On a warm day late in January, Audrey Clark was driving along Millstone Road when something caught her eye, causing her to turn around for another look. It was an owl — a barred owl, to be precise — perched in a tree.
“I don’t know how I spotted it, it was so camouflaged,” she said. “I made the next right turn, came back and looked at it again. I took a quick picture with my phone,” which she put on the Wilton Land Conservation Trust’s Big Year Facebook page. The page is a place where people may note birds they see in Wilton.
Clark, who lives on Branch Brook Road, said she also saw some around Christmas near her home.
“I hear them at night. They say ‘who cooks for you?’” Clark said. “I hear it around my house late at night and early morning, so I know they’re around.”
Barred owls are a common bird in this area, but it is not common to see them during the day. This year is different, however, and the birding world is abuzz with the number of barred owl sightings during the day around the state. Wilton is right in the mix.
According to the Connecticut Audubon Society, 69 barred owls were reported for the first three weeks of January on Cornell University’s ebird.org site. That compares to 39 for all of January 2018 and 40 for January 2017.
There have been two theories put forth by the Audubon Society on why the owls are so prevalent during the day. One is that there was a baby boom of barred owls last spring and now the juveniles have grown up and are hunting for food. That seems to be giving way to the second theory that the rodent population crashed, leaving less food for the owls to find and forcing them to hunt in the day as well as at dawn and dusk, when they are normally out.
Of all the owls native to Connecticut, barred owls are those people are most likely to see. Also known as the hoot owl, these birds are brown to gray with barring on the chest. They are large — 17 to 20 inches, head to tail — stocky, with rounded heads and no ear tufts. They live in forests made up of both deciduous trees and evergreens, often near water. They hunt small mammals, especially rodents.
Jennifer Bradshaw, who handles birds of prey at the Woodcock Nature Center on Deer Run Road, said she is getting calls “constantly” about owls. “I’ve gotten calls at least twice a week for the last month,” she said. “One of my friends called and said she hit an owl. I drove there and it was a barred owl. Lots of people have seen them a lot lately.”
Unfortunately, that kind of calamity is not uncommon right now. Bradshaw said, according to the wildlife rehabilitators she knows, “it’s just incredible the number of barred owls being brought in that have been hit by cars.
“A lot of people have no idea why,” they get hit, she said. She explained that when someone throws an apple core or other piece of food out their car window, small animals are attracted to it. When the birds go after those small animals “they’re not paying attention to cars. They are trying to get the mouse or mole or chipmunk that’s eating what you threw out of your car.”
Frank Gallo, who has led bird walks — including the popular “owl prowls” at Weir Preserve — for years said “absolutely there have been a ton of sightings. I saw them in my Christmas count in New Haven for the first time in 40 years.”
At the preserve’s latest owl prowl last October, Gallo said he and the group he was leading heard “a pair that met at the edge of their territory and were yelling back and forth at each other.”
Dara Reid, a licensed rehabilitator and executive director of Wildlife in Crisis in Weston, told the Audubon Society most of the owls coming into her center are “first-year owls” that are underweight “so they are having a hard time finding food. And due to the light acorn crop and berry production this year, prey is scarce.”
Owls up close
Bradshaw of Woodcock Nature Center said one question she is often asked is “aren’t owls nocturnal.” They are actually crepuscular, she said. “It is a common misconception about all owls. Barred owls can be heard most often after dark but can be seen during the day and are most active during dawn or dusk.”
Anyone who would like to see a barred owl up close may visit the nature center’s resident barred owls, Click and Clack.
The nature center will also have a mini-fundraiser to benefit its resident animals on Thursday, March 21, at 6:30 p.m. Those who sign up for Hikes, Hops & Hooty will gather by the fire in Woodcock’s pavilion for a bite to eat and some craft beer from Nod Hill Brewery before setting out on the trails in search of wild owls. Attendees will learn more about birds of prey before having a close-up encounter with Hooty, Woodcock’s resident great horned owl.
Registration is required. The cost, at $45 per person (21 and over only), includes light food and drink. For more information and to register, visit woodcocknaturecenter.org.