No, not an ode actually, just a blog post about owls (I just like alliteration).
Many of us who are ABA members (as well as other birders, of course) not only like (or love) birds, but we also might be said by others to have a bird obsession. I admit that I have such an obsession – about seeing, hearing, photographing, learning about birds. Within that obsession, I am even more obsessed about owls. I know that there are also many other people for whom an owl sighting is just about the most wonderful thing that can happen to them. I guess it is sort of similar to people who just can’t get enough of cat/kitten videos.
The point of this blog post therefore is to discuss the owls that I have seen so far in my Alaska big year as well as those that I sincerely hope that I will see before the year is up. So far this year, I have been lucky enough to see, and not just hear, the five owls that are on my list, so I am also showing pictures that I have taken of them.
Three of these owls were seen for the first time this year in January. My first owl of 2016 was a big surprise to me as I walked the dike trail at the Mendenhall Wetlands in Juneau on January 4th, a Northern Pygmy-Owl. In my planning for the year, I had assumed this would be a hard-to-find bird, but it just found me.
Before this year began, I had planned to try to get as my first bird of the year the Northern Hawk Owl that is wintering in Anchorage, but a Common Pochard found in Kodiak lured me away. It wasn’t until January 11th that I finally was back in Anchorage and got my first sighting of the Northern Hawk Owl. Since then I have seen it most of the times (including a couple of days ago) that I have gone out past the Anchorage International Airport where the owl hangs out on the airport fence or in nearby deciduous trees and has been seen hunting and eating voles.
The third owl added to my list this year is the Boreal Owl on January 23rd at Spenard Crossing in Anchorage. Since then I have found another one at Campbell Creek Estuary Nature Area, and have seen the one at Spenard Crossing again. In all three cases, the Boreal Owl was found by tracking down the reason for the raucous sounds of Black-billed Magpies, Steller’s Jays and Black-capped Chickadees. It was particularly satisfying to me to find Boreal Owls, and to see them more than once, since I missed this species completely on my ABA big year in 2008.
The remaining two owl species on my list so far for the year were originally found by Peter Scully, who very kindly led me to the bird (Northern Saw-whet Owl on February 6th) or told me where it was (Great Horned Owl on February 13th). I also heard a Northern Saw-whet Owl in our Anchorage neighborhood on March 5th and hope to hear it often again as I did last winter.
So, what other owls are possible in Alaska (not including super-rarities like the Oriental Scops-Owl)? There are six more possibilities: Western Screech-Owl, Snowy Owl, Barred Owl, Great Gray Owl, Long-eared Owl and Short-eared Owl. Last year I had no trouble seeing Snowy Owls, so I am hoping that will be the case this year. Western Screech-Owls and Barred Owls, I am told, can be found in southeastern Alaska, where I have tried some already and will continue to do so in the next couple of months. Great Gray Owls often nest north of Anchorage, and are periodically found elsewhere, so that will probably involve a targeted chase. Short-eared Owls, I am also told should “not be a problem”. Some have been seen this winter south of Anchorage, so I need to go look for them or others that may be reported as the year goes along. It is my understanding that Long-eared Owls also can sometimes be found in southeast Alaska, so again, I need to hope that one will appear before the year is out. And I will also hope for a chaseable mega-rarity.
For years I have talked about what fun it would be to do an “owl big year” – just travel all over the US (or the North America or the world?) to listen for and look for owls. Maybe someday. For now, they are just part, a wonderful part, of my Alaska big year.
Just a note: If you want to follow my Alaskan big year regularly or just check on it periodically, you can go to lynnbarber.com to find out what birds I have seen so far in 2016. If you want to hear about some of my birding adventures as the year goes along, you can go to lynnbarberblog.com where I post some pictures as well.