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11.11.14

Island of the Owls

An expert's guide to the Vineyard's most elusive winged creatures

Last winter was a season of owl madness on the Vineyard. The calls came in from all over the Island, seemingly every day and sometimes multiple times a day. Majestic snowy owls were reported on the ground, in the air, and in the news. Though not new to the Island, these rare visitors had never been seen here in such large numbers. Then, around March, snowy owl sightings on the Vineyard began to decline as the magnificent birds made their way back to
the Arctic.

Such an exquisite “irruption” of snowies may never happen again, but that doesn’t mean the Island’s owl population has entirely flown the coop. Far from it. Owls of various sorts are everywhere on the Vineyard, nesting and breeding, resting and hunting. With that in mind we asked author Suzan Bellincampi, director of Mass Audubon’s Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, to write a guide to the feathered monarchs of the Island night. -MVM

Just before dawn, from the comfort of your cozy bed, you hear a loud repeating whinny. Thinking that it is a horse, or just a dream, you groggily drift back to sleep.

After a late-night movie marathon at your Lambert’s Cove home, you turn off the television and lights. As you pass the open window, you become aware of a series of loud deep hoots off in the distant woods.

Having gotten off the last boat and driven down a long dirt road, your headlights catch a pair of eyes slowly blinking in the crook of a tree.

On a winter walk one morning on State Beach in Oak Bluffs, you do a double take when you see a white shape in the distant dunes.

All of these are likely encounters with Strigiformes, the early birds and night prowlers of the scientific order of owls. The whinny was uttered by a screech owl, the repetitive hoots came from a great horned owl, and those luminescent eyes could have been from any of the other owls that call the Island home. And just maybe, that white figure on the beach was a snowy owl.

On Martha’s Vineyard, owls are found almost everywhere. They are not always seen, however, preferring to maintain a majestic presence and a promise of mystery and magic in their hidden-away homes. For every twenty owls you hear, you may only see one, which makes assessing the overall number of owls on the Island at any one time difficult. It’s not just that individual birds can be hard to spot; seasonal and periodic variations including severe or unusual weather, changes in habitat, development, and disturbances all add up to a very changeable population.

We do know we are fortunate the Vineyard has a large amount of conservation land (forty percent of the Island is protected open space) and has seen more restrained development than much of Massachusetts. These facts bode well for the owl population, though there is concern that the use of rodenticides might increase mortality in all birds of prey.

In the absence of large predators, owls fly at the top of the Island food chain. At night, they are kings of the forest, with a host of adaptations and skills fine-tuned for their survival in the dim and difficult world after the sun goes down. It starts with their eyes, which provide them with the best stereoscopic vision of any bird. Their tubular shape and large corneas allow more light in, and big retinas packed full of light-sensing rods assist in low light conditions. Behind the retina is the crowning glory, a reflective layer called the tapetum lucidum that reflects light that missed the rods the first time back onto the rods to be captured again. Owl eyes do not rotate in their sockets, but with more vertebra in their necks than humans, owls can turn their heads 270 degrees horizontally and 90 vertically, and even look behind them.

What they can’t see at night they can often hear. Facial feather tufts act like a “radar dish” on the owl’s head, directing sound to their ear openings. Some owls, including the barn and the saw whet owls, have asymmetrical or irregularly spaced ears. An owl with asymmetrical ears will hear sound in the ear closest to its source before the other ear will perceive it. A time differential of a thirty-millionth of a second can be detected, allowing the owl to triangulate the location of its prey. With specialized feathers for silent flight and toes that can swivel to grasp prey or a branch, an owl’s dinner – insects, amphibians, other birds, small mammals – doesn’t have a chance.

Most of the owls that you might see or hear on Island, except the snowy owl, can breed here. Depending on species, they will begin mating during the late winter into early spring. Monogamy is typical, with pairings lasting a season for some species and a lifetime for others. Nest sites vary and can include natural cavities in trees, or human-made sites such as owl boxes, barns, or other structures. Eggs are laid at one to two day intervals and generally the female does the incubation and brooding of the chicks while the male hunts.

If you want to locate owls, your best bet is to search where they hunt and breed in the fall or winter breeding season. Fortunately, they leave telltale signs. Owls swallow much of their food whole, and in order to expel indigestible bits of their food, such as bones, fur, and feathers, they regurgitate one to two pellets per day. These can sometimes be found on the ground below nesting or roosting sites. Differences in size help with identification: great horned owls can cough up a pellet that is five inches long, while the much smaller saw whet owl’s pellet is just about an inch.

You can also follow sightings via weekly bird columns or through online sources such as Martha’s Vineyard Bird Alert on Facebook, massbird.org, or ebird.org. There are also organized bird tours and programs offered by Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, the Chilmark Community Center, and birder Robert Culbert. Or you can participate in an organized count or event such as the Christmas Bird Count, Mass Audubon’s Bird-a-Thon, the Great Backyard Bird Count, Project FeederWatch, or others. If you do find an owl, as with other wildlife, show care and concern for their well-being. Avoid stressing them and exercise restraint during observation, photographing, sound playing, recording, or filming.

