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A Flight of Owls

Correction: My last column was about bird feeding and bird feeders, but it inadvertently was published under the title “Japanese Beetles” which was the title of a previous column. So if you were confused and thought, “Darn I’ve already read about the beetles,” fear not, for if you go to the Standard’s website and look up columnists and then me, you will find the column reprinted with the corrected title (Get Those Bird Feeders Up).

So, on to today’s offering.

This is an exciting time of year birdwise. You might think winter is so close nothing much is happening out there, but you’d be wrong! I’ve talked of hawk and eagle migrations in the recent past, but an additional migrational phenomenon is emerging right now. It involves owls, which come south every year in varying numbers, not to escape the cold, but more so to find food. Many species of owls migrate annually and many individuals will settle in North Durham and the Kawarthas.

Perhaps the most obvious is the Snowy Owl – a large, white daytime feeding owl that sits out in the open. Snowies are pretty easy to spot, while other owls are much more secretive. The Northern Saw-whet arrives in October and stays until late February. These owls are always hard to find because they are tiny (7”-8” tall) and hide very well in dense coniferous trees. Occasionally their larger and rarer cousin, the Boreal Owl, will come down as well. Medium-sized owls, like the Barred and Long-eared, breed here but their populations may be augmented by northern migrants. The former is usually solitary, while the latter may be found roosting in conifers with some of its pals. Both hunt at dusk and dawn, seeking out mice and voles. Occasionally the Long-eared Owls are joined by Short-eared Owls, which are becoming more and more uncommon due to habitat loss. Our largest owl the Great Horned (17”-25” tall) also breeds here, but periodically an uncommon subspecies of the Great Horned called Snyder’s Owl shows up. It is strikingly different in colour, showing grays and blacks instead of browns in its plumage.

The Eastern Screech-owl is resident but prefers hardwood forests and stays mostly to the south of our area. Its plaintive whistling song echoes through the forests, starting in late February and continuing throughout the year until early winter.

The stars of the show for many birdwatchers are the Great Gray Owl and Northern Hawk-owl. These are truly boreal owls which only occasionally come down to Durham Region and the Kawarthas to spend the winter with us. And when they do, they cause a lot of excitement! Last winter was a good one for the Hawk-owls. Maybe this year they will come again and spend time in Durham and the Kawarthas. Likewise it’s been quite a few years since we’ve seen the Great Grays, so I think we’re overdue.

I have two requests of you. First of all, if you see an owl, the urge to approach is very high, but, please don’t try to walk up to them and see how close you can get. Their lack of flight is NOT a sign of indifference! They are very aware of our presence, but simply don’t see humans as a risk. The challenge for them is, they need to hunt, and when we surround and pursue them they can’t hunt and literally can starve even though they’re surrounded by food. So please stand back, tune up your telephoto lenses, take your photos from a distance and enjoy them while you can.

The second request is simpler; please let me know if you see any Snowies, Great Grays, Boreals or Hawk-owls. We try to monitor these winter invasions, as they indicate the health of the birds of prey and thusly the health of our environment. Email me privately, while the birds are still with you if possible, with dates, locations and what you saw. Add photos if you have them. Send details to By the way our first Snowy just showed up in south Durham, so get ready!

Geoff Carpentier is a published author, expedition guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff on-line, at and on LinkedIn and Facebook.

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