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Calling on all owls

Last week I did my best to put away the leftover turkey and pumpkin cheesecake, but by Saturday morning, my jeans were beginning to feel a bit tight.

It was time to get outside and get moving. That evening, I had the opportunity to visit Myrtle Point Park in California with my kids to enjoy the fresh night air and moonlight, and search for some of Southern Maryland’s most elusive nighttime creatures: Owls.

You may have heard the scary, but true, fact that at any given time, a person is probably about six feet away from a spider. But you may not know that in Southern Maryland’s wild spaces, you’re probably within 100 feet of one of Maryland’s resident owls, according to Bob Boxwell, the environmental educator from the Southern Maryland Audubon Society who led last weekend’s Owl Prowl at Myrtle Point.

Kids were welcome at this event, and about a dozen adults and that many kids convened at the gate to Myrtle Point, at the time most of those kids would normally be heading to bed.

Flashlights were optional, and participants were asked to wear quiet clothing that wouldn’t make a lot of swishing and crinkling sounds as the wearers traversed the park. You can’t truly understand how noisy clothes can be in the still of the night until your middle-aged ears are listening intently for faint sounds in the distance.

Before we headed into the park, Boxwell explained that we wouldn’t be looking for barn owls, the type of owl I’ve written about quite a few times over the past few years, known for their ghost-like appearance and even eerier scream-like calls. Instead, we’d be attempting to find three of the more common owl species that live in Maryland: the screech owl, the barred owl and the granddaddy of all owls, the great horned owl.

You might think the screech owl is so named because it screeches, but that’s not actually the case, as I learned that night. Instead, it makes a whinny (like a horse) that the owl uses to broadcast to other owls information about its territory.

We walked into the park and down one of the trails, stopping every few minutes for Boxwell to broadcast a screech owl recording into the darkness in hopes that one of its kind would respond with a call of its own.

The first two stops along the trail yielded no results. The kids did their best to keep quiet, but by the third stop, their attention was starting to wander and it was getting harder and harder for them to hold still. Thankfully their efforts were soon rewarded.

Everyone stood at attention when we heard, off to the left, an echoing call resounding in the forest. The owl called out several times in a plaintive and earnest voice, as if it was excited to hear one of its kind communicating with it.

The call was so clear and beautiful, I imagined for just a second that one of Boxwell’s friends must be in the woods playing another recording back to us.

But it was a real owl, for certain, because when Boxwell played his recording again, a different screech owl, this time ahead of us and off to the right began calling back.

The kids and adults alike were riveted by the sounds. All in all, when the evening concluded, Boxwell estimated that we heard possibly five distinct screech owls respond to the recording.

You don’t have to go on a sanctioned Owl Prowl to hear owls. In fact, these three owl species— the screech owl, barred owl and great horned owl — are common enough in suburbia that you might even hear one in your own backyard.

Boxwell suggests to anyone who owns a dog to accompany your canine friend outside on that last potty break of the night and play owl recordings with your smartphone.

There are just two caveats to this. First, don’t play great horned owl recordings if you’ve heard screech owls or barred owls that night. Great horned owls are fierce predators and you might just be ringing the dinner bell for them since they are known to feed on smaller owls. And second, don’t use recorded calls during nesting season, which is generally January through May. The sounds might disrupt their nesting efforts.

There’s a great horned owl living near my house in St. Mary’s County. Back when the newspaper was still delivered to the driveway, I waited up late to see my very first column in print.

As I was making my way inside with the paper, a giant owl swooped overhead and landed on a tree branch just ahead of me. Its impressive frame and two ear tufts silhouetted in the darkness made it easy to identify as a great horned owl.

I figured the owl was my father’s way of telling me he was happy his outdoors column would continue. Since then, I’ve heard the owl plenty and even seen it a few times, too.

If you’d like to have access to great field trips like last weekend’s Owl Prowl, I highly suggest you join the Southern Maryland Audubon Society. A family membership is just $20 per year. There are always a wide range of activity offerings that will appeal to the entire family, many of them specifically child-welcome.

Upcoming events include the Christmas Bird Count, an Owl Prowl at Elms Environmental Center and a Winter Waterfowl Field Trip. Go to for membership information and to download the free Birding in Southern Maryland 16-page brochure.


In “Menhaden are important for the ecosystem” in the Wednesday, Nov. 27 edition, Omega Protein is not the only commercial menhaden outfit in the United States. The company Daybrook, which is not affiliated with Omega Protein, operates exclusively in U.S. Gulf waters. Daybrook does not harvest menhaden from the Atlantic Ocean or Chesapeake Bay.

Also, the caps on menhaden harvests set in place by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and enacted by the Virginia legislature were based on mathematical calculations from historical catch data.