Late winter prime time for owl viewing

Great Grey Owl

With mating season for owls just starting up, now is a great time to go out and brave the cold to see these nocturnal creatures. Owling is when you take a trip to a trail or somewhere in an owl’s territory to try and get a glimpse of an owl.  

Mating season varies for the different species of owls, but the great horned owl’s starts around late winter according to The National Audubon Society, a non-profit environmental organization dedicated to conservation.

Because of when the great horned owls’ mating season is, it makes it easier to spot them. The trees are bare and the owls are more active, so with a little luck, and if people know what they are doing, it is more likely that someone can spot these creatures.

An important part of the expedition is being able to identify the owls. The most commonly encountered owls in Iowa according to the Polk County Conservation website are the barred owl, screech owl and great horned owl. Other less commonly encountered owls are the short-eared owl, long-eared owl, great gray owl, snowy owl, northern saw-whet owl, burrowing owl and barn owl.

According to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, one can identify the barred owl by looking for a medium-large stocky gray owl with a rounded head, large dark eyes and nests in hollow trees in mature forests and around wooded waterways.

The screech owl is a small, broad-winged owl that can vary in color from gray to brown to red, has yellow eyes, feathery “ear” tufts and is often found in areas with large hollow trees.

A great horned owl is a large bird and permanent resident in Iowa. It has a grayish tawny-brown body with some dense barring on some parts of the body and a white throat. The owl has a large head, a pair of feather tufts and yellow eyes, and they nest in large tree cavities.

If the person owling gets lucky and is able to spot the more rare types of owl, they could identify the short-eared owl by looking for medium sized, slender owls with a long wingspan. The owls will be a tawny-brown color, and the males will have a lighter color on their undersides than the females will. Short-ears will have round heads with very short “ear” tufts with yellow eyes. The nests of these owls can be found on the ground in large open grasslands. These owls are considered state endangered so will be difficult to find.

Another hard to find owl is the long-eared owl. This owl is considered state threatened too, meaning it is likely to become endangered in the future. This type of owl easy to identify by looking for the very long “ear” tufts on the top of its head. It is a medium-sized owl with long wings and is slender. It is a similar color to the great horned owl and has yellow eyes. Unlike the short-eared owl, the long-eared owl prefers to nest in an area that is dense in conifer trees and is next to open grasslands.

Long Eared Owl

Those who are looking for a great gray owl would need to look for one of Iowa’s tallest owls with broad wings and a long tail according to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The owls have big heads with a large facial disk, meaning the face will look a bit like it is caving in on itself. Great gray owls are a silvery-gray with some white and brown. They tend to nest in dense evergreen pine and fir forests with a few meadows nearby. This owl could prove hard to find because they tend to avoid areas with people.

The snowy owl is a large creature and the heaviest North American owl. These owls are the color of fresh snow with some black dots and patterns on their bodies. They have rounded heads and they have yellow eyes in oval-like shapes.

Northern saw-whet owls are the smallest owls in Iowa, standing at about 8 inches tall. Besides their size, someone should look for brown plumage for this common winter visitor. The head is rounded but not quite a perfect circle with yellow eyes.  They mainly nest in northern forests and are often found in cedars and other conifers during the winter months.

The burrowing owl is a small, long-legged and short-tailed owl. It will have a grayish-brown plumage with a white throat and has a rounded head with yellow eyes. This owl is a grassland species that mainly nests in ground burrows made by badgers, so it is a very rare nester in Iowa according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

Last but not least, the barn owl is another state-endangered bird of medium size. It has pale tawny and white plumage and the males typically have more white than the females. The barn owl has long legs, a heart-shaped face, brown eyes and flies in a similar way as a moth. One of the most notable things is that this owl does not hoot but instead makes a long hissing shriek and is found in hollow trees but is nowadays often found in vacant wooden barns.

Before even thinking about stepping outside for a little bit of owling, it is important to know how to do it safely, for the person and the bird. According to Melissa Mayntz in her article “The Basics of Owling,” it is very important that you give the animal you see its space. Getting too close to the bird can cause it stress or can alarm the bird and could lead to it getting aggressive or being scared away. 

Another major rule to follow is to minimize the use of recordings of the owls’ calls or noises that their prey make because the owls will believe that they are responding to a potential competitor, mate or meal. This can lead to the bird getting stressed, distracted or confused, and the animal could be going to your area instead of doing things like hunting. If recording are used, it could also end up scaring the animal away from their area or even nest because it thinks that another possible stronger owl is there. 

The final thing to avoid for the owl’s safety is the use of lights. It is OK to use a flashlight to see the trail, but it is not OK to wave the light around, shine it on trees to see the animal or shine it on the animal itself. If a light is shined directly at an owl, it can become alarmed and vulnerable because the sudden light can affect the bird’s night vision.

Some tips for staying safe include dressing for the weather and being ready for the dark. Make sure to wear warm clothes and whatever else is needed to be prepared for being outside for an extended period of time. Be sure to bring a flashlight and extra batteries, and, if wanted, birding binoculars with wide lenses are good in the dark because this allows for the binoculars to capture more light. 

The final rule to follow is to stay on the trails. This way if anything were to happen, it would be easier to get help. But be sure to have fun. This is supposed to be enjoyable and not all rules.

Some good places to go owling in the Cedar Falls area are Hartman Reserve, Hickory Hills Park and George Wyth State Park.

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