WINTER HARBOR — Visiting Ellsworth’s Birdsacre-Stanwood Wildlife Sanctuary, one of the first things you might notice is the large barred owl perched in an enclosure’s corner, and how it follows your movement with its large, black eyes. As you move around the aviary, the owl’s head swivels too.
“That robotic way they turn their heads. It’s very mysterious, it seems like he knows what you’re thinking, but you don’t exactly know what he’s thinking,” said Birdsacre President Grayson Richmond.
Mostly nocturnal, owls can be elusive, and spotting one in the wild may require staying still outdoors one of these cold nights. On the Schoodic Peninsula, however, the Schoodic Institute is offering the opportunity to see some of these majestic birds of prey live and up close and learn about them from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 21.
The nonprofit organization, which provides science and educational programs in partnership with Acadia National Park and the National Park Service, will feature the Wiscasset-based Chewonki Foundation’s Traveling Natural History Program and its three live owls common to Maine.
At Schoodic Institute’s Brown Bag Lunch, Chewonki staff will have several live owls on hand. Those in attendance will learn about the various raptors’ calls and characteristics. They also will have an opportunity to sketch the birds.
Chewonki is an environmental education organization well known for its residential summer camps for boys and girls. The Travel Natural History Program is among its outreach initiatives. The organization also is home to four species of owls: a great horned owl, barred owl, eastern screech owl and northern saw-whet owl.
“The great horned owl is the largest owl we’d see year-round in Maine,” said Emma Balazs, Chewonki’s Program Coordinator. “They have the very typical silhouette with the raised ear tufts and the great big yellow eyes. They’re one of the largest predators in our forests.”
The barred owl, named for the brown and white pattern on its feathers, is somewhat unusual in that it is one of only four species with dark eyes in North America. Its nictitating membrane — think a translucent third eyelid — is pale blue. It has a distinct call, which is often described as sounding like “who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?”
The eastern screech owl is either mostly gray or reddish brown and red. Relatively small, Balazs said that “they learn to camouflage based on their environment. We have a gray patterned one right now, and it looks exactly like tree bark. Sometimes, they’ll even close their eyes to blend in further.”
Chewonki’s smallest owl is the northern saw-whet, which stands only 6 inches tall. They’re a little more secretive quiet and often don’t move when threatened.
The owls that Chewonki and Birdsacre take in are non-releasable, meaning that due to injuries to their wings or senses; they no longer can hunt prey and survive in the wild. When healthy, their acute sense of hearing and vision make them a sight to behold.
“A great horned owl can almost hunt with its eyes closed. They can locate prey within two to three degrees of the sound source,” Richmond said. “When they look at something, it’s like a laser beam. But you notice they’re not moving their heads all the time. They use their peripheral vision while they remain stationary. Nothing ever really escapes them.”
If you’re looking for an owl in the wild, chances are you’re going to hear one well before you see one.
“Barred owls have a number of vocalizations. They can also be very curious and territorial. So it’s listening, trying to call them in,” Balazs said. “Sometimes you can come get them to come investigate and talk back to you. If you can hear them and you’re crafty enough, you can find them.”
Other species may be a little less curious, and are often roosting or otherwise trying to remain out of sight during the day, but they’re out there if you look closely.
“Great horned owls you almost never see outside of mating season, but really anywhere there is forested areas with water nearby,” Richmond said. “They also have the snowy owls that migrate down to the mountaintops in Maine in the winter.”
Sightings of those snow-white birds often draw people to Acadia National Park, where the raptors can be seen surveying the landscape atop Sargent and other peaks in the dead of winter.
Balazs notes people are fascinated by and seem much more forgiving of owls, which have been known to prey upon and harass pets, than say, coyotes.
“The theory I’ve developed personally is the wise old owl adage,” she said. “In many stories, the owl is the good guy, the wise sage or the teacher. So maybe we don’t think of them like the trickster. In a lot of indigenous cultures, an owl is the soul of someone who’s passed. So they can move through the world of the living and the dead, and are seen as knowing more than we know.”
Schoodic Institute’s “Owls of Maine” program will include an informal owl-sketching session at 11:30 a.m., the informational talk with slides from noon to 1 p.m., a 1-mile walk at 1 p.m. and owl-related stories and crafts for children from 1 to 2:30 p.m.
All the activities are free and don’t require registration. People must bring their own lunch. For more info, call 288-1310 or visit schoodicinstitute.org.