We are extraordinarily lucky because we might see or hear a number of owls in Altona Forest. There is the northern saw-whet owl, eastern screech owl, great-horned owl, and the barred owl. Of these, the one you are most likely to see in the forest is the handsome and elegant barred owl.
Barred owls are common across eastern North America but they are not easy to spot. They are identified by dark rusty brown vertical bars or ‘flecks’ on the breast and tail and the narrow horizontal bars on their head. A barred owl is distinctive with white and brown contrast on it’s breast, it’s flat disc-shaped face, dark black eyes, and deep brown, white-mottled wings. It is a large owl, but smaller than the great horned owl and doesn’t have ear tufts.
Altona Forest offers barred owls their preferred habitat of mature deciduous and evergreen trees with nesting cavities in snags or holes made by pileated woodpeckers. Our pileated woodpeckers have been busy in the north end this year, so there are many new potential homes for the owls. They need large territories to provide sufficient mice, rabbits and rodents and to sustain them through the winter. They don’t migrate and tend to keep their territories for many years.
There have been many neighbourhood sightings of the barred owl. They are sometimes spotted in the trees around Lacey’s Pond. I chatted with a family who live on Woodsmere who told me that a barred owl used to regularly visit their garden to fish in their pond! They had even named her since she was such a frequent visitor. Laura B, who is on the Altona Forest Stewardship Committee, photographed a barred owl just beyond her fence in the forest a couple of years ago and kindly shared with us on the Altona Forest facebook page. I spoke to another resident in the north end of the forest who said some years back an owl came to the edge of their backyard and stayed for hours! From their description, I believe it was a barred owl. Do you find these sightings as exciting as I do? This means that the forest is home to at least one barred owl who regularly hunts and lives in our trees.
In spring just before the leaves unfurled, there were a number of sightings of a barred owl hunting and perching in Altona’s trees along Wildflower and Summerpark in the mornings. I was lucky enough to catch a glimpse of it stretch it’s impressive wingspan in the trees near the blue trail in the north end. On one occasion, I was even able to get a few distant photos. For some reason, the hour of 9:30 to 10:30am seems a good time to see some barred owl activity along Altona’s blue trail (posts 16-22). Of course, this is changeable and only my observations.
A couple of weeks ago Tony D and his family saw a barred owl near their backyard near Summer Park. He was able to capture some great photos and saw it more than once. He let me know that “there’s at least two as you can hear them hooting at night to each other”. These sightings and observations seem to confirm the long term residence of a pair.
Listen for the barred owl’s ‘who cooks for you‘ call that Sarah from TRCA suggested during the dusk Altona Owl Prowl in August. As you walk through the forest, look up into trees to spot ‘owl shaped blobs’ since they are often quite still during the day and are more likely to call in the evenings.
These handsome Altona Forest residents give us every reason to avoid using pesticides near our homes and our neighbourhood! By poisoning field mice and other ‘prey’, we are poisoning owls (and other raptors) at their food source. (My genius idea would be to trap mice humanely and release them in the hydro corridor where owls, hawks and coyotes can hunt. Why kill when I can help the ecosystem?) The ecosystem is healthy only when their food sources are untainted.
This morning a barred owl finally visited close to my back yard and watched the flurry of activity at my bird feeders. Perhaps he (she?) was eyeing the over-stuffed squirrels? He sat for about 5-10 minutes but was gone while I stepped away to grab the video camera.
Tips for Owl Spotting
- Look Closely – Owls blend perfectly with trees. Look for ‘blob’ shapes and watch for head movement. Owls prefer to sit high and watch from above.
- Look Down – Owls return to favourite perches and below them you can find owl pellets or stains on the tree from droppings.
- Be Quiet – Owls have excellent hearing and heard you coming from a long way away
- Listen Carefully – Cup your ears and listen for their call. Familiarize yourself with their calls.
- Don’t Approach – Owls will be disturbed by your interest. They will flee if they feel threatened or even watched for too long. (I have made this mistake – but now I know!)
If you see a barred owl or other wildlife in Altona’s conservation lands, please let me know. It always exciting to see who is prowling our woods!
Have you joined a Hoot and Howl walk in Altona Forest or nearby Rouge Park? TRCA hosts the winter series of Hoot and Howl walks in January/February each year so you can call the owls and coyotes of the forests!
Resources ~ Begin Your Reading Here
About Barred Owls (wiki)
About Barred Owls (Cornell Ornithology)
Barred Owlet (USA)
The Best Hoot, Barred None ~ © 2015 Natasha G