Saved From Owls – by an Owl – Call?

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In the spirit of providing a little escapist diversion during these challenging times, here is a recounting of a recent, intense forest adventure and learning experience.

Fair warning, dear readers, the risk and danger that we felt and describe may not be well founded, but there is no way to know.

On the evening of March 21st, two of us took advantage of a calm, clear night to undertake our annual assessment of owls in the Mt. Richmond Forest.

Beginning as darkness fell we began our route taking us to eleven stops throughout the forest.  Taking advantage of owls’ willingness to often call back when they hear a recording or imitation of their call, at each stop we work our way, sequentially, through each of six calls – beginning with the smallest and ending with the largest.  Northern pygmy, Saw-whet, Western screech, Spotted (hope has not died!), Barred (the evil intruder!), and Great horned.  Because in past years, we’ve often heard up to four different species and up to seven individuals in one night, we set off into the inky black of forest paths with high hopes and open ears.

Four stops into our route we we troubled and disappointed to have heard no replies to any of our amorous calls.  Arriving at our fifth stop, while standing silently to let the dark, forest world settle around us, we were surprised to hear energetic and raucous hoots and barks of multiple Barred owls (click HERE) coming from just above the monitoring stop we had just left.  With the curiosity of a cat, one of us (who will remain unnamed) suggested “why not play the Barred’s call to see what happens?”.  As the last echos of our recorded call sounded through the forest, we heard the calls of the owls flying – right toward us.  As they perched close above us calling aggressively, our memories scrolled through the many stories we’ve heard over the years of angry Barred owls swooping in to draw blood and remove hair and flesh from human heads.  “And who thought this was a good idea?” she said, as she ducked and took shelter under her pathetically small clipboard.  After vocally warning us for what seemed a long time – but wasn’t, the pair flew off to the west, continuing to call.   Just when we thought the coast was clear – and my companion emerged from under her clipboard – we heard them flying and calling back toward us for what felt like a second attack.  What to do now?

  Reenactments!

So, I thought to myself, thought I, “If these owls are not afraid of us, what might they be afraid of?!”

Having an idea, I nervously and clumsily fumbled in the dark with the buttons on my phone – while my companion returned to her hideout under the clip board.   Finally finding the correct icon, I poked it “GHO” and waited.  Seconds after the first recorded calls of the Great horned owl reverberated from the speaker and up through the trees, the Barred owls became suddenly silent.  Seizing the calm and hoping to have no further heart accelerating adventures, we took flight, so to speak, away from the scene, with clip board over the head and nervous looks back over our shoulders.  We look to the forests for many things, including lessons – and this was a memorable one.

A Bit of Background:  As many of you know, Barred owls have relatively recently shifted their range into our area and, due to their adaptability and aggressiveness, displace other owls, particularly Northern spotted owls.  One probable explanation for our only hearing Barred owls the other night is that with the Barred being present and vocal, the smaller owls, that we assume are present, have the good sense to remain silent.

Here is a simple summary of what we’ve found over past years:

Here’s to the owls; we’re please to know that they look on our forests as safe havens and home.

Next year we’ll add hard hats to the equipment list.