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A brush with the secretive long-eared owl

Its funny how you come across birds that youve never seen or photographed and suddenly have several encounters in a short time. In December and January I had two widely separated sightings of long-eared owls (in days past called the lesser horned owl or cat owl). In both cases, birder Web sites on the internet had indicated the location of the owls. The long-eared owl doesnt advertise its whereabouts. After hunting in the darkness of night for voles and mice by flying in low, quartering patterns over open fields, the birds are usually safely roosting in dense conifer groves well before dawn. The owls small prey is located (in near total darkness) primarily by sound. The ear tufts on the crown of the long-eared owls head are only feathers: the owls prodigious hearing is the result of disproportionately large auditory openings which are situated at different levels on the birds skull. Specialized cells in the brain enable the owl to pinpoint the location of any sound: a neural map of the search area is generated by analysis of both sound intensity and time interval differences for sounds to reach the asymmetrically located ears. Any sound detected is thus pinpointed in both horizontal and vertical planes, enabling the noiselessly flying owl to pounce without warning on its victim, which is quickly dispatched by a killing snap to the neck by the owls beak. I have often had the sharpness of owls hearing demonstrated while waiting and watching perched owls through a big camera lens. Despite a distance of 50 meters, a shutter click or autofocus motor noise will result in the owls head snapping toward the hidden camera: suddenly youre staring down the lens directly into the eyes of a predator. Although breeding of long-eared owls in the Northeast is thought to be rare, the birds nocturnal nature makes detection from spring through fall difficult. Populations may be greater than ornithologists are aware. In winter the nomadic owls tend to gather in colonies of up to 25, roosting in dense groves of coniferous trees adjacent to open hunting fields. This is the best chance for owl enthusiasts to get a glimpse of the secretive long-eared owl.

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