In Search of Owls

By Jim White, Associate Director, Land and Biodiversity

Observing owls in the wild is one of the most exciting of outdoor experiences.  However, finding an owl and getting a good look at it can be a fairly difficult proposition.  This said, every February for the last 20 or so years I have led a field trip for the Delaware Nature Society to search for as many owl species as possible in a single day.  There are seven species of owls that are known to be in the mid-Atlantic states during the winter:  The Eastern Screech Owl, Great Horned Owl, Barred Owl, Short-eared Owl, Long-eared Owl, Barn Owl, and Northern Saw-whet Owl.  In addition an eight species, Snowy Owl, also shows up in out area from time to time. 

On this year’s trip, fourteen participants accompanied my co-leader Michele Wales and me.  The first stop of this year’s trip was just up the road from the Ashland Nature Center to look for Barred Owls.  Only seconds after I played a recording of the owl’s call, a beautiful Barred soared in to give all of us a great look.  Not wanting to disturb the owl too much we left as soon as it flew back into the spruce trees.

Barred Owl by Hank Davis
Barred Owl by Hank Davis.

Our next stop was at my house in Hockessin to observe a Great Horned Owl that was nesting in the woods of the Burrows Run Preserve.  Unfortunately, as we searched with our scopes for the distant nest I discovered that it was not there.  Closer inspection revealed that a nest had fallen out of the tree, probably as result of a recent windstorm.  We were disappointed, of course, and all hoped that the owls would be able to find a new nest and start over.  While at my house I also decided to peak into an owl nest box where I had recently observed an Eastern Screech Owl.  Unfortunately, on this day the bird was not in the box.  Despite our initial quick success with the Barred Owl, it was now clear that we were going to have to work pretty hard to find the remaining species. 

Our next stop required a long drive to northern Chester County, Pennsylvania to look for the Long-eared Owls that had been reported there recently.  Fortunately, after arrival we easily located the owls and in just a few minutes were able to get great looks of at least 7 individuals.  So after disappointment at my house, the day was again looking up.  With renewed good spirits, we headed back to Delaware to continue our search for more owl species. 

As we cruised down Route 9, I decided to stop at an acquaintance’s farm to check out a silo where a Barn Owl often roosts.  Sure enough, the owl was in the silo and, as usual, it flushed out as I approached.  The owl flew over the group waiting patiently outside and into an adjacent barn, giving everyone a great view.  Barn owls have been using this particular silo for as long as I have been doing owl trips. 

Barn Owl by Hank Davis.
Barn Owl by Hank Davis.

After a few more unsuccessful attempts to find Great Horned Owls, we drove south to Port Mahon Road at the town of Little Creek, Delaware.  Here we were hoping to observe Short-eared Owls as they hunted the salt marsh for their rodent prey.  As the sun set over the Dover air base’s jet fuel storage tanks we scanned the marsh for anything flying.  Several Harriers and a few Great-blue Herons held our attention for a few minutes until we spotted a Short-eared Owl flying low over the marsh in the distance.  Although not particularly close, everyone in the group got a fairly good look, leaving is just enough time to try to pick up one more owl species on the way home. 

As darkness fell, we stopped along a back road off Rt. 9.  After a few seconds of playing a recording of a Screech Owl call, a red-phase Eastern Screech Owl flew in and landed in a tree just off the road, calling back to the tape.  I was able to illuminate the owl with my flashlight for all to observe.  As we watched, a second Eastern Screech Owl, possibly the first one’s mate, joined in and started a call.  Although we observed only five owl species, we managed to see 12 individual owls, and several participants were able to get some very good photographs, including the images by Hank Davis included in this blog.

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