Heard But Not Seen (Usually)

By Margo D. Beller

There’s luck, and there’s listening.

The average person walking down the street may be mildly curious why crows are in a tree cawing wildly, or flying around and making dives. That’s presuming that person isn’t plugged into music or on the phone.

A birder knows better. Those American crows are alerting you to the presence of something they don’t want around but you’ll likely want to see.

Most of the time, when they’re not chasing off a rival flock of crows, that something is a red-tailed hawk or other raptor taking a rest from flying and hunting. But sometimes it’s much more interesting.

During the last week of January sanctuary director Mike Anderson was at the Scherman Hoffman education center when he heard those screaming crows. He started looking for the cause of their anger. He found this great horned owl. Great Hornerd Owl at SHS DSC_2474_1307

GHOs, like most owls, sleep during the day and fly out at dusk to hunt through the night, going back to a tree to roost at dawn. Most of the time owls are very hard to see during the day unless you have a lot of luck or hear a mob of crows or other alarmed birds.

(I was once directed to an area where a barred owl had been seen at Great Swamp. I looked a good 10 minutes until it got tired of the staring contest and flew off. I had had no idea where it was - which was almost directly in front of me. That’s how good they can hide in plain sight.)

This GHO was in a tree 175 yards from the education center, Mike said, but was too far for him to take a good picture with his camera. Luckily, Joe Pescatore came over with his spotting scope and his camera and got the picture using a process called digiscoping that gave his camera the equivalent of a much longer lens.

“It's a method I have sort of perfected over the past few years but I still consider myself an amateur,” said Pescatore, whose photos will be on display at Scherman Hoffman in March.

GHOs are found in all 50 states. When someone thinks of a “hoot” owl it is, more likely than not, a great horned owl. It is one of the most common owls in New Jersey and can be found from High Point in the north to Cape May to the south. That wasn’t always the case.

According to the 1999 edition of New Jersey Audubon’s Birds of New Jersey, the most recent census of the state’s population of birds, GHOs “made a remarkable recovery” in the state during the 20th century after years of  “persecution as a ‘pest’ species.”

I can’t imagine how a great horned owl can be considered a pest. According to a little book I have called Owls: A Wildlife Handbook (Johnson Books, 1998) by Kim Long, GHOs will eat rodents and other small animals. Thanks to having no sense of smell, it can hunt skunk. How is that a pest?

Mike said this GHO was the first he’s seen in daylight at the center although he’s seen them, he reckons,15 times and heard them much more often. (A GHO was one of the first birds the Big Stay team heard at Scherman Hoffman during the most recent World Series of Birding.)

It is part of birder etiquette not to disclose exactly where a roosting owl is found so it isn’t stressed by the dozens of people who will converge on it with cameras. So it is safe to say that by the time you read this, the owl will likely have moved on to a more secluded area. In January GHOs would have been calling to each other at night, setting up and defending territories, mating and then kicking redtails or squirrels or crows out of their nests to start their brood. (Owls don’t build nests but take over whatever’s around - another reason for crows to dislike them.)

Mike said he’s never seen a great horned owl nest on the property but that doesn‘t mean they aren‘t there. As the photographed GHO shows, owls can be nearly invisible when they want to be.

There are many places to learn about the cool things that make owls different from other raptors besides their night hunting, advanced hearing and ability to swivel their heads nearly 360 degrees.

For general information, including sound, there is the website of the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, one of my favorite sites.

For more specific information on how to find an owl in the field -- and what to do when you find it – one of the best resources I’ve found is How to Spot an Owl by Patricia and Clay Sutton.

Or you can take your child to Scherman Hoffman for a program on owls taking place on Saturday, Feb. 9, from 2-3:30pm. Call the center for details.

So unplug the music, put down the phone and look carefully the next time you’re walking and a murder of crows starts screaming overhead. You might be amazed.