Screech-owl watching is prime sunset entertainment

Dec 1 2009 - 5:50pm

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Paul Higgins courtesy photo
Western screech owls often escape notice during the day by remaining still, but they become active and leave their roost cavities just after sunset.
Paul Higgins courtesy photo
Western screech owls often escape notice during the day by remaining still, but they become active and leave their roost cavities just after sunset.

A western screech owl peered at me over 20 feet of woodland floor that was choked with fallen logs and blackberry vines. He was nearly invisible in his tree cavity due to his natural camouflage and several gnarled branches intersecting my view.

Screech owls need only to sit still to remain undetected during the day. Their gray and brown plumage with dark streaks blends so well against bark with furrows that humans are often oblivious to owls.

The bird looked unperturbed. The only sign he was aware of me was that his eyelids opened to slits where I could see a slice of yellow irises and black pupils.

But I wasn't there to watch a sleepy-eyed snoozer. Sunset was approaching and I planned to watch the bird's natural behavior as he began the night hunt.

Screech owls leave their roost cavities shortly after official sunset. That means my private episode of Wild Kingdom occurs just after 5 p.m. in early December.

As the shadows around us deepened, the owl became more alert. Small noises in the undergrowth caused him to swivel his head sharply while widening and narrowing his eyes.

Screech owls are perch-and-wait hunters. They hunt from branches just a few feet over the forest floor while listening and watching for the tiniest rustle. Then they may drop onto ill-starred voles and mice moving in the leaf litter.

My bird was ready to emerge. He hopped onto a small branch a couple feet from the cavity entrance. All signs of the day's sleep had vanished. He stretched one wing well past his foot and extended the foot in the same direction as if he were performing a stylish sideways arabesque. And then he launched across the blackberry vines to another log and looked at me fiercely.

The bird pumped his head up and down and side-to-side trying to triangulate my position. Tiny sounds distracted him from me and once, he made a series of bill snaps as if he were gobbling imaginary food. When he launched silently through a curtain of branches, I couldn't pursue him anymore. My ineffectual human night vision was failing in the decreasing light.

While a roost cavity might be a shadowy and concealed place, owls are also sun lovers and can bask in plain view without people noticing them. A couple of agitated house finches drew me to another owl in a roost cavity in a cottonwood snag a couple years ago, and I still watch him. He basks in the sun in the west-facing entrance 25 feet above the ground. Without binoculars, I can look directly at the spot and miss him.

He, however, doesn't miss anything. A spotted towhee rustles in the brush behind me, and the owl turns his riveting gaze on the spot. The sleepy look was only an act.

The owl's timing is as dependable as Old Faithful's. He launches from the cavity 10 to 14 minutes after official sunset and often flies a downward arc to a thicket much lower than his snag.

But he changed his routine one evening last week, perhaps because I was waiting for him in the thicket. The bird launched from the snag like a fat missile on rounded wings and dropped to a small tree on the shore of a pond. He let me approach to within 40 feet.

Just as with the first bird, his head swiveled sharply as he listened to tiny sounds that might become dinner, or more properly, breakfast. He looked like an elfin bowling ball with legs and a short tail. He raised high on his little legs and feet, fluffed his feathers, and shook from top to bottom.

All this occurred while the evening commute still rushed in the distance, the western horizon still glowed orange and Brian Williams was yet to utter the words, "Good evening and welcome to our broadcast". There was just enough light for me to see one more move.

The bird turned to the opposite shore and launched toward a fringe of Russian olives. He bee-lined low over the water, oblivious to the openness which the species usually avoids. There was no need to stay hidden any longer. The night was his.

Kristin Purdy can be reached at gobirding@comcast.net.

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