They were just weeks from leaving the nest for the last time, still learning to fly, but the trio of fledgling Eastern Screech Owls seemed ready to conquer the woods. Every night at dusk, they’d materialize around our campsite in the hills of Virginia and put on a show.
They swooped from tree to tree and practiced hunting for insects on the ground. One of them even walked across the road. Every once in a while they’d land on the same branch for a dose of sibling togetherness. They swiveled their heads as only owls can do, and let out sweet little calls that were nothing like the eventual screeches that give them their name.
Though still unsteady at times, these fledglings were growing up fast. Matt Larson, a researcher with the Owl Research Institute in Charlo, Montana, told us these owls should be leaving their parents behind within two weeks. So it was pure luck that we got to experience them as a family.
We heard about the owls on our first afternoon at Sherando Lake, in a remote corner of the mid-Atlantic southwest of Charlottesville. A neighboring camper saw us returning from a birding walk draped in binoculars and cameras.
“Have you seen the baby owls?’’ she asked.
“Baby owls!?’’ we said in unison, probably a little too loud.
Owls are in a bird category all their own, all but impossible to find when you’re looking for them. And when you do find them, they’re visible only briefly as the light disappears. So stumbling on a family of fledglings is truly a rare experience.
That first night, as we waited impatiently to see if they’d show, the sun seemed to take longer than usual to go down. But then, like clockwork just as dusk deepened, the first one appeared as a small bump on a branch a dozen feet away. As our eyes got used to the ebbing light, one owl with beautiful reddish coloring looked back with its enormous eyes.
Eastern Screech Owls are small, elegant birds that are among the more abundant and widespread of the species. Like most owls, it stays mostly hidden except at night and uses nocturnal vision to scoop up small animals, insects and sometimes bats or other birds.
Screech Owls nest in caverns and holes in trees. They lay from two to six eggs at a time, and then both the male and female work to raise and feed the chicks over the first weeks.
From the photos, Larson of the Owl Research Institute said our fledglings looked to be 6 or 7 weeks old — still practicing the skills they’ll need to survive. We were struck by their many expressions, stern stares one minute and seemingly frightened looks the next. Here are a few of the many looks we got to see:
Larson said these fledglings would still be relying on their parents for some of their food and for their safety. And adults use food as a teaching tool. “They’ll show them the food and take it to another place, kind of encouraging them to leave as they get ready,’’ Larson said.
It was likely only because these owls were in the midst of these lessons that we got to witness the resulting commotion. “Nine times out of ten, even if you’re close to them, they’ll be camouflaged and let you walk right by,’’ he said. “They’ll be there but you won’t see them.’’
That’s one of the reasons researchers have a hard time gathering data on owls to determine how they’re faring in a time of diminishing habitat, declining food sources and changing weather. Larson relies on surveys from Partners in Flight (a consortium of birding organizations) to track how various species are faring. Over the past 50 years, the surveys show Eastern Screech Owls dropping in numbers by 40 percent.
But at least this family was doing its part to expand the species – and these fledglings were full of energy and curiosity.
We were amazed that they were bold enough to fly among an assortment of campers, boisterous kids and even dogs. They’d perch from time to time, staring at us and bobbing left and right, which helps them focus their enormous eyes with powerful night vision. One fledgling even flew from a branch to the ground and toddled a few steps onto the asphalt road before retreating to safety.
By now, two weeks after our encounter, the fledglings are likely off on their own — and a lot harder to see in those woods. We were lucky to get a glimpse of their last days as a family. For folks like us, who can’t quite get enough of them, here’s one more photo gallery: