Happy Owl-o-ween!

Happy Halloween everyone! Or should I say happy “Owl-o-ween” instead? I apologize that I didn’t have time to write an Owl Wednesday last week, so I wanted to make it up with a special owl post for Halloween.

Owls are mainly nocturnal, so many people associate them with darkness and mystery. At this time of year it’s not uncommon to the see owls in scary movies/shows and on Halloween decorations. It’s easy to see why people would find an owl in the night menacing. They have large glowing eyes, bellowing calls, and heads that they can make turn up to 270 degrees. Since ancient times, owls have fascinated cultures around the world and have become part of their folklore and superstitions.

Here are few spooky Halloween superstitions:

  • Owls and witches are often associated with each other. Some people believed that owls were used as messengers by sorcerers and witches. The Romans believed that witches could turn themselves into owls and swoop onto newborns to suck their blood.
  • The Hopi Indians believed that Burrowing Owls, called Ko’ko, were the protectors of the Underworld and the gods of death.
  • Many cultures have associated owls with death. An Appalachian mountain legend states that if you hear an owl call after midnight then death is coming. Many European plays and poems use owls as the symbol for destruction and death. However, a British Isle legend states that if you find an owl feather, you can use it to repel the negative forces that seeing an owl can bring.
  • Owls are often connected with sorcery in parts of Africa. If an owl is tied to a house, then it’s said that a powerful shaman dwells there. Owls also help shamans communicate with the spirit world.
  • In England, an owl screeching on a cold night meant that there was an impending storm.

Not all legends about owls are negative though:

  • The Aborigines from Australia consider owls sacred and think they are the spirits of women. Therefore, if you see an owl on the way to harvest, it will be good year for crops.
  • Some Indian cultures, such as the Dakota Hidatsa and Lenape thought of owls as protective spirits and guardians, especially for brave warriors. The Tlingit tribe would go into battle hooting like owls to strike fear in their enemies.
  • Athena, the Greek Goddess of wisdom, choose the owl as her one of her favorite birds after banishing the mischievous crow. Her owl was the Little Owl (Athene noctua) and they lived in abundance throughout the Acropolis.  It was believed that owls had an “inner light” that gave them ability  to see in the dark. Athena’s owls were a symbols of guidance, protection, and wisdom. It was said that if an owl flew over a Greek army, then victory would be forthcoming.

Some of my favorite legends from the Pacific Northwest tribes are about the Raven, a magical creature who is considered both a hero and a trickster. There is an  Inuit legend about the Raven and the Snowy Owl. Here’s one variation of this tale: the Raven and the Owl were making clothes for each other. The Raven made the Owl a lovely dress of black and white feathers. In return, the Owl made Raven whale-bone boots and a white dress. Owl tried to fit Raven’s dress, but Raven could not stay still. Owl became so frustrated that she threw a pot of lamp oil at Raven. The oil soaked through the dress and that’s how the Raven became black.

The folklore I listed above is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to owl mythology. Owls have been both admired and fear of hundreds of years, but through scientific research we know that owls are a vital part of the ecosystems in which they live. One thing is certain: that owls have captured our imaginations and will continue to do so.

Happy Owl-o-ween!

(Image via animals.desktopnexus.com)

Call of the Grackle

October 22 is a special day for Dave and I. It’s our anniversary date. So we thought what better way to spend our 9 year anniversary than at one of our favorite birding locations: Edwin B. Forsythe NWR.

We couldn’t have asked for more beautiful weather. It ended up getting quite warm today, but in the mid-morning it was cool and breezy. Even though the weather has been kind of strange lately, you can tell that winter will be on it’s way in a few months from the flocks that were hanging around.

The flocks of Black Skimmers, Forster’s Terns, Laughing Gulls, Great Egrets, Glossy Ibis and other summer visitors have been replaced by waterfowl. I did end up seeing 2 Forster’s Terns and a few Great Egrets, but it was clear the winter crowd is slowly starting to take over. There were still plenty of Snowy Egrets wading through the water and a large flock of Tree Swallows scooping up the flies that are still hanging on to the warm weather.

