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Voyageur's Best Features of 2006

Owl

Snowy celebrity of sorts
 
by Kim and Cindy Risen  |  January 17, 2006
 

Last winter, Voyageur country experienced an influx of winter owls of such magnitude that it may never be repeated in our lifetime. Even though this winter, so far at least, we are not seeing those huge numbers of Great Gray Owls, we still have some owls attracting attention to our area.

Last winter, Snowy Owls were not present in Aitkin or Carlton Counties at all. This winter the most consistent Snowy Owl in the northeastern part of the state is one found near Tamarack. In mid-December we received a report of a Snowy Owl south of Tamarack. The owl was still there for the Rice Lake Christmas Bird Count and participants lucky enough to find the owl were thrilled to see this white denizen of the north.

Word got out to other birders through the internet and since that time the Tamarack Snowy Owl has been receiving a lot of attention. A Snowy Owl south of the town of Palisade, also in Aitkin County, is being seen along 450th Street west of County Road 5. Photographers and birders eager to find owls this winter have once again ventured to our area in search of them.

Everyone seems to be fascinated by owls. Seeing these large showy birds is an unexpected treat for all who enjoy nature. The fact that they’re usually hard to find makes a cooperative bird that dependably sticks tight to an area a celebrity of sorts. Bird watchers from all around will make the drive to see such birds. This Snowy Owl is one of those celebrity birds.

This past weekend alone there were people here to see the owl from Tennessee, New Jersey, Arizona, Wisconsin, Virginia, California and from around the state of Minnesota. The group ranged from interested bird watchers to serious photographers.

Snowy Owls are rather large owls, the second largest in North America by weight. The adults are mostly white in coloration, males more so than females. Immature birds have prominent black crescents on the tips of their feathers giving those birds under-parts that appear heavily barred with black.

No matter their age or sex, Snowy Owls have brilliant yellow eyes. Snowy Owls can be found nesting in the far north; the tundra of Canada and Alaska. They range into the northern United States only in winter. It is not unusual for Snowy Owls to show up here in northern Minnesota and some years several can be found hanging around open fields searching for food.

They seem to like areas with large expanses of open snow; it probably looks more like home to them. Because they are not birds of the woodlands, they are most likely found in open fields. However, being white birds that like to roost on the ground, spotting one in a snow-covered field may not be as easy as it sounds. Luckily for us, they also like to perch on power poles during the daylight hours. Another place to look for them is atop hay bales and mounds of snow covered dirt. Mice and voles make up the majority of their diet. Snowy Owls are daylight hunters, which makes them easier to find than owls which are strictly nocturnal.

Snowy Owls usually can be found in the Duluth/Superior area hanging around the harbor during the winter months, sitting on the ice or one of the buildings in the grain loading areas waiting for mice to eat. While there have been Snowy Owls seen at the airport in Minneapolis, and in other parts of the state, they are fairly few and far between. This winter there do not seem to be too many Snowy Owls around, so our local bird is getting plenty of attention.

While the experience of finding an owl on every post in sight may not happen again, the thrill of finding one of these magnificent birds keeps us searching the roadsides and fields. Birding is just a matter of having fun and enjoying the anticipation of what may show up around the next corner.

This article first appeared in the January 17 issue of the Voyageur Press.