Speaking of Nature

Where barred owls thrive

24 point deck head

Writing, like many human endeavors, tends to fall into a comfortable routine for the writer. In extreme cases there may be certain ceremonies that must be followed, or sacrifices made, but at the very least you could say that distinct, patterned habits may result. For me it’s usually a cup of something warm and that’s about it.

But then something will come along and add a twist to the comfortable ritual. Sometimes this disruption is an uncomfortable one, but other times the result is rather magical. What follows is an example of the later.

Sunday, May 5 — Instead of waking up early in the morning I’ve decided to do my writing in the late evening. I’d hardly notice the difference if I were in my office, but tonight I’ve decided to write on the porch. The weather has been absolutely spectacular for two consecutive days and the sky will be cloud-free and moonless for as long as I am here. So I’ve plugged in an extension cord and set up my computer outside.

I decided that I had to do this now because it’s still so early in this very dry month that there are no mosquitoes out. Later in the year I will be chased off the porch by the blood-sucking hordes just about the time when the first stars start to appear. Now, however, I can watch them winking into existence with impunity.

It’s about 8:15. The sun has set, but there is still enough light on the western horizon to make the yard visible and I am enjoying a late serenade by the brown thrasher that has claimed the thicket to the east of my house. This bird is very talented and has developed an impressive repertoire. Some of it is predictable, like the songs of phoebes and cardinals, but other elements are quite unexpected. More than once I have looked skyward to look for the “killdeer” circling overhead and just now I heard an amazing barn swallow impression. What a clever fellow this thrasher is.

There is a very bright star low on the western horizon and one that is almost directly overhead, but for now they are the only two. I have two main goals this evening: 1) finally hear the display song of a woodcock and 2) hear the barred owls that live in the woods to the south. The owls have been active all week, but the woodcock have been oddly quiet this spring.

And here’s a welcome surprise! There are a couple of large bats flying over my field. I know there are at least two and I think there might actually be three of them following their erratic paths across the sky. Their size makes me think these must be big brown bats, but I’d actually have to have more light to confirm that by sight; for now they are just silhouettes. Four stars are visible now.

The thrasher stopped singing rather suddenly and almost as if there were a changing of the guard I can now hear the spring peepers that sing from a woodland pool about a mile up the road. There are American toads mixed in with them and there’s the sound of a gray tree frog as well. Perhaps they have all joined their voices into a great, communal plea for rain from the gods.

And now there’s the woodcock I was hoping to hear, but the song is coming from an unexpected direction. For the past eight years I have had male woodcock displaying in the wet meadow behind my house. This year, however, they have been strangely absent. Could the lack of rain be responsible? Have I changed something in the field that they don’t like? Hmm.

Well, at least there are birds around. This particular male is far off to the east and I can only just make out the louder chip notes of his aerial display. The “peenting” he does on the ground is far too quiet to hear from that distance. Seven stars are visible now.

And there’s the barred owl. It, too, is far off, but this time it is far to the south. The road I live on runs east to west, which means there are many lawns that open up the countryside. Barred owls are more comfortable in forests and extensive woodland thickens to the south of my home. There are only a few small roads that cut through this expanse of trees and barred owls thrive there.

Smaller than the great horned owl, the barred owl is actually able to nest in tree cavities in particularly large trees. As a result they require older forests with older trees and I am happy to say there is an abundance of older trees in the forest to the south.

Tree cavities are especially important for barred owls because they may start laying eggs in March. It’s far easier to stay warm if you are “inside” and the eggs and young chicks are easier to defend if there is but one entrance to monitor. The owls in my backyard probably have young chicks by now and they have been quite active and vocal for some time.

As the owlets grow they will have to be left on their own as both parents are forced out to find food. But the timing of the nest will ensure that the appetites of the baby owls hit their peak at the same time that other animals are producing their own young. The world will be flooded with voles, shrews, and rabbits, which will all be consumed by the owls.

Last summer, for the first time in my life, I was afforded a front-row seat to the family life of owls. As the chicks begin to fledge in the middle of the summer they start to spread out around their parents’ territory and get the feel for being an owl. Keeping track of the nocturnal movements of these chicks would be a challenge in the dark without the incorporation of sound, and baby owls (particularly hungry baby owls) are not shy about making noise.

My neighbor has a large tree in his yard and this tree had been battling an insect infestation for many years. Last spring, the telltale signs of defeat came in the form of brown leaves in May and by the summer the tree was completely bare. It was in the top of this tree that a young owl (probably a great horned) would sit and scream for food.

There were also nights when my rooftop served as the screaming perch, but when the owlet was in the tree next door I could shine a powerful light in its direction and see a pair of glowing eyes staring back at me with interest. It was actually a sad event when the little owl stopped visiting and I can remember Susan hoping that it was okay.

The sky is almost black now and as I look up and let my eyes adjust I see that there are stars beyond counting. The woodcock is silent, and the barred owl drifted off out of earshot after only a couple “hoo-whaa” calls leaving me with only the peepers and toads for company. I’m only going in because it has gotten surprisingly cold. But for that one complication I would consider staying up all night and listening to the nocturnal world of my neighborhood.

Bill Danielson has worked as a naturalist for 16 years. In that time, he has been a national park ranger, a wildlife biologist and a field researcher. He currently works as a high school chemistry and biology teacher. To contact Bill, or to learn more about his writing, visit www.speakingofnature.com

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