by: Libby Buck, Ecological Stewardship & Research Technician
Have you ever wondered how many species of owls you can see on Nantucket? Right now (March-April) is the magical time of year where you could be lucky enough to encounter up to 5 different species right here on our delightful island. Our owls include common species like the Barn, Northern Saw-whet, and the Snowy Owl. We also have the endangered Short-eared Owl and the species of special concern Long-eared Owl. Many people do not realize that more common species of owls, like the Great Horned and Screech, are not found on our island, but are present on Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod. Both species typically do not like traveling over bodies of water, but there have been a few rare occurrences of Screech Owls recorded on Nantucket, however, none of the Great Horned have been seen.
The easiest owl to spot out of the five would be the Snowy Owl. Snowy owls breed up in the Arctic tundra and have been sighted, on their winter holidays, enjoying our Nantucket beaches, quite frequently. The tundra is a wide-open, treeless terrain, similar to how a beach looks in the winter. They like to stay close to the ground to hunt, so having a wide-open terrain allows them to see from all directions. The main diet for a Snowy Owl consists of small rodents such as lemmings or voles and birds sitting on the water offshore. They are usually seen resting on a dune or perched on a low structure. Also, they are one of the few owl species that are active during the day versus other species being nocturnal or crepuscular. The best locations to find these beautiful birds are at Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge, Great Point, Smith’s Point, & Eel Point.
Barn Owls and the endangered Short-eared Owls can potentially be seen at the same time in a grassland area. (Yes, it has happened!) Both species enjoy hunting for rodents over our rare sandplain grassland habitat like the Smooth Hummocks area or Head of Plains at dusk. Unfortunately, Short-eared Owls do not nest on Nantucket anymore but they have been showing up during the winter for migration. The Barn Owl population seems to be thriving on the island and the Maria Mitchell Association has been studying the population for years. To learn more please visit: https://www.mariamitchell.org/barn-owl-research
Northern Saw-whets and Long-eared Owls prefer areas like the Middle Moors. They prefer the dense forest/shrub habitat. Northern Saw-whets are very small and have a distinct call, “toot-toot-toot” and high-pitch whining sound. During the day they prefer to roost in conifers such as Pitch Pine and Red Cedars. Long-eared Owls are one of the most secretive and mysterious owls to find, and exclusively hunt at night. From March-April you may hear a long hoot from the males who are advertising for courtship. They are known to roost communally with numbers up to 20, which is dependent on their food supply. If the meadow vole population is robust, the chances of spotting an owl are very good. Listen for the chickadees and songbirds making a commotion in dense conifers during the day and take a peek, perhaps you will spot an owl in your binocs.
As much fun as it is to go owling please be considerate of all the species and keep your distance. Don’t approach an owl, especially if your behavior is causing them to flush (fly away) that’s them alerting you that you’re too close. They need to spend their time listening and searching for food, which is really hard when they become distracted by human trying to get the optimal photo. It is very critical for their winter survival and they need to be able to hunt and build up their fat reserves. Also, many have to migrate north to breed and depend on their fat reserves to help them survive their journey. Most of these birds are nocturnal and are very sensitive to light. You can blind or instantly disorient these birds if they are spotlighted or caught with a flash from a camera. Enjoy your sightings, but again, please be considerate.
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