Who is Making All of that Racket?!… Now THAT is the Question!


Shakespeare the Barred ~ photo by Doug Howe

It was a cold night, around 3 a.m., in the middle of March back in 2009. I was curled up under my blankets, sound asleep, when suddenly a horrible sound, like creepy, maniacal laughter, startled me awake! My heart pounded and I looked around wide-eyed, trying to locate and identify the source of the sound.

“Awgh-awgh-awgh-awgh-oo-WHOO!” called a deep voice from my backyard, followed by a similar answer nearby.

What IS that?!

My brain, still not fully awake, was conjuring up all kinds of images, none of which were even remotely accurate. After a moment, the fog of sleep cleared from my head, and I realized what was actually making all of that racket…

It’s just an owl.

Well, actually two owls courting each other. I breathed a sigh of relief and began to relax. I never actually saw them. It was still too dark and much too chilly (I was nice and toasty warm in my bed) to go looking for them. I lay there listening to them for a while until they finally quieted down… or I drifted back to sleep. I’m not sure which happened first.

“The clamorous owl, that nightly hoots and wonders
At our quaint spirits.”

~ William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream


Shakespeare ~ photo by Doug Howe


Shakespeare ~ photo by Doug Howe
My coworker took these photos of a barred owl that hangs out in his mother’s backyard. He and his family named it “Shakespeare the Barred”. I love the play on words! A very clever name indeed! Named after the legendary bard from the 14th century.

The next day when I got a chance, I hopped on the internet, determined to identify the species of owl that I had heard during the night. It had a deep, boisterous voice. It sounded big, but it didn’t sound like the great horned owls I was more familiar with.

I listened to various audio recordings of owls in the Missouri area until I finally found a recording that sounded like my bird. It was a Barred Owl!

The barred owl, at around 20″ tall and weighing about 1.6 lbs, is Missouri’s 2nd largest owl (the great horned owl being slightly bigger and much more aggressive). It has a wingspan of about 3.5 feet. As is typical with other raptors, the females are larger than the males. It is gray-brown with white barring above, pale with dark horizontal barring on its upper chest and has dark vertical streaking below. The barred owl has big brown eyes (unlike the yellow eyes of most owls) and a yellow bill.

Barred owls are common throughout the eastern United States and usually live in mature coniferous or mixed woods, often near water. They are very vocal, using a series of hoots, screams, barks and what sounds like laughter. Although they are active at night, they may hunt by night or day, but mostly at dusk and dawn. In fact, barred owls are more likely to be heard during the day than other owls. Its trademark call sounds like “Who-cooks-for-you? Who-cooks-for-you-all?”

Late winter to early spring is the start of the breeding season. 3-4 eggs are laid in February or March in abandoned bird or squirrel nests, tree cavities or stumps. The eggs are incubated mainly by the female for 4 weeks. The chicks leave the nest at 4 weeks, but they don’t fledge until 6 weeks, so they climb on and hang out on the branches next to the nest before they’re able to fly. This is called “branching”. After they fledge, young barred owls will typically stay with their parents for about 6 months so they can learn how to hunt. Their diet consists mainly of mice, small mammals, birds, frogs and snakes.

To learn more about the barred owl or hear some calls, visit the National Audubon Society’s Audubon Field Guide. I particularly enjoy the “pair hootin-it-up” sound byte! 🙂

Did you know…

  • Barred owls are sometimes called the Laughing Owl or Hoot Owl.
  • The great horned owl is a predator of the barred owl.
  • Barred owls sometimes wade knee-deep into water to catch fish or crayfish with their feet.

It’s a Bird! It’s a Bug! It’s….um, no really….what IS it?!

hummingbird moth1

A hummingbird with antennae? Not quite.

This member of the sphinx family is a hummingbird clearwing (Hemaris thysbe), otherwise known as the hummingbird moth. So yes, it is an insect. I was really excited to see it. I was sitting in my dining room last Sunday afternoon, looking out the patio door, when I noticed it flying in the back of the yard. I knew instantly that it wasn’t one of my hummingbirds (I’m so used to seeing the birds dart around my yard that I know when it’s not them), and after verifying it with my binoculars, I grabbed the camera and literally ran out the door! I’ve only seen these moths a handful of times and this was the first time I actually photographed one! Sorry for the poor quality. The sun was behind me, making it hard to see what my camera was focused on and the moth didn’t stay in one spot for very long. I had to crop in pretty close on these photos so you could actually see the insect.

hummingbird moth2

The name clearwing comes from the moth’s clear wings. It’s a little hard to tell in the photo, but there’s a section of the wings where there are no scales and it is clear.

