On the prowl for owls in Illinois
A barred owl in the wild, spotted in the woods during Owl Prowl Weekend at Starved Rock State Park.(Arnold and Judy Koenig / Starved Rock Lodge)
When dusk descended over the Long Grove forest, Steve Bailey, an ornithologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey, led us down a woodland trail in worn hiking boots as he kept pushing his thick black glasses back up on his nose. Binoculars were strapped to his body in a special harness that freed up both hands: one for a flashlight, the other for a digital recorder.
Stopping on a small wooden bridge, Bailey gave the “hush” signal to our small group, who had signed up for the excursion through the Chicago Botanic Garden. From his birder’s vest, he pulled out an MP3 player loaded with taped recordings of owl hoots. Though he had trained his voice to imitate a raptor’s hoots, he admitted that his eastern screech owl wasn’t great.
On this autumn night under a nearly full moon in Reed-Turner Woodland Nature Preserve, Bailey started broadcasting his taped recording of this tiny raptor — no bigger than a pint glass — with needle-sharp talons.
“Whoooo … whooo … whooo,” the speaker rumbled.
We froze, listening intently for a real owl to call back.
Bailey played the call again, over and over, holding the speaker in different directions. And then … our feathered friend called back! We listened to its trembling, descending wail, like the whinny of a horse. It sounded as though the owl was lurking maybe a football field away.
To lure the owl in, Bailey whistled repeatedly — a trilling whistle meant to say, “Come here.”
“Lots of times, they’re not as far up as they sound. They can be 6 feet off the ground,” he said quietly, shining his flashlight up in the trees. I peered up, hoping for even a shadow of the owl locking its claws around a limb. No luck.
Bailey played a high-pitched whistle. He said the owl had flown over us, much to our surprise. We hadn’t heard or seen a thing.
“This is the way they catch prey so easily at night,” Bailey said. “Their feathers are so soft that their prey doesn’t hear them coming.” Biologists call it silent flight.
He whistled softly, and it kept calling back, “trying to get you out of their territory,” Bailey said. A faint trill came from behind us. Once again, the owl had flown over our heads.
Though I longed to glimpse even the white undersides of its wings flash as it spread them wide, the experience of being able to “talk” to a bird of prey in the wilderness with a sophisticated piece of technology was still thrilling.
Hoo Haven is a wildlife rehabilitation center in Durand, Ill., north of Rockford. Director Karen Herdklotz trains raptors that can’t be returned to the wild to be her so-called ambassadors. (Zoe Gutterman / Chicago Tribune)
If you want to try owling for yourself, the place to be is Starved Rock Lodge for Owl Prowl Weekend, March 10-12, a winter gem offered by the Oglesby lodge near Utica, the only hotel within Starved Rock State Park.
During the annual event, visitors accompany Bailey on nightly owl walks for the chance to hear the species that inhabit the forested bottomlands.
Over the last six Owl Prowl Weekends, Bailey claims to have a perfect success rate calling in barred owls with his own voice.
“I can do a better barred owl than the barred owl,” he said.
I heard him do it last fall: “Whooo kooks kook kooou. Whooo kooks kook koo!” he bellowed. It sounded a bit like, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for youuuu?”
Mated owls at Starved Rock do a call that goes back and forth — a duet of sorts, with the female calling to the male and the male calling back. Expect a dark sky full of intertwining lives, the mated pair sounding like “crazed monkeys,” according to Bailey.
Before venturing outside for the evening hike, you can meet many live owls during afternoon programs in the Starved Rock Lodge put on by “Hoo” Haven (www.hoohaven.org), a wildlife rehabilitation center in Durand, north of Rockford. “Hoo” Haven’s cast includes Jessi, a visually impaired great horned owl, and Houdini, a snow owl with a broken wing.
“Hoo” Haven Director Karen Herdklotz trains raptors that can’t be returned to the wild to be her so-called ambassadors. They sit still on her glove while she explains how they find mice burrowed 3 feet under the snow and how they snatch their prey in one rapid movement by hitting the lung or the heart before the owl swallows them whole.
Then it’s time for a photo op. Cameras pop out and focus on a majestic owl, its talons gripping the handler’s glove, its ear tufts perked up.
It’s a mesmerizing image as the raptor’s glowing, headlight-like eyes stare right at you, a pair of big, brown orbs surrounded by a heart-shaped face. It really is something to see — and to hear.
Peggy Wolff is a freelance writer.
IF YOU GO
Owl Prowl Weekend: March 10-12 at Starved Rock Lodge near Utica, roughly 100 miles southwest of downtown Chicago. Nightly walks cost $10 for adults, $7 for children (bring your own flashlight), and afternoon programs are $5 for adults, $3 for children. It’s recommended to book in advance, as the popular event often sells out; 815-667-4211, www.starvedrocklodge.com/events/event/owl-prowl-2017.
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