Storytime 41

Today, we’re going just two weeks back, to the beach trip; Oak Island, NC, a quick getaway while we could, and while it was still warm enough to do so – okay, that was kind of misleading, because I’ve done beach trips in NC in the dead of winter. Some days are pretty nice, about like most people picture New England beaches, sweater or light jacket weather. So let’s just say, while it was still hot enough to enjoy swimming. We, meaning The Girlfriend and I, were coming back from the beach itself after a fascinating sunset (which will be forthcoming,) up a couple hundred meters of convenient access road to the motel where we were staying. This short path passed through back-dune scrub, marshland, a small housing development, and a patch of woods before getting out to the main road, all in a five-minute walk, and we were nearing the patch of woods when I heard the call of a barred owl (Strix varia.) Barred owls are easy to distinguish, because they have the “who cooks for you?” cadence and tone. The light was late twilight, just a little glow left in the sky, which is about the earliest they start calling, and I knew from the sound quality that the owl wasn’t too far off – they have a soft and faintly echoey quality to their voices, which will give the impression that they’re a lot further away than they really are (which means if you hear them really clearly, you’re probably directly underneath them.) I voiced my suspicions to The Girlfriend, and as we walked onward and the calls kept repeating, we were able to triangulate a bit; I was pretty sure I knew almost exactly where they were coming from, and I watched the trees for a break in the foliage that might provide a view. Within a few more steps, I got both the break I was looking for and a vindication of my stalking skills, as a dark shape high in a bare tree was revealed. Boosting the ISO and purposefully setting to underexpose, I managed to get a couple of decent frames with the 100-300 L lens.

barred owl Strix varia in tree at twilight
Listen, 1/10 of a second at 300mm is not at all what anyone should be attempting handheld, so I’m pleased that I actually got what you see here. But it occurred to me, as we watched, that I’d never seen a barred owl calling, only heard it in the darkness, because as we watched and it continued, we could see that it hunched forward and raised its tail slightly with the effort, as if passing a troublesome mouse skull.

barred owl Strix varia during call
I had thought I had an audio clip of one somewhere, but all I have are the ‘monkey calls’ of a late-night argument, so I’ll direct you over to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, where you can not only hear the calls, you can see the position they adopt while doing so, since Timothy Barksdale captured some (daylight) video of one.

author with barred owl Strix variaBy the way, these are not small birds; they can stand about 30cm or more from the perch, with a body width in the 20cm range (it varies a lot, especially since it’s mostly feathers,) and can weigh up to a kilo – this is yours truly with a permanent captive, back from a training session on safe handling for presentations, as opposed to safe handling during rehab which requires a bit more restraint since jesses (those little leg leashes) were never used. But birds are deceptive since, again, they’re mostly feathers, as well as conserving weight to be able to fly, so they’re one-third or less what they appear to weigh. The talons and beak, however, are just as nasty as they appear to be, if not more so, and I have a few scars from my rehab days to prove it. Barred owls don’t have that kinda stern, no-nonsense expression of hawks, but they are actually more enthusiastic about communicating their displeasure, which will involve their handler’s blood if they have their way.

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