This year, so help me, I’m going to see an owl.
I haven’t seen one since we moved here from Louisiana. (There I saw a barred owl sleeping on a tree branch while I waited in the pickup line at my daughter’s school.)
It’s not that we don’t have owls here – we have plenty! I’m just a very diurnal creature, unwilling to leave my cozy bed in the wee hours to go looking for very nocturnal owls.
But, this time, I’m going to do it! I’ve just signed up to be a part of this year’s local Christmas Bird Count on Saturday, December 19. A fellow master naturalist and expert-level bird watcher talked me into it.
I’ve never participated in a Christmas Bird Count before because they start so early in the morning. Voluntarily getting up and out of the house to meet the birding group by 8:00 a.m. on a Saturday in December??? No thank you.
But to see owls, I’m going to make the sacrifice: I’ll meet my group not at 8:00 a.m., but (and here’s where I wish I was about to say 8:00 p.m.) at 5:15 a.m.!
In my (only mostly joking) opinion, 5:15 a.m. shouldn’t even be an actual time, legally. If not legally, then at least morally. I’m surprised the presidential candidates haven’t weighed in on this crucial issue.
At 5:15 a.m. on that Saturday, I can guarantee that I will come prepared, dressed in many layers and with two full thermoses of piping hot, creamy, sweet coffee. I cannot, however, guarantee that I’ll be willing to share any of that coffee.
There are no guarantees that we’ll see owls (though going with experienced birders who are likely to lead me to some is 90% of my motivation to participate), but if we do, it will be one of the four owls native to Virginia:
- Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus)
- Barred Owl (Strix varia)
- Barn Owl (Tyto alba)
- Eastern Screech Owl (Megascops asio)
It’s this last one, the Eastern Screech Owl, that I’m most hoping to see. The first three are big and impressive and so often used in birds of prey demonstrations and as zoo specimens that I’ve actually met them all before.
Not so with the “Mighty Mite”; at a Lilliputian 9 inches tall, this stealthy, nocturnal hunter is less than half the other owls’ size and more than twice their cuteness. They are absolutely adorable, though probably not if you’re a mouse or earthworm or tadpole, which are all part of the owl’s diet. (To learn more about any owl’s diet, try dissecting an owl pellet – the little ball of indigestible fur, feathers, and bones that they regurgitate after eating.)
These are cavity-nesting owls, small enough to make a home in a tree cavity that’s not much larger than they are. In the wild they choose wooded areas to live in and they prefer to be near water. Eastern screech owls will also happily move in to an owl box put up by a homeowner and help rid the property of insect and rodent pests for free! These owls can be fairly common even in suburban areas and small towns (there are several living in downtown Blacksburg) as long as there are trees in which to roost!
What the Eastern screech owl won’t do for you, unfortunately, is screech. Or maybe that’s fortunate, especially if they’re living in your neighborhood! Screech owls’ calls are better described as whinnies or ghostly trills. Listen to their calls at their All About Birds webpage.
The screech for which they are misnamed was probably that of a barn owl, another species which doesn’t mind being around humans as long as there are rodents around to catch. (Where there are barns, there’s generally stored grain or hay, which rodents come in to eat and then are, in turn, eaten by the barn owl.) Hear the barn owl’s screeching scream call at its All About Birds webpage.
It’s good to be able to differentiate the calls, too, because a birder is much more likely to hear a screech owl than see one; their brown, grey, and white plumage pattern gives them excellent camouflage against tree bark.
But I’m going to see one. Why else would I get up and out by 5:15 a.m.???