Out in Search of the East End’s Nocturnal Visitors

The South Fork Natural History Museum will lead an owl hike. Courtesy photo
The South Fork Natural History Museum will lead an owl hike. Courtesy photo

By Rachel Bosworth

Less than a dozen species of owls can be found on the East End, and only two are year-round residents; the eastern screech owl and great horned owl. Elusive creatures in the daylight, these birds are best searched for in the dark of night during the winter months. This cool weather season is ideal for sightings for a number of reasons, according to birder Joe Giunta. As he prepares for his annual Owls by the Light of the Moon walk with the South Fork Natural History Museum and Nature Center (SoFo) in Bridgehampton, the birding instructor and trip leader shares what makes these two resident species of the East End so special.

“There are about 100 pairs of eastern screech owls and 25 pairs of great horn owls on the East End,” Mr. Giunta says, though owls are not necessarily always found in pairs. “Now is when owls are forming their pairs and breeding will occur early next year.”

Mr. Giunta is a birding instructor for the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, a trip leader for New York City Audubon, and owner of a birding and educational travel company called Happy Warblers. As he explains the differences between the various owl species, he shares that the great horned owl was the first species in the eastern United States.

Its appearance is something of a fairytale. Long, feathered earlike tufts, a daunting stare with yellow eyes, and a deep, hooting voice are some of the great horned owl characteristics that stand out. This particular species is large with broad and rounded wings, and its plumage is grayish brown with a reddish-brown face. When on walks, Mr. Giunta says the odds of seeing this particular species are slim.

“We see the eastern screech owl 90-percent of the time and the great horned owl 10-percent of the time,” he explains, noting cooler weather increases the chances of spotting the elusive owl. “There are less leaves on the trees, which gives greater visibility. When I try to call them, sound travels further, and since they’re starting to pair up, they’re more responsive to sounds.”

They are now courting, and will begin to lay eggs near the end of January or beginning of February. Mr. Giunta says in some cases, they may be incubating eggs and also have snow on them. Thanks to the digital age and smart phone technology, he uses his iPhone to call the birds, sharing some apps have all 700 species of birds on them.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology explains the great horned owl cry is a deep, stuttering series of several hoots. The eastern screech owl emits a trilling or whinnying song. Short and stocky, this particular owl’s size and shape help to identify the species. Features of note are its large head and barely-there neck, rounded wings, and short, square tail. Its pointed ear tufts are often raised. As for the color, this bird is mostly gray or a reddish brown, which lends to its camouflage against tree bark.

As nocturnal animals, the great horned owl and eastern screech owl are dormant during the day. “Owls are nighttime raptors,” Mr. Giunta says. “In the daytime, the eastern screech owl will go into a tree cavity and you won’t see it. The great horned owl you won’t see at all during the day either. They’ll roost in a pine tree close to the trunk. At night, they become active.”

There are migrant species that visit the East End in the cooler months as well, like the snowy owl that comes down south to New York when it has trouble finding food further north. Another visiting species is the short eared owl, which used to breed on Long Island decades ago. Mr. Giunta says the last nesting in New York was in Starett City, Brooklyn in 1950. He credits habitat destruction with the disappearance of other full time resident species on the East End.

“They were here before people we here,” he says, adding that though numbers have been reduced, they are not a threatened or endangered species. “Fields and forests have been turned into malls and developments. Where these owls live depend on their habitat and how they have evolved.”

Mr. Giunta led his first owl walk with SoFo in 1995. He only takes 10 people on walks as too much noise will scare the owls off. “Owls are very special,” Giunta says. “People love to see them and watch them at night. There’s a special feeling about it.

The next excursion will take place on Saturday, December 2, at 7 p.m., following a lecture on the different species people may encounter on the East End. The cost is $10-$15; advance registration is required. Visit sofo.org for more information.