Here in Alaska, as winter arrives, the days get much shorter and the leaves on the trees are replaced by lumps of snow and frost. The ground gets covered in snow, which crunches under our feet as we venture outdoors. For me the transition to winter is like grinding to a screeching halt after the momentum of a sprint. The warmer months were filled with so many birds offering many great photo opportunities. The summer birds have now departed, and many of our winter birds are returning, but not nearly as numerous or plentiful as their warm weather counterparts. Many of our cold weather birds tend to flock together in large numbers through the chilly season for food and safety.
We often see large flocks of Bohemian Waxwings which begin devouring the Mt. Ash berries in many of the urban and suburban areas of Alaska. Some years the Mt. Ash trees are so full of fruit they droop from the weight of it. That is a good sign for those of us who enjoy shooting this fun bird. Waxwings are one of my favorite birds to shoot during our cold weather season.
Some other winter birds I look forward to shooting during winter include; White-winged Crossbills, Pine Grosbeaks, Gray Jays, Steller’s Jays, Boreal Chickadees, Brown Creepers, Golden-crowned Kinglets, Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers, Black-backed and American Three-toed Woodpeckers, Bald Eagles, Ravens, Owls, and Northern Goshawk.
Often on the cold winter days, I focus my efforts on finding owls in our local wooded areas. I have spotted a good number of owls just by walking through the woods and being aware of my surroundings, and I want to share the methods I have used to find them. For each owl I observed, I was tipped off of its presence by the same set of clues. My first year of birding I found a Boreal Owl. At the time I had no idea it was such a rare bird to find, I was just excited to have found it. How did I find it you may ask? Well I was walking in a local wooded park and a locl Steller’s Jay was squawking loudly in a large spruce tree near the trail. When I went to investigate, to my surprise, I found a little feathered lump sitting on a branch near the trunk. Really, it was that easy.
When looking for owls, you must use your ears. When I am in the woods, I walk a little ways, and stop and listen. Always listen. If I hear a Steller’s Jay squawking, I will go investigate. If I hear several Chickadees calling (what I have learned are alarm calls) along with maybe a Nuthatch, I will go investigate. I watch their behavior after I have found them. If they are mobbing a tree (usually a spruce tree but not always) I will begin searching the tree, scouring the branches. Saw-whet and Boreal Owls are very small, and can be easily missed. I remember once thinking there had to be an owl around after first hearing Chickadees and Nuthatches carrying on, but I didn’t see anything. I gave it one more look and I’m glad I did, because that’s when I found the Saw-whet. You have to learn to listen to the birds and let them tell you what is going on. I have witnessed several Steller’s Jay’s and handful of Magpie’s all mob a tree to harass a little Boreal Owl. There was even some woodpeckers around getting in on the action. Other birds will usually give away the presence of an owl or another predatory bird, so we need to pay attention to them and their behaviors and what they might be telling us. Sure there have been times I have heard what I thought was alarm calls and went to investigate and found nothing. But the times I have found owls convinces me to investigate every time. You never know what you’re going to find and you just might be pleasantly surprised. So whether you’re walking the trails in your community or getting out into thicker wooded areas, stop often and listen. If you hear something out of the ordinary, go investigate. Listen, look, and be persistent.
Have you found any owls or other birds of pray by paying attention to the other birds? What other methods have you used to find owls? Feel free to comment below and share your observations and experiences.