Northern Hawk Owl – rare owl in southwest Montana
May 4, 2023
There was quite the stir in the birding community when a local birder found a Northern Hawk Owl near the school in Wise River in the first week of January. Why the excitement?
Very few people have ever seen one, and they are typically never this far south. All of my sightings prior to January 17, 2023 were in Glacier National Park, on the "Inside Road" to Polebridge near the Howe Lake trail area, some 265 miles north of Wise River.
The first was of two fledglings in June of 2005. That sighting was totally unexpected as it was yet unknown that the species had successfully bred in Montana. I found an adult in August of that same year, further proving their success.
The next sighting was September 4, 2009, and the last was in July, 2013. It's been 10 years since I have seen a Hawk Owl and I bird a lot! All of these sightings involved a fair amount of hiking in grizzly country, through wet marshes and fairly steep trails.
That's what made the January, 2023 sighting so remarkable.
We simply drove to Wise River, looked around the general area of the school and there it was! The picture with this article was of the owl sitting on a light pole in the school yard.
The owl stayed in the area for at least three weeks and was probably the single most photographed owl ever in Montana. Few people missed seeing it who tried and most people took hundreds of photos. I would guess that at least 400 birders traveled to see this rare Montana occurrence that was so easy to find with such little to no effort.
The Northern Hawk Owl is classified as a "least concern" species in proper habitat. Only the very northern portion of northwest Montana is proper habitat. In the Canadian providences, Alaska, and the Northwest Territories within the Boreal Forest (forest containing spruce and wet bogs) the Northern Hawk Owl is common.
That is not the case in Montana. Records with the Montana Natural Heritage Program show it has only been observed 168 times, with the majority of those observations coming out of Glacier Park or extreme Northwest portions of the state along the Canadian Border.
Most observation are from May through August, but they have been seen every month of the year. They most often occur in Montana when small rodent populations crash in their northern habitats. There are few direct reports of breeding in Montana. I have been fortunate to observe both a nest and fledglings in Glacier Park.
So why did a North Hawk Owl show in Wise River? Anyone's guess, but it did stay in the area for about three weeks which suggests that it was moving south to find small rodents and found an abundance of them in the Wise River area. This cold and heavy snow year probably was hard on small rodents north of Montana, and the owl was moving south to find food.
So how do you tell this owl from others? They are a medium-sized owl with an unusually long tail for an owl, thus the name hawk owl.
In flight they are reminiscent of a small hawk with quick, snappy wingbeats. The pale eyes give it an angry or fierce look. They are brownish overall with white spotting above, barred underparts, and spotted crown extending to the beak. The facial disk is bordered with black and is easily seen in my photograph. Those found in the interior Rocky Mountains tend to be grayish, whereas costal birds are browner.
Behavior-wise they are often perched on the very top of a spruce tree or snag, surveying the surrounding landscape for prey. That is how I found this one, only it was on a power pole.
Chasing rarities is a lot of fun, but learning the birds of your backyard is probably a better use of your time and money.