crowd of photographers all getting the same shot just doesn’t much appeal to me.
My goal was to spend morning and late-afternoon hours (prime viewing time, because it’s when the birds look for food) along the roads where owls are most often seen, then cruise the mix of dirt and paved roads elsewhere in the bog, and then hope to get lucky.
The weather was perfect: A bit cold, some spitting snow, and cloudy (owls tends to hide out when the sun is bright).
It’s easy to imagine yourself spotting an owl when you are sitting at home. In my mind, they stick out like a sore thumb, posing happily on the edge of a limb while I shoot away. It’s quite another thing when you are actually on the hunt. Only few breeding pairs (plus their offspring) reside in the bog at any given time, but there are thousands upon thousands of trees that they can choose to perch upon. The birds are sometimes near the road, but can also sit high atop trees, or back in them, and their coloring allows them to be completely camouflaged. Needle and haystack, indeed.
It helps to have a spotter along in the car, a role my wife sometimes fills. But I was solo now, scanning the trees while trying stay out of a ditch. The bog is a long way from the nearest tow truck.
One problem is that I can handle only about an hour or two of intense concentration, staring hard at the tree line at 10 mph, before my eyes bug out. I believe I’m focused, but my mind wanders. I begin to wonder if I even know what a great gray owl looks like. Short of the bird standing in the middle of the road with a sign, will I actually see one even if it’s there? If I don’t see one, is it proof I have no idea what I’m doing? Why am I even here?
I thought I might be saved by one of the half-dozen other vehicles that were also meandering up and down the roads. (I’d rather find a bird myself, but after two days, I was fine taking advantage of someone else who did.) On occasion, I spotted a car or two pulled over, but it always turned out to be at one of many bird feeders that are maintained, and occupants of the vehicles were simply watching the small birds there. I wanted a great gray owl, not a gray jay.
Once I stopped to talk to a couple standing next to their car, staring into the woods. I excitedly rolled down the window to ask what they were seeing. It was a porcupine.
Sometimes on a fishing trip, it can be slow until the very end, and the biggest walleye comes on the last cast of the day, just when you’re thinking of pulling in the line. So as I slowly approached the edge of the bog on my last morning, ready to turn the truck south toward the Twin Cities, I scanned the trees for a final time, knowing that maybe … just maybe.
Nope. Nothing. I was skunked. The memory card in my camera is empty, and will stay that way for today. I headed home.
I know bird sighting is not guaranteed on such a journey as this. I once took four trips, driving a thousand miles, in search of a snowy owl that never appeared to me. It happens. It’s part of the game. But I don’t have to like it. And I don’t have to enjoy just being out in the woods.
Well, maybe I do, at least a little bit. Even without an owl, it is better than sitting in an office.
Jeff Moravec is Minneapolis writer and photographer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.