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Voyageur's Best Features of 2004


Owl Invasion
Thousands of visitors from the north
by Kim Risen  | December 28, 2004

We are being invaded by visitors from the north! An invasion that’s making the TV news and newspaper headlines throughout the state. Although many of the invaders are Canadian, Canada isn’t attacking, so you can rest easy knowing that you can continue to call it a cap instead of a toque. The invasion of which I speak consists of owls. Hundreds of owls.

No, THOUSANDS of owls.

We’re not talking about small owls that are active only in the darkest hours of the night and, because of their habits, remain hidden from view. We’re referring to large owls. Owls that include the largest owl in the world, in fact. These large owls can be seen all hours of the day making them obvious to everyone in the area. So obvious that visitors from warm weather states are braving the winter cold to follow these invading owls to McGregor, Palisade, and Meadowlands just for the chance to see one.

What are these headline-making owls? Our winter invasion is made up of three species of owls, two of which are quite visible to even the most casual observer. It is these highly visible owls that are getting the most attention. Although the third is not as visible it remains one of the birds most wanted by birders around the country. Together the three are bringing interested observers to our area from all across the country.

First and foremost is the owl that holds the title as ‘The World’s Largest Owl’–the Great Gray Owl. It’s also known as the ‘Ghost of the Northwoods’ or ‘Great Gray Ghost’ because of its large size, its gray patterned plumage, and its ghostly appearance during its preferred hunting time of dawn and dusk. With a total length of nearly 30 inches, a wingspan that can exceed five feet, and a huge, rounded head that’s about 20 inches in circumference the Great Gray Owl is the world’s largest owl by size. As one might expect from a resident of the far north, the Great Gray Owl is mostly insulating feathers. If one were to remove those feathers, the owl underneath would finish at least third in size by weight falling well behind both the Great Horned Owl and Snowy Owl. It’s large size, big rounded head without the ‘ears’ of Great Horned Owls, and yellow eyes make the Great Gray Owl easy to identify. Even though they are amazingly large with bright yellow eyes they can blend into the aspens and spruces remarkably well. Look for the white patch on the throat forming a ‘bowtie’. That’s a fieldmark that shows quite well, even in poor light or at a great distance.

The second member of this invading trio is the Northern Hawk Owl. Like the Great Gray, the Hawk Owl is diurnal or active during the day and, because it likes to hunt from a high, exposed perch, is often spotted hunting along the roadside or in clearings in the forest. About the size of a crow the Hawk Owl is large enough to be seen at a distance and is often easier to find than the more retiring Great Gray Owl. Mostly brown and white, the Hawk Owl is heavily barred below with a long tail. With a strongly patterned face outlined by black facial frames and piercing yellow eyes, the Northern Hawk Owl is often described as having a ‘fierce’ expression.

The smallest of the three news-making invaders, the Boreal Owl, is rare in Minnesota at any season. With a nesting range that includes the boreal forests of Canada, the Rocky Mountains, and the Northern United States, the Boreal Owl does nest in extreme northern Minnesota but remains quite difficult to find. The first nest of a Boreal Owl in the lower 48 states was found in Northeastern Minnesota in the spring of 1978 following a record winter invasion that began the previous fall. With the number of Boreal Owls showing up this winter perhaps we will find nesting birds in our area next spring.

Although the Boreal Owl may be the second most numerous of this year’s invaders, it is the most difficult of the three to find. Mostly because it hunts strictly at night. In addition to its nocturnal behavior, it is the smallest of the three – only about eleven inches long – and, unlike the other owl species, seems to use its roosting perches for only a single night instead of days or weeks at a time. As one might expect of a highly nocturnal species, the Boreal Owl can often be easily approached during the daytime, thus its Eskimo name of Tuckwelinguk or ‘The Blind One’.

Perhaps you have already noticed these northern invaders when driving to work in the morning or picking up the kids after school. They can often be seen perched along the roadsides hunting for their breakfast or dinner. On Monday, as Cindy and I drove to McGregor for some groceries, we decided to take one of the back routes to town so we could look for owls. Cindy’s Uncle Bill had seen two Great Gray Owls that morning as he completed his mail route in the area north of Tamarack. While we didn’t find either of Uncle Bill’s owls, we did find SIX of our own – one on Kestrel Avenue, four on County Road Six and one on Simpson Road. And just yesterday, returning from some shopping, Cindy spotted two Northern Hawk Owls and another Great Gray north of Tamarack.

The number of birds we found in just those quick trips to town illustrate well that this year you can find these impressive birds anytime, anywhere, all across Voyageur country. There are, however, a few areas that have proven to be owl hotspots in both this and past invasion years.

The open pastures and bogs north of Palisade, particularly the length of Aitkin County Road 18 east from Highway 169 and northward along Pietz’s Road from where it intersects County Road 18 is the most well known location for these owls. We have found several Northern Hawk Owls, a few Great Gray Owls, and even a lone Great Horned Owl on our visits there this winter.

