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BRAD DOKKEN: The great international owl debate

This small owl spotted last Sunday morning in a tree northeast of Winnipeg turned out to be a boreal owl.

I was visiting some friends north of Winnipeg last weekend when we spotted the tiny owl huddled in an aspen tree on a cold morning when the temperature had dipped to 20 below F.

The calendar might have said late March, but the temperature felt more like January.

I described last winter as “The Winter That Wouldn’t Get Here That Wouldn’t End,” and this year is shaping up as “The Winter That Arrived Too Early That Wouldn’t End.”

I’d made the trip north to fish Lake Winnipeg, where we encountered ice that was nearly 5 feet thick and required two extensions on the auger. I don’t consider myself “vertically challenged” by any means, but I’m not 7 feet tall, and I had to stand on the seat of the snowmobile just to reach the starter rope on the auger. We should have taken a picture.

The fact I’m writing about an owl and not the fishing tells you everything you need to know about the fishing.

The owl was far enough away from the kitchen window that we couldn’t make it out clearly, so I stepped outside and snapped a couple of photos. I had to zoom in considerably, but I was able to get one photo that was clear enough to offer a good look at the owl’s features.

The owl’s eyes were shut, so it either was napping or squinting from the bright sun.

None of us are experts, but a debate ensued about whether the bird was a saw whet owl or a screech owl. I said saw whet because of the vertical bars on the owl’s breast; my host sided with screech owl after finding a photo on Google that bore some resemblance.

The bird’s small size was consistent with both owl species, but the owl in the tree didn’t have the horn-like tufts on its head that help identify screech owls. At the same time, the owl in the tree had a black ring around its face, a marking I couldn’t find in any of the saw whet owl photos I looked at on Google.

When I got back to the office, I showed the photo to Herald publisher Mike Jacobs, an avid birder who marks his last day on the job Monday.

Jacobs, too, concluded the bird was a saw whet owl.

Getting a second opinion never hurts, though, so I also sent the photo to Heidi Hughes of the Agassiz Audubon Society in Warren, Minn. Hughes, who has given birding presentations across northwest Minnesota, knows her owls.

Turns out neither of us won the owl debate.

“Ya both got it wrong,” Hughes wrote. “Screech owls have ‘horns’ and look like mini great-horned owls (two color phases, “red” and “gray”).

“Saw whets have a black bill.

“Boreal owls have a pale bill and black around the facial disc.”

I was able to claim at least a moral victory, though, because boreal owls and northern saw whet owls are cousins, Hughes said.

Given the location of the bird, about 12 miles north of Birds Hill Provincial Park and three hours northeast of Grand Forks, the identification made sense.

According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, boreal owls nest in northeast Minnesota and can be found in other parts of northern Minnesota as far west as Roseau County during the winter.

A boreal owl sighting in the Red River Valley would be a rare occurrence indeed, and Jacobs hadn’t taken into account the location of the sighting northeast of Winnipeg when he concurred with my saw whet guess. Jacobs says he knows of only one modern sighting of a boreal owl in Grand Forks.

It just goes to show, though, that identifying owls can be a tricky business.

Brad Dokken

Brad Dokken is a reporter and editor of the Herald's Sunday Northland Outdoors pages. Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and joined the Herald staff in 1989. He worked as a copy editor in the features and news departments before becoming outdoors editor in 1998. He also writes a blog called Compass Points. A Roseau, Minn., native, Dokken is a graduate of Bemidji State University. 

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