Great horned owls are large birds (adults can be 18-25 inches in length) and have large ear tufts on their head and large yellow eyes. Their feathers are usually a mix of colors: white, reddish-brown, gray, and black with a white patch on their throats. » Continue Reading.
Our family always enjoys the opportunity for a night hike, snowshoe or ski. Being able to unwind at the end of the day helps us focus on our other senses, to listen to nature, and reconnect. One favorite way to unwind is calling in the owls. That activity wasn’t something that just showed up on our radar. It began with a local Owl Prowl and it has become part of an evening routine.
According to Lake George Land Conservancy (LGLC) Land Stewart Alex Novack, the LGLC’s April 1st Owl Prowl is a perfect opportunity to learn more about these nocturnal animals. The location for the free night-time hike was chosen because of the potential for interactions with owls. » Continue Reading.
In most winters great gray owls remain in their great north woods home in Canada, the mountains of the western U.S., northern Europe, and Siberia. But every four years or so, apparently motivated by a shortage of food (primarily voles), many of these owls will move southward in search of food.
In northeastern North America, the owls usually stay just north of the border, apparently finding suitable vole populations in southern Quebec and Ontario, but a handful of individuals will sometimes move further south into northern New York and New England. This is one such winter with a number of great gray owls being reported in southern Quebec, two reports from central Maine, and reports of several great gray owls in northern New York. » Continue Reading.
I’m an enthusiastic, if laid-back, bird watcher. One of the things I love most about spring and summer is the effortlessness with which I encounter a wide variety of birds. Sitting in my backyard, I’ll catch sight of an indigo bunting in the apple tree or watch a pair of phoebes flying to and from their nest. On an afternoon hike, I might spot a Baltimore oriole or hear the sweet sounds of a wood thrush.
Not so in winter, when the cold curtails my outdoor activities and so many birds have departed for warmer climes. The dearth of birds and walks leaves me feeling doubly deprived, and I count the days until red-winged blackbirds will again greet me on my morning stroll.
But January is far too early to dream of spring, so I’ve decided to put thoughts of seasonal songbirds out of my mind and focus on some of our region’s year-round residents – owls. » Continue Reading.
For several days last winter, a barred owl perched atop a dead white birch tree in our field. As winters go, last year’s was very cold, and the owl puffed up against the stubbornly below-freezing temperatures, its streaky brown and white feathers fluffed and fluttering in the icy breeze. Occasionally the owl would move its head in a slow turn, from east to west to east again, dark eyes gazing at the field blanketed in deep snow.
The owl was most likely listening more than watching, straining to hear the scratching of tiny feet moving under the thick layer of white. Owls are remarkably skilled at finding and catching prey, but even they struggle to survive a long, cold season. » Continue Reading.
Animosity is an emotion not solely restricted to humans, as several forms of wildlife occasionally display an outward aversion to specific creatures, even through such an antagonistic attitude seems to have little to no value to their current survival.
Perhaps the best example of such an overt repulsion of one animal for another is the crow’s reaction to seeing an owl at this time of year. Upon detecting one of these round-faced predators, a crow quickly starts producing a squawking caw designed to summon any other crows in the immediate area. It is believed by some naturalists that a crow, upon hearing this alarm sound, will relay the information to others unable to hear the initial call that an owl has been spotted. This is an attempt to assemble as sizeable a mob of birds as possible. » Continue Reading.
“She’s so cute!” a little girl coos to the snowy white owl. The owl blinks languidly, ignoring her admirer. No doubt she is used to human attention, as she is one of the more popular raptors housed at the Vermont Institute of Natural Science Nature Center (VINS) in Quechee, Vermont. She likewise ignores the decapitated rat in her food bowl, chirruping softly as if dissatisfied with what’s on the menu. I wait patiently, hoping to witness the moment when she gulps it down.
Owls eat their smaller prey whole, or tear larger prey into chunks with their beaks and talons. Sooner or later, that owl will grab the raw rat out of her food bowl with her sharp beak and knock it back like a shot of whiskey. It will slide down her esophagus and into her two-chambered stomach. The first chamber, called the proventriculus, or glandular stomach, secretes digestive enzymes to break down all the easily digestible parts. Much like our own stomach, this chamber will liquefy the soft tissue (the gooey stuff, including muscle, fat and organs). Whatever isn’t digested in the first chamber, such as the bones, fur and teeth, will pass through to the second chamber, called the gizzard. » Continue Reading.
