As each winter begins, anticipation mounts among fans of rare birds in New Jersey. It’s time for the arrival of the magnificent northern snowy owls once again!
These stunning white owls with bright yellow eyes spend their breeding season north of the Arctic Circle in Canada, hunting lemmings and other small creatures. While some stay in the arctic tundra year-round, many venture south in the winter in search of a more abundant food supply.
In recent winters, Island Beach State Park has become a favorite spot for snowy owls that hunt in dunes and open grasslands. Snowy owls have also been seen at other coastal and inland locations, including Merrill Creek Reservoir in Warren County and Liberty State Park in Jersey City. Some are already there!
The remarkable coloring of snowy owls prevents them from blending into the landscape unless there has been snowfall. And wherever snowy owls are spotted, bird watchers and nature photographers are not far behind!
However, winter isn’t just for snowy owls. It is a wonderful season to search for the many diverse and beautiful owls of New Jersey. Along with the leaves of the trees, roosting owls are much easier to spot. And due to the late sunrises and early winter sunsets, more and more people are awake and going about their daily business when owls are hunting in the dark.
Exceptional vision and hearing allow owls to easily and masterfully locate their prey in the dark and at dusk. Their flight is silent due to special adaptations such as wide wings, light bodies, and exceptionally soft, fluffy feathers. Owls mate in the winter, so this is a good time to listen to courtship calls.
Here are the owls you will be able to see and hear this winter:
Great Horned Owls – New Jersey’s largest and most well-known owl is nicknamed the “hoot owl for its distinctive HOOH-hoo-hoo-hooh-HOOOOH-hooh call at night. These year-round resident owls begin their mating and nesting season in December and are found all over New Jersey, including cities, towns, and suburbs. They are distinguished from other owls by their large size and large tufts of feathers on the top of their heads, resembling cat ears or horns.
Eastern Screech Owls – Contrary to their name, these year-round owls rarely call. Their best known call is a plaintive trill, descending in tone and resembling the neighing of a horse. Howling owls are small, measuring around 7-10 inches in height, and are found in virtually any forested habitat, regardless of human density – rural areas, suburbs, and city parks. If you are able to emulate their call, you might have one to fly up to a tree branch near you at night!
Barred Owls – This year round native owl is one of the largest in New Jersey, measuring 16-23 inches in height, and recognizable by its large rounded head, lack of tufts of feathers, and dark brown eyes. Barred owls are primarily nocturnal and are usually found in large areas of mature forest. They are considered endangered in New Jersey due to habitat loss.
Little Owls – New Jersey’s smallest bird of prey, the Little Owl stands only 7 to 8 inches tall and weighs a quarter of a pound. These mini owls have bright yellow eyes and large rounded heads without tufts of feathers. They rarely breed in New Jersey but are regular winter visitors. They are difficult to spot due to their small size and nocturnal habits, but you can hear their regular, flute-like hissing sound. The New Jersey Wild Bird Research Group is partnering with Mercer County and the Watershed Institute to band little owls in the fall and winter.
Short-eared owls – The size of a crow, the short-eared owl gets its name from its long tufts of feathers tightly packed together on the head. Although short-eared owls breed in a few isolated places in New Jersey, they are best known as winter visitors. They prefer forests with dense stands of eastern red cedars, and their secrecy makes them the least studied owl in the state. They are also considered endangered in New Jersey due to habitat loss.
Short-eared owls – These owls were once regular nests in the swamps and grasslands of New Jersey, but their habitat has been significantly reduced by drainage and development. Although they no longer breed as much in New Jersey, they remain a fairly common winter visitor. Short-eared owls are most active at sunset, hunting their prey in grasslands and open areas. Short-eared owls are considered endangered in New Jersey.
Snowy Owls – Recently made famous by Hedwig, the Snowy Owl from Harry Potter, a few of these beauties have been spotted on New Jersey beaches over the past two weeks. Unlike most owls, snowy owls hunt during the day, making them easy to spot. If you’re lucky enough to see one, you can tell if it’s male or female, as adult males are almost pure white while females have brown bars. . The non-profit SNOWstorm project is studying the movements of several snowy owls with electronic trackers; check them out at www.projectsnowstorm.org/.
Barn Owl – A native New Jersey owl that you might not see in the winter is the barn owl. These owls with distinctive heart-shaped faces love to live in man-made structures like barns, silos and bell towers. Most migrate to warmer climates in the winter, although a few may stay in New Jersey. Barn owl populations have declined in New Jersey due to loss of nesting habitat, and they are listed as Special Concern.
Where are the best places to see owls this winter? Check out the eBird website, where thousands of bird watchers from all over the world report their sightings. Go to https://ebird.org/home and search by species or region. You can also try to follow groups of bird watchers and nature photographers on social media.
But an important note: keep your distance! Owls need to conserve their energy to survive the cold, so don’t get too close and don’t have them fly to another location. Use binoculars, spotting scopes and telephoto lenses to view and photograph from a distance. Please also respect private property and restricted areas of public land.
For guaranteed owl watching up close, visit the Raptor Trust in Millington or the Woodford Cedar Run Wildlife Refuge in Medford. Both have resident owls that have been injured and cannot survive in the wild.
To learn more about owls, visit the Cornell Ornithology Lab’s “All About Birds” website at https://www.allaboutbirds.org/news/ or the National Audubon Society’s Guide to Birds of North America at https://www.audubon.org / bird-guide.
And to learn more about preserving New Jersey’s lands and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at [email protected]
Michele S. Byers is the Executive Director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation.