‘Twas the day before Christmas, and out near the dunes,
Were the gulls, long-tailed ducks, the brants, and the loons;
The birders looked all ’round the beach and the air,
In hopes that a Snowy Owl would be there.
AND GUESS WHAT?
We found it!!!!
(***Please note: the image above was taken at a far and safe distance and was heavily cropped.)
Dave and I went to Long Beach Island this morning to look for a Snowy Owl that was being reported at the Holgate section of Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge on Long Beach Island. We tried tracking down some Snowies at Island Beach State Park a few weeks ago (where there 2 are being tracked/studied by Project SNOWstorm), but didn’t find them. So I was hoping we’d have a bit of a Christmas Eve miracle…and we did.
We scanned the dunes with our binoculars while walking along the beach (making sure not to go on them of course!). After about 20 minutes of walking there was no Snowy to be found. Dave asked how far out I wanted to walk since the beach is at least 3 miles out. I said a little farther, because I had a feeling that today was going to be the day.
And then we spotted something in the grass a good distance away. It was pretty far, so at first we weren’t quite sure if we found the owl. We were cautiously optimistic, trying not to get too excited if it turned out to be something else. But as we quietly made our way down the beach it became clear that it really was the owl.
We watched the Snowy from a distance for a few minutes. It was absolutely beautiful. The owl peeked at us through its sleepy eyes then continued to rest. It was breathtaking to see such a magnificent bird. I always dreamed of seeing a Snowy, and I’m so thankful I had an opportunity to spend a few minutes in its presence.
It’s certainly a Christmas Eve that I’ll never forget.
It’s that time of year again: Snowy Owl irruption! Many birders across regions of the United States have been observing these black-and-white owls very far away from their home in the tundra.
There’s something magical about the Snowy Owl. These beautiful birds capture our imaginations each winter. Snowy Owls breed high in the arctic and subarctic tundra zones of Canada, so it’s no wonder seeing a Snowy Owl in the United States is a huge deal. So why are these owls showing up further south from their usual winter range?
Snowies are well-equipped for life in the cold, barren tundra. Once breeding season is over the owls typically either: 1. stay at the breeding grounds 2. go even farther north! or 3. move south throughout Canada and the upper Great Plains of the US. But for reasons still be studied, some years Snowies irrupt further south into the United States. An irruption is an unpredictable migration of a large number of birds. Small Snowy Owl irruptions usually happen every 4-5 years, but rarely there are “mega-irruptions”.
Why do these irruptions occur? Scientist don’t quite know, which is where programs like Project SNOWstorm come in. Project SNOWstorm was co-founded by Scott Weidensaul. Since Snowy Owl irruptions are so mysterious, Project SNOWstorm aims to study this phenomenon in order to conserve these marvelous birds.
One thing we do know for certain is that there are some popular myths surrounding Snowy Owls and irruptions. One of the biggest misconceptions is that Snowies irrupt because they are hungry, mainly from a lack of lemmings (one of their main food source). Recent studies have found that the opposite is true: there’s an overabundance of food.
A successful breeding season depends on good lemming populations. When the population drops, these birds may breed less or not at all. But when there’s a boon of lemmings, the owl population soars as well. An average clutch of eggs is between 5-7, but can be as high as 11 in boom years (or as low as 3 in lean times). So successful breeding seasons result in more offspring and potentially large irruptions. Many Snowy Owls that arrive in the United States during an irruption are generally healthy and usually tend to be heavier than in non-irruption years.
One of the ways Project SNOWstorm tracks the owls is through GPS-GMS transmitters. The transmitters are solar-powered, and record locations in altitude, latitude, and longitude. They are programmed to record data at 30 second intervals, so the owls are always being tracked. The transmitters only weigh about 40 grams and attach to the bird by a small backpack. The data is sent through cell towers, so when an owl is out of range, the transmitter can store up to 100,000 locations and send the data when the owl is back in range (even years later!).
