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Greenway boreal owl sighting causes a buzz among local birders

Local birder Dave Lambeth said the boreal owl is only the second he's ever seen during the 42 years he has lived in Grand Forks.

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Dave Lambeth of Grand Forks took this photo Sunday, March 22, of the boreal owl in the Grand Forks Greenway. Birds of the northern forest, boreal owls in the Red River Valley are a rare occurrence. (Photo/ Dave Lambeth, special to the Herald)

A small owl has been making a big buzz among Grand Forks birding enthusiasts in recent days.

Seeing a boreal owl in the Red River Valley is a rare occurrence, said Dave Lambeth, widely known as the dean of Grand Forks birdwatchers.

“How rare is this bird here? Well, it’s only the second one in my 42 years in Grand Forks,” Lambeth said Sunday, March 22, on the Grand Cities Bird Club’s Listserv.

According to a news release from the Agassiz Audubon Society in Warren, Minn., Joshua Moe, of Grand Forks, was walking his dog late Saturday night along the Greenway in Grand Forks when he saw a small owl pounce on a squirrel.

Moe snapped a photo of the bird on his cellphone and mailed it to Heidi Hughes of the Agassiz Audubon Society.


The owl was small, so Moe thought it was a northern saw-whet owl, the smallest owl seen in the Red River Valley and measuring about 7 inches.

“It isn’t a northern saw-whet, but it’s a close relative,” Hughes said, confirming the bird as a boreal owl.

Hughes said the last time she saw a boreal owl was seven years ago in January, perched on a woodpile at the Audubon Center.

As the name suggests, boreal owls are native to northern forests. According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, boreal owls measure 9 to 10 inches long and nest in far northeast Minnesota.

The tiny owls eat mainly rodents and mostly hunt at night, so they’re rarely seen, the DNR website states. The first report of a boreal owl nesting in Minnesota occurred in 1978, the DNR said; even in northeast Minnesota, they’re not common.

“Northeast Minnesota and the Duluth area usually has far more sightings than we would ever have, and only occasionally does one wander into North Dakota,” Lambeth said Monday. The sighting could signal an “irruption,” he said, an event in which birds rarely seen in a given area suddenly show up in numbers. Such irruptions, usually driven by a lack of food in their native range, seem to happen about every four years or so, Lambeth said.

“It could be that this is pre-staging another irruption year,” Lambeth said. “That’s totally a guess on my part, based on what I’ve read in the past”

Lambeth on Sunday afternoon hosted a walk in the Greenway for anyone interested in seeing the owl. About 25 people showed up and were able to see the owl, Lambeth said. Birders came from as far away as Fargo, Williston, Jamestown and Stanley after seeing reports of the sighting on social media, Lambeth said. Everyone adhered to the social-distancing guidelines recommended by the Centers for Disease Control during the current COVID-19 pandemic.


“I think we did a pretty good job of that -- I hope we did,” Lambeth said. “We weren’t sharing equipment and there were no handshakes, no hugs -- (people were) keeping apart.”

Lambeth returned to the site Monday morning and said there was no sign of the owl.

“That’s typical for boreals -- they are known for wandering, and they’re seldom in the same place more than one day, sometimes two,” Lambeth said. “They don’t show allegiance to a roost site and, in fact, they probably just move on some distance to another place.”

More information about birding opportunities and activities along the Red River Greenway and elsewhere in the area is available at http://grandcitiesbirdclub.weebly.com .

Dokken reports on outdoors. Call him at (701) 780-1148, (800) 477-6572 ext. 1148 or send email to bdokken@gfherald.com .

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Joshua Moe of Grand Forks photographed this boreal owl with his smartphone Saturday night while walking his dog along the Grand Forks Greenway. (Photo courtesy of Joshua Moe via Agassiz Audubon Society)

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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