More Back Yard Fun

Please consider all images to be copyrighted and ask permission for any use. Thank you. David E Clapp.

We have had an owl nesting box nailed to a Pitch Pine at the edge of the side yard for years. It is quite similar to the more common Wood Duck nesting box. As a matter of fact there is really little difference and I suppose if a Wood Duck ever started to nest in this box we would be thrilled and there would likely be no trespass or squatter rights contested. So, we have this big old nest box (probably the same one that KR gave me twenty plus years ago) hung where owls, squirrels, and Great-crested Flycatchers all have a shot it it. The small Sreech-Owls usually gain control each spring.

Over the past decade we have been the landlords to a pair of Eastern Screech-Owls on about 4 out of every 5 years. Screech owls are a smallish predator of the night and very common in eastern half of the US. It seems a bit odd to me but they rarely are found north of the Canadian border or in the western states. There are other small and smallish owls in these places but this very successful type has never swept north or west. Before you stop and marvel at that tidbit let me be clear – there is also a Western Screech-Owl and a Whiskered Screech-Owl. These are both western species and are very similar in appearance to the eastern but the voice/song is quite different amongst the three types. The Whiskered barely reached the USA in southern Arizona and is primarily a bird of the Mexican highlands. The Western Screech-Owl ranges from Alaska well into Mexico and is found in all of the western mountain ranges.

In bird nomenclature there are often usages that are a bit baffling. In the case of the screech owls it is seen that they are called “XXXX Screech-Owls”. They have their first name and then they then have both Screech and Owl capitalized and separated by a hyphen or dash. The mid-sized heron group that we call Night-Herons have the same naming structure.

Anyway, back to our nest box and owls. The Eastern Screech-Owl is a bit of a genetic oddball in that there are gray morphs and reddish morphs but no blended form or mixed color form or any forms that show a blending of gray and red. Two gray adults can have reddish young or gray young or one of each. They are “eared” in that feather tufts can be seen on all birds starting just before they fledge and then on throughout their lifetime. They are rather intricately patterned with the ventral side marked with vertical lines and almost fernlike delicate horizontal lines which allow them to stand on a branch next to a tree trunk and blend in with the bark. Let’s take a look at some of the recent birds of prey seen in and over the yard and then then look at our most recent owl family.

When the herring return from the ocean and enter the fresh-water streams along the east coast we see a large influx of Double-crested Cormorants and the fish-eating Osprey. For about a month there can be hundreds of cormorants and a dozen osprey looking for a fresh fish meal. Osprey were in dramatic decline until we stopped using DDT and in the past thirty plus years they have rebounded quite nicely.
The Broad-winged Hawk is smaller than the common and wide-spread Red-tailed Hawk. The Broad-wing is much less conspicuous as well. They almost never sit out along a roadway usually staying in the shelter and shade of a woodland. Our birds all migrate south and into Mexico and then many continue on southward to southern Brazil. In mid-April huge waves of them will return across the Texas/Mexico border back into the US. I can remember thousands at a time suspended in the sky outlining the winds and looking like the the Northern Lights painted with birds. It was a great sight.
The Broad-wings and the Red-tails are Buteo hawks; bulky and broad winged. The falcons (Peregrine, Merlin, and Kestrel) are sleeker and faster. They were always classified with the hawks and accipiters but recent genetic research shows that two groups (falcons and parrots) are much more closely aligned with the song birds. The accipiters (Sharp-shinned, Cooper’s, and Goshawk) chase birds through the woods and the falcons chase birds over open spaces. They will migrate with shorebirds and often live on tundra or grasslands and feed primarily on birds. This little dark falcon is a Merlin; a bird we see mostly during migration but is a rare breeder in Massachusetts as shown by the most recent Mass Audubon Breeding Bird Atlas..
The Red-tailed Hawk is common and obvious. It is America’s most common roadside hawk, or at least the most easily seen roadside hawk. There are Red-tails from coast to coast and north to south throughout North America. There are several color forms (morphs) as you move across the continent. They can be very dark in some places and lighter in others. The Harlan’s and Krider’s are the two most distinct populations. But in the west they range from almost all dark dark brown to quite light. The tail seems short as a flying bird passes overhead and the wings are quite rounded.
From underneath the light birds here in the east show a distinct belly-band The lack of any red in the tail of this bird mark it as a young bird. The banded tail is characteristic of young birds and the red tail isn’t fully red until the bird is three years old or so; and even then the underside isn’t as red as the top surface.
But here are the Screech-Owls. This is a gray adult looking out from the nest box.Both sexes and all birds (after fledging) have ear tufts – with are not really ears at all.
The female for the last several years has been a red owl. In most cases the adults are unseen until well after the young hatch and grow. The adults poke their heads out beginning on sunny days (mostly afternoons) around the third week of May. We look forward to this and are both a bit surprised and pleased when we finally get confirmation that they are using the box again.
We almost never see the young of the year until they are less than a week from fledging. When first seen they look a bit fuzzy and the ear tufts have not yet popped up. This image was taken with a very high ISO and pretty much in the dark. Fortunately the youngsters don’t/can’t move very much.
In better light they can look to be a lighter gray. The young birds will extend their heads out of the box and look around for more than an hour. It is hard to tell what they are doing or thinking. They must get some sense of their new world but they also must be looking for an adult returning to the nest box with food. When there are two youngsters in the box the oldest is also the largest and dominates the scene. The eggs will hatch a few days apart and that can make a big difference. It is not common for both young to stick their heads out at the same time so we really can’t be sure of how many young there are until quite late in the process. Some years there can be only one survivor in years where the prey is scarce and the first born dominates the entry hole.
When they first appear at the hole the youngsters are a bit shy and wary. Our window is about 35 feet from the box so they must get used to our movements. On one occasion the adults returned about every minute with a food item. We figured that must be from a beetle cluster around a night light – what else could it be? On one other occasion the adults returned with a small snake which was slurped down in a flash by the older of the two young.

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