It certainly hasn’t been a good fall for bird watching. Smoke has choked western Montana valleys for weeks, and the high-pressure system that dominated the area has limited migration. Kerr Rasmussen, a bird biologist at the MPG Ranch east of Florence, says morale has been low as he and his colleagues, who are conducting a raptor migration survey, have been sitting for weeks on the flanks of Baldy Mountain “scanning endless, depthless sky” for hawks, eagles and falcons.
But then, around noon on Friday, Sept. 21, one of the Bitterroot Audubon volunteers who came to MPG’s raptor observation site spotted a southbound bird approaching at eye-level. Rasmussen trained his spotting scope on it. At first he thought it might be a peregrine falcon, but as it came closer he recalls thinking, “I can see a huge face, I can see two big eyes—I think this is an owl.”
By itself, the sighting was unusual considering owls are nocturnal. Then it flew closer still. Rasmussen made out its “amazing facial disc with black and white markings that are really beautiful and unusual and stand out.” He told the group his verdict: It was a northern hawk owl, a species almost never seen in the area. In fact, it was the first recorded northern hawk owl sighting in the Bitterroot Valley.
“Everyone was freaking out,” Rasmussen says, explaining how the bird watchers scrambled to locate the owl in their binoculars and cameras.
The observation site has an owl decoy to attract raptors—the raptors will dive-bomb great horned owls, for example, since those owls often hunt idle raptors at night—but now it was attracting the northern hawk owl. The bird buzzed the decoy a few times, and then continued south.
Rasmussen can only guess where it was headed. Northern hawk owls are typically seen in Canada and Alaska, with occasional sightings around Glacier National Park in the late fall and winter. “Movement into Montana is sporadic and migration into the state generally reflects irregular movements of individuals and may be in response to local changes in food availability,” the Montana Field Guide says.
“It was definitely one of the coolest sightings I’ve ever seen,” says Rasmussen, who’s been a bird biologist for more than a decade. “I think I’ve seen a northern hawk owl in all of my recreation and birding adventures maybe three times, and to have one fly 30 feet away from us...it definitely boosted our morale for the next week, at least.”
Just about 10 miles south of Missoula as the, well, northern hawk owl flies, the MPG Ranch is a private, 8,600-acre ranch managed for restoration and conservation, and it's home to all sorts of critters.