Listen! Owls are Out Courting!

A male Great Horned Owl winking at the photographer, my friend Bob Bonin. Male owls are generally smaller than their mates.

My husband called me to the kitchen door. Putting my ear to the storm door, I heard the low, resonant “hoo, huh-hoooo, hoo, hoo” of a Great Horned Owl. That haunting sound marks the beginning of the courting season for owls around here. The breeding season for the Great Horned Owl begins earlier than other owls, mating and nesting in January and February. Others will be heard courting from March through May.

Text by Cam Mannino

The one we heard sounded as though it was nearby and I worried that if I opened the door, its sensitive ears would register the sound, making it fly off. We strained to see the shadowy shape silhouetted against the limbs outside the dark window. But this time, no luck. I opened the door just a crack, heard a few hoots and off it went.

By happy chance, the next day I learned about a course on owls from Cornell University Lab of Ornithology Bird Academy. What luck! I spent some quiet, snowy hours learning about these highly skilled, powerful predators. I thought you might be interested, too. I’ll only be able to offer the highlights here, or course. If owls intrigue you, The Cornell Bird Academy class, “The Wonderful World of Owls,” is thorough and is packed with helpful recordings, photos and videos of owls all over the world.

I’ve only succeeded in photographing one owl in the wild, but luckily, my friend Bob Bonin from our Wednesday bird group generously shared many of his impressive owl photos. So you’re in for a visual treat. Thank you, Bob! I’ve supplemented with photos from generous photographers and included links to owl calls from Cornell’s All About Birds website, because we’re all more likely to hear owls than see them!

The Special Abilities Owls Use to Rule the Night

Owls live on every continent except Antarctica and in a variety of habitats – deserts, the arctic, the tropics, grasslands, and forests. Though some hunt in daylight or as the sun is rising or setting, owls are best known for hunting at night. Owls may nest in tree cavities, nesting boxes, on the surface of the tundra, in former nests of other birds, and some even burrow underground. Here I’m just exploring the five of the most common ones we might see, or more likely hear, in our region. However, most of the 234 species of owls share some special gifts that allow them all to be formidable hunters.

Amazingly Accurate Binocular and Peripheral Vision in Low Light

The head of a captive Great Horned Owl that I photographed at a hawk festival. Doesn’t look too happy does it?

Owls are the only birds that can catch their prey in the dark. They can’t see when it’s completely dark, but they can in very little light. How? Well, their eyes are large to begin with and in the dark, the pupils expand to fill almost the whole eye surface. Like other nocturnal creatures, owls have the advantage of “eye shine” (tapetum lucidum) which you’ve probably noticed in the eyes of your cat, dog, local raccoon or possum. If light hits them in the dark, their eyes look like glowing red or green circles. Light hits the rods in their retinas (the cells for low light) on the way into the eye, is reflected back by special cells behind the retina and hits the rods again on the way out. That bounce amplifies the light for better night vision.

A Barred Owl demonstrating the flexible neck hidden beneath its feathers. Photo by Owen Strickland (CC BY-NC) at

Feathers make owls’ eyes seem to be staring forward like ours, but their eyes are actually set very slightly to the side, allowing them more peripheral vision than we humans have with our straight forward eyes. But because their eyes are only slightly off to the side, the visual fields from each eye can overlap, providing them with accurate binocular vision and depth perception when catching prey.

Our eyes, of course, move in their sockets, so we get more peripheral vision than the birds with eyes on the sides of their heads. But owls can’t move their eyes; they’re fitted tightly into bony sockets. To look around, owls need to rotate their heads. Luckily, that’s easy for them, as it is for most birds. I’m sure you’ve seen geese turn their heads backwards when snoozing or preening. Owls have longer, flexible necks, too, having 14 vertebrae instead of ours with a measly 7. I can hear you exclaiming, “What? Owls don’t have long necks!” Aha! That longer, flexible neck is just hidden under a thick, rounded cloak of feathers beneath their large heads. They can’t turn their heads 360°, of course, even though it sometimes looks like they can. But they can easily reach 180° to look behind them as in the photo of the Barred Owl above – and a bit further at times to almost 270°!

Exceptional Ears Where You’d Least Expect Them!

Like most of us, you might have assumed those tufts on the head of some owls are ears. The host of the Cornell course, ornithologist Dr. Kevin McGowan, explained that the tufts on the Great Horned Owl, for instance, are just used for display during courting or confrontations.

Like us, owls do have an outer and inner ear. Have a look at this photo of a Barn Owl’s face (Tyto alba) taken by photographer Mark Greene at

The Barn Owl’s facial disk functions as an outer ear! Photo by Mark Greene (CC BY-ND-NC) at

That lovely heart-shaped disk is the Barn Owl’s outer ear. Our outer ears on each side of our head funnel sound to our inner ears, located inside our head. The owl’s facial disk does the same, functioning somewhat like a satellite dish bringing in a signal. The stiff, interlocking feathers of the ruff at the outer edge direct sound toward the openings of the inner ears. The inner ear openings are hidden under soft, feathers near the outside edge of each eye. What’s more, in most owls the inner ears are offset, one slightly higher on one side of the head than the other. This allows most owls (see the Saw-whet and Screech owls below) to more accurately locate sounds from above (avoiding predators) and below (finding prey). This elaborate arrangement permits owls to hunt in the dark by both sound and sight.

Those Powerful Talons!

The powerful talons, 2 front, 2 back, of the captive Great Horned Owl that I saw at the hawk festival

All owls have four toes, two forward, two back, unlike most other perching birds who grip a branch with three forward and one back. The Great Horned Owl’s large feet end in large, sturdy talons that can close around prey which is generally rabbit-sized animals, like chickens, ducks, house cats, skunks, ducks, possums and the occasional rodent or frog. Owls that choose smaller prey have smaller feet and thinner talons. Owls usually eat the entire animal and a couple of hours later, regurgitate a pellet that contains the fur, bones and other indigestible bits. Pellets at the bottom of trees are a good sign that owls nest or perch there.

