Diving into things

Northern Hawk-owl We’re heading into owl season around here, my favourite times of year. Of course, after nearly 15 years chasing these denizens of the dark around in the forest, I may be a little biased.

Actually, as soon as the snow blankets the ground, I go into owling mode, scanning tree tops and hydro poles for distinctive silhouettes. This heightened awareness comes from the knowledge that winter and early spring are the best times to spot one of the more unique members of the Order Strigiformes.

I’m referring to the Northern Hawk-owl (Surnia ulula). Their name alone suggests that they may be something a little different. They’re actually quite aptly-named. Unlike most of their fluffy, almost stocky cousins, these smallish owls are really quite streamlined, with relatively small heads, long tails and slightly more narrow wings. They’re also diurnal, hunting during the day, instead of exploiting the darkness like most other owls.

In the winter, these little stealth bombers come out into the open, perching high on the tops of spruce trees or old snags, sweeping the area with their eyes and ears, searching for scurrying rodents. Their sharp-eyed gaze can spot a vole bouncing over the snow up to 800 m away. When they find one, watching them pounce is a sight to behold. Most owls are relatively slow flyers, almost floating to a stop over their prey before they plunge to the ground for the final kill.

Hawk-owls are another matter. They usually don’t slow down. If the vole is on the surface of the snow, they don’t stop at all, snagging the morsel on the wing and swooping up to a perch to settle in with their kill. Their flight patterns are actually more like that of a Goshawk or a Cooper’s Hawk and that, coupled with their daytime habits, likely led to their common name.

These unusual birds are one of the least-studied of northern owls. Most of what we know about them comes from studies done in Scandinavian countries, where banders have worked diligently for decades to understand their owl populations. Here in North America, only about a dozen nests have been studied extensively.  The fact is that they’re hard to work with. Although you can spot them with a fair bit of regularity during the winter, hawk-owls disappear into the bogs and old burns to breed during the spring and summer months, making them hard to find, right at that period in their natural history that we want most to understand.

What we do know is that they like tree cavities for nests, laying their eggs in old woodpecker holes or burnt-out snags.  Like their northern neighbours, the Great Gray Owl and Boreal Owls, their reproductive success and thus their population numbers are likely tied to the cycling abundance of their rodent prey. Indeed, every now and then, large numbers of these birds will wing their way south out of their normal range in search of food, stirring southern birder populations into a frenzy. Still, we don’t really understand the mechanisms that drive them yet.

The scientist in me abhors this unknown and wants to work up a study and dive right into fray, teasing out patterns from the apparent chaos. However the writer in me likes that there are still mysteries left in our world.

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8 thoughts on “Diving into things

  1. Such an insightful post. I don’t know what type of owls are found here in TX, but it brought back fond memories of every now and then hearing the hoot of an owl coming from a neighbor’s tree. They were rare to catch a glimpse of, so finding one sitting in the tree was always a treat (despite their ominous posture and cultural significance). Owls are definitely cool in my book.

    • Thanks very much for your thoughts. I apologize for the delay in responding. It’s been a busy week. Owls really do seem to hold the fascination of a lot of people. You should have a pretty good variety of owls in TX, depending on where you are: Great Horned, Barred, Long-eared, Short-eared and possibly Burrowing, just off the top of my head. Their cultural significance isn’t all bad. For some, they are symbols of great wisdom, though the birds unfortunately aren’t as smart as they look 🙂

      • No worries on the delay. The last time I saw one I was living out in West Texas in El Paso. Now I’m in San Antonio, so more of south central Texas. I haven’t seen any here, but I will keep my eyes peeled. Perhaps if I drive around or take a stroll through one of our parks I’ll catch a glimpse of one. Thanks again!

  2. Diurnal, eh? I’m going to have to start looking up more. I rarely see owls of any kind, but that’s probably due more to my observation skills than their frequency here. I thinking now after reading this very informative post: I wonder if I may have mistaken it for a small hawk? I see this little guy is rather uncommon though, so an extra bravo for you on the capture and this beautiful rendering.

    • Thanks, Cindy. Actually, you’re in prime hawk-owl country. I was up in the Chisholm burn I think in 2005 or 2006 and we saw 19 hawk-owls in one day. We caught 6 of them (of which I caught 2). The trick is the time of year. If it’s between November and March and you see what looks like a little hawk, it’s likely a hawk-owl. Keep an eye on the tops of spruce trees and hydro poles along open areas and you’ll likely see one. Happy owling 🙂

  3. Mystery indeed, and I think owls in general represent such wonderful aspects of it. Partially it’s bound up with their nocturnal status, (though as you point out, many owls are diurnal) and part of it might be connected to that silent flight that sets them apart from so many other species, more ghostly and imagined than seen.

    Spring brings the little owl, Athene noctua, to the rooftops and chimney’s of the village here. Another species that is happy to hunt during the day as it is the night, its presence seems so bound up with rural habitation that the community wouldn’t be the same without it. The bird of Athene, chosen by the goddess of wisdom, it has a long history connected to the human world, but when it stares down at me from the roof, and me at it, there remains that extraordinary and intangible sense of encountering a creature of the wild.

    • It is amazing, Julian, when you encounter these wild creatures. Even as a field biologist, who has handled more owls than I can count, I’m still awestruck every time I meet one.

  4. Pingback: The Sunday Roundup 2 | Voyages Around My Camera

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