The freezing temperatures in February make it difficult to force myself out the door after dark. And knowing that I’ll be standing around outside for extended periods while trying to stay completely silent doesn’t make it any easier. But hearing just one distant hoot warms my bones and makes the experience worthwhile.
Mid-winter is the ideal time to search for owls in Rhode Island, even on years like this one when visiting snowy owls are absent. Great horned owls, the largest resident owl in the
already sitting on eggs or caring for nestlings, so it’s my first target
species whenever I go owling. Standing up to two feet tall and with a wingspan
of more than four feet, their silhouette is easily identified on a moonlit
night by the feather tufts on their head that give them their common name. But
it’s their low booming voice that I seek.
|Barred owl (M.E. Sanseverino)|
I drive along forested roads, occasionally stopping to listen for a few minutes, especially where forests abut farm fields. Unlike most of the region’s other owls, which feed primarily on mice and voles in the woods, great horned owls are large enough to target rabbits and squirrels, and the forest edge is a great place to watch and listen for them. Most of the time, I hear nothing but traffic noise, an occasional dog bark, and the blood pumping through my head as I strain to hear anything resembling an owl.
And then I hear it. The unmistakable sound of an owl. One hoot is enough to call the night a success, but when a second owl responds with a series of hoots of its own, I know I’ve hit the jackpot.
Sometimes, instead of a great horned owl I hear the who-cooks-for-you call of a barred owl, though they are much more active a little later in the season. And rarely – like maybe only a few times in my life – I’ve heard a tiny screech owl spontaneously burst forth with its high-pitched whinny. They’re just as common as the other two species and can be found in similar forested habitat, but they seem to have much less to say. At least when I’m paying attention.
If standing around in the dark listening – usually in vain – for an owl isn’t your idea of a well-spent winter evening, and yet you’d still like to see or hear an owl in the wild, then there’s another strategy to try. Just before dusk, stand in the parking lot of Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge or Third Beach in Middletown or the Moonstone Beach Road side of Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge in South Kingstown, and watch for short-eared owls hunting for prey over the adjacent marshlands.
The gold-and-brown streaked birds seldom vocalize, so going after dark won’t be productive. But they are regularly observed at dusk flying back and forth just above the vegetation and occasionally pouncing silently into the reeds to capture a meal. And their long wings and butterfly-like flight are so distinctive that even if you only see their silhouette, you’ll know it’s a short-eared.
A few other owl species can sometimes be detected around Rhode Island this time of year, like tiny saw-whet owls or long-eared owls – and barn owls on Block Island – but finding them is much more challenging. And the noises they make are very un-owl-like.
But if, like me, you want the most owl-like of owl encounters, all it takes is time spent listening in the forest after dark. And plenty of patience.