Owls are on the prowl around Alaska. Hoo has an owl box?

Posted: Wednesday, March 21, 2001

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- It should come as no surprise that a boreal owl has been hanging out at Al Blahuta's miniature horse farm off Steele Creek Road just north of town. After all, Blahuta offers free room and board.

He has two boreal owl boxes mounted in trees on his 10-acre spread and the two- or three-dozen bird feeders hanging around his house and horse pens provide an all-you-can-eat buffet for in the form of songbirds and voles.

''He's been out here feeding since Monday,'' Blahuta said recently. ''I think it's a gourmet meal for him.''

At the entrance to one vole hole under a board that Blahuta spreads sunflower seeds on, the owl left wing prints in the snow and a hole the size of its head at the entrance.

''You can see where the owl has been diving on vole entrances,'' Blahuta said.

With the spring mating season in its early stages, owls are starting to make their presence known in the Interior. The unmistakable hoots of great-horned owls can be heard echoing through the woods at night, as can the hollow, delicate ''hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo, hoos'' that are the mating calls of boreal owls. Northern hawk owls have been spotted perched on power lines on Chena Hot Springs Road.

''I've been hearing a boreal near my house the last week or two,'' said Fairbanks owler Ted Swem, who has a box set up in a tree not far from the house. ''He was in my box singing the other night. He's thinking he's got a spot and he's trying to find a babe.''

Owls begin searching for a mate in late February and early March and eggs are usually laid by the middle of March. Chicks hatch about a month later in mid-April. While owls call occasionally at other times, it is during the mating season when they are most vocal, especially male boreal owls, which stop calling as soon as they find a mate.

''The next couple of weeks should be the peak time to hear owls,'' said biologist John Wright at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

The boreal owl at Blahuta's horse farm sits perched on limbs of spruce trees or atop dead birch trees overlooking the maze of pens he has built for his prize miniature horses.

''I've had them around here for the last couple of years,'' Blahuta said. ''He's used to me and the animals being around. He's not skittish.''

While boreal owls are the smallest of the four owl species in the Interior, weighing only 6- or 7 ounces, they are keen predators. They kill voles, songbirds, squirrels and even young snowshoe hares.

Swem said he has opened boreal owl boxes occupied by nesting females to find voles and birds stacked like cord wood.

''Sometimes they've got so much stuff in there you can't believe it,'' he said.

As part of a statewide effort to figure out how many owls there are in Alaska, the Alaska Bird Observatory is conducting owl surveys for the second year in a row.

''We don't have a clue about owl populations in the state at all,'' said bird biologist Anna Marie Benson at the observatory. ''We don't know how to monitor them.''

What difference does it make, you ask?

''It is a big deal,'' Benson said. ''They tie to a lot of processes in the boreal forest ecosystem.

The less you know about an ecosystem, whether it be plant or animal, the less chance there is to prevent a problem from occurring, Benson said. Too often, problems aren't detected until it's too late, she said.

All four species of owls in the Interior -- boreal, great-horned, great gray and hawk -- prey on voles, songbirds, snowshoe hares and in the case of great-horned owls, even grouse, all of which play an important role in the boreal ecosystem, Benson said.

One of the problems, she said, is that owls are not easy to study.

''They're active at night and they don't occur in very high densities,'' Benson said.

A survey consists of driving a specific route, stopping at specific points every half-mile or so and listening for eight minutes. Last year, Bird Observatory observers didn't locate too many owls during their spring surveys. A route along Murphy Dome Road produced only two owls in 14 surveys.

''We figured they'd be a lot more abundant than they were,'' Benson said.

The ''hoos'' of a boreal owl were music to Swem's ears when he first heard them last month. Last year, his owl box was vacant.

''I didn't have any last year and it ticked me off,'' he said. ''I came to taking them for granted.

''It's nice to have them around,'' Swem said. ''Sometimes at night I just take a lawn chair and a cooler of beer and go sit under the box. The male brings in food for the female and you hear them doing all sorts of vocalization.

''It's cool,'' he said. ''It's nice to have them around.''

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(Distributed by The Associated Press)

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