There are days in late winter when anyone with even a shred of common sense would choose to stay home and sit by the fireplace with a hot cup of tea, and a good novel.
These are prime owling days.
The great horned owl will already have owlets in its nest, and the barred owls are gearing up to lay their clutch in early March. You can hear them as they sing out their courtship duets in Bolin Creek Forest.
The weather can be your greatest ally. Although the cold drizzle and darkened skies are a challenge from a photographic standpoint, the misery of the day can afford the best conditions to observe our wary owls. On recent Saturday was just such a day.
A fog had descended, and the temperature was 42 degrees. Previously that week, I had encountered the perfect barred owl. It had been a beautiful day, and just by chance I had looked up while washing the mud from my boot in the creek, and seen one roosting not 10 feet from where I stood. She was a bold girl, who had no intention of leaving her perch for any intruder. A shy bird will vacate its spot and disappear into the canopy, leaving little opportunity for photographs. A bold bird, a territorial bird, will stare at you and clack her beak, warning you off her turf.
I kept thinking about that owl when I woke up on that dreary Saturday morning. I knew I wouldn’t get great pictures, but was she still there? Would she possibly be hunting on this overcast day?
I packed up and headed for the woods. What had been an easy walk on a sunny day, was now a miserable chore. The tiny channels of the wetland were now raging torrents of murky, cold water. I worked my way through the underbrush to the roosting spot.
She was gone.
The splatter of droppings that had identified her roosting tree had been washed away by the rain. I could find no sign that any owl had ever been to this location. Forever hopeful, I surmised that the overcast day had given her the chance to hunt.
A barred owl will hunt in the day, unlike many other owls that are more nocturnal. The lack of direct sunlight allows the owl to hunt without creating a shadow that would warn a frog or salamander of a nearby predator. So, I walked. I followed the creek channel up one side, and down the other. I looked at every single tree, and every downed log – no owl.
I took solace in locating a handsome yellow-bellied sapsucker working a tree near where I stood. The red-headed woodpeckers were churring away from the tops of the barest snags in the wetland, and their calls distracted me from my disappointment. There was nothing left to explore, and I had managed to step on what I thought was solid ground, and turned out to be grass covered sinkhole. One boot was filled with water.
On a brighter note, the afternoon was fading, and barred owls are very reliable about calling out to their partner at the start of the evening when it is nesting season. At 5:45 p.m. the hooting began.
First, a question and answer, and finally a beautiful duet rang out in the woods. The barred owl was not by the creek, but in the upland woods, and her partner was somewhere off in the distance beyond this stand of trees.
Maybe I had it all wrong, and the nest tree was far off in that other group of trees. I raced off to the distant location. I left the woods, crossed a street, and found myself near a paved parking lot. The woods were silent once again.
By now it was 6:15 p.m. and time was truly up, finished, and done. I returned along a paved road, and was about to cross into the wetland, when I saw our barred owl sitting out on an exposed branch in the woods. This was my bold girl. I walked right up to her tree and we stared at one another. No widened eyes, no fear, this had to be the same owl. I fired off a few shots in the disappearing light.
Then, I got to thinking. What was this bird up to? Was she about to hunt? So, again, I found myself standing and waiting. Ten minutes of stillness, then she shifted her position, and took off toward the creek. I followed her flight, and she headed straight for her original roosting spot.
Here is the point when the unexpected occurred.
The owl did not roost on her low branch, but flew directly into a beautiful tall snag by the creek, and vanished. My good friend, and neighbor, Karen Thornburg, has likened this moment to Harry Potter charging resolutely to platform 9 and ¾. You see a strong flight directly into a solid object. The owl doesn’t slow down, and you don’t see any folding of wings, or slowing down. Poof! The owl is gone – as if by magic.
Oh, it was a prime spot for a nesting owl. It was a beautiful thick snag, complete with a roof, and a deep cavity for raising owlets. The pieces were starting to come together. This owl had been guarding her nest area when I encountered her the other day. The low branch she had occupied was a mere four feet from this fine snag. She was particularly feisty because she is preparing to lay her eggs.
I kept a respectful distance from the snag, and waited once again. Eventually, the barred owl popped out of the wood and perched at the edge of her cavity. I won’t be back to see her again until she has finished brooding. She deserves her privacy. I don’t actually know if this will be her home or not. She may be still house hunting. In April, I will return to this spot to see if my search yields a new brood of barred owlets in this dark and muddy bog.
One thing for sure, when you see a beautiful owl sail headfirst into a grand old tree, you forget all about your feet being wet.Mary Sonis is a naturalist, photographer and writer. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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