Brad Dokken / Forum News Service, Published January 26 2014
Red River Valley sees increase in owls from the Arctic
That would quickly change, said Hughes, an avid birder from the Warren, Minn.-based Agassiz Audubon Society.
“There weren’t any sightings other than maybe one or two in October and November,” she said. “I thought maybe they had passed us, and then New Year’s Day, I drove around and found six of them real close to Warren and was like, ‘Oh wow, this is cool.’ ”
Hughes then wrote a short story she submitted to several northwest Minnesota weeklies, asking readers to be on the lookout for snowy owls and report any sightings. An influx of the Arctic denizens had been making news in the northeast United States, and Hughes figured Marshall and Polk counties in northwest Minnesota could add to the database of reports.
“People started calling me from all over the place and sending pictures of snowy owls,” Hughes said. “Right now, it’s like a blizzard. People in northwest Minnesota are spotting them, and they’re talking about them.”
In the past three weeks, she said, people have been driving down township roads and county roads looking for the large, white owls, which are notorious for perching atop power poles, where they scan the horizon for rodents and other food.
Snowy owls even have been spotted along U.S. Highway 75, Hughes said.
Looking is fine, she said; just try not to disturb the owls and put them under unnecessary stress.
“Stay in your car,” she said. “It’s a great bird blind, and drive real slowly. You can get great photographs from your car window. The best time of day when it’s cold and windy, is early morning or late afternoon.”
Hughes said this winter’s influx of snowy owls provided a bird-watching first.
“For years, I’ve been trying to find an adult male snowy owl, and I found one this winter” in Polk County, she said. Younger owls have more dark-colored bars in their plumage, while older birds are whiter.
Snowy owl sightings aren’t limited to Minnesota. Hughes recently joined Grand Forks birding authority Dave Lambeth to look for snowy owls west of Grand Forks, and they spotted four of the birds west of Interstate 29.
“On both sides of the valley we’re seeing them,” she said. “There’s a good number of birds out there.”
Lambeth said the observations continue, and he received a more recent report of an excursion that produced seven owl sightings near Grand Forks. Most of the sightings are on the edges of grasslands between Grand Forks and Emerado, N.D., he said, and owls have been spotted both north and south of U.S. Highway 2.
“I would call it an exceptional year for seeing that many here in the midst of the winter, especially with the winter we are having,” Lambeth said. “But that’s a human prejudice because in most years, many snowies stay much closer to or within the Arctic.”
Dokken writes for the Grand Forks Herald