Finding Owls: there are at least one species of owl in every area of North America, and there may be four or more in areas south of the Arctic. However, finding them can be a challenge. The following are some methods I have used to locate these elusive birds.
Check out local birding clubs, hotlines, and websites.
There is usually a great deal of information available about owl-rich areas in your area from bird watchers, who are usually friendly and helpful. On one of our earliest dates, I showed my wife-to-be the screech owls in Ottawa. Weekend day trips are also organized by numerous nature clubs to find winter owls. Visitors are welcome to tag along on these outings, which are normally led by local experts. The National Audubon Society and Bird Studies Canada also publish the results of a bird count conducted by more than 1,500 natural history societies throughout North America every Christmas season.
Based on census results from previous years, you can determine where winter owls are most commonly found throughout the continent. Another good source of information about owls is birding hotlines. Local libraries and birdseed stores usually list telephone numbers. Messages are taped every week or so listing recent rare or unusual bird sightings and their locations. The “owl fest” that occurred on Amherst Island along the northern shore of Lake Ontario in the winter of 1977-78 was explained to me by the birding hotline in Ottawa. At least 160 owls, including 6 different species, hunted on an island that was barely 15 miles (24 km) long that winter!
Owlers from as far away as Texas visited the island that winter. As personal computers and the Internet proliferate, regional bird-watching Web sites offer the best information. Posts from multiple contributors can alert you to owls in your area quickly. I learned about the exceptional short-eared owl aggregation around Beaverhill Lake in central Alberta in 2005–6. When I visit a new area, I use such sites to find out where owls can be found. I to locate barn owls in Florida and elf owls in Arizona, I did this. I was always offered guidance to a location where I could see the owls I was interested in by the participants on these Web sites.
Keep an ear out for bird calls.
In the daytime, many owls, especially the smaller ones such as northern saw-whets, boreals, pygmy-owls, and long-eared owls, roost in shrubbery or bushy conifers. Foraging blue jays, chickadees, and redpolls chirp and chatter when they find these hidden owls. Combined with these noisy calls, other songbirds in the area mob the owl. Listening to these calls has led me to many owls. The agitated cawing of a mobbing crow or the screaming of a blue jay is easily recognizable. An amateur bird-watcher can hear the excitement in the birds’ voices.
Pellets and poop can be found in this area.
Many owls use the same roost trees every day. It doesn’t take long for the branches and the ground underneath them to become soiled with white droppings. In winter, long-eared owls often roost in groups, and several dozen owls may shelter in a roost, making droppings easy to spot. The ground beneath a roost site is often littered with pellets, those compact, cigar-shaped shards of undigested bones, teeth, and fur that owls regurgitate regularly.
Take a road trip.
I often find owls by driving slowly along highways and back roads, especially in winter when the leaves have fallen. In ditches alongside roadways, great gray owls, northern hawk owls, and snowy owls hunt voles and mice. It is fairly easy to locate these large conspicuous owls. Some years, they literally flood the forests and prairies of southern Canada and northern the United States. Approximately every three to five years, rodent populations in the boreal forest or the arctic crash, forcing the owls south. One of those times was the winner of 1996–97.
A symposium on the biology and conservation of Northern Hemisphere owls was held in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in February 1997. A group of international owl scientists and I took a field trip southeast of the city during the conference. We saw 2 snowy owls, 19 great gray owls, and 32 hawk owls in one afternoon. On our bus was a middle-aged Japanese biologist whose life dream was to see just one northern hawk owl. The rest of the day was spent with a smile on her face. Two weeks later, Rudolf Koes, while searching the same area, found 4 snowy owls, 32 great gray owls, and 55 hawk owls, a world record for hawk owls. Also, riding the roads is the best way to find nesting great horned owls.
In southern Alberta, these large owls are often the first birds to nest in spring, often starting to lay eggs long before winter is over. Great horned owls usually nest in old stick nests used by crows and hawks, and their distinctive feathery ear tufts can be seen several hundred yards away. In the aspen woodlands around Calgary, I can usually find 3 or 4 nesting great horned owls on a Sunday drive in March, armed with binoculars and a spotting scope.
It is not uncommon to see unusual owls while driving. Just 50 feet from the edge of a gravel road, I spotted a long-eared owl sitting on a fencepost in broad daylight. According to legend, long-eared owls are strictly nocturnal and highly secretive. Apparently, the owl didn’t know that. For more than an hour, I watched it hunt voles in the ditch. The entire time, it ignored my vehicle.