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Last Look: Great Gray Owl

By Sparky Stensaas


Sax-Zim Bog, MN.

It was a misty, drizzly June morning when I found this great gray owl hunting the edges of a black spruce bog in northern Minnesota’s Sax-Zim Bog. His focus on securing prey was so intense that he rarely even glanced at me. He settled onto yet another spruce bough and peered down into the peat moss listening for a vole.

The Sax-Zim Bog is part of North America’s immense boreal forest, one of world’s great ecosystems. It actually has more intact forest than the Amazon. Sprawling 2.3 million square miles over much of Canada, Alaska, and Minnesota, the boreal forest harbors more than 300 species of birds and holds massive amounts of carbon for the planet.

One small patch of this vast landscape, the Sax-Zim Bog in northern Minnesota is a patchwork of black spruce and tamarack bogs, mixed woods, and old hayfieds. Designated as an Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society, the Sax- Zim Bog is a major wintering ground for northern owls including the “Phantom of the North” — the threefoot- tall great gray owl.

After hunting for about an hour, our Sax-Zim great gray settled onto a tamarack snag, his energy waning. His eyes closed momentarily, but then he awoke with a start as if he was saying to himself, “I must keep hunting … I have hungry mouths back at the nest to feed.” And with that, he gave me one last look and flew off into the vast boreal forest.

Sparky Stensaas is a naturalist, photographer, publisher, and the author of five books on the natural history of the North Woods. Want more from Sparky? American Forests conducted a web-exclusive interview with the naturalist and photographer, so go check it out. To see more of the author’s images, go to To learn more about the Sax-Zim Bog, go to

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