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The idyllic winter scene at the Audubon Center of the Red River Valley near Warren, Minn. where a rare owl appeared last week. Keith Corliss

A swing and a miss in northwestern Minnesota

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A swing and a miss in northwestern Minnesota
Fargo North Dakota 101 5th Street North 58102

I would sincerely love to relay how fellow West Fargo birder, Dean Riemer and I drove two hours to a wooded tract in northwestern Minnesota last Sunday and relocated a rare northern owl. But I can’t. We whiffed on it.

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There were early hints that this might be a winter to be on the lookout for boreal owls (Aegolius funereus). By late fall the folks up on Hawk Ridge in Duluth had banded quite a number of these small nocturnal birds, many more than normal. That meant the birds were on the move. And that meant the odds of finding one were up. For someone who had never seen one-me-this was good news.

Fast forward to last week. As unlikely as it seemed, a single bird was located at the Audubon Center of the Red River Valley near Warren, Minn., on Friday, quite a distance from the range considered appropriate for this species. Keep in mind boreal owls have a reputation for never roosting in the same place twice so the chances of re-finding them the next day are slim. This one, however, defied the experts Saturday by reappearing, much to the delight of anxious visitors. I wasn’t one of them. Would it stay another day?

Sunday we made the attempt to defy the odds again. There on the beachline of the Red River Valley sits a beautiful piece of donated property surrounded by agricultural land. The sanctuary encompasses grassland, aspen parkland, wetlands, and hand-planted conifer woods with a snug home nestled among them.

Sanctuary Director Heidi Hughes explained how her husband had seen the owl perched above their feeders on Friday (the owl feeds on small birds and mammals, taken in the dark) and that yesterday it was spotted on the wood pile next to the garage. The bird is likely right here somewhere, I thought as I scanned around the driveway, how tough could this be? Very.

I’ve gone seeking boreal owls before and come away with nothing so I was well aware of the difficulties in finding a small bundle of unmoving feathers tucked deep into the branches of a dark thick spruce tree. Even when birds are located in trees it can be nearly impossible to see them.

Riemer and I (plus two couples from the Grand Forks area and a young woman from Crookston) trudged quietly around the few acres of woods surrounding the house, peering intently into likely boreal owl roost sites among the spruce and pine.

Six to eight inches of snow covered everything on this beautiful Currier and Ives-like landscape. High pitched, flute-like singing was heard regularly from pine grosbeaks darting among the tops of the spruce. A constant chittering came from the feeders as hordes of common and hoary redpolls fed. Still, except for the growl from an occasional small airplane overhead, the winter’s quiet was soothingly deep.

Toward day’s end and after nearly six hours of walking, it became apparent we were not going to find the boreal owl. With another two-hour drive in front of us, we bid adieu to the small party of owl seekers and especially to Hughes, the gracious director and hostess (at one point during the day she opened her home to us and served freshly baked bread!).

There was a day in my past when I would have been deeply disappointed by missing this owl. Not anymore. It’s happened too many times and I’ve grown used to it. In fact, it happens to all of us. You either deal with the setbacks or you let them consume you.

Maybe I’m just getting older and mellower but the focus of such outings is more blurred now. It’s not all about the target anymore, it’s the whole package. It’s not so much in the destination, it is said, it’s in the journey. After all, how can one be disappointed in such a glorious outdoors adventure? The day was stunningly beautiful, the landscape breathtaking, the birds dazzling, and the people warm and friendly. What’s not to savor about an experience such as this?

Oh, there’s one little tidbit I forgot to mention. The local bird group is taking a field trip to the Duluth area next month where several boreal owls are being seen. We better find that bird or else.

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