Waterfowl observed included Wood Ducks, Mallards, Northern Pintails, American Black Ducks, Canada Geese, and over 40 (!) Mute Swans. We didn’t add any new birds to our life list overall, but we did add someone new to our park list: Pied-billed Grebes! We saw at least 6 in different parts of the refuge, sometimes in pairs. This was the first time we’ve seen them at Forsythe although we have seen this grebe species elsewhere (like this surprise one at Strawbridge Lake. There were a few raptors hanging around as well: 2 Cooper’s Hawks, a Red-tailed Hawk, and a female Northern Harrier.

The highlight of the trip for me were the Boat-tailed Grackles. I’ve seen one or two from a distance before, but this was the first time we saw a flock and we were able to get close to them. They were really fun to watch and very noisy. Boat-tailed Grackles and Common Grackles are similar, but do have some distinct differences. Boat-tailed Grackles are larger, have longer tails, have larger bills, and are more of a bluish iridescence. We saw both male and female Boat-tailed Grackles. The females are rufous brown with dark tails and wings. They were really beautiful.

Boat-tailed Grackle male
Boat-tailed Grackle male singing (Image by David Horowitz)
Boat-tailed Grackle female
Boat-tailed Grackle female (Image by BirdNation)
boat-tailed grackle
Boat-tailed Grackle on sign (Image by BirdNation)

We even got a few videos of their calls. Their common songs is a jeeb-jeeb-jeeb sound but like other grackles they make a variety of calls, whistles, guttural noises, and clicks. I like that after the grackle in the first video calls it makes a wing flutter that makes an interesting sound. (These videos were taken on my Iphone, so please excuse the quality :-), I was more concerned about the sounds). 

Overall we saw 29 species on our Forsythe trip. I’m glad we got to spend our special day at one of our favorite birding areas. Here’s to many more years of birding together! ❤


Elf Owl Wednesday

Last week we learned about one of the tallest owls in the world, the Great Gray Owl.  This week we’ll go to the other extreme: the Elf Owl, which is the smallest owl in the world.

Elf Owl (Micrathene whitneyi)


Standing at around 5 inches in length, the Elf Owl is no larger than a sparrow or small thrush. These tiny owls have brown/gray upperparts and white/cinnamon colored barred stripes on its underparts. Their legs are relatively long and covered with small bristles. Elf Owls have piercing yellow eyes that are surrounded by a black rim. Over the eyes there is a narrow white eyebrow. Other owl species have 12 tail feathers, but Elf Owls have only 10 tail feathers.

Elf Owl (Image via birds-of-north-america.net)


Resident of Baja, California  and Central Mexico. Breeds (summer) in parts of Arizona, New Mexcio, Texas, and Mexico. Winters in Mexico.


Sonoran saguaro deserts, large mesquites, wood canyons, riparian woods, montane forests of oak, thorn-scrub. Does surprisingly well in suburbs, but urbanization is a threat to this species.


Almost entirely insects, scorpions, spiders, but may rarely eat small vertebrates such as rodents, lizards, and small snakes. Elf Owls are crepuscular, meaning they forage most actively at dawn and dusk. They forage while flying, hovering, swerving, or grabbing insects off of trees.

elf owl
Elf Owl with a scorpion (Image via pinterest)


When male Elf Owls return to their breeding grounds, they will pick multiple potential nesting sites. Females will arrive later, and the male will sing from his cavity entrance to attract her attention. Once the female approaches, the male will continue to sing from inside his cavity to convince the female to go in and mate.

Elf Owls do not make their own cavities. In their Sonoran desert habitat, they rely on existing holes from woodpeckers such as the Acorn, Ladder-backed, and Gila Woodpeckers. In other habitats, they will nest in whatever large trees are available such as cottonwoods and sycamores. Although Elf Owls only stay with a mating partner for one season, they may use the same nest site for up to 3 years.

