Now's the time to look and listen for owls around Alaska

Posted: Thursday, March 30, 2000

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- It didn't take more than a minute for Jim Gillis to identify the owl that landed on top of a spruce tree in his yard a couple weeks ago.

''It was only about 75 feet away, sitting on top of a spruce tree,'' he said. ''It was a big, mature great gray.''

He called friend John Wright, a biologist at the state Department of Fish and Game, to confirm it was indeed a great gray owl.

''It's as big as a great horned but it doesn't have the horns,'' Gillis told Wright, estimating the bird's height at two feet.

The biologist asked Gillis if the owl had a white strip below its facial rings. Gillis could see it plainly. ''It looked like a little white beard,'' he said.

Gillis and his two kids watched the owl for nearly an hour through binoculars. They saw it retaliate against an obnoxious raven by spreading its wings in anger.

''Its wing span was probably about three feet,'' said Gillis. ''It was pretty cool.''

The great gray is the second owl Gillis has recently spotted in his yard.

A couple of weeks ago, a boreal owl landed on a tree limb in the yard. When one of Gillis' kids rolled a green tennis ball across the yard, ''that little boreal swooped right down on it and was going to grab it,'' he said.

At this rate, Gillis could bag an owling grand slam before the end of the month. There are only four species of owls in the Alaska Interior and Gillis already has spotted two of them, one of which -- the great gray -- is considered the rarest.

This is the best time of year to listen and look for owls around the state.

It's the peak of mating season and great-horned and boreal owls are letting their intentions be heard.

Listen carefully and you can hear their hoots echoing through the woods at night. You don't have to have bionic ears to hear them.

''Great horned owls you can hear a mile away,'' Wright said. ''It's easy to hear a boreal a half-mile away.''

The Alaska Bird Observatory also has recorded the season's first hawk owl sightings.

With the snowshoe hare population near the peak of its cycle, many hooting great horned owls have been reported this year. But birding experts haven't detected many boreal owls around.

''Boreals are probably as abundant but you don't see or hear them as much,'' Wright said.

Boreals are much smaller than great horned or gray owls. An adult boreal owl stands only about 7 inches high while great horned owls stand 2- to 3 feet.

Also, while both male and female great horned owls hoot during mating, only the male boreal owl sings and he does so only to attract a mate.

''Once he finds a mate he shuts up,'' Swem said.

The hooting of owls is a part of what biologists call ''pair bonding'' between a male and female. Great horned owls start hooting in late January or early February and continue even after they mate up as a means of communication.

''He might be hunting snowshoe hares two miles away and he'll be hooting back to her, letting other horned owls know, 'Hey, we're here and if you think you're going to come into this valley and hunt rabbits you're going to have to deal with me,''' Swem said.

Great gray and northern hawk owls aren't as vocal as great horned or boreal owls. Their calls are more subtle and used more for communication than mating, he said.

The great gray owl is Swem's favorite.

''They've got this huge head and their skull is the size of a golf ball,'' said Swem, an endangered species biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who pursues owls in his spare time.

Great gray owls have large, distinctive ringed facial disks surrounding their yellow eyes. The disks resemble small satellite dishes, only they pick up sound instead of satellite transmissions.

''Great gray owls have phenomenal hearing. They can hear voles running in tunnels under the snow and pinpoint the location so they know exactly where to plunge when they dive.''

They have been seen diving 1 1/2 feet into the snow to catch voles, Swem said.

Owls are vicious predators despite their somewhat mellow reputations. Great horned owls are the most aggressive of the four owl species in the Interior.

Their favorite and primary food source is snowshoe hares. But they've been known to swoop down and take a grouse or mink, given the chance. Voles and squirrels are simply appetizers.

''I've heard people say they've seen them take whitefish out of the Chatanika (River),'' Wright said.

Great horned owls also have been known to reduce the local pet population.

''We've had cases where they commonly take cats and small dogs,'' said Wright, although that hasn't happened in a few years.

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