The impressive great gray owl irruption of 2021

Great Gray Owl

As I faced the possibility of a winter without any travel I wondered how I’d survive. I go birding, but I’ve gotten into the habit of booking travel to warmer places in January and February to break up the winter. A Covid winter was looking a tad bleak, even for someone like me who likes to spend time outdoors.

But then we had winter finches come down from Canada and surprises of crossbills, grosbeaks, and redpolls started popping up all over the eastern United States. Even Florida had reports of evening grosbeaks.

And now there appears to be a lot of great gray owls!

It started with early reports last fall. Then there was a report of one brought to a wildlife rehab center in southern Wisconsin. Around Thanksgiving someone emailed and asked about a weird owl they saw in the Twin Cities. The person described it as large and gray with a white on the bottom part of the facial disc. They wondered if they’d seen a great gray owl. I have my standard response that it’s always possible, but unlikely and most wouldn’t believe the report without a photo. I made mental note about the white facial disk; that’s a good field mark for great gray, and I thought  it was interesting that someone would note it. A few hours later they replied with an iPhone photo, and sure enough it was a great gray owl in the metro area.

My boyfriend has a cabin in Aitkin County, Minn., and on a weekend visit in December he said, “If great grays are already in the Twin Cities, I bet we could get one here.” We took out a map and he pointed out bogs he thought had potential. The next morning we headed out and on our way to a chosen bog, we found a great gray 15 minutes north of the cabin.

I have a nemesis bird. I have lived in Minnesota since 1996 and I have yet to see a spruce grouse. Every time I go to look for one, the bird isn’t there. There may have been 20 in the spot the day before, but as soon as I decide to drive the three to four hours north to see one…the birds are AWOL. Last time I went to a “guaranteed spot” and when I arrived I didn’t see a grouse, but there was a northern goshawk perched in a tree over the road where the birds were supposed to be.

I figured with extra time on my hands in the state this year that I should give it the old college try. I started emailing guides for confirmation of spots for grouse and every reply came back with, “Oh and if you take this route, you should see great gray owls.” And I did. We saw a couple in Superior National Forest and one near Two Harbors. The spruce grouse remain elusive.

So if you missed the great gray owl irruption of the winter of 2004-05 this winter might the winter for you. Pick a bog and head north. Of course great gray owls are appearing at the famous Sax Zim Bog, but if you’re hoping for a smaller crowd of birders, consider scouting out other bogs in northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, or Michigan. Overcast days are ideal because the birds tend to hunt all day on an overcast day as opposed to bright sunny days.

Categories: Sharon Stiteler

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