Warm Nights for Owls

Owls are one of the most common avian families I write about because many people want to know about them, and specifically, how to find them. We are heading into the breeding season for owls right now, which means they’ll be more vocal as they look for a mate. Here are a few tips for increasing your chances of hearing, and hopefully seeing, an owl soon.

First of all, as a quick reminder about the owls you can hear, we’ve got a few different species that will be vocalizing in Maine. Great horned owls call a distinct hooting: “Who’s awake? Me too.” This mnemonic is most helpful for remembering the rhythmic cadence, so don’t be confused if the bird adds an extra hoot or two somewhere in the phrase. Our other hooting owl is the barred owl, which gives a slightly higher-pitched “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” A nice thing about barred and great horned hoots is that they are given at low frequencies so the sound waves travel very long distances. Northern saw-whet owls, on the other hand, have high loud “toots” they’ll sing. These toots are often likened to the sound of a truck backing up.

Going to the right place is critically important for detecting owls. I typically look and listen for great horned owls in areas where there are large open spaces bordered by white pines. Farm fields are especially good, and listening in an area without much traffic or other noise pollution will help. Barred owls are more likely to be found around mixed forests, especially with lots of oaks. Going out on warm nights always seems to increase detections of these hooting owls. Saw-whet owls, on the other hand, are going to be fearful of these larger owls and are much less common. Look and listen for saw-whets in more spruce dominated patches, or especially areas with a bit of elevation.

And think outside the box. Beyond these three common owls, there are others to be looking or listening for. Snowy owls come to mind, but it is shaping up to be a bad winter to see them here in Maine – probably as a result of low productivity last summer – so you’d need a ton of luck to find one this winter. Short-eared owls are being reported more regularly this winter, and their crepuscular habits can make them one of the easier owls to actually see. Try staking out large meadow/grassland areas, or marshes (especially at higher tides) during the late afternoon, just as it is beginning to get dark. I’ve lucked into short-eared owls a couple of times lately: in mid January driving along Route 95, one was hunting right at the Yarmouth/Freeport line. And last week we had one dog-fighting with an American crow right over the parking lot at Gilsland Farm in Falmouth.

Short version: pick the right habitats; go where it isn’t noisy; warmer nights help; and mix it up! There is always a lot of luck involved with finding some of the most cryptic birds around, but hopefully these tips will put you on the right path.


Expanding North, Even in Winter

At the end of January, I spent a couple of days with volunteers for the Maine Bird Atlas surveying remote locations – primarily in Aroostook County – that didn’t have enough data yet for that project. A frequent question we receive about Maine’s wildlife is “what changes are you seeing?” This trip has given me more stories to tell along those lines. The most noteworthy change, in my opinion, was the presence of a couple of “southern” species seen that far north: tufted titmouse and Northern cardinal.

For many downstate readers, this might seem silly given how common those two species are, but both are pushing the northern limits of their range here in Maine. Cardinals have advanced ahead of titmice, with at least a dozen records this winter across Aroostook County, but a titmouse we tracked down in a Presque Isle backyard is the only one being reported in the county. For context, I always love the quote from Ralph Palmer’s 1949 Maine Birds, where he describes Northern cardinals as “probably a very rare visitant, most records referring to escaped captives.” In that same book, there is only one documented record of a tufted titmouse at the time. I just find it remarkable that Palmer thought a cardinal in Maine 74 years ago was more likely to be someone’s escaped pet, rather than a bird here on its own volition. Now, we regularly get reports from southern Maine of 20-plus cardinals visiting a single feeder (none of which are pets).

We did share the thought that perhaps in another 30 years we’ll be birding in Aroostook and laugh at our past selves for getting so excited about a bird which by then may be super common. We are just beginning the “late winter” season of the final year of the Maine Bird Atlas, and could use your help. Go to maine.gov/birdatlas and click “Get Started” to learn more, then attend one of our weekly question and answer sessions on Zoom, which you can find on the website’s calendar of events.

Have you got a nature question of your own? Email questions to ask@maineaudubon.org and visit maineaudubon.org to learn more about birding, native plants, and programs and events focusing on Maine wildlife and habitat. Doug and other naturalists lead free bird walks on Thursday mornings, 8 to 10 am, at Maine Audubon’s Gilsland Farm Audubon Sanctuary in Falmouth

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