While sitting in my living room a few weeks ago, I heard a strange, but, yet familiar sound from above on the roof. I immediately looked out the back door to find a rare Great Gray Owl peering over the side of the eaves at me. I wondered how this bird knew enough to pick my roof as a landing place, given the fact that I would be one of a few residents to make such an issue of it. The bird did not remain long enough for me to get my camera and photograph it, however, later the next day I received a phone call from Phyllis Knight of Dunkirk who said she and her husband Richard, who are also observant nature watchers, had just sighted one in their yard and did manage to get a photo that she was going to have developed to send to me.
In checking my records of sightings of these birds, all historical and recent observations happened between the first week of February and the second week of March. Since this bird was observed by me on January 22, 2009, this is a new early sighting date for our county. This observation is listed in my book "Birding Chautauqua County NY," as a rare species for our county, and one of eighty-eight rare species reports since Western New York ornithological record keeping had started.
The data goes back to 1884 according to records reported in Beardslee and Mitchell, one of the official publications of the Buffalo Ornithological Society, and as I always enjoy doing, I consulted the late Frank Chapman's book to see what he had to say about the bird as far back as 1895. Chapman referred to the owl as a stupid bird, and may sometimes even be caught by the hands of the captor. It has a great affinity for thick woods to the very limit of the trees in which it dwells. That makes this sighting all the more interesting. I often wonder if this could possibly have something to do with the controversial "global warming" theory that we have been hearing so much about?
The Great-Horned Owl, the Snowy Owl, the Great-Gray Owl and the Short-Eared Owl.
Chapman also states that when he had an opportunity to examine the stomach contents of dead specimens, he found remnants of a few small birds, along with a good number of small mammals such as mice, chipmunks and other similar animals. The Great Gray is one of nine species of owls that have been recorded in our county over the years that I and others have maintained records. In a 1974 publication on Owls of North America, an expert on owls reported that this bird was at that time on the way to extinction, making this unusual sighting all the more significant.
While the Great Gray Owl is an interesting visitor to our county, it is normally found breeding in North America from Alaska and northwestern Canada and southeast to northern Ontario. The Great Gray is one of ten species of owls that have been recorded over the years in our county. The other primarily winter visitors being the Saw-whet Owl, the smallest in body size measuring eight inches from tip of bill to tip of tail, and working up the size range the next would be Eastern Screech Owl, the Long-eared Owl, Short-eared Owl, Barn Owl, Great-Horned Owl, and Snowy Owl.
Some of these more traditional and exciting winter visitors are like the Great Gray, which has already been covered, are the Snowy Owl, and the Short-eared Owl. The Snowy Owl appears in our county about the first of November and may remain until the second week of April, more diurnal in its habits; it is a popular bird with many birding enthusiasts. On those occasions that this owl has appeared here, many members of the Lake Erie Bird Club were on hand to observe and photograph the bird. The last sighting was a few years ago when one was observed on a telephone pole on Cummings Road in South Stockton.
The Short-eared arrives sporadically in late November and December and is similar in observation dates to the Snowy. Chapman feels this bird, the short-eared, a mid-sized owl, is similar in behavior to the Snowy and for all purposes, he often believed that this bird should have been named the Marsh Owl, due to its behavior, and the fact that it prefers a marshy habitat for survival.
Photographs and article suggestions can be sent to me by U.S. Mail at 38 Elm St. Fredonia N.Y. 14063.