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Northern Hawk Owl | by Rick Leche
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Northern Hawk Owl

A Life List addition!


METRO VANCOUVER - For birders in the Lower Mainland, Christmas has come early with the arrival of a northern hawk owl, a rare visitor to the region and one that seems to enjoy its celebrity status. The owl is commonly found in Canada’s northern boreal forests, but this December settled on Westham Island near Ladner, where it’s been regularly sighted and photographed beside the island’s main road.


“It’s a Christmas present, very rare and unusual,” said Viveka Ohman, a White Rock birder and executive member of Nature Vancouver, formerly the Vancouver Natural History Society.


“I think the last time we had an owl like that here was back in the 1980s. Every 20 years you might see one.”


Pete Davidson, a biologist with Bird Studies Canada who works on Westham Island, said this is only the sixth record of a northern hawk owl visiting the Vancouver area.


In winter, the owls wouldn’t normally travel much farther south than the central province, such as around Prince George, but for some reason this one overshot its mark, perhaps influenced by weather conditions or the search for food.


Regardless, the raptor is now in owl Nirvana, feasting on rodents and small birds that thrive in the snowless agricultural fields. It is mainly seen on hydro poles or shrubs and trees mid-island close to where Westham Island Road takes a dogleg to become Roberston Road.


“The reason it’s hanging out in exactly the same place is because there’s so much food there,” said Davidson, noting it seems to especially savour Townsend’s voles. “It’s gorging itself, having a great time, like a permanent feast laid out in front of it.”


The owl isn’t particularly nervous of people who approach to watch, including scores of photographers who’ve been winging their way to the site, to the point they create traffic issues.


“People love to see owls,” Ohman confirmed.


“It’s been a bit overwhelming with the photographers.”


She encourages visitors to respect private property and stay 10 to 15 metres from the owl. “Give the bird its space,” she said, noting that every time the bird flies away to avoid intruders it wastes energy.


“Don’t stick the camera lens into its face. I don’t like to see that.”


Motorists also are asked to exercise caution not just for the safety of the looky-loos but for the owl, which is prone to make low sweeping dives over the highway. The northern hawk owl is medium-sized, about 35 centimetres long, and lacking ear tufts. It sports a finely barred underside, long tapered tail and striking dark bands on its head.


“It kind of reminds me of a badger, a very unusual look, especially on the back of the head,” Davidson said.


The tail and face, which lacks the pronounced facial disk of other owls, give rise to the name. The owl hunts during the day, perching on dead trees and skimming low and rapidly over the ground as it swoops down on prey. Accustomed to a cold dry climate, it seems to be adapting to Vancouver’s weather.


“It’s a bit wet for that type of bird, but it seems to be doing quite well,” Ohman said.


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Taken on January 26, 2011