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Story Last modified at 9:38 p.m. on Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Owls are out in force, getting ready for love

BY MELISSA DeVAUGHN
Alaska Star

photo:News

Fang, a boreal owl used in the education program at Bird Treatment and Learning Center, visited fourth-graders at Chugiak Elementary School on April 11.
STAR PHOTO by Melissa DeVaughn

The Anchorage Audubon's birding hot line, at 338-2473, is a good place to find out where the owls are making the most noise. (www.anchorageaudubon.org)

Although 10 species of owls frequent Alaska, only eight can be seen in Southcentral and six of those eight in the immediate area. Now is a good time to hear them or spot them as they enter mating season.

Great gray

This is Alaska's tallest owl, reaching heights of 19 inches high. Despite its size, great grays are reclusive and seldom seen. They can weigh up to 3.5 pounds and are identified by their distinctive facial markings, which are disc-like in shape, with the feathers fanning out in a circle toward the ears. The Great Gray has the distinctive "hoo-hoo-hoo" call that people associate with owls. It is one of the more commonly heard species in Southcentral and Southeast Alaska. The Matanuska Valley and Chugiak, in wooded areas, are the best places to spot them.

Great horned

These are some of the largest owls in North America, reaching wingspans of 30 to 55 inches. The key identifiers are the feather tufts on the head, the large yellow eyes and the white beard of feathers on the throat. They have the largest eyes of any owl. These creatures also emit repetitive, throaty "hoos" when calling. Local places to check include Arctic Valley Road, Knik River Road, Beach Lake Road and the Eagle River Nature Center.

Boreal

A common but rarely seen bird that can be found throughout the forested areas of the Interior, Kodiak Island and Southcentral, from Prince William Sound to King Salmon. It is one of three smallest owls in Alaska, weighing 4 to 7 ounces and up to 9 inches long (the other two are the common western saw-whet and the rarely spotted pygmy). It can be identified by light-colored bill and white spots on the top of its head. These owls nest in old woodpecker cavities. Local places to check include Arctic Valley Road, Knik River Road, Beach Lake Road and the Eagle River Nature Center.

Northern hawk

These 15- to 16-inch-tall owls look as if they have a helmet pulled over their yellow eyes and have curved yellow beaks made for ripping prey. Their call sounds more like a hawk or other predator bird, described as a "kee-kee" sound rather than a "hoo." You're more likely to see one of these owls during the day. They're not commonly seen in Chugiak-Eagle River but can be spotted off the Glenn Highway past the Sheep Mountain Lodge in open spruce forest.

Northern saw-whet

They may look cute, but these tiny owls are fierce predators. They are brownish and grow only about 7 inches tall. They can be spotted in Southeast and along the coast in Southcentral, and can be identified by the repetitive "to-to-to" call they emit. Local places to check include Arctic Valley Road, Knik River Road, Beach Lake Road and the Eagle River Nature Center.

Short-eared

These owls are among the more common in Alaska, ranging from coast to coast. They are brown with vertical streaks on their wings. Their call is abrupt and sharp, like a bark. They can be spotted in the daytime in marshes and meadows, especially at dusk and dawn.

Snowy

Snowy owls are lovely looking creatures and are commonly found in tundra areas, especially in northern Alaska. They are nearly pure white as adults, especially males. Rare in Southcentral, birders usually need to travel to the North Slope to spot them. "Guide to the Birds of Alaska," by Robert H. Armstrong, describes the snowy owl call as "load croaking and whistling sounds."

Western screech

Not a common owl in Alaska, but avid birders know they can be spotted or heard in Seward and often will drive south to try and identify them. These small, brownish birds are very rarely spotted and can be distinguished by the trilling notes in their call.

Northern pygmy and barred owls are both found in Southeast.



This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, April 13, 2011.