- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 18, 2006

In a dense forest on a brisk winter’s evening in the wilds of Beltsville, a crowd of 20 children, parents, birders and other enthusiasts cluster around Patuxent Wildlife Research Refuge volunteer naturalist Rod Burley, who has just admonished them to be as still and quiet as they possibly can.

By the light of a half moon, the watchers can barely make out one another’s face, much less the horizon between the 40-foot-tall oaks and poplars. But that’s where 20 pairs of eyes have focused as they try to catch sight of sudden winged movements.

This is an owl prowl, one of a monthly series at Patuxent designed to give children of all ages a glimpse of the elusive creatures at the time of day when the birds are most active.

Patuxent, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service facility, is just one of many parks, nature centers and other outdoor facilities throughout the Washington area that offer owl prowls and night hikes.

And this is the season: Owls mate in winter and their amorous hoots, from January through early spring, may be the first, or only, sign of their presence.

“If you have to turn to see, try to move from the waist and not shuffle your feet in the leaves — they can hear you from hundreds of yards away,” Mr. Burley cautions in a barely audible voice.

The group holds its collective breath and waits as the naturalist, who has been leading these “prowls” at the research refuge in Beltsville for more than 13 years, cups his hands to his mouth.

The sound Mr. Burley makes — a long, drawn-out series of hoots ending in a staccato “cawww!” that rattles in his throat, is not at all human. It is, in fact, a dead-on imitation of a barred owl, one of the Washington area’s most common nocturnal predators.

“‘Whooo cooks for youu? Who cooks for you allll?’” would be the closest human equivalent to the call if barred owls used English, Mr. Burley says.

The group listens carefully for an answering call. Some cup gloved fingers around their ears toward the trees to better amplify any remote animal sounds.

The woods, which smell like pine resin and wet earth, are surprisingly alive this time of year shortly after dusk, and the listeners try to filter out any owl sounds from the persistent honks of Canada geese overhead, the faint call of dogs barking in the distance and the occasional shuffling of leaves as squirrels and other small mammals and birds settle down for the night.

• • •

Certainly, any owls nearby have already heard the group coming and might be wary of making an appearance, Mr. Burley points out.

After all, owls are superbly designed to detect even the slightest disturbance in their territory. Their ears are set one slightly lower than the other on their heads to better triangulate for the sound of the tiniest mouse feet. They can turn their heads 180 degrees. Their enormous eyes boast powerful nighttime vision. In short, they are perfect hunters.

Mr. Burley has already briefed the group on the seven owl species indigenous to the Washington area. In addition to the common barred owl and great horned owl (which also makes a “hooting” sound, albeit in a different cadence than the barred owl), local residents might also hear or spot an eastern screech owl, a barn owl, a saw-whet owl, a long-eared owl or a short-eared owl.

Each owl makes a different call, which can range from a hissing sound peculiar to the barn owl, to the “barking dog” call of the short-eared owl.

Of the seven, the barn owl is the most threatened, because its natural habitat and territory — open fields and meadows common to farmland — has disappeared around Maryland and Virginia as farms have given way to shopping centers and housing developments, Mr. Burley says.

• • •

Mr. Burley’s descriptions of owl habitats at Patuxent spark a lively discussion.

“Where could you find a wild bird’s, like a barred owl’s, nest?” asks Mairin Toppo, 9, of Ellicott City, Md.

“Can anyone answer that?” Mr. Burley asks the group. “Besides ‘look up,’ what do you look for?”

“Sometimes owls scare others birds off their nests,” offers 10-year-old Laurel resident Andrew Johnson, who seems particularly knowledgeable about different owls and their habits.

“That’s right,” Mr. Burley confirms.

Most owls do not build their own nests, he says, but instead take over a large nest of sticks and leaves built in the woods during an earlier season by a hawk or eagle. Or they nest in a cavity, such as a large hole in a tree.

Barn owls will choose human structures, such as barns or other outbuildings, to nest and raise their young in, or to serve as shelter during the colder winter months.

In the winter, owls are particularly protective of their territory, Mr. Burley explains, because January and February are the courtship season for the larger species. It is at this time that owls are most likely to emit their calls, and respond to other calling owls (or calling humans who sound like owls, as in this case).

On this particular night no answering call comes, although a goose honking on a nearby pond sounds as if it could be an owl. But on other evenings in the refuge, the territorial owls fly closer through their forest habitat and answer Mr. Burley’s call.

Sometimes the owls respond from what sounds like a half a mile away, sometimes from a tree perch straight overhead. If the naturalist calls a second time, bird and man can get a dialogue going.

After Mr. Burley finishes calling, he invites others in the group to take a shot at calling in an owl. Rick Johnson, a 47-year-old hunter from Laurel and young Andrew Johnson’s father, rises to the challenge and tries a barred owl call in a slightly lower pitch than Mr. Burley’s.

