N.C. Press Association first place award for spot photograph, 2017.
By Peter Vankevich
For a narrow barrier island well off the mainland, Ocracoke has some pretty interesting birds and a number of islanders keep an eye out for unusual ones.
In the village, depending on the time of year, one can see and/or hear Eurasian Collared-Doves, Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) Warblers in great numbers and Great-crested Flycatchers. At night, one can hear Chuck-will’s Widow and our feature, the Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus).
Amazing creatures, Great Horned Owls are the most likely owl you will encounter on Ocracoke. Famed nature writer Ernest T. Seton in 1890 described them as “winged tigers and among the most pronounced and savage of the birds of prey.”
These are huge birds averaging 22 to 25 inches in length and with wing spans of four feet. The large ear tufts, called “plumicorns,” give the impression of horns, hence their name. Their brown-black markings make for perfect camouflage. They also have a facial disc and bright yellow eyes.
Great horned owls have adapted to human habitats and are fairly tolerant of human activity, so it is not uncommon to hear them call at night in the village.
A few years ago, a nest was discovered well-hidden in a tree at the Park Service’s Visitors’ Center near the ferry docks. A yellow “Do Not Cross” ribbon was placed around it so the youngsters could fledge successfully.
About a month ago, alert islanders noticed another nesting on Lighthouse Road, and an adult and the young fledging were seen perched in some high long leaf pines during the day. They can often be heard calling at Springer’s Point and are present in Hammock Hills across from the Park Service campground.
Like many owls, great horns are most active nocturnally; their hunting activity tends to peak between 8:30 p.m. and midnight and can pick back up from 4:30 a.m. to sunrise. Occasionally they may hunt during the day.
Their deep, soft hoots described by some as a rapid hoo-HOO-hoo-hoo, can be heard from great distances. The females’ calls are somewhat higher pitched. Once fledged, the young owls make a loud piercing cry/hiss so the parents can find them and bring food. Audio recordings of an adult and juvenile can be heard below.
Another large owl found throughout most of North Carolina, though not on Ocracoke, is the Barred Owl which prefers riparian habitats. The two are easily distinguished since the Barred Owl lacks tufts and has dark brown eyes. The Barred Owl’s call is very different and has been described as Who Cooks for you, Who cooks for you?
Formidable hunters, great horns have excellent hearing for locating prey and they use their sharp talons to seize and kill. Their diet ranges in size from large insects, tiny rodents, rabbits, and birds including duck, geese and hawks. Occasionally, they will also prey on cats and small dogs if the opportunity exists.
About six to 10 hours after feeding, they will regurgitate pellets of the non-digestible parts including bones and fur. These distinctive pellets on the ground are a sign that owls are present.
Stationary in nature, owls can turn their heads more than 200 degrees in either direction.
Renters rather than builders, Great Horned Owls commandeer large nests abandoned by other species including Red-tailed hawks, eagles and even squirrels. Distances for feeding depend on whether they can find suitable prey.
Courtship, which begins as early as October, makes them one of the earliest breeders in North America. In this region, they usually lay two to three eggs, generally from February into April. Successfully fledges have an average lifespan of 13 years. The longest known longevity of an individual in the wild was 29 years and 50 years in captivity.
Adults have no natural predators, but natural causes of death include hunting injuries and starvation. Most owls admitted to rehabilitation centers have human-caused injuries such as being hit by vehicles, shot, electrocuted, caught in barbed wire and poisoned.
This is a “love-to-hate” owl as they are often mobbed by other species, such as American Crows. If a crow encounters one of these owls, the crow will start an alarm call and be joined by the other crows in the area, sometimes in great numbers forcing the owl to flee to another location.
Except for those owls in the far north, that may move south when prey is scarce, these owls are nonmigratory.
So, with the addition of this year’s fledges, we should be hearing owl hoots at night in the village for years to come.
Best time to see: Year-round residents
Where: Springer’s Point, village, especially on the water tower and Hammock Hills across from the NPS campground
Listen: The first recording is the call of an adult and the second of fledgling begging for food.
(audio provided courtesy of OhioLINK Digital Resource Commons)
Click here for the Birds of the Outer Banks checklist