‘Tis the season to look and listen for owls
(published 12-1-05)

In the birding world, 2005 will rightly be remembered for the ivory-billed woodpecker. The announced rediscovery of the phantom bird in Arkansas last spring was truly remarkable—like an “extinct” bird rising from the dead.

But if not for the ivory-bill news, this might have been the Year of the Owl. The invasion last winter of 2,500 or more great gray owls into northern Minnesota attracted birders from throughout the country. The mass movement was triggered by a shortage of voles and other prey in Canada. Few great grays ever venture so far south, so it was a prime opportunity to see one of North America’s most sought-after birds. Northern hawk owls and boreal owls were also seen in uncommon numbers.

I didn’t make it to Duluth last winter—a fact I’m sorely reminded of when I see local birders wearing sweatshirts that commemorate the owlfest up north. So enough about great grays. Let’s talk about the owls we can enjoy close to home, starting in the backyard.

Great horned owls and eastern screech-owls are year-round residents in DuPage County. Of course, they are primarily nocturnal, and more often heard than seen. Now is the perfect time to be listening for great horned owls, in particular, as early winter marks the beginning of their mating season. Their “hooting” is loud enough to get your attention even at 3:00 a.m. If the bird sounds close, throw on a coat and go outside. These are big, chunky birds, so spotting one in a bare tree can be easy, especially on moonlit nights.

Every now and then you might encounter a great horned owl in broad daylight. When walking in one of the forest preserves, be alert if you hear crows or jays making a big fuss. They may be harassing a roosting owl in a behavior known as “mobbing.”

The other owl on my yard list tends to be more elusive. I’ve heard the eerie call of a “screechy” on just two occasions, a few days apart in August 2002. It was dusk, but my attempts to see the bird failed. Screech-owls are known to use nest boxes if you’re feeling lucky.

Other owl species can be observed in this region if you know where to look—and if you’re willing to pursue them on short notice. The owl everybody hopes to see is the snowy. This is an arctic tundra bird that wanders south in small numbers; a few usually turn up on Chicago’s lakefront every winter. The first snowy I ever saw was perched on a dock in Montrose harbor. Snowy owls in DuPage County are extremely rare.

The northern saw-whet owl is another winter specialty. Unlike the snowy, this species conceals itself during the day, roosting in dense evergreens. The traditional local “hot spot” for saw-whets is Morton Arboretum in Lisle, where the same trees and shrubs seem to attract them year after year.

Yet another winter resident is the short-eared owl, which hunts low over open fields around dusk. Good places to search include Pratt’s Wayne Woods and Tri-County State Park in Bartlett, and Fermilab in Batavia.

You can track local owl sightings by monitoring the free online list-serve for area birders. To join the network, send a blank e-mail to ILbirds-subscribe@yahoogroups.com, wait for the response, then follow the instructions. To study owl sounds and learn more about these fascinating raptors, try www.owling.com.

In the meantime, keep an ear open when you go to bed. Owls are in your neighborhood, and hearing is believing.

Jeff Reiter is a Glen Ellyn, Ill., resident who enjoys birding at home and in the field. You can reach him at jreiter@wordsonbirds.com.

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