Northern Hawk Owl Winters In Southern Ontario
Northern Hawk Owls are denizens of boreal forests and rarely leave their breeding grounds. Some winters, however, for lack of food in their normal habitat, Northern Hawk Owls will venture into southern Canada and even the northern United States. In 2019, nature enthusiasts like ourselves were thrilled to have a Northern Hawk Owl show up in the village of Schomberg in southern Ontario.
Reports of this Northern Hawk Owl had been trickling in since mid-November, but it wasn’t until early December that Bob and I made a stab at seeing this special visitor.
Being unfamiliar with Schomberg, it took us quite awhile to determine the whereabouts of the Northern Hawk Owl. It tended to circulate between Dufferin Marsh and two other nearby areas.
The conditions were very poor that day. It was gloomy with a constant cold drizzle falling all morning. When first we espied the Northern Hawk Owl, it was attempting to dry its wings where it sat on a bare branch.
After a short while, the Northern Hawk Owl began hunting. It disappeared a couple of times, and we were lucky to see it return from one of its forays with a Meadow Vole clutched in its beak.
Bob and I were two of three people foolish enough to be out on such a miserable day. Still, we took great delight in seeing the Northern Hawk Owl and hoped to return on a more pleasant day.
A month and a half later, on a frosty morning, Bob and I ventured north to Schomberg once again. Rumour had it that the Northern Hawk Owl was still hanging in at Dufferin Marsh where there seemed to be an endless supply of Meadow Voles as well as pigeons and doves to supplement its diet.
I was well bundled up against the bitter cold temperature. Upon arrival, it was easy to ascertain the location of the Northern Hawk Owl because there were many photographers already with their cameras trained on the majestic bird.
While we were on site, between 20-30 people arrived and/or left. Most people were respectful and did not pursue the Northern Hawk Owl or attempt to get too close. When one chap overstepped the guidelines for ethical owl watching, a couple of people quickly admonished him, and he refrained from going closer.
Because Northern Hawk Owls are from the remote regions of northern North America, they are not conditioned to fear humans. Bird watchers were coming from near and far to see this Northern Hawk Owl, and many reported that the Owl had repeated success hunting for prey as they looked on.
Northern Hawk Owls have the incredible ability to spot prey from as far away as half a mile. This is an added bonus for these daytime hunters, but they still have the ability to detect prey by sound even if it is buried beneath a foot of snow.
Northern Hawk Owls came by their name because they hunt during daylight hours like hawks do. Combined with the fact that they have a long tail and tend to perch atop a tree like hawks are prone to do, there is no wonder they earned their name.
Bob and I were delighted at the Northern Hawk Owl’s level of activity on this visit. It amazed me that they can deftly fly between twigs and branches with their expansive wingspan.
It is customary for a Northern Hawk Owl to change perches frequently, and if prey is spotted, a Hawk Owl may even hover before striking. We headed home after enjoying the company of various other birders and were pleased that we had better conditions on this, our second visit.
Fast forward to February 22, a little over a month later, and the Northern Hawk Owl was still taking up its winter residence in Schomberg. Bob and I had been birding in the Holland Marsh area that morning, and on a whim, we decided to stop in and observe the Northern Hawk Owl on our way home.
Dufferin Marsh has its roots in riparian habitat associated with the Schomberg River. The river, having been redirected with channels during the 1800s, left a river bed that slowly turned into a wetland. The 5-hectare area provided a fairly diverse choice of cover and perches for the Northern Hawk Owl.
Constantly on the alert for telltale signs of prey, the Northern Hawk Owl was intriguing to observe. A lot of insight into the bird’s behaviour was gained by bird watchers. Below is a short video that Bob filmed of the owl on location.
Once the Northern Hawk Owl spotted prey, it plummeted to the ground and attacked prey in fast flight.
Flying quickly, the Northern Hawk Owl kept low to the ground. The Owl’s stiffer feathers meant that we could hear the Northern Hawk Owl flying whereas nocturnal owls fly on silent wings.
Strong deep wing beats carried the Northern Hawk Owl effortlessly to its next treetop perch.
Northern Hawk Owls make a habit of stashing prey in crevices of trees or hollow snags for later consumption. We watched as this Owl retrieved from a hollow stump a Meadow Vole caught on a previous hunt.
For minutes on end, the Northern Hawk Owl delicately ripped pieces from the Vole and swallowed them adeptly. When the meal came to an end, all we could see was the Vole’s tail disappearing down the Owl’s throat.
Since the previous November, hordes of tourists, bird watchers, and nature photographers had descended on the conservation area with some people coming from as far away as the northeastern United States and other Canadian provinces.
Because the Northern Hawk Owl seemed to keep to the open sections of the wetland, we were not moving around very much. When the Owl would fly out of sight, everyone on sight got down to socializing and sharing stories about the different observations they had made.
Shortly before we left for home, we were awed when the Northern Hawk Owl launched from a perch and flew directly towards a stretch of Bulrushes right in front of us.
Thinking that the Northern Hawk Owl had espied a Meadow Vole, we were surprised when it chose a Cattail upon which to attempt a landing.
I was so excited that I could hardly operate my camera, and there was no time to adjust settings. I just hoped for the best.
This was the view of the Northern Hawk Owl from Bob’s position. The following series of photos gives insight into the whole process of the Owl settling onto this flimsiest of supports.
The Northern Hawk Owl had to employ all of its skills to maintain balance on the bobbing Bulrush.
The weathered Cattail threatened to disintegrate under the firm talons of the Northern Hawk Owl.
All we could hear around us was the click and whir of shutters on the vast number of cameras trained in the same direction as our own.
Suddenly, the Northern Hawk Owl registered alarm when an unknown bird of prey flew high overhead unseen by the photographers.
When the Northern Hawk Owl took flight again, it was our signal to leave the conservation area and make our way home.
As a gesture of thanks to the community for tolerating the throngs of nature enthusiasts who descended on their conservation area, one photographer decided to assemble a poster featuring photos of the Northern Hawk Owl. The photos were acquired from a select number of photographers who visited the Hawk Owl. I am pleased to say that one of my photos is included. The poster is titled “L0G1TO”, the name fondly given to the Northern Hawk Owl. The name is derived from the postal code of the area wherein Dufferin Marsh lies. The poster was donated to the Township and hangs in one of their public buildings.