February is an active time for owls
By the time that we get to mid-February, we are in the second half of winter and we can easily see the days getting longer. February may be our shortest month but during these days, we can readily note earlier sunrises and later sunsets. During this past week, we reached 10 hours of daylight. And just 10 days later we will have lengthened to 10 1/2 hours; by the end of the month, 11 hours. The vernal equinox, the first day of spring, is just about five weeks away.
After the cold and darkness, nature is responding. While driving along regional roads lately, I have observed how many of the smaller trees, especially willows and dogwoods, are now holding branches and twigs of color. Among some willows, they are now yellow and orange while others are more of a red, but not as bright as those of the red-osier dogwoods. These little trees now have red stems, branches and even red trunks all the way to the ground.
The birds that wintered here are taking note of the longer days as well. For the last couple of months I've watched chickadees and nuthatches at the feeders. Taking, eating and caching sunflower seeds, they have been a delight to watch. Now they are just as enjoyable to hear. While the chickadees sing a "fee-bee" song, the nuthatches give their "yank-yank" calls. This may be early pre-mating behavior, as are the drumming and calls that I've been hearing lately from the downy, hairy and pileated woodpeckers. Also around the feeders, gray squirrels are exhibiting their early breeding behavior. They have some vocals, but mostly they are active in pursuit of each other in the trees.
While the breeding season of the wild canines has been going on for a few weeks already, other local residents, the rabbits and hares, are beginning theirs. To assure for several litters, they need to have an early start. I was able to observe this during the past week while I skied on the same trail three days in a row. On the first day, I saw only a few hare tracks. The second day, I noted dozens and by the third day it was hundreds, all in the same area. It appears as though these tracks spoke of pre-mating behavior despite the nights' subzero temperatures. Never did I see a snowshoe hare.
The canines and the hares are not the only ones active in the darkness. Just as daylight is getting longer, so are nights getting shorter; owls respond as well.
During early morning walks recently, I have heard the calls from a couple of resident owls, great horned and barred. While great horned owls call a series of hoots, barred owls give hoots that have been describes as saying, "Who cooks for you?" (They will make sounds like this, but also quite a variety of other calls.) After being here for the entire winter, they seem to be telling others of their territorial sites for the coming breeding season. Great horned owls are well known for mating early and nesting, often in March, while barred owls are a little later to start a family.
They are not alone. Several times I have heard the calls from the diminutive saw-whet owls, also in February. Many migrate through the Northland, but other saw-whets nest here. These tiny owls, only about 8 inches tall, stay in the boreal forests. They are early to proclaim their territories with a series of beeping sounds, often compared to the sound of a backing truck.
February is also a good time to see other owls. Feeling the pressure of hunger in the cold season, some owls from further north may appear in the region at this time. It seems like more sights of great gray owls and hawk owls happen in this month. Both hunt in the daytime and we may see them along the roadsides. With a round head like the barred owl, the great gray is much taller. Great grays are about 27 inches while barreds are 21 and hawk owls 16. All lack the ear tufts as seen on the 22-inch great horned owls. During some winters another small resident of the far north, the boreal owl, may arrive here as well. And the snowy owls that have been around for weeks continue their hunting and feeding along Lake Superior.
February is still winter. We have weeks of this season to go. It will be cold again and I suspect more snow, but critters including local owls are showing signs of change. Even if the owls from the far north do not arrive here this year, we still have plenty to watch and especially listen to from our resident owls and other birds and mammals as we proceed into late winter.
Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” Webwood” and "In a Patch of Goldenrods." Contact him c/o firstname.lastname@example.org.