Winged wonders: Birding opportunity lets you view owls on the prowl

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At dusk, just when the light is starting to fade, the owls come out to hunt.

This time of year in the Blue Grass Fish and Wildlife Area, the hunters include short-eared owls, long-eared owls and occasionally great horned owls who have relocated from their summer homes in northern climates and are looking for food.

The staff at Audubon State Park, along with their partners at Wild Birds Unlimited, want to show them to you, and it couldn’t be any easier, according to Audubon Naturalist Julie McDonald.

“Owl Prowl” programs will be offered today and Jan. 20 from 3:30 p.m. to dark and again on Feb. 3 and Feb. 17 from 4 p.m. to dark.

“One of the things that makes this particular activity a very valuable bird-watching opportunity is there is little physical exertion required,” the naturalist said. “We convoy to the site, get out of the vehicle, put the binoculars to our face and watch owls. We can drive right to it. For people with mobility issues who can’t get out to bird watch this is a great opportunity.”

And watch owls you can.

Experienced bird-watchers Dick and Mary Lee of Henderson and Kitchener, Ontario, have been on a few excursions in search of owls already this year after attending an “Owl Prowl” program last year.

“What we’ve seen this year has been far more successful,” Dick Lee said, noting that two days after the Christmas night snowfall the owls were particularly out in full force in the Bluegrass Area. “The short-eared owl is the most prolific species we’ve seen.”

They have also observed northern harriers, red-tailed hawks, the great horned owl and prairie merlins. McDonald said you might also be able to see rough-legged hawks and bald eagles.

“We’ve been pretty impressed with the number of short-eared owls,” McDonald said. “Last year was the first year we saw a long-eared owl, and this year we’ve seen both.”

The naturalist said she thinks the owls show up in greater numbers when colder weather up north forces them to seek warmth and food. “This is their warm area,” she said.

The Blue Grass Area is on reclaimed strip mine land with very large open grassy areas that make great habitat for the owls’ favorite food — small rodents.

“Both the short-eared and long-eared owls love wide open spaces and grasslands that provide a bounty of food,” she said noting that the warm-blooded creatures hunt for food on a daily basis. “Owls are perfectly suited for this area.”

She said the “Owl Prowl” excursions take place later in the day because of the species’ natural schedule.

“They hunt right at dark and it’s very difficult to see them during the day,” she said, noting that owls also are very elusive. “They camouflage themselves perfectly.”

Lee said that owl behavior presents challenges for someone like himself who enjoys wildlife photography.

“There is about a 15- to 20-minute window for photos before it gets too dark,” he said. “The later it gets, the better the (hunting) activity. Right at sunset is prime time and is the best trade off between light and activity.”

The Blue Grass Fish and Wildife Area is in Warrick County. “Owl Prowl” participants should meet at the main boat ramp/information station in the wildlife area, which is about one-half mile east of the Boonville-New Harmony Road/I-164 intersection (exit 15.)

The program is free, and participants are encouraged to dress warmly. If you don’t have binoculars, Wild Birds Unlimited will have some available to use. McDonald said it is a great opportunity to try different types if you are in the market for a pair.

Lee credits Audubon Park and Wild Birds Unlimited with offering the “Owl Prowls” and exposing them to a great opportunity for viewing these species.

“Ultimately people who win are the people who get a taste of bird-watching,” McDonald added, “whether they’re seasoned bird-watchers or those who are having their very first experience.”
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