Last week, on one of those deary days that we’ve been having a lot of lately, I had a bit of excitement. It was about 2:30 in the afternoon and I was going about my business of preparing some food for the Thanksgiving holiday, when a big bird suddenly flew into my front yard and landed in the Spruce tree that’s only about 30 feet from my kitchen window. When the bird turned and looked at me with its’ big yellow eyes, I couldn’t believe that I was looking at a Northern Hawk Owl! I think I could see the surprise in its’ eyes when we looked at each other, I’m sure I had a surprised look on my face too! Then he turned his head and looked to the side and I could see the big black stripes that are on the side of the head. I ran for my camera and by the time I got back the Owl had flown. Wow, what a great sighting! And another tick to add to my Crane Lake “yard” list.
This fall there have been many reported sightings of Northern Hawk Owls – it looks like it’s going to be a great winter for them.
Northern Hawk Owls, Surnia ulula, are unique among Owls in that they are mostly diurnal hunters as opposed to most Owls who are mainly nocturnal (only active at night). That could be one reason they are named Hawk Owls as Hawks are only active during the day. (this also makes it easier for a person to find and see them)
Hawk Owls can usually be found in the many bog areas around northern Minnesota, and once they have staked out a good hunting spot, they tend to stay in that immediate area. They prefer open places in the forest with prominent perches in which to survey their surroundings. They mainly eat small rodents and the influx of Owls in northern Minnesota may be due to a crash in the vole population up north. Hawk Owls will sit at the very tippy top of a lone tree in the bog; there they can scan the landscape for any little mice that may be scurrying about. It is reported that a Hawk Owl can see a tiny vole at a distance of 800 meters (about 1/2 mile), and they can hear small rodents under a foot of snow. The juveniles are usually the ones that head south first when there is a shortage of prey up north. And the juveniles have brighter yellow eyes than the adults. I think the bird, that I locked eyes with, was a juvenile because the most notable feature that I remember about the Owl was the intense yellow color of its’ eyes. The Hawk Owl is a medium sized Owl and can be differentiated from the other northern Owls by it’s very long tail. They have short wings and look almost like a Falcon when in flight.
Hawk Owls like to hang out in the same place, out in the bog somewhere, and if you can stake one out look for the “false eyes” on the back of the head. They are one of a few different Owls that have this curious feature. One has to wonder what the purpose of it is, and how it has evolved over time. Maybe it’s to fool little birds, and the like, as many times an Owl will be sleeping during the day, but what the little creature may not know is that the Owl is actually watching from the other side of it’s head. What an amazing adaptation.
Hawk Owls generally nest up in Canada, but they will occassionally nest in northern Minnesota. Two summers ago there were several sightings of a Hawk Owl along hwy 65 just south of the Koochiching County line. There’s a bog area there and that’s a likely spot where Hawk Owls will nest. Most times they will use an old broken off tree where they can build their nest inside a cavity, but they can also use old Woodpecker holes and they’ll sometimes use an old nest that’s been built by another bird.