The female will incubate 3 white eggs for about 2 weeks (although 1-5 eggs is possible). She starts incubating once the second egg is laid. The hatching is asychronous; the first 2 eggs tend to hatch together while the third hatches a few days later. The owlets will nest for about 4 weeks. The parents will encourage the young to fledge by withholding food. An astounding fact about Elf Owls is that they have around a 90% nest rate, the highest of any owl in the world.


The males are known for a “chatter call”, 6 or 7 rapid squeaky notes that are higher pitched in the middle.


Locally common or abundant in manyareas of it’s range, but sharply declined in the lower Colorado River. Population trends are unclear, but they face threats such as urbanization, habitat loss, frequency of wild fires, and droughts.

Fun Facts: 

  • There are 4  subspecies: M. w. whitneyi, M. w. sadfordi, M. w. grayson, and M. w. idonea.
  • It’s assumed that owls migrate individually, but there’s some evidence that Elf Owls may sometimes migrate in small flocks.

Barnegat Light Records

On September 7th, Dave and I went birding at Barnegat Lighthouse State Park. In our area that day it was supposed to be around 80 degrees (too hot for October in my opinion), so we escaped from the heat to the breezy shore.

We saw 12 American Oystercatchers on the beach, a personal record for us. Usually when we go to Barnegat Light we see T2’s family (a resident oystercatcher who you can read more about here), and sometimes an unbanded pair. So we were delighted to see such a high number of them. American Oystercatchers from South Carolina to Florida tend to be non-migratory. Many Northeastern populations use what is called “leap-frog” migration, where instead of migrating down the Atlantic Coast they winter in Northwest Florida (we learned our friend T2 does this, and winters in Cedar Key, Fl). American Oystercatchers will start forming pre-migration flocks in late summer and will migrate usually between mid-September and mid-November. Our group of 12 oystercatchers was probably one of those migration flocks. Our friend T2 was among them. I hope s/he has a safe migration and winter in Florida, and I hope to see T2 again for a 3rd year next summer.

There were also many smaller shorebirds running around the beach and on the jetty. These included Semipalmated Sandpipers, Semipalmated Plovers (in non-breeding plumage) , Least Sandpipers, and Ruddy Turnstones. It was fun watching them run around the rocks looking for food. There was somebody else watching these “peeps”, although not for the same reason we were.

Every once in a while, a Merlin would swoop by and startle the the shorebirds, sending them off in a frenzy flock to escape becoming lunch. Merlins are swift, little falcons who hunt prey by using high speed attacks. Shorebirds are one of the many menu options for Merlins, who like to feast on birds that weight between 1-2 oz. The first time we saw a Merlin at Barnegat Light was December 2016. It makes me wonder if it’s possibly the same one or another individual.

Merlin in flight (Image by David Horowitz)

Each year, Brown Pelicans show up around Barnegat Light in late summer/early fall, and during our August LBI trip we saw a few for the first time. This time we saw 10 Brown Pelicans flying towards Island Beach State Park (which you can see from Barnegat Light). We saw each pelican fly by individually, but learned they sit on some small islands out in Barnegat Inlet near Island Beach. I’m so happy that we’ve been able to see the late summer Brown Pelicans this year.

brown pelican 4
Brown Pelican over Barnegat Inlet (Image by David Horowitz)

Other highlights from our October LBI trip included a variety of gulls, a tern catching a fish and flying with it over our heads, and many Double-crested Cormorants.

tern 4
Tern with a fish (Image by David Horowitz)

We’ve had a few personal records this year at Barnegat Lighthouse State Park. It was our first year seeing Brown Pelicans, we saw 12 American Oystercatchers in one visit, we’ve added a few birds to our life list, and we visited the park 5 times this year (as opposed to maybe twice per year in the past). I’m happy that we have been spending more time exploring and witnessing the seasons at Barnegat Light. I’m sure we will have a few more adventures on LBI for the remainder of the year, especially since the winter waterfowl will soon be on their way :-).

