Owl Wednesday!: Barn Owl

Guess what, friends? The weekly featured bird profiles are returning!

I used to write a weekly bird profile column, each season about a different family (such as Migration Monday, Waterfowl Wednesday, etc, links are to the right on this page). I stopped these in the spring (not intentionally, things just got super busy!), but now they’re back. This autumn’s featured family: Owls!

I was inspired to do an autumn owl feature for two reasons: 1. I just love owls and 2. Dave bought me the Peterson Reference Guide to Owls of North America and the Caribbean by Scott Weidensaul for my birthday. He also bought me Hummingbirds: A Life-size Guide to Every Species by Fogden, Taylor, and Williamson, but we’ll save that for another season. (Fun fact: owls are more closely related to hummingbirds than they are hawks/falcons). I also recently purchased this lovely Barn Owl print by David Kiehm of Dead Studio. So without further ado, let’s talk about Barn Owls!

Barn Owl (Tyto alba)

Description:

Barn Owls are one the most distinctive owls in the world. Their heart-shaped faces and pale bodies give them a ghost-like appearance as they silently fly through the night. Barn Owls have long legs and round wings combined with short tails. Their heads and upperparts are a tawny brown while their underparts are pale and mottled. Males and females look similar, but females tend to be more heavily spotted. They have large black eyes and lack ear tufts. Barn Owls have a pectinate middle claw; a modified comb-like talon mainly used for preening and parasite control.

Barn Owl chicks go through  two downs coats. A white natal coat is later replaced by a thicker gray coat. It takes about three molt cycles for young owlets to replace all their juvenal flight feathers.

6-6 we're ready for our closeup!
Young Barn Owlets at various development stages (Screen shot taken by BirdNation from Cornell Lab’s Barn Owl cam)

Range:

Barn Owls are the most widespread raptors found on the planet. They can be found all across the continental United States, Mexico, and South America. They also live in the Middle East, Europe, and Africa.

Habitat:

Open land; grasslands, marshes, fields, open woodlands, farms, prairies, and desert. Generally avoids dense forests.

barn owl
Barn Owl (Image via Pinterest.com)

Diet:

90% rodents. Rat, voles, mice, shrews, lemming, rabbits, and bats are common prey items. Occasionally eats birds. Barn Owls swallow their prey whole and cough up pellets  twice a day with undigested materials. While nesting, they will cache prey items for later use. A nocturnal hunter that tends to stay low to the ground and moves slowly.

Breeding/Nesting: 

Barn Owls are generally monogamous and mate for life (although polygamy has been observed sometimes). Males will attract females by doing flight displays, and when a nest location is selected, will bring prey to the female. Barn Owls nest in cavities and will use artificial nest boxes. The female will line the nest with shredded regurgitated pellets before laying 3-8 eggs (but usually 4-6). A new egg is laid every 2-3 days. This means that chicks will hatch 2-3 days apart putting the older owlets at an advantage. Eggs are incubated between 29-34 days, with young fledging about 50-60 days post-hatch.

The mortality rate of Barn Owls in fairly high. Competition for food among 4-6 owlets is fierce, and often times younger chicks will not survive if food sources are scarce. It is possible however that the younger owlets can survive if prey is abundant. Barn Owls can have up to 3 possibly broods per year and can breed at any point during the year, even in their Northern-most range.

2-17 snoozing together
Female (left) and male (right) owls in nest box (Screen shot taken by BirdNation from Cornell Lab’s Barn Owl cam)

Vocalizations:

Hair-raising, high-pitched screams, hisses, and screeches. Can have between 4-15 different vocalizations

Status/Conservation:

Populations are hard to track, but may have slightly increased in some areas and listed as a “special-concern” species in other areas. Sensitive in changes to agricultural practices, suburban/urban development, and pesticides. Often struck by cars. Nest boxes have helped numbers improve in many areas.

Fun Facts:

  • Barn Owls are the only species in the family Tytonidae, while the other North American owls are in the family Strigidae. There are 46 races of Barn Owls worldwide. The North American race Tyto alba pratincola is the largest, while the Galapagos Island race is the smallest.
  • Barn Owls, unlike many other birds, will roost in their cavities all year, not just during breeding season.
  • Barn Owls have excellent hearing to help aid in hunting, but also have great low-light vision.
  • Barn Owl mates form strong pair-bonds. They will often call to one another, allopreen (preen each other), and link beaks to strengthen their bond.
2-20 beak kisses
Pair-bonding (Screen shot taken by BirdNation from Cornell Lab’s Barn Owl cam)

 

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Waders Far and Wide

Happy Autumn everyone!

