Monday, January 26, 2009

Owl Moon

Quick poll: if you're a birder (or bird watcher if you differentiate), do you get a lot of bird-oriented gifts? You know, Audubon wall clocks, Sibley calendars, Swarowski EL 8x42 binoculars? Yeah, me too. Well, the first two, anyway, but two out of three ain't bad. Here's another to consider, a gift rapidly climbing among my upper echelon of gifts-for-birders, which came to us at our baby shower about five years ago: a copy of Jane Yolen's Owl Moon.

I read it to my daughter now and again, something I started shortly after she was born in 2004, and most recently on New Year's Eve. Upon finishing the book she matter-of-factly asked, "Daddy, when is the next Owl Moon?" The story takes place during a full moon, so I checked her calendar.

"11 days from now," I replied.

"Can we go owling on the Owl Moon?"

That statement was pretty huge. A couple of years ago I was out back with Barron one evening and I persuaded a Northern Saw-whet Owl to respond to my tooting. I called the family to come hear the owl, hoping it might even come in. And it worked. The owl flew right towards us but stopped short when it realized we weren't fellow saw-whets, momentarily fluttering a few feet from us. It then high-tailed it back to the spruce it started from, probably because of the shriek the wife let out when it nearly landed on her. That seemed to have scarred Reina's psyche on owls: she hasn't been interested in going outside after dark since. Until now.

Northern Saw-whet OwlIt was a pint-sized cutie like this that put Reina off owls. For a while, anyway.

The post-dinner evening of January 11th had clear skies, Venus shone brightly in the west. The full "Owl Moon," aka the Old Moon (Algonquin), Wolf Moon (English Medieval), or Ice Moon (neo-Pagan), rose in the east, illuminating the snowy backyard. We bundled up and headed out back to stand in the center of the frozen over pond where I tooted for a saw-whet. After a few minutes we got a rather surprising response. Not from a saw-whet, but a Barred Owl.

If you've listened to a standard recording of a Barred Owls you know their classic, "Who cooks for you?" routine. If you've listened to Barred Owls in the wild you probably know their raucous back-and-forth hooting. This was neither. The latter part of what we heard was familiar raucacity, but "hoot" doesn't come close to describing the first part. Shriek, scream, those are close.

It started with a fairly high pitch and rose higher, a shrill call from the direction of our spruce grove, then rapidly descended. Overall, it sounded like a classic wolf whistle, except ear-piercing and we weren't anywhere near a construction site. The wife wondered if a neighbor was making fun of us, specifically me, for standing outside in near zero degree (F) temperatures calling owls, when the sound devolved into the typical Barred Owl caterwauling.

Barred Owl, from WikipediaLoud, raucous, and beautiful. Image courtesy Wikipedia.
To hear typical Barred Owl vocalizations visit All About Birds.

So, not the species we were trying for, but any owl during an Owl Moon is a welcome owl. I haven't yet figured out that shriek. There's nothing that explains it in the Barred Owl account on the BNA Online, though there is a similar-sounding, but not really close, Barred Owl recording on the "Voices of North American Owls" CD. It's listed as a "female solicitation" call. According to my source (Gerrit Vyn, the guy who actually recorded that track) the call could also be used as a contact call between a male and female.

But Gerrit also suggested it may have been a saw-whet as they do perform a wide variety of odd "whine" calls during the winter months. This didn't really fit, though, compared to their whine calls we've heard around our hill as well as on the aforementioned CD. And how could a Barred Owl immediately join in, unless it was right on top of the saw whet, a scenario that probably wouldn't end well for the smaller owl.

Comments appreciated, especially if you've encountered unexpected and never-before experienced sounds like this.

And for Reina it all ended happily: we're planning a trip to Amherst Island, Ontario in early February to see more owls!



Christopher said...

Excellent post - I love that your daughter wanted to go owling on the night of the Owl Moon - and that you got one!

mon@rch said...

I could never get enough Saw-whets!

deejbrown said...

We were fortunate to witness the mating of a pair of Great-horned Owls 12 years ago in our back yard. I will never forget it. It sounded like the screaming undead, and I stayed up almost all the night, grateful to be hearing it.

noflickster said...

- Christopher - Thanks! I admit, I went out with very little hope of really encountering anything, especially a fairly frightening shriek followed by loud hooting. Happily, it didn't seem to bother her; she was excited to see pictures of Barred Owls afterwards. BTW, I've been loving the "Superbowl" posts from you and your teammates. Sounds like a great experience!

- mon@rch - I'm not one to pick favorites, but if I had to saw-whets would likely come out as my favorite owl. Each fall/winter I'm ecstatic when they return to our "Owl Woods."

- deejbrown - How cool! How very, very cool! While I'm satisfied to hear them and leave them alone, I suspect Reina will want to bring a flashlight and see them, like the characters in the book. I'm hoping a trip to Amherst Island, where you can see the birds in daylight, will keep her happy.

Thanks for dropping by!

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