Almost Silent Wings in Flight

The impressive, very quiet wings of a Snowy Owl. Photo by Bob Bonin

Owls navigate the landscape on wings that make almost no sound. What a great advantage for a hunter! The prey can’t hear them coming, and they can more clearly hear the prey. They accomplish this feat in several ways. Cornell’s Dr. McGowan explained that “Owls have relatively large, broad, rounded wings that produce a lot of lift for the size of the bird … This allows for slow flight, and slow flight is quieter than fast flight.” Think of the quick, noisy beats of a duck on takeoff. Secondly, owls evolved special feathers that keep the noise down. “The front edges of the outer wing feathers have a comb-like structure” which creates “a smooth flow of air over the wing, reducing turbulence and therefore noise.” The back edge of these feathers are fringed to do the same thing. Plus, the fine filaments on the velvety surface of an owl’s wings dampen the sound of feathers rubbing against each other. Wow! A flying predator with excellent sight and hearing maneuvering silently through the trees. That’s a formidable hunter!

Now, Let’s Meet – and Listen to – Some Local Owls

Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus)

Great Horned Owl by photographer akidd13b (CC BY-NC)

Listen for the Hoot!: The Great Horned Owl Turn up your volume and click on this blue link from Cornell University’s Ornithology Lab. The clearest recording of this owl’s courting “song,” I think, is the first one, labeled “Song.” You’ll hear a call in the distance at first but at about 13 seconds, the louder ones begin. Great Horned Owls vocalize from mid-September to early April, but now is an excellent time to start listening because they’re in the breeding season.

The Great Horned Owl beyond our dark window hooted for the same reasons all owls call – to defend its territory or to court a mate. Great Horned Owls nest during January and February, the earliest of the local owls; others generally mate from March through May. Like most owls, they don’t build their own nests. Great Horned Owls nest in natural tree cavities and tall broken-off tree trunks, but they also take over big, flat nests high in trees constructed with bare sticks. As a result, they prefer last year’s hawk, crow, eagle or heron nests which are built just the way they like them.

Courtship by Great Horned Owls is quick and short on romance – a bit of bowing, hopping, occasional beak snapping, fluffing feathers, a mouse or some other bit of food given by the male to the female, some reciprocal hooting and that’s about it. Cornell’s website has an excellent video of the brief mating of two Great Horned Owls. As you’ll see, it can be pretty perfunctory.

Generally, the female incubates during the day, the male at night for about a month. Like most birds, both adults must defend their eggs and nestlings from snakes, squirrels, chipmunks and other birds. Of course, these owls themselves can prey upon these creatures, as any harassing crow could testify!

The nestlings grow quickly, gaining weight and mobility within the nest for about 6 weeks. Adults spend arduous months feeding hungry owlets like the ones below that Bob Bonin saw peeking from the top of a broken tree. Such a great photo!

Two young Great Horned Owls peeking from a nest in a broken tree. Photo by Bob Bonin

Between the sixth to eighth week, the fledglings come out of the nest and simply sit on branches waiting to be fed. It’s called “branching.” Bob caught this Great Horned Owl fledgling who looks like it’s waiting for its meal to arrive. What a glare, eh?

A young Great Horned Owl who could be thinking about venturing onto a nearby branch or is simply waiting for food to be brought by its parents.

According to Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior, Vol 3, the fledglings start attempting to fly at about 9-10 weeks. They practice flying and hunting and at about 5 months are ready to be on their own.

Barred Owl (Strix varia)

Bob Bonin’s springtime shot of a Barred Owl adult

Listen for the Hoot!: Barred Owls The Barred Owl courts in February or March but its hooting can be heard from January to mid-April. Its distinctive call described by Cornell Ornithology as “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?” is a memory aid that makes me smile. Its hoot is said to carry easily in the forest and I can believe that from the “song” recording at this link.

I’ll probably never hear a Barred Owl hoot in my neighborhood; they stay clear of the territory of any Great Horned Owl, their most dangerous predator. Barred Owls are year ’round residents, though, and most of them stay in the same area year after year, sometimes re-using the same nest. In winter, females in rural areas may stay on their territory while the males venture into cities and suburban areas seeking more food. So you might get lucky at your house or local park!

Barred Owls do most of their hunting during the night, but often they’re seen roosting during the day as well. They have smaller legs and finer talons than the Great Horned Owls (see photo below) because they generally eat smaller prey like mice, chipmunks, squirrels, sometimes frogs or other birds. Mates tend to roost together and Bob Bonin caught a fine photo of a pair doing just that. As is common in large birds, the female is the larger of the two.

A pair of Barred Owls, the smaller male on the left, the larger female on the right. Photo by Bob Bonin

Barred Owls move into the same sorts of nest that Great Horned Owls prefer. They are prey for larger owls and hawks, especially their eggs or nestlings. Sometimes the prey turns on them; small songbirds, crows and woodpeckers occasionally mob and harass them in order to protect their own nest or young. Once hatched, the Barred Owl nestlings remain in the nest for about 4-5 weeks before fledging, but young Barred Owls like the one below may not be fully on their own until the following fall. If this little owl fell from its perch, it would grasp rough bark with its beak and talons, flap its wings and walk up the tree!

