Garreth's Wildlife Watch


(2015-08-13) The forests of Prince Edward Island, as humble as they may seem to folks from the mainland, are truly a place of wonder and a place to escape the busy schedule of the daily grind. I often find myself feeling refreshed after a nice hike through our woodlands, and these hikes become even more enjoyable when I have the good fortune to have an encounter with native wildlife. Although I primarily go on my hikes when the sun is shining and the songbirds are filling the air with their melodies, I find our forests equally appealing in the moonlight, when some of my favourite feathered friends are most active, the owls.

For the past four years I have had the pleasure of volunteering to do owl surveys all over Prince Edward Island for Bird Studies Canada. These surveys are started in the twilight hours of the evening and will usually last until 2-3am. They are done in the early spring when various owl species are establishing their nest sites and are more likely to be vocal in order to stake a claim on their new territory. The owls we tend to come across most frequently in these surveys are Barred Owls (Strix varia), Great Horned Owls (Bubo virginianus), and the Northern Saw-whet Owl (Aegolius acadicus). We also keep our ears open for the elusive Boreal Owl (Aegolius funereus), but I myself have never had the pleasure of seeing one.

The Barred owl is one of the island's most common owl species. It gets its name from the dark barring patterns of its breast plumage. It has a puffy round head and strikingly dark eyes. To hear its call through an island forest is a great joy to all nature lovers. It is often said that its call sounds like it is asking, "who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?" The barred is a fairly large owl, standing at 51-53 cm. While doing a stream assessment in the New London area, I had the amazing luck to come across one of these owls in the middle of the day! It was polite enough to perch itself on a large dead tree, free of vegetation, which gave me a great view of it and allowed for some fantastic pictures.

The Northern Saw-whet owl is much less common then the Barred, and likes to make its home in coniferous and mixed-wood forests that are generally close to swamps. This tiny little owl is probably the most charismatic owl in Canada, it truly looks like a little stuffed toy. The Saw-whet adult stands at a mere 20 cm. Its call is a repeated whistle of toot-toot-toot, that may go on for a minute or so.

The Great Horned owl is perhaps the most famous of North American owls, due to its impressive size and its extremely large and common distribution across the entire continent. Its well known "Horns" are actually tufts of feathers. Great Horned owls are generally 54-56 cm tall. This species is an accurate and efficient hunter, its extremely powerful and large eyes help it zoom in on its prey.

However, no other owl or even any other bird, is such a classic symbol of the Canadian wilderness as the majestic Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus). Although this amazing species does not nest in PEI, (that is done in the open northern tundra), they are known to come to our small island in search of food in the winter months. Under the Hillsborough bridge seems to be one of their favourite hang-out spots while visiting our island, and this location can lead to an easy sighting and great photo opportunities. The Snowy is quite a large owl, 56-61 cm tall.

So the next time you find yourself having a nice walk through one of our province's mature forest stands, let out your best owl call! You never know when you will get an answer back, but when you do, it is truly a memorable moment.

About the Author

Garreth Ashley graduated from the Wildlife Conservation Technology program at Holland College and recently graduated from UPEI. He is an employee and also a former Board Member of Kensington North. His blog, Wildlife Watch, is a collection of his own observations of wildlife on PEI.

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