Owling with Birders

This past Saturday the Master Naturalists were invited to go owling with the local bird watching group, the New River Valley Bird Club, and considering my 2016 mission to see an owl in the wild, I jumped at the chance.

The group met at 4:30 (less than an hour before sunset) at the Deerfield Trail, intending to spot birds as we walked toward known owl habitat that the leaders had scoped out on previous evenings.

I was, of course, late, and so I walked the first half mile of the trail quickly and alone, trying to catch up with the birders that I hoped were ahead, but could not hear.  I did catch up, said a quiet hello to a fellow NRV Master Naturalist, and slipped in at the back of the group.

Now that I’ve been out birding with honest-to-goodness real bird watchers, I can report on the differences between birders and naturalists:

  1. Birders are quiet.  Really, really quiet.  They know that birds flee and fly from noisy humans, so not one voice exceeded a whisper for the entire two hour walk.  Master naturalists can be quite quiet and contemplative when alone, but if you get us together without duct-taping our mouths, we’re likely to sound like a flock of laughing gulls.
  2. Birders walk farther and faster than naturalists in between stops to examine nature.  They are looking for one thing:  birds.  They may look up, down, and all around, but only a bird sighting brings them to a stop.  Naturalists, on the other hand, are more like excited toddlers when it comes to nature – ooh, look at the tree, ooh look at the fungus on the tree, ooh look at the mushroom on the ground, ooh did you hear that woodpecker?  You’re lucky if you can get us (okay, me) to go 50 feet without a stop to see something awesome/intriguing/puzzling.
  3. Birders know how to stack the deck.  Our leader on this walk also carried a few handfuls of birdseed in his pack.  Whenever the group stopped to lift their binoculars or listen intently, he cast some seed on the trail.  In this way, he made sure that at our next stop, we could also look back at what feathered friends might be feasting at his impromptu feeding station.  Because of this, I saw my first ever Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca), a large, brown, and streaky sparrow that does an adorable sort of hopping moonwalk to scratch up seeds and other little edibles on the forest floor.
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A fox sparrow (Passerella iliaca) with its beak open. I was so excited to have new binoculars (most excellent Christmas gift) to watch the fox sparrows we saw do their little back-hop scratch!

And the similarities between birders and naturalists?

Birders strike out, too.

Though we were walking in confirmed great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) territory and tempting the resident with recorded great horned owl calls (thanks to the Merlin Bird ID app) that it had responded to only the night before, we saw not one feather and heard not one hoot.

Though we were silent and patient, the owl just didn’t show.  It happens.

After waiting long enough in the January evening cold (temperatures in the teens, snowing up on Brush Mountain), we headed back toward the trail head.  Our second owl quarry, an Eastern screech-owl (Otus asio), occupies territory where the trail crosses Tom’s Creek.

And so we walked quietly in the gathering dusk, stopped silently, and listened intently as the whinnying calls of another screech owl on another night emanated from the leader’s smart phone.  Once, twice, three times.  Nothing.  And then, faintly, we heard an echoing whinny from farther down the creek.  It was so soft, no one dared to name it.  A fifth play from the smart phone brought another delicate whinny from downstream, though, and then we all knew.  Bright smiles lit up the darkening trail.  A real screech owl, and we had been there!  We didn’t see it, but we didn’t need to; at least we had heard it!

Birders get just as excited as naturalists, they’re just quiet about it.

Eastern Screech Owl (Common 10 Birds of Prey)

This year, so help me, I’m going to see an owl.

I haven’t seen one since we moved here from Louisiana.  (There I saw a barred owl sleeping on a tree branch while I waited in the pickup line at my daughter’s school.)

It’s not that we don’t have owls here – we have plenty!  I’m just a very diurnal creature, unwilling to leave my cozy bed in the wee hours to go looking for very nocturnal owls.

But, this time, I’m going to do it!  I’ve just signed up to be a part of this year’s local Christmas Bird Count on Saturday, December 19.  A fellow master naturalist and expert-level bird watcher talked me into it.

I’ve never participated in a Christmas Bird Count before because they start so early in the morning.  Voluntarily getting up and out of the house to meet the birding group by 8:00 a.m. on a Saturday in December???  No thank you.

But to see owls, I’m going to make the sacrifice:  I’ll meet my group not at 8:00 a.m., but (and here’s where I wish I was about to say 8:00 p.m.) at 5:15 a.m.! 

In my (only mostly joking) opinion, 5:15 a.m. shouldn’t even be an actual time, legally.  If not legally, then at least morally.  I’m surprised the presidential candidates haven’t weighed in on this crucial issue.

At 5:15 a.m. on that Saturday, I can guarantee that I will come prepared, dressed in many layers and with two full thermoses of piping hot, creamy, sweet coffee.  I cannot, however, guarantee that I’ll be willing to share any of that coffee.

There are no guarantees that we’ll see owls (though going with experienced birders who are likely to lead me to some is 90% of my motivation to participate), but if we do, it will be one of the four owls native to Virginia:

Good Morning Sunshine

A barn owl that I photographed in its enclosure at a zoo in Florida a few years ago. I sell this image as a blank note card entitled “Good Morning, Sunshine” in my Etsy shop.

  1. Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus)
  2. Barred Owl (Strix varia)
  3. Barn Owl (Tyto alba)
  4. Eastern Screech Owl (Megascops asio)

It’s this last one, the Eastern Screech Owl, that I’m most hoping to see.  The first three are big and impressive and so often used in birds of prey demonstrations and as zoo specimens that I’ve actually met them all before.

