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!

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.

The gorgeous grebes when aggrieved and grumpy!

During my great-crested grebe (Podiceps cristatus) observations at the Gouwzee in July 2018, it became apparent that they don’t mind swimming about amid groups of Eurasian coots (Fulica atra).

It turned out, however, that the grebes can also be quite aggressive and one morning these birds treated me to a stunning display as they had six years earlier. This time it was not a peaceful event like their mating dance, however, but apparently a territorial dispute. Two pairs were each tending a young one near reeds in a cove on the Gouwzee side of a dike. It appeared that one adult had ventured into space that the other pair considered their own. An epic battle ensued – I wish I’d had the presence of mind to change my camera settings to get better photos, but it was so sudden and exciting that I was just glad to be able to get some shots. The whole dispute only lasted about three minutes but seemed to last much longer!

References I found in the literature online appear to indicate that researchers believe territorial aggression mostly takes place when the grebes are building nests and tending eggs. They mention that it stops once the young are born. This was obviously not the case for the two pairs that I observed; their young appeared to be several weeks past fledging age.

The birds first caught my eye when they faced one another, lying low in the water. This is said to be a common aggressive posture.

Suddenly, they erupted upwards, calling loudly and flapping their wings strongly to intimidate one another. (You can see larger versions of photos by clicking on them.)

  

 

   

 

A couple times, they surged upwards from the water to clash their chests together.

   

One appeared to have dunked his opponent in the water, although this happened so quickly that I didn’t really see how it occurred.

They would take a few second pause, making their mutual displeasure apparent.

This would be followed by another bout of confrontation. At one point, one grebe’s mate and young one swam closer to the action.

Finally, after a couple minutes, one “combatant” was driven off by his opponent.

He was joined by his mate and offspring and peace returned. And I walked away elated at having witnessed the behavioral exhibition, glad that no injuries had been sustained. 😊

 

Gracious and gorgeous grebes nurturing newborns

After birding now for some six or seven years, I’ve come to appreciate all birds since each species can be fascinating to watch. I do have some favorites though that have captured my interest. In 2012, I fell in love with great-crested grebes (Podiceps cristatus), whom I first noticed during a trip to Switzerland. A pair was engaged in their courtship dance, which was simply delightful to see. They circled one another, stretched out their necks, ruffled their feathers and arose on the water facing one another. Their beauty enchanted me, and I felt that I had witnessed something very special.

The rust and black-tinted head plumes and ruff are gorgeous, making these birds very attractive indeed. This led to their being hunted almost to extinction during the 1800s in the United Kingdom because the feathers were desired as decorations or hats. This led to the establishment of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in that country and their numbers fortunately rebounded.

Fast forward six years to this past July, and I discovered that these birds are quite common in my land of birth, where I just had not noticed them before. Granted, I was not a birder while living in The Netherlands (I currently live in the USA), but I had managed to take note of house sparrows, mute swans, Eurasian coots and moorhens when walking along canals and ditches. Now, as a much more observant wildlife observer, it was thrilling to see many grebes along the dike bordering the Gouwzee (a body of water bordering Monnickendam that is part of the larger Markermeer nature area). And even better – they were all tending young ones at different stages of development.

The great-crested is Europe’s largest grebe species and the adults are stunning with their reddish-orange head plumes. (They are also found in Australia, New Zealand and African countries.) I discovered that the young look quite different – mostly light in color with black stripes on their heads and pink markings near the eyes.

Their floating nests are often found along reed beds, which were abundant along the dike and a ditch across a road from the dike. A couple mothers had chosen the ditch as their home area and the early morning light made for some nice photos in my opinion as they preened and relaxed.

  

   

The water in the lake on the other side of the dike was less calm but the young ones managed to swim well in the waves; they can already dive shortly after leaving the nest.

Their feet are set back far along their bodies and they cannot walk well. I did not ever see one on land during the week that I was observing them.

According to the literature, pairs tend 1-9 eggs, which hatch after about 27-29 days. The mothers carry newborns on their backs as they swim along, offering a safe perch for sightseeing in safety. The babies fledge after 71-79 days. I did not see any pairs with more than two young, so some were probably lost during the previous weeks.

The grebes eat fish, crustaceans, mollusks, amphibians and insects. Their fishing technique, which was more in evidence in the open water of the Gouwzee, includes skimming the water with outstretched necks and diving underwater. (The neck-to-the-water pose is also used to show aggression but in these cases no other birds were near and they would subsequently dive under to come up with some food.)

The parents demonstrate and the young imitate them, mostly coming up empty-beaked. Occasionally, a parent would fly away and return later with food. The babies eagerly grab the meals offered by both mama and papa.

