Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Finding Owls is a Special Talent
December 07, 2019
By Steve Grinley

     If you are a regular reader of my column, you might recall my tale of discovering a saw-whet owl in Gloucester last January. It was well hidden deep in a blue spruce and it was first discovered by area chickadees, titmice and blue jays. The raucous caused by complaining birds often means a potential predator is near. It can be a hawk – red-tailed, Coopers or sharp-shinned. Sometimes it is an owl.

     Last January, we were alerted by scolding birds in a Gloucester neighborhood. After much searching in a dense evergreen that was the focus of the birds’ complaint, I was able to spot the small owl among the thick branches. A photo of the camouflaged owl accompanied the article.

     Well, it happened again this past week. Margo and I hiked into Halibut Sate Park in Rockport one late afternoon earlier this week, after the weekend’s snowstorm. We walked in the plowed road toward the visitor’s center when we heard titmice and chickadees complaining about something in a thick stand of evergreens just off the path.

     After checking all the visible open branches among the greenery, I saw nothing perched on any open branches. Studying the foliage more closely, I saw a different pattern of gray colors in the areas between the greenery. I finally made out the pattern of the feathers of a barred owl, a fairly large owl, well hidden in the dense trees. I was able to make out the circled disk facial pattern of the owl and got Margo on it as well. She found another angle, and shares the partially obscured owl photo with us.

     Finding an owl is always a special event for us. It is not that there are not a lot of them out there. But most of them are nocturnal, and finding one during the day is difficult at best.

     Then there is our good friend Brian Cassie of Foxboro. Brian is the owl ”whisperer”, or better described as the “owl hooter”! Brian can call in owls with his hooting like no one else I have known. No electronic recordings to aid him. He just hoots and the owls hoot back!

     His greatest success is the “eight-hooter” barred owl. He can travel through an area, stop at “appropriate” habitat, call a barred owl and an owl will call back! He takes friends with him on occasion and the results were the same, always finding many owls in a single outing.

     A science teacher by trade, Brian co-wrote the New England and the Mid-Atlantic volumes of National Audubon Series books which are an overview of the natural history of those areas including wildflowers, trees, mosses, mushrooms, fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds, butterflies, mammals, geology, wildlife habitats, ecology, rocks and minerals, weather and the night sky.

     Brian founded the “Barred Owl Bird Club”, a tongue-in cheek, invitation only club that would get together infrequently and look for barred owls. Margo and I are proud members. In club outings, Brian shares his knowledge with his “disciples” of all that is nature. In fact, Brian knows more about all kinds of living things than anyone I know. We have learned more about mushrooms and fungi than I ever wanted to know, thanks to Brian.

     But Brian’s love is owls. He will join Christmas Bird Counts and raise the level of owl numbers significantly, just from his uncanny way of getting them of respond. On his own, he will venture out in the predawn hours and tally the owls in his neighborhood – more than most are aware are out there. His ability to find owls raises the awareness of the number of nocturnal birds there are truly out there.

     So much so, that it prompted Brian to write the following poem that I will share with you here:

     “How Do You Know You Aren’t Counting the Same Owl Twice?

When you spend half of your life studying owls and their ways
And search them out in every season, in the nights and in the days
And build up a big collection of all sorts of owl books
And actually read them and not just give them cursory looks
You’re bound to learn a lot about these truly wondrous fowls
And that is why it’s stunning that when you’ve found eleven owls
On your early morning walk around your town
And you meet another human and you share what you have found
They never ask where were you or what kinds of owls you saw
“Did they howl or hoot or follow you? Did they get the crows to caw?”
They are always only wanting your intellectual advice
“How do you know you aren’t counting the same owl twice?””

     Thank you Brian, for sharing all your owls. Margo and I are happy with the few we are able to find on our own, and knowing that we are not counting the same owl twice!

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Port Plaza West Shops
45 Storey Ave, Suite 7B
Newburyport, MA 01950

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