Sunday, November 4, 2012

Owl Encounters and the Bizarre American Woodcock

Hey, I'm trying to roost in here!

A few days ago, at around 7:30 AM, the fog was so intense at the nature preserve that it seemed like the sun had yet to rise. Apparently, a few of our owls thought this too, because they began calling. At first I was confused about what I was hearing. The cry was in the range of an Eastern Screech Owl, but it lacked the tremulous quality that is so characteristic of that bird's mournful call. The name, Screech Owl, might lead you to believe that this bird gives a "screech" for its call, but that is not the case. The normal call of this small species can more aptly be likened to the whinny of a horse.

An Eastern Screech  Owl waits for mice to walk underneath the bird feeder

After several minutes another Screech Owl chimed in. The second bird had a much more conventional whinny type call. The 2 birds called back and forth for a little while and then stopped. I looked around for a few minutes to see if I could locate the birds, but not too surprisingly, I couldn't find them.

An immature Screech

We've always had Screech Owls around the nature preserve, but since they are nocturnal, most visitors see little evidence of them. Maybe a small regurgitated pellet of compressed mouse hair and bones will be all you can hope to find. What we euphemistically refer to as "white-wash" is another classic owl sign. Usually, white-wash would be located on the truck of a pine tree. 

A Barred Owl peers at me through the fog

Years ago we installed a number of Screech Owl boxes, and out of those checked (the low placed ones), some occasionally harbor roosting owls. Some also hosted nests. In general, owls bring little or no material into the nest cavity, and just lay their eggs upon wood chips or other debris. But sometimes the Screech does decorate the nest with the feathers of songbirds. 2 nests that I found in our boxes contained copious amounts of colorful feathers including those of Cardinals and Blue Jays. One gets the idea that the Screech has a gaudy taste in interior design.

This Barred Owl could barely stay awake

The Barred Owl is only an occasional resident at the preserve. Like the Great horned Owl and unlike the Screech, the Barred is sometimes active during daylight hours. The one that showed up this week in a grove of Hemlock Trees, was not exactly active, she seemed kind of sleepy to me. After the chickadees and Titmice got tired of mobbing her, she settled down on her perch and had a doze. Once in a while, her eyes snapped open to see what I was up to, and then they’d slowly close again.

Owls typically perch very close to the truck of a tree
A rare look at one of our Great Horned Owls 

The Great Horned Owl is a resident species at the preserve, and of all the owls, this one is that is most frequently encountered, and least photographed. They normally hate to be seen by people. Just about as soon as I make eye contact with one, they are off in a flurry of silent wing beats. The surest way to locate them is by following the crows’ shrill calls. Crows mercilessly mob Great Horned Owls –mostly because of the predators’ nasty habit of raiding crow nests at night.  It’s even possible to track the Owls movements through the forest by monitoring the crows' frenzied calls.

The strange and bizarre American Woodcock sits in the trail ahead of me

Over the last week, American Woodcocks have been hanging around at the preserve. The species breeds here, but I suspect that the individuals that we’re seeing now are migrants from the north. The Woodcock might be the craziest looking bird that we have in the region. They are classified as sandpipers, but they are much plumper than the average shorebird. The have short legs, really long bills and disproportionately large eyes which are located high on their heads. The long bill allows the Woodcock to probe very deep into the soil. They have a small flange toward the tip of the bill which can effectively snap shut on a worm so it can be drawn out of the ground.

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