By Bryan Stevens
Tom McNeil, a fellow birder who lives just over the ridge from me in the community of Piney Grove off Simerly Creek Road in Hampton, sent me a Facebook message on May 12.
“Barred owl about 200 yards down the creek from your place,” he wrote. He also posted the time (7:50 a.m.) and made note that he found the owl on the same side of the road as my house.
Unfortunately, I received the message after I’d already left for work in Erwin.
The owl is one I would have liked to have seen. Great horned owls and Eastern screech-owls have long been resident in the woods around my home, but I’ve never seen or heard a barred owl on Simerly Creek Road.
I wrote Tom a message telling him as much and got as a reply, “We have seen one a couple of times at the Fairview turn,” he wrote. “On the wires.”
I’ve always known that the wires over a small field next to the exit to the Fairview community is a great place for broad-winged hawks, but I’d never spotted a barred owl. I’ll have to keep my eyes open.
Although barred owl is missing from my yard list, I have seen plenty of these owls over the years. I saw my first barred owl during a 1997 trip to Black Bayou Refuge, which is a 1,350 acre management area adjacent to Reelfoot Lake in Lake County, Tennessee.
My father and I were driving one of the access road in the management area around 7 a.m. when we came across a barred owl perched on a fencepost that provided the bird an excellent vantage of a canal below. We rolled down the windows and enjoyed a leisurely observation of the owl, which never acknowledged our presence. The vehicle acted as a “blind” that camouflaged us quite effectively. Even when we drove off, the owl continued to scan the canal.
At the time, I thought it strange to find an owl during daylight hours. I eventually learned that the barred owl is not strictly nocturnal. That same trip also yielded observations of yellow-crowned night-herons, which also added to my confusion by being active during the day despite the “night-heron” part of their name. Combined with a visit to Memphis, the visit to Reelfoot Lake produced some fantastic sightings, including dickcissels and my first-ever sighting of a prothonotary warbler.
I would soon learn more about barred owls due to frequent visits to the Low Country of South Carolina. During a visit to Hilton Head, South Carolina, I encountered barred owls in late afternoon producing resonant “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all? calls. These owls resided in a protected area within the remnants of an old rice plantation. I got several good looks at these vocal owls and began to learn that the barred owl is not a “phantom of the night” like many other owls.
Southern forests, particularly wooded swamps, have long been a stronghold for this owl. Closer to home, however, the barred owl is not an uncommon bird among the ridges and hollows of the Southern Appalachians. The mountains of Holston, Roan and Unaka are good places to look for these owls. They are more apt to remain active during the daylight on overcast, cloudy days.
On a trip to Carver’s Gap on Roan Mountain years ago to see a smaller relative of the barred owl known as the Northern saw-whet owl, some friends and I stopped at Twin Springs Recreation Area. The incorrigible Howard Langridge suggested we play a barred owl recording to see if we could add another owl to our tally.
At first, we thought we had failed. No sooner had we ended the recording and stepped back into the car than an irate barred owl whooshed through the darkness and began calling loudly from a hidden perch directly overhead. Howard, who had had extensive experience with these owls, said we were lucky to be back inside the vehicle. We had apparently triggered a territorial response. He said he had experienced some barred owls doing more than whooshing overhead. These owls possess impressive talons that a smart person would rather avoid.
The barred owl was first described by Philadelphia naturalist Benjamin Smith Barton in 1799. That seems a little late considering that Europeans first arrived in the New World in 1492. Of course, for the first couple of centuries, early settlers probably had matters on their minds other than the cataloging of fauna and flora.
The Chattahoochee Nature Center in Roswell, Georgia, list some interested barred owl facts on its website. For instance:
• The barred owl lives an average of eight years in the wild.
• The barred owl has had many different common names including Northern barred owl, swamp owl, striped owl, hoot owl, eight hooter, round-headed owl and Le Chat-huant du Nord (French for “the hooting cat of the north”) and rain owl.
• Barred Owls get their name from the vertical bars on their abdomen and horizontal bars on their chest.
• Barred owls are not finicky eaters. They prey mostly on small mammals, but they are also fond of fish, snakes, frogs and crawfish.
Perhaps it’s their diet that usually means these owls like to make their home near a source of water, whether it’s a creek, swamp, pond, river or lake.
I’ll keep alert for any future visits from a barred owl. In the meantime, my cattail marsh and fish pond continue to attract visitors of the feathered variety. I’ve observed wood ducks on the pond several times in recent weeks. A green heron has also lurked around the edges of the pond. Raptors – red-shouldered hawk and broad-winged hawk – like to perch near the pond, most likely to keep an eye out for frogs, snakes and other potential prey.