Each owl is with Hannah Toutonghi no more than an hour.
Sixty minutes, less if the grad student can help it, during which Toutonghi collects a series of measurements and samples from the raptor, yellow eyes wide and unblinking as it’s gently handled.
“I am really concerned about the well-being of the bird,” said Toutonghi, “and I want to make sure I’m as efficient as possible.”
Before releasing it back into the expansive snow-covered bogs of northern Minnesota, Toutonghi slips a small GPS device over its body, one capable of pinpointing the wearer’s location, altitude and speed.
Weighing no more than a AAA battery or a couple of nickels, and charged by a small black solar panel that peeks out from the raptor’s back feathers, it’s the key to what Frank Nicoletti described as “groundbreaking” research that could help us better understand what the National Parks Service called one of the least-studied birds in North America.
“They’re a fascinating raptor,” Nicoletti, banding director at Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory in Duluth, told Bring Me The News. But they’re cloaked in mystery, even to someone like Nicoletti who has studied boreal forest species for more than 20 years.
“We don’t even know if they’re nocturnal,” he said. “We don’t know anything about them.”
The goal of the Northern Hawk Owl Project — led by Toutonghi and shepherded by Nicoletti, with support from Jim Duncan in Manitoba — is to fill the vast knowledge gap that exists around the species’ winter ecology: Where they go, what they eat, and how they survive the cold months..
Toutonghi and Nicoletti hope answers can be found in data recorded by the new GPS transmitters, which prior to this study had never been deployed on a northern hawk owl. That changed on Jan. 3, when Toutonghi tagged the first in rural Roseau County.
“It’s really exciting,” the 26-year-old told Washington native said in February, shortly after deploying the eighth of these devices. “We’re getting data from all the units we have out, so it seems to be working really well.”
Every hour for two winters (longer, if the devices don't fail and aren’t chewed off) the transmitters will send Toutonghi the latest batch of information, including where the owl is, how fast it’s traveling, and its altitude.
“I think the transmitter data could be really valuable to helping understand more about their dispersal/migration from their winter range,” Matt Larson told Bring Me The News in an email.
Larson, formerly a biologist with the Owl Research Institute, isn’t involved with Toutonghi's graduate research project. He said he isn’t aware of any previous northern hawk owl work where the birds were equipped with GPS transmitters, though noted he hasn’t been directly involved in researching the species for a couple of years.
Echoing what others, including the National Parks Service, have said, Larson called northern hawk owls “still probably one of the least studied owls in North America.”
Part of this is due to the bird’s range. The North American subspecies spends much of its time in the boreal forests of Canada, Alaska and Newfoundland. These are “remote and inaccessible” areas, Larson said, hard for humans to reach. And while the raptors can show up in large numbers in Minnesota some winters, these “irruption” years, as they’re called, are unpredictable.
The northern hawk owl’s behavior also makes studies a challenge. They’re believed to be nomadic, moving around freely rather than sticking to a strictly defined territory. Toutonghi said they are a “low-density” species, described as solitary or secretive, and spread out rather than clustered together.
For Toutonghi, this research project has allowed her to see this “super interesting, charismatic” species up close. But it’s meant waking up as early as 4 a.m. so she can spend hours driving through Minnesota’s northernmost reaches during the frigid winter months, scanning the black spruce and tamarack bogs or farmstead areas where northern hawk owls might be and hoping that odd shape in the distance is indeed an owl.
“After searching for them, sometimes it feels like they don’t exist,” she said. “You see the top of black spruce and you try to turn it into a hawk owl. You see an American crow or Canada jay. … There can be some really long hours of, ‘Is this going to work? Are we going to actually find a bird?’”
It’s challenging field work. But it’s work Nicoletti believed Toutonghi was up for when he brought the idea to her in 2019, while she was an intern at Hawk Ridge.
“She’s one of the best field people I’ve ever seen,” he said. “Everyone who works with her says she’s just amazing in the field. She’s a good birder, which helps.”
Once Toutonghi locates an owl, she uses a lure in a protected enclosure to capture the owl, all the while following strict protocols that ensure the bird and the lure aren't harmed. Then comes the 60-minute flurry of activity — size measurements, swabs of the beak, talon and cloaca to see what it’s been eating, a very small blood sample to sex the bird, then a weight check to ensure it can safely carry the transmitter. (It can’t weigh more than 3% of the bird’s body weight.)
If the owl is showing any signs of stress or concern “we of course would just let a bird go,” said Toutonghi.
Since equipping the first in early January, Toutonghi (with the help of Nicoletti and others) has managed to get transmitters on nine more birds across northern Minnesota and southern Manitoba. She hopes to get a couple more out next winter as well.
What comes next? A lot of computer time. Analyzing the results of the swabs and blood samples while collecting streams of transmitter information in modeling software, looking for patterns or connections as she works on her masters.
“Playing around with the data and seeing what the story tells for all of the birds,” as Toutonghi put it.
All in the name of filling that knowledge gap which one day, Nicoletti said, could help with things like habitat management for the northern hawk owl — one of the countless bird species facing an uncertain future in a warming world.
“As all of us have experienced the climate is changing, and hawk owls specifically are a climate sensitive species,” Toutonghi said. “There’s potential that their habitat will not be suitable for them anymore and we’ll start seeing a serious decline.”
You can follow the Northern Hawk Owl Project on Instagram for updates.