So far, 52 owls have been tracked throughout the program’s entirety, but there are 7 currently being watched. 3 happen to be here in New Jersey: Island Beach, Higbee, and Lenape. Island Beach and Lenape were both fitted with a transmitters at Island Beach State Park and Higbee at South Cape May Meadows in Cape May. The other current owls are Hilton (Rochester, NY), Sterling (Sterling, NY), Chickatawbut (last detected in Quebec), and Wells (Maine).
Of course, not all the Snowies that irrupt get tracked, so there have been tons of owl sightings throughout the country since November. Dave and I went to Island Beach State Park a few weeks ago looking for Snowies, but were unsuccessful. There’s been reports of Snowy Owls on Long Beach Island, so I would love to see if we can find one over winter break.
What should you do if you happen to see a Snowy Owl? You should keep a respectful distance and never feed the owls. Many Snowy Owls that irrupt are found on beaches (since it resembles the tundra to them), so please, keep off the dunes! Observing Snowy Owl etiquette is extremely important for the health of the owls, while making the experience for birders more enjoyable and safe.
Exciting news before I start the feature: Dave and I saw our first Short-eared Owl a few weeks ago! We were walking along the Delaware River at Palmyra Cove when Dave spotted a male soaring over the river near some gulls. It was pretty overcast so we didn’t get any good pictures, but we watched it for about 10 minutes before it flew over our heads and into the wooded area of the park. It was amazing!
Barred Owls are medium-sized owls that are a little smaller than the Great Horned. These beautiful owls are brown to brown-gray on their upperparts and heads. As their name suggests, their necks, nape, back, wings, tails, and crowns feature white/buffy barring. Barred Owls are tuftless with round heads. Their blacks eyes stand out against their gray facial disks. Juveniles have white natal down until about 2-3 weeks when their adult flight feathers start to develop.
Resident of the United States from the Great Plains to the East Coast. In Canada, found in the southern regions of Quebec, Ontario, and Manitoba; through central Saskatchewan and Alberta; throughout British Columbia expanding south to Washington, Idaho, Oregon and northern California. Also found in parts of Mexico.
Woodlands and wooded swamps, including deciduous, mature conifers, and mixed forests. Also does well in older suburban neighbors with a lot of shade trees.
Opportunistic hunters. Mainly eats small mammals such as mice, voles, rabbits, shrews, rats, and squirrels. Also hunts small birds, frogs, snakes, lizards, some insects, and aquatic prey. Barred Owls watch prey from a perch or glide low through the forest. They mainly hunt at dusk and dawn. Sometimes they will hover over prey before grabbing it. These owls usually swallow small prey whole, but tears large prey into pieces.
Referred to as a “duet”, mating pairs will court by raising wings, bobbing heads, and calling while perched together. Males may also feed the females during courtship. Scientist are unsure whether Barred Owl pairs stay together in the long term, but pairs begin to form in late winter/early spring. Pairs will choose the oldest tree they can find since they are likely to have large cavities, which Barred Owls depend on. Sometimes they will evict other occupants, such as Red-shouldered Hawks, if needed. Barred Owls may also use nest boxes.
The female will incubate a brood of 2-3 eggs for about 28-33 days while the male provides her food. Egg hatching is asynchronous, so the eggs hatch a few days apart. The female will stay with the owlets much of the time while the male feeds them. The young will begin branching (exploring the area around the nest) at around 4-5 weeks and take their first flights at 6 weeks.
Extremely vocal and instantly recognizable. Their loud calls, which are typically described as “Who-cooks-for-you, who-cooks-for-you-aaaaaallllllll!”, are made by males and females. Female’s calls are higher-pitched than the males. Scientists have recently started to study a suite of 13 complex vocalizations.
Still common and widespread. Their range is expanding into central Quebec. These owls were originally only found in the East, but over the past century have dramatically expanded their range into the Northwest. While this may be good for the Barred Owl, it’s having a detrimental effect on its close relative, the Spotted Owl.
