Owls on the Prowl

One of the lesser-known gems of winter birding in the Skagit Valley is the wealth of opportunities to see owls. The Short-eared owl (pictured above) can often be seen hunting during the morning or evening hours over the Skagit Flats and Samish Flats. “When hunting it flies low over the fields, with buoyant, floppy wingbeats, looking rather like a giant moth,” the Audubon Field Guide says.

In late 2018, birders have seen Short-eared owls fairly frequently on Fir Island at the WDFW property at the end of Rawlins Road. Look for them in the late afternoon perched on driftwood or patrolling the grassy tidal flats. The West 90 location on the Samish Flats is also frequented by owls, but please note that this field is reserved for waterfowl hunting through the end of January, so you may only be able to observe the owls from the roadside as this particular spot.

The Short-eared owl is found around the world on all continents except Australia and Antarctica. It is sometimes referred to colloquially as the swamp owl or bog owl, which are the common names for the bird in Germany and Russia. Short-eared owls have a variety of vocalizations, and their winter roosting calls sound little like the traditional owl hoot.

Sound clip from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Great horned owls, while less active during the daytime, can often be seen at known roost sites. During the 39th Padilla Christmas Bird Count (2016-2017), local birders recorded 17 Great horned owls in western Skagit County. Your best bet to find one of these is to connect with a local tour guide or volunteer for the Christmas Count yourself. You may also be able to find some on your own at Wiley Slough, where for several years now a family of the owls has returned to raise its young.

Incidentally, Great horned owls are one of the earliest birds to nest in North America, breeding and nesting in January or February. This makes winter a great season to hear their territorial and mating calls. “With its long, earlike tufts, intimidating yellow-eyed stare, and deep hooting voice, the Great Horned Owl is the quintessential owl of storybooks,” the Cornell Lab of Ornithology writes.

Sound clip from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

The perpetually skeptical-looking Long-eared owl spends its days well hidden in dense woods and then ventures out into meadows and fields to hunt during the night. Although rarely seen and photographed, they are creatures of habit and often return to the same stand of woods to roost during the day.

In 2015, for example, a pair of Long-eared owls took up winter residence at the Leque Island unit of the Skagit Wildlife Area. This news quickly spread around local birding groups, and the pair afforded a number of unique photography opportunities. They were often observed hunting around dusk alongside the more common Short-eared owls.

“Long-eared Owls are silent most of the year, but during breeding season they draw on a complex repertoire analogous to a songbird’s song. Males give a series of 10 to more than 200 whoo notes evenly spaced about 2–4 seconds apart. This deep and forceful utterance, akin to the sound made by blowing across the lip of a very large bottle, can be heard more than half a mile away.” – Cornell Lab of Ornithology


Sound clip from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

The Barred owl is a mid-sized owl that is relatively common in second-growth and old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest. These masters of camouflage and silent flight are hard to spot, but sometimes a noisy flock of observant Stellar’s jays will reveal the bird’s favorite hiding spots, often perched near the trunk of a large cedar or fir.

Where to find them? Barred owls are regularly reported in eastern Skagit County, including in the North Cascades National Park Complex, Marblemount area, Concrete and up the Baker River Valley. But they also inhabit the lowland forests stretching out to the Puget Sound, such as the Anacortes Community Forests and Deception Pass State Park.

Interestingly Barred owls are not believed to be native to the Western United States. Researchers say that they began expanding west of the Mississippi River a little more than a century ago. “This could have been a natural range expansion or human-caused, or a combination of both. The most common theory is that the barred owl’s westward movement was caused by changes to the environment in the Great Plains as people increasingly settled there and dramatically altered the landscape,” a report by the US Fish & Wildlife Service notes. “This may have removed natural barriers that previously inhibited the barred owl’s westward expansion.”

Not surprisingly, these owls are often easier to detect during the night, when their distinctive calls can be heard from afar: “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?”

Sound clip from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Often described as “ghostly” thanks to their pale faces and whitish chest and belly, Barn owls tend to roost in rafters of barns and abandoned attics during the day.

“By night, they hunt on buoyant wingbeats in open fields and meadows. You can find them by listening for their eerie, raspy calls, quite unlike the hoots of other owls,” the Cornell Lab of Ornithology writes. “The Barn owl has excellent low-light vision, and can easily find prey at night by sight. But its ability to locate prey by sound alone is the best of any animal that has ever been tested. It can catch mice in complete darkness in the lab, or hidden by vegetation or snow out in the real world.”

It is no surprise then that Barn owls are efficient hunters. One study estimated that over its lifespan, one Barn Owl could consume as many as 11,000 mice. “These 11,000 mice might have consumed or fouled an estimated 13 tons of growing crops, seeds, and grain in their lifetime. For this reason, every Barn Owl living on a farmer’s property is clearly worth several hundred dollars in reduced crop damage and other benefits,” writes the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension.

Snowy owls are less common visitors, but during “irruption” years they regularly appear in the valley. An irruption is the movement of birds based on availability of food. The Snowy owl’s main food in the Arctic is lemmings, which are known to see extreme population fluctuations. The owls react to these fluctuations through changes in breeding cycles and periodic geographic expansion, which is what brings them to the Pacific Northwest (see Skagit Audubon commentary for more information).

When Snowy owls are present in Skagit County, they hunt for small mammals, fish and other birds. Good areas to look are on the Samish Flats at the West 90 and on Fir Island at Jensen Access. They can be seen near the ground on low perches such as driftwood, logs or fence posts. Consider joining a scheduled Audubon field trip or a guided tour to one of these areas this winter.

Owl Safety Reminder

“Owls are particularly sensitive to disturbance. As predators, they are naturally uncommon to rare. Disturbance at their day roosts or use of playback can repeatedly disturb individuals, pairs, or small populations. Large crowds surrounding and following certain owls in winter (sometimes engaging in unethical baiting practices) disrupts natural hunting and exposes owls to great risk from vehicle collisions or habituation to humans.” – Ebird Sensitive Species Notes

Here is a video showing how not to behave around owls.