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Summit of the Owls

It's rare that representatives from all three diurnal northern owl species -- the Great Gray Owl, the Northern Hawk Owl, and the Snowy Owl -- make a joint appearance in the United States. It's rare, but not unthinkable, because it's happening right now.

And what brings these northerners our way? Food, of course: rodents. There's a lack of them in the owls' permanent homes and an abundance of them here. But the owls travel only as far south as necessary to find these critters, and this year the magic line extends across northern Minnesota.

According to Kim Eckert, a local ornithological expert, there have been more than a hundred Great Gray Owls, more than fifty Northern Hawk Owls, and roughly thirty Snowy Owls recorded thus far in the Arrowhead Region of northeastern Minnesota. In Aitkin County to the south and west, meanwhile, Warren Nelson reports seventeen Great Grays, eight Northern Hawk Owls, and two Snowies. Roseau, Lake of the Woods, and Koochiching Counties also have their fair share of these birds.

The owls, even for amateur birders, are easy to tell apart. The largest of them, the Great Gray Owl, looks like an enormous puffball with gray feathers and gleaming yellow eyes. Despite its size, though, the Great Gray is the most difficult of the three owls to spot since it blends in with the trees it roosts in along the edges of woodlands.

Northern Hawk Owls, by contrast, perch on treetops and can sometimes be spotted from a mile away. In fact, they're named for their resemblance to the hawks that sit in conspicuous places along roadsides and meadow edges watching for prey. Of the three owls, Northern Hawk Owls tend to be the most approachable, and they will usually continue their watch-and-hunt activities even when humans approach to within 20 or 30 feet.

Finally, Snowy Owls prefer wide open spaces and should be expected only at areas like airports, beaches, and large fields. While Northern Hawk Owls and Great Gray Owls are difficult to differentiate by sex, the male Snowy Owl is always considerably whiter than the female of the species.