Where and when to hear a “Hoot” in the Nation’s Capital

The Ottawa area is home to five regularly breeding species of owls, and, come early March, most species can be heard from roadsides. From dense stands of cedars rimming swamps, to homogeneous stands of conifers, find out where and when to listen for your favourite species of owl here in the Nation’s Capital. 

The information detailed below is also available by searching eBird and NeilyWorld’s Ottawa Birding website.

Weather conditions: The best conditions include calm, mild evenings with little to no wind. Cloud cover, in my experience, does not play a critical role in the frequency of calls heard during an owl prowl outing.  Ideal conditions may look something like this: 7 degrees Celsius, 5 km/h S wind, variable clouds. Poor conditions may look something like this: – 2 degrees Celsius, 20 km/h E wind, clear.

Great Horned Owl: A common but declining breeder in our region. This species prefers mature mixed woods for breeding and is the earliest of our breeding owls to breed. For resident, B. v. virginianus, pair bonding is often initiated sometime in January, with females on nests as early as mid-to-late February. Mid February through to mid March tends to be a good window to listen for them, but they certainly can be heard essentially year-round. Their hoot, as you know, is the quintessential Hollywood Owl hoot and is a real pleasure to hear during an owl prowl. Sometimes during these events, a Great-horned’s hauntingly low-pitched hoots are juxtaposed with the adorable, seemingly never-ending, high-pitched hoots of a Northern Saw-whet. This species is widespread in low density throughout the National Capital Region but they seem most common and accessible (to me, at least) in the Dunrobin, Constance Bay, and Fitzroy region. Try listening for them near Fitzroy Provincial Park, Greenland Rd., Kerwin Rd. and especially the south end of Berry Side Rd.

Barred Owl: The most common breeding species of owl in eastern Ontario. This species thrives in mature mixed woods, especially those near marshes, rivers and lakes, and is found city-wide. They breed all throughout Marlborough Forest, Larose Forest, Stony Swamp, Mer Bleue, Dunrobin, Constance Bay, etc. Their “who cooks for you?” calls are truly wonderful to hear, especially for the first time. They call all throughout the spring and summer and sometimes even call during the day! Listen for them along Bleeks Rd. and Kettles Rd. in the Munster area and Riddell Rd., Greenland Rd., Berry Side Rd. and Thomas Dolan Parkway (especially IVO Constance Creek) in the Dunrobin region. A night stroll (with a group of birders) along one of your favoured NCC Greenbelt trails during the second week of March through to mid April is just as likely to be as productive 🙂

Eastern Screech-Owl: A common breeder to our region. This species is generally quite eclectic in its habitat preference, being found in mid to mature growth mixed woods, parkland, urban areas, and even orchards. They typically shun a strictly coniferous element, being more of a deciduous and mixed woods species. In Ottawa, there is a healthy population of breeders in the mixed woods close by to the Rideau River, from Manotick S to Smiths Falls. Of course, there are the birds at Mud Lake, too, and you could easily park along Cassels in the eve and have a listen BUT this area can so quickly become the Heart of Darkness as the scaly, forked-tounged personalities slither about during the evening. Anyhow! A common theme is a preference for varied habitats with open areas for hunting. This species, like the Long-eared Owl, is strictly nocturnal in its habits. An early breeder in our region, nesting occurs as early as mid March. On targeted runs, I often compartmentalise and group target owl species, and Eastern Screech and Northern Saw-whet are in a group unto themselves. Early to mid March always makes me think of these two species, so I often try to tie in surveying for both species during an owl prowl.

Long-eared Owl: An uncommon breeder in our region. This species shows preference for homogeneous stands of conifers, such as conifer plantations, so, for example, our survey squads often targeted these areas while conducting Nocturnal Owl Surveys for both the Manitoba and Quebec Breeding Bird atlasses. Wherever dense stands of homogeneous stands of conifers occur adjacent to open meadows, marshes and fields is where this species generally prefers to breed. They are strictly nocturnal in their habits, and typically do not vocalise until the night has firmly overtaken the day. They are strongly migratory, even more so than the Northern Saw-whet, and are often completely vacant from the Ottawa area in winter. Their peak spring passage here in eastern Ontario occurs from early to mid April. I would focus your listening efforts for this species from the last week of March through to the second-to-third week of April, and would focus on the Munster area as well as Marlborough Forest (see Saw-whet account below for specific roads).

Northern Saw-whet Owl: A common breeder in our region in appropriate habitat. This species shows a strong preference for dense cedars with a scattering of spruce, especially in marshy areas. On calm, mild evenings (the warmer, the better; 4 degrees Celsius is often much better than -1 Celsius) listen for them wherever dense stands of cedars dominate. They call most often in March, especially from early March through to the third week-of. For east-enders, try Dolman Ridge, the east side of Ridge Rd., and the north end of Hall Rd. In the Nation’s Capital, there is no place quite like the Munster area and Marlborough Forest for this species, so try your luck along Conley Rd., Munster Rd., Jock Trail Rd., Bleeks Rd., and Kettles Rd. A little further S, try along Roger Stevens Dr., pulling in to the various entrances to Marlborough Forest to safely step out and have a listen.

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BSC Central Ontario Owl Survey

If you’re interested in turning your interest into more of a scientific pursuit, consider signing up for a nocturnal survey route here: http://www.birdscanada.org/volunteer/onowls/index.jsp?targetpg=onowlhelp. For an overview of protocol, please see: http://www.birdscanada.org/download/centralontarioowlprotocol.pdf

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Considerations

When birding by night, it’s always best to go in groups. Consider wearing a safety vest. Please never use flash photography on owls and do not trespass on private property — in these backwoods areas you very well may be greeted by a Rottweiler or German Shepard that has silently watched as you neared closer…and closer…a fate far, far worse than a homeowner screaming from his/her front porch!

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Documentation of Owls

Let’s track our progress! Let me know (by text or email) where and when you conducted your Nocturnal Owl Survey and I’ll update the list below! Several days out (2-3) I will add comments to the dates below, highlighting which days would be most productive for going out listening for owls.

Wednesday, February 22: Northern Saw-whet Owl calling at 7:00 PM, heard from Kettles Rd., northeast of Munster Road. Observation by Howard Morrison. Barred Owl calling near the back deck of Alison and Stewart Bentley’s property in Smiths Falls.

Thursday, February 23: Northern Saw-whet Owl calling at 10:15 PM, heard from Kettles Rd., 100 m S along trail next to old Ruffed Grouse Society trailer. Observation by Derek Dunnett and Allan Dennis.

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Monday, March 6:

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Sunday, March 12:

Week 1: NSWO ( ), ESOW ( ), LEOW ( ), BAOW ( ), GHOW ( )

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Monday, March 13:

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Week 2: NSWO ( ), ESOW ( ), LEOW ( ), BAOW ( ), GHOW ( )

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Monday, March 20:

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Sunday, March 26:

Week 3:  NSWO ( ), ESOW ( ), LEOW ( ), BAOW ( ), GHOW ( )

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Monday, March 27:

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Friday, March 31:

Saturday, April 1:

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Week 4:  NSWO ( ), ESOW ( ), LEOW ( ), BAOW ( ), GHOW ( )

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Monday, April 3:

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Sunday, April 9:

Week 5:  NSWO ( ), ESOW ( ), LEOW ( ), BAOW ( ), GHOW ( )

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