Being outdoors after dark is a special experience, and always brings back fond memories of friends, campfires and night hikes. It's amazing how much a landscape which looks so familiar during the day can look different when darkness has rendered the trees, rocks and water in shades of gray. I always find this transformation to be revelatory - for one thing, being out in the woods at night challenges us to use our sense of hearing in a more intense way and for another, once our eyes adjust, especially if there is a little moon or starlight, there's something great about realizing that a flashlight isn't really a necessity for exploring after dark. Up until last night most of my birding had taken place during the day, with the exception of one unsuccessful attempt to see Woodcoks last year, which was really more of an early evening activity. But last night my girlfriend and I joined an "owl prowl" program at Mass Audubon's Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary in Natick, MA to go out and search the forest for these mainly nocturnal predators.
With my New England birding big year in full swing now, I knew I would also need to add owls to my year list and I thought this would be a great way to not only find and hear them, but to learn something about their natural history as well. I was particularly impressed to learn that Great Horned Owls actually like to eat skunks, a fact which I had not previously known. It was also surprising to learn about the dietary predilections of the Eastern Screech Owl, which will take prey ranging from tadpoles to mice to other Eastern Screech Owls under certain circumstances.
After a slideshow and auditory presentation designed to familiarize us with the more common species of owl we were likely to hear, we split up into three groups and headed outside. Our group took a route that brought us along the edge of a large open field which was covered in half-melted snow. The moon shone down through the clouds, giving us ample light to see the path as we crunched along. It wasn't until we entered the forest that we heard our first owl, an Eastern Screech-Owl calling from the far side of a marsh, its eery, trilling voice ringing out clearly in the windless night. We stood quietly and listened intently and were rewarded with more of this unearthly song, soon joined by the deep hooting of a Great Horned Owl.Not long after the Great Horned Owl made its presence known we heard something else calling from the darkness - a group of Eastern Coyotes were howling not far away. It brought me back to the last time I had heard coyotes, in a very different setting, sitting out on top of boulder in southern California in the summer. As I've said before, sometimes the best thing about birding isn't the birds, it's all the places you see and the things you experience as you look for them.
Thanks for reading.
Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.