The soulful eyes of a young Barred Owl just venturing out onto a branch and waiting to be fed. Photo by Bob Bonin

Northern Saw-whet Owl (Aegolius acadicus)

The little Northern Saw-whet Owl’s hoot is a staccato series of short beeps. Photo by Bob Bonin

Listen for the Hoot: Saw-whet Owls The Saw-whet Owl’s song sounds very much like a truck backing up, a long series of short beeps! Starting in late January, they can be heard “beeping” at the edge of a woods. Of course, they also use a variety of calls to communicate with mates, young and other owls. Some of those calls are very high and piercing! It’s been suggested that the owl’s name refers to the sound of a saw being sharpened on a whetstone. Check out the “calls” at the blue link above and you’ll see why that might be correct!

Saw-Whets are tiny, only 7-9 inches high and very fetching with their over-sized heads and yellow eyes. To avoid becoming prey from larger owls and hawks, they spend daylight hours in dense foliage, most often in evergreens, just as in Bob’s photo above. At night, though, they are efficient hunters. Their diet is mostly mice, especially deer mice, which carry the dreaded ticks that now infest our summers. So the Saw-whet’s diet has my approval. Saw-whets that migrate north to breed, however, may eat songbirds along the way. The slightly offset ear openings of Saw-whets allow them to accurately locate prey even in deep snow.  They’ve been known to plunge into 18 inches of snow and emerge with a mouse! I’d love to witness that!

A great nighttime shot of a Saw-Whet Owl taken by iNaturalist photographer Elliot S. (CC BY-NC)

Saw-whets nest in tree cavities, most often those created by woodpeckers and flickers. The females incubate, while the males bring food. When the owlets reach about 18 days old and produce feathers, the female departs to roost elsewhere. The male continues feeding the young alone, though the older nestlings sometimes help feed their younger siblings. The female may mate again if the opportunity arises. Since these small owls are prey for so many creatures – squirrels, starlings, crows, hawks and larger owls, among others – producing more young is important for their survival as a species.

Eastern Screech Owl (Megascops asio)

The gray morph of the Eastern Screech Owl can camouflage beautifully with the tree bark around its hole. That’s why they’re so hard to spot! Photo by inaturalist photographer Matthew McPhee (CC BY-NC)

Listen for the Hoot … or rather Screech! The most famous song of an Eastern Screech Owl sounds to me like a spooky, descending whinny. It’s the first recording at the link and is used most to defend territory. When communicating with mates or young, Screech Owls use a monotone of pulsing notes which you can also hear at the link. The “screech” is a shriek used when defending the nest or their young. Cornell provides no recording of that sound; maybe if you hear it, you’re running away! Screech owls fly at predators – and occasionally curious humans – who venture too close to their nests. Listen for Screech Owls from mid-January to the end of March.

The Eastern Screech Owl is a cosmopolitan bird in two respects. It can be found on farmland, in suburbs or in cities anywhere east of the Rocky Mountains. And its menu is cosmopolitan too. In summer, they feast on large insects like beetles, moths, crickets and grasshoppers along with mammals. In winter, they tend to exclusively choose animals, some as small as rodents, moles and finches, others as large as Bluejays, woodpeckers, rabbits and squirrels. They even snag an occasional bat as it flies by! They use a “perch and pounce” strategy, waiting for prey in their hole and then dropping down or swooping out at them.

Screech Owls also come in two “morphs.” The gray one above is most common, but lucky for us, Bob Bonin caught a photo of the red morph which makes up only about 15% of the population, according to Wikipedia.

Bob Bonin’s amazing photo of the red morph of an Eastern Screech Owl

In late winter, Screech Owl males tempt a mate by leaving food in a tree cavity, a natural one or one excavated by woodpeckers. Unlike most bird species, their holes are not just used for raising young. Screech Owls sleep and sun in their nest cavities during the day, feed in them to avoid predators and retreat to them in bad weather. Egg laying commonly begins in mid-April. Though Screech Owls are generally monogamous, males do occasionally have a second mate. According to Cornell’s allaboutbirds website, “The second female may evict the first female, lay her own eggs in the nest, and incubate both clutches.” Hmmph! The first female may look for another (ideally more faithful?) mate, since screech owls generally produce two clutches a year. About four weeks after hatching, the fledglings climb out of the hole using their beaks, feet and wings. A week or so later, they begin following the adults, but won’t disperse until late summer and generally move less than a mile way.

Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus)

Bob Bonin’s delightful photo of a sunning, perhaps snoozing, Snowy Owl

Snowy Owls (Bubo scandiacus)

No hoots with this owl! Snowy Owls breed beyond the Arctic Circle so we don’t hear their courting or territorial voices beyond perhaps an occasional irritated clack of the beak. They do, however, show up in our area periodically in the winter looking for food. A common misperception, according to Cornell’s Dr. MacArthur, is that they arrive starving because of insufficient food in northern Canada and the Arctic. Oddly, it’s just the opposite!

Snowys eat lots of lemmings, their favorite arctic rodent that makes up about 90% of their diet when available. Somehow Snowy Owls adjust the number of eggs they lay according to the natural fluctuations in the abundance of lemmings. In years when lemmings are plentiful, the owls produce more young. With larger numbers of young, competition for prime feeding territory can get intense. When that occurs, some young owls with less ability to compete move down into Canada or Michigan to more easily find food in the winter. So these periodic “irruptions” as they’re called are caused by an abundance rather than a scarcity of food in the Arctic.

[A note: Contrary to popular myth, lemmings do not “commit suicide.” Some lemmings erratically migrate en masse when their population density gets too extreme. They can end up in dangerous situations if deep water or other obstacles are in their path.]

The Brown Lemming (L. trimucronatus) is one of the two lemming species that supply most of the diet of Snowy Owls in arctic Canada and Alaska.

Snowy Owls are truly remarkable birds. They scrape their earthen nests out of the Arctic’s frozen tundra. And scientists are learning that, for reasons unknown, a Snowy Owl may breed one year in Canada and the next year in Siberia. They’ve evolved beautifully to cope with frigid temperatures. Their breasts, heads, faces and even legs and feet are heavily insulated with white feathers which camouflage them in their snowy landscape.

