2016-03-03 / Nature

Island Owls Draw Admirers

By Jack Kelly

A Northern saw-whet owl roosts quietly in Middletown. A Northern saw-whet owl roosts quietly in Middletown. Aquidneck Island has a healthy year-round population of resident owls, which includes great horned owls, barred owls, Eastern screech owls and locally-endangered barn owls. These nocturnal species breed and nest in various habitats throughout the region, and local wildlife enthusiasts engage in early evening “owl prowls” in an effort to view these silent hunters of the night. However, this winter season has provided bird watchers with a multitude of uncommon vagrant owl species, including snowy owls, a short-eared owl and a Northern saw-whet owl.

A short-eared owl was sighted recently at Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge. This species nests and breeds across wide swaths of Canada and Alaska and migrates as far south as Texas and Mexico in the late fall and winter. It favors grasslands, prairies, agricultural fields, and wetlands where rodents may be found in abundance.

Snowy owl takes time out at Sachuest Point NWR. 
(Photos by Jack Kelly) Snowy owl takes time out at Sachuest Point NWR. (Photos by Jack Kelly) With a body length of 15 inches and a wingspan of 38 inches, this sleek, streamlined owl hunts low over habitats in a moth-like flight until it spots prey, then drops suddenly on its quarry. It has tiny ear tufts that are difficult to see, lending to its name. It is dark brown and straw colored above, while its belly and under-wing plumage is a much lighter, almost white color. It hunts mostly by night, but is known for daylight foraging.

Short-eared owls often compete with diurnal harrier hawks, which also feed on rodents and do not take kindly to owls intruding on their hunting grounds. Spectacular aerial battles between the two raptor species have been witnessed by local birders in years past. Most of these skirmishes end when one of the combatants gives up and heads toward another section of the refuge.

Notice at Sachuest Point NWR Notice at Sachuest Point NWR Another migratory owl that is drawing large crowds to Sachuest Point NWR is a juvenile snowy owl. This particular specimen is believed to be a male, considering the light markings on its plumage. Standing over two feet tall and boasting a wingspan of five feet, this impressive visitor from the Arctic has been dining on gulls, ducks and rodents during its stay at the refuge. This species is a diurnal hunter and looks for prey from perches on rocks, shorelines, and even the roof of the Visitors’ Center.

This is the second snowy owl to visit Sachuest Point, with the first being driven off by overzealous photographers. Observers should try to stay 200 feet away so that the owl can feed and rest. Disruptions to these cycles can cause the bird undue stress and may have adverse effects on its health.

A Northern saw-whet owl has been sighted in Middletown in recent days and has captivated local birders. This is one of the smallest North American owls, with a body length of just eight inches and a wingspan of 17 inches. This petite, nocturnal hunter preys mostly on mice and small birds.

This species is very hard to find, as its size and cryptic plumage allow it to blend in among the branches and brambles where it roosts during the day. It has a brownish facial disc, which is heavily streaked with white. Its brown and rufous-colored wings and back are lightly spotted, and the bird has light-colored underparts with rufous coloring. Northern saw-whet owls rarely flush when spotted and seem to ignore their observers.

These rare treats of nature are on display now across the island. Observe them from a safe distance so that other birders may get the same opportunity.

Jack Kelly, a native Newporter, is a wildlife photographer and nature enthusiast who enjoys sharing his experiences with others.

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