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VOLANT, Pa.– When Tweetspeak visited the Black Swamp and Volant Grasslands, the focus was on finding waterfowl and more specifically, Sandhill Cranes. We were fortunate enough to see about fifteen Sandhill Cranes and dozens of ducks and geese in the swamps, but I was hoping to see something else. As we walked through the forest surrounding the swamp, I heard woodpeckers all around and was disappointed that I never saw any that morning. While my colleagues scanned for waterfowl, I occasionally scanned the trees for the forest species that were taunting me in the distance.

Around 11 am at the swamps, a different call in the forest caught my attention. I am more than certain, and my friend Anna can back me up, that we heard an owl that morning at the Black Swamp. I only heard the deep “hoo hoo” sound twice, but relying on prior knowledge that owls are nocturnal, I was intrigued. Growing up on a farm in Southwestern Pennsylvania, I heard owls calling in the forest all the time, but only at night. To solve the mystery of this out-of-place observation, I began with a list of possible owls that could have been at Black Swamp:

  1. Barn Owl
    1. Year-round resident in PA
    2. Marsh or grassland habitat
  2. Great Horned Owl
    1. Year-round resident in PA
    2. Broad range of habitats including forests, wetlands, grasslands, deserts, and more
  3. Long-eared Owl
    1. Year-round resident in PA
    2. Grassland and forest habitats
  4. Eastern Screech Owl
    1. Year-round resident in PA
    2. Forested habitats near water
  5. Barred Owl
    1. Year-round resident in PA
    2. Forest habitats near water

The only year-round owl resident of this area that makes a call like what I heard at the swamp though, is the Great Horned Owl. This species is known to be nocturnal, like most owls, but after listening to online sound clips of multiple calls, I am confident that this is the bird I heard that morning.

As it turns out, an encounter with an owl in the daytime is a lot more common than I previously thought. My first speculation was that we startled the owl, but when Great Horned Owls are startled, they will respond with hisses, screams, and other defensive sounds. The owl Anna and I heard made a slow, calm “Owl” sound. According to All About Birds, Great Horned Owls will hunt from the evening into early morning if food supplies are low. Like most raptors and owls, they prey on small rodents, but are known to eat waterfowl too. On our trip to the Black Swamp, some of the birds we identified were Canada Geese and American Coots. Both of these birds are prey to the Great Horned Owl. It’s very likely that the owl I heard was hunting that morning.

Great Horned Owls nest in January and raise their families during winter. Owlets hatch about a month later, and remain in the care other their mother even for several months after they have learned how to fly. If the owl we heard was a female, it can be assumed that she was hunting for food to bring to her young.

I can’t say for certain of course if the owl I heard was male or female, but I am sure that it was a Great Horned Owl. Now that I know they can be seen during the day, I’ll be on the lookout for them every time I go birding.

 

Written by Katie Nicholson, Tweetspeak Correspondent

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