Category Archives: Eastern Screech-Owl

Great horned owl reigns as ‘feathered tiger of the night’ among birds

 

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Photo by Alexas-Fotos/Pixabay • A great horned owl is capable of almost silent flight, which helps the predatory bird take prey by surprise. Many myths and superstitions surround the world’s owls, but the truth about owls is often more fascinating.

I’ve been so focused on migrating warblers and other songbirds of late that I felt some surprise when outside near dark on Oct. 10 when I heard the low hoots of a feathered phantom from the woodlands on the ridge behind my home.

The hooting of a great horned owl is an instantly recognizable sound and always sends shivers traveling along the spine. The after-dark calls of this large predatory bird also got me to thinking about previous encounters with this owl, such as watching one glide silently over wetlands in Shady Valley, Tennessee, many years ago. I had traveled to the bogs in Shady Valley maintained by The Nature Conservancy in the hope of witnessing the mating displays of the American woodcock. Before those avian rituals began, a great horned owl kicked off the evening in style. I still remember the large owl passing like a dark shadow only a couple of feet over my head. The wings did not even appear to flap as the owl’s silent flight propelled the bird out of sight within seconds.

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Photo by Flickr on Pexels.com

I also remembered another occasion while driving on a wet and stormy night, rounding a curve, and finding an owl, upright in the road, standing over fresh roadkill. The owl’s eyes reflected the beams of my headlights before it seized its meal in powerful talons and flew off into the darkness. I’ve always wondered if the owl had killed something in the road or came along at just the right moment to scavenge a meal after some creature had been killed by a passing car.

Owls have been around for a long time, according to “Owls: The Silent Hunters,” an episode of National Geographic’s series, “Wildlife Wonders.” The narrator for the episode reveals that the first recognizable owls first showed up in the fossil record about 40 million years ago. Since that time, owls have evolved into a fantastic, widespread and diverse group of about 135 different species. North America is home to several species, including the far-ranging great horned owl, which ranks as one of continent’s largest owls. It’s not the largest owl in North America, but it is the most widespread of the continent’s large owls. The snowy owl — popularized in J.K. Rowling’s fiction as Harry Potter’s loyal companion owl, Hedwig — is one of the largest owls in the Northern Hemisphere, bigger than such large owls as great horned owl and barred owl. The aptly named great gray owl is larger in body size than the great horned owl, but the snowy owl is heavier and more massive than either of these two contenders.

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • A captive snowy owl educates the public about owls and some of the perils they face in an environment shared by humans.

Nevertheless, the great horned owl is large enough, ferocious enough, and lethal enough to have been described by many ornithologists as a “feathered tiger of the night.” The great horned owl lives and hunts in the woodlands of northeast Tennessee, southwest Virginia and western North Carolina. They thrive in rural areas, but these adaptable owls have also learned to make their way in the suburbs and even city parks. Not by any stretch of the imagination, however, is this owl confined to the southern Appalachians. These owls also make their home in the wetlands along the southern Atlantic coast, as well as arid deserts of the American southwest.

During a September vacation many years ago to Fripp Island, South Carolina, a solitary great horned owl provided several days of entertainment for my parents and me. We took a golf cart at dusk each evening to park at a spot that offered a good view of the marshes and tidal creeks in the interior of the island. For several consecutive days, the owl flew to a perch on a piece of driftwood as the sun sank below the horizon. We would wait patiently for only a brief interval before the owl entertained us with its low hoots that resonated across the marsh.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The great horned owl is capable of taking a wide variety of prey, including many rodents ranging in size from mice and voles to rabbits and squirrels. Although various mammals form the most part of its diet, the great horned owl will kill adult birds as large as a Canada goose, wild turkey and great blue heron. This owl also preys on fish, reptiles, amphibians and even insects. The great horned owl is one of the few predators that preys regularly on skunks. Lacking a well-defined sense of smell, owls aren’t bothered in the least by the skunk’s powerful arsenal of stink. That ability to fly and glide using almost completely silent wings has given this nocturnal predator an enormous advantage over many of its prey species.

