First owl of 2009 - LEO!

Last year I went on a county bird trip to Bucks County. At one of the stops we found a MASSIVE amount of pellets that we could only surmise came from a roosting LEO colony. I made a mental note to go back in winter to see if I could track them down. The amazing part of the find was that many of the owl pellets were RIGHT next to a foot path. I was pretty close to drooling thinking about all these LEOs just hanging out waiting for an African to snap their picture.

This morning I grabbed my passport, saddled up my donkeys and headed over the NJ border into Bucks County, PA. According to my GPS, the trip would only take 45 minutes or so, which gave me enough time to scout the area and then head back to work. I was pleasantly surprised when I stepped out of the car at around 7 am to no rain and a thermometer around 35F – super birding conditions for winter. I took a walk around to see what I could see before heading over to the LEO site. The previous trip was very quick, so I took a stroll over the bridge to the other side of the lake. I found a nice field that looked ideal for Short eared owl (SEO) and I hoped that when it got a little lighter that I’d see some action between SEO’s and the Harriers. I also noticed some evergreens at the edge of the grassland that I figured would be ideal for owls.
I poked around in the evergreens for about 20 minutes and although I found evidence of owls, I didn’t find the owners. I walked back up to the field and saw a female harrier although no SEOs made an appearance. I wonder if SEOs are more active in the late afternoon rather than the morning. I’ve had mixed success with both, so I’m not sure what to think.

Striking out on the SEO front I headed over the bridge back to the LEO spot. I was nervously excited to see whether I could find the LEOs, especially if there were a large number as indicated by the pellets from last year. I walked into the evergreens slowly and quietly expecting owls all around me. I was scanning the tree branches as well as looking for pellets and whitening below the trees. I found several trees with older evidence and a couple with what looked like recent whitening but I couldn’t find an owl. The evergreen tree line was much bigger than I remembered and I had to do some serious trekking. I was starting to think that the LEOs were missing in action when I found another tree with both whitening and fresh pellets.

The pine tree groove I was in had some pretty mature pines and they were probably all of 30-35 feet. I craned my neck (if you’ve done Warbler watching you know the drill) and tried to see if I could make out any foreign shapes. Right near the VERY top of the tree I saw something that looked out of the place. Most of the lower branches were dead and the dark mass was right in between some green pine cover. I started circling around all the while keeping an eye on the prize. Round and round I went until finally I got a decent view of the top – BINGO I’d found my first LEO for 2009. I had a hard time seeing him, but he had no problem keeping an eye on me....

I spent a good amount of time looking at the owl with my binocs. Often times we find and owl and we take our pics and move on. Recently I’ve come to appreciate my moments with the owls even more because it’s so tough to find them. If I ever find a Saw Whet again I’m spending the night. By the way, I did spend some time looking for Saw whets – more on this later.

Some questions based on my recent owl trips:

Are SEOs generally more active at dusk or sun rise?
Do SEOs generally like grassland that has some brush in it or just 'pure' grassland?

Saw Whet
Do Saw Whet have irruptive season where more of them move to their Southern range limits?
What trees have you found Saw whet in?
If Cedar was it a single cedar, small clump or a large stand?

Do LEO have irruptive season where more of them move to their Southern range limits?
Is there a peak (in terms of their numbers) for LEOs communal roosting in NJ/PA?
If there is a numerical peak, when is it?

Not sure if anyone has answers, but I figured I'd throw it out there......


Christopher said...

Hmm... Don't have much in the way of answers to your questions. I do know that the Saw-whet Owl banding sites around here start up in Septmeber and finish up around mid-November, so I would suppose that is the best time to catch them in migration. LEOWs certainly seem to be more of a winter find here in New England.
I can say that I am very jealous of your Owl-finding Skilz - it's been a few years since I've seen a Long-eared Owl but am always on the lookout!

RuthieJ said...

Amazing photos of the LEO! I would love to see one like that some day (or any owl in the daytime, for that matter!)

Owlman said...

Hi Christopher,

No skilz here, just stubborn persistence! I seem to be getting at finding pellets, but not owls. On the last trip I found a lot of pellets but just one owl. Does that mean I'm just not finding the owls in the trees? Hmm, yet another question without an answer... Maybe I need to change the blog name to birdquestionswithoutanswers.blogspot.com VERY long name - will need to work on that one. Thanks for the feedback on the banding, I'd love to be a part of that experience - WOW!

RuthieJ - aren't you in the heartland of winter owls? I realize MN is massive but this year seems to be awesome for owls. I'm sure you've checked out the owl maps at colderbythelakebirding, especially the latest reports of Great Gray - http://colderbythelakebirding.blogspot.com/2008/12/dec-29-great-gray-owl-map.html I definitely think it would be a worth a day or weekend trip to see what you can find. You have the potential to see Snowy, Hawk Owl & Great Gray all in one day. BTW, these would ALL be lifers for me, so don't tell me if you do see any of them as I might die of envy!

Thanks for stopping in and commenting Christopher and Ruthie

Anonymous said...

Very cool, Owlman. I would have loved to have seen that owl. He sure was watching you
-D, in Ramsey

Owlman said...

D, finding an owl that was so well hidden was a real treat. He was keeping a good eye on me, but wasn't too concerned for the most part. Seeing an owl in nature like this is such an amazing gift and I'm glad to share it with others. You have to cherish it when you see an owl because you never know when you'll next see one. I've been looking for the Screech owl that was roosting in my Birch tree and I haven't seen hide nor hair of it - amazing!

Anonymous said...

I have to send this to you although you may already be following it. There are some VERY COOL owl photos/sightings and there will be future public walks. (Schedule to be posted.)
-D, in Ramsey, NJ

flowergirl said...

Sorry to be so duh....but is LEO, Leser Eagle Owl. Have just returned from Bharatpur sanctuary in Rajasthan, India, and had lovelysightings of the Dusky Eagle Owl - so would that be DEO?!

Owlman said...

Hey D, Thanks for the site - I'm keeping up with sightings and activities.

Flowergirls, sorry about that. I normally type out the name and then use the contraction. LEOs are actually Long Eared Owls. In this area we also have Short Eared Owls (SEO) in the winter.

Dusky Eagle Owl - wow. I just looked them up on the net and they sure are beautiful. Part of India has very similar scenery to that of South Africa. I'd definitely love to go out to India one day. What else did you see? Were you lucky enough to find tigers? Do you have any pictures posted anywhere on the web?

Not sure that there are generally accepted contractions for bird names. I seems like people make up their own contractions for birds with longer names. DEO does sound like a cool contraction for an owl though.

Thanks for popping in and commenting.

Bargeview said...

Way to stick with it! This is very good resource for those who wonder why they never see owls. Thanks for sharing.

Larry Jordan said...

Hey Owlman, what an awesome find! I would love to find a Long-eared Owl, it would be a lifer for me. I know I will find one soon, and when I do, I hope to get as good a capture as you did. Those guys are not easy to get an open shot on are they?

I do the same thing you do, when I discover a find like this, I watch with my bins until my arms are too tired. Watching and drinking in all the subtleties of the bird's behavior and etching them into my brain.

Thanks for sharing this exciting find!