LAKE MINCHUMINA -- I was about to head to bed in the bright dusk of a June evening when the frantic calls of a pair of robins caught my attention. Something bad was happening and I strolled back into the birch forest to determine the source of their consternation. As soon as I reached the desperate couple, I glimpsed a dark shape retreating through the treetops, its silent flight and big fluffy body strongly suggesting a large owl.
With six different local owl species to choose from, I could rule out three by size alone. Hawk owls, with their medium sized bodies and longish tails, are too small, and rarely haunt our birch-covered hill, preferring the low-lying spruce and willow flats instead. Boreal owls are smaller yet, and although every late winter and spring we hear their gentle, snipe-like tootling, this departing critter looked much too big.
We don’t see short-eared owls very often; in fact, for years I didn’t think they lived here at all. Then one September as I tromped the willow flats of an old silted-in river channel, I spotted this medium-sized hunter floating softly over the willows, drifting past close enough for me to spot the tiny tufts of feathers, his “ears,” poking above his head. Since then I’ve seen them on several occasions, but only over open willow flats, never here in the stands of birch and aspen on the hillside. Now, whenever I find a dead snowshoe hare out there with just the head eaten off, classical behavior for a bird of prey, I wonder if a short-eared owl had a good meal.
Although large, snowy owls are too white to have been my mystery bird. (They have been so rare in this area that half the students in our local ETT class leaped to their feet and rushed to the window when they spotted one flying by outside.) The intruder could have been a great gray owl. These massive hunters nearly disappeared for 10 years or more, but an influx of both voles and snowshoe hares has led to a rebounding population. I've been spotting them on occasion during the last of the dog mushing days, perhaps when training a puppy team on the glacial stream cutting through mixed spruce and willows where the big owls can find a nice mix of food.
My sister, Julie, and I have found two great gray nests, built a couple hundred feet apart, in the tops of a poplar and a birch tree on the back side of our hill. That was where, 30 years ago, I found two nestlings, newly fluttered from their treetop home. Unable to fly yet, they sat on a fallen spruce log staring at us with big owl eyes. We respectfully left the pair there, confident that their parents lurked nearby.
Both nests lay abandoned for years after that, only to be reoccupied recently. This year, although I did not see activity at the known nests, I did hear owl-like mutterings back in the woods from there, making me wonder if they had a new nest we had yet to spot.
Still, I decided the current villain was probably a great horned owl. Almost as big as a great gray, we frequently spot or hear these birds about a mile away, where they live and probably nest by a complex of spruce and birch and willows, ponds, beaver sloughs and the river.
Here they can find snowshoe hares, voles, squirrels and numerous birds to feed their young, and their haunting “Who-WHOOO-hoo-hoo” or “Wh-huh-huh- WHOO-hoo hoo” often sounds over the flats and intersecting birch ridge. Sometimes they visit closer to our home, their resounding songs filling the evening as they call back forth.
A week or two after the robin incident I heard a small noise — “Sheeew! Sheew!” — coming from a few hundred yards away, down where the birch hill reaches the spruce flats, both edged by a marsh bordering the river. Listening for a moment more, the incessant teep-teep-teep-teep-teep of a yellowlegs registered along with the short, low call. Leaving my maul with the wood I was splitting, I strolled down the trail just in the trees from the marsh. When I reached the spot where the yellowlegs hovered, protesting loudly, I spotted a great horned owl drifting off through the trees, the stout, short body differentiating him from a great gray.
Quigley and I happened back to that same spot a few days later, me with my maul to split some wood we had cut there some time earlier, and Quigley armed with her nose ready to find the squirrels and grouse that enjoy that corner of the woods. The little gray husky probably knew as well as I that boundary habitats — intersecting spruce and birch, marsh and river — offer an array of resources appealing to prey and predators alike.
I hadn’t forgotten about the owl, and as I set up the first heavy block of birch, I heard them again, two owls or more, not calling their classic “whoo’s” but muttering short grunts and brief chirrs. I scanned the treetops and there she was, perched on a high birch limb, staring down at me with a piercing gaze. Then, silently, the big owl dropped from its perch, diving to build speed before swooping swiftly right at me.
I had just enough time to think fleetingly of people who have been attacked by great homed owls, with the big bird driving into the victim’s back with its powerful claws, before the owl shot powerfully past me just six or eight feet away at the level of my shoulders. It continued downward, swooping threateningly right over Quigley’s head before gliding sharply upward again to perch on the broken top of a nearby dead spruce.
I am sure the owl would have liked to report that it sent us intruders screaming from the area. Instead, Quigley merely spun in a half-circle to keep the owl in sight before turning big brown eyes on me to see what I thought of this curious behavior. Of course I knew from the actions and conversation of the owls that this pair had youngsters nearby, and I should have left them completely alone. Instead I dropped my maul and for the second time left my work, this time to get a camera.
Two big fluffy youngsters were sharing the wood lot with their parents. I spent most of my wood-splitting time prowling around photographing owls instead of doing my work. The adults muttered intermittently, but kept their distance, occasionally perching in a tree above the curious young ones as the latter gazed down at me from 20 or 30 feet up. One sat in a birch tree for the hour I spent there, watching me photograph his family before I returned to my maul just 30 feet away. He was still sitting there when I threw the last block of firewood onto the pile and shouldered my tools to head home.
When I heard the yellowlegs complaining loudly a day later I knew the owl stayed on at the wood lot. Through her open window in the wee hours of the night. Julie heard an owl again, not the little talk or classic booming call, but a flimsy, higher-pitched little “h-woo-ooo-oo.” An answer came instantly as our 16 big sled dogs burst into song, adding their own deep “ooo’s".
Our young neighbors were growing up and practicing the famous call of their ancestors. With luck, by the following spring they would be adding their deep, fully honed voices to those of the other owls in our area.
Miki Collins is a trapper who lives near Lake Minchumina.