Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Long-eared Owls

Quiet and mysterious, perfectly camouflaged and absolutely beautiful, owls are my favorite group of birds.  There's something so powerful and engaging in the way they look at you, like they know exactly what you're up to.  Owls meet your gaze like other birds do not, making any encounter with an owl a special one.  On a recent trip to Carrizo Plain National Monument, Eric and I had a memorable encounter with a pair of beautiful Long-eared Owls (Asio otus).

Long-eared Owls spend their days roosting in dense stands of trees, preferring locations at the edge of grasslands, which is exactly the kind of place where we found this pair of owls.  They often perch close to the trunks of trees, where their cryptic coloring allows them to blend into the bark, melting into the dappled shade of dense foliage. 

Long-eared Owls are residents throughout much of California, though they seem to be rare in the Great Central Valley and the northwestern coastal forests.  They can be nomadic and secretive, making their movements difficult to track.  It seems that some individuals migrate, while others don't.  During the winter (non-breeding season), they are known to roost communally and groups of up to 100 birds have been observed.  Long-eared Owls rely on dense stands of trees for cover, bordered by open areas for hunting.  In the west, this habitat combination can be difficult to come by.

Long-eared Owls are nocturnal hunters, very rarely flying out to hunt before true darkness has set in.  Favored prey includes small mammals such as voles, mice, gophers and young rabbits.  Like other owl species, the flight feathers of Long-eared Owls have fringed edges and downy surfaces to dampen sound, allowing them to fly and hunt in silence. 

The call of the Long-eared Owl is a series of mellow "whoo" notes, repeated every 2 to 4 seconds.  The sound is similar to the sound made by blowing across the top of a bottle.  Eric and I heard a Long-eared Owl calling from our campground at Carrizo Plain, starting at 9:00 pm and continuing throughout the night.  (Each time I woke up during the night, I made sure to listen for the owl!)  This owl's call can be heard from over half a mile away. 

The second owl of the pair we encountered was sitting on a nest; just it's ear tufts were visible above the rim of sticks.  Like most other owl species, Long-eared Owls don't build their own nests, but appropriate nests built by other birds, such as hawks and corvids (crows, ravens, magpies).  Long-eared Owls are believed to be monogamous.

It's important to note that when birding or watching any wildlife, the goal is always to disturb the animals as little as possible.  Remember, you can probably walk a few feet to grab a snack from the fridge; wild animals work hard for their food, and flying or running expends valuable energy that they could otherwise conserve to use for feeding their young and evading real predators.  (That being said, keep wildlife wild and never feed a wild animal!)  Make a point to keep your distance so as not to force the animal you're watching to fly or run more than necessary.  This owl happened to fly into just the right spot at just the right time for these photographs (taken with a powerful zoom), making for a beautiful birding experience.


  1. So interesting and what great photos! Yes, its plumage really does look like mottled tree bark, and thar intense golden stare. . . Wow! Thanks for a great article, Siera and Eric!