The smallest owls in our region

by Randy Lauff

When most people think of owls, they think of the large, loud-hooting birds that can be a little bit eerie to hear at night. Seven kinds of owls nest in Nova Scotia and the smallest one, which can fit in the palm of your hand, is the Northern Saw-whet Owl. Unlike some of our owls, this one is not also found in Europe or Asia…it is exclusively found in Canada, the United States and in the mountains of Mexico, too.


Being small (15 cm) means it’s going to eat only small prey, which it hunts for at night. Small rodents like mice and voles make up most of its diet, though shrews are important, too. Occasionally, small birds are found to be part of its diet.

All small owls, like our Saw-whet, make their nests inside trees, normally using old woodpecker nests. No owl makes its own nest, and the Saw-whet is no exception…it doesn’t even add grass, moss, or feathers to the cavity to make it more comfortable…some other cavity nesters, like Tree Swallows, do this.


swowl nestFairmont, Antigonish, NS.


If you have access to some forest, you can try putting up a nest box or three, and seeing if you can get an owl to nest in one. The owls are not common though, so don’t be disappointed if you don’t get one. If you do get a nest, do not visit more than once a week, and never disturb them by staying too long, or causing the mother to fly away.


swowls chicks

The author with a clutch of chicks. (Note that the author has a license to work closely with the birds. Do not try this yourselves!)


Many birds migrate south for the winter, but certainly not all. Do the Saw-whets migrate? Big owls don’t migrate, but some of our Saw-whets do…we think all of the young migrate, and the adult females do, too. The males stay behind and look for a new territory, so they’re ready to start a family again in the spring. Listen for the mating call of the Saw-whet starting in March…unlike the bigger owls, they don’t hoot, but they do toot, and toot, and toot and toot… The sound doesn’t carry too far, so if you hear one, you’re likely in its home range. Good luck at finding one!


Can you spot the owl in this picture?

swowl camo


If you have questions or comments about this post, send a message to


swowl and randy

Randy Lauff, M.Sc. Senior Lab Instructor, Ornithologist, Entomologist & Curator, StFX University, Biology Dept.

Identifying Animal Tracks

dog tracks


Visible animal tracks on fresh snow are a sweet reminder of warmer days to come.

Identifying animal tracks can be tricky, but still a fun activity to do with kids on the last months of winter as we are looking forward to spring.



Snowshoe hare tracks are easy to spot, especially early in the morning. Look for oval shaped four-print patterns.rabbit tracks 2


Ruffed grouse tracks are pretty distinctive and easy to identify, three toes in the front and one in the back.

grouse tracksgrouse

You can even tell when animals have crossed paths…

rabbit and grouse

Red squirrel and chipmunk tracks are common as well. The prints are located side by side.

squirrelred-squirrel 2

Fisher tracks are less commonly encountered, but can easily be identified by their alignment. The prints appear in pairs, like all members of the weasel family.

fisher tracksFisher

Geese tracks are always a pleasant surprise. Some geese choose not to migrate during winter, as long as there is open water nearby.

duck trackscanada-geese

Identifying tracks is a fun winter activity for kids and adults.

Follow the tracks and see where they take you 🙂


Looking forward to Spring!



Easy Summer Flatbread Pizza

flatbread pizza


Summer BBQing is one of our favorite things to do. This recipe is a fresh take on traditional pizza using store bought flatbread and garden herbs.

It’s simple to make and you can put your own spin on it.




1 PC original flat bread

2 tbsp olive oil

1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese

1 diced tomato

1/4 cup sliced olives

1/4 cup chopped fresh herbs (I used oregano, thyme, parsley, mint and basil)



Brush the flatbread with the olive oil on both sides

flatbread with oil

Place flatbread upside-down on BBQ and cook for 2 minutes

Flip it over

bbqed flatbread

Add tomatoes, feta, olives and herbs on top


BBQ for another 2 minutes

Drizzle a bit of olive oil on top.


toppingscloseup flatbread pizza




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DIY Mason Bee Hotels

mason bee

The majority of our food crops benefit from pollinator bees, however the decline of these insects continues to be a huge concern.

There are many types of pollinator bees. Most common ones are honey bees, bumble bees and orchard mason bees.

Mason bees, named after their masonry skills for nesting in wood cracks and crevices, are active from early spring to late summer in our region. Although these solitary, non-stinging bees do not produce honey or beeswax, they are excellent pollinators.

You can encourage their pollinating habits by hanging mason bee boxes in your garden this spring. Mason bee homes or kits can be purchased from any garden store. However, you can turn this into a fun kids project and make your own mason bee hotel. All you need are some nesting tubes and a container.

Here are three easy DIY mason bee nest projects to get children involved with their environment and interested in helping the bees.

