For some, the close of the holiday season may signal the time for human hibernation. Darkness falls well before dinnertime, the temperatures sink, and the greatest inclination may be to curl up on the couch with carbs and sugars. It's a time of inactivity, and surely the animals of the woods agree. Or would they?
"One of the good things about going out in the woods at night is just to listen to things in the woods," said Lauren Parmelee of the Audubon Society of Rhode Island.
This weekend, ASRI's Caratunk Wildlife Refuge is offering the first of several nighttime activities centered on one species that is quite active after the sun sets: owls.
"Screech owls, barred owls, and great horned owls are very active at this time of year," she said. "They're one of the earliest bird nesters."
The chances of seeing an owl are slim. As if the darkness weren't enough to hide them, owls have excellent camouflage and their feathers have evolved to the point where their flight is virtually silent. However, it's very possible to hear one calling in the night.
"Winter is a great time to listen for owls. When we go out, we're listening for courting pairs to call to each other," Parmelee said.
Unlike many other birds, owls are already exhibiting the traits of mating season. They're in the process of courting, establishing nests and laying eggs. The calls serve several purposes, according to Parmelee.
"The males are setting up territory, so they're letting others know that this area belongs to them. Also, they call to their mates to keep in contact."
With a bit of practice, the calls of each owl are easily distinguished.
The screech owl, which seems rather poorly named, does not actually "screech" at all. It makes a soft trilling sound, often from areas that are about chest height.
The barred owl is much louder, often calling from a 10- to 20-foot height, and its distinctive pattern sounds like "Who-cooks-for -YOU, who-cooks-for-YOU-all."
The great horned owl, the largest owl in Rhode Island, has its own distinctive call. According to the National Audubon website, "This tufted, yellow-eyed fellow is the owl world's version of Barry White. Its gravelly hoots carry far, and sound almost like a muffled foghorn from a distance. When pairs chant together the female goes first, followed closely by the male."
The great horned's voice often comes from the tops of pines: "hoo-HOO-hoo-hoo." Brush up on your owl call ID skills with a visit to www.audubon.org/news/learn-identify-five-owls-their-calls.
Despite the time of year, there are better ways to pass the winter's evening than retreating indoors. The calendar portion of ASRI's website (www.asri.org) has a variety of activities that will make the temptation to curl up on the couch less enticing.
Parmelee says outdoor hikers can be rewarded with a variety of experiences. "That's the good thing about going at night: deer, fox, coyote, raccoons, lots of predators hunt at night. One of the fun things about going out at night is to just listen to things in the woods!"
If you go ...
Audubon Caratunk Wildlife Refuge, 301 Brown Ave., Seekonk, will hold an Owl Prowl from 7 to 9 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 7. Lauren Parmelee, Education Coordinator for the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, reports the event is booked and there is a waiting list. However, there will be other opportunities to prowl for owls and other night creatures this winter. Here are a few:
Owling at Fisherville Brook
Jan. 13 and 27, 7 to 9 p.m.
Fisherville Brook Wildlife Refuge, 99 Pardon Joslin Road, Exeter, R.I.
Spend time with one of Audubon’s live owls then head out on the trails in search of creatures in their natural habitat. Advance registration required, limit 12 participants. Adults only. $15 members, $20 nonmembers. www.asri.org
Family Owl Prowl
Jan. 21, 5 to 6:30 p.m.
Oak Knoll Wildlife Sanctuary, 1417 Park St., Attleboro
Start indoors with an interactive owl presentation and owl pellet dissection, then head out on the trail to listen for evidence of owls. Suitable for children 7 to 18 years old. Members: Adult $8, child $6; nonmembers $10 and $8. Registration required. Call 508-223-3060 or go to www.massaudubon.org.
Owls and Ales
Feb. 17, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.
Audubon Environmental Education Center, 1401 Hope St., Bristol, R.I.
Participants can take in an owl presentation while enjoying locally brewed beers and snacks. Then there’s a guided walk through the refuge to look and listen for owls and other signs of wildlife. Cost is $30/members, $35/nonmembers. For ages 21+. Register online at www.asri.org.
Who’s Out There: Winter Wildlife Prowl
Feb. 18, 7 to 8:30 p.m.
Stony Brook Wildlife Sanctuary, 108 North St., Norfolk
Event starts with a Power Point presentation of the many creatures that roam the wetlands, fields and forest after dark. Then you’ll practice your owl hoots and head out on the trail to look and listen. Afterward, warm up with hot chocolate. Prowl coincides with full moon. Suitable for kids 7 to 16 years old. Members $8, nonmembers $11. Registration required. Call 508-528-3140 or go to www.massaudubon.org.
Hugh Markey is a freelance writer, naturalist and teacher. Read more of his work on his “Science and Nature for a Pie” blog at www.scienceandnatureforapie.com. Follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/scienceandnatureforapie.