So, you want to go searching for owls?
Before we begin, you must know one thing. Owls always see you before you see them.
Owls are secretive. Generally nocturnal. They pretty much sleep all day. In trees. Plus, they have superb camouflage that helps them blend right in with their surroundings.
This Great Gray Owl was roosting all day in my back garden this March. Look how well it blends in to the environment.
This owl was out in plain sight on a small branch by the roadside, but its feathers blended in with the grey snowy day so well that I drove right past it, then did a double-take!
Finding owls is challenging, even when they are right in front of you!
So, lets say you want to go out searching for owls here in Ontario. Here are some tips to get you started.
Tip #1: Other birds really hate owls. So if you hear a lot of angry bird noises in the woods, or see birds swooping down at the same place over and over again, there is probably an owl nearby.
Angry Crow noises were how I knew that I should look in my back garden to see what was out there this spring. Sure enough, I eventually found the gorgeous Great Gray Owl fast asleep, right over where I keep my bird feeders…
Crows have helped me find a lot of owls. They will caw loudly and form large groups to harass an owl. Once I saw more than 30 crows chasing after a Great Horned Owl. It was really quite disturbing, but when I got home I read about it and the crows rarely actually hurt the owl- they just want to bug it enough so it will leave their neck of the woods.
After all, owls are opportunistic hunters who go out at night and hunt for roosting birds as part of their evening meal. Not a good way to make friends with the neighbours.
Blue Jays will also loudly voice their displeasure at having an owl around. In the photo above, the Blue Jay is in the upper right corner, and the owl is in the lower left corner. The owl seems to care very little about the noise, and is in the process of falling back to sleep.
Here, a Baltimore Oriole was making a huge racket in the woods, chattering loudly down into a hole an old dead tree snag. Sure enough, there was something down there to get worked up about!
Wonder what’s for dinner?
Alright, on to owl-searching tip # 2: Look for owl pellets and whitewash.
Owls will roost in the same place day after day. As you walk through a forest or field, look on the ground for the pellets the owls have cast- full of the undigested bones, hair, and feathers of their meals. Also, look for splashes of white poo, more delicately termed “whitewash.”
If you find a pellet, you can take it home and look inside to see what the owl has been eating. Just don’t do what I did and put one in a plastic bag in a drawer for a month. It will stink up your house.
Tip #3: Look on the tops of hydro poles! Owls use them as vantage points from which to hunt. I could do an entire blog on owls I have found on hydro poles. But let’s just look at a couple.
This beautiful snowy owl sat on the same hydro poles north of Wellington, Ontario for most of the winter.
This owl would swoop from pole to pole, in order to look for potential prey below.
Tip #4 isn’t really a tip. It’s what you need: Patience and time. Go outside, look up, look down, listen, you never know what you might find.
If you do find an owl, please keep in mind that you should cause it as little disturbance as possible. Keep your distance. Do not use flash photography. Be really quiet. You can even sit down on the ground and stay very still- the owl may soon forget you are there and you may be fortunate enough to witness some amazing behaviour.
I end this blog today with a photo I took of a Barred Owl last fall at Presqu’ile Provincial Park. It was early in the morning and I was walking down a boardwalk through the beautiful autumn woods. I came around the corner, and this owl was sitting right next to the trail. I would have had to walk right under it to continue, so I just sat down on the boardwalk as quietly as I could, and watched it for a while until it flew away. Magic!