A Boreal Forest Photographic Owlery


The boreal forests of Alaska boast six species of owls. That excludes species found in Southeastern Alaska and on the North Slope. WC’s photos of the species vary widely in quality, but here’s a sampler.

Northern Hawk Owl, Sawmill Road, Alaska

Northern Hawk Owl, Sawmill Road, Alaska

Hazed by smoke from forest fires, this handsome and cooperative Northern Hawk Owl perched on a scraggly dead black spruce. The species can be surprisingly hard to find in some years; in other years you seem to see it every day. The long tail and the dark circles partially framing the fce make this a pretty easy bird to identify.

Great Gray Owl, Wrangell-St. Elias Nat'l Park, Alaska

Great Gray Owl, Wrangell-St. Elias Nat’l Park, Alaska

Great Gray Owls are the largest boreal owl. Not the heaviest, but the biggest in size. It’s mostly feathers. While birders call the male Northern Harrier the “Gray Ghost,” WC thinks the name applies better to this big, silent bird. It can be incredibly hard to find. Unless you have found a nest, it’s a Very Big Deal to see a Great Gray.

Great Horned Owl (Female)

Great Horned Owl (Female)

In contrast to Great Grays, Great Horned Owls seem to be everywhere. The “Tiger of the Skies,” this is a top tier predator that has a fairly high tolerance for humans. It will even build nests on manmade structures. This was a yard bird for us in the hills north of Fairbanks. Those talons!

Boreal Owl Female

Boreal Owl Female

Boreal Owls are tiny in comparison to the others; even the female, the larger bird, is just ten inches long. Another difficult species to find away from nests, happily they like nest boxes. In thousands of hours of birding, WC has seen exactly two Boreal Owls away from nests.

Short-eared Owl, Delta Agricultural Project, Delta Jnction, Alaska

Short-eared Owl, Delta Agricultural Project, Delta Jnction, Alaska

Unlike the other birds shown, the Short-eared Owl is a migrant, heading for warmer climes most winters. But they breed all the way to the North Slope. Mostly they are seen in the boreal forest in migration, but do nest on te=he fringes, as along the Denali Highway.

Northern Saw-Whet Owl, Eagle River, Alaska

Northern Saw-Whet Owl, Eagle River, Alaska

The final boreal owl species is limited to southcentral Alaska, the Northern Saw-Whet Owl. This bird was photographed near Eagle River. It’s a cousin to the Boreal Owl, but about 20% smaller. The behavior of the Alaska Northern Saw-Whets is poorly studied. But it’s another species you generally find by locating a nest, as here.

But there you have it: all of the regularly breeding owls in Alaska’s boreal forest.