Life Can Be A Hoot (1/12/2014)

I had sent this as an email to my high school classmates in 2014. The fact that we have been seeing an extraordinary number of owls this year has inspired me to post it to my blog.

It has warmed up to temperatures around freezing in our part of the world this weekend.  I had just gotten back to Edwards Ferry on the towpath during my run and was considering whether to ditch the camera in the car before continuing on. I was thinking that the cloudy weather would limit the chances of getting good pictures.  I happened upon another photographer hidden in a photographer’s blind trying to take a picture of a yellow bellied sapsucker.  (He was actually trying to attract the bird by using a device sitting on the branch of a tree. The device was playing out the sound that the bird makes.)  This inspired me to continue to carry the camera onward.  Further along on the trail, in the distance, I noticed that a hawk had settled on a branch over the trail.  I pulled my camera with its long lens out of the backpack and started walking towards the bird.  The bird took off as I approached.  The sun broke out from behind the clouds while this was happening, and as I turned my head to the left, in the direction that the hawk had flown off in, the barred owl popped its head out of a hole in the branch of a tree next to the trail and stared at me in an inquiring manner.  The lighting and the distance was perfect.  Since the camera was already in my hand, I managed to pop off a few shots before the bird flew off.

And this is how I got my cheap thrill this morning.  I could not help marveling at the fact that things came together this perfectly for me to have this moment, and it was such a coincidence that this happened not much after I mentioned owls in a previous posting to the group.

Could this be the Year of the Owls

I am not sure what is going on, but, for some reason or the other, we are seeing owls more frequently than ever before on the towpath this year. It had been many years since my last good sighting before we saw the owls last week. And then it happened once again this week. What are the chances!

This time the owl was even closer to us, just next to the trail. We saw it as we were hiking from Dickerson Conservation Center towards Whites Ferry, and then we saw it again, still seated on the same tree, when we were returning. At least, I think it was the same owl. I cannot be sure because there were other owls also present in that neighborhood.

The pictures below are from the first viewing of the owl. It had flown up on to the tree from a fallen branch on the canal bed.If you look carefully, you will notice that the owl’s body was actually facing away from us. You can see the extent to which it was able to turn its head.

These are pictures of the owl taken as we were walking back towards the Dickerson Conservation Center. The owl ended up facing us directly this time. It was making some screeching sounds, and was getting a response from somewhere across the canal.We had reason to believe that their might have been three of the owls hanging around the place. We saw a second one. We guessed the presence of a third one based on the direction from which we were hearing the response to the owl in the picture above.

I hope that the happenings of the last two weekends are an indication of more good things to come as we continue our explorations, both big and small, of the towpath.

The Two Barred Owls

We rarely get a good look at owls on the towpath even though we know that they are around. They are hidden in the trees, and often fly away when they sense our approach. Even if they remain stationary, most of the time they are in a position where you cannot get a clear view of them – either partially hidden behind some branches on a tree, or obscured by the dark foliage. The last time I got a good picture of the barred owl was in 2014.

We came across a pair of barred owls on the towpath last weekend that actually cooperated with us. It is usually very easy to disturb these birds when you pass by. You typically are not aware of their presence until they make a move. But this time, although they had been disturbed, they only moved on to a tree a little further along the trail. I was able to track their flight approximately, and then slowly and quietly walk up to the tree on which they were perched. Fortunately it was close to the trail. What a delightful sight to see – not just one bird, but two of them!

The pictures that I took literally do not present the owls in their best light. The greenery around them has tended to create a greenish tinge for the owls themselves, and I am reluctant to compensate using post-processing. Also, the lighting conditions were not ideal, and my attempt to get a good exposure setting were not the most successful.

Here is a little bit of trivia about owls. Since they cannot move their eyeballs, the only way they can achieve peripheral vision is by turning their heads. A human being can turn its head around only 90° in either direction. An owl can do much better. It can turn its head around 270° in either direction! (This means that if an owl wants to show-off, it can rotate its head 540° from one extreme to the other!) The interesting question to ask it about how the owl achieves this capability. Their vertebrae can manage to support the extreme rotation, and the arteries still function without getting severed. The structure of the neck of an owl happens to be very different from a human’s. There is apparently plenty of spare space within the vertebrae of the owls for the arteries to move in and to be cushioned in. This is not true for humans. Owls also have the ability to pool blood in a reservoir below the head in order to provide a supply when the arteries are twisted. Also, the carotid and vertebral arteries can exchange blood in the worst case when one or the other is blocked. I understand that the features of the owl’s physiology that allows it to move ts head in such a flexible manner are still being studied. Meanwhile, you can find plenty of articles and videos on the subject on the Internet.

Woot a hoot!