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Out for Owls

The best things in life are free

Finally, a clear, calm evening!  Too good to pass up.  My husband and I had been trying to get out owling for the last few weeks, but each time we had the time and inclination, the weather wasn’t cooperating.  Two feet of new snow stopped us the first time.  Our next attempt, rising winds turned us back.  This early April night, conditions were perfect–clear skies and no wind.

Many local parks and natural areas close at sunset, so these aren’t places one can go owling.  Fortunately, our local area has a few places where trails remain open until an hour after sunset and most city trails remain open until 11 pm.  We had pre-selected the area we would visit–a well-wooded trail along a stretch of the Poudre River.

Enroute, we reviewed the calls of the owls we hoped we might hear, using the i-Bird Pro app on my iPhone.  Nine species of owls occur in Colorado, but only four of these live in the riparian forests along the Poudre: Great Horned Owl, Long-eared Owl, Eastern Screech Owl, and Northern Saw-whet. Each has a distinctive call.  With many owling trips in our past, we knew that just hearing an owl would be good luck, but of course we hoped we might have the great fortune to see one too.

We arrived slightly before sunset, just as most other users of the area were departing.  I stuffed my wool hat, gloves, in my belt pack and tucked my headlamp in my coat pocket.  It was still warm enough and light enough that none of these were needed now, but I knew they might all come in handy before our evening expedition ended.  We grabbed our binoculars and set off down the trail.

Owls are difficult to spot because of their camouflaged markings and tendency to sit quite still.  Dusk is a great time to look for them as they often begin moving around just before dark.  We walked slowly along the trail, pausing frequently to listen and carefully scan the tree branches for possible owl silhouettes.

The air was quiet save for the rushing water of the Poudre River.  A pair of mallards quacked as they drifted along.  A robin chirped a springtime greeting from the top of a large spruce.  Somewhere from across the river, we heard the distinctive chatter of a belted kingfisher–all welcome sounds of spring.  The scent of opening leaf buds and wet soil filled the cool evening air.

As the pink glow in the western sky paled and the sky overhead grew darker, the branches of the cottonwood and maple trees etched darker and darker patterns in the sky.  The twisting interwoven branches tempted me with the form of an owl several times.  On closer view, through my binoculars, each of my imagined owls dissolved.  Once a quick movement in the shadows caught my eye.  Nope, not an owl. Just a fox squirrel scampering along a branch.

As the evening grew darker, it was time to turn around and retrace our steps.  The view going back seemed unfamiliar. From our new angle, different branches formed new owl-like shapes.  Suddenly, I heard the hoot of a great horned owl and stopped to listen.  Oops–my imagination again.  It was just the distant honking of some Canada geese.  It was almost dark now, so the chances of seeing an owl clearly were pretty well past, but I was still hoping to hear one.

I shivered suddenly noticing that the temperature had dropped.  So I stopped to put on my hat and gloves. While doing so, I gazed up toward the darkening sky through the now black branches of the trees.  At that very moment, a large bird flew high overhead. Its large head, body and silent wingbeats shouted to me, “Great Horned Owl.”  But my glimpse was a bit too fleeting and distant to be absolutely certain. Since my owling partner had taken a slightly different path, I couldn’t get his immediate confirmation.

As the light dwindled, my eyes adjusted to the dark, but it was now getting too dark under the trees to be sure of my path.  Time to pull out my PTEC headlamp. It offers three levels of white LED light, easily bright enough to cook a camp meal, read in your tent, or spotlight a camp intruder.  I didn’t want  to use any of the white light options because I didn’t want to blind myself, my owling partner, or any owls or other wildlife that might be around.  So I twisted the knob to switch on just the red light – a handy feature I have never had on other headlamps I’ve owned. I set the light to point slightly downward.  The beam of red light gave me just enough light to see the ground and my near surroundings well enough to walk safely without danger of walking into a tree branch or tripping over a rock or branch in the path.

My owling partner easily spotted me by the red light and soon joined me for the return walk back to our car.  We compared notes.  He too had seen the large bird fly overhead and agreed that it was a Great Horned Owl.

As we neared the parking lot where we had left our car, I heard geese honk again, then a sound that I thought could only be the strange, unmistakable whinnied cry of screech owl.  I abruptly signaled to my partner to stop.  We both stood still in the cold night air and listened carefully, hoping to hear it again.  A goose honked.  A jet soared far overhead.  Otherwise silence.  Had I imagined that strange call?  Maybe.  If it was an owl, it didn’t call again.

As we drove home under the gaze of the Orion constellation, I thought of Jane Yolen’s words in “Owl Moon,” her classic children’s book about owling: “Sometimes there’s an owl and sometimes there isn’t.”  By all counts, this owling trip had been a success.  We had spotted one owl and maybe, possibly, I had heard another.  However, the real reward was just having gotten out at a time of day I too often spend indoors.

Our walk in the peaceful evening soaking up the quiet, the tree branch artwork against the evening sky, and tasting all the hints of spring had been as pleasant an April evening as one could hope for.  All I could think about as we headed home was when we would be able to get out again.