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Friday, August 10, 2012

Who's listening?

Through the fog on the way in to work this morning (10 August 2012), we noticed this bird flying low over the grassland.  Do you recognize it?

 Did you guess Barn Owl (Tyto alba)?  If so, you guessed right!

I'd heard about a few other recent Barn Owl sightings on Bodega Head, so it was nice to see one.  This individual perched on a branch for a little while.  Although distant, the pictures highlight several important features.

Note the dramatic white heart-shaped facial disk with a brown border (or ruff).  Look for the dark eyes and the pale pinkish bill.  Barn Owls have a golden or buffy background coloration, with a variable amount of gray feathering (with black and white markings) on their upperparts.  I liked Julio de la Torre's description from Owls: Their Life and Behavior (1990): "back shows pearl-gray patches stippled with white-rimmed 'eyelets.'"

Owls have an amazing ability to swivel their heads nearly 180 degrees.  Above, the owl has turned its head to the left.  Below, it has spun to the right.  This neck flexibility is thanks to seven extra cervical (neck) vertebrae.

Barn Owls are primarily nocturnal hunters.  They're known for their highly accurate hearing, detecting prey by sound in extremely low light conditions.  Their ear openings are located along the outer edges of the facial disk.  The ears are asymmetric or offset, i.e., one is higher than the other.  This feature allows them to better locate sound sources (e.g., the foot patterings of small mammals!).

For close-up views of Barn Owl feathers and feet, check out this post from January 2012.

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