Winter atlas owl surveys

Finding owls is always a treat, but can also be a challenge. This is a good time to be out listening, however, so we asked Frank Gallo to provide some tips on how to find owls for the winter atlas. His account follows:

Recently, Frank Zygmont and I have been doing winter owl censuses in the Barkhamsted area of the northwest hills. Our latest survey, a team effort, was on a perfect night – warm and still. We began at 4:45 a.m. and continued until 6:30 a.m., stopping every quarter mile or so to play recordings of owls. During a successful foray the previous week, Fran recorded 3 Saw-whet, 6 Barred, and 4 Great Horned Owls from 4:00 a.m. – 6:30 a.m., so, we decided to concentrate on Saw-whets, curious to see how many might be wintering in the area. In less than two hours, we heard 7 Saw-whets and a Barred Owl. Subsequently, Fran has found Saw-whets in other areas, nearby. It seems they are here in good numbers this year.

Our initial plan was to visit sites that we suspected would have Saw-whets – mixed forested areas with an understory, especially mountain laurel or rhododendron, often near wet areas, such as a marsh or swamp – but we quickly realized that there were owls all along our route, even in habitats that weren’t what we’d generally expect given past experience. We decided to stop at regular intervals and try our luck, staying for no more than 10 minutes at each site, both to limit disturbance and to maximize the amount of area we covered. We left once an owl responded, which was generally within 6 minutes. (Barred Owls’ often take 10 or more minutes to answer.) As our goal was to census numbers, we didn’t stop to look for the owls, per se, although we did see one Saw-whet as it flew over us.

Interestingly, and perhaps to help avoid being located by larger owls, most responded with short yips, moans, alarm calls followed by repeated descending screams, or a short call that sounds like someone sucking on the back of their hand, and only tooted when it was close to dawn, a reminder that it’s a good idea to learn the various calls of the species being sought before venturing out; it also helps to know their preferred habitats. Eastern Screech-Owls are not prevalent in the northwest highlands but in my area of southwest and southcentral Connecticut, I search for them near red maple swamps, apple orchards, and other semi-open areas, even in suburban neighborhoods. Barred Owls frequent hemlock ravines and lowland forest, often near water, but seem to be branching out into more suburban environments. I have my best luck with Great Horned Owls near upland forest adjacent to open areas. Great Horned Owls in my Christmas Count area often call from forested hilltops overlooking farm fields where they hunt. Hillside powerline cuts are also good areas to try. Long-eareds are tricky to find, and few and far between, but may be in areas where Saw-whet Owls occur, so learn their calls, just in case. If unsure of the owl’s identification, get a recording and include it with your ebird report as “unidentified owl species”, so reviewers can listen to it.

Fran and I often search for owls in the early morning. Any time after dark will work, however, although different species may be more vocal at different times of night (may vary seasonally). Barred Owls will regularly respond during the day, especially in winter. I have often had good luck with Eastern Screech-Owls just after dark and within two hours of dawn, and Great Horned Owls seem to vocalize more in the quiet hours from 3 a.m. until a bit before dawn.

When we’re trying for multiple species in an area, we start with the calls of the smallest owl first and work our way upward in size. Larger owls will eat smaller owls, so care must be taken to avoid attracting one to the other.  It is, however, not uncommon to have one of the smaller owl species respond to the call of one of the larger ones.

A word of caution when owling, remember that by playing owl calls, you’re effectively telling the owl you’re another owl in its territory. Saw-whet Owls are territorial in winter and can be aggressive. Great Horned Owls are starting their courtships now. When owling, we always wear hats, and place our speaker on the roof of the car or suspend it from a nearby branch. To minimize disturbance, we visit areas infrequently, never on successive nights or even weeks, unless we didn’t get a response. As our goal is one of detection, we minimize spotlight use, and disturb the owls no longer than is necessary to confirm their presence or, in the case of screech owls, sometimes to see and record their color morph (red, gray, or brown). Once an owl is located for the early winter atlas, we generally return to the same area only in late winter for the second half of the survey.

Owls are fascinating, as is venturing into their nocturnal world; I learn something every time I go owling. The bird atlas is the perfect opportunity to experience these secretive creatures in their habitats and to add to our knowledge of their distribution in the state.

Oh, as a last note, if you’re planning to be out in the wee hours dress warmly; it can get quite nippy just before dawn. A hot beverage is also handy to have, and remember to let the local police know where you’ll be wondering around in the dark.