Not all owls are nocturnal. In fact, there are owl species that hunt in daylight. This obviously makes them easier for us to see and more fun to look for.
Snowy owls and great gray owls will hunt during the day, as will Northern hawk-owls.
Hawk-owls like high perches. They sit way up in bare deciduous trees or atop spruce trees or power poles, sometimes even on power lines. If they're there, they usually aren't hard to find. That's a real plus for bird watchers.
In Minnesota, we're enjoying a mini-invasion of Northern hawk-owls, a small but fierce bird. More than three dozen have been seen this winter, mostly east and north of Duluth. Hawk-owls live in boreal forests around the globe. The southern edge of their normal, year-round range runs along the Minnesota-Ontario border. They slip down here when hunting is tough in their home territories.
Hawk-owls mostly eat small rodents, but they've been seen feeding on deer guts and have been known to take grouse, ptarmigan and hares. Going after such larger game is impressive considering that the owl weighs about 10 ounces. It's not the bird in the fight, but the fight in the bird.
On the hunt
Hawk-owls have long pointed wings and long tails, which give them some resemblance to a hawk, hence the name. Unlike owls that are strictly nocturnal, hawk-owls hunt primarily by sight. Their hearing is good, but their ears aren't asymmetrical in placement. The asymmetrical ears of night hunters allow them to locate prey by sound alone.
I've watched a hawk-owl capture a small rodent (call it a vole) that was beneath deep snow at least 50 feet from the bird. This species is fairly tame, so I was able to watch at a respectful distance. Here's what happened: The hawk-owl, which was sitting on top of a tall snag in midday, suddenly snapped its head to the left, then flew directly across the road into a snowy field. It must have seen some movement. It disappeared in the snow for a few seconds, then reappeared, flying to its perch with a vole.
There, the bird tore the mammal into pieces small enough to be swallowed. It didn't seem to take much effort. Holding the vole tightly in its talons, it grabbed the flesh with its bill, then pulled up. It took three down-the-hatch movements -- bill open, eyes to the sky, gulp, gulp, gulp -- to complete the meal.
I wondered how much effort it would take me to rip a vole into three pieces. It was a parenthetical thought.
If you want to see a hawk-owl this winter, you'll have plenty of opportunities to look for one. These beautiful black-and-white birds with sharp yellow eyes are likely to be in the state until spring approaches.
Jim Williams, a lifelong birder, is a member of the American Birding Association, Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever and Delta Waterfowl. Join his conversation about birds at startribune.com/wingnut. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.