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Duluth owl tracker keeps tabs on snowies

Duluth’s David Evans, who has banded snowy owls for 40 years, scans the Duluth harbor through a spotting scope Thursday afternoon. FORUM NEWS SERVICE/Sam Cook

Duluth’s David Evans cruises the Duluth waterfront in his white van, scanning white ice and white snow for white owls.

Several snowy owls, denizens of the Arctic tundra, have come south this winter to look for food in the Duluth-Superior area. They’re part of a broader invasion of hundreds of snowy owls across the country.

For the past 40 years, Evans has been banding snowies and studying the sizes of their territories. From the window of his van, parked at Duluth’s Port Terminal, he scans the waterfront with well-worn binoculars. He follows that with a sweep of the area through his more powerful spotting scope.


He moves on along his three-hour route. Already we have seen an immature female snowy, No. 87, that he banded on Dec. 8 near the harbor.

“That would be Skunk Yard,” Evans said.

He names the birds for easy reference. The names are associated with where they were banded or some other notable event. “Skunk Yard” was banded in a railroad yard with that nickname, Evans said.

He runs his route, moving from Duluth to Superior, stopping to scan at known snowy hang-outs. Duluth’s waterfront. Connor’s Point in Superior. Superior’s municipal sewage treatment plant. Superior Middle School. Bong Airport. The Calumet refinery.

Any bird he sees in flight will elicit a quick tap on the brakes. Most are not snowies.

Evans, formerly director of banding at Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory for 39 years, scans rubble ice in the harbor, a light pole behind Superior Middle School, water-spraying towers at the coal docks in Superior.

“There,” he mutters, driving a road south of the Calumet refinery in South Superior.

A white owl sits atop the highest point of a utility pole along some railroad tracks. In the afternoon’s waning sunlight, she rotates her head in 180-degree owl fashion, looking for a mouse or a vole. Evans knows her.

“In theory,” he said, “that would be ‘Winch.’ ”

An adult female, Evans banded her last winter in the same area. She returned again this year.

To band a snowy after spotting one, Evans places a box-like monofilament mesh structure within a few hundred yards of the bird. Inside the structure sits a live pigeon or starling. In theory, the snowy swoops down to the trap, hoping to pick up an easy meal. In theory, one of its feet becomes ensnared in one of several monofilament nooses attached to the outside of the trap.

Theory is not always reality. The owl might descend to the trap within two seconds, Evans said, or not for two hours. Or not at all. Some appear to be caught, but when Evans approaches, they escape “6 inches from my outstretched hands,” he said.

“Winch” earned her name last year, when, after Evans banded her, his van got stuck in snow and he had to be winched out.

She is unfazed by our presence, calmly surveying the scene. Evans pulls out a clipboard, notes the observation. Winch is still sitting atop the pole as he pulls away and turns the van around.

The turn-around is well-executed. No subsequent winch is required.