Great Gray Owl Wednesday

This week’s featured owl is the captivating and mysterious Great Gray Owl of the northern boreal forests.

Great Gray Owl (Strix nebulosa)

Great Gray Owls are one of the tallest owls in the world, standing at around 3 feet tall with a 5 foot wingspan. But don’t let it’s height fool you; it’s body size is an illusion. Weighting at only 2.5 pounds, Great Gray Owls have a small body core and an impressive number of fluffy feathers that make them seem bigger than they really are. Other North American owls, such as the Snowy Owl and Great Horned Owl are much larger in mass.

Cross-section taxidermy from the Zoological Museum in Copenhagen shows it’s body core compared to its feathers (Image by FunkMonk via wikimedia commons)

These owls sport beautiful silvery gray, white, and brown plumage. They have long tails and huge facial disks that have gray and brown concentric circles. In between their bright yellow eyes, Great Gray Owls have two pale arcs that form an “X” shape. Another distinctive feature is the white “bow tie”, which are patches of white feathers on their throats. Females are slightly larger and darker than males.


Canada and the Pacific Northwest, as well as Scandinavia, Mongolia, Russia, and Siberia. When food is scarce, some owls will irrupt southeast to the northern Midwestern and Northeastern regions of the United States. An irruption is an irregular migration to a location that is not normally part of a bird’s range, usually due to food scarcity.


Boreal forest, also know as taiga, with a combination of mixed woods/conifers and openings such as sedge meadows and wetlands in lowland areas. Also fir and pine forest next to montane meadows (ecosystems with seasonally moist to waterlogged soil)


Mainly small mammals, such as voles, pocket squirrels, mice, weasels, and other rodents. A small percentage of their diet is other birds. Great Gray Owls have terrific hearing and will mainly hunt by sound while sitting on a perch or gliding silently over the snow. Their large facial disks help them focus the sound, and they use their asymmetrical ears to locate the prey. They will plunge over a foot into snow to catch rodents. These owls mainly hunt at dusk and dawn.

Great Gray Owl (Image via pinterest)


Great Gray Owls do not build their own nests, they use abandoned raptor or corvid nests. They generally choose a nest near an open bog or meadow. Pairs are monogamous during breeding season. Males will feed the female as a courtship behavior and the pair will allopreen (preen each other). 

Snow depth seems to determine when a female will lay eggs. Depending on the region egg laying can take place anywhere between mid-March and late May. Females will start incubating the eggs after the first one is laid. A brood may have between 2-5 eggs. After 28-36 days of incubation by the female, the eggs will hatch. The male will supply the food while the female feeds the young for about 3 weeks. At that point, the owlets may start to slowly venture from the nest. The female will usually abandon them to be taken care of by the male after they owlets fledge. Great Gray Owls generally have 1 brood, but may breed multiple times if prey is abundant.


Deep, powerful whoos that may be repeated up to 10 times and descend in pitch towards the end. Females are higher-pitched than the males. A bi-syllabic contact call: doo-it doo-it. 


Due to their elusive nature, it’s difficult for ornithologists to get a clear number on population. Estimates are around 31,000 individuals in North America. They are considered “vulnerable” in some areas. The greatest threat to Great Gray Owls is timber harvest, and land management programs are in place to protect their habitat. It’s unclear how climate change and its effect on rodent populations will impact Great Gray Owls.

Fun Facts:

  • Most of the year these owls are nocturnal, but they tend to be more diurnal in the summer and midwinter. Some scientist believe their proportionally small eye-size contributes to a partially-diurnal lifestyle.
  • Great Gray Owls tend to be less aggressive than other raptors in general, but will fiercely defend their nests and young. They are also one of the few owls that have been documented in performing distraction displays to lure intruders away.
  • The Great Gray Owl is the provincial bird of Manitoba.
By Arne List (http://www.flickr.com/photos/arne-list/2363789109/) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

American Birding Expo 2017

On Saturday, September 30, Dave and I went to the 3rd Annual American Birding Expo at the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center in Oak, Pennsylvania.

