When I left my house this morning (Dec 11th) I was a bit bummed as the skies were gray and the light flat. But when we started gaining elevation out of Duluth, a hoar frost wonderland began to appear. Every single bud, branch, needle and twig on every single tree was coated in a feathery frost. Spectacular! Now if we could only find some subjects! I was traveling with Dave Shaffer from Spooner, Wisconsin (one of the best Black Bear photographers in the country…see his images (all taken in the wild) at http://www.bearwitnessimages.com) and we were after one thing…Owls!

Most birders and photographers who love boreal birds have heard of northern Minnesota’s Sax-Zim Bog. It is a Mecca for those searching out lifers or photos of northern birds such as Boreal Chickadee, Black-backed Woodpecker, Sharp-tailed Grouse, Ruffed Grouse, Pine Grosbeak, White-winged Crossbill, Evening Grosbeak, Common Redpoll, Hoary Redpoll and, of course, owls. Great Gray Owl and Northern Hawk Owl are regular nesters and can be found easily most winters. Boreal Owls, Snowy Owls and Northern Saw-whet Owl are much more rare.

Great Gray Owl hoar-frost Admiral Road Sax-Zim Bog MN IMG_1794[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; f5.6 at 1/400, ISO 400, aperture priority]
Great Gray Owl atop a tiny Tamarack cloaked in hoar-frost, Sax-Zim Bog MN
After a couple hours of unfruitful searching, we spotted a dark blob far down the road. I knew instantly that it was a Great Gray…the Phantom of the North! This was Dave’s first ever Great Gray…a “lifer” in birder parlance. And what a bird! This guy (girl?) kept on hunting for over an hour as we watched and kept clicking the shutter.

This is probably my favorite image from the day. I lover the graceful curve of the Tamarack tip and the “bird in landscape” feel. It really gives you a sense of the boreal haunts of this magnificent bird. I tweaked the white balance to give it a more cool (blue) feel. Though these are the tallest owl in North America (30 inches tall!) they are all feathers and rank third in weight (behind Snowy and Great Horned).

Hoar frost Tamaracks Sax-Zim Bog MN IMG_1986Hoar Frost is relatively rare in the North Woods, but when it happens you better grab your camera and go! Here is a definition from http://www.weatheronline.com.uk
“Under clear frosty nights in winter soft ice crystals might form on vegetation or any object that has been chilled below freezing point by radiation cooling. This deposit of ice crystals is known as hoar-frost and may sometimes be so thick that it might look like snow. The interlocking ice crystals become attached to branches of trees, leafs, hedgerows and grass blades and are one of the most prominent features of a typical ‘winter wonderland’ day. However, the fine ‘feathers’, ‘needles’ and ‘spines’ might also be found on any other object that is exposed to supersaturated air below freezing temperature.

The relative humidity in supersaturated air is greater then 100% and the formation of hoar frost is similar to the formation of dew with the difference that the temperature of the object on which the hoar frost forms is well below 0°C, whereas this is not the case with dew. Hoar frost crystals often form intitially on the tips of plants or other objects.”

Great Gray Owl hoar frost Admiral Road Sax-Zim Bog MN IMG_1954
Great Grays are powered by voles—both Meadow Vole and Red-backed Vole. Some studies have shown that their diet is 97% voles. Their talons are tiny compared to Great Horneds which eat much larger prey (rabbits, squirrels). And voles must be in good supply as this guy caught two back to back within minutes.

Great Gray Owl hoar frost Admiral Road Sax-Zim Bog MN IMG_1592

Great Gray Owl hoar frost Admiral Road Sax-Zim Bog MN IMG_1592 - Version 2The two images above are just different crops of the same original image. Which do you like better? [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; f5.6 at 1/320, ISO 400, aperture priority, tripod]

Great Gray Owl hoar frost Admiral Road Sax-Zim Bog MN IMG_1739[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; f5.6 at 1/320, ISO 640, aperture priority]

Great Gray Owl hoar frost Admiral Road Sax-Zim Bog MN IMG_1882 (1)[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; f5.6 at 1/125, ISO 500, aperture priority, tripod]
At dusk we found another Great Gray along McDavitt Road, about a mile or two from the other bird (as the raven flies). Thankfully Great Grays often pick photogenic perches in this stretch of road that has NO power poles or fence posts!

Great Gray Owl hoar frost Admiral Road Sax-Zim Bog MN IMG_1850[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; f5.6 at 1/125, ISO 640, aperture priority, tripod]
The spruce boughs in the background hint at this bird’s wild far northern haunts.

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