Owling About

Went on my first “owl prowl” last night, and though we didn’t see a single owl, it was a lot of fun. Offered by the Chicago Park District, the prowling took place at the North Park Village Nature Center. I knew next to nothing about owls, so I learned a lot from our guide, who started things off with a slideshow, imparting a lot of interesting information in a short amount of time. After the 45 minute lecture and Q&A, he explained that we’d be looking for two types of owls, the smaller screech owl and the more common great-horned owl.

I’d never been on a nighttime bird walk, so I was curious to know exactly how we’d do it. I left the binoculars at home, figuring they were unusable in the dark, and dressed warmly for our hike through the nature preserve. There was enough ambient light from the city around us reflected on the cloud cover and the remaining snow on the ground to see relatively well. Owls are notoriously difficult to spot; you basically have to wait for them to reveal themselves through movement, usually flying off.

We’d tromp through the snow for a few minutes and then stop at various points on the trail, standing in a large circle. The guide had a tape recorder (this was a high-tech birding adventure) and he’d play recorded bird calls, hoping to attract the attention of any nearby owls. This is the very beginning of their mating season, a good time to be owling about, when the birds are calling and responding to each other in the night.

So there we’d stand, in a circle with each person instructed to look in front of them, thereby covering a 360-degree view with minimal movement on our part. The guide would play portions of the tape, pointing the recorder in different directions, hoping for some response. (Click on the links above and scroll to the bottom of the page to hear recorded bird calls like the ones we were using.)

The group walked the circuit of the preserve, stopping about five or six times at different points, but the owls were having none of it. After a while, my eyes started playing tricks on me and I stood starring at what was probably a squirrel nest, practically willing it to be an owl.

At the last stop, our guide and another volunteer from the nature center entertained the group with their own owl calls, at which point I was pretty certain I heard owls snickering at us from the trees.

No matter that we didn’t see anything. It was nice to just be out, walking on a snowy trail at night, hoping for the possibility of a close encounter of the wild kind. (We did see some deer walking across the frozen pond.)

Afterward, my birding friends and I warmed up with a few beers at Uncommon Ground. All in all, a great way to wrap up the week.

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