Thursday, February 28, 2013

Long-eared Owls in willow thicket!

Yesterday, along with a few other folks, I found myself skirting along a large wetland complex in the western marshes of Lake Erie. It was a gloomy, overcast day, with wet snow/rain spitting constantly in hypothermia-inducing temperatures. Nonetheless, spring was in the air, if one were to believe the birds. Flocks of blackbirds were here and there, and the boldest of the early returning male Red-winged Blackbirds were teed up and proclaiming their territories with guttural conk-ah-REE-onks! Waterfowl were on the move, and scores of Tundra Swans were moving about, restless to push on north to their Arctic breeding grounds.

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.

This shrubby copse is just like acres and acres of the same stuff in Lake Erie wetlands, but this patch held a special treat. In fact, I suspect that many such thickets hold the feathered treats that we'll behold in just a second - it's just that few people look for things in such places.

Look closely - we're being watched! A Long-eared Owl, Asio otus, peers out at your narrator and his companions. This owl and its compadres were devilishly hard to spot in the dense willows. As we scanned the patch and ogled an owl, more would come to light. At one point, I was drawing a bead on this bird with my camera, and noticed another owl, barely visible, in the backdrop. We tallied four but I bet more were present. Our reluctance to disturb them precluded more aggressive surveying.

By sidling along the roadway, some fifty feet away, we were able to discover open portals into the thicket and clearer views of some of the owls. This is where my 500 mm lens really comes in handy. It isn't necessary to impinge on the birds' comfort zone in order to make decent photos. I also had my scope along, and was able to set that up a fair distance away and still provide everyone with killer looks, same as in this photo. The owls noticed us, obviously - what do they NOT notice? - but never showed signs of being on high alert.

Take a close look at this owl. A very cool and almost surreal element of owl physiology is on display.

The owl in the previous photo, and the chap above were both facing away from the road. But wait - they're still looking directly at the camera! Owls have fourteen neck vertebra, double our seven, and that allows them to twist their neck nearly 180 degrees and look directly behind them.

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.


Weedpicker said...

Great post and photo, Jim. I would never have thought to look for owls there.

You've enlightened us once again.


Lori Sorth said...


gracenme said...

Great post!! Maybe birders will become adventuresome and look farther afield than Killdeer. Too bad that location every became so well known.

Anonymous said...

Jim, i love this post! thanks for the great background information and sharing. Gary Wayne

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