Owl Outing (aka Owlting)

by Seth Davis

Five of Maine's top young birders and two parents tested their endurance with lack of sleep and freezing temperatures on Saturday to try and spot one of the more elusive order of birds, owls.  We met at 3 a.m. in Robinson Woods in Cape Elizabeth.  We spent 15 minutes or so discussing owling ethics and the most appropriate use of tools like audio playback as well as how to be cognizant of lighting and excess noise we can create.  After this briefing, we moved out in hopes to find Great Horned Owls (GHOWs) reportedly nesting in the area.  After 20 minutes of listening very patiently and limited playback, we didn't hear or see any GHOWs, though Lena thought she may have heard one or two toots of a Northern Saw-whet Owl.  We didn't feel confident enough to count it. 

Our next stop was Two Lights State Park.  This was supposedly a good spot to hear/see Northern Saw-whet Owls (NSWOs).  After a short walk to the parking lot we spent some time calling for NSWOs with no luck, however on our walk back we heard a shrilling call of some mammal.  Brendan thought it may have been a fox or fisher cat, but it didn't repeat its call so we did not fully ID it. 

We then went to Crescent Beach State Park, another good area for GHOWs and NSWOs.  We spent some listening and looking in the trees for any owl silhouettes, but again, we had no luck.  Several in the group heard a distant GHOW perform a short burst of song, but again, not everybody heard it to be 100% convinced.  Besides, at this point our desire to hear/see owls was getting to our heads!

Moving on, we stopped by the entrance to a property owned by the Sprague Corporation where we have heard there has been a NSWO for the past several years who has been rather chatty.  Besides being spooked by ice cracking very loudly on a nearby pond, we had no luck finding any owls...  Our worst fears were starting to come true.  Maybe this MYBC outing would turn out to be a bust.

On our way out to go to Prout's Neck, Seth noticed a small field off to the right that looked like it would be good habitat for owls.  It was worth a shot, so we pulled off the side of the road and played a few NSWO songs in hopes for a response.  We didn't hear a response from a NSWO, but SUCCESS!!!  We all clearly heard a GHOW announce, "Who's awake? Me too!" off in the distance! We immediately drove down toward the tree line where it was heard and got out of our cars.  To our amazement, the owl was directly in the tree above us! It took some processing time as there was some confusion with it being so early in the morning, but suddenly the owl took off from its perch and most were able to see the silhouette of it flying against the sky as dawn was just beginning to break.  

Stopping briefly at Prout's Neck where there had been a report of the extremely-difficult-to-get Long-eared Owl, we did some playback to no success.  But it was exhilarating to see some of the more common birds like Mourning Doves, Northern Cardinals, and Black-capped Chickadees begin to stir in the early morning and fly over our heads.  We then focused on trying to get to some of the open marshland where we had our last chance to hear owls calling from a distance.  

We rushed out to parts of the Scarborough Marsh, again with little success, but we did see a group of crows that began mobbing something, which we hoped was an owl, but sadly we couldn't get close enough to confirm it.  We spent some time discussing owl facts as we definitely wanted this to be a learning event, but we eventually rounded out the day with only one confirmed owl on our "owlting".  

But wait, there's more!  As we gathered to send everyone off at the Maine Audubon Scarborough Marsh Center, several young birders saw Herring an Great Black-backed Gulls in the distance, as well as a small flock of Snow Buntings that flew over.  As people were literally getting into their cars, Lena spotted a hawk(?) flying slowly in the distance.  Upon further examination, it turned out to be a Peregrine Falcon with something in its talons!  What a great way to end our "owlting" adventure with such a great bird.