When you ask most folks, which animal is the greatest hunter in the Adirondacks, they’ll usually say “fisher” or “bobcat”, or some other charismatic predator, but I believe the great horned owl may be the most efficient predator that has ever lived on earth – period.
Its approach to hunting is based on a combination of stealth, remarkable powers of prey detection and location, and the application of strength all out of proportion to its size. Victims of a Great Horned Owl’s silent aerial attack typically are not aware of the owl’s presence until they are within the vice-like grip of the owl’s talons. » Continue Reading.
The sun is shining later and later each day, and some of the snow is melting and dripping off of the roof in front of the big window. It’s officially been spring for almost a week now, but don’t bother telling Mother Nature that. The forecast of thirteen degrees below zero tonight isn’t as bad as the negative twenty-three we got a couple of nights ago, so I guess, in a way we are getting more spring-like temperatures. But again, temperatures in the negative teens aren’t that spring-like to me.
I’ve been back at the cabin full time, and having a few weeks off from living out here was definitely nice. After three winters having to haul in water and use an outhouse no matter what the temperature, the shine of living off grid has worn off. I still enjoy many, many aspects of it, but this winter has definitely been a mood killer for me. I was able to tap a few of the maple trees the other day and start collecting sap, but it’s been slow going with the cold returning. And the hike up the driveway isn’t any easier than it was in February. » Continue Reading.
My children seem to attract wildlife like iron to a magnet. It is not because they are good trackers or particularly quiet, as neither attribute is consistently true. It seems that they are observant and often at the right place at the right time.
Quite consistently when they accompany me on a hike we seem to view more wildlife, though eagles and snowy owls have evaded me to date. Opportunities to come across such majestic creatures come down to timing, organization and just luck. » Continue Reading.
Nocturne: a work of art dealing with evening or night especially; a dreamy pensive composition for the piano that has a soft and somewhat sad melody. – 2014 Merriam Webster Dictionary
It was Valentine’s Day, about 8 pm, and I walked out the back door, stepped into my x-country ski bindings, put on my gloves and slipped my hands through the straps on my ski poles, flipped on my headlight and silently glided into the stillness of the night. As I looked up the trail, snowflakes filtered down glittering into the beam of my light.
It was the Full Moon Friends of the VIC Ski Party and this was the evening after the big Nor’easter dropped about 10 inches of fresh snow on what was already a good solid base. There was a nice crowd at the Paul Smith’s College VIC, live music by Split Rock lighting up the great room, but I might as well have been a solitary skier. I met two other skiers coming back to the building right as I started out, and then just two more as I skied across the floating bridge on Heron Marsh. The rest of the evening was mine alone, and it was magical. » Continue Reading.
The vast expanses of wilderness forests that cover the Adirondacks serve as home to many forms of wildlife adapted for survival in areas where visibility is limited by trees and grasses, and grains are nearly non-existent.
Large open areas scattered throughout the Park serve to support the collection of creatures that require much greater visibility and food sources that exist on the soil’s surface. Among those animals drawn toward these open spaces is the snowy owl, which regularly migrates southward from its arctic breeding grounds in autumn to establish a winter hunting territory in more hospitable surroundings. » Continue Reading.
We’re experiencing what could be the largest-ever influx of Arctic Snowy Owls into the Northeast and the Great Lakes states, and more may be on the way. Dr. Kevin McGowan, a biologist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, says this may be the first wave and we should expect more.
“More than likely these Snowy Owls are moving south from the Arctic because of a shortage of their favorite food up north—lemmings, or because of a bumper crop of young,” he said, “We can expect them to stick around through early spring before they head back to the Arctic again.”
This year’s Snowy Owl irruption is the largest recorded in decades in the Northeast and is an excellent opportunity to see these birds, so here are a few online resources to get you up to speed on our latest high profile visitors. » Continue Reading.
Every winter we have a barred owl that takes up watch just off the back deck here at the VIC, and we remember every visit it makes. Sometimes he (she?) is here off and on for a couple weeks, and sometimes it’s only a quick visit of a day or two. However long, or brief, its stay, it is always a welcome sight.
