We’re winding up the year sharing the most popular — and we hope most compelling — Flying Lesson stories from 2020. Most of the posts are profiles of bird encounters, including this story of a neighborhood owl who turned out to be far more wily than we were. Along with our regular posts, we’ll run a best-of piece every Sunday through the end of the year.
When we finally spotted our neighborhood’s Barred Owl, perched deep in the nearby woods but still within hooting distance of our balcony, we realized he was one step ahead of us.
The owl had been watching us long before we found him.
We spotted him planted on a branch midway up a towering ivy-covered tree, camouflaged with a background that perfectly matched his plumage. He was staring down at us as if to say, what took so long.
The Barred Owl is a surveillance wonder. Its huge, dark eyes have telescopic vision. It can sit for hours scouring its territory. It can swivel its heads almost all the way around in either direction, a feat so impressive researchers at Johns Hopkins University conducted a full-fledged study to figure out how owls do what no other creature can. (See the explanation below after the second photo gallery.)
Almost as soon as we moved into our new home not far from downtown Raleigh, N.C., we started hearing our owl’s “Who Cooks for You” hoot. (Click for samples.) Barred Owls are homebodies, staying mostly put and rarely traveling far throughout their lifetime. Despite the urban setting, ours found a slice of woodlands with just the mix of aged trees, thick underbrush and a running stream owls prefer.
Flying Lessons: The Barred Owl has abilities no other creature does. Between its telescopic eyes and its swiveling head, the owl’s attributes have long been under study. A nocturnal bird that blends into its surroundings, the owl likes to stay out of sight. But when you do get a look, he’s a sight to behold.
But where exactly was he hooting from? The owl seemed to be calling us to a game of hide-and-seek. And it so happened we had the time, quarantined to our condo complex. The chance to spend endless time chasing an owl turned out to be a gift.
Almost every afternoon, he’d issue his call once or twice, never long enough to rush outside and follow the sound, although I tried more than once. Then one afternoon, I noticed a flash of feathers, larger than the usual birds we’d been following. It was just a glimpse, but it had to be our owl and the first clue to its whereabouts.
From then on, Beverly and I would spend a little time each afternoon walking along the stretch of woods where we’d spotted him, looking for the tell-tale brown-and-white coat and listening for the hoots that never came when we were near.
Sometimes it helps not to be looking. Members of the neighborhood Tai-Chi group, which assembles on the edge of the woods, told us the owl had come out to watch their routine one day from a branch overhead. We knew we should be doing more exercising.
Then one day, Beverly sat down near the stream that runs through the neighborhood and I wandered off with my camera. My phone rang and Beverly whispered one word: “Owl.’’
He was mostly hidden on a branch 40 feet overhead, but it was our first good look: About 20 inches tall, superbly groomed, the owl stared down at us with giant, sorrowful eyes. After a while, he swiveled his head to something more interesting.
Once we found his territory, it was easier to look for the hiding places he’d take up late in the afternoons on many days. He moved around to different spots, sometimes napping for a stretch, but mostly keeping an eye out for action. (The owl has three sets of eyelids for different occasions.) Once in a while, he’d lower his head, or bob up and down, signaling he was adjusting his sights on a feast or foe.
Then he’d take off like a rocket.
One day, we caught up with our neighborhood owl’s mate. Females look the same as males, but are somewhat larger. We’ve yet to catch them together, but they seem to have located their nest in a cavity at the top of one of the largest trees in the woods, too hidden for a look.
More owls may be on the way. The breeding season has started, so there’s a chance that two or three owlets may soon be hooting, “Who cooks for you?”