Typically a stealthy but vocal resident of Vermont’s deciduous forests, Barred Owls have been visibly on the prowl statewide throughout this winter. Sightings in broad daylight have been common, as evidenced by recent reports of a bird in downtown Burlington and many backyard or roadside sightings. In fact, the entire Northeast is experiencing a near-unprecedented incursion of Barred Owls. While exciting to birders and others who closely encounter one of these stately birds, the species’ frequent daytime appearances signal a time of hardship.
Barred Owls, whose distinctive “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you?” hooting calls reverberate through Vermont woodlands in late winter and early spring, breed throughout the eastern U.S. and southern Canada. These sit-and-wait predators feed largely on small rodents, such as red-back voles and deer or white-footed mice. Apparently populations of these prey species have crashed in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence region, forcing Barred Owls to move southward. Many of these dispersing birds are likely young-of-the-year, less experienced in the ways of the world and subject to becoming food-stressed. Their struggles to find prey probably account for daytime hunting, sometimes in unusual locations. Unfortunately, this behavior often finds them along roadsides, where small rodents have to leave their snow tunnels to make crossings. Many have been struck by cars.
The rash of Barred Owl sightings this winter is also reflected in irruptions of other northern predatory birds. Northern Shrikes have been present in Vermont in excellent numbers, and a recent unconfirmed report of a Great Gray Owl at the Burlington Intervale lends hope that more Canadian raptors are yet to visit. Birders should keep a watchful eye out for these wanderers. Our own resident Barred Owls should begin filling the night airwaves next month with their emphatic hooting, as the breeding season gets under way.
Other birding highlights of the past week included a lingering Snow Goose and a pair of Harlequin Ducks on Lake Champlain in Shelburne. More expected were 14 Ring-necked Ducks, 200 Greater Scaup, and 25 Lesser Scaup off Charlotte. A hardy American Kestrel was seen in Ferrisburgh on Jan. 19, while no fewer than 12 Northern Shrikes were reported statewide. Flocks of Bohemian and Cedar Waxwings continue to appear all over Vermont, as do Pine Grosbeaks and Common Redpolls. The week’s most unusual report was of a Lincoln’s Sparrow at the Burlington Intervale on Sunday, far north of its normal wintering range in the southern U.S.
You can explore all the birds reported last week in Vermont and add your own sightings at VTeBird.
By Chris Rimmer