More than 35 years ago a forgotten author in a regional magazine wrote an article about New England owls, and two of his comments impressed me enough to be writing about the essay nearly four decades later.
The writer gave two definitive reasons as to why he avoided including specific where-to-go information for watching them:
• Owls distribute themselves evenly in their habitat.
• Keying on certain cover types rather than trekking to name places better helped birders spot these solitary birds.
My favorite three Maine owls are northern saw-whets, barred and great horned. Saw-whets prefer conifers in winter, barred live in wet lowlands with a forest canopy while great horned prefer forests with large roosting trees and even cliffs. In short, according to the author, this bird-family’s intelligence spreads them out without overpopulating an area.
Most Northeastern owls have created a memorable anecdote or two that endears this bird family to me, and each incident placed me in close proximity to an owl species long enough to create lifetime memories, particularly true with the three mentioned above.
For example, in the mid-1990s in winter, a northern saw-whet owl had perched on a railing beside the front steps of an apartment building on Sewall Street in Augusta. I went there to shoot photos and found the small saw-whet in no time, staring at me four feet away with its large yellow eyes.
This little bundle of feathers measures 8 inches from head to foot, weighs 2.8 ounces and sports a 17-inch wingspan. Like a common puffin, the large head in comparison to the stumpy, thick body made the bird look bigger than its actual size. Saw-whet can look grumpy, too, and this one was eyeballing me as if I owned him money.
Owls have large eyes, part of an evolutionary tactic for acute night vision. On a small owl like the saw-whet, those yellow peepers do look oversized. Unlike most birds of prey with eyes on the side of their heads, owl eyes are on the front for greater depth perception when attacking prey.
The saw-whet mother nests in an abandoned woodpecker hole or natural cavity, and the little ones grow up there. If someone finds such a spot, they can have a photography and birdwatching bonanza.
The species emits a cat-like screech that The Sibley Guide translates as “shweeee,” a sound that wheezes and rises, and they also repeat a mechanical, monotonous “too, too, too, too” – as tedious as a whippoorwill.
Barred owls have always fascinated me. When this species hoots in the night, it sounds like this: “Who cooks for you, who cooks for you all?”
In my early youth, a barred owl often called near my boyhood home, creating an early relationship that has continued. Five years ago, a barred owl within calling distance of my Belgrade Lakes Village home was hooting the same line on many frozen nights, “Who cooks for-you …”
Another memorable anecdote with a barred owl occurred 25 years ago, while I was sitting over a bear bait with my bow and arrow. The afternoon was overcast without a hint of wind, so falling leaves landed in dry leaves with a soft but audible plop.
In the delicious silence, my eyes slowly scanned the tree canopy when a barred owl not 30 feet away caught my eye, mildly startling as it stared at me with big, brown eyes. Most owl species have yellow eyes.
Barred owls stand three times taller than a saw-whet – 21 inches to be exact – and the bird tips the scales at 1.6 pounds and the wings spread to 42 inches. A 31/2-foot spread impresses birders and non-birders.
My bear-bait location fit the preferred habitat of this species – low, damp woods edging a swale bottom with a slow, deep stream. The bait spot in the thicket lay near the wetland, so on the dark, damp day, I could smell the swampy water silently flowing nearby.
Great horned owls catch the eyes of non-birders often enough, because this large species often perches in large trees beside roads, a bird sizable enough to stick right out for all to see.
This species stands 22 inches tall with big ears poking up like – well – horns. It weighs 3.1 pounds and its wings span 44 inches. As North Woods owls go, the rare great gray owls measure larger with a 5-foot wingspan.
The great horned owl’s call, a Sibley translation, makes a deep, rich hoo, hoo-hoo, hoo, hoo, and the second and third notes sound noticeably shorter. It’s a memorable sound, iconic even, the call that cartoonists use to entertain a juvenile audience.
This widespread owl ranges across the North American continent, and when I said folks often see this owl beside roads, it was no casual comment. I’ve seen this species far more while I was riding in a motor vehicle than when walking in woods.
Owls. You gotta’ love ’em with those somber, wise, judge-like eyes.
Ken Allen of Belgrade Lakes, a writer, editor and photographer, may be reached at: