Sax Zim Bog at Dawn

Sax Zim Bog at dawn is even more empty than at mid-day, the narrow snow packed roads squeaking beneath my tires. In front of me, the sun turns pink orange through spruce and tamarack. In my car, heat turned high, I'm hoping to see what everyone has flown or driven to see in this Northern Minnesota bog: a Great Gray Owl.

It’s a foolish thing to go looking for owls, because you have to accept that you won’t see one. In Jane Yolen’s Owl Moon, Pa takes his little girl out owling. He takes her into the dark woods, and hoots for the owl. What we learn is this: “sometimes there’s an owl and sometimes there isn’t.” What it takes to look for an owl is many things—hope and being brave in the night. But the most important thing is that to see an owl you have to go out, into the woods, into the world. It wasn’t going to come to me.

Gray Jay I spent the day before driving the roads of Sax Zim, taking in the size of the 200 square miles of boreal bog and forest where these owls spend the winter. Needle in a haystack comes to mind as the most appropriate cliché. But I dutifully checked in at the visitor’s center, which lists where certain birds have been seen. I learn that in 2005 in one weekend 450 Great Grays were counted. Maybe it’s not impossible. But the brusque woman at the visitor center tells me it’s a slow year. No Northern Hawk Owls. Few Great Grays. She doesn’t leave me hopeful.

I drive for hours, hunched over the steering wheel staring first into dense evergreens, then open fields, brushy, burnt orange in the gray northern light. I stop. I get out, walk. It seems silly to walk, the horizon infinite—what am I walking toward? But I’m walking just to move my legs, to escape the heat of the car, the ache of my eyes peering up, out, for anything:  a shape, movement. An owl with a big head, punctuated by yellow eyes, and a neat white bow tie.

Common RedpollThough I am looking for that owl, I also am also looking for boreal birds that make this place home: Gray Jays or Boreal Chickadees, the brilliant Evening Grosbeaks. I stop at feeders that welcome birders. At each one, a half dozen feeders hang from poles, like an oasis in this boreal desert. I find Redpolls, with their blazing red caps, and Pine Siskins zipping into the air. At one, mid-woods, someone has smeared peanut butter on a log, and in come Red Squirrels to delight in the fat. I encounter a couple from Minnesota, also driving about looking for birds. He has a big camera and tells me that this winter is slow. We shift from one foot to the other, though it’s not that cold, hovering around 20 degrees under a gray gray sky. But if you stand still in 20 degrees you get cold.

“There’s a Bor-Ee-al,” the man says, pointing. I think he’s saying Burrito, so pause for a moment before putting up my binoculars. I land on the spunky chickadee with the auburn flanks and think a burrito would be good.

Barred OwlI spend the dusk hours hunched over my steering wheel, trying not to slide off the road, while also scanning the dense trees in the dimming light. I think owl thoughts. I say owl prayers. And then it’s so dusky amongst the trees, that I let myself relax, my gaze fade. I won’t have an owl. It’s at that moment that I see it, perched like a pumpkin in a spruce tree. I’m shaking as I stop, open the door, hoping the bird has not flown off. I so have Great Gray on the brain that for a moment I think that is what I’m looking at. And then the bird swivels its big head and looks at me through its squinty eyes, and I realize I’m staring into a face that is utterly familiar, a bird that lives in my backyard, a Barred Owl. I refuse to be disappointed. It’s an owl.

At dawn the next day, I drive out, hopeful and brave. Brave in the cold and silence. A silence so deep it burrows into the soles of my feet as I stand on a snow caked unpaved road flanked by spruce, Norway pine, and tamarack, those funny evergreens that are not. I walk the Overton/Owl Road location as the sun rises. It’s emptiness and me. I troll out to Admiral Road where a man is staring at the feeders and wondering what the Gray Jays are called. Canada Jays the man the day before said. He tells me he’s had Great Grays there on Admiral at two in the afternoon. He tells me of all of his owl sightings, flips through his pictures to show me. And I hate him.

Evening GrosbeakI run into a cluster of cars, one local and one with two men, one from Louisiana, the other Baltimore. A Great Gray was sighted that morning. We scan the fields, swap stories, get cold. A local hauling a snowmobile pulls over. He’s got a long unkempt beard, and is not wearing a jacket. “I want to thank you for pulling over to the side of the road,” he says. He holds a cigarette in one hand like he might light it, but never does. He tells us about other birders not so considerate, and he’s baffled I would drive all the way from New York to see birds. I have. And I’ll leave without seeing the Great Gray, which only means I’ll have to return.


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