Nature bummin’ with Kirk Gentalen
Catching a view of an owl is always special. Even if the Great Horned Owl you are mesmerized by is flying away with your cat, chicken or small child (never happened) there is still a burst of “man, that was so cool” that runs through your veins. That’s how cool it is to see one.
In the avian class—“birdies” if you will—owls have the order strigiformes all to their own. The order can be split into two owl families—tytonidae (17 species of “Barn Owls”) and the strigidae (164-ish species of “typical owls”) for a total of 181 owl species worldwide. In North America we have 19 species of owls that breed, representing 11 different genera and both families. Eleven species of owls live in Maine or visit here a portion of the year. With owls being so widespread, it’s no surprise that the St. George peninsula is a destination, a hunting and wintering ground, and a rest area to many owls each year.
For much of winter, the grassy ledges off Marshall Point are good places to scan for Snowy and Short-eared Owls (and Rough-legged Hawks) hunting by perch or on the wing. In some irruptive years Snowies have been so numerous on the peninsula that owls have ended up in St. George yards, perching on rooftops and bird feeders. Small numbers of Saw-whet Owls overwinter in the woods and even smaller numbers (and not necessarily yearly) of Long-eared Owls hunt fields and field edges from perches. With their mostly nocturnal ways, these two species are tricky to observe while a species like the Great Horned Owl can turn up just about anywhere. “Rarity” species like Great Grey, Northern Hawk, and Boreal Owls are not out of the question either, just pretty unlikely to see. And then you have Barred Owls, which might be the most mysterious owl of the bunch.
Based on observations from others, Barred Owls appear to be the most numerous owl seen and heard in St. George. The chatty, year-round residents can be heard hooting their “Who cooks for you, who cooks for you all” call in local woods just about any night of the year, and sometimes during daylight hours as well. They are comfortable hunting when the sun is up and for the most part don’t appear to mind the presence of humans.
Barred owls also leave sign of their presence in the form of pellets. Most birds eat their food whole, and many species will regurgitate the undigestible parts of what they ingest in the form of “pellets” rather than have them pass through their digestive system. Owl pellets are loaded with bones and fur, and tend to stay intact for a long period of time (months even!). Pellets are a wonderful clue to an owl’s presence and diet, and they are as much fun to take apart as they are to find! Look for “good” perches in areas where you have heard or seen Barred Owls and you are likely to find these balls of fur and bones. In a yard where we previously lived one tree had 12 Barred Owl pellets underneath it! I checked under the tree daily and for a stretch of time I would recognize newly dropped pellets and yet, I never did see the owl.
For all the pellets, all the chatter, and all the habits that can have them active before dark, Barred Owls are hard to observe and there remain a lot of “unknowns” about their behavior. I think their use of tree cavities for nesting and (possibly) resting plays a role in this. Other owls are easy, Barreds tend to confuse. They are literally their own breed of owl.
Over the last month or so I have heard of more than eight reports of Barreds turning up in yards around the peninsula—with more observations undoubtedly occurring. Are young dispersing? Is it a migration from the north or local owls hitting up rodent-loaded areas? Are Barreds more likely to hunt in the day when it gets cold? Unanswered questions that lead to more unanswered questions. So it goes.
And while we always feel lucky to have crossed paths with owls, there is the understanding that at least a chunk of the time when we see owls it is because they are stressed or hurting. A Long-eared Owl hunting in the afternoon is hungry. Hungry enough to break its “strictly nocturnal” label because survival is on the line. Not saying we should release mice in our yards to provide meals for owls, but if you do find a compromised owl the folks at Avian Haven in Freedom ((207) 382–6761) do a great job “fixing them up and getting them back out there”.
See you out there!
PHOTOS: Top, John Meyer, below, Kirk Gentalen