Tale of Two Owls

A reporter called today.  He was with a radio station down in Indy and when it came to wintering animals, our division of communication staff thought us in the dunes would be the best to talk to in regards to toughing out the cold!  I had plenty of stories of heat pad stuffed thermal underwear and shivering behind open car doors while birding the lakefront, but alas he wasn’t interested in that.  He had been posed the question of how the winter weather was affecting the sudden disappearance or appearance of different animals in Indiana.  The question seemed worthy enough of a little news minute and radio interview.  So off we went…

Jailbird Snowy Owls hanging out in LaPorte Co.
Jailbird Snowy Owls hanging out in LaPorte Co.

The Snowy Owls were obviously a central topic for the bit being recorded.  Questions arised as to whether their sudden invasion was weather based and what possible other animals were here because of the recent cold snap, or more news friendly term, polar vortex.  It was a good chance to talk about irruptions and migration in general.  These millions of birds flee the incoming cold for warmer climates.  Or so we think…!  Truth be told, most of these birds that migrate or irrupt occasionally are doing so more based on food supplies than actual temperature. As we’ve mentioned in previous posts, the current Snowy Owl invasion (now approaching 100 recorded birds for Indiana!) is derived from a good breeding summer and subsequent search for food by younger owls.  These birds are no better predictors of incoming cold weather than, say, Punxsutawney Phil.  Seasonal fluctuations cause the different reports we get each year.  Since not all birds breed in the same areas or feed on the same food sources, it’s safe to say that one species irrupting, doesn’t necessarily translate to a similar bird irrupting.

Chesterton Saw-whet Owl, January 2014.
Chesterton Saw-whet Owl, January 2014.

That truth is easy to see with our recent fall Saw-whet Owl banding season.  The fall of 2013 was our lowest banding totals ever.  Here, in this instance, there was poor breeding in the Canadian northwoods and few Saw-whet Owls migrated south.  Since mid-December there have been no Saw-whet Owls reported in the entire state (versus 100 Snowy Owls!).  No one has seen a Saw-whet Owl in the dunes since our banding season ended either.  Until today!

Saw-whet Owl winter comparisons (2013 on left, 2014 thus far on right).
Saw-whet Owl winter comparisons (2013 on left, 2014 thus far on right).  Courtesy eBird.com.

As we often tell folks during the banding season, those with a keen eye may find a wintering saw-whet owl after the season is done.  Watch those dense pines, cedars, and spruce trees.  Whitewash or pellet accumulations may give hint to a roosting bird too.  The photos above and below were taken of a N Saw-whet Owl found in a spruce tree in a resident’s front yard today.  Unfortunately the entire area is private property and access is not public.  But, fortunately, for the bird, it should be allowed to continue too hunt and hunker all winter long at this site without too much disturbance.

Saw-whet Owl in Chesterton, IN, January 2014.
Saw-whet Owl in Chesterton, IN, January 2014.

Going back to our reporter.  What else is here that we don’t normally see.  The bad news I gave him was that there really isn’t much to report that could be attributed to the polar vortex.  It’s all food related I told him.  Perhaps the story could look at what may we be losing.  With southern species, like Tufted Titmice, Carolina Wrens, or Eastern Bluebirds enjoying several years of mild winters, there is a chance that the cold weather knocks them back.  Time will tell and we’ll see who’s singing their spring song in a few weeks.


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