A wild great horned owl’s longevity peaks at around 13 years of age. Captive owls, however, have been reported reaching ages of more than 30 years old.

Various Native American tribes have held owls in high respect. Dwight G. Smith, author of “Great Horned Owl,” a book in the “Wild Bird Guides” series, noted that members of the Zuni tribe of the southwestern United States often hold owl feathers in their mouths to impart the owl’s ability to hunt silently onto their own hunting abilities.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The main fascination humans hold for owls rests in their mystery. Owls, being mainly nocturnal creatures, rarely cross paths with humans. These predatory birds have many adaptations that help them stake out their claim on the night hours. Owls possess large eyes with binocular vision and extremely accurate depth perception — which also make them seem more expressive to human observers and perhaps helped establish the reputation of the “wise” owl.

Owls cannot completely rotate their heads, but they come close. Owls are flexible enough, however, to be able to turn their heads in a 270-degree arc, or three-quarters of the way around. Owls have keen hearing to go with their excellent eyesight. In fact, owls don’t even need to see their prey to capture it. Tests with barn owls in total darkness have shown that they are capable of catching mice by hearing alone. An owl’s prominent facial disk directs sounds toward their ears. The “ear tufts” on the great horned owl and some other relatives are ornamental feathers, and not actual ears.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens / A great horned owl perches on a post during its part in a wild bird show at Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Georgia.

Around the world, the world’s owls have earned some rather descriptive common names. Examples include pharoah eagle-owl, vermiculated fishing owl, fearful owl, pearl-spotted owlet, chestnut-backed owlet, spectacled owl, black-and-white owl, crested owl, cinereous owl, tawny owl, whiskered screech owl, greater sooty owl and desert owl.

Americans will observe Halloween on Wednesday, Oct. 31, which brings me to one other piece of owl trivia. There’s an ancient Chinese belief that owls snatch the souls of incautious people — just something I thought you might want to know if you find yourself out and about after dark on Halloween night and hear the hoots of a nearby owl.

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Photo by George Gentry/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service • A great horned owl is shown on the nest with one of her chicks.

75 years strong, annual Elizabethton Christmas Bird Count breaks old records

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The 75th consecutive Elizabethton Christmas Bird Count held last month shattered records for this long-running survey. This year’s CBC was held on Saturday, Dec. 16, with 25 observers in six parties participating. The 85 species tallied established a new high for this count, shattering the old mark of 80 species set in 2012 and again in 2016. The average total over the last 30 years of the Elizabethton CBC is 72 species.

Participants included Fred Alsop, Jim Anderson, Jerry Bevins, Rob Biller, Rick Blanton, Kevin Brooks, Gil Derouen, Harry Lee Farthing, Dave Gardner, Carl Hacker, Jacki Hinshaw, David Irick, Rick Knight (compiler), Roy Knispel, Richard Lewis, Joe McGuiness, Charles Moore, Brookie and Jean Potter, Brenda Richards, Chris Soto, Amber Stanley, Bryan Stevens, Kim Stroud, and Scott Turner.

I took part in this CBC, as I have for many years, with fellow members and friends of the Elizabethton Bird Club. Participation in this annual survey has been a part of my holiday traditions for the past 20 years. The tradition of the CBC, however, goes much farther back.

According to the National Audubon Society’s website, the tradition of the Christmas Bird Count arose from a less than bird-friendly custom. By the turn of the 20th century, so-called sportsmen would conduct a “Side Hunt,” a rather bloodthirsty Christmas custom that saw hunters competing to see who could score the largest amount of feathered and furred corpses. It was a huge step forward for conservation when preeminent ornithologist Frank M. Chapman proposed a new holiday tradition. His radical idea was to count birds during the Christmas season rather than hunting and killing them.

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Ornithologist Frank Chapman organized the very first Christmas Bird Count back   in December of 1900.

