By: Cathy Vaughan
First published in the April 2023 edition of the Chebucto News under the title Owl Prowl – The Great Canadian Backyard Bird Count
Reproduced here with permission of the Cehbucto News & Cathy Vaughan
Owls are stealthy, nocturnal hunters, sporting elegant and effective camouflage all of which makes them a challenge to spot. You might hear them in the forests of the Backlands or hooting for their mates on Williams Lake. All their natural defence systems make them illusive and totally irresistible to determined birders.
An enthusiastic band of birders from the Backlands Coalition (BC) in Spryfield participated in the Great Backyard Bird Count, a global bird survey held every February by Birds Canada, the Cornell Lab and Audubon. What made this group of hardy birders different this year was that they wanted to focus on hearing the haunting calls of the winter-resident owls in the Williams Lake and Backlands area. This particular owl survey relies totally on silence. Since owls are nocturnal the still twilight hours are preferable to avoid the noise that humans make and din that cities create. The keen birders gathered in the frosty, dark hours to listen for the illusive owls at 3:30 a.m.!
“Our first instructions were critical to improve our chances of hearing the owls. We were instructed on how to close the car doors silently, so as not to tip-off the nearby owls. We travelled to about nine locations around Williams Lake, Shaw Wilderness Park, the Backlands and Governor’s Brook in Spryfield. Fulton Lavender, our experienced bird-identifier, coached us on what to listen for as we waited in the wintry darkness for sounds of owl activity,” explained Martha Leary, bird enthusiast and organizer of the owl prowl with the Backlands Coalition.
A group of owls, called a ‘parliament’ or ‘bazaar,’ communicates with a wide range of calls, varying from ear-piercing screeches and whistles to soft, wistful hooting and cooing. The Backlands attract certain species of owls because of the protection provided by a canopy of undisturbed forests, an abundant menu of tasty rodents plus secure nesting sites. The eager birders were rewarded with sounds of a Barred Owl, Great Horned Owl and a Saw Whet Owl. A pink sunrise greeted the groggy group as they headed for a hearty hot breakfast by a homey fireside.
“Recently, more than 300,000 checklists were submitted online, creating the largest instantaneous snapshot of global bird populations ever recorded. With bird numbers declining, your input helps us learn more about what kinds of measures help bird populations to be successful during these times of climate change,” according to the Audubon’s website.
You can still share your sightings in the Backlands. Local birder and naturalist, David Patriquin of the Backlands Coalition, has created a special project, called ‘Halifax Backlands” on iNaturalist to help us understand the wildlife in the Backlands. You can record your observations and they will be tallied for everyone to use, enjoy and learn. Nature is our greatest teacher!