Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
The Hundred Owl Day
March 11, 2022
By Steve Grinley
March is a good month to try to see and hear owls in Massachusetts. The wintering snowy, long-eared and short-eared owls are still with us. Saw-whet owls are migrating through. Resident great-horned, barred, and screech owls are beginning to nest, or are courting and preparing to nest soon.
Our friend and fellow birder, Brian Cassie is one of the best at finding owls. He is a naturalist, a teacher, and an author. He has seen seventy species of butterflies and even more moths in his downtown Foxboro yard, and he can imitate a barred owl better than anyone I know. I thought this would be a good time, this week and next, to share Brian’s story of finding owls which he titled “The Hundred Owl Day”:
“Whether or not you have ever seen an owl in the wild, whether you are an old hand at owl finding or someone who has always wanted to see an owl but for one reason or another has not gotten around to it, I will share with you a non-secret: owls are wonderful creatures and every encounter with one is special.
“When you and an owl are in the same place at the same time, the owl is always aware of this and you are sometimes aware of this. Watchful is the owl and very quiet, too, if that is its wish. Owls are much better human watchers than humans are owl watchers.
“I have spent decades fascinated with owls – their voices, their movements, their plumages, their interactions with me. The majority of owls I have seen and heard in my life (from age nineteen to age sixty-nine), have been in eastern Massachusetts. Lucky I have been to have found owls on six continents – in deserts and taiga and tundra and rainforests and grasslands – but, more often than not, the owls I have observed have been in Massachusetts deciduous woodlands.
“On owl prowls for various nature organizations and for the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Counts, I have looked for and found owls many, many times in group settings. People are almost always very well behaved on owl walks and the owls, sometimes in appreciable numbers, have always cooperated. I am truly as delighted as the people I’m out with when an owl calls or flies in, and sometimes more so, I think.
“And even though I have led scores of owl walks, most of my owl watching I have done alone, much spontaneously but some planned out in advance…for instance, in attempts at finding one hundred owls in a day.
“The agricultural fields around the Salton Sea in southern California are a mecca for owl watchers; that is, if the owl of your eye is the Burrowing Owl. The area is criss-crossed with a network of roads running alongside irrigation ditches and it is along these ditches that the local Burrowing Owls nest and hunt and perch in the open at close range. Should you want to see a hundred Burrowing Owls here in one day, as I once did, it is simply a matter of putting in the driving and watching time – many hours, to be sure, but then there are owls and owls and owls to be enjoyed on your daytime drive. I suspect you could accomplish the same result in southwest Florida between the Cape Coral and Marco Island Burrowing Owl populations….which are in suburban empty lots and backyards.
“Another owl that can be seen by the hundreds in a single day, and in a matter of minutes and not hours, is the Long-eared Owl,,,.but you have to be willing to travel internationally because your destination will be Kikinda, Serbia, self-proclaimed owl capital of the world. The Long-eared Owl occurs across the entire northern hemisphere but is normally elusive – very cryptic in coloration and taken to tucking itself into the foliage – and in Massachusetts it is a red-letter day when you see one. In Serbia, though, the region’s Long-eared Owls have found safety in communally roosting in winter in towns….and Kikinda is the town they most prefer.
“I was in Kikinda in January 2020, just before Covid-19 hit, and the scene was unforgettable. The town square is open and architecturally handsome, the citizens are remarkably friendly to human and avian visitors, and the trees are owl-laden….twelve Long-eareds in this birch, twenty-five in the next tree over….right out in the open. They roost in the square during the day and at dusk raise themselves from their perches and fly off silently over your head and the rooftops in search of mice in the surrounding agricultural terrain. I saw 137 owls on my first little afternoon stroll around one corner of Kikinda’s center.
“And then, upon my return home, I wondered if it were possible to find a hundred owls in one day in Massachusetts.” (To be continued…)