All about Ollie – barred owls at Mason Farm Biological Reserve

The end of winter and start of spring is a good time to look for some of the birds that you don’t see so often. They are not hidden by foliage and may come out more to hunt for a meal as they prepare to cope with the rigors of upcoming parenthood. That has proved to be a boon for me during visits to Mason Farm Biological Reserve where there are several pairs of barred owls (Strix varia) in residence. While these birds usually hunt at night, they have recently been seen out and about much more often in the daytime, perhaps getting ready for nesting and brooding in March and April.

These beautiful raptors sit quite still and often make no sound at all as they turn their heads scanning the ground or a creek nearby for small rodents, crayfish, fish, insects, amphibians and reptiles.

 

Their brown and white mottled feathers are a perfect camouflage to help them blend in with the bare gray and brown tree trunks and branches of winter. To spot them, you learn to scan trees in the distance looking for a “lump” which your binoculars or long camera lens can then help distinguish as an owl.

These owls tend to stay in one area; a study of 158 banded birds showed that none of them had ventured further away than 6 miles from the spot where they were first seen. At Mason Farm, we tend to hear the owls in specific areas – along a creek, near a couple of open fields and near a bog. These are likely different pairs who can live there for decades – the oldest known barred owl was 24 years old.

After hearing that friend Mary had been seeing one particular owl daily, I began going there more often to catch a glimpse of him/her. I nicknamed the bird Ollie – short for Oliver or Olivia. It turned out that I was fortunate enough to see both Ollies; the pair has become fairly tolerant of people nearby, sometimes perching in trees right next to the walking path.

One mid-afternoon, I was searching the fields for Ollie, noting some of the other birds who were easier to spot because of their movement, like the red-bellied woodpeckers and song sparrows. I was looking into the mid- and long-distance and then glanced up at a small tree next to the path – there was Ollie staring back at me! I had never been within about 5 feet of a wild barred owl before and was able to see him/her really well – what a beautiful bird!

To get some photos, I actually had to back up as I had a long-distance lens on the camera. Some runners came by and saw that I was focused on something, but they never looked up to notice that they were passing couple feet underneath this large raptor. Ollie just watched silently as they ran by and then returned to scanning the ground for prey.

Another day, Mary and I were following an owl from one field to the next. The hunting pattern appears to be: perch in a tree and look intently at the ground around for 10-20 minutes or longer, fly some 20 or more feet away to scan another patch. It appeared that the owl and caught something and s/he flew to a tree branch at the other side of the field. I happened to glance away in time to see the second Ollie flying toward and past us in the field on the other side of the path.  The owls fly completely silently so you have to be lucky to spot them.

Although I’ve seen the pair fairly often now, I continue to find them really beautiful.

 

When they spot some prey, the owls drop quietly but swiftly down to pounce on the animal. Sometimes they sit there for a minute or two, presumably swallowing the entire animal if it is small. If it is larger, they will carry it off to have their meal in a tree.

On one of our walks, Mary’s sharp eyes spotted an owl pellet and friend Lucretia and I dissected it. The pellets can contain the remains of several meals and we thought that a couple small animals’ remains were contained in the fur-covered mass. A tiny skull and pair of jaw bones with minuscule teeth could be distinguished – perhaps a vole or baby mole.

On one of my most recent spottings of Ollie, s/he was spending time taking little power naps in between ground scans. On other days, the owls had brief snoozing periods, too. The feathers on their eyelids are very cool! When a pair calls to one another, you can distinguish the male and female. The male’s call ends abruptly while the female adds a little trill to the end of her call.

  

On my last foray to the reserve to see owls, I was following Ollie’s progress along the field when another birder spotted me taking photos. After a while, about six or seven walkers were watching and Ollie finally flew to the top of a pine tree not far from the path so they could all admire him/her.

The one predator that goes after the large barred owls is the even larger great horned owl (Bubo virginianus).

