An Owlish January
(posted 2-2-08)

When I woke up on January 9th I had never once seen a Long-Eared Owl. By noon I'd seen eight, all but one in the same tree!

Starting off a new year with an easy "lifer" is great. It happened in 2007, too, when I spotted the pair of Harlequin Ducks that lingered for at least six weeks near Chicago's North Avenue Beach.

The roosting Long-Eared Owls also were "downtown birds," and that's what made them a big story—for birders and the general public alike. Chicago's major newspapers and several TV stations provided coverage, a few employing all-too-predictable phrases like "birdwatchers are flocking" and "giving a hoot." But that was OK. It really was a remarkable natural event and I, for one, was happy to see it play out in such a public manner. A lot of people were able to see their first owl of any kind in the wild, and right in the city!

A nice side story is that the occasion afforded a terrific teaching opportunity. That's because the roost site was in a park next to a South Loop elementary school. Easy to observe owls, just outside the classroom—what could be better?

For me it was a simple matter of jumping on a bus during lunch hour. I left my office at Tribune Tower at 11:30 and was back in exactly 60 minutes. Even the CTA worked in my favor that day! It was a noon-time owl prowl that I'll never forget.

Later in January I had another owl encounter and a teaching opportunity of my own. This time the event was in my own backyard, thanks to a visiting Great-Horned Owl. I was outside filling the feeders about 6:15 when I heard the unmistakable hoots. It really surprised me because I'd never heard an owl so early in the evening—two or three in the morning is more typical. So without wasting another second I ran through the garage and swung open the door to the kitchen, calling for Rachel (age 12) and Jay (7) to put on their coats and boots.
The kids mobilized quickly, trusting that my own state of excitement signified something worthy of their efforts. Back outside, the owl was still calling, and from pretty close range. I suggested that we listen for a minute or two before attempting to actually see the bird. Then, after creeping to the back corner of the yard, I spotted the bird at the top of a tall pine, about one lot over. A second later, the big owl lifted off. Jay was at my side and got a quick glimpse. Rachel didn't see the bird but hearing it was all that really mattered. She and her little brother really seemed pleased by the experience, which lasted all of five minutes. Or were they were just humoring their "bird man" father? Nah.

So for me, January was mostly about owls. But one other highlight this winter has been the Hermit Thrush that I mentioned in my previous post. This winter rarity continues to drink from the heated birdbath, and that's all the motivation I need to keep cleaning and filling the saucer every day, no matter what the weather conditions. It makes me feel needed. Truth is, the thrush and all the other birds give me a lot more than I give them.

Copyright 2008 by Jeff Reiter. All Rights Reserved.