Bob and I had heard that, at a particular cemetery in Burlington, Ontario, there are no less than three Eastern Screech Owls that inhabit nest holes in a couple of different trees. On the morning of our most recent visit, we did find one of the Red Morph Screech Owls, but when directed to a second tree that a pair of Screech Owls calls home, the cavity showed no sign of its occupants. It wasn’t until much later in the afternoon that I spotted this Red Morph when it poked its head out of the dark hollow for a peak at the world.
Bob and I had had a long day and were on the verge of heading home to Toronto, but after our hike along Grindstone Creek in the Hendrie Valley, we decided to take one last look at this nest hole on the off chance that one or both of the owls might be restless as dusk approached. Already, we had viewed the other Red Morph Screech Owl in a nearby tree in the morning, before lunch and late in the afternoon. It wasn’t budging but had disappeared temporarily down into its nest when noisy lawn cutters drove by.
The pair known to be occupying this cavity, however, were not revealing themselves to Bob and me. We stared at the nest hole as we ate lunch and then drove down into the valley for a hike. Upon our return, Bob took a cursory glance at the tree and declared that the owl was not there. I was sure I saw something, and upon closer scrutiny, the ear tufts of the Eastern Screech Owl could be detected. It is a Screech Owl’s prominent ear tufts that once led people to call these owls Little Horned Owls since they resemble Great Horned Owls except for the size difference.
If you do happen to locate a Screech Owl’s nest cavity, it is wise to approach the tree very cautiously. A Screech Owl will fiercely protect its nestlings and fledglings, and intruders have often been victims of raking strikes inflicted by talons on an owl’s large, powerful feet. This behavior has led Screech Owls to be called “feathered wildcats” since they will shy away from no predator. Everything from domestic pets, squirrels, snakes or other animals can be taken down by an Eastern Screech Owl defending its young. You would never know it to look at one.
Bob and I did not remain at the base of this tree for long as we didn’t want to be driving home in the dark in rush hour traffic. Given that Eastern Screech Owls are nocturnal, we knew that the owls would become more active after sunset, but by that time, photographing the wee birds would be much more challenging. Like almost all owls, they hunt from dusk to dawn, but in truth, the bulk of their hunting is done early in the evening as dusk nudges the sky into darkness.
There is not much variation between the photographs that I was able to take because the Screech Owl was secure in its camouflaged position and barely moved an eyelash let alone anything else. We certainly had a good view of its short, stocky physique and large head, and we remarked that this Red Morph was quite a lot less rusty coloured than the other Red Morph living close by. Now, if only its mate, a Grey Morph Screech Owl, had popped its head up too, the pictures would have had more intrigue and perhaps some tension.
The Eastern Screech Owls of this Cemetery have been nesting on site for a number of years now, according to more knowledgeable and local birders. The habitat is ideal with the many old trees providing good nesting locations and perches, plus the proximity to the wetlands in the Hendrie Valley and open spaces of the cemetery for hunting grounds. It is customary for Eastern Screech Owls to revisit on subsequent nights the same areas within their range where they had success hunting the night before.
I guess this Screech Owl was just biding its time before the cover of darkness encouraged suitable prey to venture out on their own forays for food. It certainly seemed to be totally relaxed as it whiled away the hours. We, on the other hand, had to face a long drive home on congested highways, but it had all been worth it. Three Eastern Screech Owls in one day was totally unexpected.