The first rule of Owl Prowl is: You do not talk — about Owl Prowl or anything else — when you enter the owl’s world. Listen, listen, listen, is the advice offered by Rob Stavinga, the avid birder leading the prowl.
We — the lucky few who snapped up the spots for Kawartha Conservation’s first prowl –are gathered in the Ken Reid administration centre on a Saturday evening to learn about owls and hear some pre-prowl tips.
Rob wants us to become a bit owl-like ourselves, though from his introduction, it’s clear we’ll never come up to owl standards. There are 22 of us, including an excited and excitable three-and-a-half year old named Ian, and we have none of the sound-dampening adaptations of owls, so we’re just not going to be completely soundless.
Listening? Sure, we can cup our ears with our hands, but we don’t have asymmetrically-positioned ears, or the facial discs that act like a satellite dish, collecting sound. (It’s reported that some owls can hear a beetle scurrying through grass a hundred feet away, or a squeaking mouse at a distance of half a mile.)
And we can give our eyes some time to adjust to the twilight, but unlike owls we don’t have eyeballs that are 4% of our mass (for me that would be 8 pounds).
Well-briefed and keyed-up, we head outside, with one last caution from Rob: “This will be an exercise in patience and perseverance.”
It’s 7:45 when we re-assemble in the parking lot. Dusk. Almost windless. Perfect conditions, Rob tells us.
He’ll be producing owl calls and hoping owls respond. First, he demonstrates a low-tech version. He collects spit in his mouth and make a burbling sound by breathing through the saliva. It’s somewhat underwhelming. Then he pulls out his iPhone and scrolls to a Cornell University birding app called “Merlin” (brilliant name — Merlin is the wizard who guides King Arthur; a merlin is a small species of falcon).
It’s Merlin we’ll be relying on from here on. Not only can the app help identify 331 Eastern Canadian bird species, for each bird it has recorded calls. For the Eastern Screech-Owl alone there are four different calls. Rob turns up the volume and plays the “Whinny song” (which, honestly, sounds very horse-like) and the “Trill song.”
No response to either.
But it’s spring and there is lots of other life out there. We hear a beating of wings and what Cornell describes as a “characteristic deep, trumpeting ‘oh-OH’ call, with the second syllable emphasized.” We all look up: a pair of Trumpeter Swans are passing low overhead. (Their call, in this instance, is to keep the pair together in flight).
In the field behind the parking-lot are white-tailed deer. And as we set out for our first stop, Rob tells us that as night falls salamanders are moving through the leaf litter, heading for the “ephemeral” ponds formed by snow-melt, where they’ll be breeding.
We stop on the roadway, where one pond is channelled under the road to spill into a second. A good spot for Barred Owls, which exist on a diet of small mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians, and often perch on trees in the area, in particular cedars in the dense grove behind the pond.
Barred Owls are one of the four owl species that have been found at Ken Reid. A pair have been here all winter, so Rob knows for sure they’re around.
For a full minute we just listen, then Rob plays one of the nine Barred Owl calls on his phone. It sounds like “Who cooks for you?” Another minute of silence as we await a response. Three times our call rings out: “Who cooks for you?”
No answering call.
Rob has already explained that it’s important not to stress the owls with too many calls.
Time to move on.
We come to a fork in the road and take it. (Old joke; we reach a fork and bear left). As we approach the crest of the hill there’s a commotion off to our right, above a field with scattered hawthorn, buckthorn, and sumach.
“Woodcocks,” Rob quietly announces. We’ve happened upon a spring mating ritual that, for Rob, is enough in itself to make the whole evening a resounding success.
American woodcocks (whose nicknames include timberdoodle, Labrador twister, bogsucker and mudsnipe) are plump little buff-black-grey coloured shorebirds with long beaks that equip them to probe for worms.
One website describes the mating ritual this way: “While on the ground, the male repeats a nasal, buzzing call most often represented as peent. After peenting for a minute or so, the male takes off and flies upward until he is 100 to 300 feet in the air. He pauses and hovers in a circle for perhaps half a minute. Then he comes spiraling or zigzagging back down, singing a liquid, warbling pee chuck tee chuck chip chip chip chip.” This may go on for half an hour or longer — even through the night if the moon is bright.
All eyes are cast upwards, but in the fading light even Rob fails to spot the birds. We hear what’s going on but have to imagine the spiraling dives.
Into the Forest
As night falls, we branch off into the woodland trails, uplands with mature stands of white pine, balsam fir, and white spruce. A ribbon of ice sheathed in a slick of meltwater covers the spine of the trail; the margins, covered in mud and leaf litter, are easier walking.
A few of us have flashlights. We’ve been directed to point them downwards.
(For another time, a tip: red cellophane or plastic wrap covering the light helps preserve night vision).
We stop where several trails intersect and once again listen for a minute. Sounds carry: In the distance we can hear the unnatural sounds of vehicles on Highway 35.
As we stand in a dark huddle Rob systematically works his way through the calls. Three tries for the Barred Owl. No answering call.
Then three for the Eastern Screech Owl (smallest of all at 16-25 cm in height, and a feeder on earthworms, insects, and the salamanders that are active at night). No response this time either.
Northern Saw Whet, a lover of dense forests, is next. The call from Rob’s iPhone sounds like the beep of a truck backing up. No response to any of the three attempts. (A parenthetical note: Rob told us back in the Admin Centre that if we actually want to see one, on Pigeon Lake, in the area of the outlet to Nogies Creek, there’s a banding station run by Trent University — the James McLean Oliver Ecological Centre. Mist nets are used to safely capture the birds for banding.)
Last is the Great Horned Owl, largest of the local owls (up to a metre tall and with a wingspan of up to 1.5 m). He’s deliberately kept this owl for last. If he’d started with this one, the smaller owls might have been scared away. (With justification: Great Horned Owls have been known to eat smaller owls).
The Great Horned Owl is reasonably common and has adapted to a number of habitats (even urban areas, where cats are sometimes on the menu). Its call is closest to what we all think of as an owl call (“hoo-h’HOO-hoo-hoo”).
Three tries and no answering call.
We move along the trail a few steps and Rob shines his flashlight upwards to show a white pine tree trunk riddled with cavities left by woodpeckers. Good clue that we’re in the right habitat for Saw Whet and Screech Owls, the two owl species that rely on woodpecker cavities for nesting.
He shines the light up into the white pines that tower above us. Owls are so well camouflaged and stay so still that there is a vanishingly small likelihood of actually spotlighting owls against the tree trunks. All but the Barred Owl have yellow eyes that might help us pick them out, but they spend a lot of time with their eyes closed, completely indistinguishable from the tree bark.
Time to start back to the parking lot. On the way, another attempt at the pond to connect with a Barred Owl, but again without a response.
Back Where We Started
It’s 9:15 pm and we’re in the parking lot for a quick wrap-up. Rob commends us on our observance of owl prowl etiquette. (Special kudos to our fledgling, Ian).
For a birder like Rob it’s been a wonderful evening — woodcock sky-dances, Trumpeter swans, being in the forest at night and immersing himself in the owl’s world. He plans to return to spend Sunday morning to observe the Tundra and Trumpeter swans on Goose Bay, the ducks (nine species altogether) and herons. Until lakes open up to the north of us, they’re here. “It is,” he sighs, “a wonderful time of year to be a birder.”
But he feels the need to apologize to us: two hours and no owls. The apology’s unnecessary, though: Everything that made the evening pleasurable for him made it pleasurable for us, too — maybe more so since it’s all new to most of us.
And, really, why should the owls be instantly at our beck and call? Patience and persistence and at some point we will call and they will answer.