Research Report #44 — Owls of the Northern Shawangunks

Great-horned Owl © Connie DeDona

For many years scientists and naturalists have been studying and observing the flora and fauna of the Shawangunk Ridge. Foremost among them was Daniel Smiley, for whom Mohonk Preserve’s Daniel Smiley Research Center is named. Dan wrote numerous reports summarizing his observations on various topics. This regularly occurring series will feature some of these reports; some hold tremendous scientific value today and just await an interested researcher to follow up, others showcase a quirky sense of humor or highlight an oddity of nature.

Read the Report: Owls of the Northern Shawangunks. December 1978. Daniel Smiley.

A Note from Paul C. Huth, Director of Research Emeritus: Growing up on a farm in Eastern Ulster County, I can remember on more than one cold winter night waking up and hearing the hooting of a Great-horned Owl on a high ridge about a quarter of a mile away from home, and how wild and mysterious the sound.

As a Research Associate of The Mohonk Trust in the 1970s, working on plant distribution and vegetational history, I would accompany staff on observational field trips, mostly as part of the broad long-term ecosystem research of noted Mohonk Naturalist Daniel Smiley. I well remember one field trip on 6 December 1979, into an area of the Minnewaska State Park Preserve Preserve, with one purpose to explore a remote area “for nesting sites of the Great-horned Owl.” Dan was interested in Great-horn’s “because of their importance as a predator and its relation to the reintroduction of the Peregrine Falcon.”

Dan wrote this Research Report in 1978 to document and summarize “observations of six species of owls (recorded) in the northern Shawangunks” dating back to 1929, with “consideration….given to the possibility of changing status, to their distribution on the mountain, and to their functions in the ecosystem.” He goes on to say that because of “the nocturnal habits of owls have limited the opportunity for observations.” As a result, these “records are not a true indication of the geographical distribution of owls on the mountain. Some of the records were noted while I was in bed!”.

Five of the six owl species in Dan’s Research Report, the Great-horned, Eastern Screech, Barred, Northern Saw-whet, and Snowy, are members of the Order Strigiformes, and Family Strigidae, and are considered the “true” or “wood” owls. The Barn Owl, in the order Strigiformes, is in the Family Tytonidae, or the “grassland” owls.

The Great-horned Owl, Bubo virginianus, is our largest owl. It is a resident breeding species. Dan documented records where they were heard on 88 occasions in the 49 years, but were only seen 5 times. Four nests were documented-in 1953, 1974, and 1975 in the Kleine Bonticou Cliff area, and one in the Trapps in 1977. Most records came from the Mossy Brook-Mohonk Lake area and the Duck Pond watershed, followed by Rhododendron Swamp-Sleepy Hollow. Of interest, the most records documented by month occurred in October, followed by December and January, likely related to the species breeding. Dan suspected that the Great-horned “is generally distributed in the northern Shawangunks since its varied foods might be more general than that of the smaller owls.” One record, from 24 April 1932, shows that being a naturalist isn’t a 9 to 5 job. “At 2:00 a.m., in the light of half moon from my Oak Cottage window (Dan’s home at Mohonk), I listened to hooting near the Greenhouse. I squeaked like a mouse. Almost immediately the owl lit in the top of a nearby oak. After hooting a few times, it flew away. A little later I made more squeaks and brought him back briefly.”

The Eastern Screech-Owl, Megascops asio, is one of two species of small owls, is a resident species, and has been “recorded regularly”. No nests were directly observed. Dan documented them as being heard 86 times in 49 years, but were only seen 6 times. The most records by month occurred in September and October. Frequent records were located near Cottage Grove at Mohonk (closest to Dan’s later home, the Elms Cottage), followed by the vicinity of the Mountain House and Oak Cottage, Duck Pond, the Clove, Glen Anna, North Lookout, and Mountain Rest. Dan felt “that the Screech Owl has maintained its status as a minor predator of small mammals”.

