Beyond irrupting snowy owls, tips for finding other winter North Country owls

Posted on January 6, 2014

Sharon StitelerBelieve it or not, there are other owls besides snowy owls you can see in winter. My friend Virginia posted this on Facebook a couple of nights ago:

“Going out in the cold to let the dog pee at 11:15pm is made so much better by the owl across the street. Thanks, owl!”

Curious, I asked her what kind she thought it was and not being a birder she answered, “I listened to some calls on the Internet, but I'm still not sure. A short bark (thought it might be a fox or something at first), then a classic, low Who Whohoho... Bark. Bark. Bark.”

Hooting and barking in December means she was hearing great-horned owls, our earliest nester in North Country. They can be incubating eggs by the end of January, but nests with eggs have been found in late December. Great horned owls do not build their own nests, but take over leftovers from the year before. They generally use old red-tailed hawk nests, but will also use old squirrel, crow, heron or even bald eagle nests. They don’t really do any renovations and the nests can fall apart as the chicks grow in size and rambunctiousness. Young great horned owls have strong toes that develop fast, so if the nest falls apart in a winter storm before the young are able to fly, they are able to cling to branches or even climb back into trees if wind blows them out of a tree.

Great horned owl incubating eggs on top of an old squirrel nest in winter. Winter is a great time for owl watching. Leaves are off the trees, and if you look hard enough, you will find them. If you head to tamarack bogs in northern Minnesota or Wisconsin you might find northern hawk owls or great gray owls teed up and hunting at the tops of the trees. If you have a good guide, you might even find the smaller and more elusive boreal owl.

But walking around in your own neighborhood and checking cedars, oak trees still clinging to leaves or tangles of vines might reveal the tiny northern saw-whet owl or even the thinner cousin of the great horned owl, the long-eared owl tucked in the trees.

If you know of any wood duck boxes, keep an eye on those. The small eastern screech-owl could be using them as a roosting box and might be perched at the entrance opening on a sunny day.

Tips for finding owls

The best way to seek out owls is scan the ground when you walk your favorite paths. In winter, owls tend to roost in the same spot over and over. Their thick, chalky poop tends to accumulate and if you find a spot and it looks like whitish paint has dripped or splashed all over, it could be owl poop. Look up.

Look and see if there are any pellets around the poop. Like all birds of prey, owls cough up pellets of what they couldn’t digest after eating but unlike hawks and eagles, their pellets will have bones. Owls tend to swallow prey whole and have weaker stomach acids so unlike other birds, their pellets will have bones.

Large owls tend to roost against the trunk of a tree, smaller owls tend to do it on the outer branches or in a cluster of leaves.

Listen for angry birds trying to “mob” an owl. If other birds find an owl during the day, they will make a lot of agitated noise to alert others of the danger and try to get the owl to leave. Larger birds like crows and blue jays will mob great horned owls. But even small birds like chickadees and nuthatches will mob and scold screech-owls and saw-whet owls.

If you find an owl, give it some space. Many species use camouflage as a defense, so allowing you to get close doesn’t mean the owl isn’t stressed by your presence. It needs to rest and lay low from mobbing birds. If an owl's head is facing you, it knows you are there, and do not get any closer.