Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Superb Owl Sunday, 2020

Barred Owl

Sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s, I noticed that the term “super bowl” could be given an entirely different meaning simply by shifting the letter B to the left, making it “superb owl.” Ever since then, I’ve tried to make it an annual tradition on that Sunday to see a superb owl or two.  

My most successful Superb Owl Sundays have all included my husband Russ, whether we were in New York City looking at stunning Snowy Owls...

Snowy Owl in the Big Apple

... Two Harbors enjoying unbelievable looks at a Boreal Owl ... 

Boreal Owl

or the Sax-Zim Bog, where last year we had four species of owls and got incredible photos of Barred and Great Gray Owls.  

Barred Owl roosting

Great Gray Owl

This year Russ and I headed back to the bog at mid-morning on Sunday. This has been an exceptionally bad year for seeing winter finches—except for a handful of goldfinches at the Sax-Zim Bog Welcome Center, we didn’t see a single one. Most of the birders who came there that day saw Northern Hawk Owls, and several had a Snowy Owl, but we got skunked on both. No one had reported a Great Gray Owl in the bog in four days, and I didn’t talk to anyone who saw one on Sunday, us included.  

We spent most of our time visiting the feeding station on Admiral Road—a hotspot marked on the bog map available at the Welcome Center.  

That feeder is usually the best place anywhere to spot Boreal Chickadees—they have a strange but consistent preference for peanut butter, and so volunteers make sure to keep peanut butter available at that feeding station. I’ve been to the Bog three times this winter now, but have yet to see a Boreal Chickadee anywhere. The first time I went, a shrike was sticking so close to the feeders that not a single small songbird appeared, and even though I didn’t see it on my second visit or this one, it was still being reported by others, which almost certainly has kept the little birds wary.  

Northern Shrike

The shrike hasn’t seemed to worry the Canada Jays—I’ve counted as many as seven at a time at the Admiral Road feeders and have been seeing more here and there in the bog than I’ve seen in years. That is a very hopeful thing.  

The reason we were spending so much time on Admiral Road this time is that all week, a Boreal Owl was coming to the feeders. Not to eat peanut butter or suet of course, but in hopes of snapping up one or two songbirds or little rodents. Birders share their sightings, and Boreal Owls are the hardest of all our northern owls to see, so on Saturday night, someone counted 49 cars parked along Admiral Road when the owl showed up about 4 pm. All week it had been showing up for at least an hour or so in the afternoon, and so we of course had high hopes. Unfortunately, the biting wind that so chilled us apparently kept the owl in a sheltered spot away from the feeders.  

In between visits to the feeding station, we headed to the little Wintergreen Bog spot where a Barred Owl was supposed to be. THAT turned out to be one heck of a superb owl. When we got there, it was perched in the open above the Wintergreen Bog sign and feeders, scrutinizing all the feeder birds.  

Barred Owl

Barred Owls eat anything they can catch, so you’d think songbirds would be wary of one sitting right above the feeders, but those little songbirds are quicker and more maneuverable, and were as aware of the owl as it was of them—had it opened its wings, they’d have vanished. What the owl really wanted was a slow-witted squirrel or a mouse or vole to turn up, but none did while we watched.

I took hundreds of photos of it. There were at least a dozen other birders watching and photographing it while we were there. The owl seemed to be ignoring us—no one stepped off the well-worn path in the snow, and as long as people stay predictable, a lot of birds can adapt to us. Last year a Barred Owl, perhaps the same one, gave me some of my best photos that whole day.

We drove to several other spots, carefully checking out where others had seen hawk owls and a Snowy Owl, but no luck on that front. At about 2:45, we went back to Admiral Road to make one last try for the Boreal Owl. Our plan was to stay there till three and then go buy some food, but then we decided to wait till 3:15, then 3:30, then—well, why not?—we’d give it till 4 pm. After all, that’s when it had showed up the day before. We hadn’t had any lunch and were very hungry, but hopefulness overpowered hunger, at least for a while.

While we were standing there in the bitter wind, Russ and I both started thinking about the movie Airplane! It begins with Robert Hays’s character, a cab driver named Ted Striker, arriving at the airport. Before he can jump out of his car, a customer runs up and climbs in. Striker tells him he’ll be right back and starts the meter.

Then the movie unfolds, with Striker getting on the plane, the crew and most passengers getting sick, and Julie Hagerty’s character, Otto the autopilot, and Striker ultimately safely landing the plane. As he and Julie Hagerty embrace in the sunset, the credits roll. When they’re finally over, we return to the cab where the man is still waiting. He looks at his watch and says, “Well, I’ll give him another 20 minutes. But that’s it.”

Russ and I were not quite as tenacious as that guy. We gave up at 4:05, chilled to the bone, and headed to the Wilbert Café. When we were almost done eating, another birder arrived at the café after waiting for the owl until dark. I felt bad that he missed it too, but glad that we hadn’t given the bird another 20 minutes. Like that guy in the cab, we might still be there.