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July 3, 2010 12:24 PM   Subscribe

I want to see an owl.

Not for me, but for my best friend. We live in Western Mass (Pioneer Valley) and I just recently learned that, despite her deep affinity for owls, she's never actually seen one. She blames growing up in an urban area of Florida. I grew up in New Hampshire, but even for me they were a fairly rare sight.

What's the best way to see an owl in the wild? Nighttime, right? In a field? or in the woods? Is there a better time of year? I think even hearing one would be exciting, but seeing one would be incredible.

Also, if any Massachusetts peeps know of a cool place to see owls in captivity that'd be cool, too. I just don't want to take her to a zoo to see a sleeping lump of brown in a corner, you know? Owls are way too awesome for that.
posted by missmary6 to Science & Nature (19 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Check with Owls New You. E.g., Owns near Massachusets.
posted by dws at 12:46 PM on July 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

Not your location, but here in Maui, I've seen owls several times while riding my bike right before sunset. One flew right over my head, so maybe not being inside a car, on bike or walking/running might help you spot them easier.
posted by dealing away at 12:46 PM on July 3, 2010

Check out local birding groups to see if they do any group owl prowls -- looking at the Massachusetts Audubon Society's site, winter may be the best time for them.
posted by Jeanne at 12:58 PM on July 3, 2010

There are visible-to-the-naked-eye owls at the Prospect Park Zoo, for the next time you're in NYC.
posted by Sticherbeast at 1:29 PM on July 3, 2010

I can't help with seeing an owl in the wild, but your friend should check out The Owl Box. It's from a family in California who set up an owl box in their yard with some web cams. The box has been taken up by a barn owl they've named Molly. She's not nesting right now, so they're just showing videos of her at the moment, but they expect her to come back when she's ready to hatch another brood. It was absolutely amazing watching her this spring with her first set of owlets.
posted by Dojie at 1:52 PM on July 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm an experienced birder, was pretty much raised by my sister the biology teacher, and have seen an owl in the wild maybe 3 times in the past 55 years, it's difficult.

But, checking with a birder group in your area, someone may know where there's a nest (although, often people aren't willing to share this information in an effort to protect the owl).

Also, check to see if there are any wildlife rescue groups nearby... and, as mentioned, check out the zoo!
posted by HuronBob at 1:59 PM on July 3, 2010

I've seen them in the woods in the daytime but that's an incredibly rare sight. To at least hear them (I'm in North Carolina) I would want to be in a rural area at dusk. It would help to have someone with you who recognizes what they sound like. Again, they hang out in woods near fields, because that is where the mice are, I guess.

I'm going to my folk's house tomorrow (they live in a rural area of my county) and I can almost guarantee I will hear owls at dusk if I'm on their porch. At least here, they aren't rare even if they are hard to actually see. (The one time I saw one in the daytime I was totally impressed. It was a large one with an impressive wingspread-and it was totally silent as it flew. Kinda creepily so, actually.)
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 2:02 PM on July 3, 2010

Owls are pretty hard to spot in the wild because of their camouflaged appearance and of course because of their nocturnal habits. I hear the great horned owls here often at dusk, when they call to each other to establish their hunting areas for the night, but have never seen one here, though I've occasionally seen them other places. Your best bet for getting a good look at an owl is to find a bird park or zoo; a bird park would be best because then your friend may even get to be a perch for the owl. Maybe you can find a raptor center in your area (there doesn't seem to be one in MA)?
posted by anadem at 2:02 PM on July 3, 2010

They have owls for rehab/education purposes at the Audubon in the Blue Hills near Boston. That's not in the wild, but it's really cool to be able to get up close and really see one when it's perched on the educator's hand. If there's a raptor rescue out your way they probably have owls, too.

Otherwise, dawn and dusk are your best bets, and local birders might know some of their favorite hangouts. My favorite owl experience wasn't a sighting (although a Great Horned flew right over my car once, which was cool), it was hearing a Barred Owl right before dawn. They sound like their call is "Who cooks for you, who cooks for you all". So you might listen on line for calls, too, to see if you can hear them while you're out looking for them.
posted by ldthomps at 2:04 PM on July 3, 2010

You need to know who you're looking for before you can find him.

Here is a list of the owl species you can find in your state, with pictures and sounds to help you identify them. Sometimes, if you have the owl's call on your iPod, you can play it and get one to talk to you. Be cautious not to be too annoying -- the calls are a challenge to the real owl for its territory, and you don't want to stress it out playing recordings of another owl all evening.

This is the Massachusetts birdlist of recent bird sightings, with species and approximate sighting location.

