Owls of the Cape and Islands

Mar 8, 2017

Northern Saw-Whet Owl
Credit Rick Leche bit.ly/2nswwPJ / bit.ly/OJZNiI

I’d like to talk today about a network of shadowy figures infiltrating our communities. This vocal but seldom seen group operates primarily at night, and strikes fear in the hearts of the small and the vulnerable. I am talking about owls.

What is it about owls that fascinates us so much? Is it the secretiveness? The superhuman senses of hearing and sight? The dispassionate scientist in me would say that humans like owls because of their forward facing eyes, and big, mammal-like heads, often with pseudo “ear” tufts. And why do we think they are wise? When you are lucky enough to meet the eyes of an owl in its natural habitat, it indeed seems to know something we don’t. Even a little screech-owl sleepily regarding you from his daytime roost hole conveys a certain sense of “been there, done that.”

Here in our part of the world, we are most likely to encounter either the huge and imposing Great Horned Owl or the little and adorable Eastern Screech Owl. Great Horneds remain paired and somewhat vocal year round, but they are especially talky leading up to their nesting season, which begins in January. Screech-owls are most likely to call spontaneously in late summer, for reasons I don’t fully understand, but they can also be heard sporadically year round. As cavity nesters, screech-owls can be enticed to nest in big bird boxes in suburban yards, but those trying to attract them report more misses than hits.

Taking the award for smallest and cutest is the Northern Saw-whet Owl, which breed here and there in coniferous, swampy woods, especially in Wellfleet and Truro. Listen for their monotonous tooting in April and May. They were allegedly named for the sound of a large saw being sharpened, though no normal person has any idea what that sounds like, or whether this is even true.

Winter is of course when some of the more interesting owls can show up. Most of us remember when Snowy Owls flooded the region a few winters ago and became media darlings for a few months. Numbers have been more modest the last couple of years, with a few birds hanging out on some of the usual barrier beaches, like Nauset Beach and Sandy Neck. The islands did fairly well with Snowys this year, with a couple, including a beautiful, ghostly white male on the Vineyard, and three at Nantucket’s Great Point in January.

Short-eared Owls, which favor open areas like saltmarshes and grassy fields, have made fleeting appearances on the Cape this winter, seen by only a lucky few at Sandy Neck and Nauset. Last week, an exceedingly rare Long-eared Owl took up residence in a suburban yard in Chatham, not far from the airport, where I suspect it spent the nights hunting small mammals along the grassy runways.

The king of all the rare owls is the huge Great Gray Owl, denizen of snowy boreal forests across Canada and Eurasia. One has never been recorded on the Cape and Islands, and none has been seen in Massachusetts since 1996, at least until February. That’s when a birder mistakenly identified an owl he photographed in a remote swamp outside Williamsburg, MA as a Barred Owl, but a sharp eyed birder noted the mistake on the eBird website and got the word out. It hasn’t been found since, so a bird wintering in west-central New Hampshire remains the closest Great Gray Owl available for your viewing pleasure.

On Monday, international owl expert and former Cape Codder Denver Holt will be speaking at Cape Cod Bird Club. The free talk is at 7PM at the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History in Brewster, and all are welcome.  Nature lovers of all kinds should head to Cape Cod Community College in Barnstable Saturday for Mass Audubon Wellfleet Bay’s Cape Cod Natural History Conference. The topics range from manatees to bats to bees, plus four different bird-related talks. Owl see you there.