Swans

Just a few of the many swans during a trip to Cape May Point State Park in late June.

When I think of owls, my mind immediately turns to either the great horned owl or the barn owl.

You’re probably familiar with both these species as they are kinds that can be found in Maryland.

The great horned owl is an iconic owl species with large ear tufts that look like horns in silhouette and give it its name.

This species, like a lot of owls, is active at night. It’s grayish-brown, mottled and blends in well with the forests where it lives. You could probably imagine it hunting on silent wings in a forest at night or perched on a tree branch hooting a mournful call.

I’ve been lucky enough to see a great horned owl on several occasions in my very own yard, even once during daylight and carrying a fully-grown squirrel in its talons.

The other kind of owl that comes to mind is the barn owl.

I’ve written about this species several times because, unlike the great horned owl which is common enough in Maryland, the barn owl’s population has dramatically declined and is an uncommon sight these days.

This species is also active at night, but has reputation for ghostliness with its golden back and white face and underside. Barn owls also don’t hoot, they screech eerily reminiscent a woman screaming.

Of course there are other kinds of owls like burrowing owls (which is not found anywhere near Maryland) and the barred owl, which has an endearing hoot that sounds like the owl is asking, “Who cooks for me?”

I’ve seen a northern saw-whet owl up close once, which was a real treat as these owls are both adorable (about 6 inches of cuteness as adults) and are rare in our state.

Lately, though, I’ve been thinking a lot about another kind of owl, the snowy owl. I’ve never seen one in person, but I sure would love to.

Snowy owls are large, weighing on average between 3 and 6 pounds, which is really heavy when it comes to bird weight. That’s quite some heft when you think how light feathers are. But these birds need an extra-thick layer, especially for their feet, to insulate them against bitter cold weather.

It would be close to a miracle to see a snowy owl here in Maryland, but it’s not impossible.

You never know, there might be an irruption next winter. That’s what experts call it when birds travel great distances to places they aren’t normally found. It happened in 2013 and it can certainly happen again, although probably not likely this year. The number of snowy owls is proportional to the size of the lemming population, one of the snowy owl’s main food sources, and this year it’s just not that robust.

Snowy owls inhabit places with a lot of snow, so your best bet would be Canada, Alaska and New England in the winter months, unless you’re planning a trip to the Arctic tundra, where they nest in the summer.

There’s a great resource online about snowy owls, and — you probably guessed it — a nest cam where you can peek in 24 hours a day to check on the nest.

The first thing that will strike you about this nest is that it’s on the ground. That’s because there aren’t any trees in the Arctic tundra.

The second thing you might notice is no matter what time you look in at the nest, the sun is shining. During the Arctic summer, the sun doesn’t set, so it’s daylight all the time.

Most owls are nocturnal, but snowy owls have to be diurnal during the summer. You’ll also be able to tell the difference between the male and female snowy owl very easily. While the female is speckled, the male is a bright, pure white. If you tune in for a good length of time, you’re certain to see the male bring his mate a meal.

While the nest cam season is winding down for local birds of interest, the snowy owl nesting season is just heating up. You can check out the live feed at www.owlresearchinstitute.org.

Swans are an exciting find

When I was in New Jersey last month, we took the family to Cape May Point State Park to get our requisite dose of nature.

It was an unbelievably hot day, made even hotter by five nagging children, but we were appropriately rewarded for our perseverance when we got to view a red-tailed hawk from about 10 feet and get some exquisite photos with my husband’s new camera. Even the kids were stunned into silence.

And then, just when we thought things were good, they got even better. We rounded a bend and lo and behold there were dozens of mute swans swimming serenely in a tidal pond. And while mute swans aren’t that big of a deal to see, so many in one place made it special.

Now something that would be an exciting find in Southern Maryland is if a trumpeter swan showed up this summer.

According to Tyler Bell of the Southern Maryland Audubon Society, Calvert County had its first trumpeter swan a couple of years ago when a pair that’s been wandering around southern Anne Arundel County crossed the county line and hung around in a pond for a few days.

Trumpeter swans are very easy to identify. Since tundra swans are gone for the year, mute swans and trumpeter swans are the only remaining swan species and it’s simple to tell them apart.

Adult mute swans have a bright orange bill with a knob whereas trumpeter swans have a black bill. Any non-mute swan you see from now until late October to early November could be a rare find.

If you happen to see a swan with a black bill, hopefully on a publicly accessible pond, send me an email please.

I know some folks who’d love to see one.