LEO is an old friend of mine who shows up every winter – more or less. LEO is the birder’s acronym for the Long-eared Owl and represents a species name rather than an individual name. I suppose I should say that LEOs are friends of mine, but even though grammatically correct, that sounds awkward. Come to think of it, I should never have started out with this acronym at all because it has led to several wasted explanatory sentences. But, we must move on to the owl at hand and not dwell over spilt words.
Long-eared Owls traditionally show up on our Southeastern Michigan doorstep every winter. These basically northern owls spread south during the cold season to seek out productive mousing fields and roosting thickets throughout the lower 48. The Hawthorn thickets and scrubby wetlands of Lake Erie Metropark fit their winter needs very well and we are seasonal hosts for multiple LEOs from December to March. The neat (did I just say neat?) thing about Long-ears is that they roost communally. This means that you may rarely see them, but when you do spot one it is rarely alone. The winter birds group together into roosting groups (Parliaments) usually numbering from 2-12 birds.
We have been fortunate over a better part of the past decade that our returning owls have chosen roost sites close to the trail system – easily viewed (and photographed) within a few dozen feet from the path edge. Because these owls tend to shift their specific roosts from year to year, their new locations had to be discovered every year. It had become natural habit to look in the “usual places” until they were revealed. But, because of their fidelity to their chosen roost, once found they were easily re-found within a season. I have, in fact, brought them to the attention of Naturespeak readers (all two of you) several times in the past. I do this because they are incredible looking beasts. To look into the eyes of a Long-eared owl is to glimpse wildness.
True to their wildness, these owls do not consult with us humans when they make their annual selection of winter roost sites. As to what the LEOs are looking for when making this choice, researchers are not really sure. They often choose the close branching cover of evergreens when they are present, but at Lake Erie they pick fairly open spaces located within a thicker tangle of Buckthorn and Hawthorn. Certainly the location also depends on easy access to the mousing swales, but beyond that there appears to be no common trait. Of course, I say this with the necessity of adding “as far as we can tell.”
For the past several years, the owls have picked locations far removed from the trail system so they were not as accessible to the paparazzi of camera folk as they were earlier in the decade. Given the dense nature of our hawthorn thickets it doesn’t take much to hide among the scrubbery. It was almost as if they were trying to re-assert their wildness by becoming less predictable. I was fairly certain that the supposed disappearance of our LEOs was a matter of perception and not reality. This year my hunch was confirmed.
Last week, a LEO roost was uncovered by one of the Christmas Bird Count birders working a “remote” section of the park. There are six owls using this spot. I went, with a small group of friends, to visit their parliament hall and say hello to some old friends. We stayed only a few minutes, admired them from afar, and returned to the trail as quietly and directly as possible – leaving them wild and only lightly bothered.
The sight of multiple owls was reminiscent of old times for me. There was a good chance that the meeting was slightly reminiscent for the owls as well. These birds can live well over 25 years and, given that they are devoted to their winter roost areas, this means that they have probably seen me many times before. This would go a long way toward explaining their look of utter surprise mixed with regret – there are some old acquaintances that are best forgot