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Owls

Snowy Owls Headed North

4-21-14 flying snowy 046The record number of Snowy Owls that spent the winter in New England are turning up in all sorts of new locations now that they are on their way back to their breeding grounds on the open tundra and stopping to refuel along the way. Although many were young birds, and won’t breed this year, the adult owls will when they reach the Arctic in a few weeks. First, the males perform aerial and ground displays. After mating, the female selects a nest site. In addition to having a sufficient food supply, the site must be snow-free, not subject to flooding, and command a view of its surroundings. The latter is achieved by making their nest on a hummock, or slightly raised surface of bare ground. The female scrapes a shallow depression in the earth with her claws, twirling around to make a form-fitted hollow. No insulating material is added to this depression – no vegetation, no feather lining. Eggs and nestlings are totally dependent upon the mother’s warmth, transmitted via the large, featherless, pink patch of skin on her belly known as an “incubation patch.” The female alone incubates the eggs and broods the young chicks while the male provides food for his entire family.

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Barred Owls Frequenting Feeders

4-4-14  barred owl with suet IMG_5432The number of Barred Owls seen near bird feeders recently makes one question whether these birds are, in fact, in dire need of food. Certainly the extended period of deep snow this winter has made finding prey challenging. Fortunately, the local bird rehab center (Vermont Institute of Natural Science) has not been inundated with starving owls, which indicates that other factors may be involved in the increased number of sightings near homes and feeders. One of these factors could be that Barred Owls are currently laying and incubating eggs, and a few early nesters may even be providing food for young owlets. Whatever the reason, the accessibility of rodents that are attracted to feeders and the food itself that’s in the feeders allows us an all-too-rare glimpse of this common owl. (The mystery of repeatedly finding my suet feeder on the ground every morning was finally solved when I took this photograph – look closely at what the Barred Owl is clutching in its talons.)

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Snowy Owl Pellet

3-25-14 snowy owl  203Your knowledgeable ID skills regarding yesterday’s Mystery Photo were most impressive!

Snowy Owls are the heaviest owls in North America, weighing roughly 4 pounds (a Great Gray Owl is only 2.4 pounds). A lot of fuel is needed to power this magnificent raptor. In the Arctic, where they live, lemmings are their preferred prey — one owl may eat more than 1,600 of these small rodents in a single year. This winter the Northeast has experienced record numbers of visiting Snowy Owls. A banner year for the Arctic lemming population followed by prolific nesting success for Snowy Owls resulted in an unprecedented “irruption” of these owls further south this winter.

While we do have lemmings in New England, they are uncommon, so Snowy Owls have relied on our small rodent, squirrel, rabbit and hare populations for food. Those owls wintering on the coast, where dunes and moors closely resemble their tundra habitat, have also taken advantage of the large number of sea ducks. As witnessed and described by Nantucket ornithologist Edie Ray, the owls fly up to great heights over the sea, spot waterfowl and then plummet down to just above the surface of the ocean where they sink their talons into a “sitting duck.” As a result, the indigestible bones, teeth and nails of prey are protectively wrapped in feathers as well as fur in the large pellets coughed up by these owls. (Snowy Owl locators: Edie Ray and Sadie Richards; Snowy Owl pellet finder: Sadie Richards)

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Avian Toe Arrangment

3-17-14 mourning dove tracks 004As opposed to humans, who use the entire bottom of their feet for support, birds stand and walk only on the ball of their foot and with their toes. When you look at a bird’s leg, what appears to be its knee, bending backward instead of forward as it does in humans, is actually its heel.

Most birds have four toes, arranged differently according to the life style of the bird. Songbirds, as well as most other birds, have three toes pointing forward and one pointing back. Most woodpeckers, being active climbers, have two toes pointing in each direction, which provides added clinging support. The outer toe (of the three forward toes) of ospreys and owls is reversible, so that they can have two toes in back should they need to get a better grasp on slippery fish or other prey. Some birds that do a lot of running, such as sanderlings and most plovers, have only the three forward toes. (Photo: Mourning Dove tracks)

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Snowy Owl Invasion

2-4-14 lemmings-at-nest4In a typical winter, sightings of snowy owls are a regular occurrence in the Northeast, but this winter, as most New Englanders are aware of, we’re experiencing a banner irruption year, with individuals appearing in greater numbers from the north than they have in decades. In the past, hunger and lack of prey in the Arctic have been the accepted explanation for this influx of northern predators, but this year that theory has been put to a test, as 2013-14 visitors are arriving in excellent condition. Last summer the lemming population (snowy owls’ food of choice, with one owl eating up to 1,600 lemmings in a year), as well as other prey species, exploded in northern Quebec. It’s thought that snowy owls amass to nest in areas where prey is abundant, and it appears that this is exactly what happened in Quebec. The rodent explosion resulted in exceptionally large broods (up to 12 chicks per pair of owls). In part due to competition with older owls, this large first-year population of owls moved south this winter, and we are the beneficiaries. To see the movement of this year’s irruption, go to http://www.projectsnowstorm.org, where this photograph of a 70 lemmings/8 voles-lined snowy owl nest by Christine Blais-Soucy originally appeared.

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Northern Hawk Owl

n. hawk owl3- 231The Northern Hawk Owl is a bird of the remote Alaskan and Canadian boreal forests. Its name reflects the fact that this diurnal owl has both the appearance and behavior of a hawk, specifically, an accipiter. Although the Northern Hawk Owl winters throughout its breeding range, it periodically erupts southward into southern Canada and the northern United States. Sightings of this bird are rare in Vermont, but in recent winters, including the current one, there have been some. As with Snowy Owls, the magnitude and extent of these winter irruptions are thought to correlate with high reproductive success followed by severe winter conditions and decreased prey availability, but much remains to be understood about their winter dispersal habits. What we do know is that the Northern Hawk Owl’s skills as a hunter are very impressive. It can detect prey (small rodents, grouse, hares) by sight at a distance of half a mile and just using its ears can find prey under a foot of snow.

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Interpreting a Kill Site

12-18-13 hawk kill IMG_4136When there’s snow on the ground and you come upon a site where a predator successfully caught prey, there are usually signs that will help you determine who the main players were. In the above scene, remnants of red squirrel fur confirm the identity of the prey. If you look at the top of the image, you can make out a faint wing impression. Although not in this case, both wings of an avian predator often touch the surface of the snow, allowing you to measure the wingspread, and this information can help to eliminate some species of raptors. Birds of prey often defecate at a kill site. In the lower left corner of the photograph, as well as to the left and right of the packed area where the squirrel was eaten, you can see white (uric acid) bird droppings. Given that it is a hawk or an owl, knowledge about their respective evacuation habits will allow you to narrow down the possibilities even further. Owls tend to let their droppings do just that – drop, leaving small plops on the ground. Hawks, on the other hand, tend to forcefully eject their droppings some distance away. The long, thin streaks at this site were definitely propelled outwards, making it likely that the predator was a hawk. Familiarity with the hawks that overwinter in your area can help pinpoint which species it could be.

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