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Barred Owl

Snow Stories Begin

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With snow on the ground, the season of stories in the snow has begun. Many of the animals that remain active in New England during the winter are nocturnal so we rarely get a glimpse of them. But, more than at any other time of year, we are privilege to their activities due to the tracks and traces they leave in and on the snow during the night.

Much information can be gathered from these signs. Often at a kill site, the identity of the predator as well as the prey can be determined by shape, form or measurement. One can see from this photograph that a bird of prey (measurements indicate a barred owl) swooped down on a small rodent (judging from tracks, probably a meadow vole) and was successful in capturing it.

Even though a kill scene such as this, or any other wildlife activity recorded in the snow, may reveal the probable identity of the characters in the story, there are always more questions than answers, which is what gets us out in this frigid weather, day after day. The main question I’m left with after viewing this scene is why do voles and mice risk their lives by travelling on the surface of the snow at times, when they just as well could have covered the same ground in the maze of tunnels they’ve created deep in the subnivean layer between the ground and the snow (where they would be out of sight of hungry predators)? (Thanks to Rob Foote for photo.)

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Barred Owl Parents Providing Fledglings With Food

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Young Barred Owls are fed from the time they hatch (four to six weeks old) until late summer or early fall, months after they have fledged and long after they are capable of flight. When first out of the nest, the fledglings cannot fly, and thus are totally dependent upon their parents’ continued delivery of prey. The fledged young initially stay near one another and the nest site. The parents continue to feed them, and as the young become more mobile they slowly move away from the nest tree. Flight is attempted between the ages of 12 and 15 weeks. The first attempts are, as you would imagine, rather awkward, but as their wings strengthen, the young owls’ flying skills improve. Even so, the parents continue to feed them through the summer and often into the fall, when prey deliveries slow down and eventually cease, forcing the young to disperse. (Photo: Recently-fledged Barred Owl chick eyeing the Flying Squirrel its parent is delivering.)

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Barred Owl Chicks Fledging

5-25-17 barred owl fledging2Unlike most young birds, Barred Owls fledge before they can fly. On average, they leave their nest when they are around eight weeks old, and don’t master flight until they’re about 12 weeks old. Fledging for a Barred Owl consists of climbing up out of the tree cavity where they spent their first two months, onto a nearby limb where its parents will tend to it. More often than not there is a nearby branch which it can hop to.

In the fledging depicted, the closest limb was a good 10-15 feet above the nesting cavity. With the help of its strong talons, beak and wings, the fledgling managed to scale the tree trunk up to a somewhat horizontal stub where it could get a good purchase. It may not have been the most graceful ascension, but the fact that it could manage to climb straight up for this distance without the assistance of any grasping fingers was impressive, to say the least.  Fledged Barred Owls continue to be fed by their parents until they can fly and capture their own prey.  (Photo: Barred Owl chick fledging – clockwise, starting from upper left)

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Barred Owls Parents Tending Chicks

5-12-17 adult owl in nest hole 241For about a month the female Barred Owl sits on her 1-5 eggs (usually 2 or 3) until her white, downy chicks hatch, usually around the end of April or beginning of May. At about two weeks (mid-May) their natal down is being replaced by a white-tipped gray-buff secondary down, and primary feathers are beginning to grow in.  They remain in their cavity nest for their first month.

It is pretty safe to assume that the adult owl in this photograph is a female as she is in constant attendance during the chicks’ first two weeks. The male brings her food which she tears into little bits so the chicks can swallow it. At the beginning of the third week, the female begins leaving the nest frequently to hunt. When she is at the nest, she often takes breaks from the kids and sits at the entrance surveying her surroundings.  At this point the chicks start consuming prey (that is delivered to them) on their own. In a week or two the chicks will also start appearing at the cavity entrance.  By their fourth or fifth week, the still-flightless chicks will leave the nest, but parental provision of food continues until fall.

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Feathered Fishermen

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Using their keen eyesight and sense of hearing, Barred Owls typically sit and perch on a branch, surveying the ground beneath them for whatever morsel appears, small mammals and birds being at the top of their list during the winter, with more emphasis on amphibians, reptiles, fish and invertebrates during the warmer months.

Several times I have observed a Barred Owl taking advantage of a vernal pool that was teaming with life, specifically Wood Frogs and Spring Peepers. Perched in a nearby tree, the owl kept an eye out for any sign of movement in the water.  When ripples appeared near the shore it would swoop down to the water’s edge in an attempt to grasp a frog with its talons. Although it met with repeated failure, success was inevitable due to the plethora of distracted mating frogs.

Because they lack hair and feathers, frogs may be underestimated when scientists dissect owl pellets to see what Barred Owls eat. Given the frequency with which I have observed these feathered fishermen, I would think that might be very likely.

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Cavity-nesting Birds Wasting No Time

4-21-17 black-capped chickadee nest building IMG_4765There are roughly 85 species of North American birds that are cavity nesters – birds that excavate nesting holes, use cavities resulting from decay (natural cavities), or use holes created by other species in dead or deteriorating trees.   Many of them get a jump start on open-nesting birds, due to added protection from the elements. Barred owls, titmice, chickadees, wood ducks, woodpeckers, bluebirds, mergansers – many have chosen a nest site and are busy excavating, lining a cavity or laying eggs long before many other species have even returned to their breeding grounds.

The reduced risk of predation a cavity nest experiences is reflected in several ways:  many cavity-nesters have larger clutches of eggs than open-nesting birds and cavity-nesting young also spend a relatively longer period of time in the nest before fledging. When in the woods, keep an eye out for snags (standing dead trees) and stumps, for they provide housing for many cavity-nesting birds.  (Photo: Black-capped Chickadee removing wood chips from the cavity it’s excavating in a rotting stump.)

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The Feathered Feet of Northern Owls

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Most owls have feathered legs, but the feet and toes of some owls, especially those living in colder, higher latitudes, are also densely feathered. The feathers keep the feet of these birds warm, allowing them to hunt where snow is on the ground and temperatures are very low. Great Gray Owls (pictured), Snowy Owls and Northern Hawk Owls are all examples of this phenomenon. Owls living in warmer climes, such as Barn Owls, have sparsely feathered feet and toes, and tropical owls have nearly featherless feet. This variation can also be found within a given species that has a range that extends over many degrees of latitude, such as the Barred Owl.

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