Lake Superior Journal: Everything Will Be Owl Right
Snowy owls, which average about 22 inches long, nest in the arctic tundra, but visit Minnesota many winters to hunt voles, mice and other small critters.
Driving along Minnesota Highway 61 in the breaking dawn of a drab December morning, I knew there wouldn’t be enough light for dramatic landscapes or fast wildlife action. The forecast proved spot-on: overcast with slight snow flurries.
Only the words of a wise old photographer kept me going: “The best time to take photographs is when you can.”
So onward I went because I could spend some quality time with my camera, even if the lighting made quality photos unlikely.
As I sipped coffee and listened to the 24-7 Christmas music radio station, I noticed the car behind me creeping closer and closer. I decided to pull into a wayside rest just past the Silver Cliff tunnel to let him pass and to check the horizon for color over our Great Lake.
As the car drove by, I noticed it was a state trooper. Appointed rounds, I surmised, as I watched the departing taillights. With nothing happening over the Lake, I pulled back on the road and continued my quest for meaningful photos.
A few miles later, that same trooper was driving slowly down the side of the road, shining a spotlight low on both sides. My curiosity was piqued, but I stayed out of his way and drove on.
Coming up on the Split Rock Lighthouse overlook, I pulled in once again to check on the sunrise. As soon as I got out of the Jeep, I spotted the snowy owl in the tall grass.
Snowy owls sometimes travel en masse down from Canada with the cyclical population crashes of their favorite food, the lemming. Such a large arrival of owls is called an “irruption.”
Even without an irruption, a few snowy owls hang out in our part of Lake Superior – and they are impressive to photograph.
I grabbed the camera, the tripod and my gloves and set up at what I hoped was a comfortable distance for the owl. My movement didn’t seem to bother it. Its gold eyes stared straight ahead; it had a vacant air rather than the alert behavior I’d expect of a top predator.
Since I was using a long lens, I’d need more light, and so I waited. The owl seemed willing to wait, too. Twenty minutes later, with the sun higher in the sky, I started clicking.
The owl didn’t move much. Did it have something in its talons that made it stay put? I shifted to a different angle. The owl spooked and flapped awkwardly, settling only a few feet from where I first spotted it.
Something was definitely wrong. I folded my tripod and slowly backed off. The owl jumped and flopped again. I spoke softly, “Everything is going to be all right. I’ll get you help.”
Yes, I sometimes talk to wildlife, mostly to get them to pose, but this was a conversation I did not want to have. The owl was not in a good position. It was too close to the Gitchi-Gami State Trail, where I’d recently seen fresh fox tracks and where many people walk their dogs.
But just running up and grabbing a well-armed owl gave me pause. I called my wife on the cell phone, asking her to contact the DNR or the wildlife rehabilitation center.
With Mary handling that, I sought more immediate help. It dawned on me that the state trooper down the road might be looking for this very owl. Maybe someone hit it and reported it wounded on the side of the road.
I covered the short distance quickly – within the speed limit, of course – but the trooper was gone. I never did learn what his mission was that day.
I decided to alert the rangers at the nearby Split Rock Lighthouse State Park. When I arrived at the lighthouse, the visitor center wasn’t yet open. In the distance, I did see one guy walking a spirited Labrador retriever … headed for the trail by the wounded owl. I jumped in the Jeep to head them off. I located the owl again and watched for the arrival of the pair.
In the meantime, Mary called back. She couldn’t reach anyone. I waited near the owl, but the man and lab must have gone in another direction.
I returned to the park, determined to find help. Driving to the lighthouse, I saw a man on the sidewalk. I stopped and asked him if he worked for the park.
“I work for the Minnesota Historical Society,” he said. “What do you need?”
Andy Aug was the facilities maintenance technician at the lighthouse historic site adjacent to, but not part of, the state park. He calmly said he’d get a bag and a box and would call his boss to help. I got the impression this wasn’t Andy’s first raptor rodeo.
Turned out his boss, Lee Radzak, is the historic site manager at Split Rock Lighthouse and just happened to be the man with the happy lab. Equipped and ready, Lee, Andy and I headed down to the owl.
Lake Superior Journal: Everything Will Be Owl Right
Lee Radzak (left) and Andy Aug improvise a “Wild Kingdom” move to rescue the snowy owl safely.
We found it near a rocky outcrop about 100 feet from where I’d left it. By this time, the owl was situated against the rock ledge. We cut off the other directions, and Andy headed in.
He confidently slid the bag, which had a hole in it, over the owl’s head like a pullover sweater. This stopped the owl from flapping and further injuring its wings. Lee jumped right in with tape to secure the bag snugly around the wounded bird, who hardly put up any resistance.
Watching these two was like seeing an episode of Marty Stouffer’s “Wild America.” They handled the situation with calm, compassion and precision. I’d never been this close to an owl and just marveled at its unique characteristics – the broad face, the white brown-accented feathers, the enigmatic eyes.
With the owl quickly secured in the box, all I could say was, “Well done, gentlemen!” (I was right, of course; Andy acknowledged he’d done animal rescues before.) They agreed to get the owl to help.
After exchanging contact information and thanking these good Samaritans, I headed off for more photo shooting.
Later Lee contacted me to say that Kelsey Olson, a DNR naturalist at Gooseberry State Park, came for the owl. He took it to Wildwoods in Duluth, a nonprofit wildlife rehabilitation organization.
From there, it would be transported to The Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota.
I called Wildwoods, and Sarah Glesner said the owl was, at the very least, severely malnourished. She kept me updated later, saying the owl was indeed extremely emaciated, but was on the road to recovery at the Raptor Center.
The question often arises for those of us privileged enough to spy on wildlife: Do you interfere with nature … or do you walk away and let nature take its course?
Fresh in my mind was the last time I intervened when a mother bear with two cubs came upon the fawn I’d been photographing.
The bear mom grabbed the fawn; I yelled to distract her.
She was distracted. She dropped the fawn and came at me, stiff-legged to demonstrate her dominance and chopping her jaws.
Realizing this as one of the most foolish things I’d ever done, I stood unable to move. Twenty feet from me, the bear stopped, then went back to pick up her prey and slowly walked away, cubs close behind.
Still shaking, and perhaps to salvage some dignity, I raised my camera and snapped a few blurry pictures of the bears departing.
While I may never again envision myself a hero in any natural scenario of predator and prey, I felt no qualms about helping a disoriented snowy owl.
Besides, I’d promised it that everything would be “owl” right.
Luckily, I found the right help for both of us.
Born in St. Paul, Mike Mikulich moved with his family to Superior, Wisconsin, when he was very young. He married his adventure companion, Mary, and they have three children and four grandchildren. For 25 years, Mike has owned and operated Harbor Dental Lab, but spends as much time as he can pursuing his passion to photograph Lake Superior, wildlife and the artistry of winter. Four of his six favorite places are close to home: 1) any coffee shop in Canal Park on a brisk morning; 2) Bayfield, Wisconsin; 3) the family cabin in Iron River, Wisconsin, and 4) The Gunflint trail in northern Minnesota. Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Teton Mountains in Wyoming are his only away-from-home favorites.