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In the woods, a lot can happen in an hour

Following another long day at work this past week, staying late and leaving the office for home as the autumn sun began its rapid descent to the western horizon, I didn't think I'd have time to slip out to the woods for a last-hour ruffed grouse hunt on one of my favorite trails.

Once home, I still didn't think it was worth hustling through a change of clothes and a race to the woods, in fact the couch looked mighty enticing. Besides, the Minnesota Twins were on television and they could clinch a playoff berth on that night. But a glance out the window at the view of the western skyline through colored leaves of birch, aspen, and oak changed my mind. Yes, I had the time — and the energy.

Indeed, my little excursion into the wild reminded me of just how much is going on in the woods and just how much can happen in just one hour's time.

In that one hour I smelled the scent of fall foliage and was awestruck by the brilliant colors of autumn vegetation everywhere I stepped, and around every bend on the trail. I heard two ruffed grouse drumming and I flushed another, but didn't pull the trigger. I walked up on a black bear that stood broadside on the trail not even 30 yards from me. When the bear saw me, it ran away like all good bears should.

I observed small but separate groups of white-throated sparrows and black-capped chickadees in the underbrush here and there along the trail; I heard flocks of Canada geese flying overhead; and I saw the giant tracks of the buck deer that I know frequents the area, for I saw him only a few weeks ago — big, blocky body with a high and wide set of antlers gracing his head. And though I was tired, it certainly crossed my mind that I would've missed all this — and more — if I had plopped down on my couch instead.

Another awesome experience occurred on a favorite aspen ridge. Two barred owls, busily talking to each other, were nearby and so I stopped to imitate the familiar barred owl "who-cooks-for you" hoot. Soon after, both birds flew to trees closer to me at a location where I could actually see them. As the three of us "hoot-hoot-hooted" at each other, two more barred owls joined the raucous gathering. And from there the four owls pretty much took over as I stood silently below them enjoying their caterwauling and hoo-aw vocalizations. It was spectacular.

Most owls are nocturnal and all are birds of prey. Some, like short-eared owls, are daytime and twilight hunters. But for most species, dusk and night is the time for a shift-change at the raptor time clock. Replacing eagles, hawks, and falcons as top avian predators of the daylight hours, owls are true masters of darkness and come equipped with adaptations unmatched in predatory birds.

Owls are perhaps one of the most unique and specialized birds I know of. Like most owls, barred owls hunt during the twilight and night hours. And like all other owls, their vision is extraordinarily acute. On exceptionally dark nights an owl's pupils are at their largest, which in turn allows the maximum amount of light to enter into their eyes. Special light sensitive cells contribute to an owl's amazing ability to see in the dark.

But unlike other animals, owls' eyes are immobile. Owls cannot move their eyes. However, they can move their heads nearly completely around, about 270 degrees. This is possible because of an owl's long neck and high number of vertebra. For comparison, we have just seven to the owl's fourteen.

While owls certainly rely on vision to locate prey, sensitive hearing and pronounced facial disks help to pinpoint prey location and to reflect sounds of scurrying animals many dozens of feet away, too. As well, soft feathers provide silent flight for capturing prey undetected, while long and sharp talons on each foot serve as deadly weapons to hold prey securely once caught.

Twelve species of owls occur in Minnesota: great horned, long-eared, short-eared, barred, burrowing, great gray, northern hawk, eastern screech, northern saw-whet, boreal, snowy, and barn owl.

Some species, like great gray, northern hawk, and snowy owls, occur more frequently during some years than at other times. Others, like barn and burrowing owls, have a limited range in Minnesota.

Minnesota owls hunt prey from as small as insects and frogs to as large as rabbits and skunks. Small prey, such as mice and voles, are swallowed whole, bones and all. Larger prey is consumed in chunks that are torn from the carcass by using their hooked beaks. And since an owl's digestive system cannot process bones and fur, these parts are regurgitated in scat-like pellet form that can often be found beneath favorite roosting sites and nest trees. These owl pellets provides the interested observer an opportunity to learn what the bird was feeding on and where it may live.

And so it is, that these birds of prey — owls — alighting on tree limbs surveying dark shadows on the forest floor for prey, along with all the other creatures and sights and sounds in an autumn woodland on the last hour of light would've all been missed, if not for the tug of Mother Nature as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

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