Autumn is my favorite season. I’m usually the first person to wish people a happy autumn. On the 22nd I actually forgot it was autumn until about 9 pm…probably because it was 90 degrees outside! We’ve had unseasonably warm weather the past week and a half, but of course that didn’t stop us from going birding. On Sunday Dave and I took a trip to Edwin B. Forsythe NWR for our first fall birding trip.

September is always a busy time at the refuge with a mix of fall migrants and summer stragglers. It’s also peak time for waders, who could be seen all over the wildlife drive. Wading Birds are not the same as Shorebirds. Shorebirds consist mainly of plovers, sandpipers, avocets, and oystercatchers. Wading Birds refer to herons, egrets, ibies, bitterns, spoonbills, and storks. Wading birds can be found at the shore, but they are actually listed in between Pelicans/Frigatebirds/Boobies and Hawks/Falcons in field guides, meaning they are more closely related to those families than shorebirds.

We saw 6 species of wading birds on this trip: Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets, Black-crowned Night-herons, Snowy Egrets and Glossy Ibis. There were 3 Black-crowned Night-herons hanging out on an island of shrubs. We actually found them in the same place I saw my very first Night-heron on my very first birding trip with Maria (my best friend/birding buddy), so that was special.

Black-crowned Nigh-Heron Immature
Black-crowned Night-heron Juvenile (Image by BirdNation)

The 6th species of wading bird was a bit of a surprise and the most interesting species for me on this trip. Dave and I were standing atop the Gull Pond Observation Tower when a medium-sized white wader landed in the water. At first we thought it was a Snowy because of its size, but then changed our minds and thought Great Egret. But the size seemed too small, and the legs weren’t quite the right color. A second bird of this species showed up.

They were also kind of, well, weird. Their movements while foraging were different compared to a Great Egret. They moved slowly, but would stretch out their necks and rock them from side to side. I feel like all the Great Egrets I’ve watched forage extremely carefully, while Snowy Egrets move quickly and erratically (sometimes I wonder if Great Egrets find it annoying to hunt next to a crazy-moving Snowy Egret lol). 

Then we noticed the bill and it all clicked. It was darker compared to the Great Egret’s bill and too light to be a Snowy.

Immature Little Blue Herons! Immature Little Blue Herons are in fact white, not blue like the adults. Why are they white? Ornithologists believe that blending in with the other egrets puts Little Blues at an advantage. Not only do they catch more fishing with the other species, but they get extra protection by blending into a mixed-flock. They are also better tolerated by Snowy Egrets, who can be aggressive towards Little Blues.  We’ve seen Little Blue Herons before (our first at Cloverdale Farm and second at Bombay Hook NWR), but these were our first juveniles. These Little Blues were fun to watch.

Little Blue Heron juvenile
Little Blue Heron juvenile (Image by David Horowitz)
Little Blue Herons
Little Blue Heron juveniles foraging (Image by David Horowitz)

Other highlights of our trip included a large flock of Greater Yellowlegs, Forster’s Terns in non-breeding plumage, Double-crested Cormorants, tons of gulls, a single Osprey, a Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Wood Ducks, and a Belted Kingfisher (our first for our Forsythe list) to name just a few from our 39 species total.

I’m glad autumn is finally here, but I can’t wait for the weather to finally cool down! I’ll miss the wonderful summer visitors, but am also looking forward to the winter birds. I’m happy we had the opportunity to enjoy all the waders before they migrate.

Birthday Birds

When Dave asked me what I wanted for my birthday a few weeks ago, I told him I wanted warblers (naturally lol :-p). What I really meant was that I wanted to spend the morning birding in Cape May, NJ, which is a great spot to see warblers during migration. We actually did not see many warblers; only a few Yellow and Pine Warblers. But you know what, I’m okay with that, because instead I saw this guy:

Wood Stork
Wood Stork (Image by David Horowitz)

A Wood Stork!

Wood Storks are primarily found in Florida and South America, but can also be in other Southeastern/Gulf Coast states certain times of year. They are considered rare outside their range, so a Wood Stork in New Jersey is a special treat! Adult Wood Storks are bald, so this bird is a juvenile since it has brown head feathers.

