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Northland Nature Journal: True 'snowbirds' have migrated to Minnesota

This ailing snowy owl was rescued by Williams Lake, near Akeley, and sent to the raptor center to recuperate. It did not survive. Snowy owls stand about 22 inches and weighs five pounds. (Dallas Hudson/For the Enterprise)

Editor's Note: Growing up on 11th Crow Wing Lake in Akeley, Dallas Hudson spent his boyhood exploring the surrounding public lands and waters. Since 1996, he has tracked some 500 species — birds, animals, insects, plants — in his daily journals. Since picking up a camera in 2015, Hudson has taken hundreds of photos to go with with his nature observations. Hudson shares his phenology notes and photos with KAXE's Season Watch, the Minnesota Phenology Network — and now the Park Rapids Enterprise.

Friday, Dec. 8

The average freeze up date for Shingobee Lake is Nov. 27. It almost completely froze on Nov. 10, but due to warm weather and wind, has had several holes open up since — something I have never seen before. As of today, it still has two big holes. So anyone venturing out on the lakes this winter be extra careful. This is the worst ice I have ever seen.

The winter birds are now here. It seems weird that we are a "southern destination" when most of our summertime feathered friends leave. I've seen snow buntings, redpolls, pine grosbeaks, and even snowy owls this winter.

This morning, I was told by a Howard Lake resident that a snowy owl was just sitting on the edge of the road by Williams Lake and he could just walk up to it. I called the raptor center and they asked me to catch it. I just walked up to it and picked it up. I'm now waiting for someone to take it to rehab.

According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the snowy owl nests in the arctic tundra in northern Canada and Alaska. But during many winters, this large, white raptor comes to northern Minnesota to hunt voles, mice and other small animals. They are seen most often in the northern half of the state; however, there is no permanent population.

I have not seen a snowy owl since the early 80s.

According to John Latimer, a fellow phenologist, snow buntings also spend their summers in the far north, well above the Arctic Circle.

"Here then is the true snowbird," he writes. "Unlike the local version that packs up his RV and drives to a sunny, and hopefully warmer location, the snow bunting retreats from the darkness of the arctic winter to bask in the balmy climes of northern Minnesota. True to his name, his trip south keeps him well within the snow belt."

Tuesday, Dec. 12

Shingobee Lake froze up all the way this morning.

Staff said the snowy owl died on the way to the raptor center. I'm amazed at how fast it went downhill and died. They figure it was starvation or a virus. Life is fragile and we just never know when, and in nature, especially so.