Winged masters of the hunt
If getting up well before dawn to wait on some seldom-used road for the rare hoot of a distant bird isn’t your idea of fun, then perhaps owling is not for you.
However, the uncanny ability of these magnificent nocturnal hunters to locate prey and then, relying on their hearing, to glide in soundlessly to capture their food – mostly mice and other vermin – makes them ideal boarders for farmers and ranchers, as well as objects of attention for early rising birders. Those who would exchange their cultural opportunities for natural ones also seek them in the early evenings, despite the ambient noise.
The first requirement for identifying the owls during their nighttime activities is to learn the calls or vocalizations. Recordings of these sounds can be found on the Web at Owling.com or purchased in collections such as “Bird Songs of California” from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. A good flashlight with a million candlepower will briefly illuminate the bird, once you have located it by its call.
The best places to listen are lonely roads distant enough from a stream for good hearing. In Nevada County, the western portions of Perimeter Road regularly produce western screech and great horned owls. Bruce Webb, a noted bird guide, lists “five reasons why Mosquito Ridge Road is arguably one of the best owling roads in the Sierra Nevada.
“It is paved; seldom traveled by vehicles at night; has convenient mile marker signs; goes through several thousand feet of elevational change, giving it a great diversity of montane habitats; and no dogs.”
There is a barn on Bitney Springs Road where 90 percent of the time a barn owl roosts on the rafters. Barns should be examined for large signs of whitewash on the rafters, which indicate a roosting spot. The barn owl, “one of the most widespread of all owls, has evolved excellent low-light vision and remarkable hearing; indeed, its ability to locate prey by sound is the most accurate of any animal tested,” according to Carl Marti in “The Birds of North America.” They consume their prey whole and regurgitate the undigested hair and bones in a pellet.
Great horned owls also produce a pellet from their food. However, they consume a greater variety of animals, including barn owls, waterfowl and rabbits. Once, while looking at geese, swans and ducks on Loma Rica Road near Marysville, a homeowner came out to tell us that we could look at the great horned owl roosting in some cottonwoods beside his pond. We found a pair of them there that we managed to flush. They flew across the road to another cottonwood beside an irrigation canal. Locally, they range all the way to the Donner Campground on Route 89 outside Truckee and are often found along Perimeter Road.
The deciduous woodlands along Perimeter Road are also a favorite habitat for western screech owls. This common small owl nests in cavities and will colonize wood duck and other nest boxes. They utilize nine different calls to mark their territory, attract mates or simply to socialize.
No discussion of owls is complete without at least mentioning the spotted owl. Unfortunately, political controversy has overshadowed the bird as conservation efforts to protect spotted owls in their old-growth habitat have encountered resistance from timber interests seeking to exploit these valuable resources. I must confess that I’ve never seen or heard a spotted owl, though Skillman campground is a mature White Fir forest set aside by the USFS as potential spotted owl habitat. Ken Trolesi has photographed a pair of them just outside of Nevada City.
Walt Carnahan is a member of the Audubon Society.
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