Sharing a Christmas Owl

Yesterday I took an impromptu trip to do some more owling. I have been very lucky the past couple of years and I’ve managed to find a Long eared owl at Peace Valley in PA. In previous posts I have always left out the place where I find the owls so as to ‘protect’ them from harassment. I’ve been having a raging debate about this with myself since I started this blog because I’m not that sure that people watching owls will necessarily scare them off. In my experience owls are pretty tolerant of people, although extreme cases do occur.  A few years back a Northern Hawk Owl was spotted in the Northeast and crowd of people showed up and literally turned the place in a zoo. People were releasing mice that were running into neighborhood houses, they were trampling around in people’s yards etc etc. These are extreme cases and unfortunately many of us still use them as a yardstick when sharing owl locations with others. I personally think it’s silly, yet I still follow that convention for the most part - more on that later.

In the case of Peace Valley I mention the place primarily because it’s very large and the owls are not in an obvious location close to where most birders would look. They are also not easy to find even if you know where to look. So how did I find them you may ask – DUMB luck mixed in with persistence. I simply look for good locations and then I spend several hours walking around scanning the trees and the ground. Unless someone shares an owl location with you (which is very rare) this is the way that most people find owls. Yesterday I headed back to where I found the single owl last year and I struck out. That immediately puts a little bit of doubt in your mind. I tried to scan below the trees but it was hard to see any pellets or whitening as the ground was freshly snow covered. Fast forward a few hours and this is what I came upon.

BINGO – Owl time! I could clearly see the back of the owl, but when I moved around to the front of the tree I couldn’t see it. It always amazes me how consistently this happens. If I had come from the opposite side I wouldn’t have seen this owl. That’s why it’s important to scan all around each tree which makes owling a time consuming effort . After some serious maneuvering and looking STRAIGHT up I managed to locate the owl. It was a Long eared owl and he/she seemed not to have even noticed me. The eyes were shut, it was all puffed up and the ear tufts were down. This owl was clearly ignoring me and catching some zzzzs. I took a few photos and watched the owl through my binocs for some time.

Did I mention that seeing the owl required me to tilt my head back and look DIRECTLY up? Those of you that have done warbler watching know exactly what I’m talking about. At one point I was taking a photo which required manually focusing the camera to enable my lens to shoot through the branches and as I was doing this, I realized that I was looking at the back of another owl - Holy smokes. Ok, so in this case I may have got lucky approaching from two sides although the other two sides wouldn’t have given a view of either owl.  Hey, I always say it’s betta to be lucky than good.

Here are some snaps of owl number two. This one was definitely the scout of the couple and it was watching me intently as I moved around. I took a few snaps and then I decided to see what else I could see.

Ok so here’s where my predicament occurs. As I walking out of the evergreen grove I ran into another birder in his late 20's. I immediately thought of the owls and the fact that it was almost Christmas and I was VERY tempted to show him the owls. Instead I said hi and asked him what he was looking for and he mentioned that a rare Thrush (Varied thrush) had been seen in the area. Aha, that explains all the cars in the parking lot. The guy didn’t seem overly friendly and owling convention prevailed and I kept ’my’ owls a secret. I’d love to hear whether you think I did the right thing or whether I was being a smuck. In hindsight I think I should have shown him the owls, much like I would do if I found a perched Bald eagle. What’s the big deal? Surely he wouldn’t have posted the owls’ location on his Facebook page and if he did, how many people would brave the cold winds to see two owls at the top of the tree. What do you think???


eileeninmd said...

Congrats on your owl sightings. Two owls together is pretty cool. I can understand why you didn't want to tell the location. You worry about the owls being harassed. I might say where I have seen one but most likely it is months later that I will dislcose the location. By then the owl is gone anyway. Happy Holidays!

chilibean said...

Because I often hear but never see owls, I would be inclined to spill the beans from sheer excitement. I think you have to know who you're talking to. Being discreet doesn't make you a schm..., Owlman. Just wise!

Owlman said...

Hi Eileeninmd,
Yeah, my main concern is harassment, but it is also based on the birding values that are passed down to you once you join the club. I have started to challenge those in my own mind. I wonder if we are doing ourselves and others a disservice by not sharing these magnificent creatures with other birders. The uber secrecy that surrounds these birds also makes a MUCH bigger deal when one is found. If they were just normal birds would less people pay attention then i.e. would there be less of a circus/mob formation?

Thanks for weighing in Chilibean,
I agree with you, but in the case of this birder I don’t necessarily think it would have done any harm. Honestly my owl birding norms kicked in and I think I lost a good opportunity to share something special with another birder. At the very least I should have mentioned the owl to see what his response was…

Anonymous said...

Keep posting stuff like this i really like it

Owlman said...

Thanks Anon! At the moment my life is pretty hectic and I'm hanging on for the ride hoping that things will stabilize in a bit. Not much 'free' time for birding at the moment but hopefully I'll be able to get out towards the end of the month ;-) Thanks for popping in!

phish said...

Great pics owlman, never ceases to amaze me now they blend in!

I'm inclined to "spill the beans" to people i know or who have a genuine interest ... unless its a nest which i'll keep to myself thanks ;-)

Owlman said...

Phish, with the luxury of hindsight I would agree with you. I think I should have showed the owls to the birder. Next time I think I will.

Owls are amazing at camouflage. The one time I was actually looking for Long Eared Owls and I checked their usual roosting spot and struck out. I walked down a couple of yards and then came back and there they were. It turns out I walked right by them...... If you aren't looking for owls your chances of accidentally seeing them is almost zero. I often wonder how many owls I actually miss when I find a LEO roost. I'd bet that there were a couple of other owls around.

Thanks for popping in. I have yet to find an owl nest. GHOs are pretty scarce in this area and birders keep their nesting sites to themselves.

Natural Moments said...

I have never had the pleasure of seeing a long eared owl in person before, although I believe I have heard them.

The great horned owls and barred owls are very active around where we live in northwestern Washington State.

Owlman said...

Hey there Natural moments,

LEOs are hard to find. Once you find a roosting spot the owls tend to return year after year. I've heard the same is true for Saw whet. I have yet to find a Saw whet this year though...

Thanks for stopping in.

David B. said...


I was at this location today and saw two LE Owls. One sleeping, the other watching me closely. I then visited the bird blind and saw a Screech in the box. Some very friendly, very keen birders inquired if I had seen the Long Ears. I was going to answer when they advised they had seen four previously. So I felt comfortable sharing the general area where I saw the birds.

I think you did the right thing. By the way, as a general rule, I do not share ANY information with folks who are not cordial in the field. Good birding.


Owlman said...

Hi Dave,

Glad to hear you tracked them down. Was this the first time you've seen them here? I am hoping to make a trip out here soon.