There's something exciting about pulling up to a state park after dark.
Trees are still. Deer peek from woods. Tall grass rustles. Night sounds — crickets, frogs — fill the air. The parking lot is almost empty, and only a hall light points the way to the nature center's office.
On a regular evening, we would not be allowed in. But tonight is Soldiers Delight Natural Environment Area's monthly Owl Prowl, a night amble through the woods to call the great hunters.
We've brought flashlights, but our leader, naturalist Steve Badger, encourages us to adjust our eyes to the night. About 12 of us — adults and children — trudge through the serpentine grass at the Owings Mills natural area as Badger teaches us how to call for owls. On this particular hike, we called a lot of owls, but they did not answer. We ended the night making the acquaintance of several the park keeps in its aviary.
Owl prowls have become popular at state parks and nature centers throughout the watershed, and it's not hard to see why. Being in the night woods offers excitement. The owl, a great hunter with majestic wings and distinctive eyes, has taken on mythical proportions. In children's books, the owl is always the smartest animal, to whom the others turn for advice.
When the U.S. Park Service needed a mascot for the first Earth Day in 1970, it created Woodsy Owl, a cuddly, pants-wearing character whose motto was: "Give a Hoot, Don't Pollute." Efforts to protect the spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest led to a great environmental controversy, pitting loggers against lawyers who filed lawsuits on behalf of the old-growth forests and the birds.
The snowy owl is a popular addition to zoos, and many aviaries showcase the birds.
But the prowls to discover the birds where they live offer an adventure that can't easily be experienced elsewhere.
"They're one of our more popular public programs," said Marie Taylor, a staff assistant at Shaver's Creek Environmental Center near Penn State University. "They're sort of mysterious. They're a creature of the night, majestic and powerful, and great hunters. And people don't get to see them very often."
Every nature center or state park puts its spin on their prowl. Shaver's lets visitors see the five owls they keep there: great horned, barn, barred, screech and short-eared. It conducts two prowls a year; one in the fall and one around February, during mating season.
Gifford Pinchot State Park, south of Harrisburg, also conducts two prowls a year, in the summer. The park has a large and vocal population of barred owls, which answer calls played on a battery-powered CD player that park naturalist Elizabeth Kepley-McNutt carries.
"Owls call for two main reasons. They are either mating, or they are trying to protect their territory," she said. "Or, we hear the parents talking to the young, weaning them from the food dependence…the young asking for food, and the parents saying, 'no, we're not going to give you any.' "
Pinchot has no captive owls, but it has another advantage — its owl prowl is free. Many who take advantage of it are already in its popular campground.
Kepley-McNutt said her park's owls are accustomed to noises because of the campground. The importance of hikers being quiet is to "tune into the senses that you are not usually using," like listening to the quiet of the woods.
Some owl prowls have age limits. Children who get restless easily or are afraid of the dark will probably not enjoy them — and may spoil the experience for others.
It helps to temper expectations. In February, the owls are more likely to call back as they are in mating season. During our owl prowl in November, we did a lot of "who-cooks-for-you" for the barred owl, and some "who's-awake-me-too" for the great horned, but couldn't confirm a call.
Soldiers Delight ranger Melody Nevins said that, most of the time, the owls do not call back, but visitors can always try: Soldiers Delight has an owl prowl the first Saturday of every month.
Parks & other places to prowl
Many nature centers and state parks offer owl prowls; check your local park to see if it has one. Calling owls requires silence, so if your little ones can't keep quiet, think twice about bringing them.
- Soldiers Delight Natural Environment Area: Owings Mills, MD. 410-461-5005 / www.dnr.state.md.us/publiclands/central/soldiersdelight. Fee: $5.
- Pocomoke River State Park: Snow Hill MD. 410-632-2566 / www.dnr.state.md.us/publiclands/eastern/pocomokeriver. Fee: $3 person; $10/family of four.
- Patuxent Research Refuge- North Tract: Laurel, MD. 301-497-5887 / patuxent.fws.gov. Free; donations accepted.
- Shaver's Creek Environmental Center: Petersburg, PA. 814-863-2000 / www.ShaversCreek.org. Fee: $5.
- Gifford Pinchot State Park: Lewisberry, PA. 717-432-5011 / www.dcnr.state.pa.us. Free.
- Norfolk Botanical Garden: Norfolk, VA. 757-441-5830 / www.norfolkbotanicalgarden.org. Fee: $20.