Focus on Northern Hawk Owl
I often find it difficult to keep focused, pun intended, on what I need to be doing. I mean, nature is filled with so many cool and interesting subjects that distract me from the task at hand. Every tiny aspect of nature is capable of catching my eye and turning my head away from what I should be doing. For example, when I am working on a book about deer, moose and elk, I should be putting all my efforts into finding and photographing these critters. When I am not photographing them, I need to be researching and writing about them. But nooooo….. that is not what I am doing.
For me, real winters mean birds. In particular, the Northern Hawk Owl (Surnia ulula) is a favorite winter photography subject. Sometimes, I have to drive long distances to find and photograph some of these daytime hunters.
The hawk owl is a northern species of owl that inhabits open areas with scattered trees. It is a non-migratory bird that usually remains in its home range all year. However, every so often, a number of these birds will irrupt into the northern tier of states, such as Minnesota, out of their northern home range and spend the winter.
Unlike other owls, the hawk owl is a daytime hunter. It is often said they are called “hawk owl” because they look like a hawk. Personally, I don’t see it. They have a huge round head and a plump body and a long narrow tail. In my mind, I don’t see a “hawk” when I look at these owls. However, they do fly and act like a hawk, not to mention again that they are daytime hunters. All of which would be good enough reason to be called a hawk owl.
I love the way they fly. Fast and direct. They don’t waste any time going from point A to point B. When they leave their perch, they swoop down and travel close to the ground, flapping hard the entire time. They approach the spot where they are going to land very low, and at the last moment, swoop up to perch on impossibly tiny branches on the top of a tree. Here, they will sit for long periods of time watching and waiting for a mouse, vole or shrew to make one false move, and the hawk owl will spring into action.
Incredibly fast and completely silent, the hawk owl zips across the winter landscape and snatches up any rodent who has the misfortune to expose itself. After grabbing its prey, they fly directly to another perch with its prize, carrying the prey in its feet. It often first looks around making sure no other owls or hawks are around before raising the rodent to its beak where it delivers a single deep bite to the neck, instantly killing the prey.
What comes next is most interesting. Most of the time, the hawk owl flies off to a stand of trees to cache the food for later consumption. This is an interesting behavior not found in a lot of other species. The owl finds a crack in a tree or a narrow spot where a branch departs the main trunk and wedges in the prey. It remembers where all these hiding places are and returns later. These birds are well known for caching as much prey as they can catch in a day. They only eat a few and save the rest for later. This is a wonderful survival tactic that seems to serve them well.
Of course, in winter weather when the owl returns, it has a frozen dinner. I guess they don’t mind a frozen dinner now and then. Until next time…
Stan Tekiela is an author / naturalist and wildlife photographer who travels the U. S. to study and capture images of wildlife. He can be followed on www.face book.com and twitter. com. He can be contacted via his web page at www.naturesmart.com.