And think of this – in the deep, 24-hour darkness of an arctic winter, these birds forage in openings in the endless ice for seabirds. They plunge into the snow, or run across it to capture lemmings. Very few animals survive in such dark, frigid conditions and many of those that do are prey for magnificent snowy owls. So if you can, seek out these beautiful birds when they descend from the top of the world to feed before returning to their icebound homes.

Other Owls You Might Find in Our Region

I’ve only covered five owls that appear in our immediate area. Here are four others that live in Michigan year ’round or come here periodically: 1) The Long-eared Owl (Asio otus) spends most of its time farther north and breeds at the tip of Michigan’s “mitten” or in the Upper Peninsula. It camouflages during the day in dense foliage, so I’m so glad Bob Bonin spotted one! 2) The Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus) lives here year ’round and generally breeds in the upper half of the “mitten.” It can be seen at dawn and dusk flying low over fields or grasslands. 3) The Barn Owl (Tyto alba) seems to be less common in Michigan than it once was, probably caused by loss of habitat. We don’t have the barns and haystacks of the past. It can eat 3-10 mice per day and can catch them in very low light. 4) The Great Gray Owl (Strix nebulosa) lives year ’round in Canada and Alaska, but occasionally ventures into northern Michigan during the winter months. I love its shocked expression. [Click on photos to enlarge.]

Tips for Seeing Owls

Cornell’s excellent class, The Wonderful World of Owls, ended with some useful tips that I hope to use before the winter ends.

  1. Learn Their Sounds – Our odds of identifying a nearby owl with our ears are much greater than our odds of seeing one.
  2. Know Owl Habitats – I’ve provided some info on the habitats of common owls in our area. If you live elsewhere, consider taking Cornell’s course; they cover owls all over the country and world. Or consider exploring Cornell Ornithology’s to find out which owls – or other birds – have recently been spotted near your area or wherever you’re traveling. Citizen scientists around the globe regularly report to eBird on the birds they see.
  3. Learn the Time of Day When the Owl You’re Seeking is Most Active – For instance, Short-eared Owls are most often seen at dusk, which is the beginning of the day for them.
  4. Go Owling When the Moon is Full or Nearly Full – We increase our chances of seeing an owl when the moon is full on a clear night, especially if snow is reflecting the moonlight. Also there’s some evidence that owls hoot more in bright moonlight.
  5. Avoid Windy Nights – Owls don’t call much if the wind is blowing. Possibly they’ve learned over the eons that their hoots are more difficult to hear in a stiff wind.
  6. Winter is a Great Time for Owling – Owls often roost on branches in the weeks before and after their nesting season. So now is a great time. Seize the day!
  7. Look for Pellets Below Trees or “Whitewash” on Tree Trunks – Those are good signs that owls roost or nest there.
  8. Listen for the Frantic Calls of Mobbing Birds – If you hear a whole group of birds screeching at one time, look around. There’s a good chance that an owl in the area has set them off.

Our Fear of and Fascination with Predators

A Great Horned Owl who may have awoken as our Wednesday morning group passed by.

Few things are more intriguing on a winter night than the haunting song of an owl. They sound like something wild, something alien. Our instincts sometimes are to tame that wildness, to reassure ourselves that these fierce predators of the night are harmless, at least to us. In ancient mythologies or in children’s stories, owls are often associated with wisdom and intelligence. As a child, my younger brother played with an owl puppet and a child I’m fond of now keeps company with two toy owls. We learn early to love owls.

But as an adult, I’m glad to learn of the skillful fierceness and lethal power of a hunting owl, too. I want to remember that death in nature is rarely random violence. Nature accepts death as necessary to survival. Owls kill to eat or to defend the next generation of owls. Wild predators – the ones humans fear like snakes, coyote, wolves or sharks and the ones we admire like dolphins and whales – all must kill to eat and raise their young. And of course, we humans do pretty much the same, except that most of us rely on other humans to do the necessary ending of another life.

I’m trying to deepen my understanding of nature’s undeniable linkage between death and life. Its network of intricate relationships, worked out over eons, requires death to protect and sustain life. Maybe because I’m aging, I’m trying to integrate that acceptance of death into my love for nature, so as not to romanticize it. I want to love all of it, the glorious and the grim, as part of the natural order. Maybe that way, I can better accept that in my own human life as well.

Photos of the Week: Making Friends with Winter Darkness

Well, the longest night of the year, the winter solstice,  is behind us, but the nights are still long, aren’t they? We pull the curtains against the blank, black windows as the sun sets, click on a lamp and if we’re lucky, light a fire. Porch lights suddenly glow along our streets. We escape from the dark, fending it off with relief, as if we are warding off danger.

But what if we welcomed the darkness? What if we paused before pulling the curtains and just looked at night coming on? Sunsets around here can be quite dramatic this time of year. Winter is a time to look for “sun pillars,” when vertical beams of light occasionally appear near the sunset, caused by light reflecting on tiny ice crystals suspended in the atmosphere – like this one at our home one winter evening.

And although I’ve never caught “wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings,” I have caught geese flying splashed with the pink of a sunset.

Geese with sunset reflecting on their wings and breasts.

Geese at sunset, Bear Creek

Even a stray chunk of ice can look quite magical when it catches a ray of orange light as dusk settles.

A ray of light at sunset strikes a chunk of ice making a winter landscape

Perhaps we could learn to stand in the dark on a snowy night and listen for the low hooting of the Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus). According to the Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior Vol. 3, they mate during the winter. But it’s difficult to hear their plaintive, long distance courting through tightly closed windows and doors. Maybe open the door a crack now and then, set your ear to it and listen.

Seen at Bear Creek in the summer – here in black and white.

