It was a cold, but beautiful, evening when approximately 45 people joined me and others for a winter owl hike at the Meigs SWCD Conservation Area in Rutland, Ohio last weekend.
The featured speaker was Ron Cass, a wildlife expert for the Hocking College School of Natural Resources who gave a presentation on owls that live in southeastern Ohio. Michelle Tarian, our AmeriCorps worker, co-arranged the event along with Joe Jennings, a graduate student at Ohio University.
We learned there are several species of owls found in our part of the state with the “big three” being the Great Horned Owl, Barred Owl and Eastern Screech Owl. Other owls occasionally include the little Saw-whet Owl, Barn Owl and even – on rare occasions – the Snowy Owl, but usually when we see an owl around here it is one of those first three species.
While we all know that owls are birds of prey that fly by night on silent wings, we learned that they use their ears as much as they do their keen eyes to ferret out their next meal.
I am often amazed to find out just how little I know about things, so I didn’t realize that now is the time of year when owls are breeding. I guess I thought of them like most other birds, busy in the springtime with romance, building nests and raising young.
Ron went into great detail about owls, how they are different from other birds, and how as he succinctly put it, “They have hooters.”
The Great Horned Owl speaks with four low, deep hoots, the Barred Owl with a series of eight hoots that is often associated with saying “Who cooks for you, who cooks for y’all,” and the Eastern Screech Owl just screeches and trills in a scary, creepy way that is often compared to a horse whinnying and which probably gives rise to stories of people hearing wildcats or women crying in the woods at night.
After the discussion, giving it enough time to get dark, the group set out on a short hike up the Pauline Atkins Trail to listen for owls. We could hear an owl off in the distance and Ron tried his best to coax a Barred Owl toward the group but they just weren’t cooperating. Perhaps the owls had something better happening on their side of the ridge, who knows?
We are also trying to plan other events to enable people of all ages to enjoy the world out-of-doors and more specifically the Conservation Area.
Due to its rural setting far from the lights of town or neighboring power plants the Conservation Area could be well-suited for an amateur astronomy night. We are currently looking at nights around the new moon of March 12 (which will bring with it possible viewing of Comet Pan-STARRS – named for the Pan-STARRS telescope and observatory in Hawaii where it was discovered in 2011) and also around the new moon of Dec. 3, which should include a dazzling view of Comet ISON.
While Pan-STARRS is not anticipated to be particularly brilliant, it is anticipated that ISON could be particularly dazzling, perhaps even visible during daylight, but as comet hunter David Levy once said, “Comets are like cats; they have tails and they do precisely what they want.”
In much the same way as it is hard to predict what owls, comets, cats, butterflies and little girls will do, it is equally difficult to predict what the weather will be like several months in advance, but with a little luck we will be rewarded with clear skies and beautiful stargazing conditions.
By the way, unlike Halley’s Comet which appears every 75-76 years (and was a dud when it last showed up in 1986) astronomers predict Pan-STARRS and ISON may never show up again, giving us only one chance to admire these heavenly visitors.
As the year progresses, stay tuned to learn more about what is going on at the Conservation Area, visit www.meigsswcd.com or “like” the Meigs SWCD Conservation Area on Facebook.
Jim Freeman is the wildlife specialist for the Meigs Soil and Water Conservation District and a long-time contributor to the Sunday Times-Sentinel. His column, In the Open, generally appears every other Sunday, and he can be contacted weekday at 740-992-4282 or at email@example.com