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Birds of the St. Croix River Valley: Minnesota and Wisconsin

FAMILY STRIGIDAE

Typical Owls


Screech Owl -- Great Horned Owl -- Long-eared Owl -- Short-eared Owl -- Snowy Owl -- Barred Owl -- Great Gray Owl -- Hawk Owl -- Boreal Owl -- Saw-whet Owl

Screech Owl (Otus asio)

Status: Regular permanent resident.

Distribution: Uncommon permanent resident in the Western Upland and Central Plain, rare to absent elsewhere. Bernard (1967) did not report this species in Douglas County. Green and Janssen (1975) reported that screech owls are resident in Carlton County, indicating possible residence in Pine County. Documented nesting records exist for Pierce, St. Croix, and Washington counties.

Habitat: Breeding screech owls are restricted primarily to mature deciduous forests. Most breeding pairs that I have encountered were associated with Lowland Deciduous Forest that was dominated by cottonwood, American elm, and green ash. In agricultural areas, breeding screech owls are associated with oak woodlots and they are regularly observed using ornamental tree plantings in residential areas.


Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus)

Status: Regular permanent resident.

Distribution: Common permanent resident throughout the Central Plain Northern Highland, fairly common (locally common) in the Western Upland. Jackson (1942) reported great horned owls were generally distributed in northwestern Wisconsin.

Habitat: Nesting great horned owls use a variety of habitats, including Lowland Deciduous Forest, mature Northern Hardwood Forest, oak woodlots, Pine Plantations, Lowland Coniferous Forest, and Southern Deciduous Forest.


Long-eared Owl (Asio otus)

Status: Regular migrant and nesting species, casual winter resident.

Migration: Rare spring and fall migrant throughout the region. Spring migrants arrive 1-15 March and are most commonly seen 20 March 15 April. Fall migrants arrive about 1 October and most have departed by 1 December.

Nesting Season Distribution: Rare nesting species throughout the Valley. Nesting has been reported in Washington County (Christenson and Fuller 1975). In St. Croix County, the first nest record was obtained near Hudson in 1973, and this pair also produced young in 1974. In Polk County, nesting long-eared owls were found in the McKenzie Creek Wildlife Area (T. 37 N., R. 16 W.) and the Sterling Pine Barrens (T. 36 N., R. 20 W.) during 1972-74. In Burnett County, nests have been found in jack pine habitat west of Grantsburg. Although breeding records are lacking for other counties in the Valley, nesting is expected in suitable habitat.

Winter: Rare winter resident in the Western Upland, casual north of this area.

Habitat: Nesting long-eared owls are usually associated with pine forests and Pine Plantations. The St. Croix County pair was found in a small valley of Southern Deciduous Forest. Wintering long-eared owls are usually associated with Pine Plantations and young pine forests.


Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus)

Status: Regular migrant, casual summer and rare winter resident, one nest record.

Migration: Rare migrant throughout the Valley. Spring migrants arrive about 15 March and are most commonly observed 15-30 April. Most have departed by 10 May. Fall migrants arrive about 25 September. Peak numbers occur 30 October to 1 December and most depart by 15 December.

Nesting Season Distribution: C. R. Elliott observed a short-eared owl nest with three young in St. Croix County on 15 June 1978. This nest was located in a Managed Grassland on the Oakridge Waterfowl Production Area near New Richmond (Sec. 17, T. 31 N., R 17 W.). This represents the only known nest record for the Valley. The presence of additional midsummer records from Crex Meadows, Burnett County (1968-74), Polk County (1974), and St. Croix County (1976) suggest that this species nests sparingly throughout the Valley in suitable habitat. There are no known summer records for the Minnesota counties.

Winter: Rare winter resident in St. Croix, Washington, and Burnett counties. Although most records are from the CBC, two mid-January records exist for Crex Meadows.

Habitat: All breeding season records of this species have been made from Northern Sedge Meadow and retired grassland habitats. Wintering short-eared owls occur in sedge meadows and grassy fields.


Snowy Owl (Nyctea scandiaca)

Status: Regular migrant and winter resident.

Migration: Rare spring and fall migrant throughout the Valley. Yearly abundance varies considerably and migrating and wintering populations appear to be regulated by a 4-year cycle of small mammal populations on this species' tundra breeding areas. Fall migrants arrive in mid-November (earliest-14 October 1918, Pine County; 2 November 1963, Crex Meadows) and during "invasion" years, reach peak abundance 15 December to 1 January. Spring migration begins in late February and departure occurs by 1 April (latest-9 April 1967, Crex Meadows and 18 April 1974, St. Croix County).

Winter: Rare and local winter resident throughout the Valley. During years of peak abundance, snowy owls are fairly common winter residents at Crex Meadows, Burnett County; occasional concentrations range from six to eight birds.

