You don’t have to spend much time in a cypress swamp to realize that every inch of the place is overflowing with life. Millions of organisms are whirling along the repetitive course of their little life-cycles – birth, life, death, rebirth rolling on and on in perpetuity. Things both seen and unseen are engaged in a constant fight for survival all around you.
For naturalists and wildlife enthusiasts, there is no more compelling pursuit than to witness and ultimately understand those cycles. Of course some life cycles and their phases are easier to witness than others, and the difficulty varies enormously from one organism to another. The bald cypress tree, for example, which have been known to live well past 1,000 years, has a very long and slow life span. But the bald cypress of Louisiana swamps create groves that provide habitats for a wide range of other lifeforms, most of which are more immediately gratifying for a naturalist to watch than the majestic but relatively still cypress.
One of the most common residents of the cypress swamp is the barred owl, which is incidentally one of my favorites. For bird-watchers it’s one of the most accessible owls in North America. Its range originally was limited to the entire eastern region of the continent, but in the twentieth century they spread into the Pacific Northwest and California as well. In those regions it can be sought out in thick groves of trees in most lowland forests, even in the daytime. In fact the barred owl is well known for it’s unique call regularly heard during daylight hours, a series of syllabic hoots so consistent in its rhythm that bird-watchers have put lyrics to its call. Paddling through the swamp in the afternoon I hear it through the trees: “Who hoots for you? Who hoots for you all?” It’s a haunting sound.
Wild animals have gone through thousands of years of natural selection sharpening their abilities to detect threats while they themselves go undetected. Observing wildlife without being detected yourself requires lots of practice if you’re a human. If you’re just starting out, it may be hard for you to catch certain more skittish animals doing anything but running, hiding, or closely watching you. However, once again, the barred owl provides some accessibility for beginners.
Though they spend much of the daylight hours snoozing in patches of dark shade, in the spring many owls have offspring to feed. During this time of year there is another barred owl call often heard among the cypress; the breathy shriek of young hungry owls. This call is much quieter, and makes the young lighter-colored owls more difficult to spot. Luckily you don’t necessarily have to spot the young themselves. Typically that sound means an adult is hunting nearby, which is much easier to see as it swoops silently from one tree to another seeking food for it’s offspring. The hunting adult rewards the patient naturalist.
The adult will usually take note of a human’s presence, but when its young are hungry it won’t be distracted for long. Watch an owl patiently enough and you’ll eventually see it swoop down to the floor of the swamp and rise back up again clutching a frog, snake, or rodent. The adult will bring its prey to wherever the young are hiding with open beaks and empty bellies. This is one of those great moments for naturalists when one is able to witness animal behavior unrelated to the observer’s presence. The hunt. The feeding of offspring. Of course parents need to eat too, and once the hatchlings are full you might witness an adult owl hurriedly devouring a meal of its own. So the next time you find yourself in the woods keep an ear out for that familiar call, and maybe you’ll catch a glimpse of something truly wild. “Who hoots for you? Who hoots for you all?”
Who indeed Mr. Owl? Who indeed?