Juvenile Barred Owl © Karen Maloy Brady

The Barred Owl, Strix varia, is a resident species, but no Shawangunk nests were documented at the time his report was written. Dan noted them 22 times in 49 years, 14 of which were heard, 5 seen, and 3 heard and seen. He notes, 12 records occurred “in daytime.” No nests were documented at the time of his report, “though it is considered a breeding species for Ulster County.” Most monthly records were in April, when Dan felt “hooting may be associated with food-gathering for the young.” Dan suggested occurrence records for the species “are somewhat more restricted….(many) from stream valleys, usually centered at the upper ends-as Mossy Brook and Duck Pond.” Dan felt the Barred Owl population over the same 49 years had not changed significantly. Since Dan wrote his Research Report, a confirmed breeding observation was made in 1985 by Bob Larsen in Sleepy Hollow Swamp and reported to Dan, of an “adult with two young….flying but still with much downy plumage.”

The Northern Saw-whet Owl, Aegolius acadious, is our smallest owl. Dan correctly assumed that “although (the species) was not added to the avifauna of the Northern Shawangunks till 1960, I now believe that it has probably always been here in limited numbers.” The dramatic 1960 record occurred on 15 July, and was an “immature and fairly young” bird “caught in a guest room of the Mountain House….on the 6th floor, 60 feet above the ground.” John Bull in “Birds of the New York Area,” reports it “usually rare before November and after March.”

The Snowy Owl, Bubo scandiacus, is a “holarctic species (that is a) rare and irregular winter visitant.” Dan documented the following 4 records-the first, in early winter, 1927, near Mohonk, “seen at the Sawmill,” another on 10 March 1928, “seen on Laurel Ledge Road,” and then a gap to 1960, when there were two records, one on 20 November, at Bonticou Crag, and the second on 26 December near Breezy Lawn, near the Foothills Parcel. Dan felt “that during (their) occasional southward movements….there would be more food available in the valleys than on the mountain.” On the Preserve’s “Checklist of Birds of the Northern Shawangunk Mountains,” this species is listed as “accidental.” In the 41 years since Dan wrote his Research Report, three additional nearby observations have been documented in 1996, 1999, and 2014.

The Barn Owl, Tito alba, was only represented by one record, from 5 July 1971, when one was found down along the side of Sky Top Road, with an apparent injury. It later died. In addition, after Dan compiled his Research Report, the Research staff obtained a dead adult Barn Owl in 1992 from near the Wallkill River, collected under the Preserve’s US Fish and Wildlife Service Salvage Permit, and which was added to the Daniel Smiley Research Center Research Collection.

Since Dan’s 1978 Research Report, one additional species was added to the record of owls, that of the Short-eared Owl, Asio flammeus, of the Family Strigidae. That first record was on 24 December 1985, observed by Research Associates Lee and Jim Amigh. They excitedly reported their observation back to Dan and he recorded it as follows-“seen in field northeast of Duck Pond, perched in a tree at the edge of field. When it flew over them, (it) gave them a good view.” Identification was certain, as they “saw black bars and buff patches, (and) heard chattering as it flew.” Another, maybe the same, was reported in March of 1987, upslope of the above observation, on Mohonk’s Long Woodland Drive. Since then, only three additional records have been documented from reliable birders. It was added to the “checklist of Birds of the Northern Shawangunk Mountains” as an “accidental.”

Because of a notable Research Associate Project conducted by Dr. Glenn Proudfoot over a number of years at the Mohonk Preserve, we have learned a great deal more about the Northern Saw-whet Owl, and the significance of the species on migration routes from breeding sites in northern forests to the south to over winter, including over the Shawangunks. Research included capturing, and in some cases recapturing, measuring and documenting individual bird age and “geographic origin” from feathers, collecting a DNA sample to reliably determine sex, and banding several hundred migrating birds each year. One bird “was recaptured eleven years after it was (first) banded.” Of significance, is the knowledge gained that, in fact, hundreds of northern Saw-whet Owls use the ridge each year as important “stopover points….known as site fidelity” during migration, which revealed the concept that “it is just as important to manage areas….for migrating birds as it is to conserve areas for resident bird populations.” Glenn also generously provided Mohonk Preserve public programs which allowed dozens of people to learn about his research and see these spectacular little birds up close.

Read the Report: Owls of the Northern Shawangunks. December 1978. Daniel Smiley.

With over 8,000 acres on the Shawangunk Ridge, Mohonk Preserve is the largest member and visitor-supported nature preserve in New York State.