For some winter-weary Northlanders, February, the shortest month of the year, may seem like the longest. Chilly temperatures keep from melting the snowpack that has been more than a foot and a half for nearly 80 days. Mild days followed by cold gives us ice and crunchy snow. But with lengthening daylight, things are happening.
Birds that frequented the feeder are calling as they feed. Back in the woods, woodpeckers drum for proclamations of their territories and I heard turkeys gobbling. Ravens and crows continue their vocal flights. We may be looking for more changes.
Some years, redpolls have not appeared at feeders until February, but with finches very limited this winter, I do not expect to see them. But there is more happening.
February may be the best time to see a variety of owls. With some searching in the region, seven kinds can be seen or heard. These include permanent residents and migrants that came here from further north. These various owls range from small to medium to large. While many do the expected hunting at night, others prefer days.
While walking in the predawn darkness, I have often heard calls of two resident owls: the great horned and the barred. Tufts of feathers above the head that are neither horns nor ears give the large great horned owl its name.
They call a series of hoots, while the slightly smaller barred owl, named after dark lines on its underside, produce sounds that have often been paraphrased as “who cooks for you." A range of other sounds — screeches, grunts and laughs — are theirs, too.
The tiny saw-whet owl, only 8 inches, lives in coniferous forests. Here, they may pierce the darkness with beeping notes, similar to the sound of a backing truck. During the lumbering days, it was said to sound like a saw being sharpened.
Among the quartet that arrives from the far north, perhaps the best known is the white snowy owl. At nearly 2 feet long, this bird of the tundra is a regular winter visitor to the region, where it searches for prey near the lake or in open sites further inland. Hunting is done day or night.
Even larger, the great gray owl of nearly 30 inches, is a bird of the northern boreal forests and bogs. Here, they feed on small mammals. Most winters, some come here to seek similar meals, many times diving into the snowpack to grab mice beneath. Being large and hunting in the daytime, they are often seen from roads. Some winters, they can be abundant if food up north is not.
The 16-inch hawk owl is a mid-size. Its long tail, unusual with owls, gives this name. They also breed in the bog country north of here. Nearly every winter a few hawk owls will arrive in the Northland, but being solitary, they are never abundant.
The smallest northern owl visitor and least likely to be seen is the 10-inch boreal owl. This brown owl is also a resident of the northern conifers. With a deep snowpack or reduced small mammal prey, they may come to our region. Those arriving here at this time are often quite hungry and there have been late winters where many appeared.
These wintering owls are more common in the second half of winter, from February on. I find that with their diurnal hunting, this may be the best time to see them. And the Sax-Zim Bog west of Cotton, Minnesota, may be the best place around to locate all of the owls of February.