North Carolina, with its diverse landscapes ranging from the majestic Appalachian Mountains to the serene coastal plains, is a haven for several species of owls. Each species, with its unique characteristics and behaviors, contributes to the rich tapestry of the state’s wildlife. In this blog post, we’ll embark on a virtual journey through the nocturnal world of North Carolina’s owls.
Owls in North Carolina
1. Great Horned Owl
The Great Horned Owl, often referred to as the “tiger of the skies,” is a sight to behold in the diverse landscapes of North Carolina. With its large, piercing yellow eyes and tufts of feathers that resemble horns. Its exceptional hearing, aided by the unique shape of its face that channels sound waves to its ears, allows it to locate even the quietest of prey in the dark.
From small rodents to larger mammals and even other birds, the Great Horned Owl’s diet is as diverse as the state’s wildlife. Great Horned Owl is master of night. These owls are also known for their powerful hoot, a deep, resonant sound that can carry over long distances.
2. Barred Owl
The Barred Owl, with its soulful brown eyes and unique hooting pattern, is another fascinating resident of North Carolina’s forests. Often heard before they are seen, their call is a distinctive “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?” that echoes through the woods. Barred Owls are known for their love of dense, mature forests near water bodies.
They are excellent swimmers and are often seen hunting for fish and crayfish in addition to their usual diet of small mammals and birds. One of the most interesting aspects of the Barred Owl is its sociable nature. Unlike many owl species, Barred Owls are known to respond to human imitations of their calls.
3. Barn Owl
The Barn Owl, with its heart-shaped face and ghostly pale color, is a captivating sight in the rural landscapes of North Carolina. These owls are most commonly found in open areas like farmlands, marshes, and grasslands, where they hunt for rodents. Barn Owls are silent hunters, flying low over fields and using their exceptional hearing to locate prey.
Their diet primarily consists of mice and rats, making them a farmer’s best friend. One of the most distinctive features of the Barn Owl is its screeching call, quite different from the hoots of other owl species. This, along with their nocturnal habits, has led to many myths and folklore surrounding these birds.
4. Eastern Screech Owl
The Eastern Screech Owl, a petite yet formidable predator, is a common sight in the varied habitats of North Carolina. Despite its name, this owl doesn’t actually screech. Instead, it produces a series of whinnying and trilling sounds that add a touch of mystery to the night. Eastern Screech Owls are masters of camouflage.
Their grey or reddish-brown feathers blend seamlessly with the bark of trees, making them difficult to spot. But their distinctive call, often heard at dusk and dawn, gives away their presence. These owls have a diverse diet, feeding on everything from insects and small rodents to birds and reptiles.
5. Northern Saw-whet Owl
The Northern Saw-whet Owl, one of the smallest owl species found in North Carolina. Named for its call that resembles the sound of a saw being sharpened, this owl is known for its oversized head and cat-like eyes. Northern Saw-whet Owls prefer dense forests and are often found near water bodies.
They are nocturnal hunters, preying mainly on small mammals like mice and voles. Despite their small size, they are skilled hunters, using their sharp talons to catch their prey. These owls are elusive and can be challenging to spot, but their distinctive, high-pitched call often reveals their presence in the quiet North Carolina woods.
6. Short-eared Owl
The Short-eared Owl, named for its small ear tufts, is a unique species that prefers open habitats like grasslands and marshes. In North Carolina, these owls are often seen in coastal areas, hunting over open fields and marshes. Short-eared Owls are one of the few owl species that are active during the day, especially at dawn and dusk.
Their flight is distinctive, featuring deep wingbeats and long glides, making them a fascinating sight against the North Carolina sky. These owls feed primarily on small mammals, and their presence is often a good indicator of a healthy rodent population. Their distinctive “bark-like” call adds a unique soundtrack to the state’s rich soundscape.
7. Snowy Owl
The Snowy Owl, with its stunning white plumage and captivating yellow eyes, is a rare but unforgettable sight in North Carolina. These owls are typically found in the Arctic tundra but occasionally venture south during the winter, bringing a touch of Arctic magic to the state. Snowy Owls are among the largest owl species.
They are diurnal, meaning they are active during the day, often seen perched on the ground or on low posts, scanning their surroundings for prey. Their diet primarily consists of small mammals, particularly lemmings, but they are known to catch larger prey as well. Spotting a Snowy Owl in North Carolina is a special treat, a testament to the state’s diverse wildlife.
8. Long-eared Owl
The Long-eared Owl, named for its prominent ear tufts, is a secretive resident of North Carolina’s forests. These medium-sized owls prefer dense woodlands, often roosting in the thick foliage during the day. Long-eared Owls are nocturnal hunters, using their excellent hearing to locate small mammals and birds in the dark.
Their soft, deep hoots add a haunting melody to the night, a sound that is as enchanting as it is eerie. These owls are elusive and can be challenging to spot, but their distinctive calls and silhouette against the moonlit sky offer clues to their presence. They are a wonderful addition to North Carolina’s rich owl population.
