In spite of all the conspicuous avian action, our attention was riveted to the innocuous looking willow thicket above, at least for a memorable while.
Take a close look at this owl. A very cool and almost surreal element of owl physiology is on display.
Long-eared Owls are not a rare bird, and are common throughout much of the northern boreal forest. They stage poorly understood southward movements in winter, and are regular visitors to Ohio and other states south of their primary breeding range. There are undoubtedly FAR more Long-eared Owls around than is supected, and when one sees these masters of camouflage imbedded in a dense willow thicket such as this, it becomes apparent just how easily they can be missed.
I think many Ohio birders have a skewed perception of Long-eareds' winter habitat, because so many people are used to seeing them in the pine groves at Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area and other select conifer groves. But it should be remembered that, with the exception of the Red Cedar, Juniperus virginiana, and Virginia Pine, Pinus virginiana, conifers are rather local and limited in distribution in Ohio. And even the two aforementioned species are not common statewide, and the other five native species suitable for owl roosting are very limited in distribution. In several areas where Long-eared Owls regularly turn up roosting in conifers, such as Killdeer Plains, there are NO native conifers or at best a smattering of Red Cedar. The birds are roosting in artificial plantings.
On several occasions, I've seen Long-eared Owls roosting amongst the dense gnarled branches of Pin Oak trees, Quercus palustris, and I suspect that's where the Killdeer Plains pine grove birds retreat when the human presence becomes too much. Pin Oaks are often very common in and around good Long-eared sites. They also favor dense grapevine tangles, which are found nearly everywhere, and good luck spotting owls in such haunts.
A key to devining possible locations for Long-eared Owls involves suitable hunting habitat. They hunt over open and semi-open ground, and if an area has Short-eared Owls and Northern Harriers, there is a good chance that Long-eareds are also in the immediate vicinity. The latter are strictly nocturnal, though, and thus much harder to discover. It involves lots of peeking and peering into dense vegetation, and/or much luck.
I want to thank Jeff Finn for pointing these birds out to us, and taking us to the spot. It's an interesting story as to how they were discovered, which was quite serendipitous. The location cannot be divulged, though, as the owls are on lands that are not publicly accessible, and I am always loathe to reveal Long-eared Owl roost sites as human pressure can become heavy once they're known. But now that we've seen these deciduous willow-roosting birds, we have a good search image for a "new" habitat in which to seek owls.