For the first time in four years, I went owling for the Peekskill Christmas Bird Count. On December 16, I left my home at 4 in the morning – too early for even my local Dunkin Donuts – to meet Charlie Roberto and Hillary Siener at Teatown, the latter of whom works as Teatown’s Director of Environmental Stewardship. (You’ve met Charlie in my 2016 Peekskill CBC post. I failed to mention that he is the captain of the Ossining circle. Christine McCluskey couldn’t join us. She moved away recently, so it was just Charlie and me for the rest of the day after owls.)
We launched at 4:30. Our first location was near the visitor’s center. We got out of the car. The tape recorder Charlie used for years finally died on him. Fortunately, Hillary had brought a speaker with her and she connected it to her device. She played Eastern Screech-Owl.
She heard the screech first, then Charlie. Only the woods and the snow reached my ears. After another half-minute of playback, and a couple more minutes waiting, I heard the screech for myself. It was somewhere in front of us to our right. I couldn’t gauge how far away it was, but it might be enough to say that I barely heard its whinny, a phrase of descending notes. My colleagues had far better ears than mine, having more experience.
The screech whinnied and whinnied and whinnied. It merely aimed to re-claim its territory. Hearing the call in the dead of a frigid night, behind so many leafless trees, I couldn’t help but romanticize it. Melancholic, lonesome, otherworldly, spiritual.
Next, we did playback of Barred and Great Horned. No response. Still, the screech whinnied, unperturbed by the “presence” of these larger owls, unyielding to the fact that “they” may eat it.
I heard the screech even as we went back to the car. I wondered how much longer it would keep calling.
Our next stop was less than a mile away from the visitor’s center, at a gravel lot by a couple trails. Hillary and Charlie tried the main three – Screech, Barred, Great Horned – plus a fourth contender, Northern Saw-Whet Owl. We perked up when we started hearing the “Who cooks for you?” phrase repeatedly. But, based on the direction from which the call came, Hillary concluded we were hearing Teatown’s captive Barred, hit by a car some time ago.
Moon barely a sliver, yesterday evening’s fresh snow cover lighted our night vision. Ready yet not ready for birding, I relented to resting my eyes more than once as I listened. I reassured/fooled myself that doing so would sharpen my hearing. Needless to say, I’m not one to fall asleep very easily. I had to utilize my vision in case an owl appeared in the trees around us. Charlie said that a Barred has done so before in this location during a count. He with his flashlight and Hillary with her headlamp slowly waved their lights across the tree branches.
Only the captive Barred called. We retreated to the car to drive somewhere else. For the next few locations, our playback yielded nothing. Get out of the car, play Screech, wait; play Barred, wait; played Great Horned, wait; get in the car, drive. Etc.
The idea of 16°F feels like nothing. Standing still in such a temperature for a few minutes as a breeze gently wafted through did more than chill my extremities. My toes hurt so much that the pain distracted my ability to concentrate. I overestimated insulated winter boots and one pair of wool socks. Forget foot warmers – I wanted to light my toes on fire.
We drove up to Cliffdale Farm. Charlie’s phone died. Hillary’s device was near-drained as well. Charlie hooted Barred, then Great Horned. Silence.
I had the idea to imitate Screech myself. As a joke, why not. Once in a while, an SMRA colleague of mine would whistle the Screech’s calls during her walks if pishing failed and she wanted to the birds to show up for her attendees. I once tried it out myself when I chased a red morph screech at another local park. That warranted no owl but I did get harassed by chickadees and nuthatches.
I whistled the whinny a few times and then a couple tremolos. Silence.
Charlie and Hillary thought I was doing playback on my own phone. I was caught off guard that they were impressed. “You’re doing that at the next spot,” said the former.
We drove to a pond off of Glendale Road. No sooner than did we climb out than Charlie told me start. I whinnied and tremolo’d a bit and paused. It took a few tries shake off my nervousness. After no response I whistled again.
Right away, a faint silhouette fluttered into the trees at eye level. Charlie immediately shined his flashlight. I froze.
“Saw-whet!” Charlie exclaimed.
Lifer! Target bird!
I wanted to keep the Saw-whet around as long as possible for him and Hillary, and thought that continuing to whinny would help. It took great effort to control my giddiness and not laugh, thus faltering my impression. I was beyond delighted that I got up at 3:30 to forsake sleep and warmth to go owling in the cold.
This Saw-whet seemed much larger than the rescue I saw at Sharon Audubon (in general, they are 7-8 inches tall). Hillary’s first impression was Screech. But that oversized head, cutesy face, and general coloring were far too dissimilar. Amazingly, the little one stayed where it perched, studying us, questioning what exactly dared to intrude on its territory. We all positively ID’d the owl as Saw-whet.
The Saw-whet then flitted to an adjacent tree. I wondered if stopping or continuing my whinnying would be better. I settled on continuing. I heard Hillary’s phone clicking away. Charlie rushed to retrieve his camera from the trunk. After roughly ten seconds, Charlie managed to focus. On cue, the Saw-whet flew into a small clump of hemlocks to the other side of the road. We rushed over. I whinnied more, but we saw the Saw-whet no more.
I couldn’t help but jump up and down in circles. After high-fives and Charlie’s camera regrets, we hopped back into the car and resumed owling. (Hillary’s photos came out horribly blurry, unluckily.) We visited a few more places with groves of pine and spruce. My Screech didn’t entice any more owls to respond until the very last location, Hawkes Avenue. A Great Horned hooted away in the distance. The more I whinnied, the more it hooted. When I paused, it paused.
7:00 passed. Night had already well-faded into day. We moved on to diurnal birds.