A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

(Unless otherwise indicated, all phone numbers are in the 707 area code)


A rare winter visitor to Sonoma County and the surrounding counties (the bird shown here was photographed in neighboring Marin County), but known to have bred here historically, according to the Sonoma County Breeding Bird Atlas (1995)*. May roost communally in the winter months, but most often solitary or in pairs otherwise. Uses abandoned nests of other large birds such as crows, hawks, ravens, magpies, and herons (Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye). Usually silent, except during the breeding season. During the day roosts in dense vegetation but near open, grassy areas--marshy or arid--favored for hunting. May remain stock still when roosting, allowing fairly close approach. When available, appears to prefer stands of immature conifers for roosting and breeding, according to Dunne. Food is mostly small mammals, but may take small birds. Begins to hunt as dark approaches. Note that Eastern Screech Owl formerly--and quite confusingly--had the Latin name Otus asio. That bird is now designated Megascops asio.

A wonderfully owl-like owl. Large (13-16 inches, or 33-40cm tall), although not as large as Great-horned Owl (Bubo virginianus), and much more slender and elegantly proportioned than that bird, giving Long-eared Owl a tall, thin, almost tube-like look at times. The long “ear” tufts (which are not really ears), usually held erect, enhance the elongated effect. Although the tufts may be folded down (especially in flight), making them less conspicuous, they are often held erect and nearly parallel. They are set comparatively close together, which gives them the look of a pair of exclamation points at the bird’s “forehead” rather than ears. Note that in some postures while perched (especially when hunkered down against cold), the bird may appear rather stockier.

The cinnamon color of the face with much dark around the large yellow eyes is striking, and the bird has a warm, brown tone overall. Dark areas above and below the eyes suggest dark vertical lines through the eyes (more or less apparent depending on light and angle of view; dark areas around the eyes of the closely related and more common Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus) form triangles around the eyes). The back is variously mottled brown. The warm-toned underparts are paler and the breast and belly are heavily streaked and barred, but the overall impression is of up-and-down barring there--again contributing to the bird’s tall, thin look when perched. In flight, typically large-headed and short-tailed. Note the black comma-shaped wrist mark on the underwing, a characteristic shared by Short-eared Owl. The mark is subtly different in Short-eared Owl, which is paler and a more oatmeal color (as opposed to cinnamon) with a characteristic flight pattern often described as moth-like. Short-eared Owl, as the name suggests, has much shorter ear tufts. It’s also a somewhat larger, stockier bird than Long-eared Owl. Long-eared Owl has cinnamon underwings, Short-eared owl is nearly all creamy white underneath, except for the wrist patch and darker tones toward the primaries. From above, both birds show a dark area at the wrist and then a light area before the darker primary tips. The visual effect is of a pale spot toward the tip of the wing. This pale area is of a more cinnamon hue in Long-eared Owl. Sibley has good flight illustrations of the two birds for comparison, Stokes has good photos of both birds in flight.

*The entry describes records discovered in 1995 of eggs collected in Sonoma County in 1891 and 1920 and notes mention of this bird in a 1927 source as “resident, sparsely and locally in the coastal portions of the San Francisco Bay region” with reports of Long-eared Owl in Sebastopol and Bodega Bay, which, according to a 1944 source, also quoted in Sonoma County Breeding Bird Atlas, are “the northernmost coastal belt locations for this owl in California,” although scattered sightings for Mendocino County, north of us, seem to exist. On the West Coast, winters as far south as northern Baja California. Range maps in field guides disagree about the northern coastal range limit.  

Selected county sightings: In Birds of Sonoma County (2000), Bolander and Parmeter record Sonoma County sightings in 1969, 1974, 1980, 1984, 1987, 1990, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1999, and 2000--all single birds, although two were reported on the Western Sonoma County Christmas Bird Count in 1999. More recent sightings listed in the 2012 Parmeter and Wight update to Birds of Sonoma County include two birds on the 2005 Western Sonoma County Christmas Bird Count and one on the Sonoma Valley Christmas Bird Count, in 2006. Other sightings of single birds in the county are noted in 2003, 2004, 2006, and 2008. The most recent county sighting appears to be from March 10, 2010, at Campbell Cove in Bodega Bay, again relying on Parmeter and Wight. May be more numerous than reports suggest, however, as these birds are cryptically colored, and silent and motionless during the day, which means they may often be overlooked. The bird shown here was photographed in neighboring Marin County.

Further reading:

Bolander and Parmeter, Birds of Sonoma County California, rev. ed., 2000, p. 73

Brinkley, National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2007, p. 257

Burridge, ed., Sonoma County Breeding Bird Atlas, 1995, pp. 191-192

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 5th ed., 2006, p. 256

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 6th ed., 2011, p. 282

Dunne, Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion, 2006, pp. 339-340

Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye, The Birder's Handbook, paperback edition, 1988, p. 290

Fix and Bezener, Birds of Northern California, 2000, p. 211

Floyd, Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 2008, p. 244

Kaufman, Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2000, p. 130

Kaufman, Field Guide to Advanced Birding, 2011, brief mention p. 317

Lukas, Bay Area Birds: From Sonoma County to Monterey Bay, 2012, pp. 294-295

Parmeter and Wight, Birds of Sonoma County California, Update (2000-2010), 2012, p. 43

Peterson, Birds of Eastern and Central North America, 5th ed., 2002, p. 202

Peterson, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, 4th ed., 2010, p. 214

Peterson, Western Birds, 3rd ed., 1990,  p. 200

Sibley, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America,1st ed., 2003, p. 234

Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 1st ed., 2010, p. 404

Vuilleumier, American Museum of Natural History, Birds of North America: Western Region, 2011, p. 212

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--Long-eared Owl



© Colin Talcroft, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013

Unless noted, all photos by the author. If you would like to use one of my images, please ask for permission for non-commercial use with proper credit or commercial use with proper compensation.


Long-eared Owl, Las Gallinas Sewer Ponds, San Rafael, January 7, 2013

Long-eared Owl, Las Gallinas Sewer Ponds, San Rafael, January 7, 2013

Long-eared Owl

Asio otus

1990-2013 Sonoma County data. Graph provided by eBird (www.ebird.org), generated July 19, 2013

EBird reported occurrence in Sonoma County

For comparison: Great Horned Owl

Stone Castle Lane, Santa Rosa, January 16, 2016