Night Owls

By Margo D. Beller

@MargoDBeller

Why are we so fascinated by owls?

Is it because some of them are very small and, with their round heads and big yellow eyes, look cute and cuddly?

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Is it because we remember the Disney cartoon "The Sword in the Stone" where Merlin turns himself into a "wise, old owl" -- a Great Horned Owl -- to instruct the young, soon to be king Arthur?

Or perhaps we think of Hedwig, the Snowy Owl Harry Potter receives when he arrives at Hogwarts.

Or, maybe we are fascinated that these are birds of the darkness, which attracts and frightens us . After all, our human eyes lack the many additional rods owls have to see in the darkness and the asymmetrical hearing they use to hunt (depending on the species) mice, insects, rabbits, even other owls. (Great Horned Owls hunt Skunks because the owls have no sense of smell.) There are many superstitions about owls, according to "Owls: A Wildlife Handbook" by Kim Long. For instance, the hooting of an owl is seen as a sign of impending death in some cultures.

There are 286 different types of owls around the world, from Iceland to the Falklands and across northern Europe and Russia down to Africa, but in the 950 acres that comprise the Somerset County (N.J.) Park Commission's Lord Sterling Park, which is adjacent to the federally run and much larger Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, the most commonly seen owls are Great Horned (GHO), Barred and Eastern Screech owls.

And that was why 30 or so owl enthusiasts were standing in the dark, shivering on a subfreezing night, under a nearly full moon, listening to park naturalist Ben Barkley or Mike Anderson, director of the New Jersey Audubon Scherman Hoffman sanctuary (also located in Somerset County), try to fool a Screech Owl (see above) into calling to us by imitating it. We were a split squad and I was part of the 15 or so in Barkley's contingent.

"Why are we fascinated by owls? The darkness, and the cuteness factor," Anderson said before we headed out. An owl is cute, "unless you mess with it."

Joe Pescatore at Hoffman Center 2As he prepares us inside for the Owl Prowl outside, Barkley's enthusiasm is infectious. When he was a high school junior, in 2010, he and Mike Anderson identified raptors during the Scherman Hoffman hawk watch on the platform of its education center. Less than a year on this job now, he can watch and listen for birds as he walks to work. "I am very lucky," he told me. (Yes.)

Before leading us into the dark he tested our owl knowledge. Who knew the 25-inch GHO (one is pictured at left) is only 6 pounds? He showed amazing video of a Serbian Long-Earred Owl (LEO) roost where at dusk 140 birds flew out of one tree. He amused many in the crowd by showing how "cute" some owls -- such as the 11-inch Burrowing Owl and the 6-inch Elf Owl -- can be.

Don't be fooled, however. Just like the Turkey Vulture and the Redtailed Hawk that hunt by day, owls are raptors. They have sharp claws for killing and sharp bills. They will eat prey whole and then regurgitate the inedible parts in a hard pellet. Some owls hunt by day -- Snowy, Northern Hawk and Great Grey owls are birds of the northern tundra where they can hunt in many hours of daylight in summer. In winter, if food supplies are scarce, they will frequently fly south in what is known as an irruption. Many "night owls" hunt at dawn and at dusk, such as the Barn and Short-Earred owls.

Barred owl Lord Stirling Pk 18Jun2012 Mike Newlon

But they are, in the main, creatures of the darkness, emitting eerie sounds ranging from the "Hoo-Hoo-Hoo" of the GHO to the weird barks and "Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?" call of the Barred to the hissing of the ghostly white Barn to the whinnying and one-note tremolo of the 8-inch-long Eastern Screech Owl.

It was the Screech Owl Ben was trying to fool into calling, a process known as "pishing." But no owl was responding. Either it could see we were a group of humans (very possible with all those rods in its eyes) or the cold wind kept it at bay.

The West Observation Blind loomed over us. A pair of Canada Geese voiced their displeasure at our presence from nearby Branta Pond. Trails I've walked many times now looked ominous. Owls are very good at hiding themselves when they roost by day. They are even better hiding in plain sight at night. I had been lucky that a GHO, no doubt hunting to feed young at this time of year (mid-March), had flown over the road ahead of us as we'd driven to the Lord Sterling.

Despite the cold we had had fun learning about owls and had the thrill of walking after dark in an area that would normally be off-limits.

But you don't have to go to Lord Sterling or Great Swamp to find owls, such as the barred owl Mike Newton photographed at Lord Sterling above. They are in my backyard. I've seen and heard them many times when I've least expected it. You can, too.