The Christmas Bird Count is now conducted each year on dates between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5. The first CBC took place in December of 1900 with 27 observers participating at 25 locations in the United States and Canada. Fifteen of the counts were conducted in the northeastern United States in an area ranging from Massachusetts to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Results from that first count in 1900 didn’t truly reflect the diversity of North America’s birds, but they were nonetheless interesting. The Greater Boston CBC consisted of only one participant and found only 17 species. However, some of those species included such good birds as American tree sparrow, brown creeper, Northern shrike and Northern bobwhite.

The Elizabethton Bird Club traditionally compiles the results from its two annual CBCs (Roan Mountain as well as Elizabethton) at its yearly Christmas party. This year when the tallies were added up, count participants were delighted to learn the count had set a new record with an amazing total of 85 species tallied, which is hard to come by in mid-December in Northeast Tennessee. An abundance of waterfowl helped push up the number of species found.

A few species are becoming more expected on this annual December count. For instance, greater white-fronted goose was found for the third time in the last five years. Before that, this goose had never been found on this count.

The bufflehead, the smallest of the diving ducks, set a new record with 293 individuals found. Four Northern Shovelers represented only the eight time this duck has appeared on the count. Greater Scaup were found for only the seventh time in the last 25 years. Ruddy Duck has now been found three times in the last 25 years, which matches the three occasions it was found prior to that time.

Bald eagles, thanks to locations like Watauga Lake and Wilbur Lake, are also becoming more common. Eagles have been found 20 of the last 25 years, but only once prior. Red-shouldered Hawk, which is uncommon in the region, was found for the sixth time in the last quarter-century.

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service/Lee Karney • A Red-shouldered Hawk perches in branches.

Eurasian Collared-Dove appears established in Elizabethton. This dove has been found six of the last nine years since it first made an appearance on the count.

All seven of the region’s woodpecker were found on this year’s CBC. The Red-headed Woodpecker has shown up on four counts in the last 25 years. This woodpecker was only found seven times in the years prior to 1992.

A Blue-headed Vireo spotted on this year’s count represented only the third time this species has been found. A flock of 75 American Pipits marked only the third time this species has been seen since 1992 on a CBC. Prior to that date, the species appeared only twice on an Elizabethton CBC.

Gray Catbird has been found five of the last 25 years, including this year, but only once prior to 1992. Palm Warbler, found only once prior to 1992, has now been found eight of the last 25 years. The single Pine Warbler seen means that this species has now been found four of the last 25 years, but only four times prior to 1992.

The European Starling with 1,335 individuals found on count day was easily the most common species on this year’s CBC. The 16 Dark-eyed Juncos, usually a relatively common species on the Elizabethton CBC, represented the fewest juncos ever found on this long-running survey.

Below is the complete species list:

Greater White-fronted Goose, 1; Canada Goose, 532; Wood Duck,1; Gadwall, 5; American Wigeon, 1; American Black Duck, 2; Mallard, 366; Northern Shoveler, 4; Green-winged Teal, 2; Ring-necked Duck, 14; Greater Scaup, 2; Lesser Scaup, 3; Bufflehead, 293; Hooded Merganser, 4; and Ruddy Duck, 1.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A female Ruddy Duck.

Wild Turkey, 33; Common Loon, 2; Pied-billed Grebe, 14; Horned Grebe, 27; Great Blue Heron, 18; Black Vulture, 3; Turkey Vulture, 12; Bald Eagle, 3; Sharp-shinned Hawk, 1; Cooper’s Hawk, 2; Red-shouldered Hawk, 2; and Red-tailed Hawk, 25.

Killdeer,17; Ring-billed Gull, 27; Rock Pigeon, 305; Eurasian Collared-Dove, 1; Mourning Dove, 157; Eastern Screech-Owl, 12; Great Horned Owl, 2; Barred Owl, 1; and Belted Kingfisher, 10.

Red-headed Woodpecker, 1; Red-bellied Woodpecker, 33; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, 8; Downy Woodpecker, 27; Hairy Woodpecker, 3; Northern Flicker, 26; and Pileated Woodpecker, 21.

American Kestrel, 16; Eastern Phoebe, 12; Blue-headed Vireo,1; Blue Jay, 162; American Crow, 223; and Common Raven, 4.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Red-breasted Nuthatch at a feeder.

