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Sunday, January 22, 2012

Death of a Nemesis

The Nemesis Bird is a bird that, for whatever reason, you haven’t seen despite repeated efforts, to the point where it’s almost an embarrassing miss on your life list. There are actually two kinds of such nemeses: there’s the bird that you go out to find, in the right habitat, at the right time of year, and you just can’t seem to kick up. Then there’s the more infuriating type, a bird that you’ve been close to, and you know this because you can hear it in the trees just across the road, or the reeds on the other side of the marsh; yet it doesn’t present itself. This is the latter. Or, should I say, it was the latter.

I’m not saying I hear Eastern Screech-Owls all that often; in fact I can count the number of heard screeches on one hand. There’s the first one, the one I heard calling its tremelo deep in the woods near Jordan Lake one October. Then there’s the bird I heard at Lake Mattamuskeet, and another at Falls Lake (an unintentional pattern; perhaps birders just frequent lakes). Finally, just this past December, James and I heard one calling, yet again near Lake Mattamuskeet. I know owls aren’t easy, but after four times I should have seen one already, right?! That’s when I got the text from Mark. He’d seen one the previous day, roosting in an old knot on the same snag he’d had one last year, and it should be back this morning. I was out the door before the reply text finished sending.

The owl was being seen on private property in Fearrington Village, a subdivision outside of Pittsboro. As a kid, I’d head out there to check out their famous Belties, an ice-cream sandwich breed of cow – chocolate black on both ends, vanilla white in the middle. But today, we whipped past the cow pastures, even ignoring large flocks of blackbirds, Blue Jays, and robins. We had a mission. Pulling into the drive, Mark looked behind him – “It’s here!” he exclaimed, and he pulled a three-point turn so the bird would be on my side of the car. Sure enough, as we inched forward to the forked snag missing patches of bark, I could see a small owl that would have been totally invisible to me if I hadn’t been told exactly where to look.

Check out that look on his face:
"Hey, can a guy not sleep off his hangover in peace?! I mean, DAMN!"

Most east-coast screech-owls look a gaudy shade of rusty red, and are relatively easy to pick out in dead trees. I’m told it doesn’t matter to the owls because most birds are incapable of seeing color, and so the screech-owls appear perfectly camouflaged. This bird, however, was the far more uncommon gray-morph, and its camouflage is uncanny, even to my color-enabled eyes – the bird seems to melt right into the tree, its breast pattern identical to bark covered with a little lichen. That didn’t stop the Eastern Screech-Owl from having a backup plan, and as soon as we looked away for a second the bird dove deep into its chosen hole, never to be seen again.

We went back by his little snag later in the day, but he preferred to stay hidden. Not that it mattered, I had my bird and one more nemesis became nothing but a tick on my life list. I remember when I was still looking for my lifer Eastern Screech-Owl, I found myself longing for a red-morph bird. But man, after having had this amazing experience, how could I possibly complain?


  1. Another entertaining post! (But nothing beats your Dovekie story.) I have heard (not seen) Eastern Screech Owls twice (in 2010) in my neighborhood; one in the conifers next to the playground of Old Lead Mine Elementary (Old Lead Mine Road in Raleigh), and another one about a block away (Pleasant Ridge and Upperlake Drive). This is a suburban area, with 1/3-acre lots and a smattering of trees. Did not hear the owls in 2011. I will try to get out more often at night in 2012 to listen for these elusive birds. Maybe we should install some screech-owl nest-boxes to encourage them? (I put a couple of these up in my yard, but I neglected to protect the holes with metal, and squirrels carved a large opening and took them over.) - Erla Beegle

  2. Screech Owl Anecdote: WAY back in college (ESF in Syracuse, NY), my roommate received a fishing pole on the night of her birthday. She rushed outside our rental home (near campus, crowded suburban area) and started fly-fishing in the driveway in the darkness. Moments later she came in, without the pole, and said "An owl grabbed my lure!" I followed her out (waiting for the "Made you look!" punchline). I saw the silhouette of a Screech Owl, sitting there on the driveway, clutching the lure. Luckily, no hook had been set yet. The bird took off with his prize, but the fishing-line confused him, and he landed on the gutter. Finally, he gave up his odd prize and flew off empty-taloned, for even a very determined Screech Owl is not strong enough to carry off a lure AND a fishing pole! -Erla Beegle

  3. Erla - Wow, that screech-owl story beats mine by a mile! That would've been a heck of a way to get a lifer! I know Mark's seen Screeches in his owl boxes, but he also gets flying squirrels in them - either one would be worth it in my book.