Sunday, January 19, 2020

Owls in winter

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.

Winter Owls

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.

Resident owls

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.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Looking forward with 2020

By Beth Sullivan
Happy New Year. A new year, a new decade, possibly a new way to think. Most of us try to start a new year with resolutions, or at least good intentions to do something different. It might be to exercise more, eat healthier, or lose weight. It also could be to take a class, start a project, or learn a skill. For others it is cleaning up, clearing out, purging papers, and reducing clutter in our lives.
I got thinking about a different path. Maybe it’s because ‘2020’ is also linked with good vision. We are able to look forward clearly but also be in the present clearly, consciously.

We all can contribute

For years I have been writing about nature: how we interact with it, how we use it for various purposes-from exercise and recreation, to peace, tranquility and healing. What do we give back for these gifts? Sometimes I get overwhelmed because I feel as one single person, I can’t make a dent in the abuse of our Earth. We can walk on a beach and pick up trash, but it doesn’t begin to make an impact in the giant whirling seas of trash in our oceans. Our beach may look nice for a while, but what about the coastlines in other parts of the world, places too poor to send their own waste out of sight, like we do? Some of our politicians think “straws are small” and can’t cause damage, yet we know even smaller microplastics are filtering through our waters and into our food chain.
What can one person do to make any kind of a difference? Maybe not a lot, but if EVERY ONE person took a step, or two or more, and if like ripples, the effort expanded outward, there would be an impact. There are so many things that one person alone cannot accomplish, but with a team, with help and cooperation and with invention and creativity, progress is amazing. If each of us looked forward clearly, and took some of these small steps, our combined efforts will make a difference. The difference will be noted and others may heed the call.
Image from internet 

We look at the beautiful stone walls in our region and know that while one person could lift many of the individual stones, one person alone could not create the walls. However with collaboration, tools and creativity, the works of generations before us remain today and hopefully for the future.
The walls at Knox Preserve

Our vision for the future is entirely entwined with our children, the children of the world. Think of what we can teach them. What can we show them, both beautiful and inspiring, and not so beautiful but hopefully inspiring in a different way? All parents know you cannot force a toddler or a teenager to comply with our every wish, but what we can do is gently and patiently open their eyes to their potential and guide them on a 2020 path of clear sight to improve our world and make a positive difference. It’s just one year, concentrating not on ourselves, but having a greater vision and understanding that as one person, we can truly make a difference. Maybe it will become a new habit.
Happy New Year!
Image from internet

Knox Preserve photograph by Beth Sullivan.