I have found and photographed several individuals of four different species of wild owls. It is often a matter of sheer luck and/or willingness to lie in a ditch being eaten by bugs, but once, I followed some seemingly vague directions on a birdlist, and found a lovely burrowing owl standing fiercely on a post. He was precisely where advertised, as if he had been waiting for someone to show up.

If you're going to go stomping in the woods, pay attention to the ground under trees. A roost tree will have lots of owl pellets underneath, being all gross and interesting at the same time.

If you want to see a lot of owls all at once, and have some money, these people do a traveling owl show. If you have some connection to a group of people (school?) who'd be interested, that might be a way to get some owl time.

For instant owl looking, please visit these tiny barn owlets online.
they are just little guys, and they are so good.
posted by Sallyfur at 2:33 PM on July 3, 2010

I would go with a field (wheat or corn field is great, plain grass is OK) bordered by power lines/fences/trees (but not forest), around or slightly after dusk, and with a full or nearly full moon. It will still require some pretty dedicated sitting outside in the dark not moving.
posted by anaelith at 2:36 PM on July 3, 2010

The largest amount of owls I have seen has been right in the heart of suburbia. They used to perch on top of the roofs of the houses and hoot to each other across the tiny lake in the middle of the development I used to live in.

I don't think that location is as important as the amount of time that you spend outside at night. I used to smoke, and because the habit had me outside at all hours of the night, in all sorts of weather, all through out the year I have had opossums run into me, (they won't know you're there if you stand still enough), have seen the northern lights several times, have seen light-ice columns in the sky, have seen 22 deg halos around the sun, have seen awesome lightening displays, have seen people trying to break into cars or houses, have seen owls on several occasions, have seen 2 notably large meteors, have seen 2 notable comets, have seen several iridium flares, have seen hundreds of shooting stars...etc.

It really comes down to how much time you spend outside, not so much where you spend it.
posted by 517 at 3:18 PM on July 3, 2010

517 is correct. I'm a birder and wouldn't have seen anything in my life in the daytime if I hadn't gone hiking or simply "been outside" for an hour or two, at least every couple days.

Your friend needs to just be outside more often at night. It does help to first listen for a few weeks, to tell if she actually has any owls she can locate in the area. If not, drive out to national parks or local parks at night (being safe, please) to just listen.

I, insanely, like to drive at night, and for the first time, I think I had an owl fly in front of my car the other night, and almost missed it because I switched out a cd.
posted by DisreputableDog at 3:31 PM on July 3, 2010

Snowy owls are a quite common sight during the day near Lake Huron in Ontario. I spent 20 minutes watching one on a utility pole just above me. Man, but those dudes are professionals at giving you the stink eye.
posted by scruss at 4:15 PM on July 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm a backyard bird watcher, and I managed to attract owls to my yard by just setting up an owl house. Owls are nocturnal, but they get up just at sundown, so it's possible to see them if you're willing to sit and wait on them. Occasionally, Ms. owl would hang out at the entry of her new nest and just glare. Example.
posted by Gilbert at 10:17 PM on July 3, 2010

O RLY?       sorry

The only ones I've seen (and I do a fair bit of bird photography) have been while riding my bike at dusk and then, only as a flash of shadow. Not particularly close encounters, so I'm gonna second the Audubon Society and an organised walk where there are known to be owls.
posted by polyglot at 2:27 AM on July 4, 2010

An Audobon facility, Arcadia Nature Center, is in your area--Easthampton, MA, I believe. Why don't you have an outing there and ask the staff if there are any owls around?
posted by Elsie at 7:21 AM on July 4, 2010

There's a woods near us where you hear owls calling at night, but you never see them in the woods because of the dark and the trees. However, there's a park on the edge of that woods. If you're sitting quietly in that park after dark, the bats comes out to feed and sometimes an owl glides across the empty space of the park to get to the trees on the other side.

So my strategy (if you can't get experts to help you) would be to go out at night and listen in the woods until you find a woods where owls converse. You will need to do some quiet Pocahontas walking in the dark woods, so take large friends or be invisible if it's a dangerous place. Then find a likely field or park abutting those woods where owls might come out to hunt. Use your ears, then use your eyes.
posted by pracowity at 11:56 AM on July 4, 2010

Do you have any owl species where you are that are known to fly in daylight? Here in the UK we have the Little Owl, a well known daytime flier. I see one or two from my kitchen window almost daily during spring/summer months. They usually spend most of their time sitting on walls in the sun.
posted by muckybob at 11:51 PM on July 4, 2010

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