Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Monday, February 13, 2023

Superb Owl Sunday 2023

Boreal Owl

Russ and I don’t get to go birding together very often, but we do make a point of getting out one particular Sunday in February whenever we can—Superb Owl Sunday, which I made into a personal annual tradition back in the 1980s. Some years I haven’t been able to go birding, and many times Russ’s schedule hasn’t allowed us to celebrate together, but the very best owl photo I ever took, of the most cooperative Boreal Owl in the most perfect light ever, was on Superb Owl Sunday 2013. That was during my Big Year, and it happened on the only day that whole year that Russ and I could get out together.  

Boreal Owl

This year hasn’t been great for finding owls at the Sax-Zim Bog—I suppose I could blame it on something trendy like supply chain issues, but some winters owls do just fine further north and don't show up here. People up at the Bog have seen a Great Gray Owl every now and then this year, but the birds are apparently finding enough food at night that they don’t need to sit out in the open by day. Great Gray Owls don’t mind people too much as long as we don’t approach uncomfortably close, but ravens and crows can be very rude when they spot a Great Gray, so the big owls prefer to hide out by day if they’re not too hungry. On my two trips to the Bog so far this year, I haven’t lucked into a Great Gray.  

Great Gray Owl
I took this photo on Superb Owl Sunday 2019.

I did get fairly nice if somewhat distant looks at a Barred Owl at the bog this year on New Year’s Day. 

Barred Owl

Then on January 31, a Great Horned Owl turned up in my own yard in early afternoon, sitting in a very exposed limb in a big deciduous tree for several minutes. The bird seemed to be actively hunting, noticeably checking out the neighborhood squirrels and my little dog Pip, so I instantly brought her (the dog, not the owl) indoors. Great Horned Owls start nesting in January and February up here, so I’m assuming this was a male searching for food for his mate and, if they’ve already hatched, his tiny nestlings. No way could a Great Horned Owl carry off an 8-pound dog, but he could easily kill her and then eat her in place or carry off chunks for his family. I think the local pair is nesting somewhere near Lester Park. 

Great Horned Owl

On February 9, I noticed crows harassing a different Great Horned Owl behind my daughter’s backyard—that owl was roosting and trying to evade the notice of any local crows. It was too tucked against the trunk for Walter to pick it out, and the crows drove it off before my son-in-law Michael made it to the window. Any glimpse of an owl should be plenty good enough for me, but I was still disappointed that Michael didn’t get to see it. 

That was it for owl sightings in 2023, so I was filled with eager anticipation on Superb Owl Sunday. Russ and I headed to the Bog, and sure enough, one of our very first birds of the day was a Northern Hawk Owl. It was extremely far away—almost beyond what Pete Dunne calls the distance of conjecture—so wasn’t at all satisfying from a photographic standpoint, but in birding as in baseball, a win is a win, defined on Superb Owl Sunday as seeing any owl. 

Very distant Northern Hawk Owl
That teeny tiny speck at the top of the tree right in the center is a Northern Hawk Owl. Really!

Even better, owls are not the only birds, and we saw plenty of birds up close and personal, especially one of my all-time favorites, Evening Grosbeaks, which were visiting all the feeders. 

Evening Grosbeak

Evening Grosbeak

Evening Grosbeak

Their pleasant chatter formed so much of the soundtrack of my life for the lovely decade when my children were little, back when Evening Grosbeaks were abundant here, that hearing them is balm for my soul. I’ve made long stereo recordings from my house (all listed on my Evening Grosbeak page), but couldn’t help but hold my phone up for a 2-minute recording behind the Visitor Center.

Evening Grosbeaks way outnumbered Pine Grosbeaks, but both species gave me lovely photo ops. 

Pine Grosbeak

Pine Grosbeak

One lone Pine Siskin hanging out near a feeder by the Welcome Center outhouse was very cooperative.  

Pine Siskin

Canada Jays in several places were just as cooperative.  

Canada Jay

Canada Jay

We came home happy and satisfied with our beautiful day of birding.

But Superb Owl Sunday wasn’t over yet. My dear banded Pileated Woodpecker BB showed up soon after we got home, and SheB (the female who may or may not be BB's mate) came soon afterward. And then, what to my wondering eyes should appear but a little Brown Creeper hitching up my box elder. I was right in the middle of downloading photos from my camera’s card, but even if the camera had been ready for shooting, the little bird was focused on eating, not accommodating my photographic needs. I didn’t care—like I said, a win is a win.

Northern Hawk Owl
This photo was taken in January 2011--not on Superb Owl Sunday, but a Superb Owl nonetheless.