A SINHG member shared with us this wonderful photograph of a Barred Owl (Strix varia) seen perched in a backyard palm tree on the island during a recent spring afternoon, an unusual time for these normally nocturnal birds to appear. It remained there calmly observing its surroundings for several minutes, then silently swooped away, perhaps to hunt for mice, voles or insects to feed to a nearby nest of hatchlings.
We may tend to think of our island in terms of the abundant shore and pelagic birds with which we're seasonally blessed, but owls are permanent residents of our swamps and maritime forest habitats. We share the neighborhood with three other species in addition to the Barred Owl - Barn Owls, Eastern Screech Owls and Great Horned Owls. During the winter, we may also be visited by migrating Northern Saw-whets, Short-Eared and Long-Eared Owls. They're all a rare sighting for birders, not only because of being active mostly at night but because of their preferred roosting spots high in the tree canopy, often concealed in holes or nests abandoned by other animals or in the cratered snags of dead trees or, in the case of Barn Owls, in derelict structures.
Camouflage, too, keeps them hidden from all but the most determined eyes, particularly the diminutive Eastern Screech Owl with a mottled plumage that blends perfectly with the bark of trees. Their vocalizations, like the Barred Owl's that sounds to human ears like "who cooks for you?", are often the only clues to their presence.
Once thought to be mostly solitary hunters, researchers have only recently become aware of how social these birds can be, forming longterm mating pairs that share hunting and feeding duties for chicks and communicating with one another through a complex language of hoots, grunts, chittering and cooing.
Owls have long been a part of Gullah/Geechee folklore, associated on the one hand with sickness and death as denizens of the night and on the other as a symbol of freedom for the enslaved, who believed that owls, with their powerful and silent flight, would carry the souls of the deceased back to African homelands. Ancient Egyptians, too, connected owls with the underworld, while Greeks associated them with Athena, the goddess of wisdom. In some South American traditions, they're either bringers of bad luck or harbingers of good fortune. But A.A. Milne's owl in the Hundred Acre Wood was merely a bad speller, naming his home the Wolery.
(If you're interested in learning everything owl, check out Jennifer Ackerman's recently published "What The Owl Knows")