Another great winter for northern owls?

I’m starting to sound like a broken record every autumn, but winter 2015-16 is shaping up to be another great year to find snowy owls in the upper Midwest. Generally, I’ve heard that owls that we have in winter like snowy owls, great grays, saw-whets, and boreal owls are on roughly 10-year cycles. Every 10 years or so we supposedly get several that migrate south into Minnesota. But… the past two winters have had many snowy owl sightings, and based on the last week, it looks like a third has arrived.

An eBird map of recent snowy owl sigtings. Oddly, no one in Minnesota is reporting the at least dozen different snowy owls that have been mentioned on birding pages for the state. As I write this post, there have been reports of snowy owls popping up across Minnesota and Wisconsin with one already spotted as far south as Illinois. And it’s not even Halloween yet!

Some raptor banding stations in Minnesota also report high numbers of northern saw-whet owls. A friend with a banding station on the southwest end of the Twin Cities has banded at least 80 of the small owls this fall. Since mid-September, Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory in Duluth, Minn., has had several nights where staff caught 50 to 60 saw-whets. On the night of Sept. 22, researchers had 116 saw-whets come into the nets! Could this be record year for that species too?

Sticking with the 10-year rule, it was roughly a decade ago when we had a record irruption of great gray owls in the upper Midwest. During the winter of 2004-05 it was not out of the question to drive around the Sax Zim Bog area of northeast Minnesota and see 50 different individual great grays in one day. Could we see an influx of great gray owls in November, too?

If you are interested in seeing a snowy or saw-whet owl, where should you look? For snowy owls, try areas that resemble the tundra. That’s why airports usually have one or two snowy owls hanging out during the winter. Other places include agricultural fields or areas of new development – pretty much any place that doesn’t have a lot of trees. During migration, however, they could be anywhere. Case in point: The bird found in northeast Minneapolis was sitting on cars. 

Northern saw-whet owls are the smallest owls in the upper Midwest. They You can find them anywhere during migration – even your backyard. If you are in a wooded area with oaks that still have leaves, tangles of buckthorn, or cedar trees, listen for agitated chickadees going “dee dee dee dee dee.” Seasoned birders say the more “dees” a chickadee chirps, the more likely it is mobbing a predator like a small owl. Look for a location that has lots of small bird poop that is chalky in consistency. If you find a few small pellets, look up. Chances are good you’ve found a saw-whet roost. 

To learn more about where people are seeing winter owls in your area, look for our state’s bird group on Facebook like Minnesota Birding, Wisconsin Birding or Illinois Birding Network. Also check in with ProjectSNOWStorm.org or eBird.org.

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