9. Burrowing Owl
The Burrowing Owl is a unique species that breaks the traditional owl mold. Unlike most owls, these small, long-legged birds prefer to live on the ground, often taking over abandoned burrows of other animals. Burrowing Owls are not common in North Carolina.
They are active during the day, often seen standing erect at the entrance of their burrows, scanning their surroundings for danger. Their diet consists of insects, small mammals, and birds. With their distinctive “coo-coooo” call and charming demeanor, Burrowing Owls add a unique flavor to the diverse owl species found in North Carolina.
10. Boreal Owl
The Boreal Owl, also known as the Tengmalm’s owl, is a small yet fierce predator that occasionally graces the forests of North Carolina. With its round head, large yellow eyes, and speckled brown plumage, this owl is a delight to spot in the wild. Boreal Owls are primarily nocturnal, using their keen hearing and sharp vision to hunt for small mammals and birds.
Their soft, low hoots often echo through the quiet woods, adding a touch of mystery to the night. These owls are elusive and prefer dense forests, making them a challenge to spot. But for those patient and lucky enough, a glimpse of a Boreal Owl is a memorable experience, a testament to the rich biodiversity of North Carolina.
11. Flammulated Owl
The Flammulated Owl, named for its flame-like markings, is a small owl species that is rarely seen in North Carolina. These owls are known for their soft, low hoots and their preference for high-altitude forests. Flammulated Owls are insectivores, feeding primarily on moths and beetles.
They are nocturnal hunters, using their excellent hearing to locate their prey in the dark. Their grey and brown plumage provides excellent camouflage against the tree bark, making them difficult to spot. These owls are a rare sight in North Carolina.
12. Northern Pygmy Owl
The Northern Pygmy Owl, one of the smallest owl species, is a daytime hunter often seen in the forests of North Carolina. Despite their small size, these owls are fierce predators, known to take on prey larger than themselves.
Northern Pygmy Owls are easily recognized by their round head, yellow eyes, and the distinctive dark spots on the back of their head that resemble eyes. This “false face” is believed to confuse predators and gives these owls a unique appearance. Their diet consists of small mammals, birds, and insects.
Popular Owl Spotting Locations In North Carolina
Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge
Located on the eastern coast of North Carolina, the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge is a haven for a variety of owl species. The refuge’s diverse habitats, ranging from wetlands to forests, provide ideal nesting and hunting grounds for owls. Nighttime birdwatching tours often reveal the presence of Barred Owls and Great Horned Owls, their distinctive calls echoing through the tranquil refuge.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, straddling the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, is a birdwatcher’s paradise. The park’s vast forests are home to several owl species, including the Northern Saw-whet Owl and the Eastern Screech Owl. The park’s high elevation and dense forests provide a perfect habitat for these owls, making it a prime location for owl spotting.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore
The Cape Hatteras National Seashore, with its expansive beaches and maritime forests, is a unique birdwatching location. Here, you might spot the Short-eared Owl hunting over the open dunes at dusk or dawn. The seashore’s unique coastal environment attracts a diverse range of wildlife, making it a must-visit location for any bird enthusiast.
Uwharrie National Forest
Located in the heart of North Carolina, the Uwharrie National Forest offers a diverse range of habitats for owls. From dense woodlands to open fields, this location is ideal for spotting the Barred Owl and the Great Horned Owl. The forest’s tranquil environment provides a perfect backdrop for a nighttime owl-spotting adventure.
Pee Dee National Wildlife Refuge
The Pee Dee National Wildlife Refuge, located in the southern part of the state, is another excellent location for owl spotting. The refuge’s mix of forests and wetlands attracts a variety of owl species, including the Barn Owl and the Barred Owl. The refuge’s quiet trails offer birdwatchers a peaceful and rewarding owl-spotting experience.
Blue Ridge Parkway
The Blue Ridge Parkway, known as “America’s Favorite Drive,” is not just about scenic vistas. It’s also a fantastic place to spot owls. The parkway’s diverse habitats, ranging from high-elevation forests to lowland meadows, are home to several owl species, including the Northern Saw-whet Owl and the Barred Owl.
Pisgah National Forest
The Pisgah National Forest, located in the Appalachian Mountains, is a prime location for spotting owls. The forest’s high elevation and dense woodlands provide an ideal habitat for the Northern Saw-whet Owl and the Eastern Screech Owl. The forest’s serene environment, coupled with the enchanting calls of the owls, makes for a magical birdwatching experience.
Best Times And Seasons For Spotting Owls
Observing owls in their natural habitat is a thrilling experience that requires a bit of planning. Owls are primarily nocturnal creatures, meaning they are most active during the night. Therefore, the best time to spot owls is usually around dusk and dawn when they are hunting for food.
As for the best seasons, it largely depends on the owl species and their breeding cycle. However, late winter and early spring are generally excellent times for owl spotting. During these seasons, owls are often more vocal as they establish territories and seek mates, making them easier to locate.