Science

Tracks that disappear – The Story of Mr. Barred Owl

A frozen wetland

During the winter, when the ground is frozen in varying shades of white, gray, and sometimes shades of blue, a wetland often appears devoid of life. No movement. No sound. Have all the amphibians, birds and mammals gone away?

Chapter 5: Tracks that disappear; use your ears and your voice

Have you ever heard of Fairlee Forest? It is located in Orange County, Vermont. Well if you haven’t heard of this place before, let me introduce you. It is my home, and I think it is a pretty great place to live. My name is Mr. S. Varia, also known by most as Mr. Barred Owl. If you have ever seen a picture of me, you will know why I come by this name honestly. You see, I am grayish-brown with crossbars on my chest and neck. I don’t have ear-tufts like some other owls and I have dark brown eyes which makes me easy to identify. In Vermont, only one other owl species has dark eyes, and they are considered rare; Mr. and Mrs. Barn owl. Of course they have heart shaped faces so we look very different from each other. Even if you were very lucky to see them, you would be able to tell us apart. But just in case you might be doubtful, here is a picture of me. I am basking in the sun on a winter day.

A barred owl sits in a tree with its eyes closed.

But before I got side tracked talking about myself, I was telling you about my home; Fairlee Forest; a beautiful place, peaceful, quite, and rather remote with a diversity of habitats. You know how some folks, like Mr. Coyote, don’t mind living close to towns, but me; well I prefer woods, usually with a lot of pine trees, and always near water. Woods near wetlands are the best places to build a nest and raise a family. Mrs. Barred Owl and I have been living in Fairlee Forest for a number of years, raising a family each year. We can live to be 25 years in age and did you know that we mate for life? Now Fairlee Forest contains three important wetland complexes: the Fairlee Bog (Pond), the Fairlee Marsh Wildlife Management Area, and the “Great Fairlee Wetland.” Each is a completely different type of wetland from each other. I am going to tell you more about the last one because it is where we live.

“The Great Fairlee Wetland,” also called “Brushwood South Wetland,” probably has the most interesting wildlife habitat. It is composed of interconnected beaver ponds, herbaceous marshes, vernal pools, seeps and seepage meadows. Since beaver pond areas are dynamic systems, the landscape surrounding them is constantly changing, but that doesn’t bother us a bit.

a part of the Fairlee wetland. Dead trees sticking out of water with grass growing in and around water.

This is a photo of one of the wetland areas of the great Fairlee complex and one that I hunt in, both during the summer and winter. We have a diversified diet, meaning we eat many different things. Some call us opportunistic, and I can agree with that. I like good food wherever and however I can get it.

We eat a large variety of prey, including: mice, voles, shrews, moles, rats, squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits, opossums, bats, birds, frogs, salamanders, lizards, snakes, crayfish, insects, slugs, and fish. Yes, even fish, and you might find me scoping out a bird feeder if the snow is really deep or has a very hard crust that I can’t break through easily. But many of the species Mrs. Barred Owl and I hunt will use wetland areas, especially during the winter. Some species of course are asleep during the cold months, but we make due.

Tracks of barred owl attacking prey, left in the snow.So how do you know if we are in the area hunting…this is one of the times you might see our tracks/sign. Typically during the winter we have to hunt critters that are traveling either on top of or under the snow. So sometimes you might see my wing brushes at the end of a small trail of rodent tracks on top of the snow where I have been able to swoop down and grab it while still in flight, just brushing the snow with my wing tips. Sometimes, even if the mouse is on top of the snow I hit it with so much force that I land in the snow, like in this photo.

Other times, you will see where I have “pounced” down into the snow trying to capture the mouse or vole in its snow tunnel…notice there are no tracks on top of the snow where I have landed. That’s because all the action is happening under the ground. I have to admit that I am not always successful, even with my incredible hearing. I had to chase this one because I missed it when I landed. Here is a series of photos of what that might look like from when I landed on the ground, the chase and then when I lifted off back into flight. A barred owl sits in the snowPrints left in the snow of a barred owl attacking its prey

The other way you might “see” us is by finding where we perch and produce pellets. You see, we just like all other owls swallow our prey whole. My stomach digests the soft parts of my dinner, and then I will throw up a pellet, composed of the bones and hair. You might find my favorite eating place by observing all the pellets on the ground below. Of course you may have found another owls resting place, so here is a quick guide to narrow down who you may have found!

  • Pinky sized pellet = a smaller owl such as saw-whet or screech
  • Thumb-size pellet = barred or long-eared owl
  • Golf ball pellet = barn and great horned owls

Owl pellets on the ground

Of course, at this time of year, in late winter, we get ready to mate. Even though we mate for life, there is still a romancing that takes place; the ladies like a little romancing once a year almost like your Valentine’s Day rituals! We start by calling and responding, and when we approach each other, we will both do a sort of courtship “dance.” Our dancing consists of nodding, bowing, and spreading our wings, as well as shaking our heads, and we will find and mate with each other year after year. We nest in tree cavities, like within a pileated woodpecker hole, or in an abandoned crow, hawk, or even squirrel nests. So if you look carefully at the trees around the edges of the Fairlee wetlands, perhaps you might find our nest one year.  Or, maybe you can hoot for me and Mrs. Barred Owl and we might just call back to you!

That’s right, we love to talk. Our most familiar call goes like this…”hoo, hoo, too-HOO; hoo, hoo, too-HOO, ooo” which is often phrased and can be practiced as “Who, cooks, for-you? Who, cooks, for-you, all?” (The last syllable drops off noticeably… and sometimes has a trill at the end, almost like rolling your “R’s” in the Spanish language). When we are courting at right about this time of year, we change our call a little bit to be more like this, “hoo-hoo, hoo-WAAAHH” and “hoo-WAAAHHH”. My wife and I will call back and forth, like a duet. You can tell the difference between our “voices” because my voice is deeper and I will admit a little bit more musical than my wife’s, but don’t tell her that, it might hurt her feelings! Sometimes we will call in the daytime as well as at night and we do make other sounds less familiar to most, ranging from a short clipped yelp or bark to riotous and piercing monkey-like hooting, cackling, cawing and gurgling noises.

So try giving us a hoot in Fairlee when you visit or you might connect with other Barred Owls in your back yard.  This call carries well through the woods and is fairly easy to imitate. “Who, cooks, for-you? Who, cooks, for-you, all?” If we or another Barred Owl are nearby, we might call back to you or even fly in towards you to see who you are. We are curious birds. Then you can use a flashlight and perhaps catch a glimpse of us up in a tree, just remember lights are really bright for our eyes!

Well it was great telling you about my home in the Fairlee Wetland Complex. It is a pretty great place to call home. I hope you can visit us one day, perhaps track us during the winter if you can, or give us a hoot at any other time of the year.

Happy Winter Tracking…join us for the next Chapter of this series and meet “Morris”, a star-nosed mole.