This past Saturday the Master Naturalists were invited to go owling with the local bird watching group, the New River Valley Bird Club, and considering my 2016 mission to see an owl in the wild, I jumped at the chance.
The group met at 4:30 (less than an hour before sunset) at the Deerfield Trail, intending to spot birds as we walked toward known owl habitat that the leaders had scoped out on previous evenings.
I was, of course, late, and so I walked the first half mile of the trail quickly and alone, trying to catch up with the birders that I hoped were ahead, but could not hear. I did catch up, said a quiet hello to a fellow NRV Master Naturalist, and slipped in at the back of the group.
Now that I’ve been out birding with honest-to-goodness real bird watchers, I can report on the differences between birders and naturalists:
- Birders are quiet. Really, really quiet. They know that birds flee and fly from noisy humans, so not one voice exceeded a whisper for the entire two hour walk. Master naturalists can be quite quiet and contemplative when alone, but if you get us together without duct-taping our mouths, we’re likely to sound like a flock of laughing gulls.
- Birders walk farther and faster than naturalists in between stops to examine nature. They are looking for one thing: birds. They may look up, down, and all around, but only a bird sighting brings them to a stop. Naturalists, on the other hand, are more like excited toddlers when it comes to nature – ooh, look at the tree, ooh look at the fungus on the tree, ooh look at the mushroom on the ground, ooh did you hear that woodpecker? You’re lucky if you can get us (okay, me) to go 50 feet without a stop to see something awesome/intriguing/puzzling.
- Birders know how to stack the deck. Our leader on this walk also carried a few handfuls of birdseed in his pack. Whenever the group stopped to lift their binoculars or listen intently, he cast some seed on the trail. In this way, he made sure that at our next stop, we could also look back at what feathered friends might be feasting at his impromptu feeding station. Because of this, I saw my first ever Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca), a large, brown, and streaky sparrow that does an adorable sort of hopping moonwalk to scratch up seeds and other little edibles on the forest floor.
And the similarities between birders and naturalists?
Birders strike out, too.
Though we were walking in confirmed great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) territory and tempting the resident with recorded great horned owl calls (thanks to the Merlin Bird ID app) that it had responded to only the night before, we saw not one feather and heard not one hoot.
Though we were silent and patient, the owl just didn’t show. It happens.
After waiting long enough in the January evening cold (temperatures in the teens, snowing up on Brush Mountain), we headed back toward the trail head. Our second owl quarry, an Eastern screech-owl (Otus asio), occupies territory where the trail crosses Tom’s Creek.
And so we walked quietly in the gathering dusk, stopped silently, and listened intently as the whinnying calls of another screech owl on another night emanated from the leader’s smart phone. Once, twice, three times. Nothing. And then, faintly, we heard an echoing whinny from farther down the creek. It was so soft, no one dared to name it. A fifth play from the smart phone brought another delicate whinny from downstream, though, and then we all knew. Bright smiles lit up the darkening trail. A real screech owl, and we had been there! We didn’t see it, but we didn’t need to; at least we had heard it!
Birders get just as excited as naturalists, they’re just quiet about it.