By Derek Stoner, Seasonal Program Coordinator
On the morning of Saturday, December 27, 2014, our band of birders gathered in the parking lot at Coverdale Farm Preserve, eager for a morning of bird surveying as participants of the Wilmington Christmas Bird Count. From this vantage point, we observed three juvenile Bald Eagles perched in trees overlooking the farmyard, which seemed like a good omen. Near one on the barns we came across a juvenile Cooper’s Hawk sitting on the ground, staring down the nearby House Sparrow flock. Our traditional stop to check on the Wood Duck boxes beside Coverdale Pond yielded close looks at two gray-phase Eastern Screech-owls. At this point, we seemed to be on a “Raptor Roll” but little did we know what awaited us at our next stop.
As we approached the stand of Eastern Red Cedars that we always search for roosting owls, I gave the customary guidelines of “Move slowly. Look for whitewash and pellets. Get low and look upward for dark outlines.” In past years we’ve found Screech-owls in this thick evergreen stand, and one winter a lucky observer found a Saw-whet Owl roosting there.
With the usual high hopes, we slowly entered the cedars. I took the route through the middle, while my birding partners fanned out on the left and right. After walking about 50 feet into the thicket, I stopped dead in my tracks. My eyes had detected the shape of an owl and I knew the bird’s identity without raising my binoculars for confirmation. With a loud whisper I alerted Amy, Kathleen, Dawn, and Judy, who joined me in staring wide-eyed at this incredible Long-eared Owl. I managed to focus the spotting scope (a brand-new Christmas gift that Judy had brought for its first trip afield!) on the owl and we marveled at its striking yellow eyes with coal black pupils. Kathleen noticed that the owl had frozen drops of water clinging to the rictal bristles around its beak, and she went to work with her camera to document this amazing discovery…
The owl as first observed at discovery, looking a more like a long dark lump in the tree rather than a Long-eared Owl. The many cedar branches concealing the owl helped it blend into the background incredibly well. Photo by Derek Stoner.
Celebrating the first-ever Long-eared Owl observed at Coverdale Farm Preserve, and the first of this species well-documented by photos in New Castle County. Maryann, Amy, Dawn, Kathleen, Amy and Judy are all smiles. Photo by Derek Stoner.
By Joe Sebastiani, Ashland Nature Center Manager
Over the next few days after the initial discovery by Derek Stoner and his birding team, Jim White discovered that there were actually four Long-eared Owls using this roost at Coverdale Farm Preserve. Long-eared owls frequently roost communally in the winter, which is really exciting to find, but nothing abnormal for the bird. Roosts with as many as 20 owls are not uncommon with this species. Long-ears tend to roost in very thick cover for protection from larger predators like Great Horned Owls, as well as the benefits of thermal cover.
This finding is significant for several reasons. First of all, Long-eared Owls are rare in Delaware, or at least they are rarely encountered. They only occur here in the winter, and return to northern areas to breed. Second, Long-ears choose to roost in dense stands of conifers surrounded by good feeding habitat such as native meadow. Over the last decade, many of the former agricultural fields at Coverdale have been converted to native warm-season grass meadows. These native meadows provide ample habitat for the Long-eared Owl’s favorite food, the Meadow Vole. Their presence here speaks well to the habitat management and improvements being made at Coverdale Farm Preserve by the Delaware Nature Society.
If you would like an opportunity to see these owls, there are several guided trips being offered soon. Coverdale Farm Preserve is a closed preserve, not open to the public except for guided tours. Here are your opportunities for viewing these owls:
Owls and Winter Raptors program, Sunday, February 22, 8am to 7pm. Join Jim White to find the Long-eared Owls, and search for as many as 7 other species wintering in our area such as Great Horned, Eastern Screech, Barred, Barn, Short-eared, Snowy, and Northern Saw-whet Owls. $30 for DNS members, $45 for non-members. Register at www.delawarenaturesociety.org.
Other Long-eared Owl outings are being offered on Thursday, February 19; Sunday, February 22; and Saturday, February 28. All three events are at 4pm and will take 1 hour. These are free, but are for DNS members only. Register by calling (302) 239-2334 ext 0. Limited space is available for each walk. Photography opportunities are limited. We will contact you about the meeting location.
One of the Long-eared Owls roosting at Coverdale Farm Preserve this winter. Photo by Jim White