“Who cooks for you?” – An owlish tale by Kathryn Dow
“Who Cooks For You?”
A story about A Barred Owl and her Owlet
by Kathryn Dow
I have lived in Sarasota for a brief year and thoroughly enjoy the abundance of beauty and birding opportunities this area has to offer. There are numerous parks to observe birds in Sarasota but one particular park I find myself often exploring is Pinecraft Park. It’s a year-round hotspot which many birds migrate through with the changing seasons. The stars here for me are the Barred Owls. I almost always see one and sometimes the pair together that seem to call Pinecraft Park home. I watched this pair when I first arrived last year in April – they had three owlets. This year they had only one. Luckily this year’s nest was in a beautiful open tree-top cavity low to the ground — making for some stunning images and unforgettable experiences.
It’s a true gift to be able to be near the affection given to a young owlet from its watchful and caring mother. There’s true beauty here, with the mother owl looking down upon her baby in the nest, who, with complete trust, looks up at her in turn. Those who witness the moment feel a silent communication. The emotions and care they show with one another appear so similar to our own. I find it hard to leave such moments as I know it is so special to be there. A part of them will always be with me as a memory and an experience. As a birder and a photographer, I strive to capture that perfect moment in time. I want a great image of an even greater moment. For when I look back on my images they make me smile remembering the essence of energy and beauty before me, that connection that imprints upon me, forever absorbed within me. It is always the experience that remains. The experience of walking in their beauty.
Barred Owls are 16”-24” in length with a 38”-50” wingspan. They are large woodland owls with dome-shaped heads and apple-shaped facial discs. Feather patterns are beautiful crosswise around the neck with a collared appearance. Light breast feathers have lengthwise dark streaks. They strike a very elegant pose looking at you with their deep dark blackish eyes, pale yellowish bill, and fully feathered legs down to their pale yellowish feet with black talons.
The Gray-Brown color gains a richer brown with southerly latitude. For example Barred owls that range in British Columbia, Alberta east to central Quebec and Nova Scotia have more gray. Even the Barred owls in New England seem to have more Gray. The further south one goes — down to Florida and Texas — the brown coloring increases. Some pale individuals have turned up in Texas. They have now started to expand westward. In Washington state they have been a bit of a problem for a close relative, the slightly smaller Spotted Owl, a threatened species that they will prey on.
Barred Owls are also found in Oregon, Northern California, Western Idaho and Western Montana, as well as in Central and Eastern Mexico. They populate Veracruz and Oaxaca in Southern Mexico, as well as Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.
Barred Owls nest in cavities in trees. The normal egg clutch is two to four eggs, usually two. Here in Florida they’ll start the nesting process in January, with an incubation performed by the female for 28-32 days. Fledging occurs 40-45 days after the owlets hatch.
They can be quite communal with Red-shouldered Hawks, to whom they are extremely similar in their prey and nesting site areas. Where the Red-shouldered Hawk will hunt by day, the Barred Owl owns the territory at night. Barred Owls also have been known to use abandoned nests of other Hawks, Crows and Ravens. Big trees can play a key factor in Barred Owl realms. They have been known to be territorial not only at nesting time, but actually to guard an area year round. That seems to be the case here with the Pinecraft Park Barred Owls.
It’s simply amazing to observe the moment when a young owlet ventures out of the nest, testing its new strength and abilities, filled with wonder and determination. I happened to be at Pinecraft Park this year when this occurred. Within a couple days, they are on their way to being teenagers — the next level before the gift of flight. Sometimes the owlets fall and need to get back up into the tree as quickly as possible. Young Barred owlets are most vulnerable to predators at this stage. Raccoons, weasels, hawks and Great Horned Owls are some of the predators that young owlets need to be wary of.
Red-shouldered Hawks and Barred Owls seem to get along quite well, respecting each other. They share the same type of habitat as well as the same type of prey. The Barred Owl’s diet is quite expansive, and can consist of rats, mice, squirrels, shrews, chipmunks, and opossums, as well as moths, large beetles, crickets and many other insects. It will also dine on lizards, frogs, snakes, salamanders, crayfish, and even wade into water to catch fish. Their prey may also include smaller owls, bats, finches, jays, flickers, doves, grouse and quail. The Barred Owl’s preferred habitats are woodland swamps and southeastern cypress swamps, as well as mixed evergreen, deciduous woodland, and dense forests. They are at home in river bottomlands, lakeshores and ravines as well as in drier high country with big trees.
Pinecraft Park seems perfect for Barred Owls. I know there is not a short supply of squirrels there! When the owlets are small, the male owl typically does most of the hunting and brings the food back to the nest for the female to prepare and feed the young owlets. They are nocturnal, but during nesting hunting is a non-stop event, which I have observed during the day. In this photo, the mother rests at the top of the tree cavity and the owlets seem to instinctively know it has come time. The mother owl will try to coax the owlets out of the nest. Her protective guidance at this stage is key for teaching them the ways and means to do so.
When the owlets venture out of the nest onto the tree, they are unable to fly. They use their beaks to grasp the tree to pull their bodies up along the tree, gripping with their talons all the way. They are small but full of strength. They start to build up strength in their wings by using them for balancing as they maneuver up and down the tree. Pictured here is a young owlet fledging the nest for the first time. I was filled with joy and worry the owlet would fall. They are quite impressive and ready to test their strengths and limits. Each day they push their limits as they grow stronger. They will do this for a few days until they completely leave the nest site and never return.
I felt so fortunate to observe and photograph this. If you ever come near an owl’s nest, it is wise to keep a respectful distance. The mother Barred Owl can be quite defensive and she’ll surely let you know if you are too close. You will hear her vocal warnings and, if you persist, you might feel her talons upon your head! This is an important time for the owl family, who do not need added stress. The owlets are very fluffy little puffballs at this stage, but as the days go by they begin to lose the downy feathers and develop the adult feathering they need for silent swoops while hunting. They have now graduated to being teenagers and have a lot to learn and master in the coming days.
About Kathryn Dow ~
I hope you’ve enjoyed my images and experiences with the Barred Owls of Pinecraft Park. I’ve been a photographer for many years and this November will be my fourth year instructing photography for the annual Festival of the Cranes event at the Bosque del Apache Refuge in New Mexico. I serve as an active bird guide in Florida and plan to expand in January of 2015 by offering a Snowy Owl tour in my hometown area of New Hampshire and Massachusetts. My first experiences as a child were seeing the Snowy Owls — it shaped my future. I’m now writing a book about my owl adventures, and a birding blog is coming soon. Please feel free to find me on my sites listed below, and thank you for your interest.