Northland Nature: Owls active in late winter

Mar. 1—According to the calendar, late February is still in winter and for a few more weeks. (Meteorological winter ends when February ends.)

The weather can still be very much of winter at this time. Even if

February is considerably warmer than normal and with less snow,

there is something consistent each year as we head for March. The daylight gets longer and as we exit this month, we have reached 11 hours of daylight, heading toward the vernal equinox in March.

Despite the possible snow and cold, this extra amount of light causes some early spring things to happen.

I have noticed that the squirrel behavior in recent weeks is much more amorous than seen earlier in the month. Each morning, tracks tell of the activities of rabbits, hares and mice during the previous night. The wild canines are breeding and scent-marking signs tell of their territorial boundaries during this period. Perhaps the sleeping chipmunks, skunks and raccoons that woke during the days of this mild winter may be now staying awake.

Besides all these mammal activities of late winter that we might observe locally, birds show changes from their winter behavior as well.

Chickadees and nuthatches that wintered with us are now calling as they come to the feeders. When not sampling our suet sites, the woodpeckers — downy, hairy, red-bellied and pileated — will be back in the woods drumming loudly on resounding trees. If you are fortunate to host a cardinal, there may be loud clear songs in your yard, too.

Any open water that can be found along rivers and bays could be the location of very early flights and rests of geese, ducks (mallards and goldeneyes) and trumpeter swans. Every drive I have taken in the region lately, I watched the flights of bald eagles and rough-legged hawks. In recent weeks, I have also seen flocks of Bohemian waxwings, redpolls and snow buntings, signs of late-winter bird activity.

And there are the owls.

Often when we think of owls of February, we look for the ones from the far north that may be coming south to the Northland: snowy owls, hawk owls and great gray owls. Some years they are present while other times they are absent. Whether these northern owls are here, other owls that are permanent residents become very noticeable in late winter.

A longer amount of daylight also means shorter darkness at night in which these nocturnal birds are active. The changing season affects them as well.

I have noticed more movement and sounds from the great horned and barred owls during recent weeks. They have become easier to see and their calls are more likely on these nights. Both are a little less than 2 feet long.

Great horned owls, with tufts of feathers called "ears" or "horns," are a bit darker and slightly larger. With no ear tufts, barred owls have a rounded head. Lines of dark feathers can be seen underneath (why they are called "barred").

Both of these owls wintered with us and now are preparing for the coming nesting season. Calls are a series of hoots for the great horned, while the "who cooks for you" sound of the barred owl can be heard nearly every night now as they feed and prepare to breed.

In the midst of this, there may be the "beeping" calls from another owl: the tiny saw-whet owl.

Whether it is large or small, this is owl time as we move through these weeks of late winter.