The Bird and Memory of the Week is the Northern Hawk Owl, Surnia ulula. There has been some recent controversy over this owl and I will touch on that briefly but this post deals with my treasured intersections with what has to be one of the fiercest looking and most appealing of all the North American Owls.
The first time I observed this species was in March 1982 in Bridgeport, WA. It had been first seen in late January that year and again through February. Back in those days there was no Ebird or Tweeters and word of mouth and some information at Seattle Audubon was the way one learned of what birds had been seen – or at least those were my resources and I had heard of this observation through Seattle Audubon. Now almost 34 years later I do not recall specifics of the observation except that it proved relatively easy to find and the owl was out in the open and VERY STRIKING!! Also at least for me this was pre-photography days so no picture.
Fast forward to December 2012. I was now back into birding and this was the end of my first year of “listing” and “chasing”. I was in Dennis Paulson’s Master Birding Class and I was avidly following reports on Tweeters and Ebird and often rushing out to “see those birds”. On the 21st a Hawk Owl observation was reported near Ephrata and a picture was included – it was beautiful. I wanted desperately to see that bird.
Northern Hawk Owl (December 21, 2012 – reported by others)
Early the next day Samantha Robinson and I headed east – with high hopes. We had an approximate location and it was a three hour drive from Seattle. I had been in the same general area on December 11th when a two hour search resulted in observing a Gyrfalcon that had first been found by Matt Yawney. A Northern Hawk Owl would be as good or better. We first stopped at Wanapum State Park checking the trees (unsuccessfully for Long Eared Owls), saw some ducks including a Red Breasted Merganser near the boat launch and then continued on our quest. We birded the area where it had been seen earlier and all along Highway 28 east and west of Ephrata for several hours without luck.
Being the next to shortest day of the year, we knew that light would be gone pretty early. Around 2:00 we decided to head home planning to check “every” post, tree, pole etc. along the way to give it a last shot. About 7 miles from where the owl had first been seen (on Highway 28), we came upon a ranch/farm on the south side of the road that had several buildings, few trees and a number of lamp structures. On one of the lamps/lamp posts, maybe 300 to 400 yards away, there was – a bump. We pulled into the driveway; got as close as we could; got out of the car and …Eureka – we had our bird!!
Distant Northern Hawk Owl December 22, 2012 – Highway 28
Not a great look from afar but still very exciting. It really is a magnificent bird. We watched it on the lamp for a few minutes and it actually seemed to be watching us even at that distance. It turned its attention away from us – and dove – disappearing behind one of the outbuildings. We figured our viewing was done – disappointing our thirst for more but still a very exhilarating experience. It soon got MUCH more exhilarating. Of all of the places that the Owl could have chosen for its next perch, it actually flew into one of the only two trees around – the one right next to – US!! Unbelievable.
At first it had its back to us and we could only glimpse the full magnificence when it would swivel its head as only owls can do.
But our show was not done. The owl turned completely around to face us – no more than 50 feet away. And now we could see the purpose of the dive. A rodent was grasped in its talons – the tail and rear legs dangling in clear sight. The Hawk Owl’s ferocious and piercing glare suggested that perhaps we should allow it to eat in peace.
Northern Hawk Owl with Prey
One more close up and we left – adrenalin still raging through our veins – a most memorable, fantastic and fortuitous encounter. No more sightings were reported (on Ebird) for this species after our observation. The only other Hawk Owl reported in 2012 had been back in January and another was not reported in Washington until July 2013.
Northern Hawk Owl December 2012 – Final Close Up
2013 was the year of my official “Big Year” in the state – complete craziness but a lot of fun. And as luck would have it, I was not able to find a Northern Hawk Owl that year (being unable to try for the only one reported, in the Okanogan in July). It would have been great for the “tick” but how could it ever beat our 2012 experience? The following year I was moving more and more to photography and hoped for another Hawk Owl. One was reported in the Brewster Flats area on November 17th and as soon as I could arrange it, I made the trip again with Samantha Robinson.
After a hard couple of hours of searching we were about to give up. Another birder had joined the search and when he separated for a “nature call” we heard “I got it.” He had obviously chosen the right “bush” and there it was on a wire in the open if not as close as our earlier bird. Under normal circumstances, the resulting picture would have been treasured – as fuzzy as it was. But it was hard not to compare to our 2012 experience – so “just a photo”.
Northern Hawk Owl – Brewster Flats November 2014
2015 became another “Big Year” but of a different nature (already covered in my first blog post) as I tried to get photographs of as many birds in Washington as I could. Unfortunately the only Northern Hawk Owl reported was by Dan Waggoner at Cassimer Bar on December 30th. It apparently had been found a couple of days earlier but that observation had not made it into the “information stream” by the time I drove within a mile of its location returning from my trip to the Okanogan. And there was no way to turn around and try for this bird as I had organized a boat trip out of Sequim on December 31st – an impossible conflict.
As many readers know the Cassimer Bar Hawk Owl turned into a very unhappy and ugly story as the property owner did not enjoy the attention this bird brought to his property, although it was viewable from a public street and there was no trespassing involved. He ended up shooting the owl and stringing it up in full view as his illegal retaliation. Legal forces did punish the landowner but that certainly did nothing to save one of nature’s wonders.
We are blessed to witness the many wonderful birds in Washington – none to me more appealing or charismatic than the Northern Hawk Owl…but sometimes we encounter those with a very different aspect and appreciation and sometimes we may ourselves overstep boundaries- clear or less clear. Enjoy, educate, acknowledge and respect – as best we can.