[CT Birds] Silver Sands owls

Frank Mantlik mantlik at sbcglobal.net
Sat Jan 31 11:19:23 EST 2015

Hi all,
I have some comments regarding the owls that people haver been seeing become active at sunset/dusk in recent weeks at Silver Sands State Park in Milford.  These comments involve the identification of Short-eared vs. Long-eared.  Short-eared Owls have appeared at this site, hunting over the old landfill/parking lanes/marsh, for many years most winters.  Some years, Long-eareds have also been definitely seen.  

This winter, two to three owls have been appearing, flying around low after sunset, perching in trees, and even landing on the short chain-link fence.  I have visited the site four nights this January (5th, 11th, 22nd, 29th), and have definitely seen up to 2 different Long-ears; scope views of perched birds, clearly seeing long close ear tufts (often laid down atop their heads), orangey facial discs, grayish body plumage.  The two species look very similar in flight, especially under low light conditions.  On two dates, I thought I saw what I thought was a Short-eared as well.  But then on 1/29, Mike Carpenter, Paul Cashman and I watched one Long-eared well - perched in trees and on fence, as well as a fabulous show in flight right in front of us.  It became clear to me that this Long-eared appeared almost identical in silhouette (big-headed, large-winged, dark carpal marks with buffy wing patch) as a Short-eared. It also flew quite high in big looping
 circles over the nearby landfill.
I have now removed Short-eared from my list, as based on what I have seen during these visits, I can be certain of having seen only (up to 2 or 3) Long-eareds.  Likewise, I suspect a lot of birders have claimed seeing Short-eared.  Most have little experience in seeing hunting Long-eareds, and when they see these birds, assume them to be Short-eareds.  
Short-eareds will often come out earlier (around sunset or sunrise), and tend to hunt more on the wing, ala their diurnal counterpart, Northern Harrier. Long-eareds tend to come out when it's darker (such as these birds have been doing), and tend to fly lower and perch more often. When perched and hunting, their ear tufts are often laid down atop their head.

I have had many years observing both species at pre-dawn or at sunset, at this and similar places (Manresa marsh, Pine Creek, Great Island, Plum Is., Nantucket, etc.). I write this just to try to educate, and to caution fellow birders that it can be difficult to ID the two species in flight under low-light conditions.

By the way, Silver Sands has normally been locked at sunset. But this winter, and last, they seem to be leaving the gate open - much to the delight of birders. Be aware that on a given night, you may get locked in.  And dress very warmly.

Frank Mantlik

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