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Outdoors/Adventure

John Schandelmeier: This Alaska owl is no night owl

A northern hawk owl surveys the scene from its perch above Point Woronzof Drive west of the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. (Erik Hill / ADN archive 2008)

I was under the truck bleeding the rear brakes when a shrill ki-ki-ki-ki broke the early evening stillness.

The sound was close. I rolled from under the truck and looked to the nearest tree. The sound came again, seemingly from a few feet away. This time I recognized the vocalization of a northern hawk owl.

Hawk owls are a relatively common bird in the Delta Junction and Paxson areas. They like the scattered spruce and open meadows that allow them access to their favorite prey — tundra voles.

I was surprised to hear this medium-sized owl calling in the near-dark. Hawk owls are one of the few owls that commonly hunt in daylight.

They like to perch at the very tips of spruce trees, but this particular bird sounded like he was at head height. The owl called again and I eased slowly toward the tree where I suspected he was perched. The ventriloquist had me fooled and he flew from the top of a spruce 20 feet to one side. I got a quick look at him against the sky and he was gone.

I have been around hawk owls all of my life, but it was evident that I still had a lot to learn. It seems these little predators hunt at night also.

Northern hawk owls are not a common bird except during years when there is an abundant vole or lemming population. They are one of the least-studied birds in North America.

They generally nest in April or May, but because of their preferred remote habitat, near timberline, they are not easy to find. In addition to voles, hawk owls will also take hares and grouse. Thus, with the increasing hare population in the Interior and the summer's explosion of voles, these owls are common sights this year.

These owls can raise as many 10 young ones in one spring brood. They nest in the tops of broken or rotten spruce trees. They don't make a nest – whatever is available works for them. Eggs are incubated from the time the first one is laid. The first hatchling is then a week older than one from an egg laid a week later.

If the entire brood is to survive, there must be plenty of food or the smaller young just won't make it. The female incubates and the male hunts. If there are a bunch of babies, Dad is going to be busy.

Hawk owls are one of the most skilled hunters in the owl family. Contrary to most owls, which use their hearing to locate much of their prey, hawk owls hunt primarily by sight, hence the need for open meadows.

They still have the keen hearing common to the rest of the owl family and can take voles hidden under a foot of new snow.

Sitting, they are plainly an owl. In flight they seem to be a medium-sized hawk. Swift flight and pointed wings provide excellent maneuverability that make for a deadly hunting combination.

Sharp talons and a 3-foot wingspan complete a predatory machine that spreads terror to grouse and red squirrels.

Northern hawk owls have few natural enemies. However, when the owl's prey increases, so do their enemies. Goshawks, which increase rapidly when the hare population hits a high cycle, can prey heavily on these owls. Marten and weasels will also raid nests.

Fortunately, the young birds are out of the nest in a few short weeks. They are unable to fly other than in short bursts, and remain near the nest site, dependent on the parents for food. Gradually they learn hunting techniques and are independent by three months.

The bird that roused me from my brake job has continued to use our yard as his private hunting preserve. Nearly every morning he can be seen perched in a dead snag near the horse corral, waiting for the unwary vole to make a run from the horse feeder to a hay bale. Good luck.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race. 

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