[Tweeters] dummy owling

Gary Bletsch garybletsch at yahoo.com
Wed Jun 18 08:03:28 PDT 2008

Dear Tweeters,

I do a fair bit of owling in Skagit County; this area is a bit far afield from "Greater Seattle," so maybe I am off-base. Anyway, here goes.

I don't use much high-tech gear. I do use a Radio Shack tape deck sometimes, and play recordings for the species that I am not good at imitating. It's more fun for me when I call the owls up myself. It is not hard to learn how to imitate the owls, with practice. Just listen to recordings and imitate. Better yet, when you hear the owl in the wild, reply!

In the Skagit County area, I have varying degrees of success with different species. For Barn Owls, of course, it just pays to know somebody with a barn you can visit. Other than that, one can try driving farm roads such as on Fir Island and Samish Flats at night. One can often find a Barn Owl at Northern State Recreation Area, E of Sedro-Woolley. Although it is technically not allowed to go into the old dairy buildings, a quick walk through these dilapidated structures will often reveal, or flush, a Barn Owl.

Great Horned Owls are pretty easy to find if one walks about at night, especially from about December to April or so, in areas of broken woodland. I almost never find this species in the Upper Skagit. They don't seem to like the mountains. The trick with this species is to go out in the first few hours or last few hours of night, and listen--not easy in our noisy man-made environments. The Swinomish Indian Reservation, the Fir Island Game Range, and woodlots on the Samish Flats are good for this species. They also turn up at Northern State Recreation Area.

Barred Owls can be irregular. For example, I often find them at Rockport State Park on the North American Migration Count (second Saturday in May), but often miss them a week later, when I do my annual century day. This species is regular in Anacortes Forest Lands at various locations. In the Upper Skagit, they can turn up in low-elevation coniferous forests--the kind that used to have Spotted Owls. I used to find them fairly regularly when I was driving around the logging roads in eastern Skagit County like a possessed man, trying to find Spotted Owls.

I used to have some places for Spotted Owls in Skagit, but the birds stopped showing up for me. There is one spot I haven't checked in ten years, though. If I had a beater pickup truck, I would try again. This species is a depressing topic, though.

Western Screech-Owls are declining. A few years ago, I found a family of them north of Hamilton, but those birds are gone. Everett Lake (N of Concrete) used to be dependable, but I have not seen Screech there in ten years. In my opinion, a good way to search for them is to go out at dusk and the first few hours afterwards. June should still be okay. Whistle for them or play a tape. Try forested areas near creeks. They always seem to be near water. I have a hypothesis that the creek noise helps conceal them. One area that I would try is the Finney Creek drainage, a vast and very under-birded "working forest" south of the Skagit River. Although I found Screech there only once, close to fifteen years ago, I think the Finney Unit of Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest offers good habitat.

For Northern Saw-whet Owls, nighttime is best. December to January are my best times, but that may be skewed by effort. They are easy to "whistle up," but again, recordings are an option. I have had crummy luck on NSWO the last few years, but I used to find them a lot. They like goodly coniferous forest, but it does not have to be old growth. They even like relatively small conifers in replanted areas.

Northern Pygmy-Owls are found more often in daylight. I have never seen or heard one at nighttime. I just walk along logging roads or subalpine trails and whistle for them. I found one yesterday, just north of Hamilton, on a motorbike "trail." The whistle is very easy to imitate, and it is a sure-fire way to stir up passerines. I find that I can get a response from a NOPO maybe five to ten times a year, if I do a ton of walking in appropriate habitat and whistle every time. September is the best month; logging roads in patchily regenerating foothills are the best habitat.

A beginning birder whom I know has acquired a device called a "Fox-Pro." This machine is used by hunters to play recordings of various critters, including birds, in order to bring them into range, enabling the hunter to kill them. The device seems to offer some utility for birders as well. It is a little box that you can lay on the ground and play remotely, while you hide in some thicket. We used the Fox-Pro to call up a Great Horned Owl recently. I had never tried using recordings for that species. It worked great--we had a response at the Fir Island Game Range within five or ten minutes.

Happy owling to one and all!

Gary Bletsch   Near Lyman, Washington (Skagit County), USA   garybletsch at yahoo.com    

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