Hoots in the Holler

In Bared Trees and Barred Owls I wrote about seeing barred owls on three separate occasions during my November rambles. I first heard one of these owls while camping out on the newly-purchased land with my son and his lady back in 2003. The loud hoots startled we three humans but put the fear of hellfire into our husky-cross, Tundra. That dog would pick a fight with a dog twice her size just for kicks, but a series of eerie hoots in the night and she launched herself into the cab of my pickup and would not come out for the rest of the night.

Sometimes a dog would rather just stay in the truck and read the paper.

If Tundra thought that night noise was scary, it’s nothing compared to the screams and cackles and hoots and screeches these birds make in mating season. It’s as if a troop of monkeys are sounding the alarm in a tropical jungle. Except … it’s February in Cape Breton: Cold and snowy and nary a monkey for miles. I was still living in my yurt when an owl launched into a monkey call right outside one night (and trust me, there was virtually no sound barrier between me and that crazy cackling). Another owl responded from nearby. ‘Eek! I’m in an avian asylum!’ My journal entry for February 8, 2008, reads: ‘9 pm. Owls barking and shrieking and howling like banshees.’

After many years of hearing these owls vocalize I finally saw one while wandering through a mature spruce forest. A large brown and white bird flew by, maneuvering easily through the dense trees. What struck me, then and now, is how this bird, with a 42″ wingspan, flies in absolute silence, not a whisper of air from those large flapping wings. As silent as a stealth fighter and just as deadly to its rodent prey. I followed after the bird and then stopped. ‘Where’d he go?’ I looked up. A barred owl was staring back down at me with enormous brown eyes.

Most sources refer to these owls, like other owl species, as nocturnal, but I’ve seen them hunting during the day. Along with rodents, they hunt birds, amphibians, and even fish. I once saw one perched in a young maple above the pond. The next time I looked he was in the shallow water, flapping his way back to shore. There aren’t any fish in my pond, but he may have spotted a snake or a frog – although I think the prey got away.

In March 2019 I had a much closer encounter with a barred owl. I’ll call him (or her?) Ollie. (Not very original, I know.) I first spotted Ollie in the morning, hanging about in maple trees near the house. Cool. Then he landed on my deck railing, 6′ from the window. Wow! But suddenly his eyes widened, he reared up, exposing his yellow legs, jutted his head forward and hooted. Uh oh. He’d seen his reflection in the window – a rival owl his territory! Alarmed, I opened the casement window slightly, hoping to erase the reflection. But Ollie launched himself at the window, talons first. Whoa! I yelled and covered my eyes. By the time I looked, Ollie was safely back in the maple tree, unharmed, though perhaps a bit muddled.

He stayed on his maple branch, watching and listening with the remarkable patience of predators. The squirrels that are usually tearing around here like furry speed freaks laid low, as did the voles and mice that inhabit the scattered piles of firewood and brush. Eventually a daring red squirrel emerged from a snow tunnel beside a tree and bolted towards the house. Ollie swooped down in swift pursuit. Both disappeared below the deck. I ran downstairs and looked out the basement window. There was Ollie, perched on a discarded canvas. His lunch had vanished into the maze of leftover lumber and other junk stored down there. Ollie stayed on the canvas frame, just outside the window, waiting for lunch to re-emerge.

Squirrel finally made a break for the trees and ran for his life, not in a straight line, but zigging and zagging. Ollie pursued, breaking and swerving, zig for zig and zag for zag. But owl didn’t have quite as much maneuverability as squirrel, and the intended prey zipped into a tree well, escaping into a snow tunnel just ahead of the outstretched talons.

Wanted! Have you seen this escape artist?

I must say, I felt badly for Ollie. It’s a tough life, being a predator. He’d come so close twice, only to fail twice and go hungry. Nature isn’t all flowers and rainbows. In the predator/prey dynamic, someone has to die. Predators who don’t kill will eventually starve to death. I kept spotting Ollie, always on a nearby tree, always on the lookout for lunch. Even when I went to pee, there he was, on another tree just outside the bathroom window. Hmm …

Ollie has lots of maple trees to choose from.

Later, I sat out on my deck and Ollie settled on a nearby maple tree branch, right at eye level. He was so close I could’ve touched him with a ten-foot pole. I kept a wary eye out in case he assumed the attack stance, but he seemed unthreatened by my proximity. He was mostly focused on the ground below us, but occasionally he’d do that owly head-twisty thing and look over at me. For Ollie, that nearby perch was probably just the best place to watch over the last place he’d spotted his elusive lunch. But for me? Sitting on my deck with an owl sitting in a tree just spitting distance away? It felt … almost companionable. Just me and my neighbour hanging out. Just another day in the Holler.

