This article was written by Martha Hayden and originally appeared on The Restless Viking website on January 10, 2023.
“When you go owling you have to be brave.” This quote has strummed through my mind since I had read the children’s book, Owl Moon, by Jane Yolen in the early 1990’s. As a result, I have dedicated a fair part of my family’s lives to night time and early morning hikes in hopes of spying an owl in nature. Chuck, my husband, even bought us an owl call. “When you go owling you don’t need words or warm or anything but hope. . . The kind of hope that flies on silent wings under a shining Owl Moon.” (Quotes are from Owl Moon.)
In the summer of 1993 my cousin, Erin, and I routinely strode through Fort Benning’s wooded trials as daylight crested the hills, however we usually got distracted when we found Army units doing physical training. Then, we’d go out for breakfast. Sadly, we never saw an owl on our capers.
Years later, my husband and our two children had became my owling partners. I have continued to carry the hope of seeing this species in its habitat.
Wittenbach’s Owl Caper
Finally, just a few years ago, I saw an owl on a guided tour in Lowell. It was magical! One moonlit, winter evening at Wittenbach Agri-Science Center our talented leader, Gregory Swanson, vocalized his well-practiced, precise calls which brought in an barred owl. My spine still shivers when I share that the owl had perched on the branch enchanting our assembly, “For one minute, three minutes, maybe even a hundred minutes, we stared at one another.” (Owl Moon) So, last week when I saw that Gregory Swanson was hosting an “Owl Hike” at Howard Christensen Nature Center, I immediately signed us up for the adventure!
As we strolled into the event space we heard, “DaViking! I saw that you two had signed up!” Gregory’s greeting energized the gathering crowd who stole glances our way. We lit up in response! The three of us gathered on couch. We were honored that Gregory would spend time chatting with us before his program.
Gregory Swanson and I had become Facebook friends shortly after our shared owl encounter at Wittenbach. “That was one of the best sightings we’d ever had.” Gregory beamed recalling our past hike. “I told Agnes (his wife) about it and that you were coming tonight!” I was charmed by our connection and the fact that our sighting had impressed Gregory, too! Agnes joined our conversation. What a treat it was to visit with the owl master and his wife!
The Owl Presentation
Gregory invited the audience to share what they knew about these unique birds. The youngsters in the group readily raised their hands and shared. “Owls are nocturnal.” “They have silent wings.” “Their eyes are fixed, so they have to turn their heads a lot.”
“This is a knowledgeable group. Do any adults want to chime in?” Gregory encouraged our class. “Oh,” an older member of the crowd spoke up, “Owls don’t have teeth and they spit up pellets.” Gregory responded, “Oh, that’s disgusting!” We all laughed. “They regurgitate what they can’t digest. They spit up two-three pellets each day.” Gregory engaged the audience and asked for participation throughout his presentation before we headed out on the trail for a look-see.
An Owl’s Eye Sight
“If our eyes were in proportion to an owl’s size, our eyes would be as large as oranges.” Lucas came up and helped to actively demonstrate the size of an owl’s optics in comparison to humans. “Owl’s eyes are actually more tubular, like a toilet paper tube, sort of like binoculars.” Gregory pointed out. “Not orbital like ours.”
“With large eyes, owl’s can get let in more light.” They have more rods (seeing black and white) than cones (seeing color).
“How many vertebrae do humans have?” Gregory asked the group of 25. One pre-teen raised his hand and answered simultaneously, “Seven!” Gregory nodded, “Yes! Owls have twice as many.” That’s 14!. Gregory asked for another volunteer. With a quiet class, Gregory invited Chuck to help demonstrate an owl’s head movement. “Owls can turn their heads 270 degrees.”
“An owl’s ears are slits in the side of their heads. One is higher than the other.” This allows the bird to triangulate the sounds. Gregory invited us to close our eyes and point our noses toward him as he walked around the room. “When you open your eyes, you should be looking right at me.” This demonstrated how owl’s pinpoint their prey’s location.
About 50 of the 132 species have tufts of feathers that look like ears, but these are for camouflage or to reveal how the bird is feeling.
Why can owls fly silently? Gregory first demonstrated with a red hawk’s wing. With a sharp edge we heard the wing slap the air creating a rhythmic, whooshing sound. Greg also swung a rope where a distinct beat was heard as the rope encircled above his head. Then he brought out an owl’s wing. With a frayed edge, someone had called, “eyelashes,” softens the wing’s edge. When flapped vigorously, we nary perceived a sound. Then, Greg swung the frayed end of the rope above his head. It, too, was quiet.
O.K. Get ready and turn up your volume for this! Gregory has mastered owl calls! Here’s a sample video edited by my handsome guy, Chuck Hayden.
With the need for silence on our hike, children under the age of ten were invited to remain at the center and make birdfeeders with Kim, a Howard Christensen Nature Center employee. Boy, they were having a blast as we left for our hike.
As our eyes adjusted to the dark, cloudy evening. Only the swish of snow pants could be heard along the winding trail. Greg stopped at a clearing where we gathered in a circle. “Look passed the trees and at the sky to be able to see an owl fly in.” He whispered.
“Who, Who, Who, Who, Whoooo!” Greg’s realistic call threaded it’s way through the trees. After pausing momentarily, Gregory repeated his request into the brisk, night air. My eyes got cloudy as we all looked expectedly skyward into the lacy branches for a swooping shadow. “Sometimes they don’t call back, they just fly into the area.” The barred owls are territorial and want to protect their hunting area.
We stopped a few times and Gregory made his barred owl broadcast, but unfortunately we didn’t see an owl. “Sometimes there’s an owl and sometimes there isn’t.” (Owl Moon) With shrugs we convened at the center. “Thank you for coming out tonight.” Greg thanked us. “You were an exceptionally quiet group.”
We returned our appreciation. Gregory Swanson holds such artful mastery of owls as well as nature in general. We were so fortunate to learn from this humble expert. We encourage you to head out for an Owl Hike. Calls can even be downloaded to your phone. I can’t wait to go owling again under a full owl moon!
Chuck and Martha Hayden, aka The Viking and Poppins, enjoy going on adventures off the beaten path. They also like to share their explorations with others. The Viking is a retired expedition leader while Poppins is a retired teacher. The two offer independent views of their journeys showcasing places, people, and cultures as they explore the world. Visit and follow them on their website and social media accounts. Website | Facebook | Instagram |YouTube