The woodlands and bogs near McGregor have been particularly good for Great Gray Owls for the past week or so. Try Aitkin County Road 6 near Lake Minnewawa (this is where Cindy and I saw four of our Great Grays on Monday). Kestrel Avenue (County Road 31) north of Tamarack has had at least two Northern Hawk Owls and several Great Grays for the last week or so. The Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge has hosted Northern Hawk Owls, Great Gray Owls, and one of the few Snowy Owls found this winter. Join us on the refuge’s Christmas Bird Count January 2nd as we try to find even more!

Both Great Gray and Northern Hawk Owls prefer to hunt from elevated perches in grassy, semi-open areas. Great Grays prefer slightly more forested areas so you may find them perched beside a woodland as they hunt the forest edge along the road. Northern Hawk Owls may be found in the same areas, but they prefer the more open areas – meadows, the edges of tamarack bogs, or even pastures or hay fields. Either one will often allow you to watch from your car at close range. When you find an owl, it’s best if you stay in your car with the engine shut off. If you are lucky you can often watch these birds swoop out to catch a mouse, capture it, carry it back to their perch, and proceed to swallow it whole. As owls swallow their prey headfirst, soon only the tail hanging from its beak indicates how successful their hunting has been.

Why are there so many owls here now? Great question, and one that has an easy answer – food. All three of these owl species prey almost exclusively on small mammals, particularly voles and mice, with only the Northern Hawk Owl regularly feeding on small birds. Dwindling populations of these small mammals in Canada and Northern Minnesota have pushed the owls southward in search of prey.

Cold, wet weather is hard on voles and mice and, as we all remember, this past summer was most certainly cold and wet. Dr. James Duncan of Winnipeg has conducted research on Great Gray Owls and their preferred prey in areas of Southeastern Manitoba and Northwestern Minnesota. His research showed that voles were plentiful in 2002 and 2003 and that the owls did well those years. This year prey was quite scarce and there was virtually no breeding success by the Great Gray Owls in his study areas.

This crash of small mammals wasn’t confined to Northwestern Minnesota. Surveys conducted by an intertribal agency of the Bois Forte and Grand Portage Chippewa bands showed a dramatic drop in small mammal populations in the forested regions of Northeastern Minnesota. Surveys conducted in the fall of 2001 trapped a total of 507 animals, that number fell to 319 in 2003, and absolutely crashed this year with only 128 tallied.

The dramatic drop in small mammal numbers combined with the breeding success enjoyed by Great Gray Owls in the previous two to three years resulted in a high population of owls trying to feed on a correspondingly low population of prey. That is the situation forcing these owls to move into new areas in search of food. As moist and grassy roadside ditches and forest and road edges are good vole or mouse habitat that is where most of the owls are hunting.

Unlike past invasion years when owls didn’t begin to show in numbers until winter was well underway, this year’s invasion made itself known early in the fall. The first indications that something unusual might be happening were the early fall records of Northern Hawk Owls in Northeastern Minnesota with multiple birds being found as early as October. During a typical year the first Hawk Owls may not show up until late November with multiple birds not occurring until December.

Perhaps the most startling statistic from the fall involves those mysterious Boreal Owls. As they are so strictly nocturnal, prefer to remain well hidden during the day, and don’t typically use their roost sites more than a single night, tracking Boreal Owl numbers is quite a difficult task. The banding station at the Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve in Duluth, which bands migrating owls nightly during the fall, had a record high of six Boreal Owls banded during its best year prior to 2004. That record fell this fall when they banded more than six times their record number of Boreal Owls! As amazing as those numbers are they pale in comparison to those recorded by Duluth raptor researcher Frank Nicolleti. Conducting banding studies of owls, this fall he banded more than 250 Boreal Owls! A number that appears to be a world record total.

Although Hawk Owls may have been the first indicator that northern owls were going to be invading and Boreal Owl numbers have shown that this invasion may be on a scale never before recorded, it is the number of Great Gray Owls that has captured the most attention.

As the number of Great Gray Owls in northern Minnesota grew from a reported 250 birds about a month ago to an estimated 1,000 this week, phone calls, emails, and newspaper photos and headlines have drawn the collective attention of birdwatchers from all across the country. In just the past few weeks birders from such far flung states as California, Arizona, Texas, and Florida have made the trek to the forests and bogs of Lake, St. Louis, and Aitkin Counties to look for owls. And this is sure to be the proverbial ‘tip of the iceberg’. At least four tour companies specializing in tours to look for birds will be visiting our area in January/February to look for owls and other winter birds. I will be guiding groups of birders from Arizona, California, and Texas around Aitkin and St. Louis Counties in the coming weeks, and the internet continues to feature reports from people who have visited our bogs and forests on their own. Many of these reports detail how they enjoyed the experience so much they just had to let others know about their trip. Virtually every visitor has remarked on their excitement in finding these majestic owls, the scenic beauty of the area we are lucky enough to call home, and how friendly they found the people encountered along the way. A perfect combination that is sure to result in a second invasion. One of people eager to experience our northwoods and the invading winter owls for themselves.

This article first appeared in the December 28, 2004 issue of the Voyageur Press.