03/16/2020: While observing cardinals forage on the ground, I noticed an aerial figure loom away behind me. I thought it was a trick of the light, but turned around just in case.. to find a barred owl land silently on a barren branch, eyes locked with my own. After a prolonged and piercing stare, the owl quickly lost interest in me and began tracking small movements on the ground. Occasionally it checked on me with near 180° turns of the head, but it remained almost entirely focused on surveillance for prey. Not wanting to disturb the owl too much, I approached quietly while the owl faced the opposite direction. About five minutes of cautious tiptoeing and diverted gazes, and I could finally see all the owl’s details with my naked eye. Usually my encounters with owls are fleeting, so I felt lucky to observe this individual for over thirty minutes from about five meters away. During my time with the owl, woodpeckers (Dryobates sp.) came nearby and pecked loudly, and a barrage of calling Carolina chickadees (Poecile carolinensis) congregated just several meters away from the owl. But through all of the ruckus the owl seemed unperturbed, not even making a single glance to acknowledge their presence.
Barred owls are secretive birds of prey, more challenging to spot during daylight hours due to their mostly nocturnal habits. They prefer to dwell in the interior of dense woodland habitats by day, emerging in the evening to hunt from more open perches. And this spot in the forest seemed like the perfect hunting ground— fallen trees created an open arena for the owl to intercept small mammals, while the hodgepodge of decaying wood lying around attracts all kinds of detritivores. Although I didn’t observe a predation event, I was lucky to watch the owl communicate with another owl off in the distance. At such close range, the classic “who cooks for you” was loud and reverberant, definitely etched in my memory! After calling twice the owl promptly flew off to locate its conspecific.
04/15/2020: Yesterday I spotted my resident barred owl perched high in a white oak tree. As I continued walking the owl flew overhead and landed next to another owl on an American sycamore (Planatus occidentalis). Above is a video of their interactions. Before preening each other, the owl on the right (presumably a male) regurgitated food to give to its potential mate in courtship. After the food exchange, the female owl became less tolerant of the other picking at its feathers and took to the air silently.
Turn on the sound to hear the hooting! Because I’ve seen this pair of owls so often, and after being inspired by a friend’s resident baby skunk names, I’ve decided to go with Phlox (male) and Viola (female). They are named after two of the most abundant flowers I’ve seen in the woodlands so far. Although I can’t tell the owls apart by their appearance, Viola tends to be much more tolerant of my presence. She lets me approach closely without fleeing and gets back to her own business, while Phlox usually flies away to a nearby perch where he feels more hidden. In this clip you can see Viola chirping while Phlox hoots loudly in the distance. Because I remained still for so long, when Phlox arrived he seemed surprised to notice me there. He maintained eye contact constantly and soon after flew a little ways off. Hopefully if I’m able to locate their nest, I can confirm who is the male and who is the female.
04/30/2020: Phlox finally summoned up the courage to hoot at me defensively twice yesterday. Though still very wary, it’s great to witness bolder behaviors from him. At the beginning I’m filming Viola (the female) at very close range, and second comes several clips of Phlox.
05/05/2020: Last week I was trying to spot Viola from her quiet chirps, and after a few minutes looked up to see her slinking into a hollow high in a broken tree. I finally found their nest! On another occasion when I approached, both owls landed above me hooting loudly in defense of their nesting grounds— such a mesmerizing experience. Yesterday was much less fruitful owl-wise due to very windy conditions, but here is a funny clip of Viola getting blown off her perch by the wind. Continue watching past the habitat clips to see her land in her nest during the early night. If you listen closely you can hear the chicks begging!
05/09/2020: I was ecstatic today to find all three owlets emerged from the nesting cavity. Not yet capable of flight, two of the fledglings were clambering around clumsily, and the third sat comfortably high up on a thicker sycamore branch. Each of them periodically emitted a shrill cry, while Viola cooed softly.
05/10/2020: Viola and Phlox reuniting before nightfall. After over a month of frequent observation, I was thrilled to finally record the owl pair exchange the classic ‘who-cooks-for-you’ call. Usually I hear Phlox call off in the distance, and Viola responds with her typical high-pitched chirps and swaying movements in the direction of the call. But it’s rare that I get to be within line of sight of the two owls calling back and forth. Certainly it’s helpful that Viola no longer perceives me as a threat and that I can now hide underneath the tall grasses. In their duet, I can easily distinguish between Viola and Phlox, the male owl being lower in pitch and ending with a shorter inflection. On occasion I’ve also heard both owls from afar call simultaneously with escalating intensity, though this is probably a territorial display to intruders.
I still haven’t decided on names for the owlets, but since this one seems to be the most vocal of the three, I’ll go with Trillium (keeping with the plant theme). In this video you can see how excited Trillium gets when mom lands with a fox squirrel in her talons. She is the least adept at flying so far, still confined to the trunks and branches adjacent to the nest.
05/11/2020: A group of white-tailed deer usually makes its way through the same tract of woodland every evening. Sometimes they end up laying down within the grasses for cover during the night, but other times they keep munching on leaves and wander away. Most of the time the deer don’t notice me hiding and watching the owls, but a few days ago they approached very closely to investigate me. To try to alert me that I had been seen, many individuals repetitively stomped on branches, making loud cracking sounds. It seemed almost purposeful; the deer appeared to move over towards patches of fallen branches and stomp emphatically… but this might also just be coincidental. One of the young males with antler buds then approached me directly and exhaled air loudly (see video). Throughout all this, all the owl fledglings fell quiet, even before the deer started behaving defensively towards me. Shortly after the deer fled, they resumed begging for mom.
