Owls, American Bittern, Make Late Appearance at Lloyd Center’s Annual Owl Prowl

great horned owl fledge; click to enlarge

A year ago, the Lloyd Center Mid-winter Owl Prowl took place under perfect conditions, yet only a single Screech Owl, which was never seen, responded to call-back tapes. While oftentimes this is all that can be expected on these prowls, where one must also appreciate the chase and enjoy a cold winter’s night, people understandably hope for more on the outing – namely seeing an owl! The highlight ironically occurred at Gooseberry Neck where the group witnessed a stunning sunrise, and for those that stuck around, a fledgling Snowy Owl on a tall pole at the Horseneck Beach main facility.

This year’s event was held on February 2nd, and unlike last year, the finale at Gooseberry and Horseneck was unspectacular. Cloudy skies obscured the sunrise, and no Snowy Owl was seen in what is a more average year for sightings. Perhaps the Gooseberry snowy stayed further north due to the milder winter and available food sources.

This prowl was held on Groundhog Day, and the groundhog did not see its shadow, thereby predicting an early spring. This would be fitting given that this is a mostly mild and totally snowless winter. What would this spring-like trend mean for forest dwelling owls such as the Great Horned which routinely nests in winter? Would owls be active or evade us, and have the group longing for the sunrise that would never come?

screech owl

The conditions were similar to last year and seemingly prime for owl activity. Overcast skies to obscure any moonlight, a dead calm, no precipitation, and rather warm temperatures were perfect and in contrast to breezy, cold nights often characteristic of February in New England. As if announcing the perfection, a Barred Owl was heard from the Lloyd Center facility before the group arrived. While historically, attempts to attract a Screech Owl on the property were successful and the first order of business, screeches have eluded us in recent years, and focus at the Lloyd Center is now on the breeding pair of Barred Owls. Keeping in mind owls have large territories, hearing the Barred Owl earlier, while encouraging, didn’t guarantee success. Sure enough, after tapes were played for both Barred and Great Horned Owls which also are present on the property, no owls called back.

Generally speaking, Screech Owls are easier to elicit a callback, while the larger owls may be harder to coerce. The next stop, the Parsons Property, has been highly productive for Screech Owls and historically Barred Owls, and is the stop where sometimes the first rooster would be heard off in the distance, a grim reminder that morning is near and the window for a “night owl” response is closing. No owls again, and it didn’t take a rooster to jolt the patience of the increasingly quiet group.

snowy owl

The next stop was supposed to be Allens Neck, which one February had multiple Great Horned Owls calling in a chorus at close range. But an impromptu decision was made to try the Slocums River Reserve first, a site always passed in favor of traditional stops. After a brief series of Screech Owl calls from the tape, an owl responded. The group heard a crisp Screech Owl call at close range for many minutes, including the low trill the species is famed for. Soon another Screech joined in and we moved in close to try and catch a glimpse. Locating a Screech with a light is a tricky task but this wasn’t necessary, as a bird flew across the trail directly over us, very visible to the group including its plumage which indicated the “grey phase” common in the northeast.

While Allens Neck was quiet, the last stop is always DCR Demarest Lloyd State Park, a “safety net” for screeches if missed earlier, and occasionally Great Horned Owls. Not long after playing the Great Horned tapes, we got lucky, and for an extended period had a bird calling back to us from off in the distance. While we never got a close look as we had at the site years ago, another sighting was highly unique. While we played the Great Horned tape, a large bird flew over us and landed in the shrubbery below, clearly curious about the sound. The bird, based on its call, was later confirmed to be an American Bittern. Bitterns are a secretive marsh bird common near emergent vegetation including brackish wetlands, which characterizes parts of Demarest Lloyd. Bitterns are seldom seen, especially this time of year in Massachusetts where only a select few remain during winter along the coast. Bitterns are endangered in Massachusetts, making this an especially unique find. Soon enough, after the chill that


always hits at this site took hold, the morning songbirds started to sing, signaling the end of the prowl.

With daylight upon us, there was time for sights during the drive, which included numerous White-tailed deer in fields enjoying the green browse on a usually snow covered landscape, and a quick glimpse of a Great Horned Owl perched high in a roadside tree. When this owl flew off, a second took flight and the pair vanished into the woods. Although the finale at Gooseberry and Horseneck was quiet, the group enjoyed a morning glimpse of the sea and its waterbirds life, and the feel of the crisp salty seaside air.

Will the next prowls be harbingers of spring, or was this actually the spring prowl and winter snows are just late to arrive? Come on the March prowls to find out!