Sue McKay Miller
January 29, 2021

Note: To hear a barred owl, check out https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Barred_Owl/sounds The second ‘song’ in the list is what I typically hear, and the ‘duet’ is a (somewhat mild) sample of mating mayhem. I’ve limited this blog to my own personal observations, so if you want more information about this fascinating owl (or any other bird for that matter) that site is an excellent resource.

Bared Trees and Barred Owls

I picked my way upslope, over rocks and hummocks, past straggly spruce and gnarly hardwoods. Once atop the ridge I looked around and tried to figure out where I was. I’d lived on this land for 16 years, but I’d never set foot on this ridge before. Dense young growth had blocked an old trail, forcing me to detour up this unfamiliar slope. My left eye was still stinging from being slapped – right on the eyeball! – by a springy young spruce tree I’d pushed past to gain the slope. (Note to self: add safety glasses to hiking kit.)

It was mid-November and the brilliant autumn leaf display was over. The treed highland slopes were mostly dull grey with occasional patches of deep conifer green. Not the time of year favoured by most hikers. But what November hiking lacks in the ‘ooh’ colour factor, it makes up for with other charms. To me November is a window of opportunity. If the fall foliage is a brilliant drapery, November is when the curtains are pulled back to reveal hidden forest treasures. A yellow birch growing out of an ancient granite boulder. A secret woodland creek leading up, up, up to a stand of old hemlock. A gnarled beech tree stretching outward and upward for the sun.

This window in time, between leaf fall and snow fall, is ideal for exploring the highlands. A month earlier I couldn’t ‘see the forest for the trees’, so to speak. But now the fall foliage had morphed into a colourful carpet and I could see for miles. Miles and miles, as the song says. I glimpsed the Atlantic Ocean beyond bared branches, far below to my east. To the west and north ranged the Cape Breton Highlands, rifted by narrow river valleys. I’d walked those valleys, visited the waterfall that I could hear roaring as it plunged over the edge of the highland plateau on its way to the sea.

When the deciduous trees drop their leafy veils they reveal their bones, as it were. Along with bark and leaf, a tree can be identified by its branching structure, its dendritic DNA. The white birch on the left is easily distinguished from its neighbouring red maple. You don’t really don’t know a tree until you see it buck-naked in all its bare-limbed glory!

I made my way along the ridge, pausing to look way, way up at towering hemlock, white pine and yellow birch. Old growth forest. Minutes later the ridge ended, sloping away on three sides. I stopped and tried to relate my lofty lookout to those many valley walks. And to fit it all onto the topographic maps I’d been poring over. It’s been 16 years since I worked as a geophysicist and got paid to work with maps, but I still love them. Love that birds-eye view – which is exactly what I needed, standing there and pondering my position. And speaking of birds …

I caught a movement just below me. What was that? Broad brown wings, a large bird flying away downslope, navigating the dense forest with ease and in absolute, deadly silence. A barred owl! Magic.

Bared trees revealed a barred owl.

I watched the owl vanish into the forest below with the sense of wonder I always feel when I’m lucky enough to see one of these beautiful birds. Barred owls are sometimes active during the day, but this was the third time I’d seen one while out exploring – more sightings in 3 weeks than in 16 years of traipsing around these woods. And each in a different area, each flying away down a different hillside. Atheist, rationalist, scientist me had a fleeting thought: Is the barred owl my guardian spirit?

I made a few forays down the slope where the owl had flown, hoping to rediscover an old trail my son found years earlier. But unlike that owl I have to explore on foot. And at 64 I’m more old goat than mountain goat, so it was slow going. Days are exceeding short in November, as our planet hurtles through space towards the winter solstice, and nights are deadly cold. There was a chill in the air as the sun, far to the southwest this late in the year, dropped towards the highlands. There would be many more exploratory hikes, extending well into December (although no more owl sightings, so maybe not my guardian spirit after all?). Those forays enabled me to connect online topographic maps to on-foot real topography. But on that November afternoon, it was time to head home.

The fall foliage display doesn’t end after the leaves fall. It just morphs from flaming drapery to crazy carpet, enjoyed here by my much-missed husky cross, Tundra. Keep your red carpet, Hollywood – we prefer to stroll on a carpet of red maple leaves!

Sue McKay Miller
December 29, 2020