Owls start making their presence known

Northwoods Notebook

Now that the firearm deer hunt has ended, the woods may be quiet enough to hear the owls.

This is the time when great horned owls begin sorting out territories and firming up ties with their mates or looking for a new partner, if needed, with an eye on starting a family in the opening months of the new year.

Great horned owls are among the earliest breeding birds in this region and can be sitting on the nest in February, even January in southern Michigan and Wisconsin, said Ryan Brady, the conservation biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources in Ashland, Wis.

It takes a long time to raise an owlet from near-naked and downy to able to kill for itself; the birds courting now probably just saw any offspring from this year strike out on their own, Brady explained. So it’s best for the species to get the process started, even with snow still deep.

Great horned owls also don’t build their own nest but take over an existing site, perhaps one set up by a hawk, crow or squirrel — none of which, if still around, would be capable of opposing the powerful, lethal bird. They are known to dine on a wide variety of creatures, including taking out peregrine falcons and even other owls when they see an opportunity.

Journey, Phyllis Carlson’s male great horned owl, in warmer weather and a quieter state of mind. (Jessica Lamirand photo)

A strictly carnivorous diet and not being choosy about what’s on the menu means the great horned owl doesn’t have to wait for greenery, insects, seeds or other food sources to support a family, so can begin nesting well before spring.

But in December, the owl’s vocal focus is on attracting a mate if needed, strengthening the existing pair bond if not or announcing to who-who-whoever might be listening that this part of the neighborhood is taken.

Wildlife rehabilitator Phyllis Carlson said the calls of her resident male great horned owl, Journey, already have drawn visitors to her Quinnesec home, ready for a duet or to declare its superiority.

It was enough to set off the dog overnight Friday, Carlson said. “He woke up,” she said, “and started barking, they were so loud.”

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Great horned owls aren’t the only ones making their presence known in the region: a post from Sault Ste. Marie on the Upper Peninsula Birding Facebook site boasted seeing seven snowy owls on a single trip.

The snowies have turned up more sporadically in northern Wisconsin, especially along Lake Michigan, Brady said. He termed it an “echo flight,” with snowy owls not as common as last winter, though few years could rival the numbers seen a season ago.

The winter finches, too, “are not playing ball, not living up to the hype” given predictions of an “irruption” of such species as evening grosbeaks and redpolls from the north. To be fair, those winter finch forecasts primarily are for Ontario, Canada, and states just to the south, but it still raised hopes of a colorful group at the feeders.

“But it’s still early,” Brady noted. “We’ve got some time for things to develop.”

Betsy Bloom can be reached at 906-774-2772, ext. 40, or bbloom@ironmountaindailynews.com.

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