Monthly Archives: February 2013

February 3: Superb Owl Sunday

Boreal Owl

Several years ago, I realized that by just adding a properly placed space, I could transform Super Bowl Sunday into Superb Owl Sunday. Last year Russ and I were in New York City visiting our daughter Katie and her S.O. Michael on the big day. We decided to head out to Breezy Point Tip on the city’s ocean front to at least get out into the wild for a while, when what to our wondering eyes should appear but two Snowy Owls! One was a very mature adult male, his plumage snow white. I’ll never forget that thrilling and unforgettable day, even richer for sharing it with my family.

Snowy Owl in the Big Apple
Snowy Owl in NYC on Superb Owl Sunday, 2012, not enlarged or cropped
NYC Snowy Owl
That Snowy Owl after cropping

This year I was certain things couldn’t possibly go that well ever again on Superb Owl Sunday, but figured I might be able to see an owl somewhere. During the past two weeks, Boreal Owls have been appearing all over between Duluth and Two Harbors, and a few weeks ago, Ryan Brady even had one in his yard in Washburn, Wisconsin, and so birders from all over the country are descending upon Duluth to see them. Boreal Owls periodically “irrupt”—that is, large numbers of them suddenly appear well south of their breeding range. This is a well-known, if rare, phenomenon. Birders rejoice, because except in rare years like this, this secretive owl is one of the hardest of all regularly occurring North American birds to add to a lifelist, but it’s a mixed blessing because the adorable little predators are so desperately hungry that they must hunt at midday, usually coming up empty. Tour groups are seeing as many as seven in a single day, but I feel like I’m gawking at someone in their time of misfortune, so I seldom go out to look for them.

But yesterday being Superb Owl Sunday, my doing a big year, and Russ and I having a couple of free hours, we headed up to Two Harbors. I was hoping we’d luck into spotting a Boreal Owl tucked into a conifer somewhere along the scenic highway—owls hiding out in spruces and cedars probably had successful hunting the night before. It’s tricky to spot one when zipping by in heavy traffic, but when so many birders are afield searching, one may spot a pack of birders already watching one. Russ and I had no such luck, so when we got to Two Harbors, we headed straight to Fourth Avenue—there’s a 2- or 3-block alley behind the houses there where I’ve seen Boreal Owls several times in the past. We spotted seven deer, including a handsome buck, but didn’t hear or see a single chickadee, much less a Boreal Owl.
White-tailed Buck
This and six other deer walked past us in the woods behind the alley
Right as we were growing discouraged, from the road above, one of my birding friends spotted me and drove down to the alley to tell us about a saw-whet owl he’d seen just a few blocks away. If I were to come up with a top ten list of my favorite birders in the world, Jim Lind would definitely be on it. He’s a great and generous birder who produces our area’s weekly rare bird reports and compiles the Duluth Christmas Bird Count. In years like this, Jim spends his free time searching out good birds in Two Harbors, and obviously goes out of his way to help other birders see them. And he has the best Boreal Owl Karma of anyone in the known universe. He hadn’t spotted one yet in Two Harbors on this Superb Owl Sunday, but the even tinier owl he’d spotted a little while before was a great sighting. We chatted for a few minutes, until he had to be going and we were ready to move on for the Saw-whet. We said our goodbyes, and right as he was turning away, his eyes locked on a Boreal Owl only about 15 feet away! Right there in the open, right beside us!

Jim Lind pointing out Boreal Owl
See what Jim Lind found? Right next to us!! Was the little owl there all along?

The bird was alert, so focused on searching for the sounds of small mammals that s/he ignored us. When Jim moved on, I kept photographing the little thing.

Boreal Owl
Boreal Owl
Boreal Owl

S/he flew to two other branches and a stump, coming even closer than where s/he started out. Alighting on the flat stump, s/he held one foot up and used a wing to balance on one branch, so I think the raised foot was injured. I felt sorry for the little thing, regretting seeing him/her even as I clicked my camera shutter over and over as s/he looked sharply this way and that, desperate for a meal.

Boreal Owl
The left foot appears to be injured, though s/he managed to catch and carry a shrew.
Boreal Owl

Right when I was feeling sadder than joyful to be witnessing such intense hunger, the little owl plunged into the snow and pulled out a fairly large shrew. 

Boreal Owl

Boreal Owl

Chickadees noticed the tussle and started gathering, chickadee-dee-deeing every naughty expression they knew.

