Rare Sighting Causes Flap: The Northern Hawk Owl

Wednesday, March 4, 2020
If you follow wildlife photography pages, are an avid birder, or even a part of our Facebook group Ontario Birds by WBU Barrie, you may have seen a number of exuberant posts and photos lately depicting a particularly majestic Northern Hawk Owl. This owl has beccome somewhat of a celebrity in the region, because it is such a rare visitor and presents such a unique opportunity for nature lovers and photographers alike to observe a species that they may otherwise not get the chance to.

Northern Hawk Owls are very unique because they look like an owl, but their behaviour is closer to that of a hawk. Unlike most owls, they hunt mostly during daylight and are the most diurnal of owl species. They are solitary birds who generally occupy the boreal forest, however some winters they travel further south than usual, exciting all whose path they cross!

Photo by Kevin Shelp (@cpankster)

Generally, owls detect prey more by sound than sight. However, the Northern Hawk Owl is believed to use mostly sight to hone in on prey, though they still share a heightened sense of sound with other owl species. 

Although they generally occupy fairly Northern ranges, on years where populations of prey species such as small mammals are down, they tend to irrupt further south and occupy territories that are unusual for them. Due to their customary Northern range, they rarely are exposed to humans and can actually be quite tame. 

Photos by Dan Harnett (@harnettd)

Given the current celebrity status of our stunning visitor, I did want to underline and remind us all that as nature lovers and wildlife photographers, we do need to be respectful of this animal. We are huge advocates for the ethics of owl photography, and the photography of any species really, which should come at no cost to the animal. I love this particulalr quote from another blog on the ethical photography of owl species: 

"As wildlife photography goes, owls make easy photographic subjects! They are creatures of habit, they sit still for long periods and they fly low and slow. In temperate climates at least, there are seasonal opportunities to photograph these primarily nocturnal birds during daylight. In today’s world of listservs and multiple sources of immediate information sharing, the burden of finding these mysterious creatures is greatly reduced—most photographers no longer find owls, they simply go to see them at known locations! At the same time, their mystique and enigma has not been lost, their elusive reputation being matched by their personality and character, perhaps especially because of their large, human-like, forward-facing eyes and rounded heads. Their enormous popularity as photographic subjects is thus hardly surprising. This offers opportunities for awareness and conservation but it also poses problems for the owls themselves. This article discusses ways to minimise disturbance so that the sheer joy of watching owls can be shared while minimising the risk of harming the beautiful subjects we love" by Christian Artuso. 

You can read the rest of that article here. 

In general, it is best to exercise precaution whenever observing and photographing an owl. If you have to risk disturbing the animal to get the photo, it is not worth it. Just keeping in mind that it is important to maintain a respectful distance, as well as a reasonable length of time observing the bird. 

I have loved seeing all the excitement and beautiful photographs of this stunning species. And as always, the better we can understand them, the more we can appreciate them whole-heartedly. 



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