Northern Hawk Owl- Surnia ulula

by Bryce W. Robinson

Yesterday, I travelled well out of my way with Caitlin Davis and Heidi Ware in search of a wayward Northern Hawk Owl. The journey to Moscow, Idaho from Boise is very long. Really, it’s too long if you don’t have a solid guarantee to see your target. We weren’t guaranteed, but it was a promising bet, enough to make us shoot for it.

Only minutes after arriving in town, we had located the owl. It was impossible for me to set the scene with my camera, given my 300mm lens and lack of any alternatives. I’ll have to attempt to paint the picture using words. It’s important, as the experience was quite peculiar.

For whatever reason, this hawk owl had decided to settle in the middle of town, to hunt an overgrown irrigation ditch next to a shopping center. The irrigation ditch is now unused. The area has succumbed to commercialization, with a shopping mall to the north, and what appeared to be a doctors office of some sort, and more store fronts to the south. Now the ditch serves as a remnant of a natural area, with a jogging path running alongside, so pedestrians can feel a bit of nature as they pass through the community. Here, the hawk owl felt enough nature to sit and hunt, for a few days at least. What a strange creature.

I’m captivated by bird behavior. Of all places, this bird felt comfortable enough to hunt along a busy roadside, in the middle of town. Optimal hunting habitat is not limited in the area surrounding Moscow. It’s quite rural there, with the surrounding farmlands likely boasting a host of mammalian prey.

I can come up many reasons why the bird felt comfortable here, related to presence of prey and a lack of predators, but I still think any explanation falls a bit short. It was simply one of those instances in life, a peculiarity. I’m thankful someone was aware enough to notice the strange looking bird, perched on a wire above the road.

The bird seemed to ignore we the birders, and kept about its business. It seemed focused. I was surprised by how active its hunting was. While we were watching the bird, about forty five minutes time, it switched perches over and over. It watched the ground, and would seem to come off perch in pursuit, only to fly to another perch. Sometimes, it would go to high light poles, or power lines, and then it would come low to a small tree top. There were even times it sat on the street signs.

I’ve always been intrigued with how animals interact with human society and infrastructure. This bird seemed to act as if it were a part of its daily life, to continue on its natural tasks, in the midst of a rather unnatural setting, as if it had always done so.