Mr. Johnson later explains that he’s a crow hunter (“their dark meat is good to eat,” he says), and that whenever a group of crows hears an owl nearby, they send out a crow “scout” to investigate.

“I do the owl call to draw crows in, to get a good shot,” Mr. Johnson says.

• • •

For Mr. Johnson, Andrew, Mairin and other bird and owl fans, the Washington area abounds in spots where they can seek out their raptor quarry through owl prowls and night hikes — activities designed, of course, simply for observation: Federal law prohibits the killing of owls.

A steady stream of owl enthusiasts flock to owl-watching classes at the Audubon Naturalist Society’s Woodend Sanctuary in Chevy Chase, for example, or attend night hikes at parks.

In addition to hearing the calls of barred owls, a quiet listener in any wooded area around the Beltway on a winter or spring night might hear the bizarre whinnying sound of an eastern screech owl or — if he accidentally passes too close to an owl nest — a loud, warning “hissss!” from young owls.

The truly lucky might catch sight of a great horned owl or barred owl, on the wing hunting for rabbits or mice, as it sweeps across a road in pursuit of its prey.

The sight is unmistakable, because the great horned owl and barred owl are impressively large, especially when seen close up. With wingspans of 38 to 45 inches, either species can seem positively menacing if it crosses the path of anyone walking along a dark road at night.

• • •

Even in the light of day, a great horned owl is a fearsome creature. On a recent Saturday at Watkins Park Nature Center in Upper Marlboro, Prince George’s County Park Naturalist Tanya Simmonds pulls a black-and-tan great horned owl from a large dog crate to demonstrate its features to a class of youngsters and their parents gathered to learn about “Animals in Winter.”

The large owl flaps its wings to steady itself on Ms. Simmonds’ gauntleted hand and fixes its piercing gaze on its young audience. A gasp of appreciation goes through the crowd.

“Cooool, Dad!That’s a scary owl!” local resident Nathan Carroll, age 3, exclaims.

The great horned owl, which Ms. Simmonds says could not be released to the wild because of a broken wing that had healed improperly, sports thick talons with sharp claws about 2 inches long, enormous, saucer-shaped yellow eyes and an impressive hooked beak. Two appendages on top of the owl’s head are not the owl’s ears at all, Ms. Simmonds says, but merely tufts of hair.

As an observer moves in too close, the owl hisses a sharp warning and clacks its beak open and shut. Someone else moves behind the great horned’s back, and the owl rotates its head almost completely to follow their steps.

“Don’t worry, he won’t fly around because he’s tethered to my hand,” the naturalist reassures the class.

“How do they kill their food?” Brian Wise Jr. of Upper Marlboro, 6, asks, eyeing the cruel-looking beak.

“Their feet are strong enough to crush a mouse or a rabbit to death,” Ms. Simmonds answers.

She explains that owls typically hear or spot their prey on the ground while perched on trees, sometimes from quite a distance, and then swiftly swoop down and grab the mammal, bird or reptile with lethal talons.

The birds use their beaks only to strip off pieces of meat after killing the prey with their feet, she says. If it is as small as a mouse or shrew, they simply swallow their prey whole.

Anything left over is regurgitated in an owl pellet, which some naturalists later gather and dissect, carefully sorting through the remaining bones or feathers to try to determine which prey an owl is eating.

Ms. Simmonds passes around to the group a small, encased collection of tiny animal bones that came out of an owl pellet, to illustrate her points about owls’ dietary habits.

While owls almost exclusively catch and eat live prey in the wild; in captivity they will accept thawed-out frozen mice, Ms. Simmonds says.

Natural prey for the smaller species of owls could include large insects, frogs or salamanders, she says. Large species such as the great horned owl, the barn owl or the barred owl will take rabbits, wild turkeys, rats and even smaller owls.

• • •

If the great horned owl and the barn owls, barred owls and other raptors housed in aviaries at Watkins Park are impressively large and scary, the diminutive eastern screech owl used for education at Croydon Creek Nature Center in Rockville could win a cuteness prize.

Dubbed “Cosmo” by its keepers, the fluffy little screech owl is no more than 6 inches tall and as light as a candy bar, Croydon Creek Naturalist Valerie Oliver says.

The little owl was hit by a car and rehabilitated at the Second Chance Wildlife Center in Gaithersburg, Montgomery County’s only nonprofit wildlife rehabilitation center, according to information on the nature center’s Web site.

Ms. Oliver says the live owl is particularly appealing to young, would-be naturalists who visit the center. The naturalist usually plays taped owl calls and lets children handle owl skulls as part of Croydon Creek’s nature hikes.

