Each autumn, I marvel at the annual bird migration, as it is an exciting time of year. The nesting season is over, and the babies have fledged and are settling in to the business of surviving and enduring complex and dangerous migrations. One of the aspects I love most is seeing and enjoying the owls which will assuredly come our way in the next few weeks.
Let’s talk a bit about which species might show up and when. Resident owls include the Great Horned, Barred and Eastern Screech. The Great Horned is common in larger woodlots, while Barred are a bit more restricted and prefer mixed woodlots with a smattering of hemlocks or other coniferous trees. The Screech is a smaller owl which occurs here but in small numbers, preferring mostly hardwood woodlots.
Northern Saw-whet Owls nest here, occasionally, but in very small numbers, as they are a more northern species. As a cavity (hole) nester, they are seldom encountered during the nesting cycle.
Long-eared owls nest here more frequently than one thinks. They generally breed in coniferous trees but are quite discreet in their nesting activities. In July and August, the young become quite vocal, which helps us locate them.
The Short-eared Owl likely doesn’t nest here anymore, with the exception of the occasional individual pair that might find Durham or the Kawarthas to their liking. The rarest owl of all is the Barn Owl – only a few pairs persist in the province each year, and any encounter is unexpected and welcome!
North of us, the Boreal Owl (our second smallest species) joins the Snowy (a tundra species), Great Gray and Northern Hawk-owl. These species will only breed in the north, many of them well onto the Shield or even further north. They do, however, respond to local food shortages and sometimes come south in spectacular numbers.
The most common is always the Snowy which shows up every winter. They like large open fields and can be found throughout our area. The Northern-hawk Owl is a very rare visitor and can be found anywhere, often in narrow tall hedgerows near open fields. The Great Gray Owl only shows up periodically, and when it does, it sometimes comes in big numbers. They prefer hardwood forests near open grassy fields where they can hunt for mice and voles.
One of the challenges in trying to monitor owls is that most people don’t report them anymore, or at least with limited frequency. The reason is simple; it’s us and how we react to them. I know and share the excitement many of you feel when you encounter these amazing birds. I, too, want to get photos and share those with my friends. But many of us are too zealous in our pursuits of these birds. It’s fine to take photos but do so from a polite distance. We don’t need to stand under a bird to get great photos, and we certainly don’t need to flush them to see how close we can get. Today’s phone cameras are so good we can get amazing zoom shots without startling the birds. So my request to you is simple, if you see an owl, keep your distance.
Each year, I also try to monitor what is around and report it to scientific researchers, so they can study the health of the owl populations. This used to be an easier task, as I was told of many birds which were over-wintering. But now many sources are quiet as people try to protect the birds from photographers and the curious public.
If you happen to see an owl (other than Great Horned Screech or Barred), would you be kind enough to let me know where and when you saw it and if it is still around? I will go out and try to determine if it is at risk and if it is healthy. Please email Geoff.firstname.lastname@example.org. I will not share your location or name with anyone if you are fortunate enough to find one of these owls (i.e. Barn, Boreal, Northern Saw-whet, Great Gray or Northern Hawk-owl). Thanks, and enjoy the coming parade!
Geoff Carpentier is a published author, expedition guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff online, at www.avocetnatureservices.com and on Facebook.