I recently had an incredible opportunity to photograph a very special visitor to our area. This visitor normally lives in the boreal forest which is a little north of us.
Each year, however, a few of these birds come south to spend part of the winter months hunting in a somewhat more hospitable climate. The bird I’m talking about is called a Northern Hawk Owl. It is a medium sized owl, about the size of a crow. It is called a Northern Hawk Owl because although it is an owl, it behaves much like a hawk.
On the one hand, it hunts during the day. It perches, usually at the top of a tree or the end of a branch, and continually scans the ground around it for small rodents. He has incredible eyesight and very good hearing. He can spot a tiny rodent three-quarters of a mile away.
Watching this bird hunt was amazing. Most of the time I watched him he was hunting in a particular field. It would be perched high in the treetops or sometimes on an electric wire. Suddenly, out of nowhere, he launched himself into the air and headed in a straight line towards the middle of the field at a very high speed.
He would plunge into the snow seven or eight inches feet first. More often than not, he caught what he was looking for. In this field, he was hunting voles, a rodent much like a mouse but much larger.
It was amazing how many voles he caught in that one field. Once it captured the vole in its feet, it quickly covered itself and the area around it with its wings in a process called mantling. He hid his grip from anything that might be watching. Then almost as quickly as it had landed there, it took off again and returned to the trees with its prey.
Everything this bird did, it did very quickly. You had to be perfectly positioned and very quick with the camera to capture this action.
Once the hawk owl got back into the trees, things got pretty brutal. The first thing he did was to rip the vole’s head off and immediately swallow the head. Then he would do one of two things.
If it was the first vole he caught that day, he usually ate the rest of the prey. This usually only lasted a few seconds as it very quickly swallowed the rest of the vole whole.
More often than not, it would fly off with the rest of the vole seized in its mouth or talons and take it to a hiding place to hide it for later.
I’ve seen him hide voles in tree cavities, pile them up in cracks in the bark, or just leave them on top of a telephone pole. As soon as he had hidden the vole, he returned to a prominent perch and resumed hunting.
Some days I watched him catch four or five voles in one afternoon. It was just an amazing experience to watch this magnificent creature do what it does.
I have to say thanks to a few people who gave me clues to help find this bird. You know who you are. Thank you so much for helping me enjoy this wonder of nature.
Dave Ellis is a wildlife photographer from the Omemee area. If you see any interesting wildlife or have any questions about his photos, please email Dave at [email protected] To see more of his photography, visit flickr.com/photos/ourlocalwildlife.