Monday, October 22, 2012

4:00 AM Awakening: Owls & Venus Glade

     This morning I awoke at about 4:20 AM. I don't know what awakened me. At first, I was just moving around in bed to try to find a warm comfortable position. Then I became more aware. And I heard what sounded like the neighbor's dog barking. It was a series of 2 barks together, then a pause, then 2 more barks, repeating this pattern. This was unusual. The neighbor's have a chocolate lab mix with what looks like some hound in her. She is normally very quiet -- seldom barks. But it sounded like the soft bark of a dog that was waiting to be let back in the house. Then the sound changed to more of a yip and finally a medium loud shrieking or squawking call. I altered my identification -- the coyotes are playing in our neighbor's back yard. But then shortly, the culprit certainly identified itself -- with a hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo whoo whoo. It was our pair of great horned owls. They were calling to each other in our cottonwood trees just outside my bedroom window.
     We think they nest in Virmond Park just north of us, in some tall mature spruce trees in the center of the park. They have been seen there roosting. For as long as we have lived here on Lake Michigan we have occasionally seen one of the owls fly in front of our car headlights from a fencepost or tree perch. They are magnificent birds with up to a 5 foot wingspan. One year shortly after we moved here, a pair of owls were out flying in the late afternoon and they perched on a snag out front of our house in a small wood lot.
     But I had never heard these barking and squawking calls though I knew they could occur. Life history of these birds says that the growing young use these calls to beg for food. And sometimes the adults use them as well usually to show agitation. The usual territorial and mate to mate call is the typical whoo whoo hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo. Some years ago one of my physician partners who lives on the other side of the park, told me about these calls he heard at night when walking his dog. He said they really freaked him out. One night he and I made a foray into the Park to try to find the source of these strange piercing calls. We thought it had to be a bird of some sort. All we found that night was a lower leg of a coot, which had probably been prey to our pair of owls. They prey on almost anything living smaller than a fox, including sometimes peoples' beloved cats or small dogs. They are the only bird that can catch, kill and carry a prey almost the same weight as the owl, up to 3 pounds. They do catch other birds and coots are a favorite of theirs, as are the small nocturnal rodents such as rabbits and voles. They are also the only bird of prey that will catch and eat a skunk. They swallow small prey whole and then about 6 hours later regurgitate a 3-4 inch oblong pellet of the hair and bones of the swallowed prey. Pulling with their hooked beak, they tear apart larger prey against their talons which have one edge that is like a razor.They usually hunt with their eyes from a perch but occasionally they walk on the ground, or even into the water to catch prey.  My partner eventually saw tour owl emitting these sounds so I knew they occurred but until this AM I had never heard them.

     After these squawks, the pair called back and forth  to each other and sometimes in synchrony. Apparently this time of year they are starting to form a pair bond with their mate since they nest at the end of January, the earliest of any birds in this area. Though they stay in the same area all year long, after the raising of their young they part ways and the pair is much more loosely associated, but they often come back to the same nest site and form the same pair bond again. In a sense, in many cases, they are mated for life. The female's typical whoo call is higher pitched than the male's. That lower pitch allows the male's call to carry for a few miles in the silence of night.

     Bubo virginianus virginianus -- That's the scientific subspecies name for our owls. I always call them our owls, as though they belong to only me and my husband. I really do feel an attachment to them. Other common names for the great horned owl are: hoot owl, and tiger owl due to its barred chest.  There are at least a dozen sub species of Bubo virginianus. They vary somewhat in coloration (reddish brown, grey or black and white) and markings, but they all have the same large barrel shaped body with a large reddish brown facial disk, and variable amounts of white under the chin, and then dark grey barring of the breast. They have huge amber eyes which do not move in the socket; hence the need for a neck that swivels fully 270 degrees to see their prey. They have long "ear tufts", the longest of any owl, but these feathery tufts have nothing to do with hearing. They are probably there for camouflage. Actually the owl's hearing is as sharp as its eyesight in low light. The ears are located at two different altitudes on the two sides of the head. This allows the owl to pinpoint sound through triangulation and center in on its prey. Meanwhile, this very large bird with a possible 5 foot wingspan can fly almost without sound.

