Latest For the Birds column: Owls of winter

Jeannie Merwin of Marlow got this shot of a Barred Owl in her yard. She said the owl returns to her yard every January.

Jeannie Merwin of Marlow got this shot of a Barred Owl in her yard. She said the owl returns to her yard every January.

Here’s the latest For the Birds column, which runs in several New England newspapers:

I’ve never had great luck finding owls, but I always enjoy hearing when other people do.

Such was the case last week when New Hampshire resident Jeannie Merwin let me know that the Barred Owl that returns to her yard each year on Jan. 1 was a few days late and arrived on Jan. 4. She sent a great photo of the beautiful bird and added another photo of the owl with a Downy Woodpecker and Black-capped Chickadee also in the frame. So much for the big, bad owl.

Imagine having an owl show up at your yard like clockwork each year. I would look forward to it months ahead of time.

Barred Owls are one of New England’s most common owls, along with Great-horned Owls and Eastern Screech Owls. In my years of watching birds in this region, I’ve had decent luck finding Barred Owls, poor luck finding Great-horned Owls and almost no luck finding Eastern Screech Owls. Lucky and observant birdwatchers may also find Northern Saw-whet Owls and Barn Owls in New England.

Winter brings sightings of Snowy Owls, Long-eared Owls and Short-eared Owls and the very rare sightings of Great Gray Owls or Northern Hawk Owls. I’ve seen my share Continue reading

Latest For the Birds column: Owls come a’hootin’

Photo by Chris Bosak A young Barred Owl clings to a branch in the woods in Danbury, Conn., spring 2016.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A young Barred Owl clings to a branch in the woods in Danbury, Conn., spring 2016.

Here’s the latest For the Birds column, which runs weekly in The Hour (Norwalk, Conn.), The Keene (NH) Sentinel and several Connecticut weekly newspapers edited by Jerrod Ferrari.

….

Throughout my birding “career,” I haven’t had great luck with owls.

I get the occasional look at a great horned owl and have only slightly better luck with finding barred owls. I’ve had modest success with snowy owls along the Long Island Sound coast in certain winters, especially during that banner year a few winters back. Short-eared owls, long-eared Owls, saw-whet owls, even screech owls? Hardly a glimpse.

But this fall has been pretty good so far in terms of owling. Not that I’ve actually seen owls — even a single one — but I have heard plenty of them. It started about two weeks ago when I heard a barred owl in the woods while I was sitting on my deck at dusk.

Then, a few nights ago, I heard a great horned owl. I knew it was fairly close, but I couldn’t pinpoint exactly where it was.

Two nights later, I had a great night of owling, and I didn’t even have to leave my yard. I heard two great horned owls calling to each other, one of which was in my side yard. I didn’t see it, as it was pitch dark, but the sound was definitely coming from close by.

The owls hooted to each other all night. I know it was all night because I was up most of it worrying about my house cat that happened to get out that night. He picked a great night to get out — the night two great horned owls are scanning the neighborhood.

At one point that night, I heard a pair of barred owls in the distance, too. I had never heard any owls from my yard before, and now I was hearing two species in one night.

Barred owls and great horned owls have very different calls. Barred owls belt out a “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you aaallll?” It’s loud and, quite frankly, creepy. It’s a great Halloween sound. Great horned owls are more subtle when they say “Who’s awake? Me too.”

Now back to my cat. Cubby makes a great escape once a week or so and gets out. Like most pets, it’s best not to chase Cubby as he just runs farther away if he feels pursued. Plus, he’s much too agile and fast to catch anyway. Typically, he’s back in a half hour or an hour. At night, his escapes are usually even shorter. But on this night, he didn’t come home right away. I took frequent walks around the yard with a headlamp on to try to find him. No luck. I gave up on that at about 3 a.m.

I couldn’t sleep with my cat roaming the neighborhood and the constant sound of great horned owls calling to each other. I was torn between this being an awesome night or a terrible night. I certainly appreciated the owl calls, but in the back of my mind I worried about Cubby.

I put my mind at ease by knowing that, yes, owls on occasion will take a cat, but it’s highly unlikely. They are looking for mice, chipmunks, rabbits or similarly small prey. A house cat, while certainly within reason for a powerful great horned owl, is not a desirable prey. Cats are larger than an owl’s normal prey, so owls don’t typically go after cats because of the risks involved.

My mind was at ease, but not totally — certainly not enough to fall into a deep sleep. I left the sunroom door open and sliding door to the kitchen open a few inches in the hopes that Cubby would come in. I had to gauge the width of the door opening carefully as raccoons have gotten onto the enclosed sunporch before to get at the bird food. Boy, they are messy.

Finally at 4:30 a.m., I was half asleep when a loud “meow” came from the kitchen. It was Cubby, and he was fine. I had no idea where he had been or if he saw or heard the owls. I was just relieved that he was back.

I closed the doors and finally fell asleep fully with Cubby curled up at the foot of the bed.

The owls kept hooting, and I kept enjoying it, even in my sleep. When I woke up a few hours later, the sun was up and the owls had quieted. I didn’t know if they had left, but I knew they weren’t calling anymore.

I have heard them on occasion since, but not every night. I’m not sure if they are looking for nesting sites or just checking out a new neighborhood for untapped food sources, but I’m glad them came along. They are welcome in my yard anytime. I just have to be more careful with Cubby’s great escapes.

Barred Owls hunt by day and night

Photo by Chris Bosak A young Barred Owl clings to a branch in the woods in Danbury, Conn., spring 2016.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A young Barred Owl clings to a branch in the woods in Danbury, Conn., spring 2016.

I was taking a walk in the woods the other day when I heard an unfamiliar screeching sound from up above. It was loud and very unmelodic. It sounded like an animal in distress.

I looked up to try to pinpoint the source of the screeching. I didn’t have much hope in finding the source because I had heard birdsong during the entire walk up to that point and hadn’t been able find a single bird with the woods and leaves so thick.

But the source, as it turned out, was very easy to find. It was a Barred Owl family high in a tree. Two youngsters and an adult in one tree and another adult in an adjacent tree. Even through the thick leaves, the size of the owls gave away their whereabouts.

Knowing that owls are easily disturbed I didn’t venture off the trail. I didn’t have to as they were perched in a tree right near the trail. I snapped a few photos in the tricky lighting and moved along. I was happy to have seen the owls. I typically have poor luck finding owls, but the screeching led me right to them. The source was one of the youngsters calling for a parent. Later in the walk I heard in the distance the more familiar “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you aaaallll?” song of the adult.

Barred Owls can be active during day and night. They are not strictly nocturnal like many owls. 

It was a nice surprise and certainly the highlight of the pleasant walk.

Photo by Chris Bosak A young Barred Owl rests on a branch in Danbury, Conn., spring 2016.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A young Barred Owl rests on a branch in Danbury, Conn., spring 2016.


Photo by Chris Bosak A Barred Owl looks down from a dead tree in Danbury, Conn., spring 2016.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Barred Owl looks down from a dead tree in Danbury, Conn., spring 2016.