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Whoo's here? Owls arrive

Article Date: 2005-01-12   Source:   Comments: 1

By Lee Bergquist

Northern Wisconsin, U.S.A. - Northern Wisconsin is under invasion.

Owls from Canada have been moving into the state this month in unprecedented numbers.

''It's been at least 100 years since this last happened,'' said Susan Foote-Martin of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Birding Web sites are abuzz with sightings of four northern owls that have swooped in from Canada: the great gray, boreal, northern hawk and snowy owls.

The owls inhabit the vast forests of Canada and, in the case of the snowy owl, Canada's tundra region, according to Foote-Martin, coordinator of the Great Wisconsin Birding and Nature Trail.

Reports of snowy owls in the winter have not been uncommon. Sightings this year of the great gray, boreal and northern hawk owls are far higher than in past years.

At least two northern hawk owls have been spotted in or near Harrington Beach State Park in Ozaukee County.

Boreal owls, the rarest of the group, feed primarily at night and are hard to spot.

In addition, the DNR is trumpeting recent rare sightings of a belted kingfisher and robins in Wild Rose in Waushara County, a hermit thrush in Estabrook Park and more than 100 bald eagles along the Wisconsin River at Sauk City and Prairie du Sac.

But it's the great gray - the largest owl in North America - that is grabbing most of the attention. As tall as 33 inches, it spends most of its life in dense conifer forests and adjacent meadows and bogs.

This year, with food supplies running low, the great gray suddenly began showing up in big numbers in northeastern Minnesota in December, and then in January, it moved into northwestern Wisconsin in numbers not seen in decades.

Foote-Martin estimates at least 100 of the owls are in northwestern Wisconsin now, and a Minnesota owl expert predicted that hundreds more could move into the state as the winter wears on.

Experts say the great gray is not easily spooked by people. In Superior, birder Penny Thiessen of Stoughton said: "You can eat at McDonald's and watch them. They are all over the area."

But these close encounters are ruffling feathers. With pictures and sightings being posted almost daily over the past week, some birders wonder whether it's too much of a good thing.

Birder and photographer Mike McDowell of Madison said the owls "don't have any say in the matter. They are here because they are running out of food. It's a testament of how bad it will be for these birds."

Already, there are reports of dead owls in northern Wisconsin, he said.

Birding experts suggest that people who want to view the birds should remain in their car and shut off the engine. People should not get closer than 75 feet. Even though the owls - especially the great gray - don't seem to be troubled by humans, movement and noise from onlookers can stress them because of their highly attuned senses, experts say.

In the most recent count, there have been more than 1,300 reports of great gray, 200 northern hawk and 300 boreal owls in Minnesota during the fall and winter. That compares to 35 great gray, six northern hawk and one boreal in an average year.

Mark Alt, president of the Minnesota Ornithologists' Union, called it a "banner year."

Minnesota usually gets more northern owls than Wisconsin because the birds are reluctant to fly over even a small slice of Lake Superior. Nevertheless, "I think they are going to push east and south," said Alt, an owl specialist.

He predicted that the great gray will move to Crex Meadows in Burnett County and Spooner in Washburn County and said it could reach as far south as the Horicon Marsh in Dodge County.

Ornithologist Noel Cutright of the Town of Saukville was wary of making such a prediction.

"It's all driven by prey," said Cutright, past president of the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology.

The great gray subsists on meadow voles, whose numbers are ebbing at the low end of its population cycle, said Ryan Brady, who teaches ornithology and statistics at Northland College in Ashland.

Brady and his wife saw 19 great grays in less than two hours Saturday in Douglas County along the Minnesota border south of Superior.

"Any time you see one great gray owl, it's good," he said. "When you see 19 of them in two hours, it's a good as it's going to get."

Disclaimer: This article has been reproduced from and placed here for comment. is not responsible for the accuracy of any information in this article, and does not necessarily agree with the author's opinions.

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2005-01-17 - A feathered parliament by Ralph Ansami - Northern Wisconsin, U.S.A.

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On 2009-11-11, from Wisconsin Rapids, WI wrote: "Driving East on Townline Road in the town of Grand Rapids, WI I was surprised by a huge bird flying directly head on towards my windshield at perhaps three feetabove my hood. It was dark less than an hour after sunset on 11/10/09. I had just left a stopsign and ahd accelerated to probably 10 to 15 mph. His wingspan was as wide as the car and flaired as though he was attempting to land on the roof. I assume he was simply trying to pull up to avoid the car. He was huge, plump and grey/brown. Because of his size, I assume he was a Great Gray Owl."

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