Guest Blogging Day 5: Jeff Fischer

Welcome back for Day 5 of the Swarovski Optik Guest Blogging Contest. Sharon's checked in from Guatemala and wants you to know how thrilled she is with both the quality of the entries and all your comments. Today's guest Blogger is Jeff Fischer of Ecobirder.

Every year as winter engulfs North America many birders make like the birds and fly south for the winter. Many of them head to the big birding destinations down south, like Ding Darling, Brownsville or the Bosque del Apache, but for those birders that choose to don mukluks instead of flip flops and spread on lip balm instead of sun screen and brave the sub zero temps of Minnesota the reward can be great. While Minnesota may not have the variety of birds that can be found in the south, during the winter time, it does have some thing that many birders are looking to add to their life list, and that is winter owls.
The first owls to arrive each year seem to be the snowy owl. These ground nesters spend their summer up on the tundra of the arctic circle where they work to keep the lemming population in control. When winter comes young snowies, like the one pictured above, that do not yet have their own territory often venture south in search of food.

Since they are used to open spaces of the tundra they are typically drawn to farm fields, frozen lakes and airports. The international airport in Bloomington, MN has been a winter home for snowies for the past several years. This year there has been an irruption of snowies in Minnesota, Wisconsin and other northern states. Typically irruptions are due to a crash in the food supply but the thought this year is that it was such a good year for snowy reproduction that there were more snowies then the habitat up north could support during the winter. So more have headed south.

Soon after the snowies begin to pass through there are typically reports of northern hawk owls in the northern portions of Minnesota. These birds spend their summer up in Canada, Alaska and Siberia hunting mice and voles. Although they are a member of the owl family northern hawk owls are built very similarly to hawks with short wings and long tails.
Since they are diurnal, they hunt during the day, they are one of the easiest northern owls to find. there are currently reports of around 6 northern hawk owls in the Sax Zim Bog and Aitkins County area in Northern Minnesota.

One of the prized owls that many birders look for is the great gray owl. Even though their are a few nesting pair in northern Minnesota as well as those that migrate down looking for food these owls are much more difficult to find. They are adapt at camouflaging their two and a half foot form, which is the largest of the North American Owls.
Northern Minnesota became one of the highlight of the bird world in the winter of 2004 and 2005 when over 5000 great gray owls irrupted into northern Minnesota. While it was a great opportunity to see wild great grey owls it was also very sad. They came south in great numbers to find food when the vole population in Canada crashed. Many starved to death or where hit by cars as they hunted night and day to find food.

Probably the most difficult owl to find is the small secretive boreal owl. I have not yet seen one in the wild, this is Boreas our education boreal from The Raptor Center, even though each year typically a few are spotted in Northern Minnesota.

There are also our resident owls, like great horned, barred and eastern screech owl. Winter is a great time to find and photograph these owls because they usually begin nesting early in the year. Once they are on the nest they are much easier to find. It also allows you to observe some of their behavior.

I usually get my best shots by looking around for dad. He usually is not to far from mom and the nest keeping a watchful eye out. If you look hard you are bound to find him. For more bird pics check out the Ecobirder blog.

Thanks, Jeff! We'll be back tomorrow!