Cosmo is finally brought out at the end of the hike, so that Ms. Oliver can explain the role predators play in keeping populations of other species in the woods in check.

“We use Cosmo to give the children the opportunity to become familiar with some of the creatures that are active at night that they wouldn’t normally see during the day” Ms. Oliver says.

• • •

Ms. Simmonds at Watkins Park says there are many good reasons for teaching urban children and adults about local wild creatures like owls, either on nature hikes or in the classroom.

“People have fears about wild animals, because they are unfamiliar with them and don’t understand the important role predators such as owls play in keeping populations of other animals like rats and mice down to healthy levels,” she says.

“Also, people think they are removed from nature, and that these creatures aren’t very important,” Ms. Simmonds says.

“But the truth is, wild animals give us a good indication of the health of our own environment. We should be reassured if we see owls flying around or hear their calls at night. If any species suddenly starts dying off or disappearing, it’s an early warning signal to us that something might be wrong with the water we drink or the air we breathe.”

Where the wild things are

Want to hear or see owls or learn more about them? The following Washington area nature centers, refuges and groups offer owl classes, owl prowls and night hikes this winter. Here’s a brief guide.

• Audubon Naturalist Society Woodend Sanctuary: 8940 Jones Mill Road, Chevy Chase. “The Natural History of Owls,” an adult program, will feature an illustrated slide lecture covering field identification techniques, basic adaptations and natural history of owls, as well as tips on where and how to find owls in the field. 7:30-9:30 p.m. Jan. 26. $15-$19. Register online at audubonnaturalist.org or call 301/652-9188, ext. 16, for more information.

• Brookside Nature Center: 1400 Glenallen Ave., Wheaton. Owl prowl, an evening hike to call and listen for owls. 6:30-8 p.m. Feb. 14. All ages. $6. Reservations required for program 11352. Information at 301/946-9071.

• Croydon Creek Nature Center: 852 Avery Road, Rockville. Owl prowl, an outdoor hike and owl search in the surrounding stream valley. 7-8 p.m. Jan. 20. Ages 5 and up. $4 per child; free to adults accompanying children. Registrations accepted up to the day of the hike. Croydon Creek also keeps an eastern screech owl in an enclosed aviary. 240/314-8770 or rockvillemd.gov/croydoncreek

• Hidden Oaks Nature Center: 7701 Royce St., Annandale. “Owl Moon Film Festival.” Watch a film on owls, examine owl pellets, hear owl calls, pick up tips on where to hunt for owls and see stuffed owl specimens to learn why owls have been dubbed “flying tigers of the night.” 1-2 p.m. Feb. 20. $4 children, $1 adults. Registration required through 703/941-1065.

• Huntley Meadows Visitors Center: 3701 Lockheed Blvd., Alexandria (at Harrison Lane). Evening nature hike for adults, who will listen and watch for owls, mating woodcocks and calling frogs. 5:30-7 p.m. March 4. Meet at small parking lot at the intersection of South Kings Highway and Telegraph Road. $3. Registration required through 703/768-2525, or see fairfaxcounty.gov/parks/huntley

• “Young Explorers Owl Program” at the Huntley visitors center. Children 6 to 8 will hear a discussion of owls and owl behavior. 3:15-4:30 p.m. March 20. $3 per child. Reservations required. Register at the number above or see the Web site.

• “Nature Detectives” at the Huntley visitors center. Ages 3 to 5. Discussion of owls, a walk to look for signs of owls and other animals, and a nature craft project. 10:45-11:30 a.m. March 22 and 23. $5 per child. Reservations required. Register at the number above or see the Web site.

• Long Branch Nature Center: 625 S. Carlin Springs Road, Arlington. Owl prowl, a day-long owling trip in the Nature Center van (program 624402A). 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Jan. 23. $15. Reservations required through the secure site https://registration.co.arlington.va.us or call 703/228-4747.

• Meadowside Nature Center: 5100 Meadowside Lane, Rockville. The owl aviaries behind the center, which feature all owls native to Montgomery County, are open to the public. 9 a.m.-4 p.m. all winter Saturdays. 301/924-4141.

• Patuxent Wildlife Research Refuge: North Tract entrance, Bald Eagle Drive, east of Laurel on Route 198 between the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and Route 32. Guided owl prowl will explore the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service refuge at night, looking and listening for owls. 4:30-6 p.m. Jan. 22. All ages. Free. Registration required through 301/497-5580. See www.fws.gov/northeast/patuxent/ntedu.html.

• Watkins Nature Center: 301 Watkins Park Drive, Upper Marlboro. “Creature Feature: All About Raptors,” a program about owls, hawks and other birds of prey (program 76285). Ages 3 and up. 10-11 a.m. Feb. 11, March 25, May 13. $1-$2. SMARTlink reservations at pgparks.com or call 301/249-6202.

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