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Image of boreal owl

Days of Night Owls

Seldom seen, boreal owls appeared in conifer

forests along the North Shore this past winter.

by Michael Furtman

Boreal owls have haunted me. Though we're both creatures of the north woods, and I have no doubt walked past one unknowingly, I'd never had the opportunity to actually see one in the daylight or to watch one hunt or to shoot a photo of one without flash. Before this past winter, the only boreals I'd seen and photographed were at night. Which is no wonder, because this tiny owl almost never hunts by day.

Seldom seen in Minnesota, boreal owls appeared with unusual frequency along the North Shore during the winter of 2012–2013. Photographer Michael Furtman captured this video of the usually nocturnal, reclusive owls sunning themselves.

A species of special concern in Minnesota, the boreal owl (Aegolius funereus) is not common. Last winter it seemed as though these owls were everywhere north of Duluth, especially along the North Shore of Lake Superior. Stressed by a lack of food farther north, they had drifted south in search of rodents, their primary prey. This movement of birds outside their usual range is known as an irruption.

The birding community was abuzz with the news, and people came from all over the country to see these owls, which are no taller than a robin, though twice as heavy. I once came across a patient little boreal roosting on a spruce limb while surrounded by nearly 60 people along Scenic Highway 61 near Stoney Point. I felt sorry for the bird because they were keeping it from hunting.

When I did find an undisturbed owl, I was struck by its serenity. Often an owl would appear to drift asleep in a sunny location, its fluffy breast feathers slowly heaving as it breathed. But just when I thought the bird would never wake and I too might fall asleep, its piercing yellow eyes would shutter open, its speckled head would cock to listen, and its muscles would tense. And if it heard a mouse beneath the snow, the owl's serenity was replaced with ferocity. A quick plummet of the owl, and the mouse became a meal, thus giving meaning to the old phrase "one fell swoop."

Oftentimes, rare birds show up outside their range. What thrilled me was that some of these owls were at "home," though most had likely migrated from Canada. I could watch and photograph them in their native boreal forest at the southern edge of their range. Lake Superior acted as a barrier during their migration, forcing them southwest along the shoreline. The lake's waters and the shore's southern exposure provided enough warmth to moderate the snow depth, allowing these boreal owls to hunt and survive.

The most memorable of my encounters occurred one evening along the shore. A light snow fell, and the air was breathless. A boreal owl flew from perch to perch, listening at each one, as silent as the snowfall. At last locating prey, it leaned from its perch in anticipation, so that I could see only its face. It looked like the owl version of the Cheshire Cat.

Finally it plunged, landing feet first in the snow, talons searching for the rodent. Pushing off from the snow with broad wings, the owl flew back to its perch and quickly ate the mouse. Then night and snow erased the bird from my vision.

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