Published February 11, 2013, 03:19 PM

Little owls are a big deal this winter in the Northland

Tiny boreal owls, down from Canada to find food, are drawing birders to Duluth in flocks.

By: Sam Cook, Duluth News Tribune

Tiny boreal owls, down from Canada to find food, are drawing birders to Duluth in flocks.

The influx, called an “irruption” by birders, occurs about every four years with boreal owls, but this has the makings of a big year, birders say.

“I was on the phone for an hour last night, setting up guiding for the next month,” said Duluth’s Frank Nicoletti, a birding guide and director of banding at Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory.

Serious birders will drop everything and travel hundreds or thousands of miles to see an elusive bird. They want to add the species to their “life list” of birds.

“People coming now are pretty hardcore birders and listers,” said Jim Lind of Two Harbors, who has seen 15 boreals in the past couple of weeks. “They’re jumping on planes. I’ve heard of people coming from North Carolina, California, Ohio, Colorado. I ran into a guy this morning (Wednesday), who heard about it two days earlier and flew here from Virginia.”

Call it a boreal bonanza.

“It’s one of the most sought-after birds in North America, for sure,” Lind said.

Sharon Stiteler of Minneapolis and some fellow birders hired Duluth birding guide Erik Bruhnke on Tuesday. They found a boreal owl near Two Harbors that morning, a bird Stiteler needed for her life list.

“That’s what I’ve called my nemesis bird,” said Stiteler, who writes the “Birdchick” blog. “I’m always there five minutes late.”

Not this time. She got her boreal.

“I even had some 16-year-old Scotch along to sip afterward,” Stiteler said. “It was such a relief.”

Chris Woods of the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, N.Y., was here last weekend guiding a group of birders.

“Today easily ranks as one of the best days of birding I’ve had anywhere in the world…” he wrote online, on the Minnesota Ornithological Union listserv. “We saw a total of SEVEN boreal owls — equal to the total number of boreal owls I’ve seen during daylight hours the rest of my life! Being able to watch these birds hunting during the day and early morning and evening hours easily ranks as one of my best birding experiences.”

Shortage of food

Boreal owl irruptions occur in years when prey species become scarce in the northern boreal forests of Canada. The birds move south until they find food, especially mice, red-backed voles and meadow voles, Nicoletti said. The last irruption year was 2009, but it wasn’t as big as the 2004-05 irruption, when an estimated 600 boreal owls were seen or found dead.

“We banded 268 (at Hawk Ridge and in Lakewood Township) that fall without even trying,” Nicoletti said. “They didn’t come until a lot later this year. There must have been food up north to hold them for a while.”

The irruption is not an abnormal thing, he said. What’s different this year is how easy it has been to spot the birds because they’ve come to roadsides so they can hunt areas without deep snow.

As of Thursday, just one boreal owl had been found dead in the Duluth area. In 2004-05, about 150 boreal owls were found dead, Lind said.

The irruption is likely also taking place all across the northern tier of states and in the southern reaches of Canadian provinces, he said.

Small package

Boreal owls, just 10 inches high and weighing less than 5 ounces, can be seen perched in trees during daylight hours.

“This year, they seem to be easier to find during the day, moving around and hunting,” Lind said.

Lind has seen 15 boreals, 10 of which he found himself, he said.

Duluth birder Laura Erickson and her husband, Russ, saw one in Two Harbors last Sunday.

“We were talking for five or six minutes,” Erickson said. “…and right next to us, not 15 feet away from us, was a boreal sitting out in the sun.”

Erickson said she has mixed emotions about irruption years.

“It makes me sad. The reason they abandoned the north woods is they’re so hungry,” she said.

Wildwoods, a wildlife rehabilitation center in Duluth, has handled one injured boreal owl this winter and arranged transportation of another, said owner Peggy Farr.

Word gets out

One difference between this year’s irruption of boreal owls and irruptions of previous years is that information travels much faster, Lind said.

“People are really connected, between texting and Facebook and e-mail and the MOU listserv,” Lind said. “It’s kind of a social phenomenon.”

That means when an owl is seen, other birders can be alerted instantly.

Some boreal owls breed in Minnesota, although they are still classified as uncommon to rare, said Steve Wilson, a former Department of Natural Resources biologist at Tower.

Wilson said the targeted banding of boreal owls by Nicoletti and others in Minnesota allowed Wilson to make rough estimates of the numbers of boreal owls that visited during past irruption years. It’s clear that for every boreal owl spotted in the Northland, many others go unnoticed.

“We know now that the birds seen are a small proportion of the overall irrupting birds,” Wilson said.

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