In Owl Moon, Jane Yolen writes, “If you go owling…You have to be quiet and make your own heat.” Maybe so, but when we set out on Saturday to count the owls in Hatfield, Massachusetts, I wore 7 layers up top and 3 down below.
I’d been on bird counts before. As a national park service ranger at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in N.Y.C. and then on Cumberland Island National Seashore in Georgia, I led many early morning bird walks, moon prowls, beach combing hikes.
But all-nighter for owls…well, this would be interesting. “The night is perfect for owling,” said Heidi Stemple, our intrepid guide and long-time owler. A half-moon hung in the eastern sky like a lamp dimmed. One of the year’s best meteor showers — the Geminids — was peaking. The wind was hushed. It was 27 degrees Fareiheit.
Our band of five hardy owlers headed out at midnight to take part in the 115th Annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count. “The longest running Citizen Science survey in the world, Christmas Bird Count provides critical data on population trends,” so states the Audubon website. We were part of the night shift counting owls from midnight to sunrise. The day birders count what they see and hear from sunrise to dusk. The Audubon site also claims, “ten of thousands of participants know that it is a lot of fun.”
And fun it was. We drove back roads and circled frozen farm fields. We’d park, pile out of the SUV, and line up in front of dark woods…and listen. Heidi played the call of the Eastern screech owl on her iPod hoping to illicit some owly response. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. Heidi said we were most likely to hear one of three species of owls: screech, great horned or barred.
Eastern screech owls range from 6 to nearly 10 inches in length, the size of a pint glass. This small owl comes in two colors: red and gray. You’ll see more rufous owls in the East. Like other birds of prey, they target rats, mice and moles, along with squirrels and rabbits. If it wasn’t for hawks and owls, we’d be up to here in rodents.
Great horned owls are the big boys and girls of the owl world. Their deep, soft hoots sounds like winter itself: whoo-whoo whoo-who-who-who-whooooo. When I was young and stupid, I raised a baby great horned owl. I lived in the backwoods of Georgia, far from prying eyes of the authorities. Of course, it is illegal to keep great horned owls and other birds of prey as pets. We called the owl Bubo and it successfully fledged. You don’t want to mess with Mother Nature – keep owls wild.
I love barred owls. Their eyes are dark chocolate. Their mottled brown and white face say, “You looking at me?” And one of the funniest things I’ve heard is a gym full of third graders mimicking the barred owl hooting call – “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?”
At three o’clock in the morning, Heidi called in an Eastern screech owl with her digital device. The small red-feathered beauty perched in a maple tree on the edge of a farm field. Heidi switched over to her own voice, first, whistling a shrill descending whinny and then a thrill – flat and soft. “For one minute, three minutes, maybe even a hundred minutes”…Heidi and owl talked, back and forth, as shooting stars fell out of the sky and all was right with the world.
Our final tally:
27 screech owls
14 great horned owls
1 barred owl