Tag Archives: owl

Snowy Owl © Paul Malenfant

Take 5: Superb Snowy Owls

They’re here! Snowy Owls have arrived from their breeding grounds in the Arctic and can be spotted at Plum Island, Duxbury Beach, and other open, treeless areas near the coast through March—if you make the trip to see Snowy Owls this winter, please protect these beautiful raptors by viewing them from a safe and respectful distance at public sites and do not approach them.

Norman Smith, the former director of Mass Audubon’s Blue Hills Trailside Museum, is keeping busy in his retirement by continuing his Snowy Owl rescue and research efforts: The first report of a Snowy Owl at Logan Airport this season came in on November 5, so he hurried down to capture the owl, take some measurements and research notes, and release it at Duxbury Beach.

Norman reports that it was a healthy “hatch-year” bird (meaning it was born this past summer), which suggests there was good breeding this year in the region of the Arctic where this particular owl was born. Historically, since he started with the Snowy Owl Project in 1981, Norman would capture almost all hatch-year birds, but the past several winters saw predominantly adults arriving in Massachusetts, a poor sign for breeding success. Norman says his colleagues in Greenland reported their best breeding year since 1998 this past summer, while others in Barrow, Alaska, reported no breeding at all, so it can vary dramatically by location due to a number of factors, including climate change.

Snowy Owls predominantly feed on rodents called lemmings, so the success of lemming populations affects Snowy Owl populations: when there’s a boom in lemmings, we see a rise in the number of hatch-year owls traveling south. Lemmings are now facing increased pressure from climate change, such as rising temperatures, milder winters, shifting weather patterns, and changes in vegetation, which makes breeding success more difficult. So a decline in hatch-year Snowy Owls can signal climate impacts across entire food chains.

Enjoy these five photos of Snowy Owls from our annual Picture This: Your Great Outdoors photo contest, then visit our website to learn how you can support our work to monitor and protect these beautiful birds and where and how to observe Snowy Owls yourself.

Snowy Owl © A. Grigorenko
Snowy Owl © A. Grigorenko
Snowy Owl © Jenny Zhao
Snowy Owl © Jenny Zhao
Snowy Owl © Paul Malenfant
Snowy Owl © Paul Malenfant
Snowy Owl © Sara Silverberg
Snowy Owl © Sara Silverberg
Snowy Owl © Karen Walker
Snowy Owl © Karen Walker
Great horned owl © Phil Sorrentino

Take 5: Great Horned Owls

Although great horned owls are year-round residents of Massachusetts, December through February is a particularly good time to go “owling” for this iconic species.

The earliest owl to begin mating season, great horned owls often “duet” in courting pairs, a hauntingly beautiful, stuttering “hoo-hoo-HOO-hoo-hoo” sound. And while males are typically smaller than females, they have larger voice boxes, so you can identify the male voice in a duet by its distinctively lower pitch.

On our website, you listen to a great horned owl call and even report a sighting. Below, enjoy these five photos of great horned owls from past years of our Picture This: Your Great Outdoors photo contest.

Great horned owl © Katherine Sayn-Wittgenstein

Great horned owl © Katherine Sayn-Wittgenstein

Great horned owl © Phil Sorrentino

Great horned owl © Phil Sorrentino

Juvenile Great Horned Owls © Maureen Fregeau

Juvenile Great Horned Owls © Maureen Fregeau

Juvenile Great Horned Owl © Libby Johnson

Juvenile Great Horned Owl © Libby Johnson

Great Horned Owl © Emily Swartz

Great Horned Owl © Emily Swartz

CORRECTION: This blog post originally featured a photo that was misidentified as a Great Horned Owl but is actually a Eurasian Eagle-Owl (Bubo bubo). Thank you to all the careful readers who pointed out our mistake!

Meet Our Tiniest Owl

Saw-whet owlThe northern saw-whet owl (Aegolius acadicus) is the smallest owl in Massachusetts. As a nearly silent, nocturnal bird of deep woods, it’s also one of the hardest to spot.

Identifying the Saw-whet

If you’re lucky enough to see this bird, the first thing you may notice is the size. It measures just 8 inches from head to tail; that’s less than a third as long as a snowy owl—and just a bit longer than a standard pencil.

Northern saw-whets have a pale face. They’re mostly brown above with a few white streaks, and white below with brown streaks. Fledgling saw-whets are chocolate brown above and rusty red below.

The name “saw-whet” comes from the bird’s alarm call, which resembles the sound of a saw being sharpened. Its other noises include whistles and a short repetitive tooting. But don’t rely on calls to help you find one: outside of the breeding season (and usually at dawn or dusk), it rarely makes a peep.

The Secret Lives of Saw-whets

Its habitat makes it even harder to find: it breeds deep in coniferous forests, and winters in areas with dense vegetation. It’s also nocturnal, hunting mice and other small creatures by remaining completely still and then dropping down on its prey. It raises one brood of youngsters during the spring and summer.

Some northern saw-whet owls remain in Massachusetts all winter. During especially severe weather, new birds may fly in from the north. However, most of the saw-whets in our state will migrate south. This movement begins in early September and ends in late November.

A Rare Glimpse

During the fall saw-whet migration, researchers in Massachusetts attach bands to the legs of saw-whets so that they can learn more about their movements. At Mass Audubon, you can observe this process by joining an upcoming banding program, though spaces fill up very quickly. Or, join an upcoming owl prowl—you never know what you may see or hear!

Have you seen a saw-whet before? Tell us about your experience in the comments.