At home, I love reaching out into the absolute silence, when you can hear the owl or the wind. —Amanda Harlech
My morning started clear and bright; the air smelling fresh and damp, washed clean from several days of rain. Outside, the thermometer read 46°F. At the back sliding glass door, five masked faces were looking at me. It was the raccoon welcoming comity. They’d come for their usual breakfast of vanilla cream-stuffed cookies and bread, followed by a long drink of rainwater from the communal stone basin. Having satisfied both thirst and hunger, which the latter never truly is, they went on their merry way. Next came the squirrels, chipmunks, and Steller’s jays wanting their share of peanuts, sunflower seeds, and cracked corn. It is a chaotic scene that happens at the back porch each morning.
As I waited for the jays and squirrels to return for seconds, the squirrels never showed, and only one jay returned. I tossed a few peanuts on the ground, but the jay wouldn’t budge from the cedar branch. When a jay refuses a peanut, something is definitely up. The jay cocked his head, and focused on the sky, or more likely the trees. I could see from his acute gaze that something wasn’t right. About a minute later, the jay took off like a shot, screeching in flight. Other jays followed, fleeing to the cover along South Bank. There’s only one thing that would make them behave this way.
I looked to the trees for clues, and saw nothing. But, silence speaks louder than words, and the silence that befell the forest told me that a predator had been here. Maybe a Cooper’s or sharp-shinned hawk? Or maybe a red-tailed hawk? Whatever was there was gone now.
Around 1:15 p.m. I took a break from writing and went outside for some fresh air. The temperature was 54°F., the air was still, and the sky sparkled. I saw that the squirrel feeder was in need of more seed, and just as I turned to go indoors, an owl swooped down, landing on a hemlock branch. I knew it! The jays were right! They’re always right. With the sun in my eyes, I thought barred owl as they frequent these woods as well. But, when I shaded the sun from my eyes, there was no mistaking the mighty great-horned owl. Although the great-horned owl is a year-round resident, this is the first that I’ve seen one in our woods.
The great-horned owl is the most common owl in North America, and a fearless bird of prey. Talons are large, curled, and wickedly sharp, they are also very strong. When clenched, it would take 28 pounds of pressure to open them. Females are larger than males, and while their voices differ, size has no bearing on hunting ability. Horned owls are not strictly nocturnal, and will hunt at dusk and dawn, and even during the day. They can be found almost anywhere hunting forests, deserts, fields, grasslands, wetlands, open water, cities, and roadsides. Horned owls also have the most diverse diet of any raptor. They prey on animals larger than themselves, even other birds such as owls and osprey; but typically their diet is one of rodents, reptiles, amphibians, insects, and carrion.
Owl ruffled her feathers, and settled on a branch. Both confident and fearless, she was in no hurry to leave. I even had time to switch camera lenses. Squirrels were running about, unaware of Owl’s presence. Then, what happened next surprised me. Now, I would expect some interaction from Crow, since crows will often mob owls. What I didn’t expect was the varied thrush. Thrush flew to a branch above Owl, puffed out his breast, and spoke in a tone I’d never heard before. A series of long, harsh trills; excited notes, an alarm call, which no doubt in thrush talk meant, Here she is! I found her!
It worked! Squirrels retreated to their hiding places in the treetops. Juncos, song sparrows, and chickadees fled too. All of them fled, all except Thrush, and a spotted towhee. Towhee, wanting to see for himself what all this fuss was about, flew to a nearby branch eyeing Owl for several minutes. Owl ignored this intrusion, and with her cover blown, both Thrush and Towhee retreated.
Owl ruffled her feathers again, and at that moment, another disruption came from the next tree over. It was Raccoon! Owl was so busy preening her feathers that she didn’t see Raccoon until he was eye level. Raccoon never did see Owl, but she surely saw him. Owl never took her eyes off Raccoon until he was gone.
The woods fell silent.
It was clear that Owl was in no mood to hunt. She had most likely eaten elsewhere. Preening her feathers she reminded me of a house cat grooming its fur. Keeping those feathers in tip-top condition is much work, and when she’d finished, she closed her eyes and slept.
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