Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Hills are Alive

     I like Lady Gaga without the meat. Individuality and self-expression are important to a performing artist but carried to extremes they become a distraction. Was her notorious meat dress making some kind of statement, stylewise or otherwise? That I don't know, but I did find her Sound of Music
tribute at the Oscars to be classy, her singing talent undeniable. She looked great (although I could do without the tattoos) but she let the performance be about the songs and her voice. The Julie Andrews hug at the end was sweet. Sadly, Andrews lost her singing voice to a botched medical procedure a few years ago. Can you believe it's been fifty years since the movie was made?
     The only problem I had was with the opening line. "The hills are alive with the sound of music" is among the most iconic and memorable lyrics of all time. Gaga delivered it perfectly but what I heard was "The hills are alive with the sound of hooting."
     That's because owls and their haunting calls have been on my mind lately. Their breeding season comes earlier than most birds, so we're treated to their vocalizations from mid to late winter as they stake out territory and look for mates. You could say the hills are alive with the sound of owl music.
     I've resolved to be more mindful of sounds as I experience the natural world. Maybe it's because I only have hearing in one ear, maybe it's how the visual tends to "blind" us to everything else. Sound, as well as sight, can tell us where we are in time and space. Think of the crunch of cold snow under boots, the owls hoot and the sparrows song, spring peepers and the first April thunderstorm. Listen to the music of water - the tinkling light rain makes on a ponds still surface and the palette of streams, from barely audible gurgle to deafening roar. Wind too has its songbook. There's the gentle rustle of leaves in a breeze, the spooky squeak of two limbs rubbing together in the forest canopy and the intimidating howl sometimes heard and felt on mountain summits.
     Back to the "hoo-hoos" among us. Like most things in life, the more you know about owls the more interesting they become. I'm still a book person so I checked the library's offerings and was surprised to find over a dozen volumes dedicated just to owls. Beyond paper there's lot's of other information out there. Here's some suggestions if you want to wise up to owls:

     - North American Owls - Biology and Natural History - 2nd edition by Paul A. Johnsgard
     The standard scientific reference but still readable by the simply curious. Gorgeous paintings and      photos.

     - Owls - A Wild Guide by Cynthia Berger - A fun little book that can be used as field guide and
     reference on everything "owl". All most of us will ever need.

     - The Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in New York State - A big book as attractive as it is

     - The Sibley and Peterson guides are perhaps best known of many general birding books. Also
     there are DVD's and phone apps to identify bird calls.

     - Selected web sites:
     The Cornell Lab of Ornithology
     Southern Adirondack Audubon Society
     Friends of the IBA
     Gordon Ellmer's Photos
     Vermont Institute of Natural Science
     Finally, I talked to real, live very helpful people at Granville's Pember Museum and the Wilton Wildlife Preserve (Saratoga County).

     Here's a few owl tidbits I turned up:

     - What kind of owls do we have in Washington County? Depends on who you ask. The Breeding Bird Atlas documents Eastern Screech, Great Horned and Barred as nesting here. Long-eared and Northern saw-whet are also considered Adirondack Park nesters. Short-eared and snowys are seen in the Fort Edward grasslands in winter but I don't believe the breed here. Barn owls are also a possibility.

Great Horned


     - Not all owls hoot. Barn owls screech while flying. Screech owls voice a trill or tremolo. Saw-whets are mostly silent but sometimes manage a beeping noise. Great Horns are recognized by a series of five or six loud and low hoos. Barreds, our most common owl, are known by their "Who cooks for you" call.
     - Owls, hawks, eagles and falcons are raptors. These are birds of prey that use their strong feet and talons to capture animals. They have exceptional vision and sharp curved beaks.
     - Owls are hunters, not homemakers. They don't build nests but do use ones other birds have abandoned, plus woodpecker holes and other natural cavities as well as appropriately constructed and placed nest boxes.
     - Owls are known for their silent flight. This is achieved with large wings (that don't need to flap as often), soft feathers and a primary feather with a serrated edge that cuts down air turbulence and noise.


Eastern Screech

     - In folklore owls are associated with both wisdom and impending doom. Their faces have an unsettling, human aspect that comes from large forward facing eyes. The eyes don't move in their sockets but long, flexible necks allow an owls head to be swiveled side to side giving it vision in all directions. Cup shaped facial disks contribute to owls excellent hearing as well as their distinctive look. Ear tufts on some owls (Great Horned, Long Earred) are just feathers and have nothing to do with ears or hearing.



     - Owls swallow prey whole, then regurgitate the undigestible parts (bones, fur, feathers) as a pellet. Find these pellets and you're under an owls roosting site.
     - Remember being told "Little children should be seen and not heard"? I didn't listen to that one either. But owlets are schooled to be heard and not seen and they take the lesson to heart. It's a rare
treat to actually see an owl, especially the nocturnal woodland species. The one time I encountered an owl up close in the wild I was being bad. It was at the Denton Preserve, a Nature Conservancy property on Rt. 4 in the Town of Greenwich. I was on a White Creek Field School trip with Jerry Jenkins, Washington County's treasured field botanist. He had just finished inventorying Denton for the Conservancy and he was sharing his finds with a group of us. We had our noses to the ground as he pointed out obscure little lichens, mosses and herbs. Never a good student, my attention wandered and looking up I saw a large owl (a Great Horned?) perched directly overhead. I couldn't keep him to myself and pretty soon nobody was looking at plants, everybody was enraptor. Jerry's a great guy, witty and warm. He let us have our owl moment, said something funny and lured us back to that unusual liverwort he'd come across. I've been back to Denton many times since and (there's a little guilt here) I always remember that owl. The liverwort, not so much.

Close Encounters

     You see a rangy group quietly slipping into the woods on a late winter evening. You respond by:

     1. Calling Homeland Security.
     2. Asking them what crystal meth is bringing on the street these days.
     3. Joining the owl prowl.

     You're so smart. There are a lot of owl walks this time of year. I've seen outings sponsored by Merck Forest, the Pember Museum, the Wilton Wildlife Preserve, Saratoga Spa Park and the Friends of the IBA recently. The Lake George Land Conservancy  has an event Saturday evening, March 28 in Putnam. This is also Winter Raptor Fest weekend at Gallup Ridge Farm, Fort Edward where you can see owls on the arms of their handlers. Another good option for intimate views of owls is the Vermont Institute of Natural Science in Quechee, Vermont. And then there's the Owl Kill Stream which flows out of Lake Lauderdale, down thru Cambridge and into the Hoosic River near Eagle Bridge. Even if you don't see birds you'll enjoy some beautiful Washington County scenery.

Owl Kill

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