The American Birding Expo was founded by Bill Thompson III, the editor and publisher of Bird Watcher’s Digest. The event’s slogan is “the world of birding in one place!”. I originally heard about the Expo while listening to the podcast This Birding Life, which is hosted by Bill Thompson III (if you haven’t listened to This Birding Life you should check it out!). Dave and I live less than an hour from the expo center, so we thought it would be a great event to check out.

This 3-day event features field trips, guest speakers, travel companies, merchandise, and much more. The first section of the hall was filled with travel companies from all over the world. According to the Expo website, in 2016, over 41 countries and 42 states were represented. Some of the countries present this year were Panama, Taiwan, Chile, Ecuador, Australia, Uganda, Portugal, Mexico, and New Zealand. There were also booths for optics companies, such as Zeiss, Swarovski, Celestron, and Opticron. Organizations such as the Cape May Bird Observatory, Bird Life International, and Bird Watcher’s Digest could also be found in the first hall. We also had the chance to meet Conrad, a blue jay who lives at the John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove.

The second hall featured artists, publishers, and shops. Julie Zickefoose, bird artist and author had a booth. She was also the Friday night featured presenter. Dave and I are a fan of bird-related art, and we ended up buying some watercolors from Ohio-based artist Jim Turanchik. Turanchik’s goal in his art is to capture the essence of birds, which I feel he does very well. The birds in his watercolors seem like they are moving. He does this by portraying them at different angles. He also has a “Birds in Flight” collection, which feature larger birds such as Anhingas, Great Blue Herons, Wood Storks, and Glossy Ibis to name a few. We purchased two watercolors, a Magnolia Warbler and a Blackburnian Warbler. You can check out his website at jturanchik.com.

(We hung the watercolors up in our dining area, which is near a small chandelier. I took this pictures on an angle because no matter what lighting I try to use you can see reflections, so sorry for the bad angles).

At the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing booth, author Stephen Shunk was signing copies of the his book, Peterson Reference Guide to Woodpeckers of North America. As longtime blog readers know, I already own this book (and happily used it to write last fall’s Woodpecker Wednesday feature), so I got my copy signed! I found out that Stephen Shunk’s favorite woodpecker is the Lewis’s Woodpecker and we talked about Pileateds and Red-headed Woodpeckers. It was really cool to meet an author and get my book signed. He wished me “Happy Woodpecker Watching!”, which I will definitely do.

Signed by Stephen Shunk 

One event that I wanted to see but didn’t was Scott Weidensaul’s presentation on Project SNOWstorm. I’m a fan of Weidensaul’s nature books, but the presentation was from 6-8, which was a little late for us since we were there in the morning. There were also morning bird hikes each day of the expo from 7-10 am. There were 5 birding locations around Philadelphia were birders could meet to take guided tours. We didn’t end up going to any of them, but we did explore one of the locations on our own after the expo.

After lunch, we drove over to the Militia Hill section of Fort Washington State Park, one of the Expo birding hotspots. The Militia Hill section features a Hawk Watch platform and is near the Wissahickon Creek. We spent some time sitting on the platform and them briefly walked around the area. Some birds we saw included an American Redstart, an Osprey, Turkey Vultures, Blue Jays, a Red-bellied Woodpecker, and House Finches. It was a lovely place that I’d like to explore more one day.

It was still early in the day and we weren’t done with birds yet! After Militia Hill, we drove back to New Jersey and hiked around Palmyra Cove. Highlights included 2 Bald Eagles, a Green Heron, a Red-bellied Woodpecker cleaning out its hole, Wild Turkeys, and Eastern Phoebes.

September 30th was a fantastic day. We not only had a fun time at the American Birding Expo, but spent the day outside with the birds. I couldn’t have asked for a better birding day.

