There have been a goodly number of posts on the local birder listservs in the last few weeks referencing owls. This circumstance is not surprising given that owls are very active in the early months of the calendar year looking for mates and beginning to nest.
Owls have long held a special place in a human's imagination and lore variously being seen as symbols of wisdom, sorcery or death. We read that in many cultures – Native American, Ancient Roman, and Arab mythology – owls were seen as ill omens or harbingers of death. The Ancient Greeks of Athens, however, equated owls with wisdom. Harry Potter’s snowy owl Hedwig is a recent example of owls linked to wizards and sorcerers.
The Owl Research Institute sets the number of owl species worldwide at almost 250 (Ask.com gives a figure of 225+/-) with 20 species occurring in North America. Locally, VT eBird indicates that in The Upper Valley, the species most likely to be seen are the barred owl, northern saw whet owl and short-eared owl, but the great horned owl and eastern screech owl also are possible.
For birders, owls are intriguing because they can be so difficult to physically encounter. Their nocturnal habits and proclivity for concealment make actually seeing one a real challenge. We know they’re around. We can hear them, but hearing one and actually seeing it are two different things. Owl calls are why we’re getting so many reports now. Why? It’s owl-mating season, and they are vocalizing as they seek to attract a mate.
Fortunately, many owls have very distinctive calls. Hearing one can be as much a certainty in making an ID as seeing one. For example, there’s the barred owl’s signature “Who cooks for you?” call. The eastern screech-owl’s call is a distinctive descending “whinny.” Hear a call that is a rhythmic repeated “toot-toot-toot?” It likely is a northern saw-whet owl. The great horned owl has the iconic “hooo-hoo-hooo, hoo-hoo” call.
Despite the obstacles, trying to see an owl is worth the effort, and Upper Valley birders have had some good opportunities to see more than just the locals over the last two seasons. For several weeks in January 2014 a northern hawk owl was regularly seen hunting in a neighborhood on VT Rt. 100 in Waterbury. More locally was the celebrated visit by a great gray owl to Hanover’s Velvet Rocks in February 2014. A lucky few got to see and even photograph the large, spectral visitor from the northern woods during its ten-day presence. Unfortunately, I was not among them. Snowy owls presented a much better opportunity, however. They came south last year in record numbers presenting plenty of opportunities to see these majestic white birds of the Arctic.
This year has yielded some good sightings too. A northern saw-whet owl has been present at a Norwich home, and one snowy owl is being viewed regularly at an orchard in Weathersfield, VT. My birding buddy Wayne and I drove down there Monday for a look. When we arrived, the bird was in plain sight on a barn roof, just where many observers had seen it. Oh, well, not all rare bird sightings are the equivalent of a quest for the Holy Grail.
But that doesn't mean owl sightings are all as easy as our "snowy." Take the case of Orford birder Jeff MacQueen’s efforts to locate a great horned owl (GHOW) he heard a few days back when he was letting his dog out at 2:00 A.M. Despite getting a proximate fix on its location, he was unable to locate it after daylight. He has reported hearing it again but has been unable to make a visual ID.
Jeff’s encounter prompted several posts about the great horned owl’s rarity in the Upper Valley. It also caused VINS Wild Bird Rehabilitator, Sara Eisenhauer, to share the following anecdote. Wish I’d had it for Valentine’s Day.
"For several years, a wild female GHOW has been stationed behind our rehab building where our long-time resident (non-releasable) GHOW resides. This wild owl is there during the breeding season, making her first appearance usually as early as October and stays through spring. The two birds call back and forth, though she tends to be quiet during working hours. She hoots in the early morning hours, and starts again at dusk. I've managed to get photos of her before, but she's quick to see me coming, and takes off into the woods, with angry mobbing crows in tow.
The only other GHOWs I've seen/heard in VT in the 7 years I've lived here was a nesting pair located at the North Springfield Reservoir a few years back.”
For my own part, I’ve observed eight (barred, eastern screech, great gray, great horned, northern hawk, northern pygmy, northern saw whet and snowy) of the possible twenty North American owl species. On the home property, three owl species have been tallied: barred, great horned and eastern screech.
Clearly I’ve work to do, and like many bird species, some owls are regionally specific. If I want to see a northern spotted owl, my best chance will be if I pack my bags and head off to the Pacific Northwest's forested, coastal mountains. Become a birder and see the world!
Post script – Owls are beginning to nest. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has an “owl cam” focused on a Georgian great horned owl pair that has just hatched two owlets. Here’s the link. http://cams.allaboutbirds.org/channel/46/Great_Horned_Owls/