Encounter with a Barred Owl

After two days of really cold weather I was finally able to get out again yesterday to see if I could pick up a few last birds for 2011. The day was heavily overcast, but mild; the temperature was only about -3°C with a barely-noticeable precipitation falling.

I headed over to the Beaver Trail first since I haven’t been there in a while; it’s a good spot to find Brown Creepers, a species which has eluded me this month. They eluded me there, too, however, and I only saw the usual winter species: lots of chickadees looking for handouts, one Red-breasted and three White-breasted Nuthatches, a couple of Mourning Doves, and a Downy Woodpecker feeding on a suet ball near the Wild Bird Care Centre.

From there I drove over to Sarsaparilla Trail. Once again I was hoping to find a Brown Creeper for my winter list, although Golden-crowned Kinglet is another possibility at this trail. I encountered a friendly group of chickadees and nuthatches as soon as I left the parking lot and spent some time feeding them. I expected to find some more birds near the bench at the entrance to the woods, but there were none. In fact, I was just thinking that the woods were unusually quiet when I happened to look up – and saw a tail hanging down from a branch right above me!

The bird was facing away from the trail, and as soon as I saw it I suspected it was a Barred Owl. I left the trail and circled around the tree to get a better look at the bird, and confirmed it was in fact a Barred Owl. He appeared to be sleeping at first, but opened his eyes briefly to look at me. I stayed as still as possible and kept a respectful distance away; perhaps because of this he appeared to take no interest in me.

Barred Owl

I turned my camera on to take some pictures. Nothing happened, and I realized I had forgotten my battery in the charger at home. The owl was sitting out in the open, in a spot so completely accessible that I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to take some photos. I drove the five-minute drive back to my house, fetched my camera battery, and returned to Sarsaparilla Trail.

I encountered a family leaving just as I was re-entering the trail. I heard one of the boys – perhaps 10 or 11 years old – talking about the birds, so I asked them if they had seen the owl. They said they hadn’t, so I led them to the spot. Fortunately the owl was still there, and the family – a couple from Bells Corners with their two grandsons from Vermont – seemed equally as awed. Finding the owl was thrilling, but sharing it with people who appreciated seeing this magnificent bird up close made the encounter much more enjoyable. Seeing an owl in the wild is always a special event, not only because of their beauty, but because I encounter them so infrequently. Owls seem almost mystical to me, and it was clear that the family felt the same way.

Barred Owl preening

They soon left, and I did, too, walking the rest of the trail. There were no chickadees in the woods at all, and I saw only two birds on my walk: a Brown Creeper and a Pileated Woodpecker. I returned to the spot where the owl was sleeping, and found a man photographing him. The owl was sleeping again:

Barred Owl sleeping

I checked the ground beneath him and found some excrement but no pellets; obviously he had come to this tree to sleep, not eat. The Barred Owl usually hunts at night, roosting high up in a tree during the day, either in dense foliage or close to a thick tree trunk. However, the Barred Owl is a very opportunistic hunter and may sometimes hunt before dark during the nesting season or on dark, cloudy days, which is when I typically see them. It hunts from a perch, swooping down upon prey such as meadow voles, shrews, squirrels, small rabbits, and weasels. It also eats birds on occasion, including other owls; because it cannot catch birds on the wing it waits until they have settled into their nocturnal roosts at dusk.

Deb and I returned the following day to see if we could find the Barred Owl; however, he was gone, perhaps sleeping elsewhere after another successful hunt.

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