A nighttime search for elusive backyard owls

MARQUETTE — “In the still of the night, I held you, held you tight,” – Fred Parris

When I woke up, the room was bathed in a wash of blue-light, television glow. I had fallen asleep on the couch. It was now about 4 o’clock in the morning.

I shut off the box and walked my snack dishes out to the kitchen in the darkness. When I got there, I could see through the window above the sink that a misty kind of fog had enveloped the backyard.

I stepped outside to see what there was to hear and perhaps see.

I checked to tops of the trees for any silhouettes of owls that might be perched out there. By this I mean great-horned owls, which often sit in the open. Barred owls are often less likely to be perched at the top of a tree.

Even less-so in this fashion are the little saw-whet owls. Barred and saw-whet owls can become prey of great horned owls if they aren’t careful. This is my guess why they don’t favor the open perches.

However, there were no owls to see or hear.

The early morning was still and quiet. I sensed a softness that isn’t typical. Maybe it was the dense air that made me feel as though I was standing, wrapped in some type of cozy close quarters or within a blanket or coat.

Another factor may have been that the early morning temperature was warm for what we’ve been having lately. I love those moments when it seems the whole world is asleep and dreaming – the whole world except me.

I need those peaceful moments, often when everyone else has gone to bed, to be able to let my mind and spirit relax after the day. Calm and cool, soft and easy, moments to just soak up the quiet.

Doing so opens-up my entire existence to so many good things – notions of peace, hope, love and joy, maybe even better days to come.

The woods spirits that walk around in those quiet early hours, before the birds start their day, seem to be the benevolent type. There was no visible moon or stars, no glance at Venus available.

I decided to break the silence by whistling for the saw-whet owl. It has been around the house for a while now, but I haven’t been able to hear it for the past couple of nights.

The sound of the saw-whet owl singing is not the namesake sound it makes at the nest resembling a knife drawn against a sharpening stone.

Rather, the song is a persistent tooting of one note, reminiscent of a back-up alarm on a truck or other heavy equipment vehicle.

Early ornithologists and American Indians may be among the first to summon the owl after imitating their song. I call them by whistling.

And so, I began.

The general method for calling owls is to offer a whistle, hoot or other imitation of the intended species over a period of about 30 seconds, then wait for a couple of minutes to see if you hear any response.

If the owl responds and the conversation continues, repeating these simple steps may draw it nearer. The sound may then suddenly stop.

If it does, this is often an indication that the owl has moved to within just a few feet of you and is likely sitting on a perch watching.

At that point, it is a good idea to shine a flashlight at the trees around you. The beam of the light will often find bright yellow eyes glowing back toward the light.

Great horned and saw-whet owls have bright yellow eyes. Barred owl eyes appear black but reflect red or dark cherry when a light is shone on them.

Great horned owls are the largest of these three owl species we have in our yard. They have ear tufts that look like a cat’s ears. Barred and saw-whet owls have rounded heads, with no ear tufts.

Barred owls are medium-sized, with the saw-whets measuring only about 8 inches from the top of the head to the tip of the tail.

I waited to hear a response. For the first few seconds, there was nothing.

I whistled and waited again.

This time, the sound I heard off in the distance made me chuckle to myself.

Somewhere off to the southeast, I heard the back-up beeping of what was likely a municipal dump truck or plow truck working on overnight snow removal.

Then, a few seconds later, from behind me to my left and a good distance off, came the soft tooting of a saw-whet owl.

Was it singing in response to me or the truck?

I decided to whistle back a couple more times.

The sound of the truck and the owl continued. The owl did appear to move a little closer but then the singing stopped. I shone my light around me into the trees, but I didn’t see anything.

I kept waiting for the truck to stop making its alarm noise before I whistled again, but it kept going and going. However, the owl did not.

After five minutes or so I decided to go back inside to get some sleep.

The next night, I was sitting in the living room thinking about going out to listen for the owl again. I was waiting until the television show I was watching got over with.

Before that happened, I heard a noise like a weird kind of mean growling or yelping coming from outside. I got up and headed for the window in the dining room. I could hear the sound was coming from that side of the house.

When I got to the window, I shone my light through the glass on two figures out there in the darkness near the ground. It was two young-looking raccoons pushing each other away from sunflower seeds discarded by birds under our feeding station.

The light from the flashlight didn’t bother them whatsoever. They just looked up from their scratching at the ground and chowing down on the seeds and husks.

I got my camera and slipped quietly out the back door, hoping to get around to that side of the house to get a picture or two.

The Queen of Shebis stood in the dining room keeping the light on the raccoons so my automatic focus could lock onto something.

When I appeared at the edge of the house, one of the raccoons saw me and started to back away from the seeds and turn toward the front yard, like it was thinking, “OK, OK, I’m going.”

I didn’t move and the raccoon turned back to join its presumed brother or sister.

I took three or four pictures.

The clicking of the camera seemed to startle them a little and they stopped eating and looked at me.

“It’s OK,” I said. “You’re alright.”

They immediately turned around scampered across the side yard toward the neighbor’s house. I think this might have been the first time they had heard a human voice before.

My guess is it won’t by any means be the last time, given their habits of trash can and bird feeder robbing.

I discovered that flying squirrels are another animal that doesn’t mind having the beam of a flashlight shone on them.

Over the past couple of months, there have been two of these pleasant and amazing creatures frequenting the suet feeders on a tree in the front yard. They are fun to watch as they run very quickly up and down the trunk of the maple trees out there.

The raccoons are new to our yard, but the owls and the flying squirrels have been frequent visitors over the past few years. Soon, I’ll be hearing the loons at night too.

Last spring, the saw-whet owl would sing back and forth with me, but it never came close enough to see. From the sound, it appeared to be coming from out on one of the islands offshore and across the county road from our house.

Those wee hours, before the break of dawn are said to be the darkest. That may be true. For me, they are also among the quietest and best hours.

It’s a time for refreshing the mind and the spirit, a time for deep breaths of cool air, and an easing of tensions of the day.

It’s also a time to commune with my friends of the forest around me.

What’s not to love?

— — —

Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula.


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