Black-capped Chickadee
This chickadee was saying several naughty words!

The Boreal Owl took off, carrying a nice hot lunch with him/her, and dropped down on the ground behind a fallen log under a tangle of branches to try to eat in peace. Russ and I walked away in great relief that the little mite wouldn’t spend the day hungry.

Boreal Owl
Going off to eat in peace!

If this 20-minute encounter with a Boreal Owl wasn’t enough, we went to the spot where Jim Lind’s Saw-whet Owl was spending the day. That little guy was roosting on an exposed branch, carefully keeping both eyes closed to avoid notice by chickadees. Some people spent last evening watching a flock of ravens playing football, but not us. We’d already experienced the best Superb Owl Sunday ever.

Northern Saw-whet Owl
Northern Saw-whet Owl

Total miles for day: 65. New species bringing total for year to 188:

  1. Boreal Owl
  2. Northern Saw-whet Owl

February 2: Duluth Audubon field trip to the Sax-Zim Bog

Below zero temperatures tried to put the kibosh on Duluth Audubon’s annual Sax-Zim Bog field trip. The temperature in double digits below zero kept our bus from starting. While things were still in flux, we had a quick but delicious and hot breakfast at Perkins, and then decided to carpool. That was fun! I rode with a lovely couple named Charlie and Diana, with another fun birder, Elsa, along in our car as well. Elsa picked out our first bird of the day! Not quite a real one, but even an owl decoy can be fun to see.

First bird of day!
Our first bird of the day! Elsa spotted this owl. We didn’t even mind that it was fake.

The real birds we had in the bog were splendid! We started out at the community center, wandered up toward Owl Avenue and the large feeding station Sparky Stensaas and the Friends of Sax-Zim Bog set up. It’s become a great stop!! From there we worked up to the Admiral Road feeders, then back to the Community Center, on to the Little Whiteface Road feeders and the Blue Spruce feeders, and home. What a great day! No owls, but the temperature warmed from -19 degrees to a right balmy +10, and we had plenty of other birds:

  1. Ruffed Grouse
  2. Bald Eagle
  3. Rough-legged Hawk (people in some cars saw)
  4. Red-tailed Hawk (one along Highway 53 on the way home–I don’t know if people in other cars saw this one)
  5. Downy Woodpecker
  6. Hairy Woodpecker
  7. Northern Shrike (not everyone got a good look at this one)
  8. Gray Jay (Great looks for everyone! There were five at the Admiral Road feeders!)
  9. Blue Jay (two were all fluffed up and looking rather unhappy first thing this morning)
  10. Black-billed Magpie (this would have been my first sighting of the year if only I’d seen them! But some people got a quick but very nice look.)
  11. American Crow
  12. Common Raven
  13. Black-capped Chickadee
  14. Boreal Chickadee (two at the Admiral Road feeders)
  15. Red-breasted Nuthatch
  16. White-breasted Nuthatch (only at the Blue Spruce feeders)
  17. Brown Creeper (one in the trees and on the ground near the Friends of Sax-Zim Bog feeders)
  18. European Starling 
  19. Pine Grosbeak
  20. Common Redpoll
  21. Hoary Redpoll (ALL of my photos of these didn’t turn out! But we had great looks at three different feeding stations)
  22. American Goldfinch (at least one with the House Sparrows and redpolls in the trees across the street from the Community Center)
  23. Evening Grosbeak (the only place we saw these was first thing in the morning, in trees across the street from the Community Center)
  24. House Sparrow (Our hopes of a “clean count” were destroyed first thing in the morning at the Community Center)
Ruffed Grouse
Ruffed Grouse feed on aspen buds in winter. If you look carefully, you’ll see the little grippers on its toes–they help when branches are icy!
Hairy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker feeding on a deer’s ribcage at what I call “Sparky’s feeding station” on Owl Avenue.
Downy Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker at suet.
Gray Jay
Gray Jay! There were at least 5 visiting the Admiral Road feeders.
Gray Jay
Gray Jays look like chickadees on steroids.
Boreal Chickadee
Boreal Chickadee at the Admiral Road feeders
Boreal Chickadee
Boreal Chickadee
Red-breasted Nuthatch
Red-breasted Nuthatch–a pretty male
Brown Creeper
This Brown Creeper was feeding in this tree and on the ground at the Owl Avenue feeding station.
Red Squirrel
I love red squirrels!