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The Birdman: The wonderful anomaly that is the northern hawk owl

Is it hawk? Is it an owl? Chris Blomme introduces us to this cool northern bird
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northern hawk owl C.Blomme killarney
The northern hawk owl is an owl that acts an awful lot like a hawk. Photo by Chris Blomme

Like a small sentinel looking out over its domain, it perched in repose. 

A snowmobile trail ran along the front of the field of view and beyond that some alder patches and open areas, potential for mice. It is Family Day in Killarney and the time is about 11 in the morning with rising temperatures above the zero mark; a very unusual week for February. 

We were able to get a little closer and using telephoto lenses were able to bring the character to life. Not many of these diurnal birds have been seen this winter, so we felt very privileged as well. 

It would swivel its head towards the back and then look towards the front, keeping an eye on all movement and things of interest. Eventually, a small shoulder tug to adjust a feather or two in the wing suggested there was some life in that composite of feathers. The northern hawk owl is a bit of an anomaly. 

As the name suggests, it has physical traits that can make the novice watcher question whether they are looking at a hawk or an owl. To add to the confusion this species is remarkably active in the day time making one wonder if it is an owl or not. 

A close look at the head reveals the dish-like facial areas that help funnel sounds to the ears. 

Sounds that we cannot hear. A meadow vole passing through the snow in shallow tunnels just below the surface of the top layer in a field or a red-backed vole in a woodland setting. It is part of a subnivean environment that keeps temperatures a little warmer than ambient and allows the creatures that live in that area to make it through the harsher parts of the winter. 

Make it through unless there is a hawk owl about. With concentrated gaze, angling the head to get the pinpoint location, a dive may occur and a plunge in the snow to extract the victim that was moving perhaps a bit too much. 

Its dinner would be in the field, ours ended up at the Sportsman’s Inn.

Rodney and I had decided to participate in the annual Great Backyard Bird Count organized by Cornell Laboratories, Audubon Society and Bird Studies Canada. It is an opportunity to put your bird observations from a specific location or backyard feeder into the online system. 

Anyone can contribute their observations. It covers all of Canada and the United States and many other countries throughout the world. There are thousands of participants that submit their accurate observations during a single, specific weekend in February. It gives a snapshot of the winter activities of the birds in our environment.

We ended up driving along most of the streets in Killarney and were able to observe several feeders that provided Nyjer thistle seed (expensive but bird addictive), black sunflower seeds, mixed grain and suet to overwintering birds. 

This year was very “slim” for winter finch feeder attendance, but we did get to see red crossbill, pine siskin, common redpoll and American goldfinch. Our old reliable, the black-capped chickadees were seen and a few European starlings and American crows.

On our drive home, we noted the common ravens’ nest on the Highway 69 bridge was built up, indicating the pair of traditional raven nesters had already prepared for the upcoming family responsibilities. Like the grey jay, these birds will nest when snow is still on the ground. An adult bald eagle crossed over the road as we approached Greater Sudbury. 

If you are interested in local winter birds, you can catch a glimpse of what they might be here ( http://gbbc.birdcount.org/). Have you seen anything interesting this winter?

Chris Blomme is an executive member of the Sudbury Ornithological Society and works with animals at Laurentian University. Have a question for Chris? Send it to editor@sudbury.com.
 



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