For local owls, spring starts at night

TIP: Try a night-time excursion to catch hooting conversations

Posted: Friday, January 22, 2010

Now that we've turned the corner of winter and the days are lengthening, it won't be long before the first birds of spring start calling. But these are not the usual suspects, like the robin, as you may expect.

Riley Woodford / Alaska Department Of Fish And Game
Riley Woodford / Alaska Department Of Fish And Game

These birds are much harder to find and their songs are not heard during the day. When everything is still encased in ice, it's the owls that first sing about spring.

Owls start their mating season early. Now that we're entering late January and heading into February, you can eavesdrop as they begin their nighttime conversations.

Owls hoot for the same reason songbirds sing - to defend a territory. For some species, hooting duets also are part of courtship.

But why start a romance at such a forbidding, deep-freeze time of year? For many owl species, parents care for the young for months once they leave the nest.

For larger birds, such as great horned owls and barred owls, parents will stay with the young into fall. For smaller species, such as western screech owls and northern saw-whet owls, parents feed the young into midsummer. With teenagers that hang around that long, owls need an early start.

Most owls are tricky to spot, even when it's light out. Their soft feathers have intricate brown and gray patterns that camouflage them against tree trunks and branches.

Great horned owls and western screech owls actually prefer to rest snuggled up to a tree trunk. Although some Juneau owl species, such as short-eared owls and pygmy owls, prefer daytime activities, most of these suspects are active at the traditional time: After dark.

At night, you most likely won't see them at all. On rare moonlight nights, however, you may be lucky enough to spot one flying across an opening in the trees.

I volunteered to survey for owls in the North Douglas area for several years for a US Fish and Wildlife service project. We heard hooting numerous times, but only saw owls twice. The first happened on our very first survey. One flew low across the road, a flash of white in the headlights. The second and last, was a barred owl that flew in to land on a power pole to investigate the recorded hooting we played. It made no sound. If we hadn't had several observers looking in different directions, we would have missed it entirely.

Those quick glimpses of birds can be difficult to identify, especially in dim light. You can bring a headlamp or flashlight, but you won't have a chance to use it much. Hearing owls is a much easier option.

Great horned owls, barred owls, and western screech owls defend territories year round. Northern saw-whet owls, a small owl, sometimes migrate, but they are usually back to patrolling territories in late January.

As a wildlife spy, there are good nights and bad nights to search for owls. Doing the surveys, I learned if it's windy or raining, stay home. Even if the owls are calling, you won't hear anything but the wind rushing through the trees or rain tapping on your jacket.

Calm evenings and, if you're fortunate, clear skies are best. You don't even need to leave the road. Do walk a little way from the car though - vehicles make a surprising number of clicks and ticks as they cool off on a chilly night. Also, practice patience. Sometimes the owls will win, and you won't hear anything.

Get out. Stand quietly. On a still night, noise carries a long way. You may hear gulls complaining from the shore, or maybe a dog barking. Keep listening.

Suddenly, an owl hoots. Don't abandon your post too quickly, as they often call for a while. Sometimes, you may even be ear-witness to a border dispute and two birds who will call back and forth.

How do you identify the culprit? It's not difficult. There are four common night-time owls around Juneau:

• A high-pitched "toot" that repeats with an unvaried rhythm, like a truck backing up, sometimes for minutes at a time, is a northern saw-whet owl. They're little owls, just smaller than a robin.

• Slightly larger, and also with high-pitched toots, is the western screech owl. Their hooting has the rhythm of a ball bouncing to a stop. The notes start with a pause between them and then grow increasingly rapid.

• Barred owls cross the line into being large birds. They stand roughly 20 inches tall. Their hooting is deeper, and sounds like they're saying the phrase "Who cooks for you, who cooks for you allll?" Although the notes may not exactly fit that rhythm every time, the whinnying last note is distinctive.

• The largest owl is the great horned owl. They have a deep, dignified hooting that sounds like the phrase "Who's awake? Me too."

How likely are you to hear an owl in Juneau? I can't speak for whole area, but I've heard all four of the above owls at one point or another along the last few miles of north Douglas Highway. Our nighttime neighbors are probably closer and more numerous than you think.

• Beth Peluso is an author and illustrator in Juneau and serves as the Watchable Wildlife Program Coordinator for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. She can be reached at beth.peluso@alaska.gov.



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