'Tiny Tim' story takes on new meaning with snowy owl sightingIt all started when Tallie Habstritt of Roseau, Minn., e-mailed me the picture of a snowy owl she’d photographed last week north of Roseau. The owl sported a large blue tag on its wing with the identification “v38” clearly marked on the side.
By: Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald
The chance to do some detective work landed in my inbox the other night, and I couldn’t resist the opportunity.
Actually, all I did was forward the e-mail to a couple of key people, and they took it from there.
It all started when Tallie Habstritt of Roseau, Minn., e-mailed me the picture of a snowy owl she’d photographed last week north of Roseau. The owl sported a large blue tag on its wing with the identification “v38” clearly marked on the side.
Habstritt wondered if I could help track down some information on where the owl had originated.
“As you can see, he has an awfully big tag on him,” she wrote.
Curious about the owl and the unusual tag myself, I forwarded the photo to Dave Lambeth, my go-to guy for all things bird-related in the Grand Forks area, and Beth Siverhus, a wildlife rehabilitator from Warroad, Minn., who’s had a fair bit of experience dealing with owls and other raptors over the years.
Both replied to my query within hours.
Lambeth wasn’t familiar with any owl studies involving such large tags, but he did some fishing on the Internet and learned of a tagging project that had taken place in the Duluth area. It wasn’t clear by the Internet posting whether the project was still under way, Lambeth said, but he forwarded the photo to a birder friend in Duluth who might have more information.
Siverhus, too, replied that she had forwarded the photo to contacts from Superior National Forest and Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory in Duluth.
Within three hours, Siverhus had some information indicating the owl likely originated from a project Dave Evans was conducting in the Duluth-Superior area. A raptor biologist who also runs the banding station at Hawk Ridge in the fall, Evans has been doing a long-term study on snowy owls in the Duluth-Superior area and marks the birds with large wing tags, along with a patch of black dye on the head.
Sure enough, a patch of black also was clearly visible on the head of the owl Habstritt photographed.
Lambeth’s contact in Duluth had similar information and forwarded the photo on to Evans, who in turn sent out a reply to all of us who’d been wondering about the story behind this owl:
“That’s AWESOME!” he replied. “Thank you so much for reporting this sighting.”
As Evans explained, he’d tagged the owl Dec. 7, at which time the young male bird was in very poor shape and on the verge of starvation.
“He is a yearling bird, in his second winter, and apparently has faced severe food shortages his whole life, as he had virtually no new feathers,” Evans wrote. “He normally should be almost pure white at this stage in his life, but was carrying mostly his original feathers.”
Evans, who has been studying wintering owls at the western tip of Lake Superior in the Duluth-Superior harbor since 1974, said he saw the owl a couple of days later eating on a Canada goose that had frozen into the ice and died on Connor’s Point in Superior, Wis.
Because the owl was eating on a goose and Christmas was approaching, Evans dubbed the owl “Tiny Tim,” after the character in Charles Dickens’ classic, “A Christmas Carol.”
According to Evans, Tiny Tim stayed nearby and appeared to be doing well through most of the winter, until three female owls, which are larger and dominant, eventually took over the territory. The area had a high density of mice, Evans said, which likely kept the young owl from starving.
After Tiny Tim’s departure in late February, Evans said he’d seen no sign of the owl until receiving word Thursday of Habstritt’s sighting near Roseau.
As part of his research, Evans said he has banded almost 400 owls in a study area of about 30 square miles since 1974. He started using the large wing tags, which have distinct alphanumeric codes, in 1977 because they made the owls easier to identify.
Over the years, Evans said, sightings of owls he’s tagged in the Duluth area have been reported from South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and Nunavut.
If all goes according to plan, Tiny Tim soon will be in the Arctic, where snowy owls breed. Where he ultimately ends up is anyone’s guess, but for Habstritt, who also had the rare experience of having a cardinal take up residence in her yard a few winters ago, one thing’s for sure:
The story of Tiny Tim now has a whole new meaning.
Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.