Yesterday I took an impromptu trip to do some more owling. I have been very lucky the past couple of years and I’ve managed to find a Long eared owl at Peace Valley in PA. In previous posts I have always left out the place where I find the owls so as to ‘protect’ them from harassment. I’ve been having a raging debate about this with myself since I started this blog because I’m not that sure that people watching owls will necessarily scare them off. In my experience owls are pretty tolerant of people, although extreme cases do occur. A few years back a Northern Hawk Owl was spotted in the Northeast and crowd of people showed up and literally turned the place in a zoo. People were releasing mice that were running into neighborhood houses, they were trampling around in people’s yards etc etc. These are extreme cases and unfortunately many of us still use them as a yardstick when sharing owl locations with others. I personally think it’s silly, yet I still follow that convention for the most part - more on that later.
In the case of Peace Valley I mention the place primarily because it’s very large and the owls are not in an obvious location close to where most birders would look. They are also not easy to find even if you know where to look. So how did I find them you may ask – DUMB luck mixed in with persistence. I simply look for good locations and then I spend several hours walking around scanning the trees and the ground. Unless someone shares an owl location with you (which is very rare) this is the way that most people find owls. Yesterday I headed back to where I found the single owl last year and I struck out. That immediately puts a little bit of doubt in your mind. I tried to scan below the trees but it was hard to see any pellets or whitening as the ground was freshly snow covered. Fast forward a few hours and this is what I came upon.
BINGO – Owl time! I could clearly see the back of the owl, but when I moved around to the front of the tree I couldn’t see it. It always amazes me how consistently this happens. If I had come from the opposite side I wouldn’t have seen this owl. That’s why it’s important to scan all around each tree which makes owling a time consuming effort . After some serious maneuvering and looking STRAIGHT up I managed to locate the owl. It was a Long eared owl and he/she seemed not to have even noticed me. The eyes were shut, it was all puffed up and the ear tufts were down. This owl was clearly ignoring me and catching some zzzzs. I took a few photos and watched the owl through my binocs for some time.
Did I mention that seeing the owl required me to tilt my head back and look DIRECTLY up? Those of you that have done warbler watching know exactly what I’m talking about. At one point I was taking a photo which required manually focusing the camera to enable my lens to shoot through the branches and as I was doing this, I realized that I was looking at the back of another owl - Holy smokes. Ok, so in this case I may have got lucky approaching from two sides although the other two sides wouldn’t have given a view of either owl. Hey, I always say it’s betta to be lucky than good.
Here are some snaps of owl number two. This one was definitely the scout of the couple and it was watching me intently as I moved around. I took a few snaps and then I decided to see what else I could see.
Ok so here’s where my predicament occurs. As I walking out of the evergreen grove I ran into another birder in his late 20's. I immediately thought of the owls and the fact that it was almost Christmas and I was VERY tempted to show him the owls. Instead I said hi and asked him what he was looking for and he mentioned that a rare Thrush (Varied thrush) had been seen in the area. Aha, that explains all the cars in the parking lot. The guy didn’t seem overly friendly and owling convention prevailed and I kept ’my’ owls a secret. I’d love to hear whether you think I did the right thing or whether I was being a smuck. In hindsight I think I should have shown him the owls, much like I would do if I found a perched Bald eagle. What’s the big deal? Surely he wouldn’t have posted the owls’ location on his Facebook page and if he did, how many people would brave the cold winds to see two owls at the top of the tree. What do you think???