Monday, January 16, 2012

Long-eared Owl

Excellent habitat for wintering Long-eared Owls, Asio otus: dense roosting cover bordering a large expanse of old meadows. Long-eareds hunt in much the same habitat as does the closely related Short-eared Owl, Asio flammeus, but unlike its stubby-eared brethren, Long-ears are strictly nocturnal.

Bill Lindauer, an Ohio Certified Volunteer Naturalist, found a Long-eared Owl roosting in one of those red cedar trees buffering the meadow's edge in the above photo. I met up with Bill and his fellow OCVN'ers Dave Woehr and Nina Harfmann this morning to take a gander at the owl.

Long-eared Owls are secretive in the extreme, and are very good at hiding themselves in thick cover during the day. They do not like to be disturbed. Oftentimes if you find one, there'll be more - Long-eared Owls are frequent communal roosters and I have seen up to 20 in one tree before. This bird is apparently a loner, but this site, on the edge of the sprawling Caesar Creek State Park, contains an abundance of suitable habitat. You can bet there are probably other Long-eared Owls in the area.

We had a distinct advantage in that Bill knew exactly which cedar the owl was roosting in. We cautiously advanced, and spotted the white-washed branch, above, from a good 75 feet away. A quick scan with the binocs revealed the owl - producer of the guano - sitting a few feet higher in the tree.

Spotting the big-eared beast so far away was good, as we didn't have to approach so closely as to impinge on the owl's comfort zone. This photo was taken with my 300 mm lens, and cropped. It's no award winner, but shows the animal well enough. As is so often the case when word gets out about roosting Long-eared Owls, there was a well trampled trail leading directly to the base of the cedar tree. Fawning admirers standing at the base of the tree would be within 15 feet of the roosting owl, and that's too close.

A very good strategy for observing roosting Long-eared Owls, once their roost tree is known, is to carefully search for gaps in the foliage from a long ways back. That's what we did, and by sidling back and forth in the meadow we eventually discovered an opening in the cedar - like a little window to the owl. We could then set up my scope and beam right in on the bird, and although we were at least 75 feet away, our views were probably better than one would have by standing under the tree and looking up at the nervous owl.

Another benefit to the observer of remaining well outside the owl's comfort zone is that it will act naturally. If you are looking at a roosting Long-eared Owl and it is rigidly upright, body sleeked to impossibly thin dimensions and looking all the world like a broken snag, it is because the bird is on high alert. You've spooked it. Its next course of action would be to flush, and that's a bad deal for one of these highly nocturnal creatures. If a sharp-eyed crow or other songbirds spot it flying off, the poor owl is in for a lengthy torment, and its persecutors will probably summon all their buddies to join in. Worse yet, the owl becomes exposed to other predators, mainly larger birds of prey, who might wish to make a snack of it.

So, we were able to leisurely admire the Long-eared Owl through the scope as it sat fat, fluffed and droopy-eyed. It paid us no mind, and we could ooh and aah over its jumbo ear tufts, burnt-orange facial discs, and cryptic coloration. At one point a nearby Blue Jay let loose with a scream, and the owl snapped to full alert. I'd rather have the jay annoy the owl than us.

I think much consideration should be taken when deciding to report roosting Long-eared Owls. Revealing their location far and wide, such as through bird listservs, is sure to cause a stampede to the site. That's understandable, as Long-eared Owls are hard to find and quite charismatic. I personally want every person on earth to see one, as a personal experience with such a bird may well win converts to birds and conservation.

On the other hand, the owls' welfare comes first. If it appears that the owls are in a situation where excessive visitation may cause the birds problems, it may be better to keep them under your hat and not reveal their whereabouts. But in some situations, such as the one featured here, it is possible to have your cake and eat it too, so to speak. It takes a bit more time and effort, and a spotting scope, but distant views can be every bit as rewarding as getting right up in the owl's face.


nina said...

Thanks, Jim, for the care and concern you demonstrate for this bird--such an awesome treat to have at what would be, for many other investigators, arm's reach. While the experience of watching from a distance allows perhaps not the best bright and wide-eyed photo, what's better than watching it calmly sleeping in a cedar tree--going about the business of being an owl!
That's how I'll remember this life bird!

Julie Zickefoose said...

Hear Hear! Well said. I especially like how you emphasize that a skinny owl is a scared owl. How often do you hear "He didn't mind us being there at all!"

Mr. K said...

An outstanding article that hopefully will be read by anyone attempting to view this owl. I hope you don't mind, I am passing this on to every site that is talking about this bird.

Jim McCormac said...

Thanks for the support, you guys! Were we all voles, I guarantee we'd keep our distance from these horned beasts!