The Barred Owl’s most dangerous predatory threat is the larger Great Horned Owl. Barred Owls will try to avoid Great Horns since they usually live in the same habitats.
One study done on on Barred Owls in Oregon found that the birds had 95 different species represented as prey items.
They mainly are active at night, but may sometimes hunt during the day more than other owls.
Studies on banded Barred Owls have shown that these owls do not travel much. They are usually found living no more than a few miles away from where they were banded.
Time for the second owl post of the week! Today’s featured owl is the Short-eared Owl, one of the most widespread owls in the world. It’s Latin name is Asio flammeus, translated to “flame-colored horned-owl”.
Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus)
Short-eared owls are sandy-colored, medium-sized owls. Their short ear tufts are so tiny they are almost impossible to see unless you are close to the owl and it’s alarmed or agitated. Their underparts are heavily streaked and their upperparts are brown with white and buff. Males are grayer than females with whiter undersides/underwings. Their facial disks are lightly streaked and whitish with blackish triangular spots around the eyes. Short-eared Owls have very short tails and round heads. Juveniles are downy, and as they start to get adult plumage, their facial disks are black with white crescents with a white “mustache” chin.
Short-eared Owls live throughout most of the Northern Hemisphere, including North America, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. They are also found in the southern part of South America and on islands including Micronesia, the Caribbean, Hawaii, and Galapagos. In North America they are residents in the American West, parts of Canada, and Cuba. They spend the summers throughout Canada and winters in the Midwest and Northeast. Irregular irruptions can be found in the Southwest and Southeastern United States. The Caribbean population regularly invades Southern Florida.
Open country, such as grasslands, marshes, prairies, farmland, dunes, and tundra.
Mainly meadow voles, but other small mammals such as mice, muskrats, moles, rabbits, pocket voles, and weasels. Also known to eat large insects and small to medium-sized birds. Short-eared Owls hunt most actively during dawn and dusk, but can be found hunting in daylight. They soar low to the ground and hover over their prey before landing on it.
Males perform a “sky-dancing” display which include impressive spiraling flights, diving, calling, and wing-clapping. They will start courting in late winter, but pair bonds don’t usually last for the season. Nests are usually just a small depression in the ground, but Short-eared Owls have be occasionally known to also nest in trees with Long-eared Owls.
Short-eared Owls have one brood per year with the average clutch size of 5-6 eggs. However, when prey is abundant, it’s possible for the female to lay up to 11 eggs. The female incubates the eggs for 21- 31 eggs and hatching is asynchronous (meaning the eggs hatch over a number of days, not at the same time). The male will bring food to the female who will feed and brood the owlets. The owlets will usually leave the nest on foot at 12-18 days and can start to fly around 27 days.
Bark calls are given by both females and males, a nasal and harsh eee-YUURK! that can be short or drawn out, or a short rik-rikr-rik!. Males hoot during courtship activities.
Still widespread, but have declined by 50-80% in its North American range, mainly due to the fact that these owls are grassland specialists. They are listed as “endangered” or “special concern” in 26 states. They are still relatively widespread in other parts of their range. The Caribbean populations of Short-eared Owls have been expanding. Habitat restoration program have help populations improve.
They are one of the few owl species to construct their own nests.
Hawaii’s only native owl is the Pueo, a subspecies of the Short-eared Owl.
Males can be extremely aggressive towards other males in the territories. They will duel by flying towards each other, locking talons and tumbling to the ground. They let go right before they hit the ground.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 montanemeadows (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 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.
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.
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!
“Corn Crib’ by David Kiehm
Owl and Hummingbird Guides
Barn Owl (Tyto alba)
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.
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.
Open land; grasslands, marshes, fields, open woodlands, farms, prairies, and desert. Generally avoids dense forests.
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.
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.
Hair-raising, high-pitched screams, hisses, and screeches. Can have between 4-15 different vocalizations
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.
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.