ALWAYS IN SEASON: Cultivate a sense of possibility in the bird world

If you want to see birds, it's always good to cultivate a sense of possibility, especially in midwinter in this part of the world, when the chances of seeing a wide variety of birds aren't actually very good.

Illustration by Mike Jacobs

If you want to see birds, it's always good to cultivate a sense of possibility, especially in midwinter in this part of the world, when the chances of seeing a wide variety of birds aren't actually very good.

Still, there are possibilities.

Among the most exciting of these are the owls, and among the most exciting of the owls is that visitor from the north, the snowy owl.

I encountered two snowy owls last week, one along Interstate 94 near the exit for Gardner, N.D., and one along County Road 33, my usual route to Grand Forks from our place west of Gilby, N.D.

These sightings made me realize that midwinter is a good time for a review of the owls.


This started last week with the great-horned owl, a resident species here. Horned owls from the Arctic do show up this far south in many winters, and this year, I've heard reports of several pale horned owls. These could be the Arctic subspecies.

Snowy owls are regular visitors here.

The Grand Forks area is among the most reliable places in the United States to see these birds. Alaska would be better.

So, too, would some places along the eastern seaboard. Logan Airport in Boston stands out among these, at least partly because there are a lot of people nearby to take note of every snowy owl that shows up.

My guess is that a lot of snowy owls are overlooked on the Great Plains every winter. The area is simply far too vast and the people to see owls far too few.

Even with that cautionary note, it's safe to say that this has not been a good season for snowy owls. Sightings have been few -- fewer than a dozen that I've heard about -- and most of these have been later than we usually expect to see owls.

Or perhaps earlier, depending on your perspective.

Mid-November is usually the height of the owl season in the Red River Valley. This is about the time of year that winter closes in decisively to the north of us, and the birds begin to drift south where food is easier to find.


Some winters, this brings a big influx of owls. Last year was such a year, especially along the Atlantic Coast. Half a dozen years ago, our area had a tremendous influx of snowy owls. One day, I found 66 of them in Grand Forks County, my personal best for the species in a single day.

This year I have seen only three, the two I mentioned earlier and one that I saw early in the season -- at the usual time for snowy owls.

Often there is another wave of owls toward the end of winter, as birds that moved farther south begin their return trips northward.

That could happen this year, but I really don't look for a big number of snowy owls. Conditions don't seem to have driven the owls southward even as far as our area, and so it seems unlikely that significant numbers of owls would have gone even farther south.

Still, it is good to cultivate a sense of possibility.

It is possible to distinguish individual snowy owls. Older males tend to be very white, with little black marking at all. Females have more black streaking, and young of the year are the most streaked of all.

Confusing a snowy owl with any other bird species is unlikely, although the rare white-phase gyrfalcon could be mistaken for an owl -- though a little bit longer look would find obvious differences.

It's more likely that a plastic bag or a clump of snow will be misidentified as a snowy owl.


That's embarrassing when it happens, but it's commendable nevertheless. It shows that the birder responsible is cultivating a sense of possibility.

Other northern owls show up here every now and then, but less reliably than the snowy owl.

We'll meet one of them next week -- unless another bird trumps it as bird of the week.

That's always a possibility.

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