 

When people go too close to a barred owl’s nest, the owls will become agitated, so we should keep that in mind and not bother them there. Oliver and Olivia seem not to mind people too much right now, since they will fly to perch near a path where people are passing. I do try to limit how much time I spend following them, though, even though they can fly away. Just like us, the owls do want to be able to go about their business in peace!

 

Oh, the webs we weave!

spider webs IMG_0292©Maria de Bruyn res

Well, not we human beings but the spiders. Autumn is a great season to spider web IMG_9990©Maria de Bruyn resadmire the handiwork of spiders as they build temporary or semi-permanent abodes and hunting traps. During my walks in different areas this fall, I’ve seen various forms of webs, but none as large the 4-acre web found in a building in Baltimore, Maryland.

Many of the webs are really lovely as they shimmer in the sun, especially when covered with dewdrops.

spider web IMG_0082©Maria de Bruyn resspider web IMG_0075©Maria de Bruyn res

Not infrequently, you will see the web’s weaver hanging out, like this banded argiope (Argiope trifasciata).

banded argiope IMG_0034©Maria de Bruyn res

trashline orbweaver spider web IMG_7471©Maria de BruynresThe trashline orbweaver (Cyclosa turbinata) arranges bits of old prey in a line in its web, apparently helping to camouflage itself as it looks like another piece of trash in the web.

 

 

lined orbweaver IMG_2845©Maria de Bruyn

The lined orbweaver spider (Mangora gibberosa) has a conspicuous web in that the center part comprises a dense circular decoration (called the stabilimentum) that shows up well against green vegetation. The rest of the web is barely visible, however.

Some spiders, such as sheetweb spiders, make webs that look like shallow bowls in the grass (the photo below right was taken looking down on it). The tiny sheetweb dwarf spider (Florinda coccinea) has a red body with black palps, eye region and caudal tubercle. There is only one species in this region of the United States,

sheetweb dwarf spider IMG_0959©Maria de Bruynsignedsheetweb dwarf spider IMG_0924©Maria de Bruynsignedres

Arrowhead spider IMG_2662© Maria de BruynArrowhead spiders (Verrucosa arenata) suspend a few or more strands of silk along or across trails at about head height. Have you wondered how they manage to suspend a web across a trail that is quite wide? They first produce a fine adhesive thread that can drift over the gap with a breeze. When the thread sticks to something at the other side of the gap, the spider feels a change in the vibrations of the thread and then reels it in and tightens it. The spider then crosses the gap on this thread and strengthens it by placing a second thread and so the web begins.

If you are walking along looking up in the trees or down at the ground, it can mean you end up with sticky web in your face. The tensile strength of spider silk is greater than steel of an equivalent weight but much more elastic, so wiping that silk off your skin can take some doing!

marbled orbweaver IMG_9822©Maria de Bruyn resOrbweavers tend to make large vertical webs, like the ones being spun by the marbled orbweavers (Araneus marmoreus) in the next photos.

 

 

 

marbled orbweaver IMG_1582©Maria de Bruyn res

The silk for a web comes from a spider’s spinneret gland, which is located at the tip of its abdomen. Some spiders have four pairs of spinnerets, some have one pair and most have three pairs of spinnerets.

 

black and yellow garden spider IMG_6324© Maria de Bruyn res

 

 

Each gland produces a different kind of thread, for example, for a safety line, for trapping prey or for wrapping up caught prey as shown by this writing spider (Argiope aurantia).

 

 

Here you can see how the spider is using one leg to help position the line of web being spun.

marbled orbweaver IMG_1570©Maria de Bruyn (2)marbled orbweaver IMG_9703©Maria de Bruyn res

Spiders expend a lotmarbled orbweaver IMG_9865©Maria de Bruyn of energy building webs and it is not uncommon for them to eat their own web in order to re-gain some energy used in spinning.

 

The spider is thus a great re-cycler in addition to helping keep the other insect populations in check! Nature is so cool.