Birch bee hotel

Birch trees shed their outer bark at the end of winter. This is the perfect time to collect the excess bark and use it as nesting material.

birch treeGently cut the excess bark off the tree without damaging it.

barkTo make the nesting tubes, cut the bark into 7″ wide pieces…
7 inch bark…then cut off the curled ends to get a straight edge on either side.

cut peelIn most cases the bark consists of two plies and can be separate into two pieces to double the amount originally collected.
two pliesNext, with a pencil (or thin dowel) roll the bark peel into a thin tube. A pencil is the perfect size for this step, as it provides the right size diameter for the nesting tunnel.
curling into tubeSecure the tube with clothes pins and set aside for 24 hours. This will allow for the birch peel to keep its tunnel shape.
secured tubepined peelRemove clothes pins the next day.
rolled tubesTime to assemble the bee hotel. The nest frame can be of any shape. You can use empty tin cans or purchase 5″ to 8″ deep wooden boxes from the dollar store.
Side note: Make sure the back side of the chosen box is closed. If not, you can always add a piece of wood to close it yourself.
boxesAdd the nesting tubes into the wooden box. Push them all the way to the back while tightly stacking them on top of each other.
birch nest
Decorate the nest box with colourful trinkets. We decided to decorate our mason bee hotel with fresh moss, stick-on flowers and rhinestones. Simple designs and, to a certain extent, colours help the bees locate their own nesting tunnels.
birch nest decor

birch bee nest

Bamboo bee hotel

A quicker way for making a mason bee nest, is to use 6′ long bamboo poles. They are inexpensive and can be purchased at the dollar store.bamboo polesbamboo sticksCut the bamboo poles with a saw (or electric saw) every 5″.
Side note: You can cut between the nodes to get hollow 5″ tubes or you can keep the node on one side and cut the pole right after it, in order to get a single hollow opening on the opposite side.

cut bambooPlace the tubes in a a wooden box, stacking them up tightly.

Decorate the nest to assist the bees in locating their individual tunnels.

bamboo nest

bamboo bee nest on post bamboo bee nest on post 2

Drilled mason bee hotel

This is the easiest way for making a mason bees’ nest, but it requires power tools.

Drill 5/16″ diameter holes into a 6″ deep untreated piece of lumber or log. The holes should be about 1″ apart and drilled about 5″ deep into the wood.

wood piledHang the nests individually or stacked up as shown below.

drilled bee nest stack

Bee creative

For a more unique look, construct a bee hotel by mixing and matching materials, i.e. include drilled logs, bamboo tubes and birch peel tubes to form one mega-nest.

bee nest with mixed materialsAdd natural elements for decorations, like moss, lichen, pine needles, spruce branches, alder catkins, pine cones, leaves, rocks, sea shells, etc.natural decor 1

natural decor 2

mixed bee nest

Setting the nest

Early spring is the ideal time to hang mason bee houses, as the bees emerge from hibernation eager to find a nesting place.

In order to see the bees come and go, hang the nests at eye level on a south facing wall with morning sunlight. In addition, make sure to place the nests in an area protected from the rain (on a deck, under eaves, etc.).

To increase your chances of attracting mason bees, consider planting pollinator flowers such as wildflowers, asters, lilies, poppies, marigold, lavender, sage, basil, lupines, and flowering fruit trees or shrubs.

So, encourage your kids to learn more about pollinators this season by making and hanging mason bee hotels in the back yard.

“Bee-ild it and they will come”

Happy pollinating season!



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Eggciting Easter Egg Hunt

easter eggs feature



From decorating eggs, eating chocolate bunnies and participating in an egg hunt, Easter is a special holiday for children.



This year, Kayla MacKinnon organized the ‘Easter Egg Hunt Antigonish!’

She decided to create the event on Facebook and see if other parents would be interested in the idea. As the numbers increased, the requirements and instructions were posted on the event’s page for the participants.

Twelve plastic eggs had to be filled with treats, stickers, etc. for each child attending. The eggs were collected a few days preceding the egg hunt in order to facilitate setup and distribution.

The Easter egg hunt gathered close to 30 children of all ages!

At the beginning of the event, Kayla’s son collected donations for the local food bank.

Once the group picture was taken, the children took off with their Easter baskets in hand searching for hidden eggs on the playground.

Parents were present and monitoring the event, as the kids were running around collecting their 12 eggs.

park 2

park 1

park 4

park 3
Young Easter egg hunters were eggstremely happy that the event took place…

park 5

park 7

The smile says it all! (photos by


… and Kayla’s son was happy to collect food donations for the local food bank too.

kayla's son with cart

Kayla's son with signKayla hopes to organize another Easter egg hunt next year.

Great event Kayla!

Enjoy your Easter treats everyone!


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