Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Monday, February 4, 2019

Superb Owl Sundays with Russ: A little history

Boreal Owl

Back in the 1980s or 90s, I noticed that the term Super Bowl can be written with the exact same letters in the exact same order to spell Superb Owl. Since I never quite figured out football, I started celebrating the day by going out looking for owls.

Over the years, I’ve gone out many times, sometimes with friends, sometimes alone. I’ve found at least one owl every one of those times except last year when I went out with Lisa Johnson—for some reason we had very bad owl karma that day, and got skunked.

In all those years, I’ve only gone owling three times with my husband. We got away to New York City in February 2012, and so on that Superb Owl Sunday, Russ and I drove over to Breezy Point Tip in Queens with our daughter Katie and her now-husband Michael. I’d heard that there were Snowy Owls in the dunes above the beach, and sure enough, we saw both a pure white adult male and a more heavily marked younger bird. I only managed photos of the all-white male.

Snowy Owl in the Big Apple

NYC Snowy Owl

By the following Superb Owl Sunday, Russ’s mom was living with us so we couldn’t get away for a full day at all anymore, but that was the year I was doing my Big Year and I wanted at least one birding adventure with my husband. So after we had his mom settled in for the morning that Sunday, we went up to Two Harbors.

That year there were Boreal Owls all over the place. Along the freeway en route, we passed two clusters of birders with cameras and spotting scopes pointing into the trees, and as I suspected and confirmed later, they were indeed looking at Boreal Owls. But I wanted to find my own, and I wanted it to be in my favorite little spot in Two Harbors where an alley runs along a wooded ravine, so we went straight there. 

We’d parked and started walking when one of my friends, Jim Lind, saw us and rushed down to say hi and tell us a saw-whet owl was just a few blocks away roosting in someone’s back yard. Jim and Russ had never met, so we stood chatting in the alley for a few minutes and then—WHOA! Jim looked up and said, “Boreal Owl!” 

Jim Lind pointing out Boreal Owl
Jim Lind pointing out the Boreal Owl.
Boreal Owl
It was so close from that vantage point, with my 400-mm camera, that you can make out the tiny bristle feathers that run along the edge of the facial disks.

It was sitting in a branch right even with us, only 20 feet away, based on my camera’s focal length data. The sun was behind us giving perfect light as the little owl sat posing for some of the best photos I’ve ever taken of any bird. After Jim left, the little predator dove into the snow, pulled out a
shrew, and ate it.

Boreal Owl

Russ and I watched it for a good half hour before we moved on. I felt secure assuming we weren’t bothering it—we’d been talking with Jim for two or three minutes without even realizing it was there, and it didn’t seem to pay us any mind while we were photographing it. Then we moved on to see the roosting Saw-whet and headed home.

Northern Saw-whet Owl

That’s the last time Russ was able to go out with me on Superb Owl Sunday until this year. And this year ended up being my best Superb Owl Sunday of all. But that's for another blog post.

Russ looking at Boreal Owl
Russ looking at our Boreal Owl. (I hardly ever remember to take pictures of him!)