Sleeping (or not) with the Owls
By Judy Jessop, Nature Conservancy Volunteer
It was a mild October night very close to Halloween. The setting was the Royal Fern camping platform on the Roanoke River Paddle Trail. A very full day of paddling and exploring the nooks and crannies of Conaby creek had left us contentedly tired. As an evening of good food and conversation faded with the dying light, our sleeping bags stretched out invitingly. The moon was nearly full, illuminating our camp and casting long shadows in the forest around us. We sat a bit, enjoying the strange wash of light, but did not linger long. Sleep came quickly to all and our rest was undisturbed--until the dramatic entrance of the owls.

Adrift, somewhere in the mist-laden hours before dawn, we all encountered an abrupt plunge into consciousness. Who knows, it could have started with the usual refrain of “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all? If so I certainly slept through that part, however, one just does not sleep through the heated exchange that occurred over our heads. At least three, barred owls were engaged in a frenzied debate. Loud and intense voices with agitated questions and impatient answers moved about ghost-like above us. The silence of the owls’ flight, as they moved about in the trees above the platform, certainly added a spooky disembodied air to the intense monkey-like chatter.

If you have access to the Internet you can get a good sense of what we heard by going to and listening to the wide variety of calls these owls have. This is a wonderful web site to learn all about the courting, nesting and raising of barred owls. The person that maintains the site has photographed and studied the same pair of owls for several years.

Fall is an excellent time to hear owls because the young birds are dispersing--out looking for territories of their own. As a result they are bumping into territories of other owls or perhaps just elbowing at the edges of a territory they have claimed. The resulting vocalizations certainly add a bit of excitement to a night on one of the platforms along the Roanoke River Paddle Trail.

Such remarkable experiences of sleeping among the wild creatures in the night, book-ended by two days of beauty and tranquility on the quiet creeks of the Roanoke, leaves me planning for the time when I can return.

Backyard Briefs
A syndicated weekly column
By Judy Jessop, Nature Conservancy Volunteer
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