March 6, 2005
What a Hoot!
Karla Kinstler and Alice
This weekend was Houston (or should I say "Hoooston"), Minnesota's Festival of Owls. The festival is in honor of Alice the Great Horned Owl. Alice fell out of her nest in the city of Antigo, Wisconsin eight years ago and was cared for by Marge Gibson of the Raptor Education Group. Alice had broken her upper wing bone right at the elbow joint. This type of injury is impossible to repair and therefore, Alice could never live in the wild ever again.
Alice was found to be well-suited as an educational bird and started her career with Karla Kinstler at the Houston Nature Center. When Alice is not working at her job, she lives a life of luxury living at home with Karla.
During the festival, there was a video playing entitled "At Home with Alice". The video does a great job describing what life is like living with a Great Horned Owl. The video was quite humorous, but also brought to light some of the more serious duties of being a surrogate mother to an owl: cleaning pocket gophers for Alice's meals, cleaning up after Alice, catching owl pellets, trying to sleep during Alice's all-night-hootathons and trying to keep Alice out of your bedroom (she can open doors). The video was a real hoot.
The festival started on Friday evening with a guest lecturer from Manitoba: Dr. James R. Duncan. Jim earned his Ph.D in 1992 for his research on Great Gray Owls. Great Gray Owls reside primarily in Canada from just south of Hudson's Bay to southern Manitoba and then westward towards Alaska. They are the largest owl in North America with a wingspan of up to 5 feet. Even though they are big, they only weigh 2 to 3 pounds. They have long legs in order to grab their prey under thick snow cover and have great eye sight. They can see their prey from as far away as 1/2 mile.
About 90% of the Great Gray's food supply is the Meadow Vole. This year, the vole experienced a population crash and the Great Gray's were forced to head south for better hunting grounds. (This appears to be a natural cycle with Meadow Voles. About three weeks ago, NBC Nightly News featured a segment on these owls as hundreds of these owls found their way into Northern Minnesota. National Geographic also has done an article on them.)
Jim gave an excellent presentation and it was great to see so many photographs of this noble bird. I left the conference thinking about driving up to Northern Minnesota to photograph a Great Gray.
Saturday's event included a visit from Marge Gibson. Marge brought with her many owls: a Great Horned, a Long-Eared, a Barred, a male and female Barn and a cute little Rust Phase Screech Owl. It was great to see so many different owls in one place. The Screech Owl was the hit of the show. It's only a bit larger than a robin, but has the cutest face you've ever seen.
Pictured from left to right: Barred, Barn, Long Eared and Rust Phase Screech Owl.
While the show was going on, an announcement was made that a Great Gray Owl had been seen around Lewiston, Minnesota (about 35 miles to the NW) earlier in the week and that a trip might be in the offering to see this bird. Great Gray's are extremely rare in this area. I thought about going, but I figured it would probably be a "wild owl chase."
The day was capped off with a nighttime owl prowl to a few locations around the Houston area that are known to have quite a few owls. Our bus trip was hosted by Mike Furr who is a wildlife rehabilitator, falconer and educator for over 20 years. He's also an excellent Barred and Screech Owl imitator. Who know's what he was saying in owl talk, but he really did get the attention of a couple of Barred Owls in the area.
Sunday morning I was trying to decide if it was worth the effort to drive to Lewiston in search of the Great Gray. A group of interested birders was leaving at 10 AM. Since it was such a nice day for a drive, I decided to take a chance. These things never work out. It's kinda like the fish that got away. You always here people say "you should have been there yesterday...the owl landed on my shoulder...blah, blah, blah."
So, off we went in search of the Great Gray. A string of cars followed the lead car down the county road looking for the Holy Grail of owls. It kind of reminded me of the part in the movie Twister when a bunch of tornado geeks raced towards the impending doom of a tornado. This adventure was less dangerous but you never know about that tractor just over the hill.
We slowed down as we approached the spot where the owl had been seen before. (Right about now, I'm thinking to myself this will probably be a waste of time.) Suddenly, the lead car pulls over and announces that the bird is just up over the hill sitting on top of a road sign. Really? Yes. Really! I got a bit closer, making sure not to get out of the car. Birds are usually spooked when they see a human and by staying in the car, they are less likely to fly away. I couldn't believe my eyes! There he/she was sitting on top of the road sign— not at all concerned that there were people/cars present.
I couldn't believe how approachable this bird was. It was obvious that it was not afraid of humans—a good indication that its normal habitat was in a wilderness area far removed from "civilization." I watched and photographed the bird for over an hour as it hopped from fence post to fence post and even stood on the ground for a while. I was in awe of this bird.
Not only was I in awe of the bird, but I was in awe of this entire weekend. To meet one of the leading experts on owls on Friday and then get to see a Great Gray here in Southeast Minnesota was quite a treat—here in little ol' Houston, Minnesota.
There certainly aren't many owl festivals in North America. We are really very fortunate to have the Houston Nature Center and to have someone as dedicated to owls as Karla Kinstler. If you are interested in learning more, Karla and her husband Ken operate a website that sells owl merchandise and uses the profits to help facilities that help owls. Their website is: owlstuff.com.