The best advice is simply to get outside and look. Experiencing the Island’s nature at night is an adventure not to be forgotten. Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone and explore. And remember the proverb “one is not brought up in the woods to be scared by owls.” 

Who's Hoo of Martha's Vineyard

Great horned owl (Bubo virginianus)

Lanny McDowell

Great horned owls have been historically described as “spirited and destructive” and “morose, savage, and saturnine” by Massachusetts ornithologists. They are also called cat owls or hoot owls, and though historically not present they have recently gotten a talon-hold on the Vineyard. In the past few years, only a small number of nesting locations have been found on Island. The north shore is known to have a pair, and the state forest remains a possible location to find them. Listen for their deep muffled hoot or five to six resonant “hoos.”

Barn owl  (Tyto alba)

These large and easily identifiable birds were first recorded nesting on Martha’s Vineyard in 1928, and live here year-round. While they were formerly present in mainland Massachusetts, they can now only consistently be seen on the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. Though less common than screech owls, they are easy to see if you know where to look. In fact, you can observe them from the comfort of your desk chair. At Felix Neck, a pair of barn owls nests in a dormer attached to the Nature Center. An “Owl Cam” allows you to watch their antics in real time (search for “felix neck owl”). And with permission, arrangements can be made to visit the sanctuary at night to see them emerge from their nest box.

Barn owls are more populous to our south, with the Islands being at the northern edge of their range. Harsh winters with significant and lasting snowfall create difficult hunting conditions for weather-sensitive barn owls, causing declines in populations and higher rates
of mortality. Best bets for barn owl encounters are at Felix Neck, Long Point Wildlife Refuge, and sometimes Polly Hill Arboretum, all of which have barn owl boxes. Be aware of their calls, a “long hissing shriek or a shrill rasping hiss,” which have been compared to a human screaming in the woods.

Short-eared owl (Asio flammeus)

Lanny McDowell

The short-eared owl is a rare winter visitor. Lifelong Island birder Whit Manter notes that these owls were much more common when he was a kid. Mass Audubon’s Breeding Bird Atlas 2 laments “the disappearance of the short-eared owl had nearly reached a climax in Massachusetts, with just two nesting confirmations recorded in Massachusetts in five years…Habitat loss drove the species to the absolute brink of extirpation in Massachusetts.” However optimistic, it is good to note that they are generally seen on Island annually at the Christmas Bird Count. Consider fields, plains, and barrier beaches, including Norton Point and Katama, on your list of locales to scout the short-eared owl. Currently, there are no known breeding pairs on the Vineyard.

Snowy owl  (Bubo scandiacus)

Lisa Vanderhoop

Snowy owls are irregular winter visitors whose presence on Martha’s Vineyard comes periodically during irruptions. In the bird world, an irruption is defined as a periodic and dramatic irregular appearance of a bird species that usually isn’t present in an area. Snowy owls were previously seen during the Christmas Bird Counts of 1986–1988, 1993, and 2001. 

Last winter was the biggest irruption of this species ever seen. Hundreds of snowy owls were reported in the lower forty-eight states, all the way to Florida, and even one in Bermuda. Population fluctuations of snowy owls in the north determine whether these irruptions occur. Robust lemming populations, and thus an abundance of prey, cause increases in snowy owl breeding and bigger clutches of eggs. As a result, double or triple the usual number of young owlets can survive to become hunters themselves. These young travel farther for food, bringing the birds south and to our Island.

We don’t know what this winter will bring, but as the only diurnal (active during daylight) owl that might be here, you can look for these white ghosts beginning in November along barrier beaches, at airports, and in open fields such as Katama, State Beach, and Quansoo. They are often silent, but can occasionally offer up a deep muffled hoot or repeated “krow-oo.”

Eastern screech owl (Megascops asio)

Lanny McDowell

The eastern screech owl is a common, permanent resident and is the most often heard and seen Island owl. Listen for its descending whinny, more likely heard in winter and in the early morning hours just before daylight. Lucky folks will also be able to see screech owls in our woodlands as they nest here in older deciduous woodlands, pitch pine woodlands, and yards with mature trees.

Two color morphs – red and gray – are possible, although the red phase is more common. As cavity nesters, screech owls do well in owl boxes. The state forest, the parking lot at Waskosim’s Rock Reservation, and Menemsha Hills Reservation are good places to find screech owls. According to Mass Audubon’s Breeding Bird Atlas, the statewide population of screech owls is holding steady.

Northern saw whet owl (Aegolius acadicus)

Lanny McDowell

The northern saw whet is a rather elusive owl, more likely seen or heard in the winter and considered a rare local breeder. That said, they are known to breed irregularly in the state forest, as open fields and pine woodlands are their preferred habitat. Still nights with little wind are best to listen for them. A low whistled toot is their calling card.

Long-eared owl (Asio otus)

These once bred intermittently on the Island, but now there is no reliable place to find them. On April 2, 2014, however a long-eared owl turned up at the Martha’s Vineyard Rod and Gun Club in Edgartown. A soft nasal bark or one or two lengthy “hoos” describe this bird’s call.

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