Mystery Screams at Sunset – Maybe a Barn Owl

The sun was almost setting by the time we drove into the large protected area of woods and fields around the water treatment plant. While I checked out the pine woods around the plant – and found very few birds at all, only the peeps and chips of small birds settling into cover for the night – Marianne went down into what we call the sparrow fields, a huge expanse of grass and thorny weeds and shrubs that stretches all the way to the river. The sun went down and the sky turned orange. The sweet, whistled song of a White-throated Sparrow rose from the fields, which were full of sparrows – White-throated, Savannah, Song and Swamp Sparrows, and maybe other birds, too hard to see in the dying light; and close to the river, a Common Yellowthroat gave its “clicking marbles” call.

Just after the sun went down, we both heard several loud, screeching screams. They continued, with pauses, for several minutes, and seemed to come from woods across the river. It sounded like a large bird – but when we got back together several minutes later, as darkness fell, neither Marianne nor I could think of what kind of bird it could be. For us, it was a mystery. It was later that night, at the potluck gathering where the lists of all participants in the count were reported and compiled, that another birder suggested it must have been a Barn Owl.

In retrospect – and after listening to recordings – it seems very likely that’s what it was, but we may never know for sure. A few other birders at the meeting were hoping to return to the area and maybe hear the screams again, but I don’t yet know if anyone was able to confirm it.

A Barn Owl is a large, beautiful, rarely-seen bird, ghostly pale underneath, with a white heart-shaped face and black eyes. They are found in many parts of the world, but populations in parts of North America are in decline, and there are concerns for their future because of loss of the open habitat they need, like fields and grasslands.

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