Growing up barred – Part 1: becoming independent

From the ages of about 8-19 years, I lived in a house that had a nice backyard and was not too far from some neighborhood woods with a creek. As a child, I read under backyard trees, planted a flower garden and played in the woods with friends. While I became familiar with squirrels, robins, frogs and some bugs and loved being outdoors, I didn’t spend lots of time looking for wildlife. And I never saw an owl in the wild.

Now decades later, I’ve had the good fortune to learn a good deal about various members of the wildlife community while spending time finding and watching them. And in the past couple years, I’ve been privileged to see owls up close in the wild; for example, the owl below was perched next to a pathway at dusk when I walked by a few days ago.

This past summer was unique for me, however, because I was able to observe a pair of juvenile barred owls (Strix varia) at the Mason Farm Biological Reserve as they set off on their life’s journey outside the nest. I’d like to share a bit of what I saw with you in a three-part blog. This one is about them finding their independence. The next two will focus on their grooming and interactions.

Barred owl pairs usually bond for life; if one mate dies, the survivor will seek another partner soon after. They tend 2-4 eggs, which hatch after 4 weeks’ brooding and the young leave the nest after four or five weeks. They remain dependent on their parents for food for some time after that even though they may be almost as large as the adults at 16-25 inches in length (40–63 cm); their wing span can stretch up to 3-4 feet (38-49 in, 96–125 cm).

When I first spotted the young owls in June, they could already fly. Nevertheless, they did need to find their balance occasionally as they perched and moved along branches and snags.

 

The owlets were making a keening noise the first time I saw them. At first, I didn’t recognize it, and I thought perhaps some small mammal was in distress.

Eventually, the plaintive call helped me locate them above me in a tree. This particular call apparently is used by the babies to call to their parents. I figured mom or dad was close by as the owlets kept looking upwards and eventually the parents did fly in with a meal – crayfish as far as I could tell.

 

On several occasions over the next 6 weeks or so, I would hear the owlets making that keening call and staring upwards. I figured the parents were nearby, but they were obviously just keeping an eye on their offspring and not feeding them (at least not when I was there).

It was time for the young ones to learn how to get their own meals.  Although barred owls usually hunt at dawn and dusk, the young owls were busy looking for food during the day. The mammals they eat include voles, mice, shrews, squirrels, rats, rabbits, bats, moles, opossums, mink, and weasels. Birds are also a food source and their prey may include woodpeckers, grouse, quails, jays, icterids, doves, pigeons, cardinals, cedar waxwings and grackles. They also eat amphibians, reptiles and insects (e.g., snakes, slugs, lizards, frogs and toads, salamanders, crayfish, turtles, scorpions, beetles, crickets, grasshoppers) and it was the latter group of prey animals that I saw the owlets hunting. Here for example, it appears one young owl had caught a crayfish.

One day, one of the pair was grasping a twig in its beak; I’m not sure what it was doing but it seemed to have some purpose. Perhaps it was testing how strong its beak was.

  

That a strong beak can be an asset became apparent on another occasion. One of the juvenile owls suddenly flew from one tree on the other side of a water ditch to one above my head. There was much rustling of branches and leaves and when I got into a spot where I could see the bird, it became obvious s/he had caught the largest stag beetle I had ever seen at Mason Farm Biological Reserve. It appears that the giant stag beetle (Lucanus elaphus) drinks tree sap, which must have been what it was doing when the owlet got hold of it. The problem for the owl was how to eat the beetle when those large pincers were in the way.

     

The owl would try to grab hold of a pincer but lose its grip; s/he would turn the beetle around but was having a very difficult time getting those defensive appendages off. This went on for quite a long time, which made me feel a bit sorry for the beetle.

 

Finally, the owl had success and was able to settle in for a crunchy meal.

 

They expel the indigestible parts of their prey in owl pellets that they cough up regularly. Here you see the contents of one a friend found under a favorite perching branch at the reserve.

Another day I saw one owlet suddenly fixate on the water ditch.It turned out that quite a large rat snake (Elaphe obsolete; Pantherophis alleghaniensis) was swimming by. The owl watched it carefully as it climbed out of the ditch and eventually crossed the adjacent walking path, never making a move to tackle the reptile. I had remarked on this encounter to the reserve’s land manager, who said it was probably a smart move on the owlet’s part, since the snake was large enough that it could have wrapped around the owl’s head and choked it.

The young owls seemed to have learned a lot about life as a predator as they grew older. It was fascinating watching them explore their world.

Next up: how the owlets cared for themselves.

Is this my year of snakes??

Lest y’all (“you all”, some Southern vocabulary is finally entering my repertoire) come to think that I’m only interested in the birds inhabiting my beautiful world, today I’d like to focus on a much less appreciated animal species – the snakes.

