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 are 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 south wind, variable clouds. Poor conditions may look something like this: – 2 degrees Celsius, 20 km/h east wind, clear.

Great Horned Owl: A widespread but declining breeder in our region. This species was historically much more common than it is now. This species prefers mature mixed woods for breeding and is the earliest of our breeding owls to breed. For the 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 an excellent window to listen for them, but they certainly can be heard virtually year-round. Their hoot, as you know, is the quintessential Hollywood Owl hoot, and is a real pleasure to listen to during an owl prowl. Sometimes during these events, a Great Horned Owl’s hauntingly low-pitched hoots are met with the adorable, seemingly never-ending, high-pitched hooting of a Northern Saw-whet. Great Horned Owls are widespread in low density throughout the National Capital Region, but they seem most common in the Dunrobin, Constance Bay, and Fitzroy region. Try listening for them near Fitzroy Provincial Park, along Greenland Rd., Kerwin Rd. and especially the south end of Berry Side Rd.

Barred Owl: The most common breeding species of owl in our region. This species thrives in mature mixed woods, especially those near a variety of waterbodies, and is found city-wide. They breed 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 a first-timer. 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 spring, from late March onward, may yield a Barred Owl “concert” or two.

Eastern Screech-Owl: A common breeder to our region. This species is 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. This species, like the Long-eared Owl, is quite nocturnal in its habits. An early breeder in our region, nesting occurs as early as mid-March. 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. However, Britannia Woods can so quickly become the Heart of Darkness as serpentine personalities come out from under their rocks and slither about during the evening. Be cautious in these woods at night; bird as a group!

Long-eared Owl: An uncommon breeder in our region. This species shows a preference for homogeneous stands of conifers, such as conifer plantations. With this in mind, our survey squads often targeted these areas while conducting Nocturnal Owl Surveys for both the Manitoba and Quebec Breeding Bird Atlases. Wherever dense stands of homogeneous stands of conifers occur adjacent to open meadows, marshes and fields are where this species prefers to breed. They are strictly nocturnal in their habits, and typically do not vocalize until the night has firmly overtaken the day. They are quite migratory, even more so than the Northern Saw-whet, and are often entirely 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 third week of April. The Munster area as well as Marlborough Forest (see Saw-whet account below for specific roads) are good options.

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, listen for them wherever dense stands of cedars dominate. They call most often from early March to mid-April. For east end birding, try Dolman Ridge, the east side of Ridge Rd., and the north end of Hall Rd. For west and southwest birding, 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

Whenever 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, 2017: 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, 2017: Northern Saw-whet Owl calling at 10:15 PM, heard from Kettles Rd., 100 m S along the trail next to old Ruffed Grouse Society trailer. Observation by Derek Dunnett and Allan Dennis.