Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Owling With a Marsupial at Cooper's Run

Cooper's Run in Nicholas County, Kentucky
Cooper's Run

I did some owling in the woods surrounding my brother's cabin in Nicholas County, Kentucky this past summer after he, his wife, Karen, and I enjoyed a delicious "meal from the grill" on the deck of their cabin. I'll get to the owling momentarily, but I want to share a little bit about my brother, James, one of my eleven siblings.  James has never met a repair or improvement project he couldn't handle. I remember once when he came to visit my family in Utah and he found out that the water shut-off valve in our home was leaking a little. He encouraged us to make a trip to the local hardware store and before I knew it he was showing me how to fix the problem. He often leaves people's homes in a safer condition than he found them after he visits. Consequently, he did most of the work to develop his property and construct his cabin. He told me that he hired a local Amish group to do the framing of the cabin, but he has slowly done the balance of the work himself. I enjoyed hearing how he operated  heavy equipment to clear a road back to where he wanted to locate his cabin and to clear ATV trails to make it easier to get around his 100-plus acres. He used the same equipment to dig very long trenches to get utilities from the junctions near the main road back to his secluded cabin.  James and Karen are devoted marathoners so they nicknamed their property Cooper's Run. 

A thick, deciduous woodland surrounds Cooper's Run and blankets small undulating hills throughout the property. Shallow creeks form and meander along the base of some hills and a few small ponds are home to croaking bullfrogs. During a brief walk along the creek beds I flipped a few rocks to discover salamanders. I asked James if he'd ever heard owls and he said that he had during the evenings he spent constructing his cabin. I then asked him if he wanted to see how I call and observe owls and he said that he did. The habitat was great for several species so I became hopeful that I could facilitate a unique encounter with at least one owl for him and Karen during my short visit to their place.

Dinner and an Owl (or Two) and a Marsupial for Good Measure

The sun was setting as we finished our delicious evening meal so I readied my owling gear. I had some headlamps to aid us during our walk into the pitch-black heart of screech-owl habitat, a flashlight for illuminating owls once I was able to hear and pinpoint their location through triangulation, and a camera in case we wanted to document the encounter. We took a short walk from the cabin down one of the ATV trails and into the woods. As we were walking down the trail, bushwhacking our way through freshly-spun spider webs, I noticed the eye shine of a lumbering mammal. My first impression was that it was probably a raccoon, which I commonly run across in Utah. As we got closer, however, it became clear that we were coming face to face with an opossum, North America's only marsupial, or pouched mammal. I put my light on the critter and captured a phone image as it calmly stared down the three of us.
Virginia Opossum in Nicholas County, Kentucky

I admit that opossums are not quite as cool as koalas and kangaroos, but at least I can now say that I've been owling with a marsupial. How many others can make such a claim? Actually, that's a rhetorical question. Don't answer. I know there aren't many, if any, people who care to make such a claim.

As I understand, female opossums have thirteen nipples with which to nurse their young inside their pouch. After a mere two-week gestation, nearly a dozen young opossums are born in an embryonic state, about the size of a bumblebee. They then make their way into the pouch and latch on to one of the nipples that will swell inside their mouths to secure and nurse them for a solid two months. During the third month the young  will leave the pouch and ride on the mother's back except for the moments when they return briefly to the pouch to nurse. Nature is crazy, isn't it?

Anyway, after a brief focus on the opossum we redirected our attention to the owling. It didn't take long before we had several screech-owls calling. I was able to get a couple of them in my spotlight for James and Karen to see. One particular individual turned out to be very accommodating so I captured a couple of images.

Eastern Screech-owl Nicholas County, Kentucky

Eastern Screech-owl Nicholas County, Kentucky
As we were enjoying our close encounter with our new-found nocturnal friend I recognized the distant "who, who, who cooks for you" call of a Barred Owl. I brought that call to the attention of James and Karen before suggesting we make our way toward the owl's location. I could tell that the the call was originating from a location close to the cabin so we carefully made our way back in that direction. A moment later a second Barred Owl began calling. I tried for a few minutes to get us closer to them in hopes of seeing them, but it wasn't meant to be with the time we had. It was getting late and I was due to check in with my wife back in Utah so we headed back to the cabin and packed away our gear. As luck would have it the owls began calling right outside the cabin as we were leaving. But it was okay. The discoveries of the evening promised much more to discover and enjoy during future visits to Cooper's Run.