This particular Wood Stork has been around Cape May and showing up on the NJ Rare Bird List for the last few weeks. I checked the list on Saturday night and there were 22 sightings, but over a few different Cape May locations, so I wasn’t sure where it would be.

The first destination for our trip was Cape May Point State Park, where it was previously seen around the Hawk Watch Platform. We were driving past Lake Drive, when the car in front of us (who’s license plate happened to be “SAWWHET” as in saw-whet owl haha) started randomly pulling over. Dave was driving so I looked to my right and saw a few birders looking up at a tree. And there was the Wood Stork.

“OH MY GOSH! WOOD STORK! IT’S RIGHT THERE!”

Dave quickly turned the corner onto Lake Dr. We quietly parked an made our way to the other birders. The Wood Stork was sitting up on a tree preening. It was so beautiful, especially its eyes. It would interrupt its preening every so often to look back at us, almost as if it was posing for our photographs. Then it would preen again and loudly shake its feathers back into place. It was a fascinating bird to watch, and I’m thankful we had the opportunity to spend some time with this magnificent Wood Stork.

Once we arrived at the Point, the sound of a familiar friend echoed through the air.

“poor-bob-WHITE!”

I was happy to hear that the Northern Bobwhites from our last trip were still around, although we didn’t actually see them today. At the ponds near the Hawk Watch Platform there were over 20 Mute Swans, Mallards, Tree Swallows, and a Great Egret. We also were able to watch a number of Northern Mockingbirds fly around with each other through the bushes and shrubs. Other birds at the Point included a Yellow Warbler, Pine Warblers, a Double-crested Cormorant, and a Snowy Egret.

We took the connector trail into South Cape May Meadows. It was quieter for us than in the past, but we still managed to see some birds. These included another Yellow Warbler, Carolina Wrens, a Black Vulture, a Turkey Vulture eating a dead gull, a Cooper’s Hawk, Mourning Doves, more Mockingbirds, and a Ruby-throated Hummingbird.

I’m so happy that I had a chance to see the Wood Stork and was able to have a wonderful birding day with Dave. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to spend my birthday.

 

New Jersey State Botanical Gardens

Today my friend Casey and I went to the New Jersey State Botanical Gardens to celebrate my birthday (which is tomorrow 9/17). The NJ Botanical Gardens are located in Ringwood State Park in Ringwood, NJ. Ringwood is located in the “Skylands” region of New Jersey, a more mountainous area of the state near the border of New York. (Last year we went to the Skylands region to explore the Lakota Wolf Preserve, you can read about our trip here). 

There are numerous gardens and historical buildings/landmarks to explore. One of the highlights is the Skylands Manor, a Tudor-revival style mansion bought by Clarence McKenzie Lewis in 1922. Beautiful small gardens are spread throughout the main lawns and in the forests. These include the Annual Garden, Magnolia Walk, Summer Garden, Perennial Garden, Rhododendron Garden, and Azalea Garden to name just a few. You can also stroll along Crabapple Vista and view the Four Continents statues from the 1600s. Another fun attraction is the Solar System Walk.

Birding was not the primary purpose of this trip, but I did see a few species. These included Gray Catbirds, Eastern Wood-Pewees, Tree Swallows, Black-capped Chickadees, Downy Woodpeckers, American Goldfinches, White-breasted Nuthatches, and Blue Jays.

Here are some of the pictures from our trip.

We had a lovely morning exploring the beautiful scenery of the New Jersey State Botanical Gardens. I would definitely recommend checking it out if you’re ever in the NJ Skylands Regions.

Late Summer Birding

September is my one of my favorite months for many reasons: the change of summer to fall, birthdays (both for Dave and me), fall migration, getting paid again (teacher life lol). September also happens to be one of the busiest time of the year because of all the back-to-school events. Therefore, I don’t get to go birding much as I wanted to at the beginning of September.

