Growing up barred – Part 3: Strife and affection

In the nest, baby barred owls (Strix varia) are vulnerable to predators including hawks, weasels, raccoons and other owls. When they are out on their own and already able to fly, they eventually have less to fear. Their main predator becomes the one owl larger than they are in North Carolina, the great horned owl.

As pointed out in the previous blog, however, they can be fearsome predators to many other species of animals including songbirds, woodpeckers and other avian species. On a few occasions, I noticed the young owls at the Mason Farm Biological Reserve gazing about with expressions that seemed to express wonder and confusion.

It turned out that they were being dive-bombed by members of a very small bird species, the blue-gray gnatcatchers (Polioptila caerulea). The owlets seemed to have no interest in pursuing the gnatcatchers, but they were perching in areas where the small birds had had their nests so the little gnatcatchers did their best to drive the owls away.


One day, they succeeded. The owls flew to the other side of a path through a bog. One landed on a branch right over my head and looked down at me with what I imagined was an expression of “Hey, what did I do???”

The young owls were very affectionate with one another. They often perched next to or near one another.


They often sat close together, expressing what looked to me like affection.



When they were apart, they would vocalize. It would have been cool to be privy to the meaning of their communications.


The young birds seemed to enjoy nuzzling and grooming each other.



When I stopped seeing the young owls in their usual haunts, I figured the time had come for them to separate and seek out a mate and new territory. Mated owls usually establish nests about 400 yards away from other barred owls although some nests have been observed as close as 100 to 200 yards apart. The young owls may not have flown very far away but they did need to leave their parents’ area. I hope they made it and was happy to have had the opportunity to watch them mature. My next goal for owls – to see a species in the wild that I have not yet seen (e.g., great grey owl, screech owl, barn owl, etc.). I hope you, too, have the chance to see members of this avian group up close!

A life and death drama on a nature walk

ice DK7A6116©Maria de BruynFrost was sparkling on the grass, dried shrubs and grasses as our small group set out on a birding walk in the local nature preserve. Water in the creeks and bog was frozen in pretty patterns and the air felt crisp (and cold).



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Eastern towhee DK7A5990©Maria de BruynAt first, not many birds seemed to be aroblue jay DK7A5949©Maria de Bruynund but soon we spotted Eastern towhees (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) and numerous sparrow species in the meadows — none really close by but still visible to those with binoculars and a zoom lens. Blue jays (Cyanocitta cristata) were flying from very high treetop to treetop.

After seeing my familiar red-headed woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus), to whom I’ve given the name “young’un” as I’ve been following her/his progress since s/he was a brown and white juvenile, we saw some Eastern phoebes (Sayornis phoebe) and more sparrows.

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hairy woodpecker DK7A6163©Maria de BruynIn the woods, we saw a ruby-crowned kinglet and a yellow-bellied sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius). It was when we emerged from the woods into another meadow that we had our most spectacular encounter, however. I spotted a young red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) perched in a tree at the meadow’s edge gazing ahead.



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red-tailed hawk DK7A6246©Maria de BruynSuddenly, the bird flew across the field (perhaps 150 feet in a fellow birder’s estimate) to land on a branch in a tree right next to our walking path.

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After alighting, the bird began staring downwards very intently. We walked a little closer and stopped. The bird didn’t even look in our direction but continued to stare down with great concentration, occasionally looking out ahead.

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We came closer and stopped again. Finally, we got right up even with the bird and looked directly at it from about 6-10 feet. It acknowledged our presence but continued to stare down and we couldn’t figure out what it was tracking. Other birds fluttered in nearby branches but it paid them no mind.

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When our group began to walk on after taking many photos and admiring the bird’s sharp eyes and even sharper looking talons, I looked intently under the tree, too. And then I spotted the prey — a hispid cotton rat (Sigmodon hispidus), holding still as a statue on a log.

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The hawk looked at us, yet kept the rodent in sight. On looking at the photos afterwards, I’m glad that the hawk didn’t decide to fly at us with those talons extended in order to drive us away. After looking at the rat, our group walked on as it looked to be quite a standoff; the rat had several smaller branches between it and the hawk which might make capture difficult.

