On nearly silent wings, owls easily fly at night whether it be in the open or through deep woods. In fact, they are seldom active during the day. Their exceptionally large eyes which face forward allow them to have binocular vision. This unique feature allows them to see well at night and to judge distances between objects and easily maneuver through crowded environments such as forests.
Their eyes are also fixed in the eye sockets and in order to follow moving objects they must turn their heads. Yet, this is not a hindrance because they are able to turn their heads 260 degrees or more.
Their silent flight is accomplished because the flight feathers of these amazing birds have serrated edges. The feather design allows for a muffling of the flapping of the sound coming from their wings in flight. Because nearly all their hunting and flying is done at night, the owls’ hearing is really good and important to the owls. Nature has provided the owls with another amazing built-in feature which helps them survive in the dark world of night. It is the strange locations of its ears.
Most owls have asymmetrical skulls which have the actual ear openings located at two different levels on the skull. In most cases, the right ear is high up on the head and the left ear is located low on the skull. This allows them to get a very accurate answer as to where the sounds from small prey are located. The sound traveling to the ears arrives at a slightly different time, and in effect, the owl’s brain using this information to gauge the exact location of the sounds it is hearing.
If you want to see an owl in its natural habitat, it will need to be done with planned preparation and plenty of time and patience. Even then, you will need a lot of luck. If you would like to photograph owls, 200mm to 600mm lenses are nearly a mandatory requirement to get a good shot. An extender for your lens may help at bit. Just remember, as you add more mm’s to your lens arrangements, a tripod becomes the only way you will get a clear good picture. A word of CAUTION, do not use a flash, as this practice has been shown to damage the owl’s sensitive eyes.
On Presque Isle, late December through January always finds the park’s owls searching for a place to begin their nesting period. They must have an early egg hatch because they want a long growing season for the chicks. The Great Horned Owl, which live in our area, may lay its first eggs between February 1st and March 1st. Other species of owls also are busy during this same mating and nesting period.
Most owls lay between two and four eggs, and only have a single brood each year. However, replacement broods are possible if the eggs are destroyed or taken during incubation. It has been found that the first egg is nearly always the largest and is usually followed by another in two to four days. In really cold weather this interval can be up to a week. The incubation begins with the laying of that first egg and can last from 30 to 40 days.
This is the time when bird photographers are especially busy looking for occupied nests. To help people identify the various 8 or so species of owls found in our area, Gerrit Vyn of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has created an audio guide called “Voices of North American Owls” which can be downloaded.
Over the years on Presque Isle, it has been found that if you are lucky enough to locate an owl’s nest, you will need to visit the location many, many times to discover where the parents usually perch. They are creatures of habit, so once located, the good photographer can get some very good shots. You should try to determine when they sleep and when they hunt. They will do a lot of hunting, as a chick can eat as much as their own weight each day during the first 45 days.
The baby owlets will open their eyes between 9 to 11 days. Despite not being able to see, they all have very strong feeding reflexes within a single day after hatching. If you are serious about trying to photograph any species of birds, animals, or other creatures, you need first to learn as much as you can about that species. Know their natural history and behavior habits and where you might look to find them.
Once you have located an owl nest, you should make sure observe the body language of the species. For example, if a Great Horned Owl is seen stretching and ruffling his feathers, keep a sharp eye on him, because it is likely that he is getting ready to take flight. If he looks like he is yawning, it is very likely he may regurgitate an “owl pellet.” This is the indigestible fur, bones and other animal parts from last night’s late snack. Trying to locate these wonderful birds can be difficult since they mainly move at night and their actions during daylight, are minimal. They have simply fantastic camouflage feathers to help them become nearly invisible in their habitat.
One of the most important facts that you should know is that YOU should always keep well back from owl nesting areas and respect that they should be left to lead a normal life in the woods. I think that you should keep back far enough that only a 400mm lens will give you a good photo. Anything closer than that is TOO close for the owl.
The following is a list of owls found in Pennsylvania:
- Barn Owl—Light-colored, long legged – -has a heart shaped white face.
- Great Horned Owl – -By far the largest found in Pennsylvania with a wingspan that can be up to nearly 4 feet.
- Long Eared Owl – They are by far the most efficient mouse catchers of all the owls. Their eyesight is 50 to 100% better than human’s.
- Short Eared Owl – Only the size of an average crow. Lives in swampy areas along ponds and streams.
- Screech Owl — This is when most of our owls begin their nesting period. – This owl is what they call, “dichromatic,” meaning that it changes color from gray to red as it ages. Is very noisy with a huhihihuhu call that resounds throughout the woods and fields.
- Saw Whet Owl – The smallest of out native owls and common on Presque Isle and in this area. Its call is a too -too-too.
- Barred Owl – This owl is relatively small but at least three times the size of the Saw Whet. It is Pennsylvania’s only brown-eyed owl. All others have yellow eyes. They hunt by sitting and waiting on an elevated perch, while scanning all around for preywith their sharp eyes and ears.
- Snowy Owl –They are white and join us here in this area after traveling from the frozen North. They were at one time rare in this area, yet of late have been an annual visitor.
Owls, in Pennsylvania are classified as “non-game, birds of prey” and they are the most-fascinating birds in our state. Look for the owls on the park, and
See you on the park!
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