Nature Alert: Prowlin’ for Owls

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again now: This far into summer is a rough go in the valley. By that I mean it’s bonkers hot and hazy out, temperate weather lovers often struggle to cope; yet we must get out and see nature. But what if we didn’t have to see it to enjoy it? What if we ventured out into the coolness of the night and listened instead? Enter an activity that distinctly fills this role: the Owl Prowl. 

Owl Prowls could be described as a subtle art, they can be accomplished with varying levels of intent, with a similarly satisfying end result. If you are camping in the wildernesses of the Cascade foothills or Coast Range, or taking a starlit stroll in the woods closer to home, consider adding a bit of focused listening to your outing. 

In the lower elevation woodlands of Oregon, some of the more common species of owls include the Western screech owl (Megascops kennicottii), the great horned owl (Bubo virginianus), and the Northern saw-whet owl (Aegolius acadicus). All three of these species spend their nights hunting for small-to-medium-sized rodents, their days resting in tree hollows, and are especially likely to be heard in old-growth stands.

To know what you are listening for, check out resources such as The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America and The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s online Macaulay Library. For the latter, you can enter any species name you want, and a whole swath of recorded calls will be at your fingertips. 

The Western screech owl’s call, according to Sibley, is a sequence of “short whistles accelerating like a bouncing ball”, and I don’t know how the heck to describe it any better. Meanwhile, Sibley calls the song of the great horned owl a “rhythmic series of deep ruffled hooting”, aka the classic sound most humans associate with owls. Lastly, the Northern saw-whet makes a string of “low, whistled toots repeated about two times per second”, which is akin to what many would recognize as a phone timer or alarm going off. 

On my most recent prowl somewhere in the thick of old-growth Western hemlocks and Douglas firs in the Siuslaw National Forest, I had the honor of hearing all three. The Western screech owl made its presence known somewhere between a hangrily-cooked dinner and more high-spirited game of cards, while the great horned owl and Northern saw-whet surprisingly were not heard until a drowsy awakening at daybreak and an early afternoon hike out of camp, respectively. To say the least, the outing was a hoot, and I would be a lion if I said I wouldn’t be prowlin’ again soon. 

By Ari Blatt