Barred owls (Strix varia) are fairly common around these parts. With their pale plumage, rounded heads, and big brown eyes, they seem to us mere humans to be a softer, gentler owl than their fiercer-looking cousins the great-horned owls (Bubo virginianus). Like all owls, they have nearly silent flight, thanks to the special fringed edges on their flight feathers and the extra fluffy body feathers that help muffle sound. This stealth coating, so to speak, comes in very handy when you are hunting for nocturnal prey, for food that is out at night tends to have good hearing. Which brings up a good question. If owls are nocturnal (with some exceptions, like the snowy owl), then why is this particular bird visiting our bird feeders during the day? A couple potential answers come to mind. First, it is not uncommon to see owls active during the day, especially when that day is overcast (like much of this winter has been). A cloudy, gloomy day may seem like nothing more than an extended twilight to a hungry owl.
Second, we have made our bird feeding area a great hunting place for predators interested in small birds and small mammals. One glance at the ground in the winter brings this clearly into focus: fox, squirrel, mouse, and bird tracks are everywhere! Every winter we chuck a conifer tree over the railing to provide shelter for small birds and mammals. Mice and squirrels are particularly appreciative of this gesture, which in turn brings in the predators. When I lead tracking workshops, I can just about guarantee “fresh” fox tracks beelining from the woods towards the feeders.
I’ve watched barred owls hunting during the day along roadsides in winter. One particular time I was cruising into Minerva when a barred owl perched on a speed limit sign caught my attention. I hit the breaks, turned the car around, and parked, watching and waiting along with the bird. Although it was fully aware of my presence, its attention was focused on the snowbank beneath the sign.
After about ten minutes or so, the owl flung itself from the sign and landed with a face- and foot-plant in the snow, its outstretched wings caught on top of the snow above its head. It hopped a bit, shuffled its feet, then struggled to lift off…empty footed. There must’ve been some small rodent beneath the snow that the owl, with its hypersensitive hearing, could detect, but either the bird’s aim was off or the rodent was too fast, for it got away. Many folks don’t realize that predators tend to miss their prey more often than not. It’s a tough thing being a predator, a life full of peril (what if the prey fights back?) and potential starvation (food gets away from you, the snow is too deep for you to hunt successfully, etc.).
This is why I don’t mind too terribly much when a raptor snags a bird at my feeding stations, which invariably happens at least once every winter (and if I’m lucky I get to see it). After all, they are birds, too, and they also need to feed. If they are smart enough to realize that bird feeders are essentially convenience stores, then more power to them. Same goes for foxes and weasels. I’m an equal opportunity feeder.
This is a great time of year to go on an owl prowl, for owl mating season is upon us. Great-horned owls will soon wind down their mating, while barred owls will soon be starting. Now is the time to go out at night to listen for owl calls. The barred owl has the soft “who-cooks-for-you, who-cooks-for-you-allllll” pattern, while the great-horned is the typical eight-hooter: “hoo-hoohoo-hoo-hoo-hoo” (okay, that was only six, but they can do up to eight or so at a time).
If you are really lucky, you might hear the truck-backing-up “toot-toot-toot-toot” of the northern saw-whet owl (Aegolius acadicus). About three years ago we had a couple saw-whets (tiny little owls) hanging out near the golf course and every night for a week or two I would hear them tooting away when I took the dog for his evening stroll. Haven’t heard one since.
If you want to find winter owls, your best bet is to go out at night and listen for their calls. But, if standing out in the cold on a clear winter night isn’t your thing, then put on some snowshoes and go for a walk in the woods on an overcast day. You want to look up in trees, where fairly good-sized branches attach to the trunk. It is here that owls will sit during the day, with their feathers fluffed up and their eyes (did you know they have feathers on their eyelids?) shut. They blend in perfectly with their trees of choice, often looking like just another bump on a limb. They can be difficult to spot.
If you want more of a sure thing, you can keep an eye on the bird hotlines for announcements of recent owl sightings: short-earred owls at the Saratoga Battlefield; snowy owls at Fort Edwards, northern hawk-owls at Bloomingdale bog, great greys in Watertown. Unusual birds get groupies, and all you need to do to find these itinerant birds is find the people with the binoculars and big camera lenses. A group of birdie nerds is a whole lot easier to spot in a snowy field than a single snowy owl, and the chances are that they will be more than happy to help you find the bird they’ve all flocked to see themselves. Birders are like that – they think everyone is a potential bird nut like themselves and they are eager to recruit.
So, find yourself a birding group and keep your eyes (and ears) peeled for the owls of winter. They are out there, and if you want to see them, you have to get out there, too.
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