Around the Island

Wakeful noises on a winter night

Over the past few years, our family’s status as part-time residents has presented an opportunity for learning about the local wildlife, literally right outside our door.

As born and raised residents of Nassau County, much of the flora and fauna we’ve encountered on Shelter Island is brand-new to us.

We’re truly eager to learn about the environment and natural life around us. Our home is located close to Mashomack Preserve, and I suspect we receive a few more visits from creatures and critters than some other areas of the Island.

My children have made a scrap book of the animals and unique birds we’ve encountered, including deer, turkeys, foxes, turtles, bullfrogs, snakes, chipmunks, rabbits, herons, ospreys, beavers, one gopher, and most recently, owls. Great Horned Owls, to be exact. 

(Credit: Don Bindler)

The list may not sound very exotic, but I assure you that having a large rafter of turkeys making their way from one property to another, and then flying up into our trees to sleep, is quite the exciting sight for a bunch of suburbanite kids.

While staying in our Island home between Christmas and New Year’s, I was awakened on several nights with the deep hooting and calling sounds of a pair of Great Horned Owls. The unmistakable sound is often used in movies and television as the typical and quintessential owl-call, despite the species of owls portrayed on film. It is also loud. Very loud.

The sound travels a great distance across the quiet landscape of a Shelter Island winter night.

To learn more about these nocturnal visitors, I had a conversation with Becca Kusa of The Nature Conservancy. She confirmed my suspicion, that the middle of the night hooting session indicates that the mating season is underway. These year-round residents, including at least several mating pairs at Mashomack, attract mates by hooting into the distance.

Their intense hooting actually begins about a month before the actual mating process takes place. Ms. Kusa mentioned that there’s a mating pair right near the entrance to Mashomack’s Visitor Center, that can be seen at dawn and dusk.

These owls typically use old nests of other large birds, such as red-tail hawks, or even squirrels — about 20- to 60-feet off the ground, preferably with a view of an open field or clearing. Ms. Kusa mentioned that these adaptable creatures love to feast on small mammals, rodents and other birds, including turkeys, hawks and even ospreys.

The stereotypical image of the “wise old owl” is that of the Great Horned Owl. Despite their name, they do not actually have horns; rather tufts of feathers on either side of their heads, merely resembling horns.

Their ears are offset, allowing sound to arrive at one ear microseconds before the other, which helps the owl, along with its large eyes and superior vision, locate its prey.

Many cultures have beliefs about owls being symbols of wisdom, including Native Americans and the ancient Greeks. This legacy is a result of their mysterious nighttime activity and power as birds of prey.

Ancient Greek mythology considers the owl the embodiment of Athena, the goddess of wisdom. Classic paintings and statues depict Athena with an owl, who was said to be her favored companion. 

Even Disney incorporated this depiction with the character “Owl,” of the classic “Winnie The Pooh” series. This “Owl” is recognized as having a wealth of knowledge and frequently provides advice and guidance to the other characters. Although comically, his advice is oftentimes unhelpful and ill-informed.

As a light sleeper, I would have to say that the Great Horned Owl is not quite my personal favorite these days, but I suppose that to help fall back asleep, I can always count how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie pop.

This is the debut column of ‘A  Home on the Island,’ by Therése Palmiotto. Once a month, she will present her take on food, kids, nature, culture and arts on the Island.