The Elkhorn Slough’s Silent Night Predators

“You can tell that the second call following the deep ‘hoot’ is a female because she’s finishing off his sentences. And because females always get the last word.” This was what Bruce Elliot, retired Senior Biologist Supervisor for the Department of Fish and Game, told the class as he played a recording of the calls of the great horned owl out of his old battery powered stereo that looked like it came out of an 80’s movie. However, for those of you that need more convincing the call of a male great horned owl is a very deep slow “hoot,” while the call of a female is composed of quick and higher pitched “hoot.” This last weekend I was presented with the very special treat of visiting Elkhorn Slough after hours in order to attend an owl lecture and field trip with Bruce Elliot, the owl expert at the Slough. Through much rationalization and simply toughing it out I was able to get up after my nap and attend his in-class lecture early in the afternoon. Though to be honest, I only went because I figured that I would hate myself if Bruce took a live owl to the class and I missed it. To my disappointment, there was no live owl in the class but Bruce was an expert at making owl calls and with some imagination it was easy to picture myself in the middle of a forest looking directly at an owl with a scope. In fact, he was so good at impressions that he could give Michael Winslow a run for his money.  Surprisingly, not only was Bruce an expert at making owl calls but he was also an expert ornithologist and lecturer. The class consisted of him showing us photographs out of his “classic” photo projector of all the owls that can be seen in California. He must’ve gone through 100 slides but the time quickly passed as he creatively and accurately described the calls of the owls as “excited puppies” and “bouncing rubber balls.” To quickly summarize his lecture in order to identify owls it is necessary to practice “sssh…,” which stands for “size, shape, silhouette, and habitat.” The most important characteristics of owls are their hearing and feet, which develop at a blinding pace since birth.

Feather

The specialized feathers of Barn Owls enable near silent flight for these night predators.

Lastly, I will mention my now favorite owl, the Northern Pygmy Owl, one of the most ferocious hunters. This owl hunts songbirds in a quick, silent, and brutal manner and once it is completely satiated it will get a drowsy look on its face and will start to give its territorial call. Songbirds know that the Northern Pygmy Owl is completely harmless when it is singing its territorial calls so they get close to it and taunt him. Some even dare to approach and almost peck it. The nonchalant territorial calls are just a reminder of how “a lion does not concern himself with the opinions of the sheep.”

Elkhorn Night

Elkhorn Slough at night.

The second part of the owl class was a field trip that consisted of walking the Elkhorn Slough trails during the eerily beautiful night with nothing but the moonlight and stars lighting the area. Though we were determined, and failed, to find a western screech owl we did indeed find a barn owl and a Great Horned Owl. Definitely not a disappointing night.

dangomez04
dangomez@sas.upenn.edu
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