Unlike most moths, the hummingbird moth is active during the daylight hours or close to dusk. These moths are a little smaller than a hummingbird and have the same feeding habits as their feathered friends, hovering around flowers just like hummingbirds do. In fact, they are often mistaken for hummingbirds. This imitation often prevents them from being snatched up by insect-loving birds.

hummingbird moth3

This hummingbird moth was drinking nectar from the wild germander growing in my yard. There are four species of sphinx moths in North America and this is the most common one in the Eastern United States. You can usually find them around meadows, forest edges and flower gardens.

How can you attract them?

First of all, quit spraying that insecticide! Apparently, they are particularly fond of viburnum, honeysuckle (please make sure you plant the native varieties!), phlox, beebalm, dogbane and verbena. They also like to feed on hawthorn.

It’s Not Always Bad To Have the “Blues”!

Eastern bluebirds are Missouri's state bird. A female is reaching for a raisin at my feeder while the male waits for his turn.

Eastern bluebirds are Missouri’s state bird. They often visit my raisin feeders during the winter months. A female is reaching for a raisin while the male waits for his turn.

I’ve always been fascinated by bluebirds, ever since my grandpa pointed one out to me when I was a little girl. A lot of people get confused when I mention “bluebird”.

A blue jay. It is larger than the bluebird.

A blue jay. It is larger than the bluebird.

They usually say, “Oh, I don’t like them! They’re mean!”

“Not the bluebird,” I tell them. “You’re thinking about the blue JAY!”

Blue jays are larger birds. They are loud and have a reputation for being bullies at the feeders. They’re not all bad though, and often are the watch dogs when it comes to looking out for predators near the feeders. I must admit, despite their reputation, I actually enjoy those birds. But the bluebirds aren’t like that.

Bluebirds are small members of the thrush family. They’re actually related to the American robin. Their brilliant blue feathers and their gentle demeanor make them a garden favorite, not to mention the excellent insect control you get from hosting these little birds in your yard!

So why do so many people confuse the two?

It could be that they’re just not familiar with the bluebird. First of all, bluebirds don’t typically hang out at feeders. They are mainly insect eaters, although they will eat berries and may take raisins, peanuts or suet from feeders in the winter. Secondly, bluebird numbers were low for a while. That bluebird that I saw as a little girl was one of the last bluebirds that I saw for about twenty years until I saw one flying at a cemetery! With the introduction of aggressive house sparrows and starlings in the late 1800s to early 1900s which competed for nesting sites, loss of habitat due to urbanization, and compounded by some harsh winters in the late 70s and early 80s, bluebird populations were reduced by 90%. Thanks to the introduction of bluebird boxes (nest boxes specifically designed for bluebirds) and increased public awareness, bluebird numbers have slowly been recovering. I myself have been hosting bluebirds in my yard since I put up my first bluebird nest box in 2009.

As I’m writing this, I’m wondering if my resident bluebirds’ current clutch is getting ready to hatch. The male and female have been hanging around the entrance hole all day, often peering inside. This is their second clutch of the year, their first brood having left the nest a few weeks ago. They typically have 2 to 3 broods a year, laying between 4 to 6 eggs per clutch.

Left: A bluebird nest is cup-shaped. Right: Bluebirds lay 4 to 6 eggs per clutch.
A bluebird nest is cup shaped. Bluebirds lay 4 to 6 eggs per clutch.

The male introduces the female to the nest box around late February or early March, calling to her and waving his wings. Once she deems a site suitable, the female will proceed to build a cup shaped nest out of grass. She will build a new nest for each subsequent clutch throughout the season, stacking the nests right on top of the last. With the old nest box, I was able to pull each nest out individually at the end of the season. With my new nest box, however, I have to clean out the old nest right after the fledglings leave the nest, otherwise the new babies will be too close to the entrance hole and easier for predators to get to. Once the eggs are laid, incubation lasts for about two weeks.

Left: Baby bluebirds about 4 days old. Right: The male bluebird stands guard while two of his nestlings peek out of the nest box.
Baby bluebirds about 4 days old. The male bluebird standing guard while two of his nestlings peek out of the nest box.
A young bluebird sitting on a shepherd's hook near my house.

A young bluebird sitting on a shepherd’s hook near my house.

Don't take down those nest boxes! Bluebirds will often use them to roost in during the winter. About 9 bluebirds piled in this one to stay warm.

Don’t take down those nest boxes during the winter! About 9 bluebirds piled in this one to stay warm.

