Ocean Views: Barn Owl Moon

Mon, 03/07/2011 - 1:17pm

03/06/11 -Spring, a season of rejuvenation and new life, is welcomed on the calendar on March 20th at 7:21 p.m. On Block Island the first animal to usher in a generation of new life is not marked by the trilling of Red-winged black birds setting up territory, or the first chorus of spring peepers, or the whirly-gig flight of mating American woodcock. The first new generation of life on the Island this year will be Barn owlets.

The Barn owl is the most likely owl to be seen on Block Island. This year-round resident can often be seen at night and may suddenly appear looking quite white as it flashes in one’s headlights and goes to perch on a utility pole or tree or simply glides into the darkness. Block Island Barn owls are known to nest in holes in the bluffs, but may also be found in tree cavities, nest boxes and barn-like structures that have a suitable cavity space. Barn owls mate at any time of the year. The prevalence of mating and number of young is heavily dependent on food supply. Although I have not located a Barn owl nest this year, I have seen and have had many reports of nighttime Barn owl hunting and sightings. It is very likely that there are Barn owlets being fed and kept warm in several nests around the Island at this very moment as you read this article.

A few fun facts:

• Barn owls will mate for life unless one of the pair dies or is unavailable by virtue of raising young.

• Barn owls generally lay between 4 and 8 eggs, two days apart; they incubate for about 30 days; they feed the young for 7 – 8 weeks before the young fledge.

• Barn owls are rather short-lived for a large bird: the average lifespan is about 1.5 – 2 years.

• Although Barn owls have excellent low-light vision they can also capture prey in total darkness because of their acute hearing.

• Barn owls have several types of calls; one is a blood-curdling scream.

• Barn owls are found throughout the world (except Antarctica) and are extremely beneficial for rodent control. Farmers often built barn owl nest boxes right in their barns to encourage nesting, thus increasing the number of rodents taken as prey to sustain the owl family.

Although Barn owls are common residents and nesters on Block Island now, that has not always been the case in New England. The following quote from Edward Howe Forbush’s Birds of Massachusetts and Other New England States, 1927, is an interesting illustration of the bird’s rarity and the importance of Block Island’s contribution to the historical records.

“Distribution in New England. – Accidental in Vermont; rare visitor from south in southern New England; breeds rarely in Connecticut. Records: … Rhode Island: Warwick, November 1886, … Cumberland, … Charlestown, January 23, 1896, … Messrs. Angell and Cash, taxidermists, received the following specimens in 1924: Woonsocket, October 14 and Block Island, October 28; Bristol, November 3, 1924, bird taken (Harry Hathaway).” – Forbush, pg. 190 - 191.

March, the last month of winter and the first with spring days is a delightful time on Block Island. The wind can be blustery, but there are numerous signs of a changing season. The length of daylight is of course longer; and the quality of sunlight has shifted from gold to yellow. When you view the mass of shad in Rodman’s Hollow the grey bark has become tinted with the mauve and maroon of a million tiny buds. The sound of Spring peepers and the long zeeeeeep of woodcock will punctuate the evening before the month ends.

Not only are there changes in March days, the night sky is shifting too. Jupiter – now an evening “star” will be lost from sight by the end of the month. March’s full moon, often called the full sap, crow or Lenten moon, comes late in the month on March 19th (just a day before the equinox and thus this year’s late Easter celebration). Moon names have existed long before calendar month names as a way of identifying the season and marking the season’s passage. March’s moon is the late winter moon, and the various names are meant to mark the events of the season and often relate to the culture of the namer. They are human-derived monikers and are not set in stone. Along with these articles, just for the fun of it, let’s consider a new set of Block Island moon names, such as the last full moon in winter on March 19th may also be known as the full Barn owl moon.

The following March events and Ocean View Foundations programs are sure to provide opportunities to enjoy the shift from winter to spring in both daylight and during the night.

March 1-31, Barn owl sighting – keep your eyes open.

March 1-31: first spring peeper chorus heard – keep your ears open.

March 15, at 8 a.m.: Crazy-as-a-Coot bird walk, call 595-7055 for location.

March 19 at 2:10 p.m.: full Barn owl moon.

March 26, at 7:30 p.m.: Twilight walk & Night Sky Viewing, Hodge Preserve.

Environmental film night showing BI Wind and Fresh with a local potluck: time & date TBA.

The following sights are good sources for more information about Barn owls and were used as sources for this article. The last website is a fantastic web cam inside a barn owl nesting box.