Out of all of the different varieties of birds, some of the most captivating are owls. These majestic and charismatic animals have long since been held in high regard by many different cultures all across the globe, and even today hold special importance to many people.
For birders, owls are often a coveted bird to find and photograph. However, due to the nocturnal nature of most species, owls are often secretive and difficult to find. Thankfully, there are some things you can do to make finding owls easier.
Before we get into our tips, we want to stress how important it is to be respectful of owls as they can be sensitive to human disturbance. While viewing them, stay a significant distance away, don’t stay too long, and look for signs of stress such as fluffing, trying to appear thin, wide eyes, or flushing. If you notice any of these signs, back away slowly and leave the area. With that in mind, here are our seven tips.
Know the Habitat
One extremely important thing to recognize about owls, is that while they fall into one large category, each species is unique with its own set of behaviors and places they prefer to live. For example, Barred Owls generally prefer to live in old growth forest and swampland while short eared owls prefer open prairies and marshes with few trees. Snowy Owls can be found in areas with wide open spaces like farmland and even airports, while Great Gray owls can be found near conifer bogs and boreal forests. Looking for a species of owl in a habitat they typically aren’t found in will generally not yield positive results, but understanding what type of biome each individual species prefers, will greatly increase your chances of having a run-in with an owl.
Brush up on Behaviors
Not only does each owl species prefer a different habitat, but they also go about their lives in different ways, including different hunting habits and flight patterns. One important thing to note is when each species will be most active and when they will be roosting. For example, Snowy Owls can often be seen during the day and will be visible for long periods of time while they survey the landscape for prey. Great horned Owls are mostly nocturnal and will be active during the night and roosting during the day. Short eared owls are crepuscular, meaning they are most active at dawn and dusk. Knowing what an owl will be doing at a particular time of day is vital, in order to make sure you are timing your efforts correctly and looking in the right places.
Know the Range of the Bird You are Looking For
Range is an incredibly important thing to take note of for all bird species and owls are no exception. Get to know which owls are in the area you plan to look in and even more than that, know the time of year they are most common in the area. Many owl species have annual migrations and may only be in a particular area for a season, meaning timing can be everything. Knowing that the birds range overlaps with the places you’re looking in will help maximize your efforts.
Keep an Eye out for Roosting Sites
Most owls have specific places they return to when they aren’t active. These sites can be a particular grove of trees, a certain cavity in a tree, or even a specific branch that they seem to like. Taking some extra time to check out holes in trees or looking for roosting branches can sometimes be just what you need to find one of these secretive birds.
Look for Evidence
Sometimes the best way to find an owl is to look for clues that they leave behind. Owl pellets and droppings (known as whitewash) underneath a roosting site is a great sign that you are hot on the trail of an owl. Search the surrounding area to see if you can find a roosting owl in the vicinity. Some species will repeatedly use the same nesting sites and can be found once you know the general area to look.
Let the Other Birds Help You
Sometimes all you have to do to find an owl is to listen to other birds. Crows have a habit of harassing owls when they find them in their territory, and a mob of crows making noise can mean there’s an owl in the area. Other species such as chickadees and titmice will also try to drive off smaller owls, and listening for chatter from them can also lead you to an owl sighting. Keep an eye and ear out for these mobbing events and search the area carefully to see if you can locate the reason why the other birds are upset. Note that hawks and other predatory birds also get mobbed so it may not always be an owl that they are chasing away.
Get Connected with Other Birders
Often times the best way to find an owl is to get connected with other birders who already know of the best spots to look for them. Facebook groups and reaching out to local birders can be a great way to obtain information, although some groups restrict the posting of certain species or specific locations. Another useful tool is eBird in which sightings of many different birds are recorded along with the location they were found in. Do note however that some sensitive species such as Long-eared owls may not show up on eBird reports as their locations are hidden to protect them from getting overstressed by people wanting to see them.
Owls are certainly a special type of bird and are very enchanting to see in the wild. It’s worth noting one more time that while these birds are extremely cool to see, they can be easily stressed out by humans so please be respectful and keep plenty of distance between you and the owl. We hope these tips were helpful to you and as always, thanks for watching, we’ll see you next time, on Badgerland Birding.