Lithia Park's resident western-screech owls are a hoot for passersby — but you've got to have keen eyes and a little bit of luck.
The yellow-eyed night hunters have been hanging around the park for several years, said local birding enthusiast Harry Fuller, but a pair of baby owls is drawing more attention than usual.
"They only nest once per year ... and they stay year-round," said Fuller as he walked a steady pace Monday through the park between three known roosting sites. "The park is about the perfect habitat for them ... they like forested, semi-open spaces."
One of the adult owls lives in a manufactured box lodged about 20 feet up the trunk of a large Douglas fir tree, in the 200 block of Granite Street. Heading south on Granite, the tree is on the left side of the road, and the owl box is clearly visible from a passing car.
Another lives a few hundred yards away in an owl box high up a redwood on private property, at the intersection of Granite and Nutley streets.
"It is my supposition that they are a mated pair because of their proximity," Fuller said.
As for the little ones, Fuller spotted one being terrorized during the middle of the day by western scrub jays near the duck pond. He sees one or the other regularly in a large, half-hollowed maple tree near the Butler Band Shell. Located south behind the band shell, the large-trunked maple is growing less than 100 feet from the stage, on the right side of the path, opposite a foot bridge over Ashland Creek. There is a sitting area immediately below the tree, which is hollow where an old branch tore off about 20 feet up from the ground.
"They are cute," promised Fuller, who wasn't able to catch a glimpse Monday afternoon.
He suspects the siblings hatched in early July.
Screech owls are nocturnal, but they can been seen sitting sleepy-eyed on the edge of their roosts during some days, Fuller said.
It's not uncommon for a mating pair and their offspring to use separate roosts, Fuller said, and the larger females only measure about 9 inches tall at full perch.
"They do really well in towns, but they are hard to spot sometimes," Fuller said. "What they look for is a place with a good food supply."
Screech owls eat mostly small mammals in the winter, and insects, frogs, lizards and other small prey during summer, he said.
Around Ashland, North Mountain Park and Southern Oregon University's campus are good places to see screech owls, he said.
Don Robertson, Ashland Parks and Recreation director, said owl-friendly habitat in Lithia Park is no accident.
"Before removing any tree, for a hazard or any reason, we look closely to see if it could be a habitat tree," Robertson said. "Maybe we don't remove it, or just take down a part of it."
One owl box installed by the parks department near the lower playground was put in after workers removed a too-hazardous habitat tree, he said.
Owls also have been seen roosting there, Fuller said.
The screech owl's hoot is more of a mid-toned "toot," Fuller said.
"You can hear them calling to each other at night," he said. "It's usually three or four toots followed by a series of them."
Fuller documents his birding exploits on his blog, atowhee.wordpress.com.
Sam Wheeler is freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.