By Beth Sullivan
We haven’t had a lot of winter weather yet. Even this recent snow is already disappearing. At this time of year though, I always get thinking about how certain species adapt to survive during the cold and in an often snow-covered landscape. Being warm-blooded and covered in down, birds can survive the winter as long as they can find food. So, seed eaters can survive, insect eaters cannot. Owls prey on lots of things but rely on mammals during the winter, and mammals are quite available though not always easily accessible.
We have several owls that are here during the winter only, migrating from their nesting grounds in the far north, usually in response to scarcity of food in their home ranges. We are always so excited to see them. Some of them can be quite difficult to find. It helps to know their landscape preferences. Most owls seem to like the cover and protection of evergreens. Through the fall and winter, it is always worth listening for the clamor made by groups of smaller birds: chickadees and titmice will advertise when they find an owl in hiding. Blue jays and crows will vocally harass a larger owl they may discover snoozing in the daylight hours. Keep your ears open while winter hiking, and spend a good amount of time looking in the evergreens.
In later October, the little saw-whet owl moves southward and relocates in our area. They are rarely seen unless you follow the announcements made by other birds. They will catch and eat small mammals and have been known to stash mice-meals for later consumption. There have been several occasions that we have discovered dead mice, up on a branch in a bush - a sure sign of an owl stashing a meal for later. In one photo included here, the saw whet was discovered while cleaning out a wood duck nest box. It had used the box as a safe roost and surrounded itself with plenty of food, well preserved by winter cold, for a time when maybe snow would be too deep to find them.
Less frequently, a long-eared owl can be discovered. They are quite beautiful and are well camouflaged in the brown fall and winter landscape. They are often mistaken for great horned owls, because of the characteristic feather “ear/horn ” tufts, but they are quite different in size and plumage characteristics. They like the dark quiet of a cedar grove, but will take the hunt to the open fields nearby.
Probably the most sought-after winter visitor is the snowy owl. They are quite aptly named, because the males are beautiful snowy white, while the females and young have more speckling. These birds nest and hunt on the wide open tundra of the far north. They do not associate with trees. When found here in the winter they are on wind-swept sand dunes, snow-covered fields or along bare rocky shorelines where they may take ducks for food. There are years when sightings are numerous. Often it is a year of poor winter food resources or the year following a big population expansion and they disperse farther in the winter. This is called an irruption event. Other years, they will be scarce. They are always amazing to see.
|This long-eared owl was quietly camouflaged in the cedar trees|
|This little saw-whet owl picked a big birdhouse as a roost. It surrounded itself with plenty of food. Photograph by D. Lersch.|
|Finding a mouse stashed on a branch is a sure sign there is an owl nearby.|
|Snowy owls are found here only in winter, and never in trees.|
Our resident owls maintain their territories all year and as early as late January, great horned owls are setting up on nests and will incubate eggs through February snowstorms. They often take over a nest site from an osprey or other large hawk, and will fledge their young by the time the original owner is ready to use it.
The little screech owls remain here through the winter and will roost in larger birdhouses and duck boxes. They may also use the same box to nest in as the season progresses.
My personal favorites are the barred owls. I have had several opportunities to interact with them and even got to know one pretty well. They are the ones I find most frequently on my woods walks. I know they see me before I see them, but with their wise dark eyes, they seem unafraid and often do not fly unless my movements are sudden. These owls seem to enjoy vocalizing all year long. And their hoots are widely varied and can be described as haunting or comical. They are indeed hooting already. They too will be setting up their territories soon and preparing to nest.
As much as I look forward to the winter visitors, I believe I enjoy our residents the best. Keep your eyes and ears open. It’s never too cold to spot an owl.
|Barred owls line here all year and are frequently heard hooting almost any time of year. Photograph by R. Newton.|
|Screech owls will take over a wood duck box for its winter roost and will nest there in the spring. Photograph by D. Main.|
|Great-horned owls may take over an osprey nest in winter, protecting eggs and chicks through blizzards. Photograph by R. Newton.|
|This great-horned owl was already out of the nest in very early spring.|
Photographs by Beth Sullivan, unless otherwise noted.