Many birders are drawn to Denali hoping to see this striking species. The likelihood of seeing a northern hawk owl really depends on being in the right place at the right time. Northern hawk owls are a rare sight in the wild. They are often spotted perched at the top of spruce trees. Birders with good ears can also find them by listening for their vocalizations. In Denali and adjacent areas, birders are most likely to find northern hawk owls in late winter or early spring as they move in search of nest sites, mates, and prey.
The northern hawk owl occupies a circumpolar range and breeds in Alaska, northern Canada, Scandinavia, and across northern Russia. Three subspecies exist worldwide but only one, Surnia ulula caparoch, resides in North America. These owls live and breed in the northern boreal forests of Alaska, Canada, and Newfoundland.
Largely nomadic, northern hawk owls move across their range in response to prey availability and climatic conditions. When the weather is severe and prey availability is low, northern hawk owls may move southward into more temperate latitudes of Alaska, Canada, and the northern continental United States. These southern movements are referred to as "irruptions" and may span thousands of miles.
Northern hawk owls are one of the least studied birds in North America. Their low densities and tendency to nest in remote places make it very difficult to study this northern nesting owl. Research conducted in Denali in the early 1980's and at the turn of the 20th century has provided valuable information about the habitat requirements, food habits, and nesting ecology of northern hawk owls in Alaska.