Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Owls I Have Known

One evening, I came outside to look at the night sky and an eastern screech owl was sitting on my fence post. We looked at each other. It was close enough to touch. Perhaps it realized that because it turned and flew off in that incredibly silent way owls have, thanks to the construction of its wing feathers.

That was serendipity. More typical was the other night when I was part of a group of people shivering in the dark, hoping our guide would be able to fool an eastern screech owl into calling for us as the temperature started on its long march below freezing.

As we stood in the snow waiting, I noticed the moon was nearly full and when wind blew aside the clouds I could see the constellations Gemini, Orion and Perseus. There is no Owl constellation and, ultimately, we heard no owls on this prowl.

That's the way it goes. As MH constantly reminds me, the birds aren't waiting for us -- especially when these nocturnal raptors can hide in plain sight in the dark as easily as they can when they roost in the daytime.

But it is not impossible. In fact, on the way to the Owl Prowl a great horned owl flew over the road ahead of us.

Another time, in the middle of an afternoon, walking on a boardwalked trail, a great horned owl flew over my head, landed in a tree long enough for me to identify it and then flew off. And there was the great horned owl duet I heard by chance one predawn morning in January, as the male - in one of my backyard trees - called to its mate some distance away as I was locking the front door to head off to work.

Driving in the Great Swamp one afternoon, I stopped to see what a woman was seeing through her binoculars. It was a barred owl, one of the few owls with dark rather than yellow eyes. It had a rather benign look on its face -- but that is just an illusion, just as it is an illusion to think of some of the smaller, round-headed owls are cute and cuddly.

They are not.

Take this screech owl (below) that MH photographed in Delaware in 2010. We missed it - another couple asked if we had seen it and were kind enough to lead us to it.

Eastern Screech Owl (RE Berg-Andersson)
This 8-inch owl, which looks like a great horned owl that shrunk in the wash, may look like a friendly little guy but like the bigger owls it has asymmetrical ears - those tufts sticking up are feathers, not its ears - the better to hear its next meal scurrying around, even under snow. It has sharp talons for killing and a sharp bill. Like all owls it will eat its meal whole, later regurgitating a hard pellet containing all the bones and other parts it can't digest.

Also like other owls the screech owl is not only good at not being seen at night, it is very good at hiding in plain sight in daylight. As you can see with this owl, it is in a cavity, poking its head out. Other owls hide themselves to roost by standing close to the trunk of a tall evergreen, or even a small, thickly foliaged shrub (if it is one of the smaller owls, such as the saw-whet owl). I was once in the Great Swamp, in an area where someone told me he'd seen a barred owl. I stood and looked but saw nothing...until it flew out. Its coloring and spotting had blended in with the mottled bark of a spruce.

It was likely right in front of me, having a good laugh...if owls could laugh. They do make other sounds -- whinnying (screech), hooting (great horned), barking (barred), hissing (barn owls) and tooting (saw-whet). In the middle of the night, those sounds can range from strange to downright scary, especially if you can't see the source.

Some owls hunt in daylight. The snowy owl, for instance, has the long summer days of the arctic tundra. But when the winter food supply crashes, this owl of the north will some south to find a meal. Several years ago there were many sightings of snowy owls, a phenomenon known as an irruption. This one below was seen at New Jersey's Island Beach State Park.

Snowy owl (RE Berg-Andersson)

People think snowy owls are cute and cuddly, too. They remember Hedwig, the snowy owl of Harry Potter's at Hogwarts. Gift shops run by New Jersey Audubon and the National Audubon Society will sell you a stuffed snowy. But don't let the round head and body and the big, yellow eyes fool you into doing something stupid. These are raptors, just like the redtail hawks and peregrine falcons. In fact, here is some video of a snowy fighting off a falcon.

Other owls hunt at dawn or at dusk. The first time I ever saw a short-eared owl it flew over our car as we were driving on a road through a marsh at dusk on the way to Cape May. (It was the odd silhouette that helped me identify this bird.)

When I think about it, I have seen and/or heard quite a number of different types of owls, both by day and by night. Sometimes it is better to be lucky than good.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Drilling Down

If you keep your eyes open you can learn something you didn't expect in the darndest of places.

Rain barrels donated by Ocean Spray (Margo D. Beller)
Recently I attended a program on how to build your own rain barrel. I learned that an inch or so of rain off an 800-square-foot roof will drain about 600 gallons of water. Your average rain barrel holds 50 gallons of water. More barrels mean more water saved for your flowers and the lawn instead of using the sprinkler or the hose in the hottest part of summer when there might be water restrictions.

That was good to learn. But what I didn't expect was what I was reminded about changing sexual roles.

Ocean Spray had donated 15 barrels for this program put on by New Jersey Audubon's Scherman Hoffman sanctuary, with a Watershed Ambassador (I learned I live in Region 6) from the Americorp service partnership of federal and private groups. When it came time for the hands-on part of the program, it was fascinating to see who did what.

Mrs.  Cavagrotti drills her rain barrel (Margo D. Beller)

Shop class - using machine tools, carpentry, hands-on stuff like that - wasn't offered to girls back in my day. We had to make do with "home ec," or learning to cook and sew so when we grew up we could efficiently run a household, presumably one with kids.

Looking back, I kinda wish I'd learned carpentry. I've had to pick up knowledge of machine tools along the way via the School of Trial and Error.

Don't ask me to build my own birdhouse. I have no circular saw. But if you need a curtain rod put up, I'll bring over my tool set.

At this program there were couples and single women of different ages.

For one couple the man was the driller and the woman steadied the barrel for the hole that would eventually hold a caulked faucet. But for another couple - who happened to be Ambassador Alexandra Cavagrotti's parents - there was no doubt who was in charge of the drill.

"Have you done one of these before?" I asked Mrs.Cavagrotti (unfortunately, I didn't get her first name). "I've built whole houses," she replied. I can believe it watching her. Her husband held the barrel.

As the noise made the room seem more like a mechanic's garage than a bird sanctuary class room, I noticed a couple of women I'd put in their 40s or early 50s. One grabbed the offered drill. "I don't want to sound sexist but have you ever used one of these before?" I asked. "Yes," she said. "You get such a feeling of satisfaction from using a drill."

I can understand that feeling. No need to call and then wait for a man to do a simple project and then pay him. Once you've used a drill, you realize the power - in more ways than one - in your hands.

But that is a recent attitude, relatively speaking. One older woman waited for Cavagrotti or one of her co-Ambassadors (who speak on the importance of water and conservation at schools and other programs) to come over and drill the hole. However, one younger woman impatiently waited for one of the three drills so she could customize her own barrel.

My drill set, with bits (Margo D. Beller)
At my house, MH is a master of the electric hammer and screwdriver (I prefer the manual type), but wouldn't touch the drill when I wanted to put up curtains, finally, in two south-facing rooms one summer. I'm glad he didn't. After some mistakes the curtains are up and so is a new towel rack. I also used the reverse function to take out some old, stripped screws.

When she was growing up my mother, who became a doctor at a time when that was actively discouraged, didn't use power tools. That was the province of her brother, the engineer. When she married my father she found a man who couldn't screw in a light bulb if his life depended on it. She learned the basics of home repair from his father. Since she was my role model in many things, I took it from there. But I didn't go the final step until MH handed me the drill and said, "This is YOUR project."

So if you want to learn something about rain barrels, check the Rutgers University Cooperative Extension Water Resources Program at

If you want to learn something about yourself and self-esteem, pick up a power drill.

And take some shop classes.