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Nature's Best by Elma Chapman - Owls

Last week an open invitation was extended on the LaGrange County Birding page on Facebook to take a walk on a Monday afternoon on an Amish farm east of LaGrange to look for long-eared owls, short-eared owls, and the northern shrike. These owls had been seen roosting there for a while, so there was a very good likelihood of actually seeing one.

Monday was a not-too-cold, but drizzly day. Nonetheless, a group of about 30 people showed up to participate in the viewing. We met at one farm and then car-caravanned to a nearby farm where the birds were roosting. Then it was a short hike across a field to the edge of the woods where the long-eared owls had been recently seen.

Long-eared owls spend their summers in the northern sections of the U.S. and in southern Canada. They may be seen year-round in southern Michigan, but they venture as far south as Kentucky in the winter and are seen only rarely as far south as the Gulf of Mexico. They are considered uncommon to rare. Usually they are solitary birds, but in winter they may roost together in small groups. They roost during the day and hunt wood edges and open fields at night, looking for small mammals such as mice or voles. In color they are similar to a great horned owl, but they are smaller with a length of 15 inches and a wingspan of 36 inches, and a weight of only nine ounces! They have dark streaking and barring on their chest with a chestnut-colored face. The tall “ears” are not actually ears but rather feather tufts. According to the Cornell Lab’s All About Birds webpage, when they nest, they do not build their own nests but rather appropriate the nest of a crow or magpie or even occasionally a squirrel nest.

When you are looking for something you’ve never seen before it’s especially nice to have a guide. When we arrived at the edge of the wood, we stood in a line facing a dense stand of trees. We were told to wait there silently while two young men walked around behind the owl roost and sent them flying toward us. With binoculars at the ready, we waited. Suddenly five or six owls flew within 20 feet of us! A few landed in the trees by us momentarily and then took off again. Because of the density of the trees it was hard to see the owls, but what was so amazing was that you couldn’t hear them even as they flew directly overhead. Most birds’ feathers make noise as they slice through the air, but owls are silent because the edges of their feathers are fringed and downy. It makes them deadly hunters.

The owls returned to their roost after a few minutes, so the procedure was repeated for us. This time one of the owls landed where we had a good look at him and perched there for a minute or two. They tend to perch next to the trunk and their coloring is such that unless you see the motion of one flying in, you are likely to look right at it and not see it. I saw it with my bare eyes, but nearly lost it with the binoculars because by taking my eyes off it for a minute, it blended so well with its surroundings. (Using binoculars for birding is an acquired art. When you are viewing landscape, the landscape doesn’t move on you. Birds do, so you have to keep your eye on the bird and bring the binoculars up to your eyes. It takes some practice!)

After the owls returned to their roost again we quietly filed back into the field. Most people hung around to look for the short-eared owls and northern shrike that sometimes are seen there, but as the light was fading and the drizzle was turning into rain, some of us decided we had seen enough for one evening. From pictures and comments made later, some of the group did find the northern shrike.

Several of the birders in our area have been to the farm to see the birds, both before and after the open invitation hike. One of them, LeRoy Miller, has gotten some amazing pictures of the long-eared owls and he has given me permission to use them with this article. Thanks, LeRoy! And thanks to the farmer who invited us strangers onto his land to share in the joy of nature.

Just a little more proof that someone who says, “There’s nothing to do in January,” hasn’t truly explored all his or her options – right here at home!