January 25, 2007

Nomad among the owls

Long-eared owls seem to be experts at remaining unseen - even by biologists concerned about their apparently declining numbers

Orange County Register

Somewhere deep in tangles of trees on the margins of Orange County, long-eared owls are preparing to lay their eggs and raise their young.

But this secretive, seldom-seen raptor is of concern to biologists. Their numbers appear to be dropping in California, and possibly the rest of North America as well, because of loss of habitat.

That was the conclusion of an Orange County raptor expert, one of the few to track the species and study it. The finding was hard to come by. These owls give bird enthusiasts and scientists who seek them a difficult time, and not only because of their secretive nature and their preference for nesting in dense tree cover.

Long-eared owls live a nomadic lifestyle, moving from place to place without a consistent pattern and having no need to return to the same spot each year to breed. They don't build their own nests, relying instead on the abandoned nests of hawks, crows and other species.

They also seem to give their odd calls less often than other owls, according to one authority, making them even more difficult to locate.

The long "ears" give these owls a different look than other owl species, but have nothing to do with hearing. Instead, they are believed to further contribute to the owls' cryptic nature by breaking up its shape when it is perched among tangled branches.

These owls sometimes gather in common roosting places, for instance in the Mojave desert, but do not flock as some other species do.

When hunting, they fly low over fields and clearings and pounce on rodent prey.