Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
The Hundred-Owl Day, Part II
March 18, 2022
By Steve Grinley
Last week, our naturalist and teacher friend, Brian Cassie, shared a story of finding a hundred owls in a single day. He left us wondering if that could be done in Massachusetts. Here is his methodology for accomplishing that:
“Through the years, I have found, mostly through calling to owls and having them respond, that owls really are common birds of the suburban landscape, not rare in the least. In fact, I believe that owls are more common permanent residents of eastern Massachusetts than are hawks. It is their primarily nocturnal habits and our primarily diurnal habits that keep owl populations a secret from most of us.
“On Christmas Bird Counts, from mid-December to very early January, I have many times found fifty or so owls between the hours of midnight and 7:00 a.m. on a single day. Once, in the company of the now grown-up little girl portrayed in the famous children’s classic “Owl Moon,” we found sixty-seven owls in the same seven-hour time period, all in the town of Hatfield in the Connecticut River Valley. I begged Heidi, the “Owl Moon Girl,” to go out with me again after sunset, to find thirty-three more owls, but she wanted to go to the count compilation (to brag about our owl numbers) and so that chance for a hundred owls in a day was lost.
“The common owls in question in the lower elevation woods of eastern Massachusetts and the Connecticut River Valley are the Great Horned Owl, the Barred Owl, and the Eastern Screech-Owl. Great Horned Owls love the edges of pine and oak woods and adjacent fields. Barred Owls are primarily birds of the woods themselves, preferring woodlands, especially moist woodlands, with large deciduous trees. And Eastern Screech-Owls are birds of younger deciduous woodlands, of wood lots, of backyards (and even front yards), of cemeteries, and of power line clearings.
“Along with the much commoner species are migratory and wintering owls that occur in varying numbers from year to year. These include the diminutive and excessively cute Northern Saw-whet Owl, Short-eared and Long-eared Owls, and the Snowy Owl. All of these I have found on Christmas Bird Counts and organized owl walks and while out birdwatching on my own. On a late fall to early spring multiple-hour, nighttime owl prowl, I often find a Northern Saw-whet Owl but seldom any of the others. The Common Barn Owl is more or less restricted to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket these days.
“So…how to plan for that owl “century run.” I would say get to an historically excellent owl locale, such as agricultural fields and surrounding woodlands in the Connecticut River Valley or the mosaic of fields and woods that comprise much of South Dartmouth and Westport; get there on a long winter’s day (near solstice time); get there when the weather is calm and the roads and roadsides are snow-free. Plan to drive some and to walk a lot. Listen for Great Horned Owls, call for Barred Owls in big woods, and call and call and call for Eastern Screech-Owls wherever you go. I would expect to find about 70% Eastern-Screech Owls and 30% other species if I were to cover a mixed bag of habitats.
“It will be dark for fifteen hours in early winter – seven pre-sunrise and eight post-sunset. These are the hours when almost all of the owls will be found. The hours from 7:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. can be spent resting or sleeping and/or looking for owls active during the day (Snowy Owls mainly), checking on staked-out roosting owls (Long-eared Owl, Northern Saw-whet Owl, and others), and calling in woodlands for Barred Owls, which will eagerly respond to calls 24/7.
“It is a good idea to contact the police departments in any towns you plan to stop in just to give them a heads-up and your car description and plate number.
“So….who to take along on the great owl foray. Everyone thinks it is a fantastic idea when it comes up in conversation but finding anyone who will actually commit to the twenty-four hour effort is something that is not at all easy to do. Best of luck with that
“And, of course, best of luck on your owl century run. It can be done. I’m sure of that.”