Elusive owls nest in Williston (6/25/09)

June 25, 2009

By Tim Simard

Observer staff

The residents in the Tamarack Drive neighborhood have had quite a hoot in recent weeks. Perhaps it’s because of the new neighbors that moved in last month and soon made their presence known.


    Courtesy photo by Shelley Forrest
Only a few weeks after first leaving the nest, an adolescent long-eared owl practices flying on June 14 while swooping above the Forrests’ home.

Located on the Forrest family’s property in the quiet neighborhood are seven rarely seen long-eared owls. A mating pair of these full-feathered birds decided to use the Forrest’s trees as their new home while raising five offspring, much to the joy of nearby residents.

“We’ve had so much fun watching them,” Shelley Forrest said. “We call them the little babies.”

Forrest’s husband, Corey Forrest, said he discovered the long-eared owls one night while playing outside with his children, Evan and Tyler. He saw an owl fly over his head and heard unusual chirping sounds coming from the pine trees above the family swing set. After further investigation by Shelley Forrest, the family was able to correctly identify the type of owl. Little did they know what a find it turned out to be.

“You can thank Shelley and her family for this amazing discovery, and it really is amazing,” bird expert Carl Runge said.

Runge, a member of Audubon Vermont and a former board member of the organization, also happens to be the Forrests’ neighbor. When the Forrests discovered their new feathered friends, they told Runge. And after confirming the birds were in fact long-eared owls, Runge invited several bird-watching acquaintances to witness the owls in the wild.

Runge said observing the owls has been a once in a lifetime experience for many birders in the area.

“This is a life bird for them,” Runge said. “They’ve never seen this before and might never again.”

While long-eared owls aren’t considered rare for the northeastern United States and Vermont, seeing them in the wild is considered next to impossible. The birds prefer nesting in high coniferous trees near open fields where they can hunt, but away from populous areas.

Jim Shallow, conservation and policy director for Audubon Vermont, said owls are birds that typically do not announce themselves. The fact that this owl family of seven has taken up residence in a populated neighborhood surrounded by children and pets is interesting to note, Shallow said.

“They are very uncommon and so this sighting is unusual,” Shallow said.

Shelley Forrest said the owls seemed to have adapted to their busy surroundings without much of a problem.

“They don’t seem to be frightened or skittish by us,” she said.

Runge said the last confirmed nesting pair of long-eared owls in Vermont came during a statewide study between 2003 and 2007. During that time, birders discovered a nesting pair in Charlotte. Before that, a nesting pair was confirmed in Brandon in the 1970s, Runge said.

Due to their feathers, which resemble the look of tree bark, it’s almost impossible to spot them. Runge said he relies on Evan and Tyler Forrest to find the owls every time he comes to their home to observe.

“The suspicion is that (the owls) are more common than they’re observed in Vermont,” Runge said.

Long-eared owls are smaller than their more famous great horned owl cousins. The name comes from the very noticeable tuft of feathers resembling ears on their heads. In fact, the owls’ ears are on the sides of their heads and are not related to the feathers.

The Forrests have watched the owls’ chicks grow in size in the past few weeks. First, the young birds were covered in gray down feathers. But now they’re beginning to increasingly resemble their parents.

The young have also abandoned the nest and have been following the elder owls on hunting expeditions in the nearby open fields around the Catamount Family Center. Apparently, the hunting trips have been a success, judging by the amount of owl pellets discovered around the Forrests’ home.

Runge believes the young are preparing to leave the neighborhood and find their own hunting grounds. He surmises that they may choose the trees around Catamount due to the amount of open fields for hunting. Until then, the Forrest family intends to continue watching their new friends swoop through the Williston skies.