There are perhaps no birds that ignite the excitement of viewers like owls. Even non-birders tend to express interest when these iconic birds of prey are mentioned. It may be their elusive nature, since most owls spend their waking hours while us humans are sleeping. It may be their raw power, or their classic vocalizations. Whatever it is, these birds, while shrouded in mystery, have captivated our wild hearts for centuries.
In modern times, owls usually represent wisdom or intelligence. The “wise owl” comes to mind. Throughout history, however, they have struck fear into the hearts of more than just their prey. Many cultures viewed owls as bad omens, the embodiment of death itself. They were to be feared, respected, and avoided. One can easily see how such superstitions would arise after having an encounter with one of these silent hunters. Imagine that you are walking through the forest on a cold moonlit night. A loud hooting call rattles your bones, and as you turn to face the culprit, you see the silhouette of a large bird with huge, razor-sharp talons. Its large, piercing eyes look right through you, and atop its head are two distinct “horns.” While this may make for an intimidating encounter, all birders yearn for a moment like this!
Here in the state of New York, it is possible to see 11 owl species, but you’d have to be very lucky to see some of them. Three of them are common, year-round residents here: the Eastern Screech Owl, Barred Owl, and Great Horned Owl. If you have encountered an owl in Western New York, it was probably one of these three. For many, owl viewing season truly begins in late autumn, when the leaves have fallen from the trees. Owls like to roost out of sight of other birds (which will mob owls in defense) and potential dangers. Leaves are the ultimate cover for many owl species and once they have fallen, many perches that used to conceal owls would now leave the bird exposed. Perched owls are more conspicuous in the bare tree tops or concentrated in the remaining trees that have leaves left, such as pine, spruce, or hemlock. With fewer places to hide effectively, the owls are now much easier to find. Adding to this excitement is the winter arrival of northern owl species that spend the colder months here with us. Harry Potter fans and birders alike can enjoy being the presence of the majestic Snowy Owl, which may be found in rural fields, harbors, and airports throughout Western New York in the winter. It is quite amazing to meet a bird that may have been born in the North Pole. Short-eared Owls, a species listed as endangered in the state of New York, can be seen hunting our remaining grassland habitats on the wing in search of small mammals. Like Snowy Owls, they are for us to enjoy in the wintertime, and will head back up north in the spring, perhaps actually making you wish for a longer winter. Winter may be cold, but if one is willing to tolerate it, they may have the encounter of a lifetime.
As spring approaches, some owl species have already begun their breeding season. This concentrates owl activity to and around nesting locations as they prepare to and actively nest. Owls also tend to be very vocal leading up to and during this season, giving you chances to locate them with our other senses. Once the young are born, you have now doubled or tripled the number of owls you can see at these sites! All of this must not be taken for granted because, once trees that leaf out in May, your literal window of opportunity begins to close. The sleeping owl families become hidden under the freshly grown leaves of the forest, essentially putting an end to the owl viewing season.
The owls remaining in Western New York during the warmer months may be harder to see and less talkative, but they are still out there. When you’re enjoying the summer on the trail in your shorts and your t-shirts, it never hurts to gaze through the thick leaves in the canopy. You just might see one of these mysterious birds looking back.
To learn about and encounter local wildlife, join us for one of our public programs!
Recent Wildlife Sightings:
- Enjoyed a public program focused upon Winter Birds at Beaver Island State Park that included a few interesting sightings such as Carolina Wren, Gadwalls, Hooded and Red-breasted Mergansers, Bonapartes Gulls and many more.
- A Bald Eagle flying in Depew, NY
- An Eastern-Screech Owl at Reinstein Woods Nature Preserve, Depew, NY.
- A Great Horned Owl and Pileated Woodpecker in Amherst, NY.