Owling

This is the second bird-related post in a row, but my cousin suggested that we go owling in the wee hours of Saturday and it was too wonderful a morning to not write about.

We drove to a wildlife sanctuary in nearby Belmont at 4:45 am and found that the wind from the stormy night had settled down, the sky was miraculously clear and the conditions seemed good for owling. At 5:00 am, the guide from Mass Audubon walked a few steps toward the forest, cupped his lips with his fingers and uttered his first call of the morning: “Who-who-ah-whoo, who-ah-whooooooooo.”

We waited.

Silence.

Then he did it again. At the third or fourth call, there came a muffled hoot from far away: “Who-who-ah-whoo … who-ah-whoooo.” It was the call of a great horned owl, and the owl prowl had begun! The guide kept up the hooting until we arrived in a meadow of sorts. We looked in the general direction of the responding hoots, but couldn’t locate the owl in the starlight. Presently, it emerged languidly from our right and flew across the meadow into the birches and pines beyond our sight. We stayed shivering in the bitter cold for a long time, the guide punctuating his hoots with sounds of an injured mouse, sometimes using an Ipod to simulate a different hooting pattern. The owl would respond faithfully, but its hoots grew fainter and we abandoned hope and left the meadow to look for screech owls.

The guide made the chirpy shrill sounds of the screech owl but there was no response for a long time. The horned owls kept up their mournful hooting in the distance. It was too dark to see anything in the trees, but the guide conjectured that the horned owls’ presence might be keeping the screech owls away. After a longer walk for about 15 minutes, he simulated the screech owl’s call again. We removed our earplugs and monkey caps and strained hard and sure enough, the echo came from very far away. There was a screech owl about, perhaps more than one, but it would be very difficult to see unless it was very close, given that it is much smaller than the horned owl. The sky was becoming lighter and we were starting to hear the sounds of other birds. At a pond, a thrush flew past and a couple of blood-red cardinals. And all the while, the low hoots of the great horned owl kept reminding us of their presence.

Our dedicated guide was becoming apologetic because we hadn’t seen a single owl perch for any length of time. We were trudging back in the direction of our cars, when a great horned owl flew about three hundred feet from us and perched on a brown branch. Finally, we had our view, or at least I had mine for a few seconds, before the owl flew again. We tracked it to two more perches and most people in the group got a nice long look at it, but it flew away before I could locate it within my binoculars.

We plan on doing this more often, once we have figured out the right kind of attire, and especially the right kind of shoes for these nightly jaunts (now that winter is upon us). One doesn’t normally expect to hear the sounds of the forest in a crowded city of half a million people, so this was a happy surprise. There was a visceral thrill and quiet pleasure when the great horned owl answered for the first time, “Who-who-ah-whoo, who-ah-whoooo.” The whole experience seemed to belong to a wild past in some faraway untamed place.

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6 thoughts on “Owling”

  1. What a fantastic experience! We have lots of hawks, falcons and the occasional bald eagle in the city as well and loads of bats, but I have not seen any owls. It’s so cool that you can go out and do this and even have a guide to help you find them!

  2. This is why I read your blog: I’d never in a million years have known that a sanctuary exists like this in the middle of a city, or what it feels like to be there early in the morning. Good luck locating the ideal (warm, waterproof, sturdy) footwear, and bundle up the rest of you too. I want to hear more about these excursions! xo, BL

  3. Stefanie, Audubon is everywhere, and I know that it is very active in Minnesota. A former roommate and close friend of mine went to graduate school there and he had a lot of fun birding with Audubon members. (I saw your beloved loons a few weeks ago in North-Eastern Massachusetts and immediately thought of Minneapolis).

    BL, Yes, I’m getting there as far as equipping myself for the cold goes. Boots, check. Coat, check. Cap, check. I’m one good jacket away from a winter hike. I certainly hope to have more birding excursions, and you’ll hear about them for sure.

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