A hike in the woods is therapeutic for both body and spirit, but as the light wanes and the sun disappears below the horizon, most life reaches its daily repose. But night's dominion also means the beginning of activity for many creatures, and for those with a taste for the nocturnal, a night hike can be an exhilarating experience, a chance to observe life most never see.
Chuck Rosenburg is a DEC biologist who conducts "Owl Prowls" for those adventurous enough to follow his lead. "You're hunting for something as rare as an owl, something as difficult to see as an owl, and when they just all of a sudden appear out of nowhere, or hoot right over your head, it really seems to turn people on," Rosenburg said.
He has been calling in owls since his days as a college student. He uses both his voice and amplified recordings to bring the secretive birds of prey in close.
Using his voice, though, provides a more personal connection. "It's much more of a one-on-one communication going on. At times it almost becomes like dueling banjos, especially with screech owls, where you're just going back and forth on a regular basis until they finally fly in where you can get a look at them."
Ellen Neumaier is an owl enthusiast who accompanied Rosenburg on a recent outing. "Chuck, I was just amazed at how he could imitate the screech owls. It was phenomenal."
Over the centuries, owls have been the source of much fear and superstition, all unfounded. Still, Rosenburg says, some of these beliefs persist to this day. "I'm surprised actually how many people I encounter that still are superstitious about owls and various other things this day and age. But, yeah … that I think is part of the allure for the interest in owls."
Though calling owls has a low impact on them, care must still be taken to do no harm. "We do it for educational reasons and to try to get people interested in the outdoors," says Rosenburg, "But focus on frequency and duration is what it comes down to. Don't do it too often and don't do it for too long a time at any given time, and try to avoid the peak breeding season and the dead of winter."
The combination of stalking the woods in the dead of night and searching for these elusive birds makes for a truly unique and memorable experience, says Neumaier.
"It's a totally different experience when you're out in the dark. We did have flashlights, but you see things differently at night, and you hear things differently."
Rosenburg agrees. "You can spend a couple hours at this and start to wonder what the allure is, and then have a bird come in and have a really close look at a bird that, you know, you just don't get to interact with. It really can be quite an experience."