Habitat: Wintering snowy owls regularly use open agricultural fields and Northern Sedge Meadow or Shrub Carr. Occasionally found associated with semipermanently flooded wetlands in the Western Upland and Central Plain. At Crex Meadows, extensive use is made of restored tall grass prairie and Northern Sedge Meadow.


Barred Owl (Strix varia)

Status: Regular permanent resident.

Distribution: Fairly common (locally common) in the Central Plain and Northern Highland, common in the Western Upland. There is apparently little difference in status between nesting and winter seasons.

Habitat: Characteristic species of mature Northern Hardwood Forest in the Central Plain and Northern Highland. Predominant vegetation of barred owl habitat includes basswood, sugar maple, trembling aspen, green ash, and white pine. Lowland Coniferous Forest that contains mature yellow birch and black spruce provides important breeding habitat in the Northern Highland. In the Western Upland, the barred owl is characteristic of mature Lowland Deciduous Forest and reaches greatest densities in large expanses of this vegetation type associated with major streams that are tributary to the St. Croix River.


Great Gray Owl (Strix nebulosa)

Status: Casual winter resident, one nest record.

Records: One was found dead near Lake Elmo, Washington County, on 15 February 1969 (Green 1969). Another individual was observed at the Northwoods Audubon Center, Pine County, on 27 January 1973. D. G. Follen (personal communication) reported a single great gray owl several times in "early November" 1979, 16 km east of Moose Junction, Douglas County (T. 44 N., R. 13 W.). Follen also reported a great gray owl during November 1979 in extreme northwestern Washburn County, Wisconsin, near the Douglas and Burnett County border.

Nesting Season Distribution: Follen (1979) provided the only evidence of great gray owl nesting in the Valley. On 18 August 1978, he observed two immature great gray owls 0.6 km north of Moose Junction, Douglas County (Sec. 7, T. 44 N., R. 14 W.). The estimated age of these birds was 6-8 weeks. During the observation, an adult was seen and heard nearby. On 19 August 1978, three immatures and one adult were observed at the same location and a stick nest found.

Habitat: Vegetation adjacent to the Douglas County nest was Lowland Coniferous Forest dominated by black spruce, white birch, and green ash. Vast areas of similar habitat exist in southwestern Douglas and adjacent Pine counties. Continued observations in this region may reveal additional breeding records.


Hawk Owl (Surnia ulula)

Status: Casual winter resident.

Records: Bernard and Klugow (1963) provided the most evidence of hawk owl occurrence in the Valley. They reported three observations of hawk owls in Douglas County including "one bird 5.6 km north of Dairyland (T. 44 N., R. 14 W.), in early March 1963." On 17 March 1963, a dead hawk owl was found 16 km west of Solon Springs (T. 45 N., R. 13 W.) and on 20 March 1963 another hawk owl (possibly the first individual) was observed 8.8 km northeast of Dairyland. Other records include one bird collected at Stacy, Chisago County, on 20 October 1962, and two birds observed in Pine County on 17 February 1963 (Green 1963).

These observations were made during a winter that produced an "invasion" of hawk owls in northwestern Wisconsin and much of northern Minnesota. Later that same year, the nests and young of two separate pairs were found in northeastern Douglas County. The hawk owl is included as casual rather than accidental, because the species is well known for occasional irruptions into southern areas during the winter (cf. Green 1963; Eckert 1978). Because large expanses of excellent hawk owl habitat (Lowland Coniferous Forest) occur in southern Douglas and adjacent Pine counties, I would expect additional records of this owl during future "invasions."


Boreal Owl (Aegolius funereus)

Status: Casual winter resident.

Records: There are two records for Burnett County: 19 December 1952 at Crex Meadows (N. R. Stone), and 13 April 1975 near the Fish Lake Wildlife Area (W. Norling). In Pine County, one was observed on 9 November 1972.


Saw-whet Owl (Aegolius acadicus)

Status: Regular migrant and winter resident.

Migration: Rare migrant throughout the Valley. Spring migrants arrive in mid-March, and most observations occur between 25 March and 15 April (latest-16 May 1961, St. Croix County). Fall migrants arrive in mid-September and most have departed by 15 December. This species is one of the least common regular owls in the Valley. At Hawk Ridge near Duluth, Minnesota, saw-whet owls are the most common migrant owl (Evans 1975). No doubt their small size, nocturnal habits, and very secretive behavior contribute to the scarcity of records.

On 24 May 1978, C. A. Kemper and S. D. Robbins heard saw-whet owls calling in four separate locations about 15 km west of Solon Springs, Douglas County. S. D. Robbins (personal communication) suggests that the saw-whet owl probably nests in the upper Valley.

Winter: Apparently a casual winter resident until mid-January. Several late December records exist from the Afton, St. Paul Suburban (Washington County) and New Richmond (St. Croix County) CBC. Also, there are several January records from Burnett County. The recent increased interest in "owling" with tape-recorded calls may help to better establish the winter status of this species.

Habitat: Most records of wintering saw-whet owls have been from medium-aged Pine Plantations and mature pine forests.


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