It’s mating season for White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) as well; unfortunately we are aware of  that from all the heedless deer on the roads. But on foot, it’s magical to see a young doe covered in snow beneath your bird feeder in the evening…

or smile at a pine tree topped by the full moon like the star on a Christmas tree!

Full moon serving as a star atop an evergreen

The intriguing thing about being out in the darkness is that it’s often not as dark as it seems from inside those black windows. The moon and the stars do shine, after all, and anything white – flowers in summer, snow in winter – catches that silver light and reflects it, creating patterns we miss if we aren’t  looking.

So this winter, perhaps we should consider venturing out into the dark – maybe with a friend to feel more comfortable at first. Or perhaps parents can take children out “owling” on a snowy night – and if you’re considering it, have a look at the gorgeous picture book Owl Moon by Jane Yolen for inspiration. Or just take them on a stroll around the lawn while scouting out Orion overhead or other constellations. Even a walk down a long driveway can be exciting on a moonlit night. You can sing to yourself for courage if the possible presence of nocturnal animals makes you nervous; they most often run away at the sound of a human voice. Or if you are intrigued by them, follow fox tracks in the moonlight.

Fox prints on the frozen Center Pond at Bear Creek

Maybe you could make it a personal or family ritual to just take a few minutes once a week to sit with a cup of cocoa, turn off the lights and stare through a darkened window. Watch the moon as it changes; perhaps record its phases on a calendar with your children or grandchildren. Open your door and listen to the song of wind in the pines and how it differs from songs “sung” through bare limbs. If you hear a coyote outside, consider calling your children to the door to listen to their song – and then howl along!

An aura around a winter moon

Perhaps if we can become familiar with the velvet black of a winter night, its sounds and sights, we’ll be more comfortable with it. Let’s befriend the night and see the beauty that lies out there in the winter darkness.

Photos of Week: Banding Migrators, from the Minuscule Hummingbird to the Mighty Hawk

A sky full of migrating Broad-winged Hawks

Hawks by the thousands head out across the west end of Lake Erie each autumn. And smaller migrators wing across at night to avoid those predatory hawks that travel by day. Holiday Beach Conservation Area on Lake Erie (near Amherstburg, Ontario, an easy drive from southeast Michigan) lies on a major fly-way for migrating birds, especially hawks. Local birders from the Holiday Beach Migration Observatory (HBMO) count and keep records on the migration spectacle.

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

In mid-September each year, HBMO members share the fun of migration by hosting the Festival of Hawks at Holiday Beach, the third-ranked hawk watching site in North America. For the last 41 years, volunteer bird enthusiasts from HBMO have contributed to the study of  migration and bird conservation for both hawks and perching birds (“passerines”). Let’s hear it for passionate citizen scientists!

This year three of us from the Oakland Township birding group made our own migration to experience this special event. At the Festival, we looked skyward from the tall observation tower, craning our necks, binoculars aloft, to watch huge, swirling flocks of hawks, known as “kettles,” as seen in the photo above and at left below.

What a sight to see roughly 200 Broad-winged Hawks (Buteo platypterus) wheeling up and over the tree line at the horizon! These forest raptors with their banded tails spiral upward on thermals, riding currents of rising, warm air to great heights with little effort. Traveling over 4,000 miles, hundreds of thousands of these hawks create a “river of raptors” (as they call it in Mexico) flowing into their winter territories in Mexico, Central and South America. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

Another impressive raptor settled low in a tree right over the path to the viewing area. An Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) had caught a fish and wasn’t going anywhere until it finished its meal! Ospreys, unlike other hawks, eat only fish. They are skilled anglers and tend to carry their prey head-first for less wind resistance. This one gave me a fierce stare and then went right back to eating its lunch.

The Osprey gave me a fierce stare, but then went back to the fish between its feet.

The Osprey eating its fish.

We visitors were allowed to crowd around a trained and licensed HBMO bird bander as he attached bands to several  birds caught in their super-fine “mist nets.” Runners watch the nets which are stretched between poles on fly-ways near the ground. The captured birds are quickly removed from the nets and rushed to the gentleman banding birds in order to release them as quickly as possible. We began by watching the banding of a tiny Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) brought in a small cloth bag. The man gently wrapped his hand around the tiny bird. The hummer was surprisingly calm.

The bird bander held a tiny hummer gently in his hand.

With a special tool, he softly clipped a tiny band (10 of them fit on a diaper pin!) on the hummer’s  leg. The band will identify that specific bird and allow the club to be contacted if someone observes the hummer and reports the band. The bander weighed and measured the tiny bird, then determined its gender and approximate age (juvenile or adult).

For a small donation to Holiday Beach Migration Observatory’s work, we observers could “adopt” a banded bird. That meant having a photo taken with the bird, releasing it from your open palm and being notified where/when your “adoptee” was found by another birder. Donna, one of our birders, adopted a little Hummingbird.

The hummer is placed in the hand of the “adopter” who releases it back to the wild.

Here are some other birds that got banded, or had their bands checked, while we watched. (Click on the pause button if more time is needed for captions.)

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As a bonus, some individuals trained and licensed in falconry brought their owls and hawks. Though hunting with trained birds is an ancient sport, it always make me a little uncomfortable to see the jesses on their legs. But these licensed professionals did give us a chance to see magnificent birds up close. And the birds were clearly well cared for, well fed and beautifully trained.

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I love the whole idea of citizen science! How wonderful that the passionate birders of  HBMO gather to provide data on the birds that they admire and to educate the rest of us! This summer, here in the township, several residents volunteered to monitor bluebird boxes, providing the Cornell Ornithology Lab’s NestWatch site with plentiful data on a lovely species that may contribute to their continued survival. Some of us report amphibian and reptile sightings to the Michigan Herpetology Atlas or participate in Feeder Watch, which keeps track of winter birds at our home feeders. Some are helping post-doctoral students at the U-M’s M3 Monarch Migration Study use tiny electronic monitors to learn where individual Monarch butterflies travel. There are so many  ways to contribute to what science can teach us about the natural world. What’s your passion?

