Following is the latest in a monthly series of articles about birds and birding, celebrating The Year of the Bird, 2018, with authors from Kachemak Bay Birders.
Owls are fascinating birds with special adaptations such as facial discs, excellent hearing, stealth flight, and the ability to hunt prey at night. In the Homer area we can enjoy three owl species year-round: Great Horned, Boreal, and Northern Saw-whet. Of these, the Great Horned Owl is the largest, and the one most often seen in our area, while the Northern Saw-whet is the smallest of the three species.
The Great Horned Owl begins breeding as early as January, typically laying two to three eggs, which hatch 26-35 days later. These owls do not build a nest. They utilize an old hawk, eagle, or crow’s nest. The chicks or owlets are flightless for nine to 10 weeks after hatching, although at five weeks they will exercise their developing wings by hopping from branch to branch. After fledging, the young will stay with the parents several more months, learning to become expert hunters.
Great Horned Owls eat primarily mammals (lots of rodents) and birds. When prey is abundant, they will store prey and thaw it out for a later meal. In the lower 48, you might be able to locate a Great Horned Owl by smell. They love to hunt skunks.
Great Horned Owls are active shortly after sunset and shortly before sunrise, thus avoiding competition for prey with hawks and eagles. You are more likely to hear than see an owl. Listen for the “Hu, hu, hu, hoo, hoo” call or “who cooks for you, me too” mnemonic of the Great Horned Owl.
The Boreal Owl is slightly larger than the Northern Saw-whet Owl (10 inches versus 8 inches in length). Their size makes them difficult to spot in their preferred habitat: mixed coniferous and deciduous forest (spruce, hemlock, birch, and Aspen in Alaska).
In late winter or early spring the Boreal Owl typically lays three to four eggs in a tree cavity. They also will utilize nest boxes. However, they occupy a new nest each year. The female Boreal Owl spends 26-32 days incubating the eggs. Once the eggs hatch, the chicks are generally able to fly (fledge) within 30-36 days. The young are fed by the parents for at least two more weeks after fledging.
Boreal owls are night hunters and prey primarily on small mammals. The Boreal owl has a low “poo poo poo poo” call.
The Northern Saw-whet Owl is found in wooded areas, selecting tree cavities and occasional nest boxes to nest. This owl lays five to six eggs, rarely using the same nest cavity two years in a row. The eggs hatch around 30 days later, and the chicks are cared for by both parents for 45-50 days. The Northern Saw-whet’s preferred foods are small rodents. For such a small bird, it has a loud and distinctive “toot” call, sort of like a vehicle backup alarm. If you are a light sleeper, you may hear this incessant call during the breeding season while the male is defending his territory.
Homer occasionally gets four other owl species: Snowy Owl, Great Gray Owl, Northern Hawk Owl and Short-eared Owl. The Short-eared Owl, because it is diurnal (daylight feeding), is often seen on the Homer Spit. The Snowy Owl is also diurnal, and has been occasionally seen in the Homer area. The Northern Hawk Owl, as the name implies, has a hawk-like appearance and is often found at the top of a tree. The Great Gray Owl is truly “Great” – the largest of the North American owls.
Please be respectful when observing owls. Getting too close to an owl will cause it to fly from its roost, thereby expending needed energy. Owls are difficult to observe during the day, so many people listen and look for them at night.
Night is the time owls are hunting for prey relying on their night vision. A bright flashlight or flash photography may cause an owl to lose its night vision, temporarily blinding the owl.