I brought my headlamp since it was a night hike, but I never needed it. Light reflected off the newly fallen snow and seemed to glow all around us as we quietly crunched up a hill into the trees. We were in search of owls, and embracing the winter night was all part of the fun.
We had met up with staff and members of the Hollow Oak Land Trust for one of their winter events—the Owl Prowl! Hollow Oak protects and maintains greenspaces generally between the city and the Airport. We were on Hollow Oak’s Trout Run Conservation Area, a property somewhat between Robinson and the airport. Though surrounded by development, all of Hollow Oak’s properties are well maintained as gems of habitat for local wildlife—little oases. The owls in our area aren’t migratory, so quite literally any time of the year is a good time to listen for owls. We were on the look-out for three species in particular that are known to be on the Hollow Oak Land Trust properties: the Eastern Screech Owl, the Barred Owl, and the Great Horned Owl.
Eastern Screech Owl
I absolutely love these sassy little owls. They’re small enough to forever garner the question “Is it a baby?” yet tough enough proudly bear the title “bird of prey” and hunt small mammals that weigh more than they do! Screech owls will prey on a variety of rodents, including squirrels and rats, in addition to some small birds, frogs, crayfish, and even a variety of insects and worms. This species also has a range of color morphs, from a rusty rufous to gray to brown.
Barred Owls are famous for their distinctive call “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you?” though they can make some other sounds. They don’t have the ear tufts that Great Horned Owls and Screech Owls do (though the feather tufts aren’t actually over their ears anyway), and at 16-20 inches tall they are only slightly smaller than great horneds.
Great Horned Owl
Who, who, who, who? This is this nebby feathered friend who always asks “Who?” Great Horned Owls are large, stately birds with a taste for anything they can catch. They’ll hunt everything from rodents to rabbits to skunks plus flighted dinners like ducks, crows, and other owls. The great horneds can be found across the continent as far north into Canada as the tundra (though they are primarily forest birds), and they even have a presence in Central and South America.
As we hiked through the woods, we occasionally played recordings of the screech owl and the barred owl, hoping to perhaps draw them closer if they were in the vicinity. Importantly, though, we never played a great horned’s call. The Great Horned Owl is a predator of both the Eastern Screech Owl and the Barred Owl. If we’d played that call, it certainly would have scared away the other two species, but we also didn’t want to specifically attract a great horned in case we had brought in either of the other two species near us. (Note: playing recordings of bird calls should only be done with extreme caution. Calling birds too often, playing particular combinations of calls, calling during different times of year, etc. can all stress birds or spook them away from an area—possibly for good. Be kind to your feathered friends, even when that means not seeing them.)
As we listened into the dark for the call of the feathered night-dwellers, the soft crunching of the frozen leaves and snow was occasionally interrupted by the dull roar of an airplane or a distant siren from the general direction of the Robinson area. It was a strange contrast: one moment feeling so completely enmeshed in the magical fairy world of a snowy night—a world we humans rarely seek anymore—and the next moment being reminded of the technology, concrete, engines, mochas, and fleece blankets that I call home. It certainly gives you pause. It also occurred to me that we spent two hours outside and I don’t know if I had ever spent two hours in dark, snowy, woods like that before. If you never have either…try it sometime. Not alone, of course! But the city of Pittsburgh has quite a number of amazing organizations that organize events like this. Take advantage of them! (See: Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, Allegheny County Parks, Allegheny Land Trust, etc.)
And in case you were wondering, yes…we did hear owls 🙂 We definitely heard at least one and possibly two little screech owls. I honestly would have enjoyed walking through the snowy trails even without hearing the birds, but their whinny-like call echoing through the woods was ethereal, haunting, and most definitely magically exciting.
Cherry on top—we had just spent two hours walking up and down hills in the cold. Of course we had to follow that up with a stack of pancakes at the Robinson IHOP. It wrapped up quite fantastic evening of owls, prowls, and stomach growls.
Thank you to the staff at Hollow Oak Land Trust for organizing a fun adventure!