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December 7th, 2008 - Close Encounters with the Barred

No, no, nothing to do with Shakespeare, The Bard, although the face of the Barred is more than a little skullish.
Yesterday afternoon I worked at Springbrook for the first time in a long time, and it was bird-banding day. Right after I walked in the door, one of the banders noticed a Barred owl perched in the tree near the feeders, keeping a close eye on the proceedings.
It didn't seem real interested in the smaller birds flitting around; chickadees, juncos and the like, and they didn't seem too bothered by it, except when a hairy woodpecker started pecking a little too close to it's perch, it turned it's head around about 180 degrees and stared down the woodpecker. He gave it a look like, "Woops, heh heh, my bad. I'm outta here!" and flew off with much alacrity.

Siah got some feeder mice out and set the first one the birdfeeder crossbeam about 20 ft. away. Before he could turn around and take three big steps towards the door, the owl swooped down and nailed it. We all snapped our pictures, but this was of course the one day I had not brought my "big" camera and my shutter speed was just not enough. Shoulda panned with it, I kept telling myself.

One of the bird ladies got a great picture of the owl with the mouse clamped in it's beak by the tail after it had flown off into the woods a ways. I congratulated her and gave her a, "That's GREAT... yeah, mutter, mutter..", meanwhile inwardly cursing my own inabilities, geez what a dork, they pay me for this sometimes, ya Big Stoop, yadda, yadda.

Siah then put another mouse out and we all tried again, this time my camera had mysteriously set itself to shutter-priority at some point and was trying to take a ten second exposure. 
One of those days. It was still trying to take a ten second exposure as I was walking back through the door to the nature center, cursing it and realizing why I didn't hear the tell-tale artificial shutter noise. Darrhggg. These cameras are smart, but not idiot proof, evidently. 

By then the crowd had grown sizable, and there were calls for Siah to duplicate his now infamous performance recreating the time he bet the secretary he could put a live mouse on his bare head and have a Boreal owl that had been hanging around the nature center pick it off. This resulted in him losing some hair and a few chunks of skin off of his scalp, but winning $10 for the bet. And gaining some priceless knowledge in the process, I'm sure.
So this time, he attempted to hold a mouse out on a leather chopper. The owl was non-plussed and we guessed pretty full, and wasn't having any of it. Of course this time I was ready and standing out there in a 15 degree snow squall for the duration with my little camera focused on the mitten, freezing my ass and fingers off.

Siah gave it up and left the mouse out on the post. The owl waited for us all to get back inside and after a long, dramatic pause swooped down and grabbed it, swallowing it off in the woods in it's entirety.
I decided it was not my day behind the lens and that I had better go off and get some real naturalist stuff done, like laminating papers and cleaning out the cricket cage.

Later I heard that the owl also dove on a red-backed vole and nailed it right out in front of the feeder window, much to the delight of the crowd, who would probably be right at home at any Roman coliseum lion feeding, French Revolution beheading or angry mob scene at Frankenstein's castle.

The bird-banders finished up their banding and everyone slowly filed out, still talking vociferously about the owl, the topic of the day, with it still perched in the trees watching them and everything within a 358 degree radius.
Later, it grew quiet and everyone had left except me. I would occasionally stop by the window on one of my normal orbits around the nature center to see if it was still there. The owl stayed all afternoon on the same perch, and I decided if it was still there at 3:30 I would go out and see how close I could get for a pic by myself, before it got too dark.

After dealing with stinky crickets, kicking the salamanders out of their water dish so I could change the water, frog-nudging, mouse feeding, seed sweeping and the like, 3:30 rolled around and I grabbed my camera and made sure it was set up just right (not that it made any difference to the Gremlins previously) and stepped out the door with the Barred owl sleepily eyeing me over.
And I mean sleepily. Either I was in my Dr. Doolittle mode or it had an enormous belly full of mouse and vole parts, because it was not threatened by me or my flashing camera in the least
I walked, check that, crept as silently as possible through the crunchy snow, right up to it, taking flash photos the whole time. I'm thinking, "Okay. How close do you go? Those talons look extremely sharp and probably are sharper than they look, and that beak looks rather sharp too..."
But trusting my YEARS of experience judging the demeanor of wild animals, and not thinking about Steve Irwin at all at the time, I walked right up below it's perch until I was almost too close to get a good shot. It was amazing. The owl was opening it's eyes a little bit more but not at all like it had when there where a lot of people and live mice around, so I felt we trusted each other. 
I took a few more pictures, thanked it, and just stood there with a dumb smile on my face for awhile, with deer walking around in the background.

It closed it's eyes and settled into it's perch and I turned and walked back inside.

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