Thursday, November 5, 2009

In Paul Smiths: Owls Of An Adirondack Winter

With a full, November “beaver” moon overhead we plodded along on the Paul Smiths Visitor Interpretive Center trails. The crisp leaves of maple, birch, and beech that crunch underfoot seamlessly drowned out all sounds. We need to periodically stop and listen. I give a hooting call mimicking our native Barred Owl. Nothing on this first try. We walk through the woods some more, onto the other trail. “I heard something that time!” one of our listeners calls out. Just a distant dog barking. I move us farther down the trail to my lucky spot. Lucky because this is where I always find the owl we seek tonight.

Who-cooks-for-you, who-cooks-for-you-allll is what my hoot sounds like as it echos off the frosty forest that is as still as the inside of a church. The bright moonlight allows for somewhat easier watching of the silhouetted trees as we look up at them after every hoot is given. Finally a response. But it’s not the normal barred owl call that I expect. It’s higher in pitch and squeaky. I run through the archives of owl calls in my head but nothing clicks.

For a second or two we catch a glimpse of something in flight above us. OK, that helps. What we see is a very small owl giving short flights from tree to tree. But yet that call was not familiar.

My only guess is that we see the smaller, eight-inch, Northern Saw-Whet Owl (named for the rolling high-pitched toots that resemble the “whetting” or sharpening of a saw blade). It is probably agitated because a barred owl, disguised as a birdwatcher, is calling somewhere nearby.

As I urge the group on another twenty yards I’m startled as I see a large, dark form fly into a tree almost overhead. There it is….Strix varia….aka, Barred Owl. This 20-inch-tall predator is noted for the vertical markings, or barring, along its breast.

Certainly aware of our presence, this owl continues to call only because I’ve temporarily fooled the bird into thinking that another owl is near, and this commences a “conversation” of sorts between us. Actually the owl was laying claim to his territory, and we soon get into a hooting match of which I quickly concede to him and we leave, elated.

From November into March we can explore our Adirondack woods looking, but more accurately listening, for owls as they begin to form territories and search for mates throughout the cold winter months.

With a predicted nesting time of February to March and as late as May, the male barred owl is quick to gain a foothold on his territory and find a mate over the early winter months.

The female’s eggs, and others of the owl family in the northeastern US, will be laid during late winter and early spring. I once found a Great Horned Owl nest with a female tending eggs during a snowstorm in March. Likewise we discovered owls with chicks poking their fluffy little heads out over the nest in early April.

So what are some other owl species known to inhabit the Adirondacks? The largest of owls in our area would be the 22-inch-tall Great-Horned Owl. Their population does not equal the numerous Barred or Saw-Whet Owls. It can also be stated that the Great Horned will be found mostly on the perimeter of the Park or the lowlands and the Barred and Saw-Whet are found throughout the park, including the High Peaks region.

Occasionally we come across sightings of Eastern Screech Owls and Short-Eared Owl. Once in a blue moon we get a report of a Barn Owl along the Champlain Valley.

In a previous posting I mentioned the idea of owls moving south, down from the higher latitudes of Northern Canada. This occurs when food sources there may be limited or depleted due to the cyclical population crashes of rodents. When this phenomena occurs we in the Adirondacks are poised to see the first movements of some of these northern owls.

As I search some of the more recent online birdwatcher sightings of Canada and the Great Lakes states, I see some early reports of Northern Hawk Owls in southern Canada, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. That’s exciting to many birders because this owl can be found hunting during the day (they’re diurnal) for rodents, which makes for easier spotting of this owl.

Another rare glimpse would be a Snowy Owl. Snowy’s are residents of the frigid tundra of Canada but recently I’ve come across postings of sightings by birders in Manitoba, Minnesota, and even here in New York there is a search for a “phantom sighting” down around Albany!

High on many a birders need-to-see-species-list is the Boreal Owl. Again an uncommon visitor from the dense boreal forest of Canada. But when one does show up it’s, “Grab the kids and pack the car, we’re off to see the owls!”

Start looking in dense forests of white pine or northern white cedar trees for the tiny Saw-Whet and Eastern Screech Owl. Get down to a deciduous forest near some water to listen for Barred Owls. If you can locate some healthy old growth forests of white pine or oaks you should listen for Great Horned Owls. Throughout the winter months take a look (from your car) around those flat agricultural fields just at sunset and you may find a Short-Eared Owl in the midst of her hunt for voles under the snow.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the need for birders and photographers alike to proceed with great caution in their pursuits to locate and observe owls. Yes they are truly a wonderful sight but we all must remember that these birds, especially those from Canada, are here because of need for food. They must given a wide berth as we pursue these sightings. Better to not add more stress to an already stressed predator.

Here’s a wonderful holiday gift idea for your owl-lover:
Owls of the United States and Canada: A Complete Guide to Their Biology and Behavior

Owl see you later!

Photo: Barred Owl by Brian McAllister


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3 Responses

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