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Sounds in the night

   With the days getting shorter, I tend to get up when it's still dark. If I walk outside for the paper or to let the dogs back in, I often hear the owls of Monte Sano calling in the vicinity, usually from McKay Hollow, but from other areas, as well. If you're interested in the owls, there's good news. Monte Sano has only three regular species, and each is distinguished by a characteristic call or set of calls.

   I won't bother you by trying to describe each call in detail. The sounds of these three species are easily available if you go to (the Website of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology). There, you can hear them as many times as you need to. Bear in mind that each owl species is equipped with more than one vocalization, but each bird's various calls often have the same quality, if not precisely the same notes.

   The largest and most ferocious of these owls is the great horned owl. Some people call it the "hoot owl" because of its voice. It will catch and eat almost anything, including, apparently, eastern screech owls when they're available. The great horned's voice is a low series of hooting notes. One evening last fall I had at least four great horneds calling at the same time just a few yards down the slope toward McKay Hollow.

   These woods also have a population of barred owls, named for the barred feather pattern across their breasts. They lack the upright ear tufts of the great horned, and their dark eyes are captivating to study with binoculars. They can sometimes be seen on a roost during the day but rarely on the wing. The barred's call is the easily remembered "Who cooks for you, who cooks for you all." The call can vary but remains easily identifiable.

    The smallest year-round owls locally are the Eastern screech owls. Their calls are often described as a descending neighing, not unlike a horse's vocalizations.

    I also suspect we have visiting saw-whet owls in the winter. They are small, and in their wintering range they are usually silent. The widespread presence of wintering saw-whets in Alabama was documented by the late Bob Sargent.

    Monte Sano's birds reflect the avian richness of the Eastern forests, and they provide a treat for those who take a few minutes to listen in the evening.

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