A barred owl rests in a Douglas fir in Graham, Washington, a sight you would not have seen 60 years ago.
In a small, thick, urban forest of mixed Douglas firs, Western red cedar, big tooth maples and shrubs like salmonberry, serviceberry, and blackberry, we watched a barred owl for nearly an hour. We were hopeful that the owl would do something worthy of a photograph, but it was content to just watch us. Occasionally, we could hear a youngster give a tentative food begging call, but the owl didn’t react. It did turn its head to watch a brown creeper work up the trunk of the tree it was perched on, but mostly it was just content to observe us as we watched it.
This was a great opportunity for us and there was only one thing wrong: either the forest woodland was out of place or the owl was. The barred owl is native to the eastern half of the U.S.—we have seen them in Florida and Texas—but we were on the west coast, just south of Seattle, Washington. What was a barred owl doing here? These owls are not migratory and so it couldn’t be an owl that just wandered off course, and the presence of young clearly indicated that there was more than one in the neighborhood.
As it turns out, barred owls worked their way across the county over the past century, gradually expanding their range. Their route took them across southern Canada, where they were documented in the old growth forests of British Columbia in 1959, and in the forests of Washington and Oregon in the early 1970’s and in California by 1979. North Idaho and western Montana can also claim barred owls and they even reach all the way up to the Yukon Territory and now south as far as San Francisco. It is likely that this owl isn’t done yet, and we might expect further expansion over time.
The barred owl is a handsome round-headed (“earless”) owl with vertical stripes or bars of brown on a white chest and contrasting horizontal bars on the throat. It has the classic facial disks around each dark eye and a yellow beak and feet. It is smaller than the great horned owl, but larger than the famous or infamous spotted owl of the old growth forests of Washington. It is not as aggressive as the great horned owl, but is much more aggressive than the spotted owl.
Barred owls aren’t especially prolific, following the usual owl method of laying no more than three eggs. The female does almost all the egg brooding and the male hunts and feeds her and the young when they hatch. At this rate, they can’t outproduce their kin, so any success of their species comes from other advantages.
One of these advantages is that, much like the great horned owl, the barred owl is a habitat generalist as well as a food generalist. They will eat anything they can catch from rodents and other small mammals to birds, frogs, snakes and insects. In the East, they prefer low-lying swampy areas in thick deciduous woods. They just aren’t that fussy though, and will utilize just about any woodland, and in the West, they use mature conifer forests as well. These two generalist traits make them ideal for expanding their species range.
This might be the full story on the barred owl if it weren’t for its impact on its cousin, the spotted owl. It turns out that the two can’t really co-exist and the loser is always the endangered spotted owl. More on that next time.
Help Idaho Wildlife
When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.
C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles!
See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live.
And tell them that you heard about it from Nature-track.com!
Wildlife License Plates
Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.
No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.
Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.
Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program.
I think it is time we let the Legislature know that Idahoan support wildlife funding and that we would like to see these generic plates come to fruition.
"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson
That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.
Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.
Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.
"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman
"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.
To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version
Copies are also available at:
Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)
Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls
Harriman State Park, Island Park
Museum of Idaho
Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming
Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah
Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho