A Parliament of Owls
Earlier this winter, I posted regarding a movement of great gray owls south into Quebec and Ontario, just north of our region. Two great grays were even found south of the border in New York State in late January. To date no further great gray owl sightings have occurred in New York State. However, that does not mean that there are none around. After all, there are good numbers of great grays still north of us in Quebec and Ontario, and last weekend I traveled up there again to see them. They are, after all, super cool birds. So it is still worthwhile to keep an eye open for them.
But great grays are not the only owl we can find right now in and around our region. Snowy owls are being seen in a few places north of our region, and there is always the chance to find one moving back north through the area from the south. In addition, in our travels to Quebec last week, my friend and I also found a barred owl (our most common Adirondack owl) and another northern owl species – a boreal owl.
Boreal owls are small (generally weighing less than 5 ounces), and like the great grays, are seldom found south of the Canadian border. There is a very real chance there are some boreal owls in the Adirondacks this winter, but finding them is difficult across such a vast area. But it is still worth checking out stands of conifers and near bird feeders (where they may be attracted to mice) for the chance to blunder into one. And you might find another owl species in the process for that matter.
After all, boreal owls are an exceptional find in the region, but there are reports in the North Country and in surrounding areas such as Vermont which indicate that saw-whet owls, long-eared owls, and short-eared owls are starting to move back north as the winter winds down. The major movement of these species will be in a few weeks, but early birds (or birds that may have overwintered in the area) are starting to get found. Add to these migratory species the resident owl species like barred owls, great horned owls, and eastern screech owls, and there is a suite of owl species possible in and around the region right now. After all, great horned owls have already set up their nests (they nest early), a barred owl was calling in our neighborhood this week, and a friend of mine heard an eastern screech owl calling in Wickham Marsh in the Champlain Valley a few weeks ago. If this was the magical world of Harry Potter, they might all be bringing us messages!
Sadly, many of the northern owls which spent the winter, were forced south by difficulty in finding food up north. Owls can have trouble getting through deep snow pack to catch rodents – particularly if it is icy as the snow is now. That often means they have arrived in poor shape and some of them will die of starvation. There have already been reports of dead boreal owls north of us and a sickly great gray owl that was taken to a wildlife rehabber. There are also reports of birds being hit by cars since they will often hunt along roads – perhaps because rodents must expose themselves to cross the road. So while the movement of owls may be exciting for birders, the picture is not altogether rosy.
That said, it is still exciting for birders to see these amazing birds. And if birders and photographers are respectful not to approach too closely and disturb the owls, thereby making them spend unnecessary energy, hopefully most of them will survive the winter. So if you are looking for northern species of owls, the next few weeks will likely be your best opportunity to find them before they head back north out of the region, even as other species like saw-whet owls move into the Adirondacks to breed. There is a great diversity of owls to find as many species are moving into, through, and from the region all at the same time!
Grant it, owls can be tricky to find, but challenging birds are always fun to track down. It requires time and patience, and it helps to be lucky as well. But with St. Patrick's Day approaching, you never know how lucky you might get! After all there is an array of night time hunters to find across the region.