Green tree python IMG_3565© Maria de BruynI’ve gone for years without ever spotting a snake in the wild; this one to the left was a green tree python (Morelia viridis) seen at a zoo. Since I moved to my house with a yard, I still have seen them only occasionally or witnessed the effects of unfortunate encounters with them, like when my indoor-outdoor cat (I also have two indoor cats only, much to their dismay) was bitten twice by a copperhead (with some years in between).

This year, however, seems on its way to becoming the year in which I spit viper IMG_1787©Maria de Bruyn resee a record number of snakes (and Eastern box turtles). It began with a presentation at my camera club when a wildlife photographer brought in a pit viper for photo opportunities. I only had my old point-and-shoot camera with a no longer functioning flash so my photo was not so great; the poor snake’s cage was also surrounded by so many people flashing around it, I had no appetite for trying to get a better shot. I much prefer taking photos of animals in the wild (and sometimes a zoo).

Brown snake IMG_1633©Maria de BruynresLast year, I saw a few snakes, including at an Audubon Society presentation. In the wild, I came across this thin brown snake (Storeria dekayi) crossing a path at the Mason Farm Biological Reserve. It actually was kind of a pretty with the brown markings on its head. These snakes eat snails, earthworms and slugs, so you might find it useful if they are around your garden to cut down on the plant-eating slugs.

 

I also came across this Eastern worm snake (Carphophis amoenus Eastern worm snake IMG_1335©Maria de Bruynresamoenus) in my garden. These smallish snakes (growing to about 15 inches max) are mostly active at night and use their small pointed heads to help root in the soil where they find insects and worms to eat.

On walks with my brother, we came across Western rat snakes (Elaphe obsoleta) a few times. They come in different colors (yellow, gray, black) and can become quite large. This sizeable one was lounging in a tree during one of my volunteer shifts at Mason Farm. I only had my small point-and-shoot camera with me, so I didn’t think I was disturbing it much by taking some portrait shots but it did lunge at me at one point, so I backed up a bit.

Western rat snake IMG_4599©Maria de BruynWestern rat snake IMG_4614©Maria de Bruyn

The rat snakes are constrictors that suffocate their prey, such as rodents, frogs, lizards, chipmunks, squirrels, juvenile rabbits and opossums, songbirds, and bird eggs – the latter being the main reason that I have raccoon baffles on my bird box poles! I have come across them several more times in the past months.

Western rat snake IMG_0330©Maria de Bruyn resWestern rat snake IMG_6941©Maria de Bruyn res

Western rat snake IMG_7694©Maria de Bruyn res

Perhaps the most intsnakeskin IMG_3498©Maria de Bruyn reseresting sighting lately has not been a rat snake itself but its skin! They are very good tree climbers and this one obviously decided to shed its skin while hanging on a high tree limb in a park along the Blue Ridge Parkway in the Appalachian Mountains.

The snake that has me most wary here in North Carolina is thecopperhead IMG_9661©Maria de Bruyn res portrait copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix), the only venomous snake in this part of the state. They can be very beautiful and actually will not attack quickly. When threatened, they will often vibrate their tail and release a musky odor. If they feel they are in danger, however, they will bite – as my next-door neighbor unfortunately discovered when he put his arms around a tree to tie a ribbon on and disturbed an unseen snake on the other side of the tree. He had to go to the hospital and had a severely swollen arm, describing the bite and its after-effects as incredibly painful.

copperhead IMG_9661©Maria de Bruyn resKnowing all this made me incredibly grateful that I encountered this snake on a cool early morning. Just before a nature walk, I needed to relieve myself badly and snuck off a path to do so before other hikers arrived. Perhaps distracted by the idea that someone might come upon me in an ungraceful position, I looked around quickly but obviously not thoroughly enough because as I half-squatted and looked down at my feet, I discovered my right foot was right next to this reptile. I backed away quietly but quickly and only later when I retrieved my camera from the car did I get a shot of this merciful snake.

Having read an increasing amount about snakes through Project Noah and coming across them more and more often has made me less fearful of these animals and able to much better appreciate their beauty and important role in our ecosystems. However, when I came home to find my female cat had cornered this young black racer (Coluber constrictor) in my dining room, my admiration for the species did not make me want to entertain it inside for a while, even though they eat rodents and my cats have caught a few mice in the house. I quickly went to get a box, caught it and brought it outside where it quickly slithered off.

black racer IMG_4898©Maria de Bruynresblack racer IMG_4905©Maria de Bruynres

Red-bellied watersnake IMG_8141©Maria de Bruyn resWhen our volunteer group at Mason Farm recently began a task of preparing wood for a new boardwalk, we discovered another native snake was keeping us company – a red-bellied watersnake (Nerodia erythrogaster). These somewhat short-tempered but beautiful reptiles consume a varied diet but mainly eat amphibians such as frogs, toads, and salamanders.

Red-bellied watersnake IMG_8162©Maria de Bruyn res

I took the photos from a distance as these snakes will bite repeatedly if they feel threatened – even if non-venomous, I don’t seek a snake bite as an experience. I do wonder if I’ll see some new kinds of snakes in the wild before the year is out though!