Carolina Chickadee, 117; Tufted Titmouse, 84; Red-breasted Nuthatch, 1; White-breasted Nuthatch, 25; Brown Creeper, 4; House Wren, 1; Winter Wren, 6; and Carolina Wren, 75.

Golden-crowned Kinglet, 41; Ruby-crowned Kinglet, 8; Eastern Bluebird, 111; Hermit Thrush, 11; Amercian Robin, 277; Gray Catbird, 1; Brown Thrasher, 1; and N. Mockingbird, 49.

Eurasian Starling, 1,335; American Pipit, 75; Cedar Waxwing, 154; Palm Warbler, 2; Pine Warbler, 1; and Yellow-rumped Warbler, 154.

Eastern Towhee, 22; Chipping Sparrow, 4; Field Sparrow, 8; Song Sparrow, 142; Swamp Sparrow, 5; White-throated Sparrow,102; Dark-eyed Junco, 16; and Northern Cardinal, 111.

Red-winged Blackbird, 1; Eastern Meadowlark, 1; Brown-headed Cowbird, 2; House Finch, 100; American Goldfinch, 90; and House Sparrow, 41.

The Audubon-sponsored CBC allows counts to also list birds not found on the count day that are seen during count week. This year participants found Redhead ducks, which were not present on count day. Notable misses this year include Ruffed Grouse, American Coot, Wilson’s Snipe, and White-crowned Sparrow.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male Eastern Towhee waits out a snowstorm.

Dark reputation of world’s owls is being rehabilitated as people learn more about them and their habits

 

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Photo by Bryan Stevens / A great horned owl perches on a post during its part in a wild bird show at Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Georgia.

As I sit at my computer working on this week’s post, I can hear the low, sonorous call of a great horned owl from the woods located behind my house. The great horned owl is one of two species I often hear near my home. In addition, I regularly hear the much smaller Eastern screech-owl calling from the same woods. The intervals around dusk and dawn are popular times for owls to produce their eerie calls. At present, there’s a pair of great horned owls living in the woods near my home. If I hear one, I usually hear the other. These large owls call to each other to communicate their whereabouts. Perhaps it helps them avoid surprise encounters with each other once they begin hunting after the sun sets.

The great horned owl lives and hunts in the woodlands of northeast Tennessee, southwest Virginia and western North Carolina. These large owls thrive in rural areas, but these adaptable predatory birds have also learned to survive in the suburbs and even city parks. While quite at home in the region, the great horned owl is not confined to the Southern Appalachians. These owls also make their home in the wetlands along the southern Atlantic coast, as well as arid deserts of the American southwest. If nothing else, the great horned owl has shown amazing resilience and adaptability.

With about 200 different species, the world’s owls form an order known as Strigiformes. Characteristics that define owls include a mostly solitary and nocturnal existence. These predatory birds are also typified by such physical traits as an upright stance, binocular vision, exceptional hearing, sharp talons, and feathers adapted for silent flight.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens / A Barred Owl blends with the background in this photo taken of a wild owl at Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina.

The smallest owl — weighing as little as an ounce and measuring a mere five inches) — is the elf owl (Micrathene whitneyi). To give you some perspective, that DVD of your favorite movie also weighs about an ounce. The common house sparrow that flocks in shopping center parking lots is slightly bigger than this tiny owl. According to the website, The Owl Page, the elf owl was originally known as Whitney’s Owl. The scientific name whitneyi is a Latinized word formed from the last name of Josiah Dwight Whitney, a prominent American geologist for whom the diminutive owl was named. Whitney was considered the foremost authority of his day on the economic geology of the United States. In addition to having a tiny owl named in his honor, Whitney’s name graces Mount Whitney, the highest point in the continental United States, and the Whitney Glacier, which was the first confirmed glacier in the United States.