05/12/2020: As the owl fledglings become more active at dusk, they usually extend their wings outward one at a time, stretching them in preparation for flight practice. They seem reluctant to taking to the air, head-bobbing vigorously to gauge distances and posing for a leap— but often to no avail. Sometimes I hear a big crash of an owlet against a trunk or simply minor struggles between leaves and branches. Meanwhile Viola remains attentive, ready to come to the rescue if need be.
Yesterday as I sat close to Viola, she preened herself as usual then regurgitated a pellet. Keen to investigate the skeletal remains inside, I searched beneath her after she flew to another perch. Even knowing exactly where the pellet fell, the tall grasses and blankets of nettle made it extremely difficult to find. But after about twenty minutes I finally found what I was looking for. It wasn’t a pellet, but two mashed up horned passalus beetles (Odontotaenius disjunctus). I hadn’t ever thought of passalids as unpalatable, but it’s possible they produce defensive compounds… or Viola just might have been having a good day stomach-wise. Although I didn’t find a pellet, Viola dropped one of her feathers while grooming. A consolation prize.
05/13/2020: It’s uncommon for Viola to interact with her chicks before nightfall, but here’s a clip of her preening Trillum (first) then Anemone (second). Anemone and the third chick (still to be named!) are now able to fly short distances, and they sometimes interact— clawing and pecking at each other playfully. The two owlets also seem interested in reuniting with Trillium and whine in her direction as words of encouragement. But still, Trillium is reluctant to taking her first soar or fall.
(05/15/2020): Half a kilometer away from Viola & Phlox’s chicks, another pair of barred owls have established a territory. I hear them hooting much more infrequently, but yesterday they were both alarm calling frantically. Peering around a tree, I saw a fleeing hawk (Buteo sp.), and after a few minutes of searching I gazed up to see a male owl looking at me intensely. This area of the woodlands is much more sloped and dense with understory shrubs, so I made a clumsy and awkward approach for a bit until I couldn’t progress any further. However, I got close enough to hear one chick begging. Maybe if I find another route, I can get to know this second owl family.
05/16/2020: After the sun sets, the owlets get restless and Viola begins foraging more attentively. Standing completely still, I hear the rustling of small mammals, buzzing of beetles, and squeaking of bats. I can only imagine how much noise and movement is detectable by the owls. Viola prefers to hunt from low perches about 3-4 meters high, an optimal position to pounce on either terrestrial or aerial prey. Instead of making frequent attempts at capturing prey, she lingers silently until she has a high probability of success. So far, about 80% of her pounces have resulted in prey capture (at least for the duration of time I am present). Common prey items include voles and mice, as well as frogs on rainy nights. Viola is clearly an excellent hunter. During the early night, she returns as often as every 20-30 minutes with new prey items. She easily discriminates between the rustling movements made by myself and potential prey, rarely turning to face me.
Viola flew above me and landed on a curved branch, gazing intently at a thick patch of sycamore foliage. As I glanced away I heard a huge crash, and Viola flew up to present the reward to Anemone. I was surprised to see Viola hand off a small gray bird, and in a just few seconds Anemone ingested it whole. Apparently unsatisfied, Anemone resumed begging along with the other fledglings, and Viola soon flew out of sight to catch more prey. While Viola was gone, the owlets fell silent, well aware of mom’s absence and their vulnerability to other nocturnal predators. As Viola again neared the nesting grounds, I was alerted to her presence by the owlets, who started chirping and stumbling around the branches. This time she arrived with a gray tree frog (Hyla versicolor) and dangled the limp prey in front of Anemone. Anemone took a few unenthusiastic nibbles as the shrieks from the other two owlets intensified, and Viola took off to satisfy more hungry appetites.
05/18/2020: I’ve noticed that Viola stashes her larger kills high up in the trees out of view during the day. She seems reluctant to retrieve them in front of me, and sometimes deposits them a few meters away from where she perches. Here she swoops in with a fox squirrel, while directly above me the three fledglings bounced and flew around in excitement… so much excitement that a large dead branch came crashing down in front of me. The sound was so loud that Viola got spooked and flew far away, and a raccoon who had been ‘stalking’ me in the tall grass also fled in haste. Multiple times when I’ve observed Viola with fox squirrels, the prey’s head has been removed. This behavior likely serves to prevent the squirrels from delivering a nasty bite during capture, especially when given to the chicks.
08/01/2020: A bachelor trio of white-tailed deer foraging in a creek. It’s been fun to see young bucks grow out their antlers through spring and summer. Many times I’ve expected to see the young males clash antlers to gain experience in sparring, but they always seem to be so docile.
08/29/2020: A barred owl flies high up a white oak tree, moments later taking off to an even more concealed perch. Finding owls like this one reminds me of how shy they can be when not habituated to human presence. It also makes me think of how much time I spent with the owl family this past year before I could finally observe them from very close distances.
Below are a handful of different owls I’ve encountered in the past.