Mission: To promote the appreciation of wildlife and increase harmony between humanity and nature.

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Saturday, September 7, 2013

Where Owls Share the Woods

Note: Dan Pedersen keeps an eye on the birds of Whidbey Island. His blog, Off the Rails, explores nature and other wide-ranging topics. To subscribe, email him at dogwood@whidbey.com.

This week Larry is bending his blog’s rules to let me guest-write about owls. Union Bay is Larry’s usual turf and it is almost exclusively Barred Owl territory. 

But Larry also has a foot planted in the woods of Whidbey Island, where Barred Owls live alongside the larger and, seemingly, fiercer Great-horned Owls. His getaway place is just a quarter-mile down a gravel lane from my home, a few miles from Langley.
The adult Great-horned Owl looks downright fierce.

I photograph both owls year-round right in the neighborhood. For my 25+ years here the two species have maintained a territorial boundary somewhere between Larry’s house and mine. Great-horned Owls (only) perch in my yard. But a few hundred feet away on Larry’s stretch of road, I see Barred Owls only, and never a Great-horned Owl.

. . . With one caveat. The boundary is creeping closer to my place.

Last year I observed Barred Owls closer than ever, right on the property line.  All the properties on our road are five-acre, parcels, mostly wooded but partly cleared for houses and yards. The owls station themselves on utility wires or trees overlooking the clearings -- roads, gardens, pastures, and other open areas where they can wait, watch and hunt.
This Barred Owl was balanced on the utility wire that runs the length of our road.

This summer I went months without seeing a Great-horned Owl in my favorite owl tree. This is a towering fir right on the forest edge by our garden, facing the morning sun. I think the owls favor it as a place to snooze and sunbathe after a rough night. It overlooks our vegetable patch and orchard, offering an unobstructed glide path to rabbits and rodents.

Even though Great-horned Owls are considered a predatory threat to Barred Owls, I think the Barred Owls are expanding their territory on our road. Somehow in recent decades they extended their range all the way west across the continent from their base in the East. They are now well established in the Pacific Northwest and seem to have carved out a niche in urban areas

This summer I really wondered if my Great-horned Owls were gone for good. But the other day two first-year Great-horned Owls appeared again in our yard. Significantly they appear to be two juveniles just getting started on their own, perhaps looking to establish territories. 
This juvenile Great-horned Owl was just learning to hunt. It was sitting on our blueberry enclosure, six feet off the ground, screaming for mom and dad to bring a meal.

One had a damaged right eye that didn’t open fully. I’ll recognize this individual for sure the next time it rotates into our yard.
Note the wispy ear-tufts on this first-year, juvenile Great Horned Owl.

My Whidbey birding friend, Craig Johnson, identified the two owls as first-year siblings based on their rather wispy ear tufts.  
This juvenile Great-horned Owl has very small ear-tufts and its body is soft and round.

These ear tufts are the “horns” that make adult Great-horned Owls look so fierce. Once you’ve seen a severe-looking Great-horned Owl, you won’t ever confuse it with a round-headed Barred Owl.
The adult Great-horned Owl has very large, well-defined ear tufts. 

Both species are well-adapted to this setting. They hunt rabbits, squirrels, small rodents, other birds, reptiles, amphibians and even insects.
This Barred Owl has such excellent natural camouflage I would have missed it in the Alder foliage if other birds hadn’t been mobbing it.

Both are a joy. I find them easily by listening for the frantic screeching of robins, Steller’s Jays, crows and other birds furious at raptors encroaching near their nesting areas.  I follow the angry racket and look for the smaller birds hopping from branch-to-branch, and swooping short distances. Almost always, the owl will be sitting on a short branch about 30 feet up, next to the tree trunk, at the center of it all.

Happy owling to you.

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A huge, Thank You, to Dan for this piece, the photography and for inspiring me to try blogging!


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Meet Dan Pederson:

When did you first start writing about nature?
Ten years ago. A friend opened my eyes to the phenomenal wildlife activity in his slightly wild suburban yard. He had left an old snag standing, and a patch of brush, and planted some wild berries. No lawn chemicals. We were lamenting that so many people seem driven to achieve the opposite - to eradicate all traces of nature from their homes. Yet nature is the great healing force in our lives, the one thing we all crave and seek for reflection and recreation. I hope to inspire more people to include a patch of wild habitat in their yards. 

Nature became a much bigger part of my life after I stopped commuting to a job in the city. That's when I finally had time to observe what was happening in the woods around me, where I live. Owls were among the first birds to really catch my attention, with their eerie conversations in the predawn. I realized I had overlooked a whole community of wild creatures living right beside me, that were were endlessly fascinating.

I've contributed articles to the island newspapers and written a couple books and some shoreline interpretive signage. These days I write mostly for my blog, Off the Rails, 
An earlier blog, Wild Whidbey, was exclusively about nature:

What are the names of the nature books you have written? 
With Sarah Schmidt, I co-authored Getting to the Water's Edge on Whidbey and Camano Islands. This is a guide to shoreline access that includes trail maps, photography and interpretive essays. It is available from the Island County WSU Extension website,
On my own, I published Whidbey Island's Special Places. It's not a large book but is built around a great deal of photography and interviews with 10 locals who are passionate about island life. The idea was to help readers experience Whidbey through the eyes of guides who really know it. The island is remarkably diverse and the book conveys that. It is available in island shops and directly from my website, http://www.whidbeywriter.com.

When and how did you get interested in bird photography?
I met the guru of Whidbey Island birding, Craig Johnson. He's such a creative genius, gets so excited, knows so much and is such a talented photographer and watercolor artist that his enthusiasm sucked me in. He and his wife, Joy, publish books and CDs, give talks and invest all their energy as a labor of love in promoting birds and habitat. 

What is your favorite birding site on Whidbey Island?
Crockett Lake and Keystone Spit, near Coupeville. It's a great spot for raptors and marine birds, and many migrating species.


  1. Thanks, guys, for your owlish efforts! It is fascinating to know more about the habits and range of the two species (the owls, I mean, not you guys!)

    1. You are welcome! You know I just noticed that we did not mention one of the most obvious differences between the two species. If you like a challenge review the photos quickly and see if you notice another very obvious difference.

      I will give you a hint the difference isn't black and white, but at least in the photos it does appear to be black and yellow.

  2. The seemingly peaceful coexistence of the two owl species is wonderful. The balance is probably easily altered by any changes in the ecosystem, especially human-caused disturbances. Something to keep your eyes on! Thank you for watching them so respectfully, Dan.

  3. Thank you, Valerie and Ramona. Yes, the birds in our region do have to cope with human presence and impacts on their habitat. We like to think of photography as a low-impact activity, but it isn't if we approach clumsily and stress the birds by interrupting their resting, foraging or nesting. Those of us who really love the birds try hard to be careful of that. Happily, in some cases human impact on the habitat can be a bit of a good thing. Yesterday afternoon a Pileated Woodpecker was feasting on our Gravenstein apples. I'm so glad we planted that tree! I got my pictures and got out of there, and the bird never looked up.

  4. The difference must be the eyes. What wonderful eyes owls have! The Barred Owl's eyes don't have the yellow around the pupil as does the Great Horned Owl's eyes. Is that the difference?