A Spectacle of Boreal Owls

Here is a Boreal Owl, tilting its head and listening carefully for tiny-footed rodents scurrying within the snow beneath this bird

Owls captivate our hearts and minds. Their flight feathers that have a soft, delicate leading-edge to muffle the sound of their wingbeats, they produce a haunting and beautiful series of calls, and have a hypnotic beauty that draws birders of all skill levels; from the beginning nature-lover, to the most-avid birder. Owls come in a variety of shapes and sizes, each species specifically evolved to survive the conditions and elements that confront the owl on a daily basis.

There is a small corner of the lower 48 where some of the most elusive and northernmost owl species can be found. The arrowhead region of Minnesota (northeast corner) hosts spectacular habitat that is an extension of the Canadian boreal forest. Depending on the winter, various amounts of owls will migrate south of Canada in search of food, and set up their wintering grounds in northeastern Minnesota. Every winter Great Gray Owls will come to this corner of Minnesota, as do a few Northern Hawk Owls. This winter was an extra special treat to birders that ventured into this brisk and beautiful part of the country. Deep within the spruce bogs, Great Gray Owls established their hunting territories; but never far from a grassy field, as this is what Great Gray Owls need for survival. Northern Hawk Owls were observed throughout this winter as well, often seen perched on stand-alone aspen and spruce tops that overlooked vast clearings in the land. One of the highlights from this winter was seeing not one, but on some days several Boreal Owls tucked away in the thickets!

Boreal Owls are a tiny owl species that have densely-feathered legs and a copious amount of insulation throughout their feathered bellies. They are well-built for surviving the cold winters of northern Canada where they originate from. The colors of a Boreal Owl are rich, dark, and secretive… hosting a spectrum of colors that are found within the boggy thickets of northern Canada. Their bellies are streaked in white and dark-chocolate brown, as are the backsides of their heads. A Boreal Owl’s face is surrounded with a beautiful black outer edge, speckled with only the finest white markings. Their forehead is densely speckled in white spots that trail throughout the top of their head.  Their deep yellow eyes contrast against their silvery-white feathers that insulate and protect their face.

Watching owls is a spectacle within itself. Boreal Owls are about 2 inches taller than their relatives, the little Northern Saw-whet Owls. Both the Northern Saw-whet Owl and Boreal Owl must be on high-alert for predators throughout their lives. Being of such a small size, these species must keep an eye out for the local Northern Goshawk, Barred Owl, and Great Horned Owl. This winter, Boreal Owls were coming down into the Arrowhead region of Minnesota in unprecedented numbers! While I had the pleasure of witnessing my lifer Boreal Owl during the Great Gray Owl irruption of 2004-2005 (world’s largest-known owl irruption), I have not seen another Boreal Owl since that winter. While leading one of my birding trips earlier this winter, I found a Boreal Owl in a spruce thicket along the North Shore of Lake Superior. These beautiful little owls give you goosebumps, and we had to work hard to contain our excitement and thrill of watching this bird (we whispered our excitement to each other, along the rarely-traveled stretch of road). Smiles and watery eyes are not uncommon while watching Boreal Owls through a scope and set of binoculars.

A Boreal Owl sits quietly and keeps watch over the snow.

A Boreal Owl sits quietly and keeps watch over the snow.

This winter’s influx of Boreal Owls was likely due to a lack of food within their typical Canadian wintering grounds. Boreal Owls are year-round in northern Canada, but irrupt southward when times are tough (lack of food).  Boreal Owls are usually nocturnal, but when stressed for food, they will resort to hunting during the daytime for their survival. It is bittersweet to experience an irruption of owls, as each and every owl just wows us with its beauty, but at the same time, these birds are here because of a reason… fighting for their survival. They often ignore each other’s hunting territories (within the same species), and focus intensely on finding food. The life of a northern owl species is challenging and harsh; they go where their food is. Every few winters, we experience the natural phenomenon of the owls irrupting in large numbers throughout the bogs, fields and shores of northeastern Minnesota. Best of luck to all of the Boreal Owls hunting up here right now… some are very likely perched on a low-hanging spruce branch, ready to pounce on a rodent as you are reading this post!