There was a tree stand on the back side of my property in Allegany County that I was going to check out on the ATV. While I was going up the steep trail he flew out from my right but only went a few trees over before landing.
Stopping would have spooked him more so my journey up the trail continued about 40 yards before I turned around and slowly went back down. When I reached that spot again I saw him looking at me. There he sat, about 120 feet away, and I had a clear “shot” at him from the trail. I kicked my own butt as I realized my camera was back at the cabin.
As I stopped to watch him for a few minutes, he didn't seem to be too concerned about me. Eventually he looked the other way, and I made the trip back to the cabin to get my camera.
There had been a pair of them nesting somewhere on the property, I was certain, because I heard them every summer. In fact, one night in the white pine next to the cabin, one was perched and hooting. I slept with the window open, so the familiar “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” call was quite loud and it was a thrill to lay there in bed listening to him call right above me.
Every once in a while, one was flushed out of the pines but I never had a good opportunity to photograph it. I figured this one off the trail would be gone too, by the time I retrieved my camera. However, luck was with me. He was still on the same perch, so I went through the same routine that I had followed the first time. On my way back down the trail, I found a small opening to him and turned off the ATV.
He wasn't very high up in the tree, so I had a nice angle to work with, and he just sat there watching me. After a while, he turned his attention to something in the opposite direction. Knowing he would hear me, my eyes were riveted to him as I slipped off the ATV. He snapped his head toward me and his dark eyes seemed to pierce me as I froze in position.
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The barred owl is the only owl with dark eyes other than the barn owl. He is almost the size of a great horned owl but he has no ear tufts and is a gray brown, puffy-headed woodland bird. The barred pattern across his chest is offset by lengthwise brown streaks on his white belly. His back is brown with white spots.
These owls prefer a mature woodland mix of conifers and hardwoods. They feed on mice, chipmunks and birds. In fact, grouse can be a victim too. I remember that when Drummer Boy, the wild ruffed grouse that befriended me, was around, there was a young barred owl after him. The friendly grouse hid in a tangle of brush by my “little bridge” area and on many occasions I chased away the owl, as I knew he was perching there in hopes of getting a chance to catch my little buddy.
Barred owls like to nest in tree cavities but will use old squirrel nests or hawk nests and will often use the same nest repeatedly while raising usually two to three young a year.
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Eventually the barred owl that I had spotted off the trail relaxed and looked away. I got down on the ground and wiggled forward a bit, until he again snapped his head back in my direction. Each progression was followed by my freezing when he looked my way and then waiting for him to look the other way, so that I could get the camera up and supported by my elbows on the ground. Then, a slight wiggle of my foot would rustle leaves on the ground, causing him to look back at me — and give me a good pose.
We played this game repeatedly, for about a half hour, as my butt and sides got wet from the ground. He started paying less attention to the noises made with my foot and I began to speak to him softly, trying to get him to look my way. I reduced the distance between us to about 25 feet and got some great shots, with time in between to check for sharpness and exposure. After awhile, he flew off a short distance to get a closer look at whatever was getting his attention from the opposite direction, probably a mouse. He had given me some great shots, so I took the opportunity to slip away and leave him to his hunt.
It is always special when you can get close to a wild creature like the barred owl and watch it in its natural state. I wonder what he thought about the “big squirrel” moving around on the ground by him.
Doug Domedion, outdoorsman and nature photographer, resides in Medina. Contact him at (585) 798-4022 or email@example.com .