Many people think of the winter forest as a slumbering place. It’s not! Altona Forest is home to many winter-active species and snow tracks, scat, and sightings tell the tales of struggle for winter survival. The bare branches, brightly lit forest floor, and ease of seeing deep into the forest give you an opportunity to observe elusive predators more any other season. This is the time to spot coyotes, hawks and owls.
Owls are fascinating and impressive – lore speaks of their wisdom and stoic, inscrutable gaze. While they are mainly nocturnal hunters, you can see them in the day. They are always difficult to spot due to their uncanny stillness and preference for high perches. They can hide in plain sight – blending seamlessly with the branches and tree trunks where they stop to watch all the activity of the forest. It is not surprising that they live and hunt unseen in the forest.
Until a few months ago I had seen just one glimpse of an owl in Altona Forest: I saw wide brown wings stretch into the forest canopy in the north end. It was a fleeting glance, but the wingspan was awe-inspiring.
In the last few months I’ve had a few glimpses of an owl hunting near the trail in the north end. I’d had only short sightings and at a distance – and if I wasn’t vigilant, I could look at the owl as it landed but then it would disappear by blending perfectly into the forest. The owl was always too distant through the trees for me to get a good look. Every distant encounter was exciting: owls are majestic.
I then noticed an owl hunting along the backyard fences on Summerpark on a few consecutive days. I was able to capture one image of it through the labyrinth of branches when it perched for a few minutes. Experts were kind enough to identify this owl hunting along the backyard-fences as a barred owl.
Yesterday I was hiking in the bright late-afternoon light and peripherally caught huge movement and the sound of wings. I froze. The owl landed in a tree in the forest visible from the trail. I fumbled for the new camera I barely know how to use. I took a few photos of the owl as he sat on a branch far from me but in plain sight. I was amazed at being able to watch it turn its head 180 degrees more than once. Only through the lens of my camera could I see that there was a freshly caught rabbit in its talons. What an extraordinary sighting!
For about 5 minutes, the owl monitored the forest and then stared me down from a distance. Disconcerted by my unfaltering interest, he took flight in the general direction of the frog pond. I’m sure he found a more private perch to finish his meal.
My new Altona friend is a great horned owl. This is the owl who’s massive wingspan I’ve glimpsed through the trees. This is the one my naturalist neighbour had identified by its call. It regularly hunts in the north end of our forest. This time of year is its mating period and perhaps north Altona forest hosts a mated pair.
The great horned owl is a large predator that inhabits almost all of North America and is found as far north in Ontario as James’s Bay or the southern edges of Hudson’s Bay (depending on the source data used). This raptor is recognized by its ear tufts, closely-spaced barring on it’s breast, golden russet brown parts, and it’s size. There can be some confusion in identification by novices or fleeting sightings because the plumage colours vary by individual. The great horned owl has immense, haunting yellow eyes that boast incredible night vision. Surprisingly, they also have excellent day vision. It is a long-lived species which can reach 20 years of age but often faces mortality through human hazards: electrocution on hydro wires, road collisions, poisoning and hunting.
So who’s in the forest? At least a couple of species of owl are currently there and thriving. When you are walking Altona’s paths pause and look for movement in the trees or listen carefully for a whoo-hoo call.
An interesting factoid from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology: “If you hear an agitated group of cawing American Crows, they may be mobbing a Great Horned Owl. Crows may gather from near and far and harass the owl for hours. The crows have good reason, because the Great Horned Owl is their most dangerous predator.” This was precisely what I heard and observed 1.5 weeks ago in the same area of where the owl was sighted. I had never seen so many crows in Altona Forest (I counted about 23) and they dispersed after 20 minutes – flying out into the neighbourhoods. I had seen a number of crows briefly land on the ground so I went looking for carrion but found none. There’s a good chance they were there for the owl!
Resources ~ Begin your reading here
Each year in winter, Altona Forest hosts a ‘Hoot and Howl’ talk and walk. The talk covers information about the eastern coyote and local owls presented in a slideshow and TRCA brings wonderful taxidermy and pelt specimens of these predators. It’s an excellent opportunity to see fur and feathers up close.
Whoo’s Whoo in Altona Forest ~ © 2015 Natasha G