North Fork owl watching: Outdoors column

A screech owl in the author's backyard. (Credit: Chris Paparo)

A screech owl in the author’s backyard. (Credit: Chris Paparo)

Of all the birds that inhabit the North Fork, none draw more excitement than owls.

During winter months, birders flock to open grasslands such as those found at the EPCAL facility in Calverton. They hope to catch a glimpse of a short-eared owl as it swiftly soars above the fields looking for mice, voles and other “tasty” rodents. Area beaches are another popular owl haunt. Here, birders hope to spot a snowy owl, like Hedwig that was made famous by the Harry Potter books and movies.

Unfortunately, by April both species have left our area to return to their nesting sites in Canada and the Arctic tundra. There they will stay until cold winter temperatures once again drive them south to our open grasslands and beaches.

Even though these awe-inspiring owls have left the North Fork, there are still many opportunities for an owl lover to view these majestic birds. In fact, two species are true Northforkers, as they reside here year-round and often go completely unnoticed.

On a cold winter’s night, you will often hear a deep “Who … Who … Whoo … Whoo” echo though the woods. This is the call of the great horned owl. During midwinter, great horned owls begin courtship activities and mark their territories through a series of loud hoots. These vocalization sessions can be quite loud and aggressive, especially if there are several owls competing in one area. Sadly, these remarkable conversations often go unnoticed, as our windows are typically closed this time of year to keep out Old Man Winter.

Nesting takes place by late winter (late January/early February), much earlier than for any other birds in our area, with the eggs hatching 30 to 37 days after being laid. Unlike most birds, they do not build their own nests. Instead they use nests previously built by other birds such as red-tailed hawks. They will also use tree cavities, dead snags (branches), cliffs and manmade structures. Last year, I observed a great horned owl nest in an osprey platform. Since ospreys do not return to our area until mid-March, there was no competition for this empty nest.

By this time of year, great horned owl chicks (known as owlets) have hatched and have grown large enough to spot while they sit in their nest. At about six weeks of age, they will begin to explore the area around the nest. Hopping from branch to branch, they are often referred to as “branchers.” At week seven, the owlets are fully feathered and capable of short flights. During this time, the parents are never too far away, keeping a watchful eye that the young ’uns do not get themselves into any trouble. By autumn, the young are fully grown (to 25 inches tall and with a wingspan of up to 57 inches) and are left to fend for themselves.

Credit: Chris Paparo

A Great horned owl. (Credit: Chris Paparo)

Great horned owls are well-equipped nocturnal predators with keen eyesight, allowing them to see clearly even in the darkest of nights. In addition to their powerful eyesight, they have binocular vision (allowing them to judge distances) and an ability to rotate their heads 270 degrees, a combination that no prey can easily hide from. Once prey is spotted, the owl will silently swoop down, snatching the prey with its powerful talons. With talons expanding to a size of 4×8 inches and exerting a force of 28 pounds, they are formidable predators that not only feed on small rodents; they will regularly take larger prey such as rabbits, skunks, ducks, hawks and even other owls.

The second resident owl of the North Fork is the eastern screech owl. From one extreme to another, the screech owl is dwarfed by the great horned owl, only standing at a height of nine inches with a wingspan of 24 inches. Their small size and nocturnal behavior keep them well hidden on the North Fork, even though they are abundant in our area. Screech owls can be found in two color morphs or phases: grey and red. Personally, I have only ever witnessed the red phase locally. With their yellow eyes and ear tufts, they are by far one of the cutest owls around. They get the name screech owl from their call, which is not the typical owl hoot we are familiar with. Rather it is a loud trill that will send shivers down your spine if you hear it for the first time while walking through the dark woods.

Fortunately screech owls are easy to attract to your backyard as they will regularly take up residence in manmade nest boxes. Earlier this month, I placed a box in my backyard and in less than 24 hours I had a red morph owl take up residence! Your biggest obstacle in attracting screech owls will be keeping the pesky squirrels out of the box. I found using aluminum flashing at the base of the tree and again above the box works well at keeping them out. You can also use a standalone pole with a cone baffle below the box. Just make sure it is far enough from any objects that a squirrel could jump from.

Fortunately, the North Fork is full of prime habitat for owls. With a little knowledge and a decent amount of luck, you might just find one of the wood’s wisest and most mystical birds.

How to find owls?

• Owls will become active at dusk, hence if you go for a walk around this time you might spot one leaving its daytime roost.

• Listen for flocks of crows making a lot of noise. Crows do not like owls, as they are their number one predator. When a flock of crows finds an owl, they will continually harass it until it leaves the area.

• Look for a “whitewash” on trees. Owls will often continually use the same perch. As they defecate, it will build up on the branches below, giving a “whitewash” appearance to the tree.

• Look for owl pellets. Owls regurgitate indigestible items as a pellet. Examining this pellet will give you a look into what the owl had previously eaten.

Owling Ethics

• Always observe owls from a distance. Getting too close will cause unnecessary stress on the owl, especially if it’s on a nest. If the parents feel threatened, they might abandon it.

• Keep locations of nest sites private. Posting nest locations online will attract more people to the nest site and cause more stress on the owl.

Where to go?

•Indian Island County Park, off Route 105 in Riverhead

• North Fork Preserve, Sound Avenue, Riverhead

• Mashomack Preserve, Shelter Island

• Any stretch of woods near open fields, wetlands and other areas high in prey critters.

Resources:

More on the Great horned owl nest cone

More on the Screech Owl Box

Chris paparo