     This owl species is distributed over the entire North American continent, portions of Central America, and large sections of South America including Brazil and areas of the Andes. About the only area that these owls do not inhabit are arctic ice flows and snow fields, the driest and sandiest deserts of the Southwest US and South America,  and the deepest and hottest jungles of Central America. Such a wide distribution is probably due to its adaptability in terms of nesting and prey selection.
     The pair of owls usually do not build a nest, but nest in used hawk, or crow, or squirrel nests. Sometimes they just nest in the crook of a tree that has a broad enough base. Where there are few trees such as on the prairie or on the tundra, they can nest on the ground. The female lays 2-4 eggs and incubates them all by her self for 28-35 days. The male brings her food during that time and for the 2 weeks that she broods the hatch lings. Then she may leave the nest more and more to find food for the growing youngsters. After the young are 6 weeks old, they begin to "branch" -- that is they hop out of the nest and onto neighboring branches. But they are not good fliers until they are about 12 weeks old. After complete fledging from the nest area, the adults still look after the young owls most of the summer and into the fall. Young owls have been seen calling and begging and getting food from their parents in late October. But once the next nesting season approaches and the pair bond strengthens again, the young leave and may widely distribute themselves as far as 150 miles form the original nest site. These young owls usually take a year or so to begin breeding themselves. The owls live in the wild to at least 13 years old. In captivity, they have lived as long as 35 years.

     A common site where owls are roosting or nesting or at dusk when they are beginning to hunt, is a mob of crows harassing the owl. Crows will be called in from wide areas to participate in the harassment. They dive bomb the owl always from above and generally put up a ruckus. Whenever I hear a group of crows making a fuss, I head out to see what it is about. In our area, it can be the great horned owl, or once it was a snowy owl on the neighbor's patio or it can be our resident bald eagle. Certainly the crows have reason to create this fuss, because young crows in the nest and sometimes even adult crows are a common prey bird for the owls.

     Following is a very interesting website which has nice recordings of different species of owl sounds and calls. The frequency is a little off. Especially the male sound is much deeper. But it will give you an idea. I tried to record my pair with a digital recorder that I have. But it would not pick up the sound well, telling me that you would have to have a specially sensitive microphone.

 This you tube video shows a great horned owl that is in captivity because it has been rehabbed but is unable to return to the wild for various reasons. What a beautiful bird, though.

     Well, the owls have left now. All is quiet. But looking out over the lake, I see another first for me. The waxing quarter moon had already set in the west so the early morning hours are rather dark. But it is 4:45 AM and Venus is in the Eastern sky over Lake Michigan. And low and behold in the still of the morning hours, there is a Venusglade on the calm surface of the lake. I always love to see the moon rise over the lake at night. It lays down a path of moonlight on the water that always leads from that moon directly to me (the observer) no matter where I go in the house or outside. It feels as though the moon and I are communicating directly with one another through a medium of light. A full moon produces a particularly wide band of light on the water and often it is pink or orange. Gorgeous. There are several names for this phenomenon.  I have referred you to a site on the web which considers fugitive words and this idea.

       Someone wrote in and asked what the word would be for this reflection of the moon on the water and the fact that that reflection follows you when you change position. A congressman came up with the word: emoontional attachment. Well the real word is moonglade, but it is seldom used. Mariners used the word moonwake because it looked like the white wake of the ship.  Well, here in the early morning hours today, there was a Venusglade on the lake surface. Not very bright, but there and very distinct. I don't think I have ever seen a Venusglade. Next time the early morning hours are dark, check it out near a favorite body of water near you. Just another example of the magical effect of nature! And of what wonderful things can happen when you can't sleep. You even learned a new word or two in this article.

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