Thursday, April 9, 2015

From the Archives: A Barred Owl from Muir Woods National Monument

I may have picked up the birding hobby in a big way within the last two years or so, but birds have captured my attention for years, even if I was only dimly aware of their names or circumstances. This Barred Owl (Strix varia) was a good example.

I get out to Muir Woods National Monument whenever I can, which isn't often enough. In 2008, we were wandering the trail taking pictures of the Trillium flowers, and enjoying the serene atmosphere when I noticed a small group of people gathering at the edge of the trail. It was soon apparent that they were looking at an owl off in the distance. I immediately thought the rare "Spotted Owl", since I knew how Great Horned Owls looked, and this wasn't one of them. I got these pictures (plus a lot of fuzzy other pictures; the forest was poorly lit for some reason having to do with giant redwoods), and wandered down to the park store to consult a bird book. I realized pretty quickly that the feathers on the back and tail were "barred", and not "spotted", and that it was streaked in front as well. It was a Barred Owl.
I didn't realize it at the time that this was the opening stage of a wildlife drama. The Spotted Owl is a rare and endangered species that has been controversial at times because of its need for old-growth forest habitat for survival. The closure of various regions to logging and other uses has led to court cases over the continued existence of the species.

The Barred Owl, on the other hand is not threatened at all, and indeed has been expanding its habitat. It is primarily a species of the eastern United States, but reforestation and abandonment of farmlands across the midwest has allowed the owl to expand westward and come into direct competition with the Spotted Owls. It tends to win out, being larger and able to survive in a wider range of habitats. The first Barred Owls at Muir Woods appeared there in 2002, and according the Muir Woods Nature Notes, it is the southwesternmost occurrence of the species.
I'll be hoping to catch a glance of a Spotted Owl one of these times, now that I know what to look for...

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