For the Birds Radio Program: Owl Invasion!
The winter of 2004 is shaping up to be the biggest owl year ever in the northland. People driving around Two Harbors and the Sax-Zim Bog are easily finding lots of Northern Hawk Owls and Great Gray Owls—I took a cursory drive through the bog on Saturday and found 10 hawk owls without even trying. There are plenty of other interesting birds around as well. Large numbers of redpolls are flying over—they are still getting plenty of natural food, so haven’t been turning up at feeders yet, but this looks like it will be a good year for them. I’ve heard Evening Grosbeaks and crossbills flying over my yard, though none have come in for a landing. There are also several Rough-legged Hawks still up here being seen here and there. And in the bog, people have been regularly seeing magpies and Gray Jays. Usually birders wait until January or February to come up looking for owls, but this year they’ve been coming here from all over already. The hawk owl numbers are unprecedented, and so far there seems to be good hunting for them, because several birders have photographed them taking mice and voles.
No one knows why these owl invasions occur. This year’s is definitely not because the birds have been starving, because the ones I’ve heard about from banders seem to be a good weight. This may have been an exceptional year for reproduction, and now there are just so many owls that in their normal winter dispersal a great many of them have had to head south to get away from the competition.
I think Northern Hawk Owls capitalize on snatching food items from big predators the way Gray Jays do, because they often approach us and land on a nearby perch when we make squeaky mouse sounds. Great Gray Owls aren’t likely to approach us, but are fairly calm if we move slowly and are quiet. When you’re out owling n a group, stay together rather than splitting up to see the bird from different angles—when a bird has to keep track of two or more people in different directions, it’s more likely to get overwhelmed and fly away.
Both Great Gray and Northern Hawk Owls often hunt by roadsides, and Great Grays in particular are often hit by cars. So far I’ve heard of at least four being hit. In one case, a birder had noticed an injured one struggling at a roadside, turned around at the nearest intersection, and returned just as a sheriff was shooting it. Great Gray Owls are meek and mild, easy to rescue, and there are a couple of licensed rehabbers in Duluth who would be happy to administer first aid and get the birds to the Raptor Center, so there’s no reason to destroy injured birds, and a lot of compelling reasons to rescue them. But people need to know what to do. If you happen upon an injured Great Gray Owl, the easiest way to capture it is to cover it with a large heavy towel, then scoop it up and put it in a box. If it may actually be a Great Horned Owl, which is far more feisty and has far more dangerous talons, you’ll definitely want to be wearing gloves. Bring it in the closed cardboard box to Dave Evans or Emily Buchanan in Duluth. Fortunately, the vast majority of owls hanging around are healthy.
Once the snow falls, especially if it gets crusted, hunting will become more difficult. But meanwhile, this unique November owl event is well worth experiencing. Take a drive out to the bog, or just on the backroads up the shore, and see what you can find. A map of the Sax-Zim Bog marked with recent places the owls have been seen is linked to at the top of my website, www.lauraerickson.com.