Arriving in the parking area of an out of the way park in central Ohio, I was greeted with near darkness and cold temperatures. A good friend had decided to brave the weather and come out with me to venture into the wild in search of one of the most elusive owl species in Ohio, or anywhere for that matter.
Long-eared Owls are aptly named, with long ear tufts atop their heads. Such striking birds! Ever since first seeing them, I have been enthralled with these owls. Often much smaller than many people realize, their size, shape, and camouflage make them quite hard to find. They are silent fliers and nocturnal hunters. Much of their prey has no clue of the danger until it is much too late! I spend many winter weekends searching for them, and this day was starting out like so many others.
After getting geared up, I make a few last minute checks to make sure that I have all of my essentials. Binoculars, camera, memory card, GLOVES. Check. We trudge down the trail towards the wood line, pausing every so often to scan for signs of movement or activity. All is still. We cut in through a small grove of pines, carefully moving aside the many low branches reaching out to grab us, and get into the first opening. This park is littered with pine groves. They run the gamut of young to old, dense stands of Norfolk Pines and small airy groves of White Pine. We find some owl sign, notably some white wash and a few pellets, but no owls. We trudge on.
Coming out of the first stand of pines, we’re greeted with large areas of tall scrub land. Littered with a deciduous tree here and there, this landscape provides some stunning views of six foot tall grasses mixed with many other kinds of sharp, hardy plants left over from the summer time. The sticker bushes poke and pull at my pants and coat, trying in vain to take hold (thanks to some hardy clothing!) as we move through the scrub scanning other stands in search of a football shaped shadow. After forty or so minutes, success! We made a plan to circle wide around the small grouping of Norfolk Pine, looking for an opening where we could view the owl without stressing or disturbing it. After another ten or so minutes of calculated movement, we arrived at just such a place.
After spending a moment just taking in the scene and assuring that we had not alerted the owl, we both set to making photographs. Capturing this amazing bird in all of it’s splendor. It was fantastic! The camouflage is so strong, that more than once I had to use my binoculars just to make sure it was where I thought it was. After spending about half an hours with the owl, we decided to hike on and leave it in peace. These trips out to find these birds are not always successful, but when they are, oh the memories!
It is now late November, and this is the time of year that many winter owl species come back from their summer homes up north to settle in the mid-west for the winter. So I thought perhaps now would be a great time to talk a little about observing owls, and a few of the signs you might observe that would tell you whether your presence has distressed or alerted an owl. Below is image of a Long-eared Owl that I snapped quite quickly before leaving the area entirely to avoid further stressing it. I heard some Golden Crowned Kinglets calling erratically, and when I stuck my head into the pine tree, this gorgeous owl was staring back!
Long-eared Owls are are on the 2016 State of North America’s Birds’ Watch List, which lists bird species that are most at risk of extinction without significant conservation actions to reverse declines and reduce threats. This is even more of a reason (not that we needed one) to be especially careful around these owls in particular. They are not fond of being disturbed, and so often pick roosts that are far away from people and noise. When you see one of these owls, observe their eyes and body posture. If they have elongated their bodies, and have their eyes wide, they are stressed and attempting to hide. When confronted with these situations the best thing to do is just move out of the area. However, if their bodies are not elongated, and their sole focus is not on you, it’s safe to stay and observe so long as you don’t get too close and their posture remains the same. If you’re unsure, perhaps it’s best to err on the side of caution and back away.
When following these simple protocols for viewing owls (especially Long-eared Owls!), we can fully enjoy them without posing dangers to them, and that works out for ALL of us. If you’d like to view Long-eared Owls, your best bet in the mid-west is to find dense woodlots on the edges of scrub land or fields with tall grass, where these owls often find voles and many kinds of mice to feed upon. If you’re interested in owls of all shapes and sizes, join Wildside’s own Greg Miller for his 2017 Big Year Series: Winter Owls! It promises to be an amazing trip to the Sax Zim Bog and surrounding areas, where as many as seven different species of owls have been seen during peak season, as well as many other specialties!
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