All it takes is patience and a little creativity to make urban owl spotting as much fun for kids as it is for grown-ups.
By Bernadette Noll
Several years ago, near the time of our family’s official foray into birding, my husband and I were sitting in our south Austin yard with friends, enjoying an early spring evening. The sun was setting, the temperature was perfect in that way that makes spring palpable, and a trill whistle came from one of the pecan trees. “That’s an owl,” said our friend Brian, a generations-deep Texan. We were amazed at the idea of an owl in our midst, having never seen one before outside of a zoo.
Over the next few evenings, we were on a mission. Each day at twilight we would search the yard. The calls continued, but despite our silence and perseverance, we could not spot a bird. Finally, there it was: a little owl, no bigger than a pigeon, perched in the branches of a big pecan. At first, because of its gray color against tree bark, the bird was completely camouflaged. Once in our view, however, it was like staring at a magic-eye painting that could not be viewed any other way. We all stared at the bird and it seemed to stare right back. We were motionless in its spell. Suddenly the bird soared across the yard just a few feet above our heads and landed on a mulberry branch. It stared again, several feet above our heads, all of us in awe of this spectacular owl. It seemed small for an owl, at least for the owls of our imaginings, but big for a yard bird and for all that it represented; its mystery dating back to prehistoric man — and still we feel the enchantment.
That night we examined a field guide, albeit a rather mediocre one we owned at the time, and identified our bird as an eastern screech-owl. For the next few weeks we counted on the bird like clockwork. Always it arrived just at sunset, and always too it landed on the same group of branches, making it easy to follow. One such branch was just a foot or so out a second-story window. There we’d perch, all of us clustered around, with lights off awaiting its arrival. This allowed us to observe from a close vantage point as long as we were slow and steady in our movement and quiet in our voices. Sometimes this was difficult; for all of us really, but especially for the kids, as the excitement that accompanied each spotting was immense. To see it and not shout out was the ultimate in self-control. On the evenings we were late to our post, the owl’s quavering whistles were loud enough to alert us from the house.
After several nights of seeing just one, we suddenly saw two, following each other through the trees. We couldn’t locate a nest, but did see them mate and were shocked when a third owl came in like a rocket, diving competitively at the amorous pair. To not anthropomorphize their behavior proved difficult as we imagined life for a love-scorned owl.
For several weeks they were visible: calling back and forth and flying across the yard and on into the evening’s sky. Then, without warning they vanished from our sight. Many weeks later they were audible again. After a springtime of nesting, raising their young and encouraging their fledglings, the adults were in our yard again, calling to each other. Each year the pattern repeated.
A few years after our first owls, and several field guides and optics later, a query to our neighborhood showed us that ours were not the only owls. Within minutes of asking what owls were around Bouldin Creek, a flurry of e-mails hit our mailbox. Some knew exactly what they had seen or heard. Others knew only that it was an owl of some kind with the only description being small or large. Others could identify the call, “Was it who-cooks-for-you? Who’s-awake/me-too? Or more of a whinny?” The final tally showed neighborhood-wide reports of eastern screech, great horned and a regular residency of barred owls.
After so many reports of these barred owls, we prepared for an owl prowl with our children, Lucy, Otto and Esme. We find that talking up a bird outing, looking at field guides and listening to birdcalls via Internet really helps when birding with kids. By the time we arrived at the block leading to the creek where the birds had last been heard, we were raring to go.
As we neared the creek Lucy heard the call. Excitedly she said in what could only be called a whispering yell, “I hear owls! I heard it! Who-cooks-for-you!” Sure enough, as we listened, there were the calls, loud as could be.
We stood at the base of a tall pecan tree, trying to spot the bird in the last light of day. We were spotted by more than one neighbor, curious about this group standing in the street seemingly scoping out their houses. We assured them with a laugh that we weren’t peeping toms. Some knew of the owls, while others, who lived in what must have been soundproof houses, knew nothing of the birds. My husband is hesitant, though, to do solo urban owl prowls; a man lurking in the streets with binoculars at dusk can only raise suspicions.
Otto started to get a little restless, as five-year-old boys are wont to do, and so we directed him to a large magnolia branch that had fallen nearby. He hoisted it and marched away, up the sidewalk. While the kids are often into birding, sometimes distractions are necessary. And when that fails? We tag team.
Finally, three immense barred owls flew over our heads and into a tree across the street. We shined a light, and, if our five-year-old’s attention had been waning, it was captured once again with the view of these magnificent birds. Spellbound, we watched until weary eyes could not stay open, and we headed home, tired, but happy.
Another night my husband and I were awakened from a deep sleep by the sound of two great horned owls courting each other in the giant cottonwood tree next door. We watched from an open window as the two owls called boisterously back and forth. Never before was disturbed sleep quite as glorious as this.
