Great gray owl-watchers to the far north, such as Star Tribune’s Outdoors Weekend contributor Jeff Moravec, aren’t currently finding much to fill frames at Sax-Zim Bog. 

“This is an absolutely normal year for great gray owls. Last year was an exception,” Mark “Sparky” Stensaas told Moravec. “There may be several reasons they are more visible in some years, but almost everything about great gray owl behavior is speculation. The truth is that nobody knows.”

Stensaas is the executive director of Friends of Sax-Zim Bog.

Here is more from Moravec on his conversation with Stensaas about life at the birding mecca northwest of Duluth:

Visitors to the bog in the last weeks of 2017 were treated to the sight of numerous owls hunting at dawn and dusk (preferred owl meal times). The owls also were perched in plain sight on roadsides throughout much of the day. Stensaas said it’s assumed that many of owls seen were resident owls, as opposed to those that visit from the north during so-called irruptions, and perhaps young birds from a productive nesting season that had not yet developed a fear of hanging out near vehicle traffic. Conversely, 2018 may have been a poorer nesting year, he added. While mature owls remain in the bog, they could be more comfortable hunting back in the woods, where they are less likely to be seen.

If there are visiting birds, Stensaas said, they can be harder to spot because they prefer hunting away from the road in open meadows — possibly to avoid territorial squabbles with local owls that have staked out a home in the forest. But during an irruption, hungry owls will hunt wherever they can find voles, their favorite food, even if it means venturing to the side of a road.

The owls that paraded along the bog roads late last year remained a few weeks into 2018, giving birders and photographers hope that while this December might be slow, viewing opportunities may pick up in the new year. As Stensaas said – nobody knows.