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Getting to know my neighborhood at twilight

There’s a wonderful little forest next to my house.  Its where seven springs emerge out of the limestone that feed the cabins around here.  A trail leads through the woods to the meadows beyond.  Even though these woods are not large, and are surrounded by cabins, its a bustling place.My Little Woods

Deer, turkeys, coyotes, moose (on the lower end its marshy with willows), black bear and sometimes grizzlies, and plenty of small mammals frequent the area.  I’ve been trying to get to know my neighborhood, so I walk through the woods, exploring its smells and tracks, at least several times a week, mostly at dusk.

Last week I called a Great Horned Owl.  We had a nice conversation, back and forth.  He was roosting somewhere on the hillside, when a band of turkeys came noisily through the brush.  Maybe he didn’t like them scaring his potential dinner every which way, because he burst through the trees and flew down to the lower ends of the forest.  I did have to wonder if some of those turkeys’ young would be a nice meal for him this spring.

Several years ago, after the Point Reyes fires in California, the Park Service obtained money for Spotted Owl research.   I was lucky enough to help in the three year study.  My area was in a State Park with Redwoods and Douglas Fir, some of it old growth.  The first season was about locating the owls.  We learned to imitate their calls.  Owls, I found out, don’t care how exact your call is.  If I kind-of sounded like a spotted owl, they’d call back.

The next season we ‘moused’ the owls in order to find their nests and estimate the number of breeding pairs.  We brought lab mice into the field.  Since we already had an idea of the territory of the owls from the year before, we hiked to those areas, called in the owl, put the mouse on a stick and the male would take the mouse back to the female on the nest.  The third year we counted mature chicks.  The main predator of Spotted Owls is the Great Horned Owl–“The Lion of the Night”.

Helping with that study I learned a little about looking for owls.  The best way to find an owl is to spot their droppings around the base of a tree. Droppings at base of trees indicate owl roosts I’ve looked for this before in those little woods and easily found the roosts of Great Horned Owls and their pellets.  Pellets are not owl scat but the undigested parts of their food, regurgitated up in a large pellet.  If you open the pellet up, the evidence of their meal(s) is right there in the form of bones and hair.

Tonight though I was in for a surprise.  I was tooling around the woods at dusk like I do several times a week.  I decided to follow a deer run under some brush when I spotted some droppings at the base of a snag.   I bent down to get a closer look, and spooked a bird out from the top of the snag.  The bird flew to a nearby tree.  I felt there was something unusual about this bird so I told the dog lie down and I slowly crawled out from the low hanging branches and looked up.  It took me a few minutes for my eyes to adjust to the dim light and understand what I was seeing, as at first the bird seemed like a large robin.  It was a small owl, about 7 inches long, just as curious about me as I was about it. I adjusted my eyes I sat down on a log, watched and talked to the bird.  I found a pellet beside the log, about 1/2 the size of a Great Horned pellet.  After a long time, I crawled around and hung out with the bird from a closer and better angle. The owl wasn't afraid The owl wasn’t afraid at all.  In fact, he reminded me of Spotted Owls.  When we did our study, I was sworn to secrecy as to where the owls were located.  Spotted Owls are so tame that they can easily be approached and because they are endangered, we were especially careful.  This owl even started falling asleep while the dog and I sat there (Spotteds spend a lot of time sleeping too).

Hanging with that owl, I could see why there is a lore about them being ‘wise’.  Looking in his eyes, so close, he had an intensely calming effect on me.  Koda and I bade our goodbyes for the night and I went home to look up his name.  The Northern Saw-Whet Owl. I know Screech Owls also live in those woods because I hear them frequently.  But so does the ‘Lion of the Night’.  Stay safe little owl.Northern Saw-Whet Owl

3 Responses

  1. Leslie,
    If you head down toward reef creek, just before you get there you might be lucky enough to see the Great Grey owls along the highway. Early and late are best. They have been there several years in the spring/summer and are quite rare in our latitudes.
    Also, the pellets are not droppings, rather they are regurgitated compacted masses of undigested material. Owls pass liquid as other creatures would pass droppings.


  2. Yes, that is correct. Pellets are not droppings. I think I did say that above. Inside you can find all the things the owls cannot digest. If you take some time to put those bones together, you’ll find what the owl has been eating. But pellets are not something easy to find. So when I said ‘look for the droppings’ I was referring to their white scat. That is the clue!

    I have had my eye on Reef creek but its still full of snow. Thanks for that tip. I’ll try and get up early morning!


  3. Leslie,
    My apology. My error. I wasn’t focused.
    It was just me, a Wyoming native making assumptions about a California gal new to the country, I reckon. You are very informed and savvy and well researched.
    I just read again all that you wrote about the owls, and you covered the subject quite well.
    You are very lucky and blessed to see such wonderful animals right on your property. And on forest nearby.
    Go find the Great Greys. Usually in the spring there is a grizzly or two feeding in the meadows on the slopes before the cabin at Reef creek. That’s where the Greys hang out. Open conifer mixed Aspen forest.
    I was multi-tasking while reading your story, and I shouldn’t have been. It’s twice today that bad habit has caught up with me. I’m gonna fix that. Staring now.
    Your fascination with this land, which was the center of the universe to mystic people, is very refreshing. You might just be one.
    Take care, so long, I’m going to leave you to your critters and wild country and new found life, and perhaps our trails will cross someday in the backcounty, but not on the internet again.
    And to Eco Roamer. You need to roam more, away from the city.


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