Down the trail we went, dogs happily wagging their tails as they bounded down the trail, darting in and out between the pines. Water washed over the trail, a product of the melting snow. It’s a familiar walk for us, as the North Boulder Creek Trail is just up the road from where we live. We’ve taken this trail many a time on a hot summer’s day as well as snowshoeing it in the winter.
I’ve walked the trail so many times, I sort of take it for granted. I know every bend in the trail, anticipating where the old 1960s car wreck is, as well as the old mining shack. There’s that one rock outcropping just before the last little bit of trail descends sharply, and Columbine wildflowers appear in abundance right before the creek.
Every now and then a new tree comes down across the trail, a product of beetle kill and Nederland winds that bring down the dead snags. Just before the creek, we come across a snag that looks like it is close to falling, leaning at a precarious angle, with nary a green needle on it. It just appears to be a rotten, dead tree that will soon be decomposing on the forest floor.
We stop at the tree, and Bryon decides to knock on it. Why? Who knows? But as we gaze upward at the snag, we are surprised by a small face that pops out of one of the holes, large brown eyes peering down upon us.
While we have thought of this tree as just another dead tree in the forest, the Flammulated owl has used the cavities in this tree to make a home, perhaps to hatch its young, perhaps just a temporary home for the summer.
Flammulated owls frequently take up residence in old Ponderosa Pine snags such as this one, often taking over nesting spots vacated by woodpeckers or flickers. The incubation time for their eggs takes about three weeks with their young fledging during the month of July.
Seeing how very small the adult owl is as she peers down on us, I can only imagine how small the owlettes will be. Adult flammulated owls are usually a mere 6 inches in length. Besides their size, what makes them distinct is their very intense brown eyes. Most owls in Colorado have golden eyes.
When we returned to the creek two weeks later, the snag has fallen — a victim of its rotten wood, wind, and its precarious lean. I only hope that the owl was able to vacate in time, or that perhaps it wasn’t nesting with its young.
These owls are a victim of the disappearing old growth forest and people encroaching on their habitat. Unfortunately, as Colorado’s growing population continues to move into the mountains, they take away possible homes for these tiny creatures, often using the snags as firewood. Perhaps for both our sakes, we can mindful of preserving the forest around us so for our mutual benefit.