However, the weather has been pretty mild here in New Jersey lately compared to the “indian summer” that we usually get. We’ve had some beautiful weekends/afternoons, so Dave and I have been trying to go birding as much as possible. I have some other posts I want to write/2 upcoming hiking trips, but since I’m exhausted from back-to-school night, I figured I’d share some of our recent late summer birding pictures. Enjoy! 🙂

Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Rub-throated Hummingbird (Image by David Horowitz)
American Redstart
American Redstart First-year Female (Image by David Horowitz)
IMG_3967
Mallard Squad (Image by BirdNation)
chipping sparrow 3
Chipping Sparrow (Image by David Horowitz)
yellow warbler female
Yellow Warbler Female (Image by BirdNation)

Bonus non-bird Picture:

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Amico Island Beaver (Image by David Horowitz)

 

 

Birds and Hurricanes

(Before I begin, I hope that everyone who was in the path of the 2 recent hurricanes is safe and has as quick of a recovery as possible.)

We’ve had 2 Category 4 (130-156 mph winds) in the past few weeks on the Atlantic Coast: Hurricane Harvey, which hit Texas, and Hurricane Irma, which severely affected the Caribbean and Florida. (This is the first time in 166 years of record keeping that two Category 4 hurricanes made landfall on the Atlantic Coast during the same year). Hurricanes are one of the most violent kinds of storms on the planet and cause devastation to both people and wildlife.

We unfortunately know the horrible affects hurricanes have on people, but what about birds? Just like us, they have a variety of strategies for dealing with these natural disasters. What a bird chooses do during a hurricane depends largely on the bird species, but there are a handful of options.

Option 1: Stay put and hunker down

This option is usually used by non-migratory birds, especially passerines (a.k.a songbirds). Passerines are anisodactyl, meaning they have 3 forward-pointing toes and one backwards-pointing toe. This allows them to easily cling on surfaces such as tree trunks, branches, wires, and other “perches”. During a hurricane, these small birds will hang onto their perches for dear life. Will these poor little birds fly off their perch during high winds? Not too likely, unless their perch happens to blow away with them on it.

Birds will also seek shelter in trees, bushes, shrubs, nest-holes, and other cavities. A popular story recently has been about Harvey, the Cooper’s Hawk who sought out shelter in somebody’s taxi cab. It turns out Harvey had a broken wing and was in shock, so s/he was taken to a wildlife center where s/he is expected to make a full recovery.

harvey
Harvey the Cooper’s Hawk, Hurricane survivor (Image via foxnews.com)

Option 2: Avoid/leave the area

Birds can sense the change in barometric pressure and hear infrasound (sound lower in frequency that 20 Hz), so they can sense storms as enormous as hurricanes before they arrive. As a result, some species may change their behavior to avoid flying into the path of the hurricane. An interesting example of this behavior comes from Caleb Spiegel, a USFWS wildlife biologist, who was studying migratory birds fitted with transmitters. A Northern Gannet he was tracking was headed toward the southern coast of New Jersey when Superstorm Sandy was set to hit land in October 2012. The Northern Gannet ended up turning around and flew back north towards New York to cut out across the continental shelf to wait out the storm. It ended up flying back to New Jersey afterwards. This kind of behavior is seen by a number of bird species.

Northern Gannet, Bonaventure Island, Near Perce, Gaspe Peninsula, Quebec
Northern Gannet (Image by Alan D. Wilson, http://www.naturespicsonline.com, via wikipedia)

Option 3: Fly into the storm

Now this one sounds kind of crazy, but it’s true. The eye of the hurricane is very calm, so birds who get sucked up into the cyclone will sometimes try to fly inside the eye until the storm dissipates. Some birds who already near the storm may also fly around it.

There are many stories about birds flying inside hurricanes, but some of the most popular about Whimbrels. In 2011, a Whimbrel aptly named Hope flew into Tropical Storm Gert of the coast of Nova Scotia. By look at radio transmitted data, it was determined that Hope spent 27 hours in the storm flying at an average of 7 mph. Strong tailwinds pulled Hope out of the storm at 90 mph, and she actually made it to her destination of Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

whimbrel2
Whimbrel (Image by Terry Hartley, Due South Photography, via outdooralabama.com/whimbrel)

Hurricane Aftermath

So how do catastrophic storms affect bird populations? Scientists are finding that birds are quite good at navigating extreme weather situations. 40-50% of birds are migratory and face challenging survival situations on a normal basis in order to reach their winter/breeding grounds. They have learned to develop the strategies list above to survive natural disasters. Of course there are always casualties, but many birds are able to respond to environmental threats and survive. Birds are more likely to suffer mass casualties in catastrophes such as oil spills, like the BP oil spill of 2010, than events such as hurricanes. Like us, birds are resilient.