Before I tell you about my local owl viewing, let me share with you the Minnesota Ornithologists Union's web report on the current owl influx.
As of Jan. 15 more than 1,700 great grays, 300 northern hawk and 300 boreal owls had been documented. The first great gray owl sighting for the 2004-05 winter season was called into the MOU Rare Bird Alert on Aug. 17. There were three August records, one September record and several more in the first week of October. It wasn't known if these were resident birds. In November, large numbers of northern owls began hunting along roads in central St. Louis County, especially in the Sax-Zim Bog area.
Elements contributing to stress can be different among owls. Great grays and northern hawk owls feed primarily on meadow voles. When their populations crash it stresses the owls. Meadow voles breed throughout the winter while tunneling under the snow. They can breed at two months of age, and with an adequate food supply and proper habitat, their numbers can explode.
James Duncan has monitored small mammal populations in the Roseau Bog area of northwestern Minnesota since 1986. The populations in the fall of 2004 were the lowest recorded since 1992. Not coincidentally, in the winter of 1991-92 record numbers of great gray (196) and northern hawk (142) owls were reported in Minnesota. In that same winter only three boreals were noted.
A similar invasion appears to be happening this year. Last year had more typical numbers of thirty-five great grays, six northern hawk and one boreal owl.
With an irruption comes the probability of unusually plumaged birds being reported. This winter both partially albinistic and melanistic great gray owls have been sighted. Check out the MOU web site to see fantastic photos of both.
Albinism in great gray owls is discussed in "Albinism in the Great Gray Owl and Other Owls" by Alaja and Mikkola. The authors note that although total and/or incomplete albinism has been reported in 13 different owl species, the great gray is the only species with more than five published records.
Perhaps unprecedented was a melanistic great gray owl that was seen east of the town of Cotton. This bird was described by Mark Alt as "all-black, with a charred appearance, with no lighter streaking noticeable. It was one of the most striking birds I have ever seen against a backdrop of snow covered white birches."
Now, a note about sightings closer to home. More than 200 great grays have been recorded from northern Aitkin County by a single party of birders in one day. Warren Nelson reports that the largest concentrations of owls have been along Aitkin County Road 18, County Road 10 north of County 18 to State Highway 200 and then west on 200 to just west of the Rabey tree farm, and along Highway 169 from County 18 north to Hill City. Great grays have also been found south of these areas of general concentrations.
To the north, Christine Lupella recently saw a great gray between Crosslake and Pine River. This week I saw a barred and two great grays east of Backus, including a gray right along the road at the junction of Minnesota Highways 64 and 371.
Birders Terri Botz and Bill Brown have been patrolling the roadways and reported a couple of grays on Cass County 2 west of Pine River. They also saw 14 great grays in one outing along Minnesota Highways 64 and 87 (west) heading toward Badoura.
On Jan. 23 we ventured out in that direction to try to match their luck. We spotted one northern hawk owl and a northern shrike, but no great grays. It was very windy and I believe the wind drove the owls back from the open roads and into more sheltered evergreens.
We continued up Highway 64 nearly to Akeley and turned onto Hubbard County 12/Cass County 6/Lower Ten Mile Road scouring the landscape for birds to no avail. About a mile before Ten Mile Road reaches Highway 371, we spotted a great gray perched on a utility post.
Our subdued giggling, gawking and photographing continued for several minutes before we quietly left the scene. Watch for owls as you drive about, but in your enthusiasm don't become a road hazard. Be mindful of vehicles traveling behind you, signal, slow down and then pull off the highway onto a safe location before attempting to look at the birds.
Be respectful of the owls. Don't interrupt their hunting and don't flush them from their perches. Most northern owls are not accustomed to people or cars. Let's not make them leery of us by scaring them. And let's try to minimize the chances of owls colliding with our vehicles by being alert to their presence during this invasion and driving cautiously in areas where owls may be flying low alongside and crossing roads.
Andrea Lee Lambrecht, naturalist & outdoor writer, may be reached at email@example.com
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