I worked years ago at an addiction treatment center where there were no directional signs to guide patients through the facility. Someone who had wandered through the hallways for too long occasionally would ask, why?
The response? You need to learn to ask for help.
These days, one of the hats I wear is wildlife photographer, and I have taken a number of trips to Sax-Zim Bog, northwest of Duluth, in search of great gray owls. A year ago in the Star Tribune I lamented my inability to find even a single bird and, after three unsuccessful trips to the bog this season, I knew something needed to change. I needed to ask for help.
As a member of the bog’s Facebook group, I had the names of people in the know — those protecting and promoting this unique and important habitat, the regular visitors who live in the area, and the Minnesota photographers who have taken stunning owl photos there. So I reached out to three people who fit all those categories. They responded.
Jim Schnortz of Hibbing shared his strategy for efficiently scanning the roadside trees for birds. Jason Mandich, also of Hibbing, had suggestions about where birds might be seen, based on sightings and his expertise. Just as importantly, he had words of encouragement. Richard Hoeg of Duluth tutored me in the ways of the great gray owls, displaying a deep understanding of their habits in explaining why they show up when and where they do — and why they sometimes don’t.
I headed to the bog on a recent Sunday with new confidence and brought along my daughter, Allyson, as a spotter and fellow photographer. While most of my trips had been solo, I didn’t need an expert to tell me that four eyes are better than two.
We hit the edge of the 200-square-mile bog just before sunrise, with the weather calm and a little cloudy — favorable for bird activity. We made our way to a recommended spot and used Schnortz’s scanning strategy. Within an hour, as we slowly bounced over a train crossing, I looked closely down the tracks and spied something dark in a grove of birch trees, probably 100 yards off. A bird? Maybe. We parked the truck and crept along the tracks to see.
It didn’t take long for others in vehicles to see what we were doing (most people looking for owls in the bog watch other cars almost as much as they do the trees), and soon a half-dozen other photographers were plodding behind us through the snow. They, too, were using help.
Halfway there, we saw a fluttering of wings in the distance as the aforementioned lump in the birch revealed itself to be, in fact, a great gray. My heart raced. The bird flew a short distance to a nearby tamarack, where it graciously perched as I snapped away. I wanted to think it was doing me a personal favor by posing for so long, but I know great grays are generally much more tolerant of humans than many other breeds of owl. The owl was just doing what great grays do, and after a few minutes it unhurriedly departed for the deep woods.
When the owl was gone, and I no longer had to worry about focus or shutter speed, I took a deep breath, did a mental fist pump (I didn’t want it to look like this was my first owl, you know), and reveled in the fact that I finally had a great gray owl in the books — and on the memory card.
Allyson, standing next to me in the snow, offered congratulations. “But I’m not sure what all the fuss is about,” she said. “My first time in the bog, and after an hour I’ve already seen an owl.” Then she laughed.
Yes, it’s amazing what can happen when you have a little help.
Jeff Moravec is a writer and photographer from Minneapolis. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.