The miniature elf owl is every bit the predator, but its prey generally consists of various insects as well as such desert dwellers as scorpions and spiders. Despite the extremes of the environment in which it lives, the elf owl does just fine. It prefers areas offering plenty of saguaro cactus. Cavities in these iconic desert plants provide roosting and nesting locations for this tiny owl. The elf owl range from the southwest regions of the United States to Central Mexico and Baja California. Unfortunately, the numbers of this owl in Texas and California have declined in recent times.33ecc634b6bf2f56939e0c28a1e0c6c0

To find the world’s largest owl, head to the other side of the world to the islands of Japan, as well as remote areas of Siberia, Manchuria and Korea. With a body comparable in size to that of a young child and a wingspan wider than six feet, the Blakiston’s fish owl (Bubo blakistoni) earns its distinction as the largest owl in the world. The fish owls are part of a larger grouping of birds known as eagle owls, which specialize in hunting in habitats found along large rivers. Female Blakiston’s fish owls are larger than males, and a large female can weigh as much as 10 pounds and attain a 6.5-foot wingspan. This big owl was named after English naturalist Thomas Blakiston (1832-1891) who found the first specimen on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido in 1883. According to Paul Frost of The Raptor Foundation, this owl is sacred to the Ainu, a native people residing on Hokkaidu. The Ainu refer to this owl as “kotan kor kamuy,” which means “god of the village” or “god who defends the village”.

While many culture view owls with misgivings, often associating their nocturnal tendencies with more sinister motives, that’s not always the case. For instance, the Japanese people believe that owls bring good fortune. In addition, owls offer protection from suffering. Other cultures have feared and reviled owls. The ancient Romans share much of the blame for the negative image owls are still overcoming. Romans considered owls as harbingers of death, defeat and other disasters. To ward off the evil caused by an owl, Romans advised that the offending owl should be killed and nailed to a door. Such a bloodthirsty solution leads me to think that owls had more to fear from Romans than Romans had to fear from them.

The need for common names for the 200 species of owls has resulted in some creative monikers. Some of the most descriptive common names for some of the world’s owls include ashy-faced barn owl, barking owl, brown owl, cuckoo owlet, fearful owl, giant eagle owl, Christmas Island hawk owl, snowy owl, laughing owl, rufous owl, tawny-bellied screech owl, winking owl, and spotted wood owl.

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Photo by George Gentry/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service / A Great Horned Owl is shown on the nest with one of her chicks.

Many relatives of the great horned owl have proven equally adaptive, carving out niches for themselves in habitats as diverse as jungles, deserts and the frozen tundra. Indeed, the great horned owl has many relatives living in our region. The Eastern screech owl is a tiny cousin, but some other large owls that live in the area include the barred owl and the barn owl. More rare to the region are visits by such owls as the short-eared owl and the long-eared owl. There’s even another tiny relative — the Northern saw whet owl — that is rarely heard and even more seldom seen.

Regardless of the species, the activities of owls are invariably cloaked in darkness. Despite electric lights and other trappings of civilization, people still delight in the shivers that result from hearing the hoots of an owl. It’s truly no surprise that owls have become popular motifs in the weeks leading up to our recent celebration of the Halloween holiday. Owls may live alongside us, but we’ll never truly belong to their world, which consists of all the spooky things that go bump in the night.

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Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. Find him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler.

Tremulous call of Eastern screech-owl baffles couple

Photo by Bryan Stevens An Eastern Screech-Owl at rest in a roosting hole in a large sycamore tree.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
An Eastern Screech-Owl at rest in a roosting hole in a large sycamore tree.

I received a recent email from Lewis Chapman seeking help in solving the identity of a nocturnal caller. Chapman and his wife moved to Laurel Bloomery in Johnson County, Tennessee, in late June.

“Shortly after we arrived we started hearing a strange night bird call that could best be described as an eerie winnowing,” he wrote in his email. After the couple conducted some Internet research into the mysterious after-hours vocalist, his wife suggested the caller might be a snipe.

As mentioned in previous columns, the snipe is a real bird despite its reputation as a mythical creature thanks to the rural tradition of the “snipe hunt.” While the calling bird at their home did remind them of a Wilson’s snipe, they were not convinced.

“Is this the right time of year to be hearing one in our area?” Lewis asked in his email. “Is there another bird that makes this kind of winnowing?” Both of his astute questions helped me narrow the possibilities.

