Barred owls dominate Greater Victoria owl-scape

The barred owl is the most likely to be spotted in the south Island. (Ann Nightingale photo)The barred owl is the most likely to be spotted in the south Island. (Ann Nightingale photo)
A western screech owl was commonly seen until the arrival of the highly adaptable barred owl. (Ann Nightingale photo)A western screech owl was commonly seen until the arrival of the highly adaptable barred owl. (Ann Nightingale photo)
The northern saw-whet owl is banded by the Rocky Point Bird Observatory each year as they move south. (Ann Nightingale photo)The northern saw-whet owl is banded by the Rocky Point Bird Observatory each year as they move south. (Ann Nightingale photo)
Since 2017, Rocky Point volunteers have captured one western screech owl during its monitoring programs, compared to 11,000 of the northern saw-whet. (Ann Nightingale photo)Since 2017, Rocky Point volunteers have captured one western screech owl during its monitoring programs, compared to 11,000 of the northern saw-whet. (Ann Nightingale photo)
The great horned owl is the largest living in the region. (Ann Nightingale photo)The great horned owl is the largest living in the region. (Ann Nightingale photo)

A misidentified owl popped up on social media briefly this week, following a buzz around two pairs at risk near logging operations in the region.

A Victoria News reader recently thought they’d photographed a spotted owl – rare creature here – and eagerly sent it to their local paper.

Technically, said Ann Nightingale, a longtime volunteer and board member with the Rocky Point Bird Observatory, it could be – chances are one in a million. But the photo doesn’t show the side of the bird needed to identify it.

Photographed from the back, the owl has its head turned to face the camera. A spotted owl, has spots marking its front, while a barred owl has bars down its front. The bird is perched in a tree not far from where barred owls are known to nest in Beacon Hill Park.

More likely, it’s a barred owl, Nightingale said.

READ ALSO: Rare baby owl now being reared by its parents in Lower Mainland sanctuary (video)

There’s never been a spotted owl documented on Vancouver Island and there are only a handful in the wild in B.C. There are however, some in captive breeding programs.

That said, Nightingale noted, even experts frequently make mistakes identifying birds. But the barred owl has dominated the region in recent generations. The first recorded on the Island dates back to 1969.

“They have proliferated because they are really adaptable. They’ll eat everything from earthworms to spotted owls. That’s one of the problems. They’ll also mate with them,” Nightingale said.

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The barred owls are considered partially responsible for the decline of a species most commonly seen here before that – the western screech owl.

At one time there were 10 living at the University of Victoria, Nightingale recalled. Recently a few were documented near logging operations in the area most commonly called Fairy Creek. They’re listed as a species at risk for Western Canada.

READ ALSO: Trio of endangered owls hatch at B.C. breeding program

The Rocky Point team has a banding project for the northern saw-whet owl.

For six weeks each fall at the project base in Metchosin, volunteers band the small owls. They are easily the most abundant owl on the south Island, particularly as they head south each autumn.

“You can see the numbers are quite dramatically different,” Nightingale said. Since 2017 they have banded 11,000 saw-whet and seen one western screech owl.

While the south Island is home to several species of owls, two others are worth noting.

The great horned owl is the largest in the region and the northern pygmy (the size of a sparrow) is the smallest.

READ ALSO: Poison suspected after well-known owl found dead in Saanich park


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