My recent encounter with Long-eared owls in Mud Lake was the first time I’d seen one in 4 years
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Fighting my way through a thicket of Russian olive bushes is usually a very unpleasant experience for me. With all the thorns, sharp branches and cobwebs to work my way through, it is not my idea of fun. But I had seen a Long-eared owl fly into it twice in a week and I wanted to find it.
A pair of Long-eared owls had tried to nest in May near a pair of Great-horned owls and the larger owls had harassed them, eventually chasing them away. Knowing that the smaller owls liked very thick brush to nest in, I began checking all the likely places around Mud Lake that they may have moved to.
As I worked my way through the thicket one early June morning, looking for a white-washed bush that is an indicator of where the male spends his daylight hours, I heard the snapping of a beak on my left. Three large yellow eyes were staring at me from about 15 feet away. I had stumbled onto the nest hidden in very thick brush. The clicking of the female’s beak came from behind a single owlet warning me that I had entered into forbidden territory.
A meowing sound started coming from another bush across a small clearing coming from the male as he flattened himself against a trunk of the tree. Neither parent was happy to see me, so after a few pictures, I quickly left the same way that I had come in.
This was the first Long-eared owl nest that I have located in the past four years and it appeared that the nest contained only one baby, much lower than the three to six that I have usually seen in nests before.
This species of owl is extremely nomadic and mysterious. Their population depends on the vole population. As the vole cycle goes up and down, so does the Long-eared owl population. They will occasionally eat other small rodents or birds, but starvation is one of the leading causes of death for them. I have seen these owls take over an active magpie nest by killing and eating the young “pies” and using the nest to hatch and raise their own young.
Little is known about their population because their numbers may appear stable across North America and then they seem to disappear. Another problem with tracking their population is their nomadic nesting styles. Some will start nesting in February and March while others will wait as late as June or July to begin.
The females will usually lay from five to seven eggs and the abundance of food will determine how many of them are viable and have a chance of hatching. After the owlets are about seven weeks old, the female will abandon the youngsters and leave them for the male to teach them how to hunt. Occasionally, the female may hook up with another fella and they will try to hatch a bunch of youngsters before the summer is over.
Recently, I returned to the nest area at the Mud Lake Wildlife Management Area and found what appeared to be the male protecting a bush as he made several agnostic attacks to chase me off.
Unlike most owls that mainly hunt at dusk or dawn, Long-eared owls wait until it is totally dark before hunting. They normally do not hunt near the nest but in meadows or clearings away from their young. Great-horned owls are their chief predator and these hunting technics are presumed to keep from exposing their nest to the larger owls. When they are disturbed during the day, they will fly close to the ground, zipping through the thick brush before landing and crawling into the abundant cover.
During the winter when their numbers are high, the Long-eared will gather in large groups from 15 to 25 birds where the voles are abundant. These groups are called a “parliament” or a “legislature” because of their tendency to sleep all day and “hoot and holler” all night long.
I hope the vole population cycle will soon increase because I have missed spending time with these beautiful birds. They are mysterious and secretive, so I only visited this nest site twice this summer because I did not want to chase them off. I hope the female found a willing fellow and they slipped off and had a nest full of kids in some Russian olives that I or others could not penetrate.