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As my fellow birders tried to spot winter wrens and purple finches, which they had heard, I couldn’t get the hawk and rat out of my mind. So as they went on, I returned to the dramatic scene. As I arrived, the hawk had risen on the branch and was crouching as it looked at me and the rat. It turned on the branch and I just knew that it was getting ready for an attack. Part of me wanted the rat to make it out of there and part of me felt the hawk deserved a meal after such stellar spotting from a distance and patience in watching the prey.

red-tailed hawk DK7A6496©Maria de Bruyn resThe hawk looked at me, crouched again and then dropped down with great fluttering of wings.

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Those large wings were somewhat caught up in the small branches but it got the rat. It flapped about, perhaps securing a tighter hold on its meal-to-be and then flew up to a nearby branch (behind lots of vegetation so that I couldn’t get a good photo). It sat for a minute or so and then flew back over the meadow into the woods, leaving me with a few blurry photos as testaments of the final act in the drama.

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red-tailed hawk DK7A6599©Maria de Bruyn resMy sympathy was certainly with the rat, whose last 30 minutes of life must have been filled with terror as it froze in the hope of escaping the predator. I had to admire the hawk’s concentration and focus, though — that bird was not going to let anything deter it from getting a meal, not even four humans standing a few feet away aiming cameras and phones at it as it perched on that branch. The hawk certainly gave us an unforgettable experience as we may never come so closely eye-to-eye with a wild raptor again.

If you liked this post and/or the photos, could you please “like” it so that I know people enjoyed this posting? Thanks in advance!

Patient fishers of the bird world

great blue heron IMG_8830© Maria de Bruyn resIt’s not uncommon for visitors to our ponds, lakes and rivers to see what look like tall, statuesque bird sculptures on shorelines. The great blue herons (Ardea herodias) – North America’s largest heron species – can stand for long periods without moving or only slightly tilting their heads as they exercise extreme patience in their quest for a morning, midday or evening meal.

If they have a chance for easy pickings, these herons will certainly take advantage of it, as I discovered when the koi and goldfish in my pond were disappearing. But in their natural habitat they will scan the water intently to find their prey.

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If you have the time and inclination to watch them for a lengthier period of time, you will note how they hunch down and stretch up as they position themselves to get good views of the water around them.

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great blue heron IMG_8791© Maria de Bruyn resThey stare downwards and to the side, following the movements of fish, frogs and crayfish. When the wind blows, their plumed neck and tail feathers sway gently and beautifully in the breeze.

great blue heron IMG_4343©Maria de Bruyn resIf nothing seems nearby, they will move with quiet and slow deliberation to another spot, often quite nearby. Unlike the snowy egrets, they don’t stir up the mud with their feet or flap their wings to create movement in the water.

When a fish does swim by, they burst into very fast motion, plunging their long beaks and whole heads down to grab what they have spotted.



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They are not always successful, sometimes coming up empty beaked!

great blue heron IMG_8878© Maria de Bruyn resgreat blue heron IMG_8879© Maria de Bruyn resBut their patience obviously does pay off, too.

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Once caught, they need to work the fish or other prey around so that they can swallow it down smoothly. As they swallow their meal whole, this is important. (And they can eat a very large meal; there is a film on the Internet showing a heron swallowing a groundhog!!)

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If you look carefully, you can see the meal slide down their long necks.

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Great blue heron IMG_0554©Maria de Bruyn resThis fishing strategy works well for the great blues as they can continue to hunt even when injured. This bird had a very badly damaged wing and apparently couldn’t fly anymore but it could stalk slowly in the lake as it looked for food.

The bird below had had some kind of encounter – either with a man-made obstacle or some form of wildlife that left it with an injured wing and broken leg. Bald eagles are one of the few predators of adult herons and this great blue lives at Jordan Lake which has a group of such eagles in residence. Despite the handicap, the heron could fly from spot to spot and then stand in wait for meals to swim by.

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If disturbed, these birds emit a very loud and harsh squawk or croaking sound and then often take off. They certainly wouldn’t win any singing contests with their definitively non-melodious calls.

great blue heron IMG_8516© Maria de Bruyn resgreat blue heron IMG_8940© Maria de Bruyn resgreat blue heron and egret IMG_5083© Maria de BruynThey prefer to fish in solitude and don’t care for other birds invading their territory. This great blue and great egret wanted the same spot and the great blue made some efforts to chase off its white competitor. However, the egret refused to leave and eventually they shared the spot with some meters of space between them.

Watching the herons fish has not only given me an appreciation for their innate patience but has also enhanced my own patience as well as I stand and wait with them until it’s finally mealtime.