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See? It is adorable! This rufous morph Eastern screech owl (Megascops asio) was photographed by Bill Waller and provided via Wikimedia Commons. Humans just love big eyes, and the Mighty Mite has champion peepers, which is probably the reason for its genus name “megascops”, which means “big eyes”. “Asio” means horned owl, and our little buddy here does have those classic owl feather tufts that look like horns.

Not so with the “Mighty Mite”; at a Lilliputian 9 inches tall, this stealthy, nocturnal hunter is less than half the other owls’ size and more than twice their cuteness.  They are absolutely adorable, though probably not if you’re a mouse or earthworm or tadpole, which are all part of the owl’s diet.  (To learn more about any owl’s diet, try dissecting an owl pellet – the little ball of indigestible fur, feathers, and bones that they regurgitate after eating.)

These are cavity-nesting owls, small enough to make a home in a tree cavity that’s not much larger than they are.  In the wild they choose wooded areas to live in and they prefer to be near water.  Eastern screech owls will also happily move in to an owl box put up by a homeowner and help rid the property of insect and rodent pests for free!  These owls can be fairly common even in suburban areas and small towns (there are several living in downtown Blacksburg) as long as there are trees in which to roost!

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Here’s a photo of the grey morph of the Eastern screech owl, showing off those “horns.” Photo provided by Wolfgang Wanderer via Wikimedia Commons.

What the Eastern screech owl won’t do for you, unfortunately, is screech.  Or maybe that’s fortunate, especially if they’re living in your neighborhood!  Screech owls’ calls are better described as whinnies or ghostly trills.  Listen to their calls at their All About Birds webpage.

The screech for which they are misnamed was probably that of a barn owl, another species which doesn’t mind being around humans as long as there are rodents around to catch.  (Where there are barns, there’s generally stored grain or hay, which rodents come in to eat and then are, in turn, eaten by the barn owl.)  Hear the barn owl’s screeching scream call at its All About Birds webpage.

It’s good to be able to differentiate the calls, too, because a birder is much more likely to hear a screech owl than see one; their brown, grey, and white plumage pattern gives them excellent camouflage against tree bark.

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Now imagine this fellow not leaning out of the tree cavity and the cavity 10 feet off of the ground. Practically impossible to see. I’ve got my hopes pinned on a flash from those bright yellow, reflective “megascops”.

But I’m going to see one.  Why else would I get up and out by 5:15 a.m.???

 

Another #10minwri on the Common 10.  This one actually turned into a #20minwri, but I was having too much fun to stop in the middle!

Baby Names

I’m headed out into the yard in 20 minutes (when the sunblock I just put on kicks in), to hand-weed dandelions.  I thought about using a standard “weed and feed” chemical product, but I just can’t stand the idea of creating a monoculture of grass while at the same time depriving our yard bunny (AKA the wild Eastern cottontail that seems to have made its home amongst the three yards on our street corner) of delicious dandelion greens.

So, in honor of the yard bunny (whom my daughter has aptly named Fluff Tail) I’m going to write a little bit about a subject at which rabbits excel:  babies.

Not the making thereof – that talk is about birds and bees – but the naming.  Wild animals have funny and fantastic baby names!  We all know that birds have chicks, goats have kids and and horses have foals, but the list of popular animal baby names goes on and on.  Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Baby rabbits are called “levrets”.  The word levret comes to us from Anglo-Saxon, back through the French, and all the way to the Latin “lepus” for “hare”.  The constellation Lepus can be found just below Orion in the night sky.  Some say that Lepus is the quarry hunted by Orion’s dogs’ (Canis Major and Canis Minor – literally “big dog” and “little dog”).  If that’s true, then Lepus is one quick and crafty hare – those dogs are totally looking the other way.  (If you should look the right way and find a levret alone, read these tips from the Virginia Wildlife Center before interfering.)

There are lots of -ets in animal baby names:

  • Pig – piglet
  • Owl – owlet
  • Hen (chicken) – pullet
  • Eagle – eaglet
  • Frog – froglet (after the tadpole stage, of course)
  • Snake – snakelet
  • Swan – cygnet

It’s not just dogs that have pups – all of these animals’ babies are called pups, too:

  • Armadillo
  • Bat
  • Coyote
  • Mouse
  • Prairie dog
  • Seal
  • Shark
  • Squirrel
  • Wolf

Cubs are also pretty widespread.  They are the babies of:

  • Bears (all species)
  • Big cats (bobcats, cheetahs, lions, leopards, tigers, etc.)
  • Foxes
  • Hyenas
  • Raccoons

Then there are the kits, which are the babies of:

  • beaver
  • muskrat
  • skunk
  • weasel

And, rounding out the popular animal baby name categories, those animals that give birth to a calf or calves:

  • antelope
  • cattle
  • caribou (reindeer)
  • dolphin
  • elk
  • manatee
  • moose
  • whales

Last but not least, a few outstanding outlier names:

  • Ant – antling (keeping good company with spiderlings and ducklings, which would eat the two arthropods happily)
  • Hawk – eyas
  • Codfish – hake, sprag, or sprat
  • Eel – elver
  • Otter – whelp
  • Porcupine – porcupette

All right, out into the garden I go (and yes, it’s been significantly more than 20 minutes).  With any luck I’ll catch sight of Fluff Tail.  With a little more luck, Fluff Tail might meet a mister rabbit and bring some levrets to my garden, too!