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Owl Prowling

— David Bennett, Volunteer Trip Leader
A few years ago, I was leading a hike in Riverview Park with PTAG Trail Steward, Sean Brady.  We were heading up toward Snyder’s Point from Violet Lane, when Sean stopped to make an owl call.  To our surprise we heard the reply, “Who cooks for you?” It was the classic call of a Barred Owl.

Barred owl. Photo credit: Michael Shake
Barred owl. Photo credit: Michael Shake
Both Sean and I have lived next to Riverview Park for years, so the revelation that there were large owls living in the park captured our imaginations.  I contacted Bob Mulvihill at the National Aviary about the possibility of leading an owl trip in Riverview, however Bob happens to be an “Owl Expert Celebrity,” and in rather high demand.  Just this past month, for example, I was reading stories about how Bob relocated some Short-eared Owls that were living dangerously close to Pittsburgh International Airport.  It was on the radio and in the newspapers, and all indicative of Bob’s owl expertise.
As much as I wanted to wait for Bob Mulvihill, the thought occurred to me that Sean Brady and I might be able to lead the trip on our own.  Sean was enthusiastic about my proposition, plus he was leading an owl hike at the Hollow Oak Land Trust with Bob a week earlier. We listed our Owl Prowl on the Venture Outdoors website, and the response was very strong.
The day finally arrived and it was a clear day.  The participants we all different ages, but all of them enthusiastic about a cold January night hike.  We explained that winter is your best bet for finding owls, both due to an absence of leaves on the trees but also because the owls are very active at this time in terms of mating season and establishing territorial boundaries.
We stopped periodically along the Wissahickon Trail to make calls, but it was not until we reached the Bob Harvey Trail that Sean got our first response.  To our delight, there were one or two Screech Owls that mimicked our call, almost to the exact pitch, it was exciting. Then one of the Screech Owls landed on a tree right behind us on the trail, she was about 10 yards away perched on a branch about 30 feet off the ground.  We saw the silhouette on the branch, and the owl sat there for a couple minutes until I approached the tree and off she flew.
Sean explained to the group that the Barred Owls are predators of the smaller Screech Owls, so that as soon as we start using the calls for the larger owls, the less likely we are to see the Screech Owls.  But as we got closer to Snyder’s point, we saw how the tall trees soared high into the air, and that this was a very likely habitat for the Barred Owls.  No response.  But as we were looping around Snyder’s Point we heard some more small owls.
Screech owl. Photo credit: Gary Tagoni
The most exciting part of the trip was when we reached the far side of Snyder’s Point and Sean called in a couple more Screech Owls.  At this point the owls were to the low side of the trail, and one participant in the front spotted one on a branch.  Then owls seemed to circle around behind us on the trail.  It was fun to hear our owl call go off into the January skies, and to hear the response coming back to us in earnest.  Then suddenly, one of the owls buzzed right over our heads. It was not quite a dive bomb, but all the same very close to us, so that we got a great look at the owl and its plumage.
That was pretty much the last we heard of the owls, however we were reaching the close of our hike.  Although it started out a cold night, the change in elevations at Riverview Park challenged us and the exercise kept us remarkably warm.  Also, the night had become quite still and the earlier breeze was replaced by a calm serenity.
The small group was happy and smiling.  Our first impression of a sterile cold expanse of woods was replaced by an busy ecosystem teeming with life.  We saw deer and coyote tracks throughout our walk.  We sang with owls and drew closer together with our new insights into the mysterious world of owls.
“My favorite part about the trip was listening to the owls respond to us and move closer and closer from right to left until he flew over our heads! I had no idea that three different types of owls lived so close to us and near the city! The trip was totally amazing to me and a wonderful experience that I could never have created on my own. I learned lots of owl facts and left thinking that I live in an amazing city! I love spending time in the woods!” ~Hike Participant
Want more bird action? Check out our Winter Bird Hike on February 14th!

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