Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Owls I Have Known

One evening, I came outside to look at the night sky and an eastern screech owl was sitting on my fence post. We looked at each other. It was close enough to touch. Perhaps it realized that because it turned and flew off in that incredibly silent way owls have, thanks to the construction of its wing feathers.

That was serendipity. More typical was the other night when I was part of a group of people shivering in the dark, hoping our guide would be able to fool an eastern screech owl into calling for us as the temperature started on its long march below freezing.

As we stood in the snow waiting, I noticed the moon was nearly full and when wind blew aside the clouds I could see the constellations Gemini, Orion and Perseus. There is no Owl constellation and, ultimately, we heard no owls on this prowl.

That's the way it goes. As MH constantly reminds me, the birds aren't waiting for us -- especially when these nocturnal raptors can hide in plain sight in the dark as easily as they can when they roost in the daytime.

But it is not impossible. In fact, on the way to the Owl Prowl a great horned owl flew over the road ahead of us.

Another time, in the middle of an afternoon, walking on a boardwalked trail, a great horned owl flew over my head, landed in a tree long enough for me to identify it and then flew off. And there was the great horned owl duet I heard by chance one predawn morning in January, as the male - in one of my backyard trees - called to its mate some distance away as I was locking the front door to head off to work.

Driving in the Great Swamp one afternoon, I stopped to see what a woman was seeing through her binoculars. It was a barred owl, one of the few owls with dark rather than yellow eyes. It had a rather benign look on its face -- but that is just an illusion, just as it is an illusion to think of some of the smaller, round-headed owls are cute and cuddly.

They are not.

Take this screech owl (below) that MH photographed in Delaware in 2010. We missed it - another couple asked if we had seen it and were kind enough to lead us to it.

Eastern Screech Owl (RE Berg-Andersson)
This 8-inch owl, which looks like a great horned owl that shrunk in the wash, may look like a friendly little guy but like the bigger owls it has asymmetrical ears - those tufts sticking up are feathers, not its ears - the better to hear its next meal scurrying around, even under snow. It has sharp talons for killing and a sharp bill. Like all owls it will eat its meal whole, later regurgitating a hard pellet containing all the bones and other parts it can't digest.

Also like other owls the screech owl is not only good at not being seen at night, it is very good at hiding in plain sight in daylight. As you can see with this owl, it is in a cavity, poking its head out. Other owls hide themselves to roost by standing close to the trunk of a tall evergreen, or even a small, thickly foliaged shrub (if it is one of the smaller owls, such as the saw-whet owl). I was once in the Great Swamp, in an area where someone told me he'd seen a barred owl. I stood and looked but saw nothing...until it flew out. Its coloring and spotting had blended in with the mottled bark of a spruce.

It was likely right in front of me, having a good laugh...if owls could laugh. They do make other sounds -- whinnying (screech), hooting (great horned), barking (barred), hissing (barn owls) and tooting (saw-whet). In the middle of the night, those sounds can range from strange to downright scary, especially if you can't see the source.

Some owls hunt in daylight. The snowy owl, for instance, has the long summer days of the arctic tundra. But when the winter food supply crashes, this owl of the north will some south to find a meal. Several years ago there were many sightings of snowy owls, a phenomenon known as an irruption. This one below was seen at New Jersey's Island Beach State Park.

Snowy owl (RE Berg-Andersson)

People think snowy owls are cute and cuddly, too. They remember Hedwig, the snowy owl of Harry Potter's at Hogwarts. Gift shops run by New Jersey Audubon and the National Audubon Society will sell you a stuffed snowy. But don't let the round head and body and the big, yellow eyes fool you into doing something stupid. These are raptors, just like the redtail hawks and peregrine falcons. In fact, here is some video of a snowy fighting off a falcon.

Other owls hunt at dawn or at dusk. The first time I ever saw a short-eared owl it flew over our car as we were driving on a road through a marsh at dusk on the way to Cape May. (It was the odd silhouette that helped me identify this bird.)

When I think about it, I have seen and/or heard quite a number of different types of owls, both by day and by night. Sometimes it is better to be lucky than good.