After breeding, the adults gather together during a molting period, during which they do not fly. Perhaps one day, I’ll be able to watch them in winter and find out new things about them. In the meantime, if you’d like see what happens when they are feeling perturbed, check out my next blog on “The gorgeous grebes when aggrieved and grumpy!”

Tropical storm Florence causing “cabin fever”

The laptop on which I store most of my photos for processing began malfunctioning about a month ago and when it briefly works, I hurriedly back up files on it so I don’t lose them. That has delayed my processing photos and writing more blogs about wildlife I saw this year in Costa Rica and The Netherlands, so I’m taking the opportunity to focus on some current sightings. As Hurricane Florence neared North Carolina, I got in plenty of cat food and litter, bird seed and some non-perishable foods for humans and then cleared the yard of garden art and bird feeders that could become flying projectiles.

In the meantime, the Carolina chickadees (Poecile carolinensis) checked out bird houses as possible shelter from the storm.

How lucky I and most other people in NC’s Triangle area have been so far! The slowly-moving storm turned southeast and is now going northwest, largely bypassing us with the direct impact that had been predicted. We have had rain every day and the ground is very sodden. As I write this now, we are having one of the heaviest downpours of the last week and I keep my fingers crossed that the large oaks and persimmons in my yard do not topple over. Three people were killed by trees falling on their homes and others have had power outages due to fallen trees the past few days. Our neighborhood usually is one of the first to lose power because of the many large old trees we have but so far, so good.

I just had to go out for a walk in the neighborhood today, after only going outside daily to hang and take down bird feeders. Cabin fever had struck, so I spent 90 minutes strolling along. The neighborhood listserv informed me that a few minutes after I passed a certain intersection, a neighbor was almost hit by a falling pine tree, so I was lucky again. And another tree blocked the street further down but we have not lost power yet.

My first destination was the creek downhill from us, which normally rises above its banks, flooding the street next to it. It was nice to see American beautyberries (Callicarpa americana, about which I wrote my last blog) in several neighbors’ yards along the way. The birds have numerous good autumn dining areas available!

When it rains, water from areas north of us runs through our neighborhood to reach Bolin Creek, which also carries stormwater from neighborhoods further upstream.

When I reached the street that runs alongside the creek, I was pleasantly surprised to see that it had not (yet) flooded. (We had at least another 24 hours of rain coming, so it might go outside its banks some time tomorrow.) Some stretches were relatively calm, like this area with a tree that has apparently been marked for removal later (I’m guessing this).with water rising near the walking path.

In a couple spots, the water was rising quite near the walking path (along which some runners passed by as I walked along).

There were pretty wildflowers growing alongside the creek.

 

  

The creek was not only carrying falling rainwater and stormwater from upstream, but also transporting water being funneled into it from our neighborhood as it crossed the street. Not all of the passing drivers were considerate, some going quickly through the water and splashing me as I walked along the sidewalk. In some areas, the water rushing along had to traverse rocks and looked a bit wilder.

I left the creek to walk along neighbors’ yards. One of them had some beautiful spider flowers (Cleome hassleriana), which I have been unable to propagate in my garden, despite a neighbor having given me some to transplant several times.

 

They had some lovely Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus) as well, which I luckily do have in my yard.

I’m unsure what this particular flower is, but it is lovely.

One neighbor’s large fig tree (Ficus carica) was laden with fruit, which I took as a hopeful sign that my two small fig trees might one day provide this tasty treat as well.

  

As I walked along, I came across two young children who were examining a neighbor’s large tree that had had several huge limbs crack off onto their lawn. The young girl was thrilled with her father’s large umbrella – I asked if she had seen the film Mary Poppins and she said no, but they were going to see the play! Her brother brought me a rock with a leopard slug on it, very proud of his find. He pointed out that it had a hole on the side of its head and I was able to inform him that this was normal for these slugs (something I only found out when I wrote a recent blog about their mating behavior).

After checking in on an elderly neighbor to see if she needed anything, I picked up small fallen branches in my yard and examined the plants, noting that the pokeweeds (Phytolacca decandra) still had a few ripe and some green berries so that the birds and deer would still be able to enjoy a few of those.

My outing in the rain ended with a few minutes watching the tadpoles in a small container, several of whom were well on the way to becoming frogs. It was a pleasant if somewhat soggy walk and so nice to get out of the house again.

In the meantime, my thoughts are with the many people who have been displaced and lost their homes to Hurricane/Tropical storm Florence and – across the world – Typhoon Mangkhut. If you can spare some funds, you can always donate to a North Carolina relief fund and/or the Red Cross/Red Crescent societies.

An update on 17 September: all night our area had torrential rain and some thunder and lightning. Shortly after posting this, Bolin Creek overflowed and led to evacuation of people from a housing complex. It is now almost 8 a.m. and it is still a torrential downpour with repeated tornado warnings. Florence had saved her biggest impact for our area for the end of her journey through North Carolina!