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Always in Season/ Mike Jacobs: Hawk owl shows up south of the border

Hawk owls are “rare south of border,” David Crossley declares succinctly in the “Crossley ID Guide/Eastern Birds.” I affirm his description. I have encountered hawk owls fewer than half a dozen times.

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Illustration by Mike Jacobs

Members of another bird tribe have come into North Dakota from the north. These are the northern raptors, and more specifically, the northern owls. They are here in smaller numbers than the finches, which have been the subject of much of the season’s news in the bird world.

The raptors are individuals. The headline among them is a single northern hawk owl.

Hawk owls are “rare south of border,” David Crossley declares succinctly in the “Crossley ID Guide/Eastern Birds.” I affirm his description. In a lifetime of seeking birds within an hour's drive of the international boundary, I have encountered hawk owls fewer than half a dozen times.

As a corollary, I remember each one vividly.



  • Always in Season/ Mike Jacobs: White-winged crossbills show up and show off Crossbills are among the northern finches that follow the food supply. This has been an extraordinary year for these birds, which have “irrupted” southward, as the ornithologists say, probably because the food supply in northern evergreen forests has failed.
  • Always in Season/ Mike Jacobs: Despite plainness, siskins aren't inconspicuous Siskins are small birds, smaller than any of the sparrows. The only other species they’d likely be confused with is the American goldfinch, which is about the same size but is much lighter and without the heavy streaking.
  • Always in Season/ Mike Jacobs: Last week’s irruption of finches may have been fleeting Purple finches seem to be peaceable birds. Of course, they have the advantage of size. They are noticeably larger than the siskins, and much stockier.

Nevertheless, I did not “chase” this hawk owl sighting. I left that to others who are more mobile than I. Quite a few people saw it, and some drove a considerable distance for the opportunity. So exceptional is the appearance of this owl, which Crossley describes as an “inhabitant of open spruce forest or taiga.” Little of that type of habitat exists in North Dakota.
Some posted excellent pictures, bearing out Crossley’s comment about this bird: “Sits at top of trees, with condescending glare.”

Fortunately for North Dakota birders, the hawk owl is a little less fussy about winter habitat, frequenting more open country. The requisite element for hawk owls is isolated perches with pretty much unobstructed views. Often, these are the very top of evergreen trees, but other trees serve, as well. The first hawk owl I saw was on a powerline pole overlooking a tributary of the Pembina River just a little less than 17 miles south of the 49th parallel. This week’s sighting was even closer to Canadian territory but a little farther west of the Red River.

Hawk owls are quite a bit more likely to show up on the Minnesota side of the Red, where there is more suitable hunting ground. In general, that part of the world is a little more on the wild side. It also is closer to the great spruce forests of Manitoba.

That’s not to say that a northern hawk owl might not venture to other parts of either state. The point is not that it’s impossible, just that it’s not likely. It’s been more nearly 20 years since I last spotted one, on a bird count near Roseau, Minn. This bird could just as well have been in Canada; the border checkpoint was in plain view.

The gold standard on that count was the great gray owl, another northern visitor. The Roseau bog is one of the few places in the United States that the great gray owl has nested. Some winters, great gray owls occur in numbers large enough to rate the kind of language birders use for the periodic finch invasions, which is called an “irruption.”

The snowy owl has been the gold standard on the Grand Forks Christmas Bird Count. This bird of the tundra is seen almost every year in the Red River Valley, which is regarded as perhaps the most likely place in the United States south of Alaska to see these birds, with the possible exception of Logan Airport in Boston.

So far this season, I’ve seen only one snowy owl, on a pole along Grand Forks County Road 33, my usual route to Grand Forks from the place that Suezette and I share west of Gilby, N.D. Some years, the route produces as many as a dozen snowy owls in a trip. One memorable day, I found more than 60 driving the rural roads northwest of Grand Forks. That area of open grasslands punctuated by isolated trees, power lines and fences is favored by nesting short-eared owls, and some winters, short-eared owls can be found there.

For me, the signature bird of these grasslands is the rough-legged hawk – the “November hawk,” I call it – but my trips to Grand Forks have produced only two so far this year. The rough-legged hawk is not an owl, of course, just as the northern hawk owl is not a hawk. In both cases, the name describes the bird. The rough-legged hawk is feathered to its toes, an adaptation to cold climates that most hawks don’t have but most owls do. It is a large bird, the size of a snowy owl, and like the snowy owl, it is a circumpolar bird. In Eurasia, it is called the rough-legged buzzard.


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The hawk owl is circumpolar, too, underlining the common environment in northern latitudes. The bird is named for its breeding range, of course, and for its hawk-like appearance – relatively slim, with a long tail.

Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at mjacobs@polarcomm.com.

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Mike Jacobs

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