We stood in the pine groove surrounded by trees. The sun had sunk below the horizon and twilight had settled in.
The tall straight evergreens towered one hundred feet above us. The feathery green branches further shaded the grove. A thick carpet of shed brown pine needles covered the forest floor.
We held our heads back and scanned the high tree branches for the barrel shapes of Great Horned Owls. We stood and listened.
This was my first owl prowl, a group of people walking single-file through the woods after dark, looking and listening for owls. We were about twenty people, both children and adults, with a fascination for owls. The “owl-powlers” met in the workshop before we entered the pine groove. In the center we met two educator owls who live at the rehab center, Loki, an Eastern Screech Owl (Otis asio) and Jackson, a Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus). We were given a crash course on owl anatomy , vocalizations and eating habits.
The owls that live in the Schuylkill Center were healed at the rehabilitation center and could not be released into freedom. With their damaged wings and they could not hunt.
The pine woods is a nesting and roosting site for Great-Horneds. The bare branches of delicious trees can’t camouflage a Great Horned Owl. The large owl would stick out and warn potential prey. But the dense covered branches of conifers are perfect for hiding, waiting, and watching.
As the dark fell all around us. White streaks of owl droppings marked the tree trunks and alerted us to where a Great Horned has roosted and defecated. We shined flashlights in the thick pine needles beneath the trees. We knew to look for owl pellets at the base of stained trees.
A quiet and patience little girl found our first owl pellet. It was large and dark. The larger the owl, the bigger the pellets, she found a pellet large enough to be from a Great Horned Owl. Pellets are masses of the undistinguishable bits of the owls last meal.
Before we ventured into the dark we dissected an owl pellet. My pellet contained the remains of a mouse. An owl can’t eat again until the pellet of the last meal is regurgitated, usually seven hours later.
With the finding of the owl pellets, we knew Great Horned Owls roosted in the pine grove. We stopped to listen for the distinct call of the big birds.
For Great Horned Owls, January is mating season. Even though Great Horned Owls, stay with the same mate year after year, they still court each January.
After a late January-early February mating, the female will lay two or three, white golf-ball round eggs in the abandoned nest of a hawk, crow, heron, tree cavity or hollow stump. They are the earliest nesters of all owls.
We heard the soft courting calls of the Great Horned Owl, but we didn’t see them. They were so well hidden in the dark.
It was getting late and we walked out of the grove. As we walked along the dark path, a shadowy figure swooped down into the undergrowth, a distance away on our right. We saw shadows and heard owl calls in the distance. The dark descent moon had not risen in the sky yet. And the group of “owl-prowlers”, big and small walked single file back through the woods.