A Northern Hawk Owl has been spending the last month or so near Low, Quebec right in the exact same location where one had been seen in the winter of 2006-07. Speculation is that it is the same individual, but since the owl is not banded I suppose we’ll never know.
Deb and I made the trip across the border on a bitterly cold morning last weekend. We didn’t see much on the drive up other than a few Blue Jays, crows and ravens, and at first we didn’t see a single bird after we’d left the highway. There was no sign of any Purple Finches picking grit up off the road this time.
We found the owl when we found two cars parked along Chemin Neely. One of the cars belonged to Patrick Blake, a birding acquaintance whom I keep running into in the oddest places….it was thanks to him that I got my first Boreal Chickadee at Algonquin. He pointed out the tree where the hawk owl was sitting, so I pulled out my camera and started clicking away.
I was half-afraid that we’d arrive to find dozens of photographers lined up beneath the owl, tossing out live mice left, right and center. Owl baiting has become a common, though unethical, practice among some photographers looking to get better photos of these diurnal hunters. I have never witnessed it myself, by choice, as the thought of watching the demise of these poor, cute rodents sickens me. Just as worse, from the rodent’s perspective, what if it should escape the owl? Chances are the mice obtained from pet stores are not native to our area. Any mouse that escapes will then have to deal with a harsh, winter environment it may be quite unsuited for; if several mice should survive, they have the potential to establish a population of non-native rodents and possibly introduce harmful diseases or parasites to native animals and those that prey on them.
Further, this practice at its most basic level is exploitive. Owls which have had to travel long distances in order to find an adequate food supply in order to survive are already stressed. I fail to see how being mobbed or harassed by several photographers (and disrespectful birders, too for that matter) would not cause the bird further stress. In addition, most baiting occurs close to roads which puts the owl’s life at risk. Northern owls which are not used to cars may be so intent on the capturing prey that they fall victim to a speeding car as they fly low across a road. This appears to be what happened to the Orillia hawk owl in January 2009.
Owls are intelligent creatures, and some have become so used seeing humans as a source of food that they sometimes fly right up to people or cars, and in one case, follow people for a kilometer or more. Again, this puts the owl at risk.
The practice of baiting owls has stirred so much controversy and ill feeling between birders and photographers that many people and birding clubs no longer publish the location of owls and promote a birding code of ethics. Although this is sad for those who genuinely respect and appreciate these wild animals, ultimately it is the best way to protect them.
The hawk owl was sitting in a tree on private property, so I stayed on the road and enjoyed the fantastic view. The owl appeared alert and curious, looking around and watching us from time to time before flying onto a different branch.
At one point both Pat and I spotted an extremely large bird soaring in the distance; it was likely an eagle, but disappeared too quickly to be sure. Both Bald and Golden Eagles are fairly regular winter residents of the Gatineau hills.
Deb and I didn’t stay too long, as the cold weather was taking its toll. Driving along one of the back roads to the highway, we saw a flock of birds (Snow Buntings? Horned Larks?) fly over the dirt road and disappear into the field. A flock of European Starlings was the only other species we could positively identify. It was definitely worth the trip to see the Northern Hawk Owl in the same place where I first added this species to my life list, and I hope he dines well on the local voles and field mice until it comes time for him to return to his breeding grounds.