In my reply, I did inform Lewis that the Wilson’s snipe, as well as the closely related American woodcock, make their home in the region. The summer season, however, isn’t the best time of year to hear either of these relatively elusive shorebirds. These birds are most vocal at the peak of their breeding season, which usually occurs much earlier in the year.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                     Lucy, an Eastern screech-owl, is part of an educational program at Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina that teaches audiences some fascinating information about native wildlife. For instance, despite her small size, Lucy is an adult owl, not a baby.

 

It was his second question, especially the description of the “winnowing” sound, that got me thinking in an entirely different direction. It also helped that I’ve heard some of these small, nocturnal vocalists at my own home in recent weeks. I suggested that the Chapmans get online and look up the song and other vocalizations of the Eastern Screech-owl.

An adult Eastern screech-owl is usually only between six and nine inches in length. Many people upon first seeing a screech-owl assume it’s a baby owl. On a recent South Carolina trip I made several visits to Brookgreen Gardens near Pawleys Island. On several of these visits I attended the daily educational programs conducted by the zoo staff at the gardens that are designed to introduce visitors to various examples of native wildlife. The presenter usually introduced a couple of animals to the audience. On several occasions, the show featured birds of prey, including hawks and owls.

Two of the shows featured Lucy, an Eastern screech-owl, and people in the audience invariably asked if she was a baby owl. To their astonishment, they learned that Lucy was an adult screech-owl and unlikely to grow any bigger. There are larger owls in our region, including the great horned owl and barred owl. Lucy and her kin must avoid these much larger owls, which would have no hesitation at trying to make a meal of the much smaller owl.

Because of their small size, screech-owls prey on some comparatively small creatures, including insects, small rodents, amphibians and reptiles. The Eastern screech-owl is also a cavity-nesting bird and will accept bird boxes provided by humans so long as the box’s entrance hole is customized to their size.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                      An Eastern Screech-owl perches among some hemlock branches.

The screech-owl is probably the owl most likely to encounter human beings. It’s an adaptable little feathered predator, fully as at home in the backyard and garden as it is in parks and woodlands. In addition to nesting in cavities, this owl roosts in them during the daytime hours. Look for roosting screech-owls in knotholes of trees or in unoccupied wood duck boxes. Although they come in two color phases — red and gray — both variations are quite capable of camouflage. When perched or roosting, these small owls blend remarkably with their surroundings.

The Eastern screech owl also produces a variety of odd wails and other vocalizations including a distinctive, trembling “whinny” call that is often made when the owl feels curious or alarmed. It’s a wavering, haunting call that is made after dark, most often at the hours closer to dawn and dusk. Imitating the call of a screech-owl or playing a recording is also a trick for getting some shy songbirds to show themselves. Screech-owls are unwelcome neighbors among songbirds, which will flock to this owl’s call and band together to “mob” the predator and try to convince it to depart the immediate area.

In addition to the Eastern screech-owl, the United States is also home to several other small owls, including Western screech-owl, Northern pygmy-owl, Northern saw-whet owl, flammulated owl and elf owl.

After I pointed to the screech-owl as the identity of the unseen caller at the Chapman home, I did receive another email from Lewis. My suggestion of the screech-owl proved correct. “It’s fun having the Eastern screech-owl in our woods,” he wrote back. “It has a beautiful call and most nights it does it for quite awhile.”

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Early naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted a family of Eastern Screech-owls.

Screech-owls do make good neighbors. Their prey preferences remove many nuisance insects and rodents from the habitat they share with humans as well as other wildlife. If you’re hearing an odd, winnowing call from the edge of the woods at your own home, there’s a good chance that you have one of these small owls as a neighbor.

Since moving to Laurel Bloomery, the Chapmans have already seen many great backyard birds, including indigo bunting, great crested flycatcher, ruby-throated hummingbird, house wren, black-and-white warbler, pileated woodpecker and chipping sparrow. Now they can also add Eastern screech-owl to the list. Who knows? They may some day also add a Wilson’s snipe to their yard list of birds.

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To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.