Story and Photographs by Joan Herrmann

Whereiwander… I have heard and seen that another irruption is happening this fall/winter season. An irruption, although not fully understood, is a sudden arrival of “rare” birds in an area where they are not usually seen. It is different than migration which routinely occurs each year. The irruption is thought to be generated by the necessity of future food availability to sustain the irruptors throughout the fall and winter. They leave their own habitat for a distant area in search of a better source of food and less competition for food throughout the winter. In an irruption year, it is possible for us, to travel a fairly short distance to find and photograph birds such as an arctic Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus), Great Gray Owl (Strix nebulosa), or Boreal Owl (Aegolius funererus). Several of my friends have already seen and photographed a Snowy Owl along the shore of Lake Ontario.

In addition to the opportunity of maybe seeing a “rare” bird, our chances of seeing some of the more elusive birds, such as Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus), Barred Owl (Strix varia), and Eastern Screech Owl (Megascops asio) becomes more likely with the lack of tree foliage. I have learned, throughout years of birding, the more I know about a species the greater the possibilities of actually finding and photographing it. Learning about the habits, habitats, and physical features of the bird which I hope to photograph is extremely helpful. For example, owls are nocturnal (more active at night) and also crepuscular (hunt for food at dawn, dusk, or on overcast days). I am more likely to find and photograph them being active in the early morning or before sunset. Because they are nocturnal they will roost (sleep) during the daylight hours. They can camouflage themselves exceptionally well, but can still be found with a bit of bird sleuthing. Quite often blue jays or crows will harass an owl during the day by screeching or even dive-bombing it while it attempts to sleep. They are doing this because the owl is a carnivore and the harassers and their offspring are potential prey.

Owls have highly developed eyes and ears that help them to find their prey while hunting. The ears of owls are arranged asymmetrically (one ear is higher than the other) on their head. They have the ability to hear potential prey, like a mouse rustling in the grass or under leaves or snow. Their flattened facial disks reflect the slightest sound to their ears in a similar way a satellite disk brings information to our televisions. I had an amazing experience a few years ago while watching a Snowy Owl on an overcast day. The owl was sitting on the top of a telephone pole that was adjacent to a barn and farmyard. I watched it turn its head and knew it was listening for prey. It finally triangulated the sound of a vole under about a foot of snow. It flew from the pole to the spot and descended with talons down into the snow and brought up its targeted prey. It returned to the pole and transferred the vole to its mouth and swallowed it whole.

Once the prey is swallowed it will digest within the owl’s crop. It will take about six to 10 hours, depending on the size of the prey, to completely digest. Once the prey has been digested the owl will regurgitate (cough up) the undigested parts in the form of a pellet which will contain the hair, bones, teeth, and nails. The prey’s hair surrounding its sharp body parts keeps the owl’s throat from being injured when the pellet is spat out.

An owl can see as well as a human in daylight, but probably sees a hundred times better in dim light. Owls have large eyes that are positioned in front of their face; whereas most birds have eyes on either side of their head. The owl’s eye placement gives it the advantage of an overlapping field of view and greater perception; like we have when we use binoculars. Their eyes are immobile and in order to see from side to side, they must move their head. That isn’t a problem for the owl because it has an extra vertebrae in its neck, which permits it to rotate its head about two hundred and seventy degrees in both directions.

An Owl can fly without making a sound. Its soft, velvety feathers absorb high-frequency sound and the edges of the primary feathers are serrated to muffle sound as the wings pass through the air. Even its legs and feet are feathered which allows the talons to have a soundless approach. The owl’s feet are wide and have a movable outer toe which helps keep wiggly prey from escaping. A Great Horned Owl’s talons are so enormous that it can capture very large prey such as a muskrat, opossum, skunk, rabbit, or even a gray fox.

Each owl has a very distinctive vocalization. The tiny Northern Saw-whet owl (Aegolius acadicus) makes a “tooting” sound. The raucous, caterwauling of the Barred Owl male and female during their courtship is a memorable sound and easy to mimic. Their sound is “who, who cooks for you… or who cooks for you all’. The Eastern Screech Owl makes a descending whinny which is followed by a long whistled trill. The Great Horned Owl renders the recognizable “hoo-hoo-hoododo-hooo-hoo” sound.

Owls are raptors (birds of prey) and like all raptors, the female is larger than the male. Within about six weeks Barred and Great Horned Owls will begin nesting. They do not make a nest but occupy a vacant nest of a hawk, crow, or even the larger birds. Last spring I was delighted to be able to see and photograph a Great Horned Owl nesting in a vacant Great Blue Heron nest at the Sterling Nature Center in Sterling, New York. When the migrating Great Blue Herons returned to the heronry, they began their courtship and re-nesting without any concern for their raptor neighbor. The Great Horned Owl female brooded two nestlings and all three eventually left the nest.

While hiking, snowshoeing or cross-country skiing keep your eyes open for “whitewash” on tree bark. Whitewash is owl excrement and is also a sign of a roosting owl. The whitewash is very white, thick, and cakey and may resemble pine sap. You may also be fortunate to find an owl pellet or two on the ground below the tree.

As a Professional Nature Photographer, Naturalist, and Outdoor Educator, Joan Herrmann has been teaching and doing programs for Schools, Garden Clubs, Libraries, and Nature Centers, about 38 years. After moving from the Rochester area in 1995 she began her Photography business, Essence of Nature, and also became a co-owner of The Artworks in Old Forge, New York. As a docent at Munson, Williams, Proctor Arts Institute, in Utica, New York she has been educating children and adults, for nineteen years.

In 2007 she began working with the Black River Outdoor Educational Program (BROEP) and in 2013 and 2014 did a week-long summer program at BROEP in conjunction with Mohawk Valley Community College (MVCC). Using her love of both nature and photography she created a Flora/Fauna outdoor educational program teaching students (ages 6 to 14) the joys of nature and creative photography skills.

Joan’s love of nature has been a lifelong study of Birds, Wildflowers, Mosses, Ferns, Trees, Amphibians, Reptiles, Grasses, Insects, Spiders, Tracks, Scat, and Galls. She has assisted in the cataloging of all trails used by the hiking Coaches and photographed and identified seasonal Flora.

Since October 2016 she has been writing a bimonthly nature column with Adirondack Express Newspaper. In October of 2019, she began a bi-monthly column with My Little Falls Newspaper. You may reach her at