Calling All Owls

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If you’ve ever wondered who gives a hoot about owls, you should have been with us and twenty-six others gathered together on a recent Friday night amidst fierce warm winds, as program conductor, Drew Gross, tried to call the elusive birds out of hiding here in Ohio.

Clark County Park District’s February programs included an annual “The Calling of the Owls.” Weather is only a slight consideration as the program takes place in any temperature above 20 degrees and whether or not there is snow on the ground. The evening hour of 6:30 was a good time to gather, pass out information booklets and owl sound CDs and begin the hike through George Rogers Clark Park where at least one Eastern Screech owl is known to nest. Sundown was minutes away as the group eagerly took off for the woods.

Drew Gross has a natural affinity for the park and the owls. He can remember being brought to the park as a young child and encouraged to take note of everything living and wonderful the park held. He’s been conducting this program for some years and noted that sometimes the owls come, sometimes not. Either way, Drew’s running commentary makes for an enjoyable evening of walking, listening, looking to the heavens and the earth for all things alive on a balmy, albeit windy, night.

He and his helpers kept the group going, stopping at intervals to play recorded owl sounds, issuing an invitation for answers from afar. His knowledge-sharing included pointing out constellations visible as clouds whooshed through the air above. Below, a muskrat splashed into the Hosterman Lake waters as the group approached. All flashlights followed it as it swam the dark, moonlight-splashed lake.

A bird sound put the group on alert. A gaggle of Canadian geese decided at the late hour to make the lake a stopping place for the night. Noisily they flew low, banked, turned and skimmed across the water to rest along the back shore where winds found it hard to find them. Cackling softly to make sure everyone was settled in, they became dark mounds, blending into the night.

The park’s local screech owl has all the amenities of home when he sets up housekeeping in a tree hollow. The park has enough acreage to sustain more than one pair of these smallest of owls. Only the size of an extra heavy robin, screech owls come in two colors-red (northern Ohio) and gray (southern Ohio).

GRC Park has the needed various habitats required for a successful owl family. Woodland, older-growth forest, dense understory, shade trees, tall pines, open fields, stream and lake all make for a cozy home setting.

What do they eat? Diet includes a large range of small birds, snakes, lizards, crayfish, insects, beetles, large moths, minnows, small fish, earthworms, frogs, small rabbits, mice and rats. They may or may not eat their catch right away. Nests have been found to contain fish, birds and other catches, and nearby caches are typical. During early spring nesting, their diet is over 50% small song birds.

Besides the screech owl, Ohio is home to barn owls, barred owls, great horned owls, long-eared owls (winter), short-eared owls (winter), and snowy owls (winter).

As the almost full moon appeared and disappeared in swiftly moving clouds and darkness became deeper, the group listened anxiously for any answer to the recordings. Drew explained that the high winds would more than likely make it very difficult for the recordings to reach out in a clear tone for owls to hear and respond. The winds would also keep the bird’s flying to a minimum. But still, the group persevered, hiking, stopping, listening, until after 8 p.m.

Winds blowing through the pines, soft steps and whispers, stop, play the owl calls, listen, call the owl, listen. That is the scenario of adamant birders on a quest. Day or night, winter or summer, autumn or spring, it is about patience and being satisfied to be part of the moment.

Deep darkness cloaked the park. Security lights brightened the white barn side. Wind whipped long, tree limb shadows across the white canvas. Stop, listen. Who goes there? Wind in the pines? An owl? Flight without sound, highest of lookouts, master of many voices.

Perhaps it’s the park’s own echoes of history, natural beauty and the calling of the owls.

 For more information about this and other Clark County Park District programs call 937-882-6000 or visit Clark County Parks.