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It’s an owl! It’s a hawk! Rare visit one for record books

By Linda Weiford, WSU News

Dec14-owl-300PULLMAN, Wash. – Owls, like most creatures, “sometimes just hit the road and go,” said raptor expert Erik Stauber, a retired wildlife veterinary professor from Washington State University. So when he spotted an odd looking bird perched on a bare tree near a Moscow, Idaho, shopping mall, he suspected it was a rare visitor from a faraway land.

His hunch was spot-on. The bird Stauber saw from his car window on Dec. 3 turned out to be a northern hawk owl, a breed that normally resides in remote boreal forests of Alaska and Canada.

Erik Stauber, right, and Terry Gray peer at a rarely-seen northern hawk owl perched on a power line across the street from a Moscow shopping mall. (Photo by Linda Weiford, WSU News)

Slightly larger than a pigeon, with the barring and spots of an owl but the long, tapered tail of a hawk, this one is still visiting the Palouse.

“Moscow, Idaho – that’s the farthest south I’ve ever heard of one being positively identified,” said field biologist Jessica Larson of the Owl Research Institute in Charlo, Mont., who’s been studying northern hawk owls since 2006. “It’s really exciting news.”

Rarely seen species

Since Stauber’s discovery, birders, photographers and the curious have flocked to Moscow’s Eastside Marketplace mall where the owl perches on nearby traffic signs, utility wires and small trees as if ruling the neighboring townsfolk. Staring straight ahead with yellow cat-like eyes, the bird seems unruffled by the parade of gawkers hoisting binoculars and cameras with lenses as long as baseball bats.

Not only is it unusual that this owl flew so far south, but also that it has stayed so long in a specific location – and an urban one to boot, said Larson. She’s accustomed to observing the species in “fairly rugged terrain,” where she must trudge over ravines or cross-country ski across frozen lakes.

Year-round habitat of the northern hawk owl.

“Northern hawk owls aren’t migratory, but they are nomadic, flying from one spot to another in search of food. The fact that this one is staying in one small area tells me there must be great hunting opportunities there,” said Larson, adding that, if not for her newborn baby, she’d travel to Moscow to see the bird.

Because of their remote habitat zones, “northern hawk owls are challenging to study and we know far less about them than we do most birds of North America,” she said. “So now you’ve got one perched on a traffic sign near a shopping mall? I wish I could be there.”

13,553 hits and counting

Stauber, who created WSU’s Raptor Club in 1981 and whom the university’s raptor facility is named after, had never seen a hawk owl before that December afternoon.

“My mind kept clicking off all the birds that I knew it wasn’t until I reached a tentative conclusion of what it was,” he recalled.

Terry Gray photo

To make what birders call an official sighting, Stauber phoned Terry Gray, a member of the Palouse Audubon Society.

“I said, ‘Terry, it looks like we’ve got a northern hawk owl across the highway from Eastside Market.’ Before I could finish explaining, I think Terry was already there,” Stauber said with a laugh.

Gray drove to the site and watched the bird fly from one lookout perch to another, its wings moving in slow, hawk-like strokes. As the 15-ounce force of nature swooped down on small rodents, “there was no question that Erik had guessed right,” said Gray. “To say that I was excited about a northern hawk owl being in our midst would be an understatement.”

Gray posted the official sighting on eBird (, along with multiple photographs on Flickr (

“Within 24 hours, the site got 13,553 hits, which amazed me. Clearly, Erik and I weren’t the only ones interested,” said Gray, who observes and photographs the owl almost each day. The number of voles and mice it pulls from Paradise Creek’s riparian zone near Safeway indicates it has an abundant food supply, he said.

Bird, humans, from afar

After following Gray’s updates on eBird, John Facchini of San Francisco decided to drive to Moscow from Seattle where he had been visiting. The self-described birder and nature enthusiast drove through the night, arriving near the mall just after sunrise. After seeing the owl land atop a pine tree, Facchini spent an hour or so watching it hunt and snapping pictures.

Terry Gray photo

“It was a very cooperative bird,” he said.

Northern hawk owls are diurnal, or active by day, explained Stauber; that’s one of the reasons it’s so easy to view this visitor. Even so, the bird is surprisingly calm as spectators congregate near the utility poles, signs and trees where it perches to scope for food.

“I’ve never seen a non-captive raptor so unconcerned with humans,” said Stauber.

No matter how much the owl enjoys all the attention and fast food, it will probably hit the road again by early March, he predicted: “It will want to find a mate and realize that one isn’t here.”

In the meantime, folks keep asking why an owl of the great northern forest alighted on a patchwork quilt of fields, stores, cars and a creek.

“It’s an example of nature offering a great story of life,” said Stauber. “To which the answer is, ‘Why not?’”



Erik Stauber, raptor specialist, 208-882-1133,

Owl Research Institute, 406-644-3412,

Terry Gray, Palouse Audubon Society,

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