DNRT invites intrepid birders on nighttime ‘owl prowls’

Jan 19, 2024

Under the dim light of the waxing crescent moon, the small group of people stood still and listened in silence. Skeletal branches creaked overhead. Fall leaves rustled over the snow-crusted dirt. And then, piercing the darkness— a quivering, high-pitched cry.

“It’s a screech owl,” someone whispers excitedly.  

The Dartmouth Natural Resources Trust has been hosting its winter “owl prowls” for the past five years for anyone willing to brave the dark forest on a frigid January night. Winter is the owls’ mating season, a time when these elusive, nocturnal birds are most vocal and active as they search for mates. 

Kendra Parker, the DNRT’s development and outreach specialist, led an owl prowl on the night of Jan. 17 at the Slocum’s River Reserve. 

Searching for owls takes patience, a keen eye and silence. An ideal night for owl prowling is one without wind or snow on the ground, as boots crunching over snow or ice can scare an owl off. The quieter, the better. 

Owl prowlers also need some special equipment. Doing your best “hoo hoo”  impression of a Great Horned Owl won’t cut it.  

Now and then, Parker would stop and play specific owl calls with her portable speaker. The group would stand quiet and listen intently for a response. If an owl responded, the group would move toward it, gradually honing in on the owl’s location. 

 “They’re fascinating birds, you don’t often see them,” Parker said. “They’re special. It’s different than just doing backyard birding. You have to hunt for them, call for them. It’s not easy. There’s a challenge.”

Owls don’t always respond, and some owl prowls are more successful than others. At an owl prowl last winter, Ken and Donna Piva heard two Great Horned Owls calling to each other. 

“Everybody knows what an owl is,” Ken said. “But how many people actually see owls or even hear them? They’re all around us, and so this is an opportunity to see them, because you’re not going to see them during the daytime.”

Unlike most birds, owls are silent when they fly, a unique adaptation that allows them to attack their prey undetected. This is because an owl’s feathers are uniquely evolved to muffle and absorb sound, Parker explained. A rabbit would never know what hit it.  

“You’re not going to hear an owl coming,” Parker said. “If an owl is flying toward us, you won’t know it until you see it.”

While some marvel at the owl’s strange and creepy qualities, like their ability to turn their heads 270 degrees, others enjoy owls because they’re cute.

“They look so soft and cuddly,” Donna said. 

No owl walk is like another. Some nights creep by without sight or sound of an owl. But with enough patience and some warm clothing, those chilly nights can pay off with some memorable moments. There’s no telling when an owl might suddenly reveal itself, as happened to Parker on an owl walk last year. 

“We went out one year and it was somewhere between 5 and 7 degrees, so it was absolutely freezing,” she said. “Most of the people who signed up for the walk didn’t come. But we had a barred owl come and sit directly in front of us. It was on a branch maybe 5 feet away. It was awesome.”

But even if an owl doesn’t make an appearance, just getting outside and being in nature is enough for some. For Ken, night walks allow him to experience familiar trails as though he were walking them for the first time. 

“It’s a unique opportunity to come out here in the evening and go on a trail that you may have done dozens of times, but at night, it’s an entirely different scenario,” Ken said. 

The Dartmouth Natural Resources Trust holds outdoors events like these year round. Visit dnrt.org to learn about other upcoming events to get out and experience Dartmouth’s wild side. 

 “We take nature for granted, and this way, we don’t,” Donna said of the owl prowls and events like it. “We appreciate it more. It’s provided for us to come and enjoy and learn.”