All posts tagged Owls

By Jim White: Associate Director, Land and Biodiversity

The Delaware Breeding Bird Atlas has just started its fifth and last year. While it is far too early in the year for most birds to be nesting, it is in fact a great time to look for nesting owls.  There are four species of owls that regularly nest in Delaware: Great Horned, Eastern Screech, Barred, and Barn Owls.  The former three are nesting now and the latter will be nesting soon. Jean Woods, Curator of Birds at the Delaware Museum of Natural History, is collecting data on nesting owls for the atlas project and is encouraging all birders to keep an ear out for calling owls and report any that are heard. In fact, she is challenging us to go out and actively look and listen for owls. This may sound a bit of a difficult, if not crazy task; however, it can be quite enjoyable and not that hard.

Great Horned Owls start nesting in January and are very vocal now at dawn and dusk. Photo by Jim White

Owls can be spotted during daylight hours; however, surveying for owls is best done on a quiet, windless night. Dusk can be a particularly good time to hear owls but owls can also be heard later in the night.  For logistical, safety, and enjoyment reasons, owling is best done with a companion.

Eastern Screech-owls are very common in Delaware, even in urban settings with some trees. Photo by Jim White

Great Horned and Eastern Screech-owls are relatively common in our area and can be found in most woods. Barred Owls typically are found in or near swamps, wet woodlands, or floodplains, while Barn Owls are birds of open areas such as freshwater marshes, saltmarshes and agricultural fields. Stopping safely along roads that pass through these habitats and listening for the owl’s distinctive calls can produce good results. Of course you have to know the calls of each species but don’t worry: learning them is not that hard. Owls have more than one type of call: fright calls, begging calls, aggressive calls, and the most commonly recognized advertisement call.   The advertisement call, as you might expect, is usually the loudest call and is used to attract a mate or declare territory.  The Great Horned Owl’s advertisement call is a classic hoo – h’HOO – hoo – hoo. The Eastern Screech-owl’s is a eerie high trill. The Barred Owl’s well known “Who cooks for you, who cooks for you all“ is hard to confuse. The Barn Owl has the least musical call of the four and is a high-pitched hissing scream. Owl calls can be heard at several websites, including Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds.

Barred Owls are year-round residents of Delaware and usually breed in areas with extensive woodland, swamps, and forested floodplains. Photo by Jim White

You can report any sighting or hearing of owls to Jean Woods at jwoods@delmnh.org. Click this link for more information about the Delaware Breeding Bird Atlas.  To find out what breeding bird atlas blocks still need owl breeding records, click here.

Barn Owls are restricted to large open areas such as salt marshes and farmland. For the most part, they nest in human structures like barns, silos, and abandoned buildings. Photo by Jim White

So get out there, have some fun and collect some valuable data on Delaware’s breeding owls.  If you would like to join me on a day-long owling adventure, register for the Delaware Nature Society program Owls at Other Winter Raptors which takes place Sunday, February 12.  On this field trip, we try to find the owls mentioned in this story plus wintering Northern Saw-whet Owl, Short-eared Owl, Long-eared Owl, and if we are really lucky…Snowy Owl.

By Joe Sebastiani, Seasonal Program Team Leader

Make plans for the weekend to get outside and enjoy some of the seasonal change from winter to spring.  This week I’ve led trips at Hoopes Reservoir, Ashland Nature Center, Burrows Run Preserve, Auburn Heights State Park, and Bucktoe Creek Preserve.  We’ve seen a lot of examples of both winter and spring on our programs lately. There is a lot of change happening in the natural world right now, from frogs emerging and laying eggs, to new birds showing up in their spring migration. Tree Swallows and an Eastern Phoebe have returned to Ashland this week.

Take a look at the video below to see some highlights.  The snow has melted, and the streams and wetlands are full.  Many wintering birds are still around including the White-throated Sparrow and Golden-crowned Kinglet (look fast!).  Raptors like the Merlin have been seen at Ashland and Bucktoe Creek Preserve and a Saw-whet Owl was seen near Ashland Nature Center this week.  The owl was probably a migrant stopping in for the day.  Frogs like Spring Peepers and Wood Frogs have emerged.  I had to cheat for the video and catch a Spring Peeper so you could see how they make their incredibly loud sounds.  Wood Frogs have laid lots of eggs in local vernal pools.  Notice how the Wood Frog vocalizes differently than the Spring Peeper.  This weekend, pick a local park, take a walk, and find your own signs of winter and spring.  Report back and leave a comment on the blog to let us know what you are seeing, or what your favorite sign of spring is.

By Jim White, Associate Director, Land and Biodiversity

Installing nest boxes in your yard is a great way to increase your bird viewing enjoyment.  My favorite such box that I recommend for anyone that has a yard near a woodland is an Eastern Screech-owl box.  Eastern Screech-owls are one of our most common owls and are found near most woodlands and woodlots in our area.  These boxes simulate tree cavities and Screech-owls use them for diurnal roosting and/or nesting. 

A red phase Eastern Screech-owl peers from a backyard bird box.  Photo by Jim White.

A red phase Eastern Screech-owl peers from a backyard bird box. Photo by Jim White.

Most of my observations of Screech-owls in boxes are of roosting birds.  They often can be seen poking their head out of the box while perched in the entrance hole in late afternoon or just before sunset.  Boxes can by placed just about anywhere but should be at least 100 feet from areas of high human activity.  I recommend facing the box toward a good viewing spot like a window that you often look out.  Also, I like to face the box west toward the setting sun, so they can peer out and warm up late in the day.  This will make it more likely that you will see the owl that comes to roost in your box.  In my experience, Eastern Screech-owls only uncommonly nest in boxes.  Nesting begins in mid-March or early-April, so if you see an owl in the box in spring it may well be nesting there.

Set up your box so that you can easily see it from a window in your house.  Photo by Jim White.

Set up your box so that you can easily see it from a window in your house. Photo by Jim White.

Screech-owls require relatively large boxes.  These boxes measure 12-15 inches high with floor dimensions about 8 inches square.  The entrance hole should be 3 inches in diameter.  The box should be placed on a tall, 10-15 foot pole preferably made of steel, but wooden posts can be used.  Predator guards are recommended because they keep mammals and snakes out of the boxes.  The boxes can be home-made or, if you are like me and lack time and woodworking skills, purchased at a local bird stores or on the internet.  Construction plans can be found here.  Screech-owls will also use larger boxes intended for nesting Wood Ducks.

Sometimes Eastern Screech-owls nest in bird boxes.  These three chicks were raised in a box at the Delaware Nature Society's Burrows Run Preserve.  Photo by Joe Sebastiani

Sometimes Eastern Screech-owls nest in bird boxes. These three chicks were raised in a box at the Delaware Nature Society's Burrows Run Preserve. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

Good luck with your project.  If you have any other questions you can email me at jim@delawarenaturesociety.org.  If you are interested in the owls in our area, look for my future blogs in which I will profile each of Delaware’s eight owl species.  Also, join me on my annual field trip to try to find all eight species in one day.  This year, the Owls and Other Winter Raptors trip is scheduled for Sunday, February 14, 8am to 7pm.