Bird brained stories!

Friday, March 18, 2005

Great Grey Owl ponders life and his next meal

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Invasion destination; northern Minnesota

As I watch out my window on this day just before the start of spring, over twelve inches of new snow on the ground, my mind travels back about one month. Spurred on by all the news about an invasion of northern owls into the northern tier of the US, I longed to see them for myself. Yet weekend after weekend, it seemed it was not to be. Kids needing rides. Husband out of town. My own commitments. At last, the weekend of February 12, I was able to dash up to Duluth, bringing along Mom and Dad and using my aunt and uncle's home in Duluth as the place from which to launch my adventure.

Armed with my camera gear, maps of the Sax-Zim bog printed from the mnbird list, and my mom and Aunt Charlotte riding shotgun, we set off for the bog Saturday afternoon. This was my first time making a trip solely for the purpose of birding. I've done Christmas Bird Counts, Sandhill Crane Counts and had a little flavor of how the "real" birders work. Now it was my turn to set out, head turning constantly, with my hand ready at the flashers on my steering column, searching for northern irruption species.

I was not disappointed. Driving into the heart of Sax-Zim, we spotted nothing other than bog land for a time, until we noticed a place with several cars pulled off the shoulder of the road, people walking in and out along an unmaintained road. Pulling over myself, I met some men who were up from Missouri, who told me, "It's worth the walk." Indeed it was. In a tree just off the road was a Great Grey Owl, largely ignoring the crowds who'd gathered. We watched for nearly an hour, visiting with the hordes who came and went. The bird only showed interest when the croak of ravens down the road was heard, at which time, it turned its head at a fetching angle to see if it would be harrassed.

Fat chance. Ravens are smart. They weren't coming anywhere near this crowd!

We proceeded on into the dusk, stopping near a roadhouse that had more snowmobiles than trucks in its roadside lot, spotting right there on the power line another Great Grey, surveying the hunting grounds before him.

Next morning, we headed in the opposite direction, through Carleton County on Highway 218. Traveling south on one off road, the bowling ball with feathers shape of a Northern Hawk Owl came into view. Quite a cooperative little model he was, mainly staring me down from his high perch but obliging with a couple short flights as well.

Just north of Tamarack, my aunt said, "Look! There's one right there!" Indeed there was. Perched on a tamarack just feet from the shoulder of the road was a Great Grey Owl. Carefully stepping out of the car, we could enjoy this one all by ourselves, away from the noise and bustle of the one in Sax-Zim the day before. He did not disappoint us. Looked right back at us as I alternated between watching and photographing. Took a couple short flights down the road as he surveyed the fields. Looked down from the tip of a small tamarck and plunged--so fast I just watched. Sitting on the snow, staring me down and waiting, he finally pulled a small rodent up through the snow and gulped him down whole!

As he continued down the road, we noticed a second, larger Great Grey Owl. This one too was hunting successfully, bringing the meadow vole to a paper birch perch and nibbling a bit more daintily than its cousin. Though the reports had stated they were hunting early and late, this was around noon---just ahead of a storm front moving in.

Although I didn't get to see the large numbers of owls reported by others, we were lucky to have our own private show, not once, but twice. I've also heard many sad reports of owls killed by cars this winter and hope that "my" two owls have survived to begin nesting and hopefully fly south next winter. They are truly magnificent birds.

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