Happiness is a sunny day in the Sax-Zim Bog with a happy Northern Hawk Owl. I say he’s happy because he caught several voles in the brief time I spent with him (her?) and cached every one. There must be an abundance of voles around under the 20 plus inches of snow on the ground to have such hunting success.

Caching is fairly common amongst boreal avian predators in times of plenty. Great Gray Owls do it, Northern Shrikes do it, Gray Jays do it, and so do Hawk Owls. I watched as he fluttered near an old aspen snag evidently trying to put one vole in a crevice. Once he dropped the vole and had to fly down to the snow and pick it up and try again. And another time he knocked a big piece of bark off as he apparently tried to cache it between the bark and the stump. In the deep freeze of winter the voles will stay good for a long time. And when hunting is slow, the hawk owl can go to the “fridge” and get a volesicle!

On a couple occasions he flew over 100 yards to nab a vole. Jumping off his favorite perch at the tip of a 60 foot Quaking Aspen, he rocketed straight for the unsuspecting rodent, making his final approach only a few feet off the ground, wings set as in the photo. The flight trajectory was not a straight line but rather an inverted arc.

Northern Hawk Owls are diurnal raptors, hunting in daylight hours. This makes them very viewer/birder friendly. Add to this the fact that they are generally unfazed by human presence and you have a very charismatic species. They are about the size of a football with a tail (the long tail gives them their “hawk” name); a wingspan of 22-28 inches. I dare say that if this owl was as large as a Great Gray, it would be even more legendary.

This owl is a circumpolar species, breeding across the boreal forest and boreal/hardwood transition forest of Canada, Alaska, Scandinavian and Siberia. But their breeding range only dips into the U.S in northern Minnesota. During low cycles of voles in Canada, they can irrupt into northern Minnesota, Wisconsin and other northern states. On my Sax-Zim MN Christmas Bird Count in December 2004 we had 42 (!) Hawk Owls in a 15-mile diameter circle.

Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 400mm f5.6, f5.6 at 1/3200 TV, ISO 400

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