Beauty in Every Season: A Year-End Review of our Parks and Natural Areas

Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide and I both got inspired by the idea of a year-end reflection on some of  the remarkable sights in our parks and natural areas over the last year. Nature excels in surprising and delighting any curious observer with its ability to come back from adversity, in some cases to even thrive in difficult circumstances. That ability to keep on growing and creating in the face of any obstacle can be a great inspiration in challenging times.

Blog and photos by Cam Mannino

So as the snow falls, please sit back in a comfortable chair with a warm drink and savor  some highlights from the four seasons of 2017 here in Oakland Township.

Winter 2017: Serenity Rises as the Snow Falls

The Tree Line Between Two Prairies, Charles Ilsley Park

Sometimes we just need a little less hubbub after the holidays and the parks provide a  peaceful escape. In general, the only sounds are the wind in bare branches, the occasional calls of the year ’round birds and the tapping  of energetic woodpeckers foraging in the tree bark. And other times,  when we feel  a bit house-bound and crave crisp air on red cheeks,  a winter walk provides little discoveries unavailable in other seasons. During one deep freeze last winter, the weekly birding group stepped out on the ice at Cranberry Lake to inspect a beaver lodge. And a few weeks later,  I plopped down in the snow for a closer look at 3-D ice dendrites standing upright on a frozen puddle! Folks enjoyed the fine skating rink at Marsh View Park, but some who fancied wild surroundings skated on Twin Lake. On sunny winter days, shadows are always sharp and any spot of color, like the brilliant red of a male cardinal,  catches my  eye in winter’s clear, white light. Hiking in winter can be wonderful; just be sure you’re bundled up for it! (Click on pause button for longer captions.)

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Spring 2017: Buds, First Blooms, Migrators Flying in by Night and the Ebullient Symphony of Courting Birds and Frogs

Golden Alexanders carpet the woods near the Wet Prairie along the Paint Creek Trail

Ah, mud-luscious spring! The tiny Chorus and Wood Frogs thawed out after their winter freeze and sang lustily from vernal ponds. In early spring, the birders spotted a crayfish at Bear Creek who’d climbed out of her chimney with eggs under her tail and was lumbering toward the pond. Some spring avian migrators quickly passed through, and we bird watchers were lucky to spot a few special visitors. An unusual American Pipit appeared before my camera lens one afternoon at Gallagher Creek Park on its way to its breeding grounds in the far north. While others, like the Tree Swallow or the Eastern Meadowlark, settled in for the summer to raise their young. After last year’s controlled burn, native Lupines appeared along the Paint Creek Trail. And in May, Ben spotted a rare sight, a frilly spread of rare Bogbean flowers in a kettle wetland at Bald Mountain State Recreation Area off Kern Road. Snow melt and bright green buds always offer an irresistible invitation to come out and join the bustle and music of spring!

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Summer 2017: Butterflies Galore as Restored Prairies Began to Bloom

East Prairie Ilsley 2017 (1)

Member of the birding group at Charles Ilsley Park in July

Summer! The very word conjures up a coloring box assortment of butterflies hovering over prairie wildflowers. Birds constructed their nests and later wore themselves out feeding noisy, demanding fledglings. We birders particularly enjoyed close looks at a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak sharing egg-warming duties near a Bear Creek path. The birders laughed in surprise watching  a passive/aggressive pair of Canada Geese successfully discourage the presence of a Green Heron by simply swimming uncomfortably close to it.  A family ambled along a path at Draper Twin Lake Park, headed for a morning fishing expedition.  The birding group, binoculars in hand,  spotted an Indigo Bunting while walking the new paths through the prairies at Charles Ilsley Park, increasingly spangled with colorful native wildflowers as restoration proceeds. A Great Horned Owl stared at the delighted birding group through a scrim of leaves near Bear Creek marsh.  Every path in the township hummed with life during the summer months. But that’s what we all expect of summer, right?

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Autumn 2017:  Birds Departed South, and Fall Wildflowers Bloomed

Autumn color at Cranberry Lake Park

Tundra Swans flew in formation overhead,  as migrators of all kinds, like the Hermit Thrush, rode the north wind down to southern climes. But as they departed, nature offered a consolation.  Many native wildflowers bloomed in the cool weather as they faithfully do each year. Asters formed carpets of color everywhere, from meadow to marsh! At the Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail,  tiny Ladies Tresses orchids, Grass of Parnassus with its delicately striped petals, and vivid purple Fringed Gentian intrigued me again by emerging in the chill of early autumn. Native bumblebees pushed their way into Bottle Gentian flowers at Gallagher Creek Park and the Wet Prairie. Butterflies still sipped nectar from late fall blooms. The birders identified ducks of all kinds assembled in rafts on Cranberry Lake. Rattling cries alerted me to the presence of  Belted Kingfishers who scouted for prey at  both Bear Creek’s pond and Cranberry Lake. Ben dipped his net into a marsh at Charles Ilsley Park to show us tadpoles that overwinter on the muddy surface beneath the water. So much life as the year 2017 began to ebb!

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Parks Full of Life All Year ‘Round. Aren’t We Lucky?

As a direct result of the foresight of township residents who have supported the Parks Commission and land preservation, native plants, wildlife, birds, and a beautifully diverse combination of habitats are being restored and preserved in Oakland Township. I want to share my appreciation for that foresight and for the hard work and knowledge of Ben VanderWeide (my kind and able supervisor and editor), other parks volunteers, my fellow birders and park staff.  And at the end of the year, I thank all of you who read, comment on and/or follow Natural Areas Notebook. It’s wonderful to be learning more all the time about the natural world – and then to have this opportunity to share what I’m learning with all of you. On to 2018!