The female may be the one who builds the nest and sits on the eggs, but the male is still a doting father. He will often visit the eggs and “talk” to them, and then he will help feed the babies and keep the nest tidy once the babies have hatched. And after the young bluebirds have left the nest, which is around 15 to 18 days after they hatch, the male can often be seen looking after the youngsters while the female is sitting on the new clutch of eggs about a week later. The previous broods, too, will often help feed their younger siblings and by the end of the summer, I have a large family of bluebirds hanging around the yard!

For more information on how to attract bluebirds, nest box plans, and predator control, visit the North American Bluebird Society‘s website. Also, if you’d like to purchase a bluebird nest box, I highly recommend that you visit the Audubon Workshop. I’ve purchased several nest and roosting boxes from them and have been quite happy with my purchases!

“I just want that peanut!”

Eastern Chipmunk

Eastern Chipmunk

The other day, I glanced out the window and caught a glimpse of the male bluebird dive-bombing something on my patio. I went over to my patio door to investigate. A brown blur of movement caught my eye from behind my planters. I watched as an Eastern Chipmunk crept out from its hiding place to reach a peanut that it dropped, only to dart back under cover as the bluebird dove at it again!

chipmunk1chipmunk3 chipmunk2This small, striped relative of the squirrel has been coming to my patio and near my other feeders for a few years now to snatch up the food that the birds have dropped to the ground. I get a kick out of watching it stuff its little cheeks with seeds and nuts and haul them back up the hill in the back of my yard towards the woods. Somewhere on that hill is a series of underground tunnels that it uses for sleeping, rearing its young and storing its ever-growing cache of food that it saves for when the weather is not so nice. It likes to use the fallen logs like little highways on its treks up and down the hill.

Usually the chipmunk stays on the ground, but occasionally, I’ll see it on one of the feeders, and when it’s done, it’ll slide down the shepherd’s hook like a little firefighter on a pole. It also will occasionally take a dip in my pond to cool off on a hot summer day.

Now don’t feel too sorry for this particular chipmunk because of his encounter with the bluebird. Although chipmunks eat mainly nuts, seeds and berries, they do occasionally eat eggs and small birds. My bluebirds have eggs right now, which was why the male bluebird was attacking the chipmunk. The chipmunk wasn’t near the nest box though, so I wasn’t too concerned.

Other than the occasional nest raiding, chipmunks aren’t much of a nuisance. I enjoy their funny antics and find them to be delightful visitors in my yard!

~ This post is hosted on Nature Notes.
Check out Nature Notes posts by other bloggers on Rambling Woods!

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This Harbinger of Spring… May Not Be What You Think!

I was laying in bed a few weeks ago, trying to fall asleep as the wind drove the rain against the side of my house, when I suddenly heard something. A sound I had been waiting for weeks to hear. I sat up in bed listening, not sure that I actually heard it, when suddenly, I heard it again. The clear, high-pitched “PEEP!” coming from a male treefrog known as the Spring Peeper singing by my pond just outside my window. Despite the cold front that was moving in, I knew that winter had finally lost its grip. How did I know this? Because these little frogs are the harbingers of Spring!

Spring Peepers start singing during the first warm rains of the season.

Spring Peepers start singing during the first warm rains of the season.

Here in Missouri, and in much of the northern part of their range, Spring Peepers are the first frogs to emerge from hibernation, and they start singing during the first warm rains of the season. On warm nights (I’m not a fan of being cold), I like to go out and look for them! I’m sure my neighbors have wondered, on more than one occasion, what the heck I was doing as I hovered by my pond armed with my camera and a headlamp strapped to my forehead! These little guys are hard to spot though and I usually have to stand really still until one of them starts singing again and betrays his location. Even then, I’ve spent many nights hearing them but not being able to find them.

I found this little guy hiding under one of my pond plants.

I found this little guy hiding under one of my pond plants.

Can you see the "X" on his back?

Can you see the “X” on his back?

Just to give you a little perspective as to how big they are.

Just to give you a little perspective as to how big they are.

Spring Peepers prefer shallow pools of water (or in my case, my 4×6-foot prefabricated pond) surrounded by lots of low-growing vegetation so they can hide from any predators. They are small frogs, only 3/4 – 1 1/4 inches, which may surprise you given the loud volume of their calls. As the nights get warmer, their calls get louder, to the point where they can often be deafening. They are different shades of brown, gray or olive and are identified by the dark cross on their back resembling an “X”. This coloring allows them to blend in easily with the dead plant debris leftover from the previous season, making them a challenge to find.

Whether I see them or not, I enjoy listening to these little amphibians. To me, they’re announcing that winter is finally over and warmer days are on the way!

What signs of Spring do you look for each year?