The State We're In
Winter is perfect for owl spotting!
By Michele S. Byers, Executive Director 1999-2021
Early every winter, anticipation builds among lovers of rare birds in New Jersey. It’s time once again for the arrival of magnificent snowy owls from the north!
These striking white owls with bright yellow eyes spend their breeding season north of the Arctic circle in Canada, hunting lemmings and other small creatures. While some remain on the Arctic tundra year-round, many venture south in the winter in search of a more plentiful food supply.
In recent winters, Island Beach State Park has become a regular hangout for snowy owls who hunt in the open dunes and meadows. Snowy owls have also been spotted at other shore locations and inland sites, including the Merrill Creek Reservoir in Warren County and Liberty State Park in Jersey City. Some are already here!
Snowy owls’ conspicuous coloring makes it impossible for them to blend into the scenery unless there’s been a snowfall. And wherever snowy owls are spotted, birders and nature photographers aren’t far behind!
Winter isn’t just for snowy owls, though. It’s a wonderful season to look for many of New Jersey’s varied and beautiful owls. With the leaves off the trees, perching owls are much easier to spot. And because of winter’s late sunrises and early sunsets, more people are awake and going about their daily routines when owls are out hunting in the darkness.
Exceptional vision and hearing enable owls to easily and masterfully locate prey in the dark and twilight. Their flight is silent due to special adaptations like wide wings, lightweight bodies and unusually soft, fluffy feathers. Owls mate in winter, so it’s a good time to listen for courtship calls.
Here are the owls that you can see and hear this winter:
Great horned owls – New Jersey’s largest and best-known owl is nicknamed the “hoot owl for its distinctive HOOH-hoo-hoo-hooh-HOOOOH-hooh call at night. These year-round resident owls start their mating and nesting season in December and are found everywhere in New Jersey, including cities, towns and suburbs. They can be distinguished from other owls by their large size and the large feather tufts on the top of their heads, resembling cat ears or horns.
Eastern screech owls – Contrary to their name, these common, year-round owls rarely screech. Their best-known call is a plaintive trill, descending in tone and resembling a horse’s whinny. Screech owls are small, about 7 to 10 inches tall, and are found in virtually any wooded habitat regardless of human density – rural areas, suburbs and city parks. If you’re able to imitate their call, you might get one to fly over to a tree branch near you at night!
Barred owls – This year-round native owl is one of New Jersey’s largest, standing 16 to 23 inches tall, and recognizable by its large rounded head, lack of feather tufts, and dark brown eyes. Barred owls are predominantly nocturnal and are usually found in large expanses of mature forest. They’re considered threatened in New Jersey due to habitat loss.
Saw-whet owls – New Jersey’s tiniest bird of prey, the saw-whet owl stands only 7-8 inches high and weighs a quarter of a pound. These mini owls have bright yellow eyes and wide rounded heads with no feather tufts. They rarely breed in New Jersey but are regular winter visitors. They’re hard to spot due to their small size and nocturnal habits, but you may hear their steady and flute-like “too-too-too-too” whistle. The New Jersey-based Wild Bird Research Group partners with Mercer County and the Watershed Institute to band saw-whet owls in the fall and winter.
Long-eared owls – About the size of a crow, the long-eared owl gets its name from its long feather tufts set close together on the head. Although long-eared owls breed in a few isolated New Jersey locations, they’re best known as winter visitors. They prefer woodlands with dense stands of eastern red cedar trees, and their secrecy makes them the state’s least-researched owl. They’re also considered threatened in New Jersey due to habitat loss.
Short-eared owls – These owls were once regular nesters in the marshes and meadowlands of New Jersey, but their habitat was greatly reduced by draining and development. Although they don’t breed as much in New Jersey anymore, they’re still a fairly common winter visitor. Short-eared owls are most active around sunset, hunting for prey in meadows and open areas. Short-eared owls are considered endangered in New Jersey.
Snowy owls – Recently made famous by Harry Potter’s pet snowy owl, Hedwig, a few of these beauties have been spotted at New Jersey beaches in the last couple of weeks. Unlike most owls, snowy owls hunt in the daytime, making them easy to spot. If you’re lucky enough to see one, you can tell if it’s a male or female because adult males are almost pure white, while females have brown barring. The nonprofit Project SNOWstorm researches the movements of several snowy owls with electronic trackers; check them out at www.projectsnowstorm.org/.
Barn owls – One native New Jersey owl you may not see in the winter is the barn owl. These owls with distinctive heart-shaped faces like to live in manmade structures like barns, silos and church towers. Most migrate to warmer climates in the winter, although a few may remain in New Jersey. Barn owl populations have been declining in New Jersey due to a loss of nesting habitat, and they’re listed as a species of special concern.
Where are the best places to see owls this winter? Check out the eBird website, where thousands of birders around the world report their sightings. Go to https://ebird.org/home and search by species or region. You might also try following birding groups and nature photographers on social media.
But one important note: Keep your distance! Owls must conserve their energy to survive the cold, so don’t get too close and cause them to fly to another location. Use binoculars, spotting scopes and telephoto lenses to watch and photograph from a distance. Please also respect private property and restricted areas of public land.
For guaranteed owl spotting up close, visit the Raptor Trust in Millington or the Woodford Cedar Run Wildlife Refuge in Medford. Both have resident owls that have been injured and cannot survive in the wild.
To learn more about owls, visit the Cornell Ornithology Lab’s “All About Birds” website at https://www.allaboutbirds.org/news/ or the National Audubon Society’s guide to North American birds at https://www.audubon.org/bird-guide.
About the Authors
John S. Watson, Jr.
Michele S. Byers
Executive Director, 1999-2021
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