Hooting and weeping are sounds of spring
By Tom WiesenThis is a fantastic time of year to be out at sunset and to take a quiet stroll in a natural setting, preferably near a stream. Listen closely as night falls for the soft hooting of owls. This week I heard the familiar “Hoo, hoo-doo, wooo-hoo” of the great-horned owl, which is a very large owl with long tufts of feathers atop its ears. Owls have a keen sense of hearing with ears slightly offset with different-sized openings enabling them to pinpoint prey by sound. It’s not hard to imagine in the dark night – a wide-eyed owl perched and turning its head sometimes nearly backwards to locate little squeaks of a mouse or the faint rustling of a foraging rabbit.Some owls are active by day, such as the northern pygmy owl, a tiny but agile owl that hunts songbirds. Pygmy owls appear round when perched, about the size of a tennis ball, only with a tail.
This time of year, the female pygmy owl perches and sings, “po, po, po, po, po, po” – at about the rate of a truck’s back up beeper – to attract a male to her. If you are lucky enough to observe a pygmy owl up close, watch for a dark feather pattern that replicates another set of eyes on the back of its head. Recently, while snowshoeing, I heard the tiny saw-whet owl which sings a similar, but faster song, “poo, poo, poo, poo, poo,” for about 30 seconds. The rhythm is twice as fast as a pygmy owl, about two “poos” per second.Yesterday while driving I saw a red-tailed hawk near Eagle-Vail performing an interesting flight display – tucking its wings tightly to its sides, free falling, then swooping back up.When observing birds, ask yourself, “What are they doing”? Usually they’re doing something practical like hunting, foraging, attracting a mate or building a nest.These swooping rituals are common in hawks and eagles and get the juices flowing between mates. It is a great time of year to witness golden eagles displaying near their nest site, swooping and gliding in a figure-eight pattern while calling to each other.
Even though golden eagles mate for life, the mating ritual cannot be denied. Visit a river this time of year to hear the beautiful, melodic song of the American dipper rising from the water and echoing off of the boulders and riverbanks. Close observation may reveal a dipping display on a rock near water-level, with the flashing of white eyelids as communication between males and females.A bird-watching outing last week revealed the presence of canyon wrens in areas upstream from Burns along the Colorado River Road. Visit the canyon along Catamount Creek to hear the descending musical scale of the canyon wren – “Weep, weep, weep, weep, weep.” Like other wrens, the canyon wren has a thin, slightly down-curved bill and feeds primarily on insects. The canyon wren differs from other wrens in that it has a flattened skull that enables it to insert its head deeply into a crevice between rocks as it forages for insects and spiders on vertical canyon walls.Of course, it is possible to go through life and not notice any of these springtime rituals mentioned. However, even hearing and recognizing the first robin song of the year, or listening to the inspiring, flute-like melody of a Townsend’s solitaire emanating from the tip-top of a juniper, can make us feel a connection to these new beginnings that we call springtime.
Tom and Tanya Wiesen are owners of Trailwise Guides, a year-round Vail Valley guide service specializing in daily private outings for hiking, mountain biking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, birding and wildlife watching tours. Contact Trailwise Guides at 827-5363.Vail, Colorado