Back to Bear Creek: Surprise! Unusual Sightings of Birds, Bugs and More

Native Golden Alexanders and Spiderwort blooming in the circle of the parking lot at Bear Creek

Blog Post & Photos by Cam Mannino

The last two weeks at Bear Creek gifted me with some exciting moments – seeing previously unseen birds, witnessing unusual nesting behavior, watching a turtle struggling to bury her eggs and being surprised by a little butterfly I hadn’t seen for years. So though the blog just visited Bear Creek two weeks ago, I wanted to share the bounty I’m enjoying before the season changes much.

Unusual Birds and the Usual Ones Doing Interesting Things!

As many of you know, I’ve been walking in Bear Creek for 25 years and I’ve watched for owls all that time. They spend their days sleeping right next to tree trunks on high limbs, and despite craning my neck for years, I’d never spotted one. But on the first June bird walk, a fellow birder, Bob Bonin,  spotted one high up in a tree near Bear Creek Marsh. Huge, silhouetted against the morning sky, this Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) wasn’t easy to see, much less photograph. But luckily, I got a few shots before he gave the group an annoyed look, lifted his huge body with his massive wings and flew away. Such a thrill! (Click on arrows for slideshow; use pause button for a closer look.)

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A bit earlier that morning, we saw an unusual bird at the other end of the size spectrum. A male Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) perched high on a snag behind the Center Pond and turned his iridescent green back to the morning sun. We saw a quick orange flash at his throat but I missed it. The Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol. I) indicates that males’ throats look brown or black if the light doesn’t hit their necks just right. When I returned on a late afternoon, there he was on the same snag – but this time the afternoon sun caught the edge of his throat which shone gold rather than ruby red. He’s not the most glamorous hummer, but I’m glad I got to see a bit of his gleam.

This male hummingbird’s bright throat only shone for a second in the morning sun, so I settled for the light in his eye and his iridescent green back.

The same male hummer’s throat shone gold in the late afternoon sun.

Near the Center Pond, the birders also discovered the nest of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus) – with the male sitting calmly, tending the eggs or nestlings. Occasionally, he even sang his lovely tune as he waited patiently. I’d read in the Stokes Guides that male Grosbeaks sometime take on this responsibility, but I’d never seen it. On three separate visits, the male was the only one on this nest – though the female may have relieved him at other times. So, Happy Father’s Day to this dedicated Grosbeak dad!

Male Rose-breasted Grosbeak tending the fledglings

A slightly tired looking male Grosbeak remains near the nest after nest tending

In a willow to the right of the deck in the Center Pond is a beautiful nest.  It’s cleverly attached between two vertical branches about 20 feet up, ingeniously woven and quite large – maybe 9 inches long. During my first 3 visits, only the female’s black tail cocked behind her was visible from the observation deck. Finally one afternoon, I waded into the grass at the pond’s edge and  caught sight of her hindquarters as she fed her young. And then, I saw a fledgling’s head just above the edge of the nest. Ah, this nest was constructed by a female Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) – a somewhat eccentric one since Red-wings normally build close to the water and weave their nests among cat-tails or reeds. She’s quite an architect! The location of this elaborate nest makes it nearly invisible and unreachable by predators. Clever mama Red-wing!

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Two nests appeared high in a tree on the Walnut Lane. The barely visible, masked eye of the female Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) peeked through the leaves that camouflaged the first nest spotted by the birders. Since she sat there quietly every time I visited, I’ve included a photo of a Waxwing from a previous year so you’ll  remember how elegant this conscientious mother bird truly is!

Only the masked eye of the female Cedar Waxwing shows above the edge of her cleverly hidden nest along the Walnut Lane.


An adult Cedar Waxwing. The two red dots on the wing gave it its name.

Across the Walnut Lane, the birders also discovered the nest of a female Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) who spent several days building her gauzy, somewhat more loosely constructed nest. She proudly stood above it a few days later as it neared completion. The female Kingbird constructs the nest and keeps the male off it until the eggs hatch. Then both parents feed the nestlings. But even during the egg phase, the male stays on a branch nearby to defend the territory for his mate and young.

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Another good provider, a tiny male Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia) brought a bright green caterpillar to feed his nestlings or mate. In between feeding trips, he’d let loose with his proud song, “Sweet, sweet, I’m a little sweet.” Impressive dad who can bring home the bugs, singing all the while! Bet the female warbler was as impressed as I was.

A Yellow Warbler feeds his mate or young  a bright green caterpillar and sings in between feedings.

An Orchard Oriole male (Icterus spurius) serenaded us from a small tree in the middle of a meadow. His long, melodious song sounded much like the third song recorded at this link.  A few Orchard Orioles seem to come to Bear Creek each year – but they migrate south by mid-July. So keep an eye out and an ear cocked soon in the meadows to the east of the Walnut Lane!

A male Orchard Oriole singing with gusto in the meadow beneath the seating area in the southern end of the park

An invisible bird, high up in the tree tops, repeated its melodious warble continuously one warm morning. I’ve never seen a Warbling Vireo (Vireo gilvus); they rarely come down from the heights. But fortunately, a great photographer from the iNaturalist website, Steven Mlodinow, has seen one and generously allows others to borrow his photo. Listen for this warbler’s rich melody all summer long, but don’t be surprised if you never spot this elusive summer resident.

A photo of a Warbling Vireo by gifted photographer, Steven Mlodinow (CC BY-NC) on

Little Surprises Near the Wetlands

At the northeast corner of the Center Pond, a young Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta) hurried to cover her eggs one hot afternoon. She’s found a likely spot where Ben had cleared away invasive shrubs a couple of years ago. As you’ll see in the video below, she work really hard with her back legs to get the dirt to move. She’d no doubt have preferred sandier soil! But she was determined to see the job done!

I’ve seen Northern Leopard Frogs (Lithobates pipiens) periodically at Cranberry Lake but never one at Bear Creek. But hearing their snoring call near a wetland, I waded into tall grass and found this one, hiding among the greenery. Glad to know this beautiful frog is at Bear Creek, too.

A Leopard Frog hiding in tall grass near a wetland.

Ben noticed an  Eastern American Toad (Anaxyrus americanus) toad on the path one afternoon when we went to look at nests.  Normally, I only see brown toads, but Wikipedia informs me that “The color and pattern is somewhat variable, especially for the females. Skin color can change depending on habitat colors, humidity, stress, and temperature…Some toads of this subspecies have a more pervasive red and deep brown color, many with red warts on their bodies.”  So this little toad is probably female and the red description  fits  her pretty well.  I wonder if the unusually hot temperatures had an effect on her appearance?  Hard to tell.

A young Eastern American Toad or a dwarf American Toad near the Center Pond at Bear Creek

Amazing Insects: A Butterfly I’ve Missed for Years, Favorite Dragonflies and the Skills of Tiny Pollinators

Next year, I’ll be looking for the boldly patterned Baltimore Checkerspot butterflies (Euphydryas phaeton) on June 11 or 12. I’ve only seen them on those two dates, 6 years apart! This year, four of them fluttered at a spot in the trail where water runs under the path – a place I’ve often seen other small butterflies feeding on minerals left by the water. Later in the summer, watch for the communal caterpillar webs of these small butterflies (about 2.5 inches) on the host wildflower Turtlehead (Chelone glabra) where these butterflies lay their eggs during the summer and where the caterpillars first feed.

Interestingly, in the fall, Baltimore Checkerspot caterpillars wrap themselves in leaf litter, overwinter and finish developing in the spring. This seems to be a big year for them – so keep an eye out if you see a small, dark butterfly at your feet.

The Baltimore Checkerspot overwinters as a caterpillar.

Different species of dragonflies seem to appear each week to dance among the budding wildflowers and over the pond. The dramatic, yet quite common Twelve-spotted Skimmer (Libellula pulchella) did indeed skim over the tops of grasses in the Eastern Meadow this week. Dragonflies often land, fly, and then come back to the same dry stalk – so if you miss one in your binoculars the first time, wait a moment and you’ll probably see it in the same place again!

Twelve-spotted Skimmer dragonfly BC

A bright green Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis) dragonfly clung to a grass stem on the western slope. If it’s a male, it will gradually turn blue over the summer. If a female, it will remain green. Probably this one is newly emerged since it’s hunting in a meadow. When it’s ready to mate, it will rendezvous with others  at the Center Pond.

This Eastern Pondhawk is still in the meadow but will go to the pond when it’s time to mate.

A small Dot-tailed Whiteface (Leucorrhinia intacta) dragonfly posed for a face-on selfie at the Playground Pond before continuing its quest to consume as many mosquitoes, flies and other small insects as possible before the day is out. Love its cartoon-like face and the one yellow dot on its tail that give it its name.

Easy to see why this is called a Dot-tailed Whiteface dragonfly, eh?











Pollinators are busy all over the park, feeding and carrying the pollen that will bring us next year’s blooms. This may look like a European Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) but Honey Bees are fuzzy all over and this one just isn’t. So it’s more likely to be a Dronefly (Eristalis tenax), a type of Hoverfly (family Syrphidae), which uses its pattern, slight fuzziness and loud hum to mimic male Honey Bees as a way of protecting against predators. Droneflies cannot sting, but a passing dragonfly probably doesn’t take a chance!

Daisy with bee

This dronefly (a kind of hoverfly) mimicks a bee’s appearance and hum for protection.

I noticed what looked at first like a tiny wasp on this umbel of a native Nannyberry bush (Viburnum lentago) near the Center Pond. But after a bit of research in Pollinators of Native Plants by Heather Holm, I’m going to guess it’s a female Leaf-cutter Bee (family Megachilidae). It has a wasp-y pattern and shape and it’s collecting pollen on its abdomen and on the top of its back leg (look at those jodhpurs!). Leaf-cutters cut small, neat circles out of leaves, hence the name. They then roll up a single fertilized egg and a chunk of pollen in each circle, forming a solitary, cigar-shaped nest which is placed in a hole in the soil, wood or other structures. Such an unusual nest!

A leaf-cutter bee pollinating a Nannyberry bush near the Center Pond

Bring a Friend – or Friends! – to Visit Your Favorite Park

Oakland Township Natural Areas manager Ben VanderWeide leads a group of birders at Cranberry Lake Park

I’ve always loved walking alone in the township parks. I can listen to birdsong, stop to look at something tiny like the Little Wood Satyr butterfly below, or enjoy the fresh scents of wood, greenery, the earth after a rain in silence. Solitary walks are contemplative.

A Little Wood Satyr butterfly rests in the shade

But this particular blog testifies to the special pleasures of hiking with interested friends and family. First of all, they just bring more eyes! I’m always seeing things with the birders or with my husband, that I’d never have noticed with just my two eyes (in this case, the owl, the hummer, the oriole, the male grosbeak in his nest and more). But also their curiosity piques mine. They bring specialized interests and knowledge. They often patiently help me find the bird hiding in a leafy tree (“The center trunk at about 2 o’clock…). It’s a different kind of delight to walk with nature-noticing friends. So if all of this nature stuff intrigues you, take some nature-lovers with you on your next walk. Or consider joining our friendly birding group on Wednesday mornings year ’round. We’d love to have you join us! (The schedule is under “Events” at the top of the home page.)

Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Pollinators of Native Plants by Heather Holm; Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3;, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia;  Herbarium of the University of Michigan at; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; other sites as cited in the text.