Bird #366 — Long-eared Owl

asio (long-eared owl) otus (owl)

Friday, December 4, 1998 — 8:05 am

Du Page County, Illinois — Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory

This was unbelievably easy. Peter Jasper, the resident birder at Fermilab, has been reporting Long-eared Owls on his web site for the past few weeks. I’ve had lousy luck with owls and hesitated to take the trip. But lately, he’s also been reporting Greater White-fronted Geese, which I haven’t seen in Illinois in many years, so I decided I’d go.

Lake Law was carpeted with geese. I parked by the red barn and scanned the flock. There were several thousand Canada Geese and 24 Snow Geese. And two that I couldn’t quite make out through the damp haziness. I got out my scope and identified them as White-fronts. I’d been there about three minutes.

I put the scope away and walked the trail through the village pines looking for evidence of owls. The village pines cover an area of maybe two acres on the shore of Lake Law near the red barn. There are at least two species of trees in the grove, but none of them are very tall. I saw a few trees with whitewash on the trunk and lower branches. I walked slowly, scanning each tree, hopeful but not really expecting anything. And not knowing exactly what I was looking for.

I had walked all the way through the pines to where the trail opens into a large weedy field. I was about to turn about and begin quartering the area off the trail. In one of the last pines, I noticed a few white spots on the lower branches and followed the trunk upward. In another tree, behind that pine, and perhaps 25 yards from where I stood, I saw two silhouettes.

I knew immediately they were Long-eared Owls. They weren’t right up against the trunk, as the field guides had led me to expect, but sat on horizontal branches about a foot from the trunk and about 15 feet off the ground. They had the profile of Pringles Potato Chip cans with ears, they were that skinny. The one on the left was more exposed, and I concentrated on that one. It was facing away from me on the branch, but looking at me over its left shoulder. It’s ears looked about four inches long. They were dark with pale orange edges. It’s face was gray with orange wedges radiating out from the eyes. The eyes were bright yellow. It’s back was mottled gray, pale and brown, with orange spaces at the base of the primaries.

Once or twice it turned it’s head 180 degrees and looked away from me, but for the most part it just stared. Before I could turn my attention to the second one, I heard a slight commotion in one of the other pines and a third owl flushed, circled tightly, and disappeared into the pine branches behind my birds. It was immediately followed by two more. About four seconds later, my two birds took off and disappeared.

I didn’t want to flush them repeatedly, and I had gotten a diagnostic look, but I wasn’t satisfied. I went back the way I came for about 10 steps, then looked into the pines where the owls had headed. There was a dead tree in between, and one of the owls was sitting on an exposed branch, facing me, about 35 yards away.  Without my binoculars, it was difficult to make out because it blended into the background of dark pines so well.

The pupils of its eyes were tiny, making them look even more yellow than those of the first one. It also looked much larger. Perhaps it knew it was exposed and was trying to look intimidating. It puffed its feathers out, changing its profile from elongated to almost round. It looked much like a small Great Horned Owl in shape and coloration. Its breast was mottled dark and pale in quarter-sized blotches. Its belly was pale whitish/gray with bars and streaks that formed crosses. Its wings were long, hanging down below its tail. One of its tail feathers was out of alignment and stuck out behind. This feather was pale gray with darker barring. Its feet were large and feathered with pale orange.

For two minutes we watched each other. It would sit upright and puff out its feathers, then lean forward and down. It slowly began leaning toward the nearby pine branches, then suddenly took off and almost immediately disappeared. I heard a rustling and knew it had landed nearby. During its short flight, I could see that the wings were pale underneath and quite long in proportion to its length. It had the bullet-headed profile of all owls in flight.

I had gotten a great look and seen all the field marks that are mentioned in all the field guides, with the exception of the dark wrist-mark on the underside of the wing. But it was a much better view than I expected and I was happy. I left the owls alone and walked back. It was only twenty minutes since I had arrived at Fermilab and I’d already seen everything I was looking for. I felt like I should put forth a little effort, so I walked the trails through the fields between the lakes. I saw very little except a cock Ring-necked Pheasant in flight in the field behind the sparrow hedge. I was home by 10:45.

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