Elusive owls

Now is the time to go on an owl prowl, UD professor says

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12:52 p.m., Jan. 9, 2012--“Anything in life worth having is worth working for,” was the motto of industrialist Andrew Carnegie. 

If you’d like to see an owl, keep this motto in mind as you work to spot this elusive raptor.

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“Almost everyone can say they’ve heard an owl but far fewer have seen one. The owl is nocturnal; it’s out catching prey while we’re asleep,” notes Chris Williams, a University of Delaware associate professor of wildlife ecology.

Winter is one of the best times to look for owls. The deciduous trees are bare so it’s easier to spot owls roosting. Plus, January through March is prime breeding season. In mid-January, great horned owls begin breeding, often using abandoned hawk nests in lieu of constructing new ones. This time of year, you might get lucky and spot a mother owl on the nest.

Four species of owls are found in Delaware year-round – the barred, barn, great horned and Eastern screech. Three more species – short-eared, long-eared, and Northern saw-whet – are regular winter migrants. A fourth species – the snowy owl – sometimes appears here, says Williams. Most winters the snowy owl stays in its Arctic tundra nesting grounds, or open areas of southern Canada and the northern U.S., but occasionally it flies much farther south.

“The migration of the snowy owl is a unique type known as irruption,” says Jim White, associate director of land and biodiversity management for the Delaware Nature Society. White has led owl-watching trips for 28 years and counts the owl as one of his favorite birds.

“Irruption isn’t usually dependent on weather conditions but rather on food supply,” says White. “When rodent numbers are low on the arctic tundra the snowy owl may venture as far south as here to find prey.”

When it does visit, the snowy owl can be easier to spot than other species because it often perches in the open and because it’s diurnal – active during the daytime. All other Delaware owls are primarily nocturnal. However, a few species will occasionally appear in daylight.  For example, the barred owl is sometimes out on cloudy days, particularly in mating season and the short-eared owl is active at dusk and dawn.

The Eastern screech owl also exhibits a burst of activity just before dawn and again at dusk. Along with the great horned owl, the screech owl is the state’s most common owl. Its habitat ranges from woods to urban areas. This small owl is a cavity nester, it makes use of large bird boxes and cavities created by other animals, as well as natural cavities. You can increase the odds of spotting a screech owl by installing a nest box in your yard, like White has done. 

“I often see a screech owl poke its head out of the box in late afternoon or just before sunset, says White.

Of course, after sunset is the best time for owl watching and that’s when White heads to the woods, often with one of his teenage sons or his wife, Amy. Windless nights are ideal, he says. 

Williams’ two sons are four and eight, still a bit young for after-dark hikes. But they’re the perfect age for the children’s book Owl Moon, which tells the story of a girl and her father owling on a moonlit winter night. Through the girl’s eyes, the late-night owl trek is portrayed as a magical adventure. And that’s still how White views his owling expeditions.

“Owls are fascinating,” says White. “They’re excellent hunters and powerful fliers. The great horned owl is able to capture a wide variety of prey, ranging in size from mice all the way up to skunks.”

Skunk for dinner – if we had to guess, we’d say the owl’s sense of smell isn’t as keen as its eyesight and hearing.  

Learn more

For directions on how to build your own screech owl house, White suggests this website.

Delaware Nature Society will hold several owl programs this winter. White will lead an all-day outing Feb. 12; a preschool owl “hike” is Jan. 26 and an owl program for school-age kids is Feb. 11. Call Ashland Nature Center, 302-239-2334, for information about these programs. In addition, on March 7, an adult owl program will be held at Abbott’s Mill Nature Center. For more information, call 302-422-847.

Article by Margo McDonough

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