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Originally published Thursday, January 29, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Cold, dark mornings rewarded with owl sightings

January and February are good months for owl watching around Puget Sound.

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Jamie Acker became an owler by default.

After retiring from years of underwater work as a Navy submarine officer, the longtime Bainbridge Islander got the chance to train his eyes skyward. He was ready to rekindle a passion for birds that inspired him as a curious kindergartner in Ohio. But with a full-time job as a high-school science teacher and two young children at home, the only time left for birding was from 3 to 6 a.m. "And that kind of limited the birds," he says.

A friend took Acker to see a Northern saw-whet owl in 1994, and it's been owls ever since. "Besides the fact that they're as cute as the day is long," he said of the elfin species, just 7 to 8 inches in height and weighing in at less than 5.5 ounces. "They're also very numerous and responsive to calls."

"This is primo owl season," says Acker, who will be out alone scanning trees with his Night Vision monocle this weekend while you're sleeping. In January and February owls are establishing territory, pair bonding and beginning courtship. Great-horned owls are already sitting on eggs, and barred owls will begin to nest in early February.

Use your ears

Acker says that those of us who dwell mainly in the diurnal realm would be surprised by the supreme quiet of the early morning forest. Like the birds he seeks, Acker's most essential owling tools are his ears.

"Half of my detection is by hearing," he said. "There's a misconception that owls are silent fliers, but every time they land, they generate sound. Often there's moisture on the trees, and when the owl lands, all these little droplets of water cascade downward."

A self-taught owl expert and licensed bird-bander, Acker has been studying Bainbridge owl distribution since 1996. He bands barred and Northern saw-whets to study territory size, numbers and distribution. This time of year Acker finds up to five different owl species: great-horned, barn, barred, Western screech-owls and the saw-whets.

What began as a hobby has led to illuminating findings, including some trends over the past 12 years. Natives of the East Coast, barred owls have been slowly expanding their territory westward. The first individual was reported on Bainbridge in 1992, and Acker counted 86 barreds during the 2008 Audubon Christmas Bird Count.

"People keep asking, 'What's their saturation level?' — but we just don't know," he said. Acker has documented one barred owl continuing to nest even with a greatly reduced territory, as new barred neighbors close in. Though he emphasizes his evidence is only circumstantial, Acker is concerned about how the increase in barred owls might relate to the decline in Western screech owls. Counting 12 screech pairs 12 years ago, he was unable to locate even one individual during the recent Christmas Bird Count.

"This is a common trend among those who do owl research, yet nowhere do we see them being listed as a species of concern," he said. "To me, their numbers are crashing. They are a species we should be watching and caring for."

Well-adapted hunters

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An engineer by training, Acker is drawn to the unique adaptations that make owls such good nighttime hunters.

"From their talons to their sight to their flight, there's so many amazing things that they do to," he said. "I'm intrigued by how they process sight and sound to be successful as a species." For example, human ears are placed symmetrically on our heads, while most owls' ears are asymmetrically aligned, helping them to zero in on their prey with uncanny precision.

If you're interested in seeing our nighttime birds in the wild, Acker recommends going out with an experienced owler. Consider trips offered by Seattle Parks Department (see "If You Go") and Seattle Audubon, or meet other birders on the Tweeters Web site (www.scn.org/earth/tweeters).

Acker urges anyone using taped calls to draw owls in to do it responsibly.

"The bird is responding to what's perceived as a threat to its territory or to its mate, " he said. "I try not to bother the same bird two weeks running."

During the Northern saw-whet migration in late September and again in February, Acker finds it hard to keep his focus on daytime duties. When he turns up to teach class looking like he's been out all night, his students assume he's a great partyer.

"I tell them I'll catch up on my sleep when I'm dead," Acker says. "There's too much going on in this world to sleep."

Freelancer Kathryn True of Vashon Island writes the Natural Wanders series, focusing on nature topics that can inspire weekend outings. Reach her through her Web site: kathryntrue.com.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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