Early Birders are Lifelong Birders
Julia Balinsky is the youth educator for Travis Audubon Society, which hosts an annual one-day Youth Birding Camp. She and her husband, Andy, are avid birders. “In our yard,” she said, “we had seen a barred owl once. And had heard eastern screech-owls but had not seen one. When we registered for wedding gifts at Breed & Co., we put an owl box on our wish list.”
The box was installed in November 2003, and by March 2004 the Balinskys had their first owls: a rare red female and a gray male. The pair produced two owlets. Inspired by the owl cam of neighbor Chris Johnson, the Balinskys installed an exterior video camera to watch the owls’ comings and goings. In 2005, the Balinskys got even more up close and personal with the addition of an interior constant-feed, infrared Web cam. “During the first few weeks we tuned in constantly. The most exciting thing was seeing freshly hatched baby owls. Amazing!” Next year? Sound.
Even though Andy grew up in a birding household and was interested in nature, he was never thrilled by the idea of studying and identifying birds. It wasn’t until his mom gave him his own field guide that his interest was truly sparked. “I think to get a kid interested in birding, adults have to allow them to do the work,” he said. “Give them their own optics and bird book and allow them to make the ID and to appreciate the beauty. This gives a sense of ownership of the skills rather than just one more instruction from adults.”
Byron Stone, a top-notch birder and son of a devoted naturalist, agrees, “Give kids their own binoculars, or make sure they get a good look through the scope.” For Stone, childhood birdwatching expeditions meant one pair of binoculars was handed around the car after his mom called out a bird, “By the time the binoculars got to me, the bird had invariably flown.” Stone’s other advice is to show a kid the gaudy birds. “I remember my mom showing me a vermilion flycatcher, and I was hooked.” Though Stone’s own teenage son ardently declares himself a nonbirder, even he had to admit a male vermilion flycatcher was pretty cool. “And,” Stone says, “every now and then he takes a pretty good bird picture.”
Cliff Shackelford is an ornithologist for TPWD who began birding at age nine. “I hate to admit it but I was a BB-gun kid. My parents told me to stop shooting things and and bought me binoculars and a Peterson field guide. From then on I just watched. We lived in Dallas but had a family place in the country where my brother and I just explored like crazy.”
Shackelford started making screech owl boxes while in grad school in Nacogdoches, working under the tutelage of a retiree friend. With a few modifications to the original, Shackelford eventually created his own design. “The entrance is widened so that an owl could actually perch there instead of just squeezing in and out.”
Years later, at a Christmas party for the TPWD Wildlife Diversity Program, Shackelford gave out nearly 40 owl boxes to coworkers and challenged them all to see who would get their box up first and host the first owl tenant. Six months later, 80 percent of the boxes were up. Shackelford and his wife installed the rest. The only caveat was that people report when the box was inhabited. “Sometimes they wouldn’t tell me they had an owl until six months later!”
In most urban landscapes, dead trees and limbs with cavities are cut down, thereby eliminating possible roosting and nesting spots. “An owl box won’t attract owls to an area,” Shackelford says, “but if they’re around, the boxes give them a place to roost and nest.”
Victor Emanuel is a native Texan and started birding as a boy in Houston. He is past president of the Texas Ornithological Society and founder of world-renowned Victor Emanuel Nature Tours. His work has taken him around the globe, yet Emanuel still enjoys birding the streets, alleys and parks near his home in Austin. “I love walking through Stacy Park. I’d love to one day do a natural history of the park and list all the things I see there throughout the year,” he said. Emanuel often walks the trail along the creek and has seen and heard dozens of screech owls over the years. “I watched as three clumsy fledglings lit on the backstop at the ball field. They just kind of banged into the fence. They aren’t very elegant fliers, but they sure are cute.”
Of all Emanuel’s birding accomplishments of all the recognition from birders and avian societies around the world, Emanuel feels his greatest accomplishment is the start of birding camps for young people. “When I was a kid I knew no other kids who were interested in birding. This camp introduces young birders to others who share their interest.”
Youth education is very important to Emanuel. “I think all young children love and are drawn to the natural world. If they have a mentor at a young age, it can be a lifelong love.” While spending time on Bolivar Peninsula, he was asked by a local minister to lead the youth group on a bird walk. Emanuel took the group to High Island, one of North America’s important birding spots. “I had a young girl, about eight years old, look at a catbird through the scope. As she peered through, which I’m sure she had never done before, she whispered, ‘This is awesome.’ All that enthusiasm for a black and gray bird; it’s fantastic.”
Sometimes in our urban enclave, we are awakened by the sounds of crashing dumpsters, bass-heavy radios or bands playing too loud and too late. The temptation then is to shut the house and block the noise. Sometimes though, the hooting of owls courting outside our window stirs us from our slumber. That is a reminder to keep our windows cracked and our ears peeled, in order to experience the true wildness of urban life. Wild is in our own backyards.