Tag Archives: owls

Eastern Screech-Owl © Amy Powers-Smith

Take 5: Owl Things Considered

It may still be cold and wintery outside, but things are heating up for our breeding owl species. Late winter is the height of the courtship and mating season for most owl species so there’s a good chance you may hear a “hoo’s hoo” of mating calls (although not all owls make “hoo” sounds!) on your next stroll through the forest. Great Horned Owls, for example, are one of our earliest breeders and begin hooting to attract mates as early as December.

Many owls roost in tree cavities during the day and those that do will also lay their eggs in tree cavities, although a roosting cavity is not necessarily also a nesting cavity. Lots of nature photographers love to capitalize on this fact to capture some wonderful photos of “owl peek-a-boo”. Here are five great shots of owls in tree cavities that were entered into our annual photo contest. For your own chance to glimpse one of these gorgeous raptors, join one of the dozens of Owl Prowls happening at our sanctuaries this time of year.

Eastern Screech-Owls © Peter Bartholomew
Eastern Screech-Owls © Peter Bartholomew
Eastern Screech-Owl © Richard Cuzner
Eastern Screech-Owl © Richard Cuzner
Barred Owls © Fred Harwood
Barred Owls © Fred Harwood
Eastern Screech-Owl © Amy Powers-Smith
Eastern Screech-Owl © Amy Powers-Smith
Eastern Screech-Owl © Jeff Martineau
Eastern Screech-Owl © Jeff Martineau
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!

The Return of Snowy Owls

Snowy owl season has officially begun. So far, three of these “white terrors of the north” have been spotted in Massachusetts, including one that was banded by Mass Audubon’s Norman Smith last year.

Will this year by anything like last year’s invasion? Let’s consider the facts.

A Look Back

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has put last year’s snowy owl event in excellent perspective. By December 5, 2011 snowy owls had been spotted in much of the northern half of the continental United States and as far south as Texas.

Here Massachusetts, they stuck mostly to the coast. Sightings came from Westport, New Bedford, Nantucket, Orleans, Duxbury Beach, and of course, Plum Island. One reporter even saw one in Central Massachusetts from atop Mt. Watatic.

But while the winter of 2011-2012 was the best recorded event of its kind, it was probably not as large as any number of historic flights. Just recent history shows that the 2008-2009 irruption was larger, when eBird input was at 44 percent of what it is today. In other words, fewer eyes reported more birds.

So, What About This Year?

Such irruptions happen every 3 to 6 years in the northeast, and, taking into account Christmas Bird Count data analyzed for the purposes of the State of the Birds report in 2011, it seems that the snowy owl population is currently holding in a stable position. Therefore, should we not expect another snowy owl invasion any time soon?

Well that gets down to the question of cause, which is currently unanswerable. It’s hard to get a grasp on the drivers that force irruptions.

That said, we do have historic numbers to consider. In 2002-03, Christmas Bird Counters in Massachusetts found 28 snowy owls; the following year, they found 4. In 2008-09, it was 40 snowy owls. The following year, 7.  While the pattern does not always hold true, and there are variables to consider (i.e. the number of counters and the affectations of the weather on the counts), there does seem to generally be a drop off in the number of snowy owls in the state the year after an irruption.

Mass Audubon’s Work with Snowy Owls

With questions still unanswered, one can see how important Blue Hills Trailside Museum Director Norman Smith’s work on snowy owls at Logan Airport has been. Norman has captured and banded nearly 500 birds at Logan—saving them from the dangers of the runways—and has tracked 14 of them through satellite telemetry.

Every year we learn a little more about these fascinating birds; perhaps someday we’ll find the key to the secrets of their unexpected mass visitations to the state.

Have you seen a snowy owl this year or in year’s past? Tell us about it in the comments. Interested in learning more? Join us for an upcoming program on snowy owls.

Photo copyright Richard Johnson