Burrowing Owl Wednesday

This week for Owl Wednesday I chose the Burrowing Owl. Why? Just Google “Burrowing Owl” and look at the images. Cuteness abounds. You won’t be disappointed. 🙂

Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia)


Burrowing Owls are small owls (about blue jay-sized) with long legs and short tails. These brown and white birds are mottled/spotted on their underparts and horizontally barred on their upper parts. Their facial disk features a prominent white eyebrow and a white lower margin below the bill. Burrowing Owls have bright yellow eyes, but some juveniles in the Florida population have olive or brown eyes that may transition to a gold color with brown spots. Burrowing Owls are the only North American owls that are non-reversed size dimorphic. This means they are the only owl species where the males are larger than the females in measurement. These owls are also unique because they are diurnal (active during the day), although they can be nocturnal as well.


Western population north to south from Canada to Arizona/New Mexico and west to east from California through the Midwestern states are migratory/partially migratory. They winter in Texas, parts of Central America, and South America. Populations in the Southwest, the northern part of Central America, Florida, and the Caribbean are residents.

By travelwayoflife (Flickr: Owl Family Portrait) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Open places, such as prairie lands, range lands, deserts, coastlines, open scrubland, golf course, sage brush, pastures, road sides, agricultural fields, vacant lots, housing developments. They are usually found with prairie dog towns of the West, but have become closely  associated with humans due to habitat loss.


Mainly insects. Rodents, small birds, lizards, snakes, beetles, grasshoppers. Sometimes jackrabbits, cottontails, and young prairie dogs. They catch prey with their talons by walking, running, flying, and hovering. They hunt most actively at dusk and dawn.


As their name suggests, Burrowing Owls nest in burrows underground. They are the only owl in the world to consistently do so. These owls are semi-colonial, so they can be found nesting closely in small groups. Many owls in the Western population depend on existing burrows from prairie dogs, ground squirrels, armadillos, and other ground-nesting mammals. However, there are not many large burrowing animals in the Florida population, so they tend to excavate their own nests.

Burrowing Owls have 1 brood per year, with a clutch size of typically between 4-9 eggs. Some females will begin to incubate once they lay their first egg, but some Canadian females wait until half the clutch is laid. Eggs are incubated for about a month and owlets will come above ground starting at around 2 weeks. The young fledge at about 6-7 weeks old. Burrowing Owls will return to their breeding grounds between mid-March through May, and owlets tend to disperse in late summer.

Burrowing Owl Family (Image by animalspot.net/burrowing-owl.html)


2 or 3 note wa-WAAH-oo by male. Females respond with eep!. Famous for “rattlesnake rasp” given by nesting females and owlet, which makes these birds sound almost exactly like a rattlesnake. Alarm chatter is WEEt-whit-whit-whit with typically 5-7 sharp notes.


Populations have decreased over time. Listed as endangered in Canada, and although not listed under the Endangered Species Act, considered endangered in 15 of the 19 states where they live. Threats include habitat loss, prairie dog/ground squirrel control programs, agricultural practices, pesticides, and collisions with vehicles.  Artificial nesting sites, protective legislation, and habitat preservation programs have all aided Burrowing Owls to recover in some areas.

Fun Facts:

  • Burrowing Owls will line the entrance of their burrows  with dry manure. Some scientist believe dung is used to attract beetles and other insects for food, while others think its to mask their scent to mammals. However, they will line their burrows with other items such as corn cobs, pieces of bone, feathers, metal foil, bottle caps, and other man-made trash.
  • The species name, cunicularia, derives from the Latin word cunicularius, meaning “burrower” or “miner”.
  • DNA microsatellite analysis shows that there are many genetic differences between the Western and Florida subspecies. The evidence from this study suggests that these species diverged approximately 350,000 years ago.
  • All other small owls have vertical breast markings, while Burrowing Owls have horizontal barring.
Burrowing Owls (Image from vk.com via Gary Nealy Jr./Pinterest)