January 5

Allen Afield: What a hoot it can be to observe owls

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.

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