It had been a warm sunny day, toasty enough my three huskies degenerated to a pitty pat trot towing the rig down a different set of trails at Pinchot Park. By the time I fed them and tucked them away in their kennel, the lack of sun and clouds had called back Winter. I scarfed down some leftover chicken, some goat cheese (made on my stove with milk I'd personally wrestled from two somewhat reluctant goats) and veggies. I bundled into the Good Jacket (a $3 yard sale leather special, painted with a raven, an orca, and a near likeness of one of my sleddogs), added a few more layers, found the headlamp with the red mode, and headed to Hanover Junction for Nixon Park's Owl Walk. The Rail Trail, like Nixon Park, is part of the York County Park system, with which I volunteer, whose walls I have painted randomly, and who put on great public education programs. Tonight, Rose-Anna Behr would lead us on a Quest for Screech Owls, with a CD player (not loud enough) and a wheelchair (colorful injury sustained playing games with refrigerator sized guys on ice).
It was cold, cold enough I wished the Rail Trail was open at night, the dogs would have loved a run right now. It was dark (owls are nocturnal)... but not really dark enough. Light pollution from dozens of houses lining the Trail, headlights of cars roaring past on the roads, the old rail station of Hanover Junction (which Lincoln once visited) lit like a Christmas tree.
We left the parking lot, turned haw, north up the trail (at a considerably slower pace than the three screaming Siberians I normally leave Hanover Junction with). After discovering that wheelchairs go over bumps backwards (big wheels first) better than forwards, Rose-Anna finds a spot, we all stop in the semi-dark, turn off our red flashlights (the better to preserve your night vision and not scare the wildlife), turn on the CD player, and listen.
There were a number of screech owl calls on the CD, we'd heard them in the preliminary lecture. The two main ones are the "ghost horse whinny" a sort of eerie descending "whoooee eee eee eee eee!" and the tremelo, which sounds like giant crickets who might have a shot at winning American Idol (insect-like, but mellow). We played the whinny, waited, played it again, and from far off came a faint tremelo. Then another from another direction, and another.
The owls remained invisible. They are small (about the size of your hand, and the weight of a can of tuna), camoflaged (either tree-grey or mottled chestnut... with an occasional one in chocolate), and a prey item (larger owls eat them).
We moved farther up the trail, called again, to no avail. Turned, wrestled the wheelchair back over some bumps, listened to the sound of running water in the dark (a stream runs along the trail, making this prime screechie habitat). Stopped, played the calls. Stood straining our ears into the dark, past the distant dogs, the rush of traffic. Overhead Orion climbed up the sky.
No owls answered this time.
Another spot, farther south. We decide the CD player (cranked to max volume) is inadequate. We play it anyway, tweeting our message into the night.
Down the trail in the near-dark, more recorded calls. No answer from the wooded skyline. No answer from the pines lining the trail. From the bare branches of deciduous trees in backyards (prime nesting sites).
"Looks like we had all our luck at the beginning," someone says.
It's cold, we're thinking fondly of the hot chocolate and cookies waiting at the station. We head back, stop in the dark, play the CD. Move closer to the station...
Silence (of the owls, at least). Then the kid points off into the trees, dark brushstrokes against a deep slate sky. We strain our ears.
Nothing. That's it. Time to quit. To go in for chocolate. To warm up. No more owls tonight.
We are standing in front of the brightly lit station, someone jokes that the owl should land right there in that tree. Just picture it.
"Whee e eeeeeeeeeeeee eeeeeeeeeeee eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!" goes the CD.
And out of the dark comes an answer, a faint tremelo.
Then a pale flash against the dark trees, silent wings heading out of the canopy down to the bottomlands by the creek.
We stare after it, trying to guess where it went in the dark. We play the owl songs again.
We wait. You know that bated breath thing is a reference to wings...
And out of the dark comes a mothlike flash of pale grey. And the owl has settled on a branch right above our heads. It stares into our lights, into the lights of the rail station, whinnying at an owl that doesn't exist. From the other side of the station comes a faint answering tremelo. Someone fires off a camera (which refuses to focus in the dark). The owl, clearly one of the chestnut ones, stares and whinnies.
If we had given up a minute sooner...
Owl is seen by Native cultures as a messenger. As the Guardian of the Gates between worlds. Screechies are one of the species which are not endangered, not threatened... in fact, they're doing just fine. Part of the reason is they are generalists; they eat anything that moves, they aren't fussy about habitat, or nesting sites. Part of the reason is they are cryptic, camoflaged, hard to see. A tough little guy in a world of much larger predators. As a wildlife rehab volunteer, I have held them on a gloved hand, their wide eyes taking in more than ours ever could, their sharp little talons stronger than they look, their camo feathers covered in silencing velvet, the leading edges of their wings fringed to make them the stealth bombers of the bird world. A lot of awesome in a tiny package. I've known several personally: Dead-eye, the red one who looked like a mad wizard with her one-eyed squint. A little grey one we carried into lectures, making third